Farewell Korea


View over Seoul from our garden

It’s been a year, Trailing Spouse, where have you been?

You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked this question by loyal followers of this blog (endless asking, I tell you!) and it’s no surprise: a gap of 12 months is the realm of book publishing surely, not blogging…

The honest-to-god truth? I simply haven’t been in the mood for writing. There’s been too much other stuff going on—the kind of stuff that clogs the creative channels and chokes the jaunty state of mind that for me is a prerequisite to blogging.

But now I’m ready to bring you up to speed—lucky old you—so here goes:

In November, our apartment in London burned down. The fire started as an electrical spark behind the fridge-freezer and quickly grew into something monstrous, destroying the inside of our apartment in its entirety. Our tenants were in at the time but mercifully escaped unhurt. But truly, my friends—5,000 identical units in a brand new block and ours spontaneously combusts? Just random bad luck, I know, but a massive shock for me and the Dear Leader, especially in those early weeks as we tried to establish who should pay for what (as it happened, most of the reconstruction was covered by insurance, but not all). There’s nothing like the threat of losing your nest egg to douse your blogging ardour.

So that’s how it all kicked off. Alea iacta est. That’s right, Mr Google Translate—the flat burnt down and the die was cast.

Bad Luck episode 2 came a month later, as we travelled to Australia for Christmas. Lovely, I hear you say—Australia for Christmas! Sunshine! Family! Cousins galore! But no, not lovely—awful awful awful (the timing, that is—not the holiday). You see, our flight to Sydney was on December 17, which also happened to be the day the Dear Leader—the Dear Leader, the very one who’d ruled North Korea for 22 wretched years of cruelty and oppression—chose to croak. And yes it was a choice…

“Here’s the plan generals: we’ll wait for that dastardly journalist to hop on an 8-hour flight out of Seoul, then we’ll mastermind a heart attack and I’ll die—that’ll teach him!”

Miserable sod.

It was tortuous holiday for my dear one, forced as he was to mooch around in his board shorts while the story of his career flared and then dwindled without him. What could he do from 8,000 km away but stand by as colleagues lacking his insight and expertise wrote the articles that should have been his and flung them around the world? Oh but it hurt. And again it all felt so random. Random fire followed by random loss of professional face.

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Okay, so it wasn’t all mooching! 

(Please ignore the 3 pix that clearly have no place in this slideshow—they’re meant for elsewhere in this blog but they’re refusing to behave.)

What we couldn’t have anticipated at the time was the toxic backlash that would result from this accident of poor timing, which leads us seamlessly into Bad Luck episode 3… Unfortunately I can’t go into the detail here (though I’ll happily dish the dirt by email!) as I’d hate a defamation suit to be added to our bag of troubles, but suffice to say we didn’t stand a chance of making things work after the December 17 fiasco—not in Seoul. A ground swell of bad feeling took hold in one key area of our lives and the only sensible course of action was for us to leave.

So here we are, back in Singapore, where I’ll be picking up my story in a freshly pressed blog optimistically titled Living the Dream. Please sign up to follow it, link it to your own blogs, like it on Facebook, tweet about it, mark it as “new and hot” on LinkedIn, wallpaper it onto your screens, discuss it late at night on internet fora, create an App in its honour.

Or, failing that, just click on it from time to time to see what Trailing Spouse and her family are up to in Singapore!

But before I wrap up here, I’d like to reassure my concerned readers that despite the woes of the past 10 months, our final days in Seoul were far from a flop. It’s hard to nurse a sulk while being swept away in a whirl of parties, lunches, balls, excursions, shopping sprees*, athletics meets (Peta Pan competing with her school team in Shanghai) and theatre productions (a leading role for Peta Pan in her school production). Yup, it was a busy closing chapter in Seoul for this family, awash with fun, festivities and friendship. I even managed to weave in a little work, running writing workshops for the kids’ school and putting together a book to mark the institution’s 100th birthday—a project that brought me a good deal of satisfaction while also earning me a buck or two.

FOBISSEA Shanghai

School production

It’s odd to think Seoul is now over for us—a thing of the past squished onto a single page of our family story. We were meant to stay for three years but only lasted two. Two years doesn’t amount to much. A measly 70,000,000 heart beats. A paltry 12,264,000 blinks of the eye. But was it long enough for the experience to leave a lasting, meaningful stamp on our lives?

You bet.

* Sorry I never got to take you around Seoul’s spectacular markets. Such a shame. I had big plans…

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Home… what’s that?



It’s a truth universally acknowledged that from June to September, you won’t find a single trailing spouse or expat brat lurking within 5,000 km of their dear leader’s posting.

And for good reason: international schools believe children have the inalienable right to spend their summers steadily sloughing off all knowledge and wisdom acquired during the academic year just completed.

Put another way, the summer breaks are long.

I mean loooooong…The kind of long that guarantees psychosis for any offspring-trailing trailing spouse who bucks the trend and spends her summers in loco. I’m talking red mists, convulsions, spinning heads . I’m talking Joan Crawford on a bad day.

So for the good of the community, every TS jumps ship from June till September.

The exodus is slick and speedy. Kids are scooped up from school at the final bell and raced to the airport. Twenty-four hours later, all trailers and their brood are safely resettled back where they belong—the ancestral home. And this is where they’ll stay until the absolute last minute.

Let us pause for a moment to spare a thought for those poor wretched leaders, dumped every summer with no-one for company (save perhaps a maid and a driver and maybe a guinea pig or two) while their trailing halves whoop it up back home. Work aside, what in heaven’s name do these poor lambs do to while away those dreadful months of abandonment? To be honest, I have no idea (above my pay grade, gov—I’m a mere trailer, remember) but what I can tell you is that sports bars across Asia report a surge in trade during the summer months, and I’ve heard girly bars do a brisk summer business too. But I fail to see any connection—how about you?

It's a terrible thing to be left behind

Back to my bona fide area of expertise—the sizzling field of trailing. So, how do we trailers pass the time during those extended summers away from our beloveds?

Ready for this?

Drum roll please…

During those long summers of freedom, we fabulous TSs… we say hi!

Yup, we visit and touch base and chew the fat and eat too much and shoot the breeze and enjoy a glass of wine and then another and finally we chat some more. It’s a similar routine most days because every person we love or merely like from those glorious days preceding our departure to Expatville must be hugged and caught up with.

So it may come as no surprise to learn that those loooooong summers abroad are something of a mixed bag for your average TS, the wonderfulness of being back home and reconnecting with family and friends mashed up with the hassle of packing and unpacking and repacking and unrepacking, and the exasperation of zipping around half-forgotten towns, getting lost in two-door rental cars.

LIAR!

A number of my expat friends approach their summers with mild dread, mostly because they have no home base to call their own so they find themselves limping from person to person for the entire duration of their stay—a night here, a night there, a camp bed at Sue’s, a sofabed at Mum’s, ho-hum, so much fun, only 8 weeks to go.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have two glorious bases where I’m welcome to stay and stay (I think! I hope!) and for that reason, among others, I love those long lazy summers back home. I do have vague memories of tougher times when Little Lord Font was 2-3, but that was back in the Jurassic and the T-Rexilian scars have long healed. My formula these days for summer bliss is quite simple: the kids get older, I get to lie in; I get to lie in, the world is a more beautiful place.

Yet despite the beauty—or maybe because of it—something alarming happens as the weeks of summer drift into months and the months drift into more months. There’s a reshuffling of my mental order as one reality becomes superseded by another. I start to wonder if I truly live where my visa says I live or if Singapore/Korea/Whereverland is in fact a mere fabrication. Surely I can’t feel so at home in one place and yet call another place home for 10 months of the year? I start to forget the colour of the car I own, the middle bit of my phone number, the name of my dog (I was gonna say “husband” but thought better of offending a loyal reader). People ask when I’ll be “going home” and I’m puzzled—what could they possibly mean? I am home!

It’s emotionally confusing.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that the end of summer is a tricky place for me to navigate. This year more than ever. When I stepped onto that Asiana plane 10 days ago (the earphones just as crappy as they were this time last year), I knew I was about to swap this home:  

And this home:

For this home:

Hmmm… so far as scene changes go, not an easy sell. Yet whether I like it or not, here I am, back in loco, facing a second season of frantic food foraging and frankly freaky foreignness in bleeping Korea.

I could sense the Dear Leader watching me closely during my first week back, fearful that I’d revert to the miserable, sobbing, snotty ball of mess I became this time last year when we first arrived. But he needn’t have worried, it wasn’t going to happen again because strange as this may sound, I kinda like Seoul and it feels okay to be back. Very okay.

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

Truly though, in many ways it’s good to be back. I appreciate having my own routines again and setting my own agenda. I appreciate having a few hours to myself during the school day. I appreciate being able to take charge of my diet again (things got seriously out of hand in that department over the summer). And I appreciate being back with my local friends.

By local friends I mean “everyday” friends. We all share an understanding of this term, right? Everyday friends are flat mates, colleagues, fellow members of the choir. In an expat context, they’re the friends you carpool with; the ones you send two-word text messages to knowing you’ll be fully understood; the ones who lend you a pot that’s big enough to murder the 4kg lobster picked up in an inexplicable moment of madness from the fish market.

This past year, I’ve been fantastically lucky on that front (everyday friendships that is, not lobsters). I’ve made some terrific alliances, truly five-star, and thank goodness—I don’t think I could survive this place without them. These friends give me support and they make me laugh. Having them in my daily life is the trailing spouse equivalent of strapping a torch to your head when you go caving. Or tucking a blankie in your pocket when you take a trip to the moon. Or sucking on gas and air when you’re in labour (I could keep listing analogously forever but must trust my sparky reader to get the gist!).

It has come as a bit of a surprise really. A gal doesn’t expect to keep making friends at my age. But Seoul is the kind of posting that fosters solid friendships quickly-made. There are so few non-Koreans in Korea, you find yourself smiling at every foreigner in the street just because there’s a good chance you’ve been introduced before. And that’s how it seems to work: your lips curl readily at the sight of a stranger ergo you add another layer of friends to your life.

Admittedly, I’d rather gnaw off an arm than live here forever, but that’s okay coz the Dear Leader’s contract is up in two years and then we’re off (two more years folks, two more years!). Knowing this makes it possible for me to suspend my homesickness—in part at least—and appreciate the good about his place. And there’s plenty of it.


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Black and Blue Monday (AKA the day I learned to count my blessings)


Crash-tested macaroons

So here’s how it goes…

I’ve just spent a pleasurable morning engaged in an activity befitting a trailing spouse… shopping. Four of us—plus Mrs Ahn, the dressmaker—have been whirling through Dongdaemun Fabric Market snapping up satin and organza for next month’s showcase British Association event—the Queen’s Birthday Ball (I know—priceless!). And now here I am in a taxi, homeward bound.

The cabbie approaches my house from the top and pulls up outside the gate. He takes my money and hops out to open my door—not because I’m having a Kate Middleton moment but because the child lock is on.

Let me digress here to describe the street we live on. It is possibly the steepest tarmacked surface in the whole of Korea. How steep? Well, using the simple equation

I’d say our road slopes at an angle of approximately 56.31°. To put this in perspective, people have a habit of walking down our street backwards to give their knees a break.

Back to my story. So the cabbie jumps out, reaches for my door handle, and then… holy moly… the car starts rolling.

How long does it take a taxi to roll 150 metres down a gradient of 56.31°? I’m sure there’s a wiki out there that could give me an answer to the nearest 1000th of a second, but allow me to take the lazy option and give you a gut-feeling estimate. Fifteen seconds.

Let me tell you, you can pack a whole lot of thinking (and planning and living) into 15 seconds.

Initially, for a split fraction of a nano-second, my brain sees the funny side. If you’re a driver yourself, it’s a recognisable scenario, right? That brief moment of distraction when your car begins to glide—we’ve all been there! Oh but wait—traditionally the driver is behind the wheel when this happens and a quick clamp down on the foot brake/grind of the gear stick/yank on the handbrake and all is well. My driver, I can’t help but notice, is tarrying on the wrong side of the car.

The funny side gives way to a flutter of panic.

But not so soon Trailing Spouse! It’s all coming good—the guy has his fingers clamped around the rim of his door, and now watch, he’s going to bring the vehicle to a grinding halt by the sheer dragging force of his arms. He can pull it off, I have no doubt.

Ah. Maybe not. The driver staggers, loses his grip on the door and the car keeps rolling.

I think: handbrake! If this blessed man won’t control his fugitive car, then I will. I congratulate myself on my quick thinking and reach for the controls.

Bugger, the handbrake is already fully engaged.

The car is picking up speed. That’s not good, I feel it strongly.

But what’s this? The driver has reappeared. His hands are on the door frame again and he’s making a superhuman effort to hurl himself back into his seat. But it’s a real struggle and he’s not quite up to the task, and I have to be honest, I’m getting annoyed with him now because I’ve just spent the past 10,000 hours considering a scramble into the driving seat myself, but with this man attempting the stunt ahead of me, I feel my chances slipping.

Then he makes it—the driver actually succeeds in scrambling back into his seat. Good. Good.

But would you look how fast we’re moving! And how far we’ve come! The T-junction marking the end of my road is just there, we’re practically upon it, and what lies on the other side is a very solid garage door flanked by brick wall.

My thoughts get real. We’re in a runaway car hurtling towards a wall and I’m going to die. It seems inevitable. Pictures come to me of people who’ve been killed on the road. I salute the mother of a friend who was minding her own business at a traffic light until a truck bulldozed into her car. I revisit a book I read a few years ago (I also remember it being a really bad book) where a whole bunch of youngsters get killed in a mini-bus. All these people were very much alive until they were suddenly totally dead. And now, unbelievably, I’m about to become one of those people.

This thought is quickly chased away by another more urgent consideration: I can’t die—my children still need me.

Optimism creeps back. I allow myself to believe we may actually make the bend. Partially at least. We’ll definitely touch the wall, no getting away from that, but if the driver swings hard, we may be spared the full impact of the garage.

My mind races: what should I do to soften the blow? Clunk click would be great but there’s no time to worry about seat belts now. Is there some optimal position one should assume in these circumstances? I trawl through ancient files. Nothing jumps out. Then my inner globetrotter raises her hand.

“I think it’s brace brace,” she chirps.

I reply: “Don’t be ridiculous, that only works when you’re in a 747 crashing on water.”

Then another thought comes to me, and I believe I actually crack a smile. “Yeah right—brace brace works just great on water!”

For want of a better idea, I grab my head rugby-ball style and brace brace it out.



That’s why I hear the crash but don’t see it. I feel it too of course—the impact, so nasty and violent—but most of all I hear it. The dull, baritone thud of metal crushing on brick. It’s so loud it offends my senses—like the unexpected boom of a thunder clap, or the angry blast of bass from a car stereo. It’s a noise that keeps coming back to me later, when I’m trying to get some sleep.

Then all is quiet. I tentatively allow myself to believe the car may have stopped, then I find it really has stopped! And check it out, I’m alive! I suspect the driver hasn’t been so lucky but right now I can’t be dealing with this, so I bring my focus back to me. I do a quick body scan. I can feel new things going on, mostly in my chest and right leg, but it’s not pain—more a heavy pressure, like I’ve been sat on by a horse. This unfamiliar sensation scares me. I know it’s what they call shock but shock is a liar—a protective mantle designed to hide all manner of horror—and I don’t want it, I want regular pain, a known quantity. I think of the surfer who gets his legs shredded by a great white, only to paddle to the boat and announce he’s fine. “See that?” he laughs to his friends. “Close call!”

That’s shock.

I get myself quite worked up. I don’t want to fall prey to some crafty mechanism of self-deception. I don’t want to be entertaining these galloping, live-person thoughts while my body is secretly dying. I’m terrified of losing consciousness and being whisked away to some funky Korean hospital in the middle of the back of beyond. I can almost see the ‘Jane Doe’ label hanging off my big toe.



I scream out the window.

Get a doctor!”

I say this over and over (coz of course it’s a line that works well in Korea). It hurts my chest to scream. Ominous. There’s a guy ambling up the road. Ambling! I scream some more. The person vaguely looks my way. I keep yelling, this time furious with the pedestrian for being so damned passive. And now he’s fumbling in his bag or maybe it’s his pocket, and I wonder if he’s even realised there’s been an accident—the idiot is fumbling for whatever while I’m stuck in this wretched wreck of a car!

I say ‘stuck’ but actually I’m not stuck at all, I’m just choosing not to move. It feels like the right thing to do, on account of the strange pressure sensation. I may be a novice at car crashes but I do know you’re meant to remain immobile until help arrives.

I fish my phone out of my bag and am mildly surprised to find it still looking like a phone. I call my Dear Leader.

“I’ve been in a crash,” I scream/wheeze, “Come now!”

He wants to know where I am. Where am I? I’m damned well here is where I am! I can’t figure out why he’s being so slow.

I think of the kids. Damn, I’m on taekwando pick-up this afternoon. I call KS and blubber/tell her that she’ll need to collect today (even though it’s her birthday). I must be feeling lonely because I call K next and blubber/order her to come stand with me.

“Where are you?” she asks with efficiency and concern.

“Near home.”

“Where near?”

“Oh you’ll find me.”

The taxi driver is conscious now and making phone calls of his own (how did crash victims pass the time before mobile phones?). He’s lying outside his door and there’s lots of blood. I see an imprint of his forehead in the windscreen complete with a tuft of hair. He reaches a hand through the car door.

“You okay?” he asks, touching my leg. Bless him.

“I’m okay. You okay?”

“Okay.”

I remember now that he was one of those nice chatty cabbies—the rare kind who attempt a few words in English.

K and KS are with me within minutes. Someone must have called N too because suddenly she’s there too. I have three friends by my side in this foreign place and it brings the most indescribable comfort. I pass KS the macaroons I was planning to give her for her birthday. She later sends a picture of them looking jauntily bashed up.

The police arrive not long after, followed swiftly by an ambulance. The driver is carted off in a neck brace. I say a little prayer for him. My ambulance comes next but I won’t get in until my Dear Leader arrives with his colleague, the lovely B, who speaks English and Korean.

I refuse to lie down in the ambulance because I have this irrational fear that I’ll never get up again (I’m still a little stuck on the Jane Doe image), plus I’m fairly confident by now that my injuries are the kind that don’t warrant bed rest. B sits next to me in the ambulance and hugs me but my Dear Leader is too furious to be nice. He can’t believe I didn’t think to remove myself from the scene of the crash at once (out the window if necessary, which is how he made his escape from a far worse accident 500 years ago in Hong Kong).

Your problem is you haven’t seen enough car films,” he growls. (I later learn from A, KS’s husband, that the cab crashed a whisker from a gas mains outlet. So much for doing the right thing by staying in the car…)

The hospital is neither funky nor intimidatingly Korean. We’re processed by English-speaking doctors in the plush International Clinic, and after X-Rays and a fabulous shot of pethidine, I’m pronounced well enough to go home. I’m whiplashed, winded and I ache all over. Bizarrely, I have a big yellow bruise on my butt. My right leg is fat and gashed and I walk like a peg-legged sea dog. There may be tendon or ligament damage, we’ll see, but fingers crossed the fat leg will slim down of its own accord.

I leave the hospital feeling enormously fortunate and deeply deeply grateful.

The driver, I’m happy to report, is now out of intensive care.

The police are of course eager to know if the engine was left running when the driver slipped out, and/or if the car was left in gear. I have no idea. Maybe the driver is to blame, maybe the car. I hope it’s the car. I don’t suppose the driver has too many back-up career plans, and I’m sure he’s feeling pretty crappy as it is without all the ugly repercussions of being culpable too.

My brother says: “If I’d been the driver, I’d have let the car roll.” (Before you condemn my brother, please bear in mind that A. He turns ‘being practical’ into a religious practice, B. He was picturing a random passenger in the car not his beloved sister, and C. He’s one of the world’s finest pastry chefs.) Whether it was love of his car or love of his passenger that sent the driver scurrying down that hill after me, I’ll never know, but what I can say is that I’m deeply thankful to this man for trying his best to save the day.

And here’s something else I know: I had an angel looking out for me on Monday April 11 at 1.50 pm.

The road overly travelled—pic taken outside my house. Thats the cab at the end.

Things to be thankful for... There were no kids in the car. There were no kids standing at the bus stop (my two stand at this precise spot every day, waiting for the school bus). There were no cars or pedestrians passing this junction when we burst onto the scene. Man—my gratitude will never end...

Bonkers posing near the crutches made for me by Little Lord Fauntleroy
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The strange craze for white powder


Where’ve you been, oh Trailing Spouse?

I’ve been trailing of course. You know—out and about. Hither and thither. Flitter flutter. But happy trailing this time—more skipping than trailing, you might say.

Our first skip took us to Japan, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about in today’s blog.

Japan? You gasp. Japan?

I know—it’s hard even to type the word without being gripped by sorrow. But our trip came back in February, several weeks before the Japanese earth shook, the sea roared and nuclear reactors started leaking their scary muck into the world beyond their containers… back in those innocent days when fishing villages like Saito still boasted homes and shops and people…

We flew to the island of Hokkaido with two perfectly delicious items on our agenda: skiing and friendship. Our destination was the dinky town of Niseko. You’ve heard of Niseko, right? C’mon people, everyone’s heard of Niseko. It’s the Chamonix of Asia. The Aspen of the East. You know… Niseko!

There was never going to be anything quiet or intimate about this trip—but that’s hardly the point when you’re meeting with friends. Our group boasted 5 couples (all bar us living in Singapore) and a collective brood of 13 minors aged 3 to 11. With that many rug rags ricocheting off the chalet walls, the place could’ve been, should’ve been (occasionally was) psycho, yet the week turned out crazy good for all of us, and for this I must doff my woolly hat to the two energetic, visionary powerhouses who organised the show. N and S saw to it that every off-piste moment ran like bootcamp. If there’d been a written schedule, it would have looked like this:

  • 16.00: 13 kids to peel off ski suits and hang to dry.
  • 16.30: 13 kids to stand beneath shower.
  • 17.00: 13 kids to sit before bowls of pasta and glug milk laced with Ritalin.
  • 17.30: 13 kids to be granted 30-minute grace period for purpose of biting, kicking, scratching, wailing, then telling all to Mum inclusive of personal spin.
  • 18.00: 13 kids to be shoe-horned into games room for quick blast of DVD (Tomb Raider, bizarrely).
  • 18.30: 13 kids to bed.
  • 18.31: 10 adults to raise glasses of sake and toast the formidable ways of the Australian female head of family.

Kerpow!

Bootcamp

Here’s Japan. The northernmost land mass looking like a genie popping out of a bottle is Hokkaido

To be frank, I set off for Japan with some trepidation. I was acutely aware, from the high-octane emails that had been pinging back and forth between group members, that the theme for Niseko was powder. Powder this, powder that, off-piste this, off-piste that, deep snow this, deep snow that…

As I witnessed this email tempest, I was torn between:

Why?

Let it go people! and

Get a grip!

Wasn’t skiing meant to be uncomplicated fun? Couldn’t a good day on the slopes follow the tried and tested formula of sunshine, hot chocolate and stylishly executed runs down slopes snowcat-sculpted the night before for our delectation? Hadn’t black slopes been invented precisely to cater to the needs of posers and thrill-seekers? Why was this no longer enough?

Let me clarify—it wasn’t fear of the unknown that underpinned my off-piste angst. Trust me, I was an old hand at wilderness skiing, having drifted off the groomed trail on countless occasions in the past. And on countless occasions I’d wound up snorting white powder. So it was from personal experience that I spoke when I said backcountry skiing sucked (am I right or am I right, Pook?). Skis, I’d learned, behaved in an absurdly out of control manner in thick snow, and extricating yourself from 5-million tons of virgin flurry was a task fit for the Bombardier B12 Snowmover, not a dainty slip of a trailing spouse.

So why were my friends so single-minded in their powder pursuit?

Actually, I was starting to worry about my friends. Not just this bunch, but friendship tribes everywhere. One by one, they were all losing their grip on reality and dissolving into wanton hedonists. If they couldn’t sign up for the extreme version of a sport, they weren’t bothering to roll out of bed.

Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon? How, for instance, the idea of joining a 10km fun run makes 40-year-old Joe Bloe wince in disgust? Because—duh!—no self-respecting amateur athlete leaves his armchair for less than an Ironman* or an Ultra Marathon** these days. Similar issue with water sports. Does anyone know any 21st Century windsurfers toiling on the fringes of middle-age? Of course not—windsurfing is for wussies. If you can’t summon the spunk to spin aerial loops on your kiteboard, you may as well hang up your board shorts and take up mahjong instead. Skateboarding, parachuting, cycling, climbing—same same. No sport, it would seem, has been left untouched by the cheap thrill of an extreme makeover.

Windsurfing... so last century

Kiteboarding... yeah baby!

And now skiing, it appeared, had gone this way too. Yup, powder was the new black, and quaint old risk-averse me was slaloming at breakneck speed towards a week that included:

1. A crash course in avalanche survival (day 1)

2. A full-day trip to the wild side with a Japanese mountain guide (day 2)

Say what?

Would I soon be needing to know that crossing my poles above my head could save my life by trapping precious pockets of air?

Upon our arrival at the resort, I calmed myself with a crunchy stroll through the sweet Japanese town centre (I say ‘Japanese’, but Antipodeans seem to run half the bars, restaurants and ski schools, making Niseko a kind of suburb of Australia with an unusual postcode). Then Peta Pan and I treated ourselves to a fabulous soak in one of Niseko’s many thermal springs (known locally as ‘onsen’), and this soothed my nerves no end. Later, back in the chalet, I distracted myself further with a heated game of toss the waste into the rubbish bins.

You think I jest but I jesty not. The Japanese have come up with an adrenaline-fuelled sport all of their own, and the name of the game is Extreme Recycling. Friends. Fans. I’m in!

The configuration of this gripping sport goes something like this: Take 13 large bins and drop them randomly across a kitchen floor. Label these bins ‘glass’, ‘plain paper’, ‘other paper’, ‘batteries’, ‘plastic’, ‘aluminium/steel,’ ‘PET bottles’, ‘caps of PET bottles’, ‘labels from PET bottles’, ‘food waste’, ‘burnables, ‘unburnables’ and ‘burnable with minor toxic fumes’ (okay I invented that last one).

The rules of the game are captivating in their elegant simplicity: Get your rubbish in the right bin.

The stakes are high: Drop your Q-tips in ‘burnable’ and you’re toast.

I pushed the envelope. Had a go. Gave it my best shot. By nightfall on our day of arrival, I was pumping.

Exhibit 1: Extreme Recycling

Exhibit 2: Extreme Recycling

Exhibit 3: Extreme Recycling

I can only think I was still riding the garbage high when I awoke 12 hours later. What other explanation for my meek surrender to the powder team as they led me from the sanctuary of the chalet to the treacherous mountains that loomed ahead?

And so it was that I found myself quaking at the top of Niseko’s notorious Strawberry Fields with nothing but a pair of fat, stubby powder skis and the taunts of my so-called friends to get me to the cafe at the bottom. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Niseko, let me explain about the Strawberry Fields. These ‘gated’ ski fields are so firmly off the beaten track, so vertical in drop, so richly studded with silver birch, no insurance package will cover the rescue operation when you inevitably break your pelvis slamming into a tree on your hurtle down.

So here’s what I’ve learned about myself and my friends as a result of navigating those menacing fields named after my favourite summer fruit:

1. I will always face a dangerous situation with extreme caution because, unlike my friends, I care about tomorrow and possess no inner-Kamikaze.

2. Ski technology has come a long way since I last ploughed off a groomed slope into deep snow.

3. Though my friends are clearly living through a viral stage of middle-life crisitis, they’re a uniquely wonderful bunch—and geez they know how to have fun.

4. Powder skiing ROCKS!

Dear Leader and friends posing on top of the world. Check out the spectacular views of the volcano, Mount Youtei, in the background (what d'you mean the picture is so badly over-exposed you can't see so much as an outline of Mt Y?). Being at the summit was a real highlight of the week for me. We took 5 lifts and trekked 30 minute with skis on our backs to get to this point. Then weeeeeeee—all the way down!

There's that volcano! And see the wee creatures climbing up the mountain to the picture's right? We were those ants a few minutes earlier!

* Ironman: 4 km swim + 180 km bike ride + full 42 km marathon

** Ultra marathon: 50-100 km run

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Join me for coffee in Samcheong-dong!


The weatherman pronounced that spring would start on February 15 after lunch. And can you believe it, the smug dude was spot on.

Last Tuesday started as bone-chilling as the 16 Tuesdays that preceded it. The snow was hard beneath my boots as I set off on my daily walk swaddled in hat, scarf, gloves, Nike skins, walking trousers, thermal vest, thermal ski top, fleece, ski jacket and two pairs of thick socks. But by 2 o’clock, I could sense a shift in the world beyond my layers. The sun—which has shone steadily throughout winter, pausing only for the occasional snow dump—seeped through my thermals, warming my skin for the first time since October. There was a change in the quality of the air too, a tulippy glow replacing the bluish tinge of winter. The birds chirped with optimism and my boots slapped down on slush. The next day, my hat and scarf were left at home and by the end of my walk, my ski jacket was looped over my arm.

This morning we felt bold enough to shake off our cabin fever and amble down to Samcheong-dong, the delightful neighbourhood of winding alleys and traditional homes located just a few kilometres from home. Art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques abound in this area. It is one of Seoul’s most unexpected treasures.

Please join me in Samcheong-dong and together we’ll celebrate the arrival of spring in Seoul!

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PS. My Dear Leader says these photos are rubbish and don’t do the area justice. Quote: It looks really boring, you’ve just shown motorbikes and racks of clothes. Where are the coffee shops? Unquote. So I guess—given I can’t live without his approval—I’ll have to post a more photogenic update anon.

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What will I do when I grow up?


Little Lord Faunteroy was sharing his plans for the future the other day.

“I’m gonna be a musician,” he announced, “First I’m gonna study drums at university, then I’m gonna start a band with my friends—we’ll be like Coldplay or the Black Eyed Peas.”

Me: “Aha.”

“Yeah—I’ll write the music and I’ll be the singer and of course I’ll be on drums. I’ll probably be the main dancer too.”

There can be nothing more satisfying than hearing one’s offspring project ahead with confidence. And can a parent imagine anything more rewarding than a line of work that brings creativity, movement and music to their darlings’ lives?

Is this the future for LLF?

I should have been thrilled to witness such swagger from my naturally risk-averse son. Yet when Lil Lord Font was done describing the stellar fame that would await him following the Pump It La Vida tour that would launch his career, this is what came out of my mouth:

“I think you’ll make a wonderful musician poppet but what say you we come up with a back-up plan just in case?

“Just in case what Mummy?”

“You know… just in case it’s all a bit of a struggle. We could call this back-up plan—I don’t know—Plan A.”

“Tell me about Plan A Mummy.”

“Well, for instance, maybe as part of this plan you could study engineering or pharmacology at university—you’d have plenty of spare time to do your little band thing on the side. And that way you’d be getting yourself into shape for EMI while also earning a degree that would lead to a solid, salaried job, which in turn would enable you to survive the financial trauma of having children of your own when the time comes. It would be win-win, my boy! You’d have your band and you’d have your day job—a day job that you’d obviously drop like a white-hot brick the moment the record deal came through. Am I selling this to you, biscuit breath?”

I could hear the tick-tick-tick of his brain flipping through the options. Eventually he piped up: “So what job d’you end up doing when you study engineering and that other thing?”

“Well, an engineer has lots of fun building bridges and a pharmacologist makes medicine, or maybe he sells medicine in a pharmacy, can’t remember which—either way, he has great fun too.”

Silence from the back of the car. Then a little sigh of resignation. “But all I want to be is a musician.”

“Never give up on your dreams sweetheart. Just keep them in check.”

“Okay Mummy.”

“Good boy. Now get back to your times tables.”

Think what fun LLF would have messing about in that hard hat

This one, I know I can sell to him... I distinctly remember a microscope featuring on this year's Christmas list

I mean, how nasty was that? The poor lad’s own trusty mama shelling his beautiful village.

I realised later that of course it wasn’t really Lil Lord Font I was talking to at all—I was addressing my own disappointed psyche. Why didn’t I have the engineering/pharmacology conversation with myself 20 years ago? And failing that, why didn’t someone else raise the topic in my presence? Or maybe they did and I wasn’t ready to listen. All I know is that from the very start, my Plan A was also my Plan B and now that neither plan is showing signs of life, I need to give birth to a Plan C.

So here I am at the proverbial fork in the road and all that remains to decide is: Which way next?

I’ve just received a rejection from the university where I’d applied to do a PhD (a PhD seemed to make sense: I’d be in Seoul for 3 years without any real prospects of work, a PhD takes 3 years—why not? The structure might stop me gnawing my own flesh plus I’d spend the rest of my life looking down on the world from the lofty height of a doctor).

The one-lined “no thanks” email from the university was a bit of a kick in the teeth as I’d arrogantly assumed the choice of rejection would be mine for a change*. Truth is, it feels like one “no thanks” too many. It must be telling me something.

Time to stop flogging this dead horse?

I love writing, you all know that, but one can’t live on love—I need my writing to bear fruit for it to qualify as a viable occupation. I guess I could go back to full-time feature writing but articles no longer produce the right kind of juice to satisfy my yearning**. To call myself a writer with pride, I need to be published in a medium that requires binding. And I need an income. But I’ve been banging away at my keyboard for so long, it’s beyond dispiriting, beyond embarrassing, beyond a joke. The time is surely right for me to make a shift and turn writing into the garage band it was probably always meant to be.

So help me people, what should I do when I grow up?

I’ve been brainstorming a little and I’ve come up with a table of possibilities. I’m only prepared to give room to ideas that earn a tick in every column.

In column 1 we have: Things I enjoy very much and would like to do more of.

In column 2 we have: Things at which I excel.

So far I’ve come up with two ideas that fulfil both criteria beautifully. They are:

  • Papier mâché for children’s school projects
  • Cake decorating for children’s parties (see below)

Sadly they both fail miserably to earn a tick under: Careers with good earning potential.

 

Pirate ship-inspired cake. Copied down to the last lick of marzipan, but don't knock that—I'm the talented apprentice shadowing a great master

I made this one for Peta Pan. I mean, we're talking a professional order of cake decorating here, right?

* I should add that in a follow-up email from the university I learnt that it wasn’t my qualifications or brilliance that lead to the PhD rejection but the lack of a suitable supervisory. Phew! My ego will live another day.

** Having said I’m over feature writing, I’m seriously tempted to sink my teeth into the North Korea story. It’s the human rights angle that interests me—I’ll leave the diplomatic/political stuff in the competent hands of our Dear Leader.

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Meat mush and asparagus served on a bed of sticky rice


We hosted a second dinner-do* at the weekend. Ten around the table this time. Jammed them in good I did.

So I’m now officially done! No more entertaining for 2.5 years—woowoo!

My strategy is watertight. Over the course of two evenings, I’ve opened my home to, and broken bread with, everyone I really like in Seoul plus everyone I owe in Seoul (thankfully there’s 100% overlap between the 2) so now I can sit back, enjoy the return hospitality and patiently wait for nature to take its course. By the time it’s my turn again, all my new friends will be stuffing their Tibetan rugs, Burmese teak and Korean pottery into 60-foot containers and preparing to set sail for Tokyo, Melbourne, Saudi Arabia (poor buggers), Vancouver and Switzerland.

Nice knowing you! See ya!

And that’ll be it—slate wiped clean.

It’s bloody awful losing all your mates every 2-3 years, but you can’t deny there’s something oddly tidy about the process too.

I hope you’re all picking up the wobble in my voice as I make these outrageous statements…

Back to Saturday night—how did it go? Well… okay I guess. But not great, on account of a few culinary cock-ups.

I plumped for a menu of hearty winter fare this time. With drinks I served home-made sausage rolls (which ties in seamlessly with my earlier entry on Mrs Boogak’s puff pastry) and these annoying smoked salmon parcels that collapsed in guests’ hands, spilling horseraddish-infused mascarpone down pretty frocks.

For the main I made a beef strog, but 10 hours in the slow-cooker proved 5 hours too long and the meat that I brought to the table had tragically crossed the line separating “tender” from “baby food”.

I made an apple and blueberry crumble for pud. You wouldn’t think you could go far wrong with crumble, would you? And yet… I must have made the fruity base too liquid (thanks Nigella for the hot tip on orange juice. For the record, my dear, you can slosh in too much). The soggy apple worked like quicksand on the dry ingredients above, sucking down the yet-to-form crumble with evil gusto and leaving my guests with bowls of purplish stewed fruit.

Come to think of it, that slop would have gone down well at the fish market. A missed business opportunity, I reckon.

I’m trying not to take it personally that no-one from Saturday night has thanked me for “the meal” (instead they’ve thanked me for “the evening”—not the same). I guess I’ve blown it if I ever wanted to be known in Seoul as that domestic goddess of a trailing spouse. Ah well. In 2.5 years’ time I can try again with a whole new set of innocent diners.

Two-and-a-half years. That’s what we have left in Seoul. Then… new friends, new home, new neighbourhood, new Mrs Boogak. Everything new except the routine, which will be starting to feel a tad jaded. Not sure if I can keep up the trailing much longer. This expat feels done.

Pull yourself together TS. Remember, you are but a small cog in a factory of magnificent complexity and great import. Focus on the greater good.

Now take a deep breath.

And smile!

Kimchi, the national dish (fermented cabbage to you and me), eaten 3-times a day by many Koreans. It doesn't sell itself on looks, does it?

Seoul-served cappuccino (coz that pic of kimchi was mean)

Seoul street art

* I know I’m fully grown-up and then some, but I can’t quite bring myself to use the term “dinner party”. I have a similar problem with “coffee morning” and “luncheon”, though admittedly my aversion to the latter 2 is stronger. I guess I’m simply in denial over what I really am… a pie-making trailing spouse (as opposed to the ass-kicking career vixen I turn into during REM sleep).

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Fishy fish fish


I love fish for supper but cooking those little beasties has always been beyond me. I have absolutely no idea how to gut, descale, behead or un-bone a creature of the sea. And please don’t ask me which herb go with which species or when it’s right to salt, fry, roast or gently stew, coz I’d be more comfortable serving up a pâté of suckling koala than fish done any fashion. Heck, I barely know the names of the edible species—I certainly couldn’t match names with faces (okay, so a prawn is a prawn and a salmon is a salmon but after that they’re all just FISH).

So perhaps it’s no wonder that I was a smidgen intimidated when my friend K suggested a voyage to Noryangjin Fish Market—a vast indoor facility about 30 minutes from home, housing 700 stalls selling nothing but fish. Had it not been for K and our mutual friend Y, I’d’ve left that market with nothing but a red nose (temperatures peaked at -15°C that day) and wet feet ponging of squid (serves me right for buying fake Uggs). The obstacles to a happy consumer experience were many. They included:

  • The head-spinning size of the market (see exhibit 1)
  • The gooey weirdness of many of the specimens on sale (see exhibit 2)
  • The lack of written or spoken English market-wide (those 700 stall owners couldn’t have rustled together “shark”, “fin” or “soup” had their lives depended on it)
  • My pitiful Korean, which is limited to: “thanks”, “hello”, “left”, “right” and “excuse me while I ram into you hard to get past”.

Exhibit 1: Noryangjin Fish Market

Exhibit 2: Am I whetting your appetite yet?

Thank heavens for K and Y, both of whom speak passable Korean (err—they can count!) and are well schooled on the merits of crustaceans and swimmers alike. Pushed hard, they’ll even share the odd recipe.

So this little fishy returned from market with a bagful of goodies: a kilo of mussels (for $2!), a biggish monkfish (mercifully gutted—check out exhibits 3A, B and C to see the desperate state of the pre-gutted brethren), a plump red snapper and a sea bass with a reassuringly tight bottom (the smaller the opening, the greater the freshness, apparently—thanks for that invaluable lesson, Y).

Exhibit 3A: Monkfish pre-cleanse

Exhibit 3B: Sorry, not close enough?

Exhibit 3C: C'mon then, let's go all the way! Interestingly (or not!), there's roe lurking somewhere in that gloop. My friend Y was delighted when I asked the fishmonger to scrape the creature clean—the innards went straight into her goody bag. Then again, she's Japanese, and if memory serves me well, Japanese chefs do all sorts of crafty things with fish bits.

I’ve heard that if you drag yourself down to the fish market at 3am, you get to witness a loud and most bizarre fish auction. Another timey perhaps…

Meanwhile, here are more pix from my taster trip to Noryangjin (sorry to present the gallery as a long skinny thing—I’ve tried but failed to spread out the pictures in a more eye-catching format):

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To kwando or not to kwando?


I’ve long been drawn to the idea of kicking butt in white pyjamas—am I about to have my moment?

Surely now is the time and Korea is the place—what with me being a thumb-twiddling trailing spouse at present, and this being the home of taekwando.

But but but…

The only studio that offers taekwando lessons in my neighbourhood is 100% Korean, the students are 90% black belt and all participants are under 25. Bizarrely, there are no separate classes for different levels in martial arts— everyone is simply pooled together (what’s that all about?).

Can I really be expected to rock up with my white belt and grey roots and simply meld with the crowd? Before answering, please bear in mind that those kicks are real high and I have a dicky hip (from running and… errr… age).

My trusty chiropractor says I’m fit to kick, but in the circumstances, should I really be giving this peculiar Olympic sport a taekwango?

Peta Pan and Little Lord Fauntleroy demonstrate how taekwando can be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands

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A fix of puff


Sometimes it’s the things we don’t say that can get us in trouble. In my earlier entry about shops and where to buy what, I made a terrible omission. Boogak’s Grocery. How could I have forgotten Boogak’s?


Mrs Boogak runs the smallest yet most richly stocked grocery store in the entire northern hemisphere. There’s no culinary whim Mrs Boogak isn’t able to satisfy, no homespun fantasy she’s unwilling to fulfil. Her shop is the stuff that expat dreams are made of. And best of all, it operates right around the corner from where I live!

But where does it come from, all that bountiful Boogak booty? Don’t ask (we certainly don’t). Just accept it with good grace. Mrs B is a businesswoman. She’s connected. Join the Sungbuk-dong throng by bowing deeply to this woman’s entrepreneurial flair.

When we first moved to Sungbuk-dong, Mrs Boogak couldn’t do enough to make us feel welcome. If there were things we couldn’t find on her shelves, just ask—she could get these things, just give her a day or two, wink wink. She was also kind enough to explain how the rubbish collection worked—how we’d get a fine if we didn’t divide recycling from food waste and food waste from the rest.

On our second visit to her shop, Mrs B made the tantalising promise of home deliveries for big orders, then she pulled out her real estate map of the village so as to locate us precisely.

“Oh that house,” she said, a shadow of sadness darkening her face, “empty long time.”

Though clearly disappointed by what she’d learnt from the map (was it the size of our plot?) Mrs B was good enough to ask if there was anything special we’d like to order. A ticket home? I wanted to suggest. I settled for frozen corn on the cob. Sure, said our gracious benefactor, not a problem—and who would I be sending to pick it up, the maid or the driver?

“Just me!” I chirruped.

Was it paranoia or did the entrance to Mrs B’s cave of loot suddenly close a fraction?

“Any oats today Mrs Boogak?”

“Quick cooky?”

“No, the ones I bought last week—Old Fashioned.”

“Sorry, no stocky.”

“How about a bag of frozen peas?”

“Sorry, no stocky.”

“Pitted prunes?”

“Sorry, no stocky.”

“Worcester Sauce?”

“No stocky, sorry.”

‘Grainy mustard?”

‘No stocky today.”

I started to panic. Clearly we’d fallen from Mrs Boogak’s grace—now what? Without Mrs B’s goodwill, how would I ever get my hands on another bottle of Heinz white wine vinegar or a box of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry?

My Dear Leader came to the rescue (then again, doesn’t he always?). It happened quite by chance one fine Autumn day while the two of us were strolling around the village looking for coffee. As we ambled past the grocery store, Mrs Boogak came flying out. She virtually hurled herself at the Dear One.

“I see you on television!” she cried. “I see you with our president, you standing sidey by sidey!”

Mr Dear Leader smiled benignly at the woman then threw me a look with a jagged edge. See! Someone notices my ascending stardom!

A week later, Mrs B spotted the Dear One on the telly for a second time and our status changed forever—driver or no driver, maid or no maid, we were a family to watch and provide for.

These days, we’re like this ↙ me and Mrs Boogak.

Today is Monday. Another 3 days must pass before my retailer friend takes possession of her next shipment of puff pastry. Puff always come in on Thursdays. Only 2 packets a week mind. One is earmarked for me—this week, next week and every week hereafter. A handful of trailing spouses are spitting mad about this little arrangement between me and Mrs B, but the way I see things, there’s no need for that kind of ugliness.

The great thing about puff pastry is that each box contains not 1 sheet of the good stuff but 2. Two whole sheets for the price of 1. If the needy speak to me real nice, I’m sure we can come to some arrangement…

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