The things I’ll miss

Of course there are the big things, like the palaces, temples and great gates that seem so exotic.  There are also the things that are the great cliches of Korea, like the Konglish.

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(I often walk around here wishing I could just proofread for everyone.  Including the Seoul Zoo).

But as I sit here in the hotel in waiting limbo, with our apartment emptied, the things I find myself savoring and knowing I’ll miss are the small things.

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Eating at our favorite local restaurants. Walking downstairs to the little store in the corner of our building for popsicles.

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The playgrounds

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The kids cafes

Our corner of Korea is so very family friendly.  The Big Girl is already wondering if she will be allowed the amount of freedom she has here to roam freely and play outside (and I’ve been putting off my answer, which is likely, ‘no’).  After two years of feeling like I never quite belong, the threat of leaving finally makes me realize just how much we all have come to love it here.

I don’t know if we’ll be back someday.  It’s funny to think how much the hope of coming back has kept us all from breaking down.  Saying goodbye to our Korean national friends has been the hardest.  With fellow military families, you always know there’s that chance your paths will cross again… but with our friends who will remain here that’s harder to believe.

Goodbyes are always bittersweet.  I have seen this A. A. Milne quote many places lately, but it is a mindset I’m trying to embrace:

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

We leave with many good memories, and I am grateful for the experiences living in Korea has given us.  I am hopeful that we will be back someday.  Until we meet again!

(How fitting it is that my last post is on the 4th of July as we return to the U.S.  I don’t plan to continue blogging there, but should you wish to see what we’re up to in the future you can find me on Instagram:  ellen_pianist )

Vacations, real vs. imagined

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At the end of May, we returned to the island of Jeju.  Even when planning the trip, a part of me acknowledged that we could have (maybe should have?) chosen to visit another part of Korea that we haven’t seen.  However, we really enjoyed Jeju the first time, and I was very much hoping that the weather would be more cooperative than during our last visit.  I suppose that a good traveler has the ability to roll with the punches…to adapt and overcome when faced with something other than what was planned.

If you think I’m describing myself, you would be sorely mistaken.  The day before our vacation began, the Big Girl broke her toe at school.  Badly.  She was on crutches for the duration of our trip.  That combined with a forecast for rain made my plans for hiking Hallasan stay just that: plans (along with the vision I had of us spending lots of time on Jeju’s beautiful beaches).  I’m not proud of it, but it took me at least a day after we arrived to get my attitude adjusted.  I was humbled my eldest child’s ability to make the best of being on crutches.  As a parent, at first you think you’re here to do all the teaching, but in the end children have a lot to teach us.  I had to admit to myself that sometimes I love the idea of travel more than the reality of travel itself.

Jeju, however, is a beautiful place.  Rain or no rain.  We learned some things:

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Pigs really will eat anything. This is a historical Jeju potty, doubling as a pig pen.  The ancient islanders get points for not being as squeamish as I am.
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During our visit to the Jeju Folk Museum we had some actual sunshine, for which I was grateful. And the beauty of traveling with kids is that they find fun no matter what you’re up to.

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The Hello Kitty Museum was a special repeat request from the kids.  Every bit as pinkatastic as the first time.

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We also revisited one of our most favorite restaurants in all of Korea, Donato’s. It’s an Italian place, run by a Korean gentleman who lived in Italy. I just love everything about it, from the ambiance to the food…the photo doesn’t do it justice. I would go to Jeju just to eat there, best pizza I’ve certainly ever had in Korea, probably just ever, period.

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We even spent some time on the beach.

On the day we left, we woke up to beautifully sunny skies, but had to make our way back to the airport. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Until next time, Jeju!

Lanterns (redux)

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I think it’s unfair that Buddhists have the corner on lanterns. I love it that after spring arrives and the blossoms fade, the lanterns start appearing.  I suppose we have our own festivals we decorate for in the U.S., but I will dearly miss the lanterns here.  For Mother’s Day weekend, we went back to the temple in Seoul that so captivated me last year, Jogyesa.  Buddha’s birthday festival was in full swing.

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This year we caught a parade, and also went to one of the many booths where you can make a lotus lantern of your own.  The Big Girl is a pretty enthusiastic crafter, so she was excited to try her hand at it.   Alas, I have no photos of that, because while making a big lantern looks like fun, after the first 60 “petals” have been made and your hands are encrusted with glue the novelty wears off (and you enlist your mom to help you, and her hands are full of glue too).

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The lantern hangs with pride of place in the Big Girl’s room, I don’t quite have the heart to tell her that the upcoming move is not going to be kind to all of the delicate paper.

The Blossoms return

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I like spring well enough, but it’s never been my favorite season until we’ve lived here.  It was just as amazing to see it for the second time,  it feels like an overnight transformation.  The blooms are amazing no matter where you are in Korea, but we also had fun checking out Children’s Grand Park

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Within the “amusement park” section of the park, there is this really neat double decker carousel.

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Note how there are no happy children waving at me from the top deck? That’s because Small Fry decided she most definitely did not like the carousel and refused to sit with her sister on a horse. She would not budge from a bench seat right near the stairs. You win some, you lose some.

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The sculpture garden was apparently much more to her liking.

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I was thrilled that my mom and sister were here in time to catch the very end of the cherry blossoms.  It was fun for me to play the tour guide a little bit while they were here.  The number one thing I wanted them to see though, was the quintessential “when in Korea” experience…the DMZ.

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The Big Girl was old enough to go on the official tour of the Joint Security Area (that’s where you actually set foot in the room that is partially in North Korea, partially in South Korea).  The room was interesting, but my favorite thing on the tour was the “Bridge of No Return”.

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When I first found out we were moving to Korea, I read Simon Winchester’s book Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles which is about how he walked from one end of Korea to the other.  He recounts in the book how when he did finally reach the DMZ, there was a North Korean limousine there waiting for him, on the other side of the Bridge of No Return (spoiler alert: he didn’t cross over).

There are lots of rules when you visit the JSA, what you can and can’t photograph, what to do should there be some kind of incident and so on. The tension is undeniable, but at the same time it is beautiful and sad in its own strange way.

Loose Ends

Our time in Korea is winding to a close,  I have left my job, and now that our main shipment of household goods is somewhere on a boat on its way to the U.S. I have more of that elusive thing called “free time”.  I find I still have some things to say about our time here.  And being a fan of symmetry, it didn’t seem right to just leave the blog ending in February.

In the past 4 months, we have managed to see and do quite a bit.  However, I’m not sure that I would ever be completely satisfied unless we lived here for several years more.  There really is that much to see and do here.  Maybe it’s a curse of social media, but it is hard for me not to compare our experiences here to others in Korea.  I’m tempted to put in excuses as to why we haven’t seen and done as much as someone else, or why we left some things undone (Oh Busan, if I ever come back to Korea you will be first on the list) but the longer I am on social media, the more I come to value experiences that we’ve had without me simultaneously thinking of what photos I want for the blog, or what to put on Instagram.  Experiences that I enjoy just for my memories.

With that being said, I always enjoy reading about other people’s experiences here, and I have learned so much from blogs about Korea and gotten ideas of what to do while here, so I will try to hit the highlights.  So the next few posts will be looks back to play a little catch up.

I’ll start off with The Korean War Memorial

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This took us a ridiculously long time to get to, even though we are in Yongsan-gu fairly regularly. While it is kid friendly in that there is a children’s museum portion, I do wish my Small Fry had cooperated enough so that I could really take in the main exhibit hall.

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Being a military family, we are pretty invested in this history.  It’s easy to take for granted when you look around Seoul just how much the citizens of South Korea have sacrificed and how amazing the country’s transformation has been.

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Before spring really arrived, my better half and I squeezed in a date night in Seoul.  This is one of my favorite things I have experienced here so far: The Moonlight Tour at Changdeokgung

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This tour was everything I had hoped it would be.  Besides getting a lantern guided tour of the palace, it included a cultural performance at the end and some light refreshments.  I had to really be on top of getting tickets (these sell out pretty quickly) but it was so worth it.

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As you went through the grounds, there were traditional musicians performing.

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The palace is beautiful just in the daylight, but seeing it by lantern light was amazing.  An unforgettable experience.

Monkeying around

Today is a very special holiday in Korea. Seollal or Lunar New Year is when most Koreans return to their hometowns to spend time with their families. Most businesses are closed, and roads are clogged with travelers. My kids are off from school and even the U.S. military observes a day off (which works out beautifully since it often falls right around the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. is our Monday morning here. What better way to make sure soldiers can catch the game at 6 in the morning?).

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Small fry’s school had a Lunar New Year observance before the break, and I was glad that she had one last chance to really wear her hanbok before we leave this summer (the only other major “hanbok holiday” is Chuseok, which we celebrated last fall). Part of the Lunar New Year tradition is bowing to your elders:

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There is apparently a very specific way to do so, and this is rewarded by a gift of money if you do it correctly (ha, bribery the universal language).

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The tradition of giving monetary gifts was one of the disconcerting things for us here. A very kind older Korean gentleman we know often gives my girls envelopes with won when we see him during a U.S. holiday (like Christmas). It’s usually 1000 won per year of age (about a dollar). We always marvel at how crisp and perfect the money is. We have also had elderly people give a small amount of money to Small Fry in public (much to the Big Girl’s dismay, she doesn’t get the attention her younger sister does although teens often ask to take their picture with her).

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This marks Small Fry’s official turning of Korean age 5 (at Lunar New Year, you turn a year older no matter when your actual birthday is, and Korean children are considered 1 at birth. This always throws me off). I was supposed to move her to a new school at this age, as our particular daycare only cares for children under 5…but the head of the daycare agreed to keep her on for the few more months I will be working. We will dearly miss this about Korea; the culture here is very child friendly with affordable quality daycare the norm.

Many changes are afoot for us this year, so it seems particularly appropriate that the zodiac animal for this year is the monkey.  It’s going to be an interesting year!

My ajumma hat and I

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Went to warmer climes for the start of our Christmas vacation. Say what you will about the style (or lack thereof) of Korean middle aged ladies, but they know sun protection. I draw the line at the pants, though.

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We all had a lovely time in the Philippines, and arrived back home in Korea just in time to open presents. It snowed today, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds, a tan and an almost white Christmas. I hope you and yours had a wonderful Christmas also!

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All aboard!

For our Christmas fun this year, we decided to head down to the big city and see one heck of a tree (note small children for scale, it was pretty darn big).

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While there are Christmas-y things to see and do here, for us it requires a little planning and travel. Some things I just haven’t been able to find (like a live nativity, to give you an example) but there are Christmas markets, concerts and light displays. I just have to be a little more deliberate about seeking those things out.  Sometimes that’s a good thing in that it makes the experience seem very special.  In true nomadic fashion I am already wondering what our next Christmas will be like in our next home…location still undetermined.

The Millennium Seoul Hilton puts up this wonderful tree each year, and for even more fun, they have a train that runs underneath.  My girls were pretty enthralled with it.

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I’m trying to think of the last time I actually did see such a big tree decorated to the nines, I can’t even remember. The best thing about being a parent at Christmastime is seeing your kids make memories. I think the next giant tree we see will have a lot to live up to.

I hope that wherever this finds you, you will make some good memories with your loved ones. Merry Christmas!

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Mysteries

There is a Korean lady I see almost every morning.  Sometimes I see her pushing her peculiar motorized cart on her way to my apartment complex, sometimes we say hello to each other as she’s entering my building.  It’s unusual to see people out early in the morning.  Korean children tend to go to school later than kids do in the U.S., with the exception of teenagers whom I often see bleary eyed, waiting for buses.  The Korean day doesn’t really get going until about 9 or 10, which means it’s my kind of place.  But between my American work hours and the big girl’s American style school hours I am often out “early”.

I couldn’t quite figure out what the Korean lady’s job was.  The cart wasn’t marked.  She was obviously delivering little bags of something, but it didn’t seem quite like food.  She wears a peach smock top and brown pants.  I thought maybe she was a nurse, like me? A home health aide? Checking on elderly clients?  Delivering medicines?  Since I lack the language skills to JUST ASK, it drives me nuts.  I would like to say I have a curious mind…. in reality, maybe I’m just nosy.

I had never seen another lady dressed like her, until recently, when I spotted a different woman, pushing the same cart, wearing the same colors but in a different (nearby) city.  I finally tried to describe her to a Korean friend.  She laughed and laughed.

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Yogurt.

My lady is delivering yogurt (which in Korea comes in a small single size plastic bottle, it is meant to be sipped).   I guess here, where even McDonald’s delivers, I should have put two and two together.  My friend tells me you can choose to have it delivered weekly, or even daily if you like.  She’s the Korean equivalent of the old school milkman, only with yogurt.

I’m not sure if I liked it better when I could just imagine what she was doing…. but I’m pretty sure my curiosity is going to be the end of me.

 

 

Older and…

…certainly not wiser.  More tired maybe? Let’s just go with older.

Last year, I wrote about how my better half took me out for a fabulous dinner for my birthday, and I am happy to say that this year was just as delicious.  I decided that rather than a date night this year I’d like for us to eat together with the kids (this is partly because there is a serious shortage of babysitters where I am).

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I always feel like food photos generally are not terribly appealing, so you’ll just have to trust me on how appetizing this actually was.  “Pumpkin duck” is my current front runner in terms of favorite Korean food.  This particular restaurant is out in the countryside, not too far from where we live.  It’s pretty rustic, with wooden tables and benches.  They serve one thing and one thing only:  delicious smoked duck tucked inside of a roasted pumpkin.

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You have to make a reservation at least a day ahead so they have time to roast it for you.  So when you roll up at the restaurant, as soon as you are seated they roll out the pumpkin and banchan (side dishes) on a trolley and it’s time to eat.  The salad looking green stuff there is also a favorite of mine, it’s tossed with sesame oil among some other things (as with any Korean meal for us, there is always some guessing what a food is, so I’m not sure what exactly it is called).

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After all that, the meal is finished with a spicy soup made from the bones of the roasted duck.  It is inevitable that I leave this place stuffed.

When we first arrived here, I was not sure how much Korean cuisine we would really eat outside of the standard Korean bbq (sometimes called “beef and leaf” which is really almost universally loved).  We are not really what I would consider adventurous eaters, but as we have tried different things, we really have fallen in love with some Korean dishes.   I was recently gifted a small batch of homemade kimchi from a Korean friend here, and that was when I realized I had finally assimilated… I have kimchi in my fridge.