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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

On Monday, I had two interviews at kindergartens, one near Mia in northern Seoul and a second just round the corner from where I live. This latter seemed like the perfect location, at least, and the kindergarten seems like a very nice place. By the end of the interview, it was clear that they were happy with me and wanted me to sign a contract right away (as did the other place). I got an e-mail address from one of the foreign teachers (or ‘native teachers’ as Koreans generally refer to us) and sent her a few questions, later on. Her answers weren’t as flattering to the hagwon as the message I got before starting my last job, but it didn’t seem at all terrible; she’s been there for going on for three years.

The biggest problem I’m likely to face is ‘psycho parents’, specifically mothers – those who complain about every little thing they possibly can. At least they’ll generally only interact with the Korean staff – which sucks for them, but provides a useful buffer for native teachers. Some unpaid Saturday work seems to be part of the job, too, but only two or three times a year … or so I’ve been assured.

At the moment there are three foreigners working there, but they’re all leaving in the near future and five more – including me – will be hired. Whatever the problems, the convenience of the location will make up for a lot of them.

So, I went back on Tuesday to sign a contract and the boss and head teacher and I spent about three hours going through the contract, printing off various versions and figuring out what I had to do to get my visa transferred to my new employer. As the job is starting on the 6th of January and my E-2 visa from my previous job was due to expire on the 19th of December I had thought that I would need to transfer to the job-seeking visa, the D-10 visa, and then transfer again to my new teaching visa.

However, after another call to Immigration, the head teacher told me I should transfer my visa to a new E-2 sponsored by my new job immediately. This involved printing out a new contract for Immigration purposes that stated that I started that day. They gave me some business registration documents and I promised to go to Immigration right then.

Which I duly did and, after waiting in line for a good while – long enough for me to fill in a couple of forms, contact my old boss for her business registration number, and my landlady to clarify our address, and still hang around for a good while – I was able to hand over the documents and my passport and my Alien Registration Card and they changed my visa and my address details within five minutes or so. Free of charge, too, which I wasn’t expecting.

Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up a copy of my police subject access letter, which my employer apparently needs in order to register me with the education board. So I took care of that today, by heading back to Omokgyo Station and thence to the Immigration building, waiting for a much shorter while in the same place as before – the room for visa extensions and stuff – but, when I got to the desk, I was told I needed to go up to the seventh floor.

So up the stairs I went, found a likely looking room and went in. A young woman working at a desk near the door seemed to know exactly what I wanted before I even said anything. Sure enough, at the desk where she told me to sit was an English translation of the form I needed to fill in, with the relevant boxes highlighted and containing example information. A few minutes later, I had a copy of the police letter and my degree certificate, too.

The other thing I needed to do – my new supervisor informed me – was get a new health check. I did a search for hospitals with English-language services and found that the closest to my home is St Mary’s Catholic Hospital, so I went there to try to get the health check done. I found the English-speaking clinic, but I was told to go to a different department and was led most of the way by an older man who complained about the smog that’s apparently blown over Korea from China.

In the other building, I found a place with ‘Visa Health Checks’ or something equally apposite over the door. The young male doctor and female office worker seemed very confused by what I was asking and wanted me to come back the following week when their office manager would return. After more inquiries, they got on the phone and then eventually told me to go to a different St Mary’s Hospital, this one at Yeouido – close to the Immigration building – in the morning.

After I later updated the head teacher on my progress, she gave me a further hospital to go to – Hanaro Medical Foundation, not too far away near Seolleung Station (I used to work near there in 2010). So I’ll go and do that, hopefully, tomorrow morning.

I may have to wait a couple of weeks for the health test results to come back – which could be a problem, as I won’t be in the country in a couple of weeks. Last night I booked tickets to fly back to the UK for a fortnight from the 16th of December. It was something I had been thinking of doing during the coming summer, but with some money in the bank and a month of free time, I might as well do it now. I imagine I can have the results posted to my new kindergarten.

When I go home, I plan to take back some of my read books along with various Korean foods and maybe drinks (soju?) as gifts. And I plan to bring back more books and board games. I generally say that there’s not much that I miss about England, but I’m actually looking forward to going home again. My sister had a fake, November Christmas for me last year; it’ll be nice to spend time with family for the real thing this year. I plan to introduce my neice and nephew to my board game, Islands of the Azure Sea.

I’m not so much looking forward to leaving my cat by herself for two weeks, though. My friends who live in the neighbouring flats would be happy to feed her, but I would to find someone to stay here so she doesn’t get too lonely. It’s a difficult thing to judge: would she be more stressed by being left alone or by having a stranger move in? Fortunately, I have some good, cat-loving friends who I think would be willing to help out.

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Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

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A couple of weeks ago was the Korean harvest festival called Chuseok – a three-day holiday that, this year, fell on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, thus creating a five-day weekend. In addition, my delayed summer holiday followed on immediately, giving me twelve consecutive days of non-work.

On Wednesday, I held a coffee morning here in Cheonan, which got a pretty good turn-out. I was given a late birthday present of some chocolate cake/pie, which was very tasty. Afterwards, three of us set out on a quest to locate a cat café in Cheonan – in which we eventually succeeded.

The following day, Chuseok Day itself, I headed up to Seoul and met a group of friends for a walk around Gyeongbokgung – the main royal palace. It was busier than I’d expected and pretty warm, but we had a good time looking at the fantastic architecture, posing for photos and browsing the exhibits in the Folk Museum. After that, we had food and drink in a Bukchon café and played card games. I’d told people I wanted to see a film in the evening, but that didn’t pan out; those of us still remaining had dinner at a cheap Korean restaurant in Insadong before heading home.

Gyeongbokgung

Actually, I headed to Zach’s home, as I’d invited another group of friends to a day of gaming in Sinsa on Friday. We only actually played two games. The first was a Burning Wheel one-shot run by Peter – which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to actually be a one-shot which is to say, we finished it on the day).

Our disparate group of characters were supposed to retrieve an Elixir of Life from a dragon’s hoard to give to a dying princess. Most of us had ulterior motives. The game ended with the prince drinking the elixir himself (thus becoming immortal) and escaping with a magic sword of truth and killing one of the last surviving characters causing the victim to come back as a ghost and haunt him. Our cheer at this happy conclusion caused the coffee shop staff to ask us to be quiet. After dinner we played my game Islands of the Azure Sea, which I’d just updated. I’m starting to think a maximum of eight players is rather too many.

I had a wedding to go to on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I met Natasha – an Englishwoman I and my ex-girlfriend met while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, and who was visiting Korea for a couple of weeks – and Alisha a friend from the Tolkien reading group. We headed back to my place so Natasha could drop off her bag, and they peered at my cat in her hiding place. Then we went up to Sinbu-dong, the city centre area, and spent an hour at the cat café (which is called The Cat) that I’d previously located. Jocelyn joined us while we were there.

The café is divided into two areas, a larger area with the entrance and counter and so on, and then a smaller, but still reasonably big, area partitioned off with a large window running the length of one side and glass sliding doors on another side. Before going in here – which is where the cats hang out – you have to change your footwear for cheap rubber sandals and clean your hands with disinfectant, as well as putting your possessions in a locker.

The Cat Café

When I was there the first time, the owner told me he had eighteen cats. They include a Maine coon, a Scottish fold, an American curl, a sphynx or two, some oriental shorthairs, a couple of munchkins and others. The cats – apart from the munchkins – are all very friendly and seem quite happy. The Maine coon has its back shaved, for some reason, and one or two cats with long fur look like they could do with a bath – I’m not sure if their greasy fur indicates an illness or the fact that they get petted a lot by people with sweaty hands. There was one big cat – an Abyssinian, I think – that gave all of us a hug.

After the cat café, we went to the Arario Gallery – which I’d never been to in my ten months in Cheonan. I got Alisha and Jocelyn to pose next to a couple of Anthony Gormley sculptures. The current exhibition was by a Korean artist called CI Kim and included an interesting range of media, from found art washed up on a beach to big plastic triangles to paintings of children holding emotive signs.

Buddha Statue

We went for coffee downstairs in the Coffee Bean. Jocelyn left us, but Eve joined us, and after a bit we met Mike and Tera and their friend Brandon for a trip to Taejosan, a nearby mountain, home to Gakwonsa, a Buddhist temple with a big Buddha sculpture. After looking around the temple, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Then we (minus Alisha, who had to return home) headed back to Mike and Tera’s for a game of Cards Against Humanity.

On Monday, Natasha and I started carrying out our plan to head down to Busan and see some of the south coast. We got to the KTX station in Cheonan nice and early and therefore arrived in Busan nice and early. We hadn’t identified anywhere specific to stay, but we decided on Haeundae because there are plenty of hotels, motels and suchlike around there. Our plan was to ask at a few places and see what was reasonable in terms of price. In the event, we checked out a small pension first and at ₩50,000 for a room for the two of us it seemed OK and our search came to an end. We probably could have found some where nicer, but it was par for the course for Korean pensions.

Mermaid Statue

We walked up an down the beach. It was sunny and breezy and a big embankment of sand had been built for the forthcoming Busan International Film Festival festivities. The purpose of this wall, we could only guess at. We had a burger for lunch at a fancy-ish burger place – best burger ever, according to Natasha – then walked around the coast towards Gwangan. We took pictures of the mermaid statue and the fourteenth century (or earlier) Hae Un Dae carving in the rock, walked around the APEC conference building, craned our necks at the blue skyscrapers and tried to find the Busan Museum of Art. When we finally located it, it was closed – it was Monday. We had a coffee at a Twosome Place (no, really – it’s one of the many coffee shop chains in Korea) and played cards.

APEC House and Gwangan Bridge

Then we took the subway and walked to Busan Museum – also closed. So we walked up the hill to the Cultural Centre, finding a friendly cat on the way. Natasha marvelled at the chandeliers in the concert hall lobby and we watched some musicians have their photo taken on the plaza outside. We went back to Gwangalli and had seafood for dinner, watched the lights on the bridge and a lightshow projected on the rain from a jet of water.

Gwangalli Beach

The next morning, we spent an hour on the subway to the Intercity Bus Terminal, an hour on a coach to Gohyeon – the main city, it seems, on Geoje Island – then well over an hour on a bus out to Haegeumgang. Actually, the driver dropped us off at a nearby village – even though the route information said the bus terminated a Haegeumgang – and we had to wait for another bus for another ten minute ride.

As we hadn’t really researched exactly where we wanted to go, I asked a ticket clerk at the bus station in Gohyeon what was a good beach to visit and she recommended Haegeumgang and told us which bus to take. Haegeumgang is a picturesque, rocky island and it has no beach – so I may have used a word that translates more accurately as ‘coast’. We didn’t take a ferry around the island, but, after a lunch of more seafood, we walked up a nearby hill to a view platform with great views in most directions. When I tried to reach the actually summit, I found it to be closed with a padlocked, barbed wire-encircled door.

Haegeumgang

After missing two buses, we took a taxi back to Gohyeon (₩17,000) and a coach back to Busan, then subwayed to the Museum of Art – which was open. The museum was pretty massive, but its spaciousness made it seem like there wasn’t that much stuff in it. We wandered around all the galleries, admiring, in particular, a collection of works about Korean-Japanese relations, such as the painting of two dogs biting each other, a series of woodcuts telling the story of a Japanese-run mine and a huge mural of corpses and Buddha statues based on the Gwangju massacre.

We headed back to the pension for a shower, had dinner at the burger place and met Jessica for an all too brief chat.

The next day, we headed back to the Bus Terminal, with all our bags this time, and caught a coach to Suncheon. Once we’d checked in to a hotel – Hotel BMW, ₩35,000 for a room – we caught a bus out to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park – the site of Korea’s biggest wetland.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

We dutifully walked around the museum first, reading and forgetting various bits of information about wetlands, then looked for something to eat in the ‘cafeteria’ and the ‘convenience store’. Rather inconveniently, as we were both hungry, they had nothing more than small pastries and crisps. After eating a packet of crisps each (actually, mine was a dried tofu snack), we started walking through the wetlands on jetty-like walkways, taking pictures of the massive fields of reeds and the occasional heron, crab and bunch of mudskippers.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park 2

On the far side of the reed fields, we walked up the familiarly named Yongsan, a forested hill with an observation platform looking out over the bay. I took lots of photos of the view, including distant hills and islands and the circular reed beds on the coast. Natasha was particularly taken with the maroon-ish colour of some of the vegetation.

After a convenience store lunch and a brief encounter with a couple of Mormon girls (one Korean, one from Salt Lake City), we headed back into town and then out again to Seonamsa on another pretty long bus ride. We walked around this Buddhist temple at dusk as the monks were performing some sort of ceremony. This began with monks taking turns to perform epic drum solos on a giant drum in the entrance building (on the ground floor of which was a shop, the attendant of which harassed Natasha as she looked around). Then the monks gathered in one of the halls for chanting and praying. It was nice and peaceful; there were a few other tourists around, but not many.

Buddhist Drumming

The following day – Thursday – was our last day together and we decided to check out Yeosu Expo – the site of a world exposition last year. I was a little confused about what was going on there because there was also a garden expo in the area, but that turned out to be in Suncheon. Yeosu is close to Suncheon, but is a separate town. Yeosu Expo is also a terminus of a KTX line, so it seemed like a good place to head back home from.

Yeosu Expo

Unfortunately, there was really nothing going on at Yeosu Expo – there was some sort of ‘character festival’ for kindergarteners and the nearby aquarium seemed to be open for business. Most of the exhibition halls were closed and empty and the whole place seemed a bit sad and dilapidated for something that is only a year old. We had a strange French toast-croque-monsieur thing and a drink in a café on the site and played some cards then caught our train home. It was a regular train rather than KTX – four hours to Cheonan, five to Seoul – as it was at the most convenient time.

It was great to spend time with Natasha and quite satisfying to use my minimal expertise to show her around. It was also good to finally have my summer week off work, even though it was a pretty tiring round of early starts and long bus and train rides. It was also a little weird to consider that Natasha is a link to my ex-girlfriend and that our lives are pretty close, but completely divorced from each other. But it’s only loneliness that makes me dwell on this, I suppose. But Natasha was great company – it was lovely to spend time with someone as good-natured as her; her being British was a bonus, too.

Natasha and Sean

Although there was lots of moving around, this short, concentrated burst of travelling works quite well, I think. Busan is a great place to spend a couple of days on holiday, and there are lots of places on the south coast that would be worth exploring; the little that we saw was very pleasant – even Yeosu Expo had a certain charm. The experience makes me want to explore more of the country – just not necessarily by myself.

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At the weekend, I went on my first group trip in a while – to Jindo, primarily. Jindo is an island off the south coast of Korea where, twice a year, the tide lowers to reveal a land pass to a much smaller island. The second part of the trip involved going to a butterfly festival.

After returning to Korea, I had a period of going on lots of trips (well, a few, anyway), but in the last couple months I haven’t attended many – or any. I’ve been concentrating on spending time with the people I’ve met and haven’t felt the need to meet new people. I still don’t really, but I saw that one of my new friends had signed up for this trip, so I did, too; she later told me she wasn’t going to go. It was also the longest trip I’ve been on since I’ve been back in the country – a full weekend.

I got the first bus out of Cheonan on Saturday morning – six o’clock. It should have arrived at the terminal a short distance from the meeting point at about seven, but there was a crash on the motorway that made me a little late. As soon as I boarded the second coach, the organiser, Harry, gave me a microphone and wanted me to introduce myself. I said, ‘I’m Sean. I’m from the UK. Sorry I’m late.’ Fortunately for my self-esteem, I wasn’t the last person arriving, so we didn’t actually set off until eight.

It was a long ride down to the south-west corner of the country. I sat next to a Korean guy who had lived in the States for a long time and we chatted about Korea and Korean. We stopped for lunch in Mokpo – where Harry announced to our smaller lunch group that they should all go to my birthday party. We made another stop to cross Jindo bridge on foot; the bridge is actually two very similar bridges side by side. The bridges had statues of Yi Sun-sin (pronounced ‘ee soon sheen’) – the Korean equivalent of Nelson or Raleigh; he fought against the Japanese invasion in the sixteenth century.

Yi Sun-sin Statue on Jindo Bridge

The continuing ride from the bridge to the beach we were visiting seemed inordinately long, but we eventually got there. On this leg, most of us put on the cheap rubber and plastic waders we’d bought from a man at the bridge; mine – and most people’s – were bright green. We walked to the festival site, where Harry bought tickets, and made our way towards the seasonal causeway that we’d come all this way to see. We were early, so there was lots of milling around, photograph-taking and so on. I didn’t have much cash, so I didn’t buy anything, although there were stalls selling food and drink. The group pretty much dissolved at this stage.

We all got together again as the tide continued to go down and stretches of the land pass were revealed; some people started making the crossing early through what looked like a couple of feet of water. We clambered over the rocks on the coast and on to the pebbly seabed and followed the crowds heading across the sea towards a small island in the distance. It didn’t look that far away, but the information I’ve read says that the land pass is nearly three kilometres long.

Jindo Land Pass

Having agglomerated into a single group once more to commence the crossing, we quickly dissipated into smaller clusters. I talked to a Moroccan woman on the way over and back about life and work. We bumped into one of my other new friends, Erica (we’d been in contact about meeting while we were there, but it didn’t look like we would actually make it happen. I saw a couple of other people I’d met on trips – it seemed like every foreigner-friendly tour/Meetup group was there in force; the expats almost outnumbered the Koreans). We didn’t actually make it all the way to the smaller island; our group leader told us we had to start heading back; a coast guard ship started sounding a loud horn and men in a dinghy blew their whistles at us.

Captain Maybe in Shallow Water

The walk back was a little bit frantic. The tidal flow evidently crosses the the causeway instead of being parallel to it, so water was rushing from left to right as we headed back to the main island, at depths of up to a foot – maybe more.

We stayed at a pension near the bridge(s) overnight. In the morning, as most people were breakfasting, I took a short walk across the road to the park by the giant statue of Yi Sun-sin that faces Jindo Bridge.

Yi Sun-sin Statue

We packed up and boarded the coach and headed back to Mokpo. An American woman sat next to me and we talked about fantasy books; she kindly gave me a couple of ibuprofen for my headache. In Mokpo, we had a short hike up a mountain close to the middle of the city called Yudalsan. On the way down, I talked to a different American woman who was also into fantasy and who had lived in Manchester (the British one) for several years. We found a cash machine, went to a coffee shop where we met another member of our group – a Canadian guy – and took our coffees back to the bus.

Mokpo

Then it was off to the butterfly festival at Hampyeong Expo Park. The weather was bright and warm and the place was full of flowers so the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. It was a very family-friendly place; there various places to buy ice cream and toys and there were giant fibreglass models of insects. Out among fields of oil seed rape there were pools and rice paddies where you could try your hand at catching fish, planting rice or operating a waterwheel.

Lifting Water

The side of a nearby small mountain had a huge flowerbed in the shape of a butterfly. The butterfly hall was a little less impressive than similar places I’ve visited in the Philippines and Malaysia – at least in terms of the species it contained: I only made out two kinds of butterfly – white ones and black and white ones. It also had some live giant beetle grubs that you could pick up.

Butterfly

I tagged along with a few people; later, it looked like we’d get a group together to have lunch, but it didn’t really happen. I ended up having some rather expensive (₩8,000) chicken tandoori from an Indian food stall (which, for some reason, had a large picture of the Hagia Sofia at the back); then I got a kebab from the Turkish stand (which also had a Hagia Sofia picture).

Hampyeong Expo Park

Then we all got back on the coach and we headed back home. Well, nearly all; both the Korean man and the American woman (and her friend) that I’d sat next to left at this point to go their own way. I chatted to a Frenchman on the way back – he’s in the country working on RAM, apparently.

I had told Harry that I’d like to be dropped off near Cheonan, but, as I had no idea how I’d get from the service station to the city and my boss couldn’t give me any advice, I changed my mind and headed up to Seoul, where I met Zach and Matthew for dinner and a game of Munchkin. I’m pretty sure I got the last possible coach back to Cheonan on Sunday night.

All in all it was a very good, if exhausting, weekend. I met some very nice people that I’d like to keep in touch with, but, given the often fluid nature of friendships in Korea, I’m not sure if we will. One or two of them might come to my birthday this weekend.

Having stayed up all night on Friday, I came to the event tired and the length and quality of sleep that I was able to get wasn’t great. I think this showed on Sunday, as my desire to socialise dwindled and I was happy to be alone with my thoughts and the view out of the window as we returned to Seoul. I’m not sure I want to do another overnight trip again soon, but another day trip would be good.

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By the evening before I left, I’d mostly packed my bags and thought I would be under my baggage allowance of 30kg, plus 8kg carry-on. Finishing off the morning I left, it became apparent that it would not be so simple. I got my big backpack to about 16kg – consisting of clothes and toiletries – and squeezed about 15kg into my small suitcase – all the more valuable stuff: camera, speakers, Magic: The Gathering cards, shoes. I removed a few things from my suitcase, left a book or two behind, put a couple of books and my umbrella in my small backpack for carrying on etc, and got down to around 16 (big backpack) + 13 (small suitcase) + 6 (small backpack) kilogrammes.

My parents came down and, together with my sister and her kids, we drove to Manchester Airport. I was there in plenty of time – there was no wait to check in at the Turkish Airlines check-in desks in Terminal 1 and there were no problems – so we had a drink (once we found out where the cafés and shops were). My dad and sister took various photos of me posing with the kids; three-year-old Maisy pretend-fed me a series of sugar sachets. My mum and sister made lame jokes about me flying on a turkey. Afterwards, we went up to the rooftop carpark and waited in the cold for an aeroplane to take off.

I said goodbye amid lots of hugs and kisses and made my way through the security check and to the appropriate gate, arriving not long before boarding started.

The flight to Istanbul was uneventful. At Atatürk International Airport, I wandered around a bit, but elected not to bother buying anything or exchanging money and just waited at the gate, reading. The flight to Incheon was just as uneventful. The first thing the attendants handed out was a pair of slippers, then a tin containing an eye mask, disposable toothbrush and tiny tube of toothpaste and one or two other items. I used replaced my boots with the slippers, but didn’t get round to brushing my teeth. In fact, during the ten-hour flight, I didn’t leave my seat once. Having not drunk anything in Istanbul, I wasn’t excessively hydrated and didn’t really need the bathroom.

The meals were pretty good, but I noticed that you got a little teacup on each meal tray, but you weren’t served a hot drink until after the tray was taken away. I kept hold of my cup every time and, for the first two meals (including the one on the Manchester-Istanbul flight), was given coffee in it; but the last time, the stewardess gave me back a plastic beaker of coffee instead. People around me were given their tea and coffee in the same plastic glasses – pretty much rendering the teacups completely pointless.

At Incheon Airport, I finally went to the bathroom. I had to connect to the internet to find an address and phone number for my landing card, as I’d forgotten to note them earlier. A look of concern or confusion crossed the face of the Immigration officer as she examined my visa, but she let me through without question.

Once I’d got my bags and exchanged money, I was met in the arrivals hall by my ‘pick-up man’. He hurried me outside and to the bus stop for Cheonan and bought me a ticket with money I provided. He wanted me to pay him ₩30,000, to which I said, ‘No,’ with a bit of a laugh. He got on the phone and sorted it out – so I didn’t give him anything extra. The bus was due to leave in fifteen minutes and he was quite concerned that I should stay at the stop, but I headed back inside to get some water and coffee from a convenience store.

Having been told it would take two hours, the drive south to Cheonan took only one hour, forty minutes. The bus station appeared to be just a car park and thoroughfare next to the Shinsegae department stored. I waited inside, next to the Starbucks (resisting the urge to go in and get something quite easily because I wasn’t keen to lug my bags about) and about twenty minutes or so later the director turned up with her young daughter. As she got on the phone to her husband, who had the car, the five-year-old hid behind her mum and played peekaboo with me.

We walked outside and the husband picked us up on the main road and drove about ten minutes to the area where I was to live and work. The director, Julie, took me to a Paris Baguette and bought me sandwiches and milk. Then we drove past the school and stopped at the apartment, a distance of no more than fifty metres from the school.

Julie took me inside and showed me how to turn on the heating and then I was left by myself until twelve the following day. The flat is actually a little bit bigger than the photos I’d seen suggested – but not massive, of course. It was fairly clean, but there were a few small stains around, a bit of dust behind things and hairs from woman who left last week.

The really disappointing thing was that there was very little in the way of household items. There was a rice-cooker and toaster in the kitchen, along with a brand new, still-in-its-box microwave, but no kettle, no pots or pans, no plates, bowls, cups or cutlery, not so much as a sponge or scouring pad. There were no coat hangers in the wardrobe. In the bathroom, there wasn’t even a pair of rubber slippers. I could find no washing machine, either, but, after talking to a Korean friend on Facebook, who told me I would probably find one somewhere, I had a look around the building and found a communal wasshing machine in a room downstairs.

I went to a nearby Homeplus Express (Homeplus, you’ll remember, is co-owned by Tesco and Samsung) and got a box of cereal, noodles and some chopsticks and spoons. I microwaved water in the noodle container and cleaned it and re-used it in the morning for my Kellogs brown rice flakes.

I was up pretty early, and, having figured out exactly where I was on Google Maps, made my way to a large Homeplus about 25 minutes walk to the south, where I got various other essential items (including three kinds of tea). By the time I got home again, I was pretty tired and needed a nap before meeting the director for lunch.

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Last week, after less than a week of waiting, I got my visa issuance number from my recruiter. The next step was to submit my application to the Korean embassy in London. I decided that I would go down to hand it in in person. This would allow the staff to see it first and let me know if there was any problem (for instance, I wasn’t sure whether I should also hand over my old passport with my previous visas in it) – and I would be able to see friends while I was there. I considered staying down in London so I could pick my passport up when it was ready, but it seemed likely that it would take the full five working days or longer to process (a British friend from Korea advised me that that was likely – he’d received his only shortly before he was due to leave the country) and London is expensive.

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the BBC coverage of the US presidential election (elections to Congress weren’t covered in much detail). Americans got it right again – making up for electing George W Bush twice. Given that various Tea Party Republicans were voted out and liberal policies approved in referenda, I wonder whether Mitt Romney might have done a lot better if he’d been allowed to present himself as the moderate he supposedly really is. I eventually went to bed at 7am, meeting my sister and her kids on the way as they got up. I was able to rise again at the not unreasonable hour of midday.

The following night, I was in bed at about midnight and up again at five o’clock in order to get a 6:35 train to Manchester and an 8 o’clock coach to London (the outbound trip cost just £9 with National Express and the return £12.50 – which somehow managed to add up to £29.50 along with insurance, booking fee and so on).

The Korean embassy is on Buckingham Gate, just off Victoria and a short walk from Victoria Coach Station. The coach arrived at 13:20, so I got lunch from the Subway at the shopping mall adjacent to the railway station and arrived at the embassy just after 2pm, when they re-opened after lunch. The woman on duty at one of the windows inside told me assertively that the visa section was closed. I suggested to her that I could just hand my documents in, but that was unacceptable. As soon as I had this conversation, I realised that I’d been in exactly this situation some years ago, probably in 2008.

It wasn’t a problem though – except that my passport would be returned to me that little bit later and it would make planning my flight out that little bit trickier – I had time before my return coach in the morning to come back. I turned my thoughts to getting to my hostel down in the Isle of Dogs – the south-pointing peninsula bounded by a big loop of the Thames that is the location of Canary Wharf; it’s geographical feature that’s been familiar for many years because of the title sequence of EastEnders. I realised I’d forgotten to bring either of my Oyster cards with me, so, reasoning that I had plenty of time, I decided to walk.

I thought it might take a couple of hours – it took three. I got there a little after five o’clock, having walked along the north bank of the Thames for various parts of the way (and taken a few pictures of the attractively cloudy sky), and was starting to worry about meeting my friends on time (although we hadn’t actually set a time).

The Great Eastern Bestplace Inn turned out to be quite a pleasant place – very pubby downstairs, clean and whitewashed upstairs. Better still, my bed was £11.99 – half price. The shower, on the other hand was terrible: weak and uncertain in temperature.

I got the DLR and Tube back up to our rendezvous point in the general vicinity of Leicester Square. Drew met me as I was reading and drinking tea at McDonalds. We headed out shortly towards the big Odeon cinema, which has been our meeting place on more than one occasion – then headed back because Colin had gone to McDonalds looking for us.

Colin always has the information on where to eat, so we allowed him to guide us to an Indian restaurant. My Goa murg and mushroom rice was very tasty, but – shockingly – I couldn’t finish because I was getting a bit full. The meal came to around £55 for the three of us. Afterwards, we went to a Costa for coffee and more chit-chat. I introduced Drew and Colin to the pleasures of the Korean flower cards game, Go-Stop – or a simplified version thereof.

Then it was time to say goodbye for another lengthy period and we headed to our respective homes.

In the morning, I checked out of the hostel after a complementary breakfast of cornflakes, bread and jam and tea. Well – I left, anyway. There were no keys, only door codes, and I’d already paid, so there was no actual checking out to do. There was no one on the reception desk, so I couldn’t even tell them, ‘I’m checking out now.’

I returned to the embassy shortly before 10 o’clock. I went to the passport window, where there was a young woman on duty (not the same woman as the day before) and, before the word ‘Hello’ had barely passed my lips, she snapped, ‘Visa window open at ten o’clock. Take a ticket and wait over there.’

There was one other person ahead of me – a courier, judging by his high-visibility jacket. Once the visa window opened and this guy had finished he handed me the next number ticket (he must have taken two by mistake) and I handed my stuff over to the young Korean chap manning the counter. When I asked, he indicated I didn’t need to submit my old passport. There was a moment of humour when he passed me my yellow plectrum that had got stuck inside my passport when it had been in my pocket. He looked over my documents, I paid £80, got a receipt and that was that. I didn’t actually ask again (I’d already spoken to someone on the phone two or three days earlier) how long it would take, but a notice on the window made it clear I should expect it to be five working days (to which I added another day for it to be posted).

Afterwards, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks, got a coffee and on the internet, realised at nearly eleven that I had a coach to catch in half an hour, so off I went.

I outlined my progress to my recruiter in an e-mail, but as it was pretty much already the weekend, I didn’t hear anything back and haven’t so far. The worst thing that’ll happen is that they’ll book me a flight and I’ll be forced to miss it because I don’t have my passport, then I’ll arrive in Korea later and the school will have to get someone to cover any class time I miss.

We’ll see what happens next weekend.

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Coming home, I made a list of things I should do while I was back in the UK. It included things like learning to drive and getting a job. I’m not sure that I’ve done any of them – I haven’t even looked at the list since I returned. Blogging about my trip is at least complete – and getting up to date shouldn’t take too long because I haven’t really done that much. Selecting and uploading photos is another slow work in progress – at least it’s in progress. Driving lessons would have taken out my remaining savings in one fell swoop, so I knocked that idea on the head and I’ve been too comfortable to look for work.

My sister has been very kind to me, allowing me to stay here. It’s been good to be able to relax and have no responsibilities for a time. Hanging out with her kids has been great (I make them play Magic: The Gathering and other card games with me – they prefer Korean flower cards) and her youngest is at the cutest stage of life, so that’s a bonus, too.

I sent off for my police subject access request within a week or two of getting back; as soon as it came – a little earlier than I was expecting, given past experience – I made a copy of my degree certificate, got it certified as a true copy, sent the pair to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and received them back quite swiftly. Then I started looking for work. That hasn’t gone so well so far – I’ve spoken to a couple of recruiters; I’ve even been pretty much offered my previous job back, but they’re not going to spring for either a flight out or a proper E-2 visa. I may need to start broadening my search.

I had a dark moment a couple of nights ago when I started thinking that I would never get a job in Korea, that I would never get any worthwhile job again, that I wouldn’t get another girlfriend again, that I wouldn’t do anything with the rest of my life. I’m feeling better now, and today I sent off ten e-mails to recruiters asking after specific jobs or jobs in general. The jobs market is tighter now than in previous years, so getting a job could take a while, but if I don’t try then I certainly won’t get anything.

I’ve been focussing on kindergarten work, because that’s been my favourite work so far, but I have scope to broaden my search to the typical after-school type of hagwon, or even to public schools; and I could also look at other cities than Seoul and its satellites and Daegu, where my friend Peter lives. And then there’s China, if I’m really stuck, or other parts of Asia. I could even look for random where around Europe. But I find it difficult to imagine myself living and working in the UK.

At the same time as getting all the Korea visa documents, I applied for a new passport. I asked my retired friends from Runcorn, Liz and Roger – two of the most respectable people I know – to countersign my application. This was only necessary because my appearance has changed a lot in the past eight years – well, I no longer have long hair. Although I thought I may have screwed it up by not using black biro as specified, but a different kind of black pen, it turned out to be fine and I got a brand new, jumbo-sized passport back within two or three weeks. It feels a bit flimsier than the old one, and (apparently controversially) the identity page is at the front rather than the back; but the BBC-style weather symbols and British landscape on each page are a nice touch.

I’ve been staying in a lot. Went through a phase of playing video games – Halo Something-or-other, Fable 2 and Fable 3; within the last few days I completed Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II. Also been helping my sister with housework and stuff – I put loft panels in the central part of her attic; recently we put shelves up in her dining room.

I went to Runcorn to retrieve stuff from my parents’ attic, go through it and stack it all neatly in my sister’s loft. Opening the boxes was kind of like getting a load of birthday presents – from my past self. There were clothes that I’ve happily taken to wearing again (and some I’ve given away to charity); my previous collection of coins and bank notes – that I’ve combined with the new; a few unread books – mostly editions of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I like having collections of things.

Runcorn really is a hive of scum and villainy. Not including when I visited with Habiba, it’s been a few years since I was there. The kids who live there can be little scumbags who hate anyone who doesn’t look like them. I assumed, with my no-longer-long hair (actually, I’d recently given myself a very short haircut with my sister’s clippers), that I wouldn’t attract any untoward attention. Walking along a street near my parents’ place, one of a group of three or four boys said to me, ‘Are you Polish?’ I said, ‘No. Are you?’ He asked his friend, ‘Am I Polish?’ I’ve repressed whatever he said to me next, but I ignored him. It wasn’t explicitly insulting or malicious, but it wasn’t exactly respectful.

Back at my sister’s, she dug out my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards. I’ve been making and remaking decks – I’ve even bought a handful of specific cards for this purpose – with a view to playing with them in Korea (not that I played with them much last time; I could never get Habiba to have a game with me).

I remember, last time I stayed with my sister, buying lots of CDs on the internet, I’ve tried to restrain myself this time, but I did get a handful of novelty dice – a nice pair of d7s, a somewhat disappointing set of 12 polydice including the unusual d3, d5, d14, d16 and d24, and a d100. The latter – a so-called Zocchihedron, after its inventor – was broken when it arrived (simply receiving the package cost me £12 in customs duty and Post Offices charges), but the company in the States is sending a free replacement (that arrived today). I also got a pack of 200 blank cards with a view to making a card game of my own.

Having sold my old massive suitcase back in Korea, I’ve bought a smaller one to use as a carry on bag, while my large backpack will serve as my check-in bag. For their first time in their lives, I washed both of my backpacks. Exciting times.

I spent a very pleasurable week in the south-west, staying alternately with my friends Lawrence (and one night at his girlfriends’) and Alex. Last time I saw them (with Habiba), while great, was only for a fleeting visit. We hung out a lot more this time. Lawrence, Yi-vei and I ate out at a couple of good restaurants; we played table tennis on a public table tennis table at St James Barton Roundabout.

Alex and I played Magic. A lot. We went to Forbidden Planet in Bristol and each bought a box of 285 card; Alex later bought specific cards on-line and updated his decks – finally removing his printed off, poxy proxies. We dipped into a couple of Xbox games (including the MtG one). We saw Dredd 3D, which I thought was pretty bloody brilliant (the Slo-Mo sequences were also pretty bloody and bloody pretty); Alex wasn’t so impressed, for some reason. Watched a DVD of a strange, French sf film called Eden Log.

After getting half-way through Salman Rushdie’s Grimus before returning home, I stopped reading it for a few weeks. More recently, I’ve been trying to crack on with my reading; I’m reading my biggest books first so I don’t have to take them with me to Korea. Which hopefully won’t be too far into the future. Better get a move on with The Art of War and The Hydrogen Sonata, then.

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