Entries from October 31st, 2011

my favorite part

Monday, October 31, 2011

I’m sitting at a wooden desk behind a glass window, across from a real estate office that looks out into a narrow street, for eyes to follow the casual Saturday life that passes by. Actually, I’m across from a “well-being Korean snack and coffee shop.” Next to that is a real estate office. It’s a dreary day, perfect for curling up in bed with a movie, or a book, and spending the whole afternoon there, until it’s nearly dark and close to dinnertime, until it’s time to get up and make a pot of soup. Earlier today, chilled mist hung in the air, enough to warrant a scarf, and about twenty minutes ago, the mist morphed into flurries barely noticeable against anything but a blackish background. I didn’t acknowledge the truth for the first ten minutes of it. “Must be street dust,” my voice of denial whispered to no one in particular. Now, the pillowy clouds are thinning to gauze, revealing pockets of pale blue sky. It’s been a strange combination of weather to have in a day.

Exactly a week ago, the sky was bright. Wind conditions were, as we’d heard, ideal for casually floating down from a mountain with a parachute strapped to the back. What luck! Because that’s exactly what we did.

I’ve said this before, but I want to say it again. Autumn in Korea is so, so gorgeous. The season lingers here, like winter lingers in Minnesota, but it’s a welcomed houseguest, and I don’t want it to leave. Autumn in Korea lives up to its reputation. So when I heard of an opportunity to paraglide from the top of Mount Yumyung, in the middle of a season full of turning leaves, heights and fear-of-death-by-falling be damned. I was going.

The ride to the top of the mountain was worse than the actual jump. When we were halfway, the driver jokingly swerved his van even closer to the edge before letting out a big belly laugh, as if he hadn’t pulled the same trick on every other group he’d driven up the mountain, probably hundreds of them. I closed my eyes and spoke meditatively of more comforting, less petrifying things, like puppies, guacamole, and tequila shots. I don’t like tequila shots, but at that moment, they sounded nice.

We hopped out of the van to take in the view and to be paired with local experts. We suited up, and moments later I was walking toward the runoff, my tandem partner behind me. Our only instructions were to run, to not, whatever we did, stop running, and to keep our feet up while landing. Before I knew it, there was another man in front of me, pulling me, running backward, shouting “go! go! go!” and my feet were in motion, struggling to run as fast as conceivably possible with a full-grown man attached to my back. The man in front wasn’t letting go, and he said something that made me think I was supposed to stop, even though I had worked hard to remember the simple instructions I was given. I stopped. And when I did, a look of panic crossed his face as he wide-eyed our parachute, presumably to make sure it was going to catch air when it was supposed to. He shouted, “no no! go! go!” and so I went again, running as hard as I could. He jumped out of the way, and suddenly my feet were touching ground no more. We were airborne.

I would remember the second instruction as we came in hot at an angle, forcing onlookers to scramble from their chairs out of the way. Other than our haphazard takeoff and characteristically ungraceful landing, the rest of the flight is a bit of a blur. I know that I didn’t want to smile for the camera as my partner clicked shots for memorabilia, and I definitely didn’t want to hold it as he took a video. I wanted to look at the trees and absorb the reality of our circumstances. Before long, my feet were touching the ground. It was over so quickly. And you know what? None of that was my favorite part of the day.

So what was? Hands down, our impromptu lunch in a free standing shack down the road. It looked like something out of a horror flick. Sawdust covered the tables. Hornets nested cozily in visible nooks and crannies of the exterior. A colossal, razor-legged spider guarded the entrance. Jars of ginseng and honeycomb filled the shelves against one wall. The connected room was littered with work boots, power tools, and a cooler stocked with sodas. After a few minutes of poking around, a women appeared, and she was willing to serve us noodles. We sat around the table, and she cooked in the back kitchen. In about ten minutes, she brought out a tray of oversized bowls, steaming with spicy ramen, a poached egg floating in each, sliced scallions speckling the top. As we slurped our noodles, I felt something for the first time since I’ve been here. At that moment, in that dusty room, with that mixed group of friends and strangers who were about to run off a mountain together, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

One thing I know to be true.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sarah Kay performed her TED talk, “If I have a daughter,” back in March. I watched it once last summer and a second time this morning. She’s impressive. Have a look here.

One thing I know to be true? I am scared shitless of heights. Heights have both brought me to tears and forced a record-breaking slew of swear words out of my mouth, all from the top rung of a household ladder. But today, I’m going paragliding through the mountains of Korea. Or rather, today I’m going to attempt to paraglide through the mountains of Korea. My heart is already pumping. Four letter words are at the tip of my tongue. Who the f*ck came up with this idea? is flashing through my mind. We leave in thirty minutes. I’ve got to go brush my teeth. If I’m going to be apologizing to my cohorts, I’m sure as hell not going to be doing it with morning breath.

I’ll see you next week, perhaps with a story, or maybe even with something else I will have learned to be true.

look up or you could miss it

Monday, October 17, 2011

INSIDE:  Sometimes blogging feels equivalent to talking to an imaginary companion. I’d guess many of the reasons for doing both are pretty similar, too.

OUTSIDE: How often do we actually look up while we’re walking somewhere, especially when we’re in a hurry? To what extent do we take in our surroundings instead of staying stuck in our own heads, absorbed by whatever or whoever is on the front of our minds at the time? It’s an easy place to be, the latter, and admittedly, the moment I step out into the world is often the moment I tuck back inside of my own.

I found this photo again recently, and even though I took it last spring, I hadn’t noticed it the same way until the other day. It reminded me to look up, to connect, to share. Because when I do, and do so consciously, I am always surprised by what I find.

THIS TOO: I like this song so much, and the video is good for October.

happily, coffee

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Things there are no shortage of in Seoul:

Elderly women donning big plastic visors.

Young, leggy, milky-skinned, gloss-haired women with impeccably blended style: edge and femininity at its finest.

Bows, sequins, and sparkly TOMS.

Waffles. Seoul is smack-dab in the middle of a waffle craze.

Jars of (pickled?) squid. Er, red ginseng. Hell. Gets me every time.

Following in the footsteps of Montreal:  bikes.

Soju and Makgeolli, two drinks native to Korea.

And happily, coffee.

There must be more coffee shops in Seoul than in New York City, Seattle, and Chicago combined.  It feels that way, anyway.  But without knowing better, it can be hard to distinguish the good from the bad.  Besides Starbucks, I’d never heard of any of the chains found here, like Paris Baguette, or Tom and Tom’s, or Holly’s. During my first few weeks, I sampled them all. And then, I sent my friend Jen an email. Jen lived in Seoul for almost two years, and during that time, she got to know the city backwards and forwards. Besides where to get good coffee in our neighborhood, she’s given me a ton of other travel tips, helped me secure my teaching position, and assuaged my misgivings the week before I boarded the plane to Korea. I owe her at least one hell of a travel guide, should she ever decide to visit Minneapolis or Buenos Aires.

Rani: in Jangan-dong, across from Bauhaus, at Janghan-Sagori (the four-way intersection every taxi driver knows).  Closest metro stop:  Janghanpyeong, line 5

This is easily my favorite place to spend a Sunday afternoon in our neighborhood. It is from here that I type this post, and where the only thing served besides coffee are Nutrigrain bars and a couple of cookies of the unidentifiable variety. The perfect local joint where the barista always brings your coffee to you on a plastic tray with a tiny spoon and one slender packet of sugar on a napkin. The absence of anything outwardly remarkable is exactly what makes Rani great, and the people who frequent Rani are neighborhood people. From what I can tell, when the people are in the neighborhood, the people don’t stray.

Square Garden: tel:  010.3106.8466  closest metro stops: Express Bus Terminal, line 3 exit 5.  Also, Sinbanpo, line 9 exit 4

Kathryn and Kate and I were craving eggs, bacon, toast and pancakes last weekend. In a city where kimchi and rice is the local breakfast of choice, this is not easy to find. My affinity for kimchi is strong, but the only vegetable I like before eleven am is ketchup. For a weekend breakfast, I stay true to a plate of what I’m accustomed to, save for the occasional morning of cold pizza following a long night of enthusiastic imbibage. But that’s neither here nor there. We weren’t hungover. We were homesick for eggs. And we wanted them served next to a pile of thickly cut bacon.  We wanted to lay our eyes on some cheese, maybe some crusty buttered bread, hopefully without sugar. So we headed to Seorae Village, the French section of Seoul.  If any district was guaranteed to have what we craved, we figured it would be here. When we found the spot Kate knew of, it was gutted. Stomachs rumbling, and not knowing the area well, we walked the main street for a few minutes before we climbed the stairs to a place that promised brunch. Brunch turned out to be a Korean-Italian lunch of sweet red-sauced pasta and pizza with gorgonzola and honey. It wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t what we commuted across the city for, either. No small disappointment some afternoon wine in the park couldn’t cure. On our way to find a bottle, we found some great spots tucked away on narrow, quiet side streets, places we knew we wanted to return to. And then, from outside of a vintage clothing boutique that also served coffee to go, we spotted Square Garden. From where we stood, it looked like a garage full of kitsch, lights strung from the ceiling, tiny polaroids hanging from clothespins. It didn’t have wine, but it did have coffee roasted in-house and gigantic wild fruit smoothies in old-fashioned malt glasses. The coffee was very good, and the smoothie could have fed four, easily. I’d make the trip across town for this place alone.

Kaffee Klatsch: 150 Dongsun-dong 2 1F, Sungbuk-gu   tel: 02.921.2561

I met my friend, Young-Joo, a few days after I arrived in Seoul. Once a week, we get together for food and language exchange. She started at the basics with me, teaching me to read and pronounce Hangul. She gives me homework that she finds online, and I send her articles to read and comprehend in English. Kaffee Klatsch is her coffee shop of choice. It’s near her apartment by Sung-shin Women’s University, and it’s one of the only places I’ve found that serves hand-dripped coffee. There’s always a daily roast, and it’s always only 2,000 won. That, my friends, is less than two U.S. dollars a cup. They serve waffles and other sweet things, too.

You know what pairs well with coffee? Feist. Have you heard Metals? I’ve had it on repeat today, and it is, in my humble opinion, a work of art. I especially like the third track. It’s called “Caught a Long Wind,” and you should be able to stream it and the rest of her latest album here.

Enjoy the week, everyone. Enjoy your coffee, or whatever your daily beverage of choice happens to be.

when I look at my hands, I see hers

Monday, October 3, 2011

Well, it happened fast. My grandma passed away last week, comfortably and at home. It was quiet and peaceful, and she was surrounded by family. Because of New Ulm’s annual Oktoberfest and the traffic that flocks to town for the weekend, the funeral was postponed a few days later than it was intended to be.

As it works out, she will be buried today, which is the same date that my mother died twenty-one years earlier. Wherever they are, however they are, I bet their reunion was one for the books.

My grandma taught me never to go to bed angry and how to give a proper hug. To pull weeds from the start of their roots and how to make a chocolate malt taste old fashioned. To go against the grain at my leisure, and to play the high notes of a Chopsticks duet.  To curse with fervor. To blame an accidental fart on the most unsuspecting person in the room, or to just pretend it never happened in the first place.

Lately when I look at my own hands, I see hers – just with less experience.

Long, thin fingers, wrinkled knuckles, deep nail beds, pronounced veins.

She loved unconditionally, more than anyone I’ve ever known.

She lived.

And I’m really going to miss her.