Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Wander

In 1845, Sara Coleridge, the brilliant daughter of the better known Samuel Taylor, wrote to her dissolute brother Hartley about the qualities of certain English-language poets: "To be always reading Shelley and Keats would be like living on quince-marmalade. Milton and and Wordsworth are substantial diet for all times and seasons."

I walked eight miles alone today, trekking first to Emart to return the kilograms of insect-afflicted oatmeal (the bugs did not deign to show themselves under the fluorescent lights at the returns desk, but the lady there kindly gave me a refund anyway), and then down to the seashore in time for sunset. Inland was a pleasant floral aroma, where the grey stone walls were covered with thick, polished, leafy ivy, emerald in the sunshine. On the other side of the stones, occasional stumps of dead palm trees resembled bolts of twisted hemp fabric. From a distance, the pointed pylons from which the soccer stadium roof is suspended looked like a volley of rockets launching skyward. Several World Cup matches are to be played there in the coming weeks.

Saturday evening I went with three other girls to one of the multiple posh hotels near the convention center to hear a band. The cab--the steering wheel was pimped out in pave red crystals--dropped us off at the front door, which was flanked by a pair of magnificent bronze verdigris foo dogs. Inside, a grand piano accompanied a smoky-voiced jazz singer in the forested lobby cafe-bar. Just past a Salvador Dali sculpture was a huge staircase that overlooked the gardens and the pool.

We took a short stroll through the palatial grounds, where the illuminated palm trees shone gold against the clear star-studded black sky. It was a perfect location for a romantic moment, just out of sight of the pool but within earshot of the band. A little stone cherub was piddling in the koi lagoon.

We seated ourselves at a table near the pool bar and consulted the menu. It was cluttered with absurdly overpriced offerings; the cocktails ranged from 28 to 32,000 KRW. My 250 mL Coke cost 5000 KRW. But the amenities were stunning, from the indoor/outdoor pool, illuminated and warm, to the blazing fires on stone circles overhung by cantilevered cloth canopies. People in soft grey robes, the hoods cloaking their faces, shuffled around the pool and to the sauna in one-size-fits-all rattan slippers. Slim servers in khaki pants and pale blue shirts briskly darted out of the enclosed cafe, carrying trays to lounging guests. Colored lights flashed on the stage. Families were splashing in the pool or lingering nearby, listening to the music. Toddlers drooped over their parents' shoulders as the evening progressed. The music was great, and the band members--who had come over and chatted with us during breaks--called us onto our feet to sway and clap to the rhythm. The members were from Miami, and it was the last night of their three-month stint on the island; they told us they'd been housed in suites for the duration of their contract, provided with lavish breakfasts, laundry service, and daily room cleaning.

On Thursday I was treated out by six of my adult students at another hotel, which had a hot and cold buffet and all the fixings for shabu shabu. There were salads and mandu and sushi and sauced pork and other delights. For dessert there was soft-serve ice cream and a chocolate fountain into which you could thrust marshmallows that had been impaled on long bamboo skewers. Despite my going back for thirds, my students claimed I didn't eat much.

To and from lunch, I was chauffeured in a massive new Mercedes-Benz sedan with two sunroofs, leather seats and subtly-illuminated wood paneling in the doors. The driver had pre-selected Norah Jones on the stereo as I had said in class that I liked her music. After the meal, they took me for a scenic drive down near the naval station. As we cruised the shore road, two Korean navy vessels tore out of port, suddenly curvetting in the water and sending white wake boiling up their sides. I immediately pulled out my phone to check to see if anything untoward had happened on an international level, but there was nothing. Then I dozed off in comfort.

My students told me that I am like Jim Carrey (I wonder what the guys I went to see Ace Ventura with while we were at university would say?). I'm very physically expressive in class. I figure that a good portion of language comprehension is nonverbal, and if they have a dramatic presentation to explain particular vocabulary they're more likely to remember it. The ladies also complimented me on my clear skin (a temporary condition, thanks to the antibiotics which drove my eye infection into remission), asking me what my regimen was. I admitted I didn't have one (I'm the sort of person who washes her face with dish soap if that's the nearest to hand), but I don't think they believed me. Koreans are very into skincare, and the idea of an educated woman who isn't is unthinkable.

Friday night a lovely Korean colleague of mine fixed a Japanese vegetable curry. It was superb. She really does have a beautiful complexion, and she works to keep it that way.

The weather is deliciously comfortable at the moment, cool, clear and slightly breezy, without the oppressive humidity that will mark the better part of the summer. All Saturday I had windows in my house open, which helped with the feelings of physical and emotional congestion that have dogged me for weeks. The swaying and billowing of my bedroom curtain in the fresh air reminded me of a perfect morning 25 years ago. That day, I woke up in a cottage in the garden of a hotel on the Italian Riviera. The long pure white curtains curled in the breeze and early sunshine, and the musical sound of conversation among the local laundry women trickled up from the nearby mews into the soft and spotless room. It was heavenly. The breakfast of fresh bread and jam on the veranda overlooking the Mediterranean was likewise heavenly. Now, had my traveling companions only been less devilish...

After church this afternoon I went to Hi Mart again. I bought two air-purifiers. The same handsome young salesman helped me, and again he respectfully referred to me as "mother." Argh.

When walking on the seaside, I feel I am on the edge of the universe, because there is no clear horizon. The sea fades away into the sky like an airbrushed backdrop in a 1950s Hollywood movie. The rocks nearest the land are black and dove grey, but the ones by the water are ash-colored. The tide-pools are glassy, reflecting the rough stones and the occasional pair of ducks paddling in the shallows. As the sun sinks, the water turns Wedgwood blue, and the sky pale lavender. It was well after dark when I got back home this evening, or as dark as the heavily-electrified streets get. I remind myself it'll be like daylight at midnight in Seoul, where I'm scheduled to spend this coming Wednesday through Sunday.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mary Had A Little Airplane

The campaign music trucks are back out on the roundabout. During my sixth grade class today, one started blasting the tune to "Mary Had A Little Lamb." It played repeatedly. It's a children's song even in Korea, but with lyrics that have to do with an airplane flying in the sky. Are they attempting to get out the vote among preschoolers?

Sunday afternoon, June and I went to lunch and then for a walk with the Korean navy guy from church. He has beautiful ears. Like his friend the drummer (he actually has two friends that are drummers--one studying to be a nurse and the other studying to be a chef; I am referring here to the younger, the culinary artist, who just left Jeju), he's heading off to Canada very shortly to study English. The nurse-drummer plans to go to Canada sometime in the next couple of years as well. It must be easier for international students to go there rather than to come to the US; it might also be friendlier. I told them the Canadians tend to be nicer than Americans on the whole, anyway. But I feel like most of the nice people I'm just starting to get to know are leaving! One of my fellow teachers is going to the US and then to Morocco in less than a month.

One of my adjumma students beckoned me aside this morning to ask me what I thought about the escalating tensions between the US and North Korea. I told her that I did not worry about things I could not do anything about, and I did believe that God was in control. Maybe  Kim Jung Un will drop dead of a heart attack. We can pray! She's the first person I've met here who has expressed any anxiety about the obstreperous northern neighbor at all. She said that her son and daughter are in Australia and keep asking her and her husband to come there, but her husband has no plans to move. She also asked me what the evacuation plans were for American nationals here should something happen. I told her I didn't have a clue. I'm not a government employee, so I can't see the US powers that be taking special care to assure my well-being. On the other hand, that's not the sort of situation that has had to be dealt with in generations. I certainly hope it doesn't have to be addressed any time soon. As it is, I'm far more concerned about the price of cheese and what engaging activities to plan for my first graders than about rumors of war.

Cheese is absurdly highly priced here! The domestic variety is not worth eating--it's all processed stuff, concocted of industrial byproducts. Samples of the international sort vary; each of the larger grocery stores has a different selection, so it's an adventure to assemble a decent dairy hoard. I was delighted when I found one-kilo wedges of real Italian Grana Padano at a store near the church--at 24,000 a pop, it's an investment, but it doesn't go to waste in my house. Smaller pieces of other varieties cost more--I paid more than 8,000 KRW for 150g of "sweet and nutty" Royaal Gouda, and around 7,000 each for eight ounce bars of Monterey and Colby Jack. I was severely disappointed on Sunday night to find that eMart does not seem to have mozzarella anymore. They had oatmeal advertised at 5,000; when we got home from the store we discovered that we had been charged 8,000 per container (and then we noticed live bugs crawling in it!). So those are going to be returned for a refund. I haven't returned anything here yet, so I hope the process is easy.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Work Day, Wedding Day

My eye is getting better, and Friday morning the doctor gave me the all clear to return to work. I like to work. I love lazing about, but there's nothing quite like earning a paycheck. And despite my being an introvert, I really like interacting with people, and three days of being mewed up in the house with no one to talk to but my smartphone was just too much. I needed those three days though; I was sick with a cold. Because having conjunctivitis wasn't enough in and of itself.

I swear, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. My curriculum coordinator stopped by Thursday to show me some jewelry she needs repaired, and she noted that we should probably henceforth refer to small children as MPDs--mobile petri dishes. That acronym sounds appropriately combat-ready, doesn't it? My immune system is certainly war weary. I have been sick more often, and to a greater extent, in the last four months than I was in the previous four years.

For the time being, I am feeling hale and hearty. I went to a wedding this morning. Although most of the service was in Korean – the vows were in English--it followed the standard pattern for a Christian ceremony, from the exquisite bride processing on her father's arm to an exchange of rings which was entirely blocked from the view of the congregation by a scrum of professional photographers so intent on memorializing the moment that they rendered it invisible.

I was not invited to the evening reception, which was limited to foreign guests. I would have liked to have had some cake, and to have heard a few more tunes by the jazz band from Miami that was hired for the event, but I do not regret having missed the bouquet toss. Whereas in my 20s and early 30s I didn't mind being called out as a single lady, nowadays the designation in view of a romantic-minded public is one I generally avoid.

I would like to get married this year. As yet, however, I am not being courted by a solidly Christian, intelligent, kind, and humble guy who's neither ancient nor larval and who likes to cook. I was mulling over "must haves"... He needs to have a stable job (or perhaps I should say a stable set of marketable talents which he has a proven track record of using profitably?), savings, health insurance, and a diligent and faithful but not obsessive personality. He should like to travel and enjoy talking to people, yet also be comfortable being at home. He should have a creative hobby and like to go on long walks. He should speak at least two languages moderately well. We should have similar aesthetic values. He should be better at sharing his faith than I am. He should be the sort who can see through BS, but doesn't tear people down; a man who is not given to fits of anger, being neither violent or passive aggressive. And he needs to be cute and think I am, too. Is this all really that much to ask?

Of course, such an extensive list of "must haves" all makes me wonder what characteristics I possess that would complement that person. I'm faithful in relationships, and honest, but I also talk a lot. I am clean and don't mind keeping house, but I don't like cooking, and I am disorganized in many ways. I have several creative hobbies, but my reading has really suffered over the last few years, and as a consequence my intellectual underpinnings are wobbly. I am well-educated, but this has never afforded me a lucrative or even steady career. I am pretty diligent in prayer (at least the panicked "God, I can't do this without you" sort), but I am not faithful in my Bible reading or quiet times, despite weekly reminders that my spiritual health that depends on such daily nourishment (I wish I had a Bible study here--this would be great for fellowship and would keep me in a pattern--that's a prayer request). I am aware that the Lord has done great things for me, but thus far my testimony has yet to touch anyone that I know of. I work hard, but I don't have a lot of savings. I am better at managing my budget than I was, but sometimes I spend a lot (however, I don't like to shop, and so the things I buy are usually practical or artistically appealing, or both--I get good value for money!)

Honestly, spouse-seeking is even worse than job-seeking. I do wonder if I will ever meet someone who considers me not inadequate, not just adequate, but really superb as a partner for life, and about whom I feel the same?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thing One & Thing Two

Monday morning it was pouring rain. There was even thunder rumbling above, and the lava-stone sidewalks were rivers an inch deep. The standing puddles at the intersections were much deeper. I managed to avoid the worst of these, but my jeans were soaked to the knees anyway.

 It was so loud outside. Usually, the electric cars and hybrid vehicles make little noise on the streets, often creeping up behind you unexpectedly. But at rush-hour in a torrential downpour, all those tires splashing along the wet asphalt created a torrent of unpleasant sound. And there was techno music blasting up ahead for some reason.

My first thought was "really enthusiastic Buddhists." But the nine people were all wearing identical numbered jerseys under translucent rain ponchos and beating styrofoam-plastic cheering sticks together. Which isn't typically Buddhist. Were they rabid soccer fans? On the same traffic island that is centered with a pagoda and lanterns for Buddha's birthday is a pillar erected to advertise and celebrate Korea's hosting games in this year's World cup tournament. But why were they bowing, deeply, from the waist, to the traffic every so often? As I approached the corner I noticed that there was another group, similarly equipped with ponchos and jerseys and black tights, across the road. However, their jerseys were pink and they had the number two on the back, whereas the first group was wearing the number one and blue. They were under a banner advertising a presidential candidate. Ah! These were the supporters of individuals aspiring to replace the ousted chief executive. The blue team was backed by a truck flashing lights and playing music--in the mid afternoon, one of my students said the tunes were "caveman" vintage--and it continued literally until nightfall, making teaching with the windows open five stories above a little challenging. The election takes place in just three weeks. 

 Sunday morning, I woke up with my left eye glued shut with mucus. Nasty. And uncomfortable. I gently washed my face until I got it open to find that my eyeball was red. I don't think I've ever had pinkeye before. It is not a pleasant experience. When I got to the clinic Monday, the doctor didn't even look at my eye. He just glanced at me sitting on a stool a couple of feet away and wrote out a prescription. I dutifully had it filled and even more dutifully took the pills and administered the eyedrops. There was no reason to complain about the cost: the doctor's visit was 5500 KRW and the pharmacy prescription fill was 4200 KRW. The total combined time expenditure came to 15 minutes. 

I worked Monday, but felt so bad by Tuesday that I took my first sick day. Other teachers had to cover my classes, which I made me feel guilty on one level, but on another I was too tired to care. This morning, my eye looked far better--it wasn't oozing as much, though it was still red--and when the school's assistant director texted me asking if I had gone to the doctor again, I said I would, but that I was planning to work. He gave me the address of an ophthalmologist and urged me to go there for a checkup. So I did. And...the scrubs and sandal wearing guy looked at my eye carefully and closely, and told me that the previous doctor had given me the wrong kind of drops, and that I needed to rest until Monday. No work. He gave me new droplets and oral medication and told me to come back for a checkup on Friday. I hope and pray my eye is going to be OK. This second doctor didn't speak English like the first I saw, which implies he didn't go to a western medical school. On the other hand, he did actually look at my eye, which the first doctor didn't bother to do. He didn't charge me at all for the visit, and filling his prescriptions cost 3500 KRW. His son is one of my more diligent students.

What am I supposed to do in the interim?  If I don't work, I don't get paid. And my coworkers end up being overwhelmed by having to substitute for my classes. Apparently my predecessor had conjunctivitis and she still had to come into work. But maybe she didn't see the same doctor I saw, who told me that I can't work. This is so confusing. I sent a message to my coworkers, telling them the situation and offering to run any little errands they might need in the meantime. I want to make myself useful, particularly as they are being mightily inconvenienced by my eye issues.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Decrepitude Of Ivana Ilychovna

This week I have felt like a female version of the protagonist of one of Tolstoy's most famous novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy wrote the story of the decline and demise of a middle-aged man when he himself was in his 20s. It is a masterpiece. All is normal at the outset and then small things start going awry, the physical and mental decline of the title character accelerates, and he ultimately loses his ability to function. I had a bad fall last Sunday. I was out cavorting on the volcanic rocks by the seashore – we'd had lunch with a group from church at an art café on a nearby hilltop, and June and I decided to walk down to the water for fresh air and exercise. While she sat in a swing and read, I clambered around the tide pools and hunted for sea glass. I eventually slipped and crashed down inelegantly, my linen skirt in a tangle and my suede-shod feet airborne. I broke my fall a bit with my left hand and the gold class ring I always wear thereon, and both were scraped, though only my fingers and wrist were bent. I thought my main injury to was to my pride, and rotated all my joints to make sure nothing was broken. The bad bruises started appearing a day or two later. And I contracted a sore throat. And exhaustion. If I could have stayed in bed all week, I most certainly would have. I felt wretched.

On Wednesday afternoon I was hit on the side of the head by a shoe, courtesy of one of my first graders. He was not attempting to be malicious – this was not a deliberate attack on my person – but he had been throwing his tennis shoes around the room and I was unfortunately in the middle of one's trajectory. He and all his classmates looked appropriately horrified. I admit to being slightly stunned. One little girl beckoned me over and carefully blew on my cheek to make it feel better. I kept teaching, but I did march the miscreant into the faculty office after class to get a dressing down from a Korean adult. He apologized, and we shook hands. He said he was hot with his shoes on. I told him it was fine that he take his shoes off, just so long as he left them neatly placed and didn't start tossing  them. I don't want to break his spirit – he's a very bright little boy – but he does need to learn to behave in a civilized manner.

I am gaining weight. My skin is sagging, and I look like a hag. A hag with zits. I was thinking during that same first grade class that I'm not much younger now than my own first grade teacher was when she taught me, and at that time she was preparing for her daughter's wedding.

Last weekend, prior to my seaside tumble, June and I walked more than 15 miles. I don't understand how I am becoming so wide. On the upside, while we walked I did finally learn how to count in Korean (Sino-Korean, actually--there are two numbering systems here, and this one is that which is useful for transactions). That makes seven languages, including English, in which I've got the rudimentary numbers down. Now if my communication skills exceeded this by much, I'd be dangerous. As it is, early one morning this week when I went to work, I couldn't remember the Korean word for "hello." I could remember the Polish word, but not the Korean word. I know less Polish that I know Korean.

The consignment shop in Bethesda where I worked for a year before joining the estate sale company in DC is permanently closing at the end of the month. The owner is retiring and moving north. I met so many fascinating people through that shop, including my old coworker who had been kissed by Clark Gable back when they were both staying on the same divorce ranch in Nevada in the early 1950s. She told me how they'd spent much of the day together--on the sly, so word wouldn't get back to his soon-to-be ex-wife--when he chose to put the moves on her in an elaborately staged seductive technique that involved flirtatious banter while calmly circling the room, extinguishing the lights one by one, then leaning in for the piece de resistance. She said he was a good kisser. It didn't go any further--if it had, she would have relished the tale, as she was a nonagenarian who occasionally wore a gold ring in the shape of a well known four letter word beginning with F.

A lot of my classes this past week were obsessed with asking me if I am married, if I have children, and how old I am. They were really shocked at the whole middle aged single childless female thing. My boss's daughter is getting married next weekend, and all we faculty members are invited to the church wedding. The bride has been trying to persuade male acquaintances to bring their single friends in hopes of matching them to the young single teachers, of which there are almost a dozen. I expect there aren't too many potential options for femmes of my vintage. I have ordered a pair of stockings for the event, because my battered legs really can't be shown bare, but they haven't yet come. I will start to panic about this next Thursday.

My two-hour adult class this past Thursday was the best class I've ever taught, I think. My CELTA instructor would have been proud. I talked very little, I got the students to work in groups on the vocabulary, and then I set them up with realistic dialogs to practice. They were so engrossed that they didn't even notice that it was time to end the class. It was awesome. Several of the students then invited me out for lunch – shabu shabu – on the 27th. I am looking forward to it!

Friday, April 07, 2017

Out Of The Damp, Into Drama

I am thrilled with my dehumidifiers. The really steamy part of the year has yet to come, but they pull more than a liter of water from the air in my two room apartment every 12 hours. I empty the reservoirs twice a day. There is no obvious new mold growth on the wallpaper, and it is easy to breathe indoors. My new rug arrived and looks quite nice, and I needn't worry that the synthetic fibers will disintegrate in the damp. My countertop oven (it has a 40+ liter capacity and even has a rotisserie feature, so I hesitate to term it a simple toasting device) is waiting for me to mix up some bread dough. I got a large quantity of French yeast at the grocery store, and 5 kg of flour, so I really have no excuse for procrastinating. Next month, one of my seventh grade classes is reading a unit about bread, and I want them to learn to make their own. But before I have them do it I want to brush up on my own technique. It's been years.

This month is test preparation for the junior high school students, and I'm teaching two packed all-female cram classes instead of my usual assortment of inattentive boys and whispering girls. They are all pretty enthusiastic, and were delighted to find out that I had watched the Goblin serial (the adjummas in my adult class, which resumed this morning, have also enjoyed my elaborately swooning references to Gong Yoo). The theme song to Goblin is still playing on radio stations all over town. Right now, I'm watching Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, Tunnel, The Liar and His Lover, and Mystery Queen. Tunnel is my favorite--it's good to have Choi Jin Hyuk back on TV, particularly playing a tough detective.

Oh. Speaking of Gong Yoo, all my fifth-graders and a good chunk of my fourth-graders have seen Train to Busan. I was really surprised that their parents would let them. I'm not sure I would have been able to handle a horror movie at that age. Another cultural difference was that a week ago when we discussed weddings (they were reading about parties and celebrations) in the fifth grade class, all four of the boys told me they wanted to get married – three because they wanted to have children, and one because he thought wedding food was delicious (he does like his vittles). They all said they wanted to marry between the ages of 24 and 31. The only girl in the class, however, said she did not want to get married at all. Perhaps marriage here is desirable for men – they have someone to cook for them and clean for them, among other benefits -- whereas for women it is much more a condition of drudgery? In any case, I don't think American preadolescents seriously think about marriage very much.

I have a growing collection of pencils, erasers, and umbrellas in my classroom. Children leave them behind, and I stack them in obvious places and they are never reclaimed. I end up lending out the pencils and erasers to students who forget theirs. I have yet to figure out what to do with the umbrellas. There are also several badminton rackets. Those are from before my time. Why there are badminton rackets on the fifth floor of a building that doesn't have a yard or a rooftop recreational area is a mystery.

I was in error several months ago when I mentioned that my classroom didn't have heat. It's a ceiling mounted unit, and it took me a while to figure out where it was and how to turn it on (there's a remote) but it worked beautifully for the chilly days. It is also apparently an air-conditioning system, or "Air-con" as they are known around here, but I don't know how to operate that aspect of it, and have temporarily settled for the low-tech option of opening the windows.

We have a rare five-day break at the beginning of May. It's Buddha's birthday. The city's central roundabout that was decorated with a lighted tree and crèche for Christmas now features an illuminated pagoda and a fence of colorful round lanterns. I have arranged to go to Seoul for the break to visit the DMZ (at last!) and to go shopping. Several of my shirts have developed holes. I do not like clothes shopping. In fact, I have yet to buy any of the socks that I so desperately need. If I had vast sums of money I would simply have all of my clothes and shoes made to fit by someone who knew trends and my tastes and I would not mess about with the misery of searching for the right styles and sizes.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Up To No Good

I've been awake all night. I went to bed early, and awoke just past midnight. So I went on G-Market, which is sort of a low-rent combination of eBay's "Buy it now" section and Amazon, with higher prices on groceries and cosmetics (a 16-ounce jar of natural peanut butter for 20 bucks?! A bottle of L'Oreal foundation for 50?! Holy mackerel.), but lower on home goods than local stores. I purchased a toaster oven, some screening for my bathroom window – the mosquitoes are starting to come in – and a large rug for my common room. I usually sit on the floor, so a good rug is part of my regular furniture, and I already have a small one, but here everybody sits on the floor, so one big enough to accommodate guests is essential if you entertain.

I hosted my first party Friday night, despite it having been a tough week. I'm egregiously behind on my editing (my brain simply does not want to function when it comes to writing clearly and succinctly – I've been called out for my purple prose and run-on sentences, and have been too tired to finish important projects). Several of my classes were less than stellar, particularly my first-graders. On Wednesday, one of my six year olds was on top of the bookshelf next to the window doing an Elvis-like shimmy. If he can dance like that and sing well too after adolescence, he's destined for superstardom. This is the same imp who was shooting his socks like rubber bands and flexing his arm muscles for the girls last week. He's a character. He's smart--he can finish in five seconds, albeit sloppily, what has taken the other kids 10 minutes to complete.

I looked forward to the party not just for the social outlet and psychological relief, but also for the fact that it was going to force me to clean up my house. It took hours, but the house was not just neat, but clean by the time everyone started to trickle in beginning at 9:45 PM.  Because we don't get off until that time, dinner had to be late. Unfortunately, two people were ill on Friday, and couldn't come, but there were still six of us: three Americans and three Koreans (actually, one of the Koreans is also an American, so the national balance wasn't quite that perfect!). I think everybody had a good time. The meat and vegetable stew that I cooked in a borrowed crockpot turned out to be the blandest stuff I've ever created. I poured A1 sauce on my serving and recommended my guests do the same. One girl had brought mochi from the local Baskin Robbins for dessert. In green tea, mango, and strawberry flavor, these little hillocks of ice cream tucked inside colored skins of rice cake were peculiar, but good.

When we Americans think of rice cake, we think of round dry discs of puffed rice. When Koreans think of rice cake, they think of a glutinous semi-translucent gel made out of mashed cooked rice. It's not sweet, and to me it tastes of nothing in particular, though it is certainly filling. One of the favorite ways to consume rice cake is by slicing it and serving it is a thick hot red stew, ddukbokki (spicy rice cake). It looks like tomato sauced thick noodles, which was why the name throws me every time I hear it.

I went back to the seashore to pick up trash today, and texted the gentleman who had met me there last week to tell him I was going. He brought along his wife and sister-in-law, neither of whom speak English. I was terrified that the sister-in-law, who was a tiny, frail looking woman, would fall and break her hip on the shifting stones, but she managed to stay upright for the duration. In half an hour we had accumulated enough garbage to require Mr. Lee to return home and come back with the family SUV. After we piled everything into the vehicle, they invited me to come with them to the Cherry Blossom Festival on the other side of the island. So we drove around Mount Halla to find that the cherry trees hadn't bloomed yet. I fell asleep in the car on the way back around the mountain. What I was impressed with was that the wife did much of the driving--to me, it's always worth observing whether a man insists on driving, as many men (not just here) have a silently chauvinist proprietary attitude on the subject. You can tell a lot about a guy's attitude toward his wife based on whether or not he is content to trust her behind the wheel. We then went to a chicken place for dinner (he and his wife split a pitcher of beer, but got me a Pepsi on my request--the sister-in-law stuck to water), and then they dropped me off at home. I found out that Mr. Lee is the same age as my mom and speaks some Russian! He lived in Uzbekistan for several years in the 1990s. He also speaks some Vietnamese, as he and his wife lived there a few years ago. His daughter is an Ivy League-educated medical school student, and his son is a producer at a television station in Seoul. I asked if the son produced any dramas, but the father demurred, saying that he really didn't know exactly what his son was doing, that he mostly talked with his mother.

I have agreed to buy a desk from my upstairs neighbor, a lamp, her rice cooker and crockpot, and a small shelving unit whereon to keep pots and pans. I've also told her I want her comforter. She's giving me a shell-inlaid black lacquer chest and some framed art, which she found next to the dumpster a while back. The small tables in my bedroom also were dumpster finds--they are actually offering tables for ancestral rites, and one of my fellow teachers told me they were probably discarded because of a superstition. One is real wood-the other is some sort of varnished pressboard. They make nice nightstands next to my low bed.