Category Archives: korea

Things you don’t know when you book

Once again, I felt extra self-conscious when the purser walked up to me in my seat at 44H, introduced herself, and told me to just contact her if I needed anything.  I know, I fly a lot, and that makes me important, but I guess they’re trained to treat me as more important than I think I warrant.  I’m glad that doesn’t happen too often – I don’t want to get used to it and then become one of those snooty jerks who always think they deserve special treatment (and usually do deserve the special treatment of a good kick in the pants).  It was a little weirder this time, because she remembered my name throughout the flight and sent me off with an “Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Stücklin” when I passed her. 

I watched “What happens in Vegas,” which was silly enough to be entertaining, though I’m thankful people only ever act that consistently dumb in movies. 

Our business partner picked me up and drove me to my hotel, and although I’d felt fine upon landing I nodded off in the car.  Once at the Millennium Seoul Hilton, we noticed that there’s also a big Casino attached to it.  It looks like unwittingly I’ve had a casino-themed trip. 



I went to church with Tim and Viv and their family this morning and found an atypically informal setting – not quite a “beanbag church,” but one with sofas along the walls and two crescent arrangements of chairs.  This irregular and spacious arrangement meant that a person could move during the service without distracting the others – going to the bathroom, getting a drink (such as I did when a cough wouldn’t stop), or, for children, walking to or from parents.  The children had a play area, but not all played there.  Several sat through the sermon. 

They had no formal way of welcoming newcomers, who I suppose would be rare in a local church in the suburbs.  They also had no formal way of collecting the offering, except for pointing out that there was a tin box somewhere.  Now usually I believe a bit of formality goes a long way toward saying you care, but here it felt different.  They cared enough not to focus on mere perfection – the praise songs weren’t perfect shows and unlike many other places I’ve been I never got the impression anyone of them was performing.  Again, I run the risk of contradicting my usual soapbox statements in favor of the pursuit of excellence in a church service, and it’s hard to describe what it is that felt different.  Perhaps it was that the informality wasn’t forced, but a natural common denominator, down to the open floor for questions and comments on the sermon.  That I liked – and I think it worked primarily because (a) the congregation is used to it and (b) the speaker is physically close to the congregation. 

The speaker highlighted passion for God and a relationship with God as central, and once again I felt a bit alienated.  Passion, I tend to think, is not my forte.  “Intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction” – not me.  I tend to associate passion with loud, agitated, irrational behavior, things I try to avoid because I don’t find them helpful.  I’m less emotive than most, too, so I feel left out by this insistence on passion.  I’d prefer zeal – without the fanaticism often inferred.  I’d prefer fervor – but just a little toned down. 

But maybe I need not feel so left out at all.  Maybe the root of passion, the Latin word for suffering, helps me out here.  I suffer when people laugh at Christian belief, when people dismiss it as outmoded and disproven, when people believe and spread rumors and half-truths and urban legends about it.  I suffer when people don’t care about getting it right, when they take poor decisions.  I may not get loud or agitated – I may often not react at all, stunned by the baldfaced nature of whatever statement was made – but if we must wear a badge of passion to be a rightful part of the righteous flock, then I can only claim it as a silent sufferer.  I hope that counts.  I want it to. 

Anyway, after church we went to St. Kilda for fish and chips and the girls got to play in the sand and loved it.  Tim and Viv are clearly my Cafe Credo down here. 

I walked back from their apartment and got a bit turned around after the Fitzroy gardens, but the CBD is hard to miss, and the lights of the Princess theatre serve as a great beacon for Little Bourke Street, where my hotel stands.  The bonus of getting off track was getting to see another cathedral in Melbourne.  Back at the hotel I copied my photos to the computer in order to finally post them below – starting with South Korea. 

But before I post them, I want to provide you with a link to AFL club songs.  These get blared from the speakers before the game and the winner’s tune gets blared again umpteen times after the game.  There’s also a brief history of AFL club songs on a related site. 


Jokduri-bong in Bukhansan National Park, my hiking destination. 

The way up.

This guy had an easier time getting up. 

Bukhansan National Park

A view of the Bukhansan National Park. 

Ignore the shirt – this picture was taken by a guy standing about two meters higher than me and gives a good idea of the grade.   

Seoul from Bukhansan National Park

Seoul from the north. 

Part of my route down.  That rock is slippery even when dry. 


That’s where I stood not long ago: Jokduri-bong from the rear side. 

I don’t care what the joint looks like: if it serves cold drinks, I’ve having some. 

Seoul Museum of Chicken Art

Some fowl from the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art. 

Seoul Museum of Chicken Art

More wooden fowl. 

They’ve found out the best way of proclaiming that they know about the mistake and that it’s not really that important. 

A woodworker at Insadong, the Seoul shopping street (for tourists). 


Typical Insadong confusion. 

Seoul Tower

The Seoul Tower through my hotel window after a shower. 

Melbourne CBD from St. Albert Park Lake

Melbourne’s CBD across St. Albert’s Park Lake. 

Black swan and cygnet

Mother and child on the lake. 

Melbourne CBD

The guy has an interesting shirt, too, but I doubt it can be read at this resolution. 

Miffy turns to Snuffy

If you bend the ears like this, she looks like Snuffy!

Great Ocean Road

One of the first views of the Great Ocean Road. 

Wye River beach, Great Ocean Road

The beach at Wye River. 

Australian Road sign - Drive on Left

These signs stand at the exit of all parking areas. 

Gibson Steps

A sense of scale from the top of Gibson Steps.  Those are human footsteps below. 

Gibson Steps Great Ocean Road

Looking westward at the bottom of Gibson Steps. 

Twelve Apostles Great Ocean Road

Looking at the same rocks from the Twelve Apostles. 

Twelve Apostles coastline from Loch Ard Gorge

Looking back east from Loch Ard Gorge toward the Twelve Apostles. 

Big huge series of big huge cliffs Great Ocean Road

Another shot that gives an idea of Australian scale. 

Twelve Apostles at dusk Great Ocean Road

The Twelve Apostles after sunset. 

Twelve Apostles at gloaming Great Ocean Road

The Twelve Apostles, again. 

Twelve Apostles blue hour looking east Great Ocean Road

Looking eastward again. 

Great Ocean Road coastline in the mist

Looking a little farther east, into the mist. 

Twelve Apostles

A close-up westward. 

Twelve Apostles in the evening glow

Yet closer up. 

Another sweetie.  Three teeth make a gorgeous smile when you’re really young (or really old). 

In the US, it would say “WRONG WAY.”  You decide which is worse…


Exhibition Frenzy

Executive summary: The Nano Korea ended on Friday and today Sunday I set up the booth for tomorrow’s exhibition at the COMS 2007 in Melbourne.  I am still alive.  I am tired. 

Details, in semi-random order:

– A lady dressed in traditional Korean garb walked around passing out free books on Korean heroes.  I read the one on Admiral Yi Sun-sin on the flight from Incheon to Singapore and found it interesting, as long as I ignored the hagiographic writing style.  To me, it detracts from Yi’s undeniable achievements to have the book close with “…even the Heavens were moved by his noble spirit of loyalty, and he attained the legendary record of 23 consecutive victories.  He raised up fruit from the barren earth.  Indeed, he created everything from nothing.  To Koreans, he is not a hero, but a holy hero.  He is Admiral Yi Sun-sin.” 

– The word the people were using in Bukhansan national park which I rendered “uncle” is “ajeosshi.”  It does mean uncle, or mister. 

– Nae ileum eun Stücklin Stephan imnida.  I have learned my first Korean sentence. 

– The days after my last entry the lady with the deep look did nothing of the sort.  Maybe I was imagining things. 

– On Thursday, after the show, my distributor’s car battery had died.  He’d left the light on, but in his defense I hasten to add that his car has no alarm to signal this to him.  He called his “insurance,” which I suppose is something like a triple A association, called hicar.  In 5-10 minutes a guy had come in a jeep and started the car with jumper cables.  A parking lot orderly also ran up and berated my distributor for not leaving his contact details on the dashboard, which made it impossible for him to be notified.  Apparently, that’s common custom in Korea – I’ve even seen one car with a number permanently suspended from the windshield. 

– The same day, I went to the post office to mail postcards.  The hotel staff had told me to turn left at the next intersection and walk 150-200 meters, and there the post office would be.  It closed at 18:00 and I left at about five till, because I’d just arrived.  Those 150-200 meters stretched considerably longer, by my later estimate about factor three.  I only arrived at the post office at 18:05 and the gates were down, but I could still see inside.  I stood in front of the glass door, trying to find a sing displaying opening hours, when an employee opened the door from inside and spoke to me.  “Closed,” she said. 
“I know,” I replied, “but when does the post office open tomorrow morning?” 
“Nine o’clock.” 
Rats, that was when the show started.  I would have to hurry after the show – no, we were taking down the booth on Friday, and there was no way we’d be done before six. 
“What do you need?” she asked. 
“Stamps for these postcards.  They are all international.”
She looked at them, walked off, and soon returned with the stamps.  “3500 won.” 
We made the whole transaction through the bars, and I started laying out my postcards on a low wall outside the building and licking stamps.  Then a lady came running up and demanded to be let in.  For some reason, they let her in.  Then, another employee came outside and brought me a glue stick.  I said I was fine licking the stamps, but she just left the glue stick.  She hesitated on her way back in, then told me to come inside.  So I finished the job inside with a glue stick and the ladies stamped them all right there. 
I counted 880 steps on the way back, switching between English and German just for fun.  I tried Japanese but couldn’t keep up with my walking pace.  If the distance was really 200 meters, I’d be taking 25cm long steps – shorter than my shoes. 

– Friday, I had lunch at the Italian restaurant in the exhibition center.  Thursday I’d had a sandwich, which wasn’t too delightful, and Wednesday I’d tried the Freshness Burger place again, where I waited about 15-20 minutes because the clerk forgot my order.  I was number 22, and the numbers pinged on the display – 18 … 19 … 21 … 23 … 25 … 26 … 24 … 28 … 29 … 31 …  The Italian place was worth the extra price. 

– A Swiss friend I know from my studies came by and we chatted about Japan and Korea.  He’s a researcher with Samsung, where he went after his Ph.D.  Before that, he’d been in Japan on the same program as I had, my senpai, so to speak.  It was nice to talk Swiss German. 

– We took down the booth in just about an hour, even faster than I had expected.  What’s more, I think we made no mistakes, which is encouraging because I wasn’t always in total control and my distributor tends to work faster than I want to.  The car’s battery was ok, and we drove a tortuous road with a view of Bukhansan to a Korean barbecue restaurant where we’d been before.  On the way back, my hunch that it would have been possible to drive a straight shot proved correct, and I found out he’d wanted to go to another restaurant but he’d gotten a bit lost and the traffic in the direction he wanted to go was heavy enough to make him change his mind.  I didn’t express my surprise at getting lost despite having a GPS system on his dashboard, but I guess a GPS is only useful when it’s being used. 

– On Saturday we went through the exhibition leads at our distributor’s office to make sure we can follow them up.  The customer management system I had rented to scan badges turned out to be all in Korean, which means the notes I made in it will be worth a lot to me as the only legible pieces of information. 

– On the way to the airport I fell asleep in the car, which often happens to me in Korea.  I was jerked awake by the speed bump just before the airport parking, where we descended to level two.  In a dead corner of the lot stood three office chairs with wheels around a white plastic bucket, unoccupied.  We maneuvered the unwieldy cart with my luggage through several elevators and down most of the terminal to the Singapore Airlines desk.  There I found out that apparently my frequent flyer card doesn’t give me additional luggage on Singapore Airlines flights, but because I return through the USA the girl at check-in allowed my luggage on the piece concept for the USA.  I wasn’t even really allowed to check in at the business check-in with my card, something which usually works with other Star alliance airlines.  I’m really starting to wonder how allied these alliance allies really are.  They sure could use some uniformity in accepting cards. 

– I left the Tim Willocks book in the transit lounge with a bookcrossing note and instead bought “Prey” by Michael Crichton and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” by Helen Fielding.  I would have bought Harry Potter but they only started at volume three or four.  I still don’t understand what prompted the following jacket note for “The Religion:” 
“Seldom have I read a book which more deserves the term ‘revelatory.’  Mr. Willocks’s stunning dramatization of the power of Islam in 1565 will give everyone a new perspective on the headlines from Iraq.”  — Thomas Fleming, New York Times bestselling author
What is revelatory?  That Islam was once more powerful than today?  That we should revert to Crusade-style slaughtering?  That Islam is still in that stage?  That there is a shortage of blowflies in CNN footage? 
“Prey” reads a lot faster.  I have already finished its 500 pages.  Maybe it has larger print, but I think the main difference to “The Religion” lies elsewhere.  Willocks’s historical data is probably correct, but it tends to bog down the narrative.  I caught Crichton goofs in a number of his science explanations – he’s explaining nanotechnology and I’ve naturally developed some idea of the subject – but he doesn’t ever let the science do any more than aid suspension of disbelief as he moves the plot along.  And even though he also uses those silly “Day 6 – 9:32 a.m.” headers for his chapters, he also has the courtesy to give relative time references in the text every now and then.  (On that note, if those headers really are all the rage, maybe I should use them for my blog.  It would save me time thinking up a title.) 

– On the first flight to Singapore I watched “Hot Fuzz.”  Now that is a funny movie, on many levels. 

– The captain announced the temperature in Melbourne as 6°C.  I think it wasn’t as bad once I had gotten through the whole customs and immigration ordeal, but I’m really glad I brought at least one jacket. 

– I rested a bit after the Skybus dropped me off at my hotel, the Crossley, another Australian hotel with outrageous internet rates, then walked over to the Sofitel to set up the booth.  I was early, and after finding the two packages that had been shipped there for me went for lunch instead.  On the way back, I peeked in Harry Buck’s out of curiosity over a beautiful tie in the display.  It cost 345 Australian dollars.  I can’t imagine ever paying that much for a tie, which can be so easily destroyed. 

– In two hours I’d set up the booth, but the registration counter still wasn’t ready, so I went back to the Crossley for a nap.  I had to fight my way through the crowd milling about in front of the entrance to the Phantom of the Opera.  I noticed that the women in particular had changed to a larger and ampler size compared to Korea. 

– Around five o’clock I walked back to the Sofitel, shaved and in a suit and tie.  I registered, got the ticket I needed, and milled about waiting for the bus to take us to the reception at the Government House.  This house is the seat of the governor of Victoria, who represents Queen Elizabeth II in this State.  From the outside it looks like a cross between a Spanish mission church and neoclassical architecture.  Inside, gold paint on turquoise and the little throne at the end of the hall lend the room a regal look.  All the mouldings and paintings look like transplanted England with not a hint of Australia.  After a speech by the governor, the minister of innovation, and the chair of the conference, we got to look at some other rooms which continued in a similar color scheme, eggshell and gold, although the turquoise made way for more sober colors, mostly shades of green.  I didn’t dare use the men’s room for fear of setting off an alarm and silently congratulated myself on choosing a dehydrating alcoholic beverage for my first drink.  From the trays of the insistent servers I tried a number of nibblies, including kangaroo meat, but the bite wasn’t large enough to give me a good idea of the taste. 

– I asked one of the crown employees about a tall building in the CBD, and he told me it was the tallest, the Eureka tower, named after the Eureka rebellion when the gold miners rebelled against some claim tax the government had come up with.  The miners won that bloody dispute – I fancy it being similar in spirit to the Boston tea party, with more casualties. 


Poodle butts

I had decided against writing about Engrish T-shirts on this trip, but when I saw the second girl with a shirt that said “POODLE BUTTS” I saw that as a sign.  So now I can mention the guy with the shirt that said “Be your Gender,” and I can invite you to speculate with me on why so many Koreans wear shirts that say “DOHC Revolution.”  They can’t all be car freaks, can they? 

We had our first day of the show and lo and behold, equipment had arrived the since day before, such as the badge reader and the extra chair.  The badge reader caused some trouble because we had to buy a Korean extension cord to get it to work and the convenience store only opened the same time as the show.  The badge reader also had a spell of bad ethernet connection and at one point decided he needed to restart Windows. 

The show went well, and most the visitors spoke at least a smattering of Korean, so I could at least hold them until our distributor arrived to take over.  I did spend a lot of time walking around and talking to other exhibitors, especially a guy from Minneapolis who’s also responsible for roughly the same region as I am. 

After the show ended, the organizers had set up a reception.  Only I went, and realized once I was there that most people were either Koreans that I could barely communicate with or foreigners talking to Koreans.  I ended up talking to another Swiss guy and to the majority of the Japanese delegation, although right after the flowery intro speeches about conviviality and making new acquaintances a band of young Koreans took the stage and proceeded to blast the attendees out of the room as soon as they had filled their stomachs.  At one point, after being introduced to the organizer of the Nano Korea despite being nearly unable to communicate over the din, I walked up to the cute Korean girl that had emceed the event in immaculate English (she’d lived in the US) and asked if there was a way to turn the volume down.  I think there wasn’t, for by the time the band got to a medley with Y.M.C.A. (original lyrics) and “Play that Funky Music” among others the hall was empty of most delegates; only the many college-age Nano Korea staff members remained close to the stage. 

I walked home and bought a stapler with staples on the way.  I’m almost certain that store would have had string and cable ties, but I purposely didn’t look. 

The lady I feel is hitting on me manned the reception.  Maybe she’s just trying to be friendly, but there’s that something extra in her look and her smile that confuses me.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s weird.  I was glad I’d gone ahead and bought a stapler and didn’t have to have a strained conversation about needing a stapler replete with deep looks.  After getting to my room, I was already on my way down again to ask for a bottle opener when I realized I’d packed my Swiss army knife this time.  McGyver saves the day! 


Free Interpretation

I’ve noticed most taxis have “Free Interpretation” written on their back door window.  I’ve got a guess at what they mean, but I’m sorely tempted to jump in one and say: “Listen, I’ve been struggling with Isaiah 53:9…”

Today we set up the booth.  The shipment arrived as scheduled, and if I hadn’t forgotten a few small things in the lid of a box we left in the crate they wouldn’t have had to make another trip and we would have been finished even sooner.  I also got a free sauna and a good deal of frustration when I tried to obtain some string.  After about 20 minutes of walking in the sun and “asking” several people I got a white “string,” actually labeled “rope,” but in truth closer to an endlessly long and thin WalMart plastic bag.  I got some cable ties, too, and they did a lot better in the end, especially because they can be ratcheted tight without an advanced boy scout degree in knotsmanship.  Or is that knottery? knotation? knotwork?

In the end we finished by about three o’clock, and the booth next to us hadn’t even started, despite being twice the size.  I’m curious to see the overnight metamorphosis that is bound to happen. 

The hotel manager suggested we go to a Japanese restaurant if we have time, because he, too, is learning Japanese.  That morning I’d asked as best I could if the other staff whose English is minimal might perhaps know some Japanese.  I haven’t yet had much luck with that question in Korea, but I figure it’s worth a shot.  While all my language adventures here should give me excellent practice for charades, I’d rather be communicating, and not being understood is a feeling I find revolting.  It prompted me to write a little ditty to be sung to the refrain of the Village People hit Y.M.C.A.

I’ve got to say that I’m in-com-pe-tent.
I’ve got to say that I’m in-com-pe-tent.

Not a word of Korean that would do any good,
I can’t make myself understood …

I’ve got to say that I’m in-com-pe-tent.
I’ve got to say that I’m in-com-pe-tent. 

I can never connect, no one gets what I said, 
They must think I’m dumber than bread …

I ate an odd mix tonight: skewered chicken bits and a “Chinese pie” with honey and cinnamon from a street vendor, two donuts from the Dunkin Donuts shop, and some stuff I bought at the supermarket I discovered on my hunt for string.  It still beat the “Freshness Burger” for lunch, the one with the cold tomato, soggy bun, and pasty cheese.  Oh well, bachelors are supposed to eat junk, right? 



Nothing much to report today.  I checked out of my hotel in Seoul and our distributor drove me northwest to Ilsan, to the Regent Inn Hotel, which is closer to the exhibition center I’ll be frequenting the rest of the week. 

We went to lunch at a restaurant called “VIPS,” which takes its name from “V.I.P.” but has it pronounced “Beeppsuh.”  It’s got a large salad buffet including tacos and Korean wraps, where I got a fajita of sorts with a big dollop each of nacho cheese sauce and sour cream.  That gave me the idea of trying to make a bulgogi fajita when I’m home.  The fajita wasn’t the main dish – that was a sirloin steak of ho-hum quality. 

As we were winding down with tea and coffee (and in my case, way too much dessert), a table of six arrived near us and prayed together before the meal.  My face must have given away my surprise at seeing Asians publicly praying like that, because my business partner explained that they were Christians.  (That, I found out, meant protestant.  Catholics are referred to as Catholics, not Christians.)  He wrinkled his nose and said Christians are very influential but not always very popular.  Apparently there had been scandals among the priests (which term confuses me, but probably he means pastors and other leaders), and some churches are quite involved in politics and have also gained economic clout in the measure that their “real estimate” has gone up in value.  [I note again my perplexity at his English.  He has a hard time understanding me and a hard time expressing simple things, but then he’ll refer to Sunday’s temperatures as “sizzling” and suggest waiting for the rain to “let up” without apparently even having to rack his brain for those words.]  I said I was surprised anyway that in Korea there were so many Christians compared to its neighbors in Japan and China.  He said that was because of the strong US influence after liberating Korea from Japan, and because after the Korean war, when Korea was dirt poor and starving, US military used food rations to bribe people into converting to Christianity.  His grandmother had done that.  Although I don’t doubt such things happened, I have a hard time accepting that as the reasons for the spread of Christianity, because it had flourished in Korea already fifty years earlier – so my basic question remains unanswered. 

After watching some TV in the hotel (and finding out, with relief, that apparently the salacious channels had been dropped since my last visit) I walked over to the exhibition center to scope out the place.  I haven’t seen the halls yet, so I’ll withhold my final judgment, but so far it looks promising.  At least they have a decent ice cream vendor. 

One thing I’ve now noticed repeatedly are the handicapped parking signs that look like a guy propelled off his feet by a great burst of flatulence.  I’ll have to take a picture of one of them. 



No, that’s not a way to smoke pot, it’s where I hiked.  But before I start, I need to mention the many shiny grey suits I’ve seen this week.  I hope the fashion stays in Korea.  It makes guys look like they wanted to keep the street parade alive at work. 

So I went hiking.  There’s a national park just north of Seoul called the Bukhansan national park.  The mountains there reach up to over 800 meters; Seoul itself is close to sea level.  I thought I’d attempt the Baekundae peak, the highest at 836 meters. 

That was Friday.  Saturday I got up tired, ate late, and figured that I should probably aim for Bibong, 560 meters high.  Bibong is closer to the metro and would allow me to return conveniently and quickly.  I took the metro to Bulgwang station, where I followed other hikers until they turned off the road.  They’re easy to spot, Korean hikers: they wear hiking boots and hiking backpacks and hiking clothes that wick away sweat and they carry hiking sticks and wear gloves and some sort of outdoorsy head covering.  Every single – well, not quite, I did spot one other person wearing jeans, but I’m sure I was the only one hiking with a laptop backpack.  I was also wearing a T-shirt I won’t describe because some people don’t like it. 

I figured I’d buy water on my way to the trail, but there was no store.  The gas station sold no water, though the attendant was nice enough to give me a cup of water in return for my improvised sign language for buying water.  I think the word for water is “mul.”  Finally, where the trail left the road, there stood a little store on wheels.  I asked for three bottles of water and the guy gave me three with a frozen core.  Neat, I thought, I’ll have cool water all the way.  That proved true, but misleading.  I carried the water in my backpack, and all the padding for the computer insulated that water well.  Each time I stopped for a drink, all I got was three mouthfuls.  (I would finally return to my hotel with ice still clanking around in those bottles.) 

Soon I realized that trails in Korea are different from our manicured paths in Switzerland.  They don’t switchback up the mountain, they head straight up the ridge, sometimes straight up bald rock face at what must have been a 45-degree angle, exposed to the noontime sun.  Sweat ran down my arms and I soon understood why the Korean uncle with the calves of steel kept going on about the heat, but I’m not sure why he insisted on talking to me all the way up even though it was very soon apparent that we didn’t understand each other. 

At the top I got a fresh burst of energy when I realized I was near the peak and scaled the last rocks.  I was a bit worried by the sign that said “safety restricted area,” but everyone else seemed to be going up and I wasn’t going to miss the view because of an indecipherable sign.  For a few moments I stood on the summit just rotating and taking in the panorama.  To the south, in the haze, lay Seoul, the Han river glistening in the sun.  At the foot of the mountain, too, lay Seoul – houses and apartment buildings everywhere.  Seoul is a concrete cornucopia pockmarked with green mountains and gashed by a river, and off to the southwest there was obviously a new construction project going on to make Seoul even bigger. 

To the north the peaks of the national park rose in their speckled brown and green, exposed rock and pine trees intermingling like some sort of camouflage print.  Two or three sky-blue power line masts marred the park’s perfection, but I’ve learned selective vision in Japan.  The steely uncle called me down to an oddly formed rock and climbed onto it.  I took his picture, and then he said “Jokduri-bong.”  I made my face the question mark to my unspoken question: “You want to take my picture?”  “Jokduri-bong,” he repeated and made hand motions above his head.  My question mark remained: “You’re so hot you’re smoking?”  “Jokduri-bong,” he said again, this time crooking his elbow, marching two steps, and singing a few notes from what I figured must be a wedding march.  “Jokduri-bong,” he said, and I finally figured out he meant that we were standing on Jokduri-bong, and that the name of the peak came from the term for the Korean women’s traditional wedding headdress.  (I later, after much internet search frustration because I can’t remember Korean words well, found that the headdress is just “jokduri,” and I suppose “-bong” means peak.  I also found out Jokduri-bong [bottom left, the triangle below “Eunpyeong-gu”] was only about 360 meters high.) 

So I wasn’t on Bibong, but I knew I wasn’t going further.  Steely uncle took off down a rock face that turned around a boulder and dropped out of sight.  I sat in the shade of the malformed boulder and rested, with the water bottles in the sun in an attempt to melt the ice.  I took a picture of myself next to the boulder and another steely uncle in pretty much the same uniform offered to take one for me.  Then I walked with him a ways to the other uncle’s path, where steely uncle #2 asked me to show my shoes.  He gave them a skeptical look and pronounced them unfit.  “Ridgi,” he said, leaving me wondering whether he meant the shoes lacked ridges or were unfit for ridges.  “Dangerousu.  Bye-bye.”  And he cautiously walked down, then crossed the rock face using his hands and feet and passed out of sight.  I walked back to the shade of my boulder and lay down.  A little beyond the boulder the rock face seemed to drop more steeply and I could see the dark marks left by water run-off down a few gullies.  I’d just finished thinking man, that’s steep, I wouldn’t want to fall down there, when the head of a Korean woman about my age appeared.  Step by unwavering step she walked up the rock, hands on her hips, heading for the peak. 

My pride was piqued.  Unfit soles, pah!  I looked at them again.  They were perfectly fit, and the material made for good grip.  I decided I’d try them out by climbing my funny boulder that steely uncle had climbed.  At first it looked difficult to get on the first step, but that was because I’d missed the lowest one.  Once I’d found that getting up was easy, thanks to what little I’d learned two weeks ago on my first rock climbing outing with Valda and some of her friends.  I’d learned patience, mostly, taking time to find the next grip and the next foothold.  Up on the boulder I realised that I didn’t know how to get down.  I tried another side, which went well for two steps and then I got scared.  I wasn’t sure of the next hand placement, I wasn’t sure of whether I could reach the next foothold, and it looked like no matter what I’d have to jump off at the end onto the inclined rock.  A bad landing would send me off the mountain, adding in meaning to my T-shirt statement what it detracted from my life.  Shaking, I climbed back up and decided to try the way I’d come up.  At least there I was on the uphill side of the boulder.  I somehow got my left foot into the foothold I’d used for the right coming up and vice versa, which made for a more awkward descent, but I managed.  Again, I rested in the shade of the boulder for a while and took three sips of water from my bottles. 

I walked around the peak to try to scope out the steely uncle trail.  There was one spot where I could see nearly all the way down, and I watched two guys help another find his way down a part I couldn’t see that was near where the trail leveled out.  Only trouble was that the reason I could see was that I was standing on a steep incline, and somewhere in between the incline dropped out of sight.  There were no ropes in sight, and no trees – nothing to hold on to in case I slipped.  The Korean woman, hands on her hips, headed down there as if nothing was the matter.  I retreated to where the uncle had gone down and gave it another look, and let it be.  My shoes were okay, but a size too big and you don’t want give when you’re climbing.  I was weak from the climb up and couldn’t entirely depend on my left knee, and I had no experience on rock and nobody to guide me.  I’d left my organ donor card at the hotel.  Besides, I was afraid.  So I chose life over pride. 

But even so, I still had to find a way.  I’d seen people come up another way than the one I’d taken and figured it might be a bit easier.  I asked a couple if it was steep by inclining my lower arm at various angles and took the answer to mean it was manageable.  It turned out to be true, for the most part.  I took one detour when I followed a solo woman hiker (you’d think I’d learned something about solo hiking Korean women) which took me across a slippery rock face that one could only cross because of the steel rope railing.  Now I knew why our distributor had asked me if I had gloves. 

The rest of the path was pretty much a staircase of logs and here or there patches of gravel or rock.  I passed a few hikers coming up: some ignored me, some said “Anyeong haseyo,” and some tried to strike up a conversation.  In one case, just as we’d approached to about three meters, I slipped with my left foot on the gravelly dirt and sat down on my right haunch, left foot extended to touch a rock, left hand grabbing a tree and right hand breaking the fall.  But guess who exclaimed “Ohhhhh?”  That’s right, the other hiker.  I remained mute.  Sometimes I think my “esprit d’it’s already over” can be a blessing.  I wonder if I’d think quickly enough to scream if someone pushed me off the Eiffel tower. 

At the bottom (of the mountain, not the Eiffel tower) I filled an empty bottle I’d picked up on the way down at the bathroom that had won best Seoul bathroom in 2001.  I hope it looked better then.  A few steps beyond stood two restaurants with shady terraces.  The terrace floor was bare dirt, the chairs a jumble of styles and all the furniture looked like it had never been new, but the beer was cold and the fan trained on me a delight. 

From there I walked toward the metro by walking to where oncoming hikers came from.  Then I followed two returning hikers until they got sidetracked at an open market.  I followed another, this time asking him, who led me to the metro even though apparently he didn’t need to go there.  I got home, lazed about, went to the gym to loosen my muscles on the bike, and finished it all off with the lavender hot tub.  I had another buffet dinner and again stuffed myself with the lamb leg with the mint jelly. 

I thought I’d go to bed early, but somehow the internet refused to work after I’d written half this entry, and so, frustrated, I watched TV and read until midnight. 

In the morning I went to the Seoul International Baptist Church, where I yawned aplenty.  I should have just gone to bed earlier…  After the service I went out for lunch at Itaewon with Jeff and his family.  I’ll not explain how I know Jeff, because it’s a bit complicated, but it was fun to have someone to talk with and spend time with.  Solo travel can get lonely. 

From Itaewon I took the metro to Anguk near Insadong, because I was to meet up there with a business partner and his American guest whom he was showing around Seoul.  I was early, so I decided to head to the palace the name of which I always need to look up – Gyeongbokgung palace.  (It’s not really a distinctive, because I need to look all of them up.)  A little signpost on the way changed my mind.  It read: Seoul Museum of Chicken Art

Chicken Art, I thought.  Art brut taken to its logical extreme, with chickens doing the painting?  A kitchen museum – I’ve already heard a few Koreans confuse “chicken” and “kitchen?”  Servile art under dictatorial regimes?  Or something like the “Körperwelten” show with chickens?  After getting lost and getting help from the friendly girl at the World museum of Jewellery I found it, and it turned out to be a private collection of painted and stitched and blown and formed and moulded and carved chicken, mostly our of wood and for Korean funeral purposes.  Apparently, the chicken symbolises four things in Korean tradition: fertility, success & wealth, fatherhood, and salvation from evil spirit.  I’ll quote from the note I received:

“On this exhibition, we are focusing on the fourth meaning of chicken in Korean culture. […]  The wooden carved chicken that decorates the traditional Korean funeral bier are called Kokdoo.  Kokdoos are usually various symbols of animals or generals and priests who are believed to protect the dead pperson over his/her long journey to the other world.  Of these Kokdoos, Chicken Kokdoo notices the other world the dead person’s departure and guides the dead person to the other world with safety.” 

It was a small museum, just right for my purposes, bright and quirky. 

I met my acquaintance and the American, Nancy, as agreed.  We had a traditional Korean dinner of many courses and many dishes, with lots of different tastes assaulting the palate.  I can’t remember how many variations of Kimchi I tried.  After dinner my acquaintance wanted to take us to Gyeongbokgung palace, but it had closed, so instead he drove us up Buk’ak mountain, from where we had a neat night view of Seoul.  Then, because he and Nancy have to get up early tomorrow and she’s still jet-lagged, we headed home. 


I got Jumped

Today I met with our distributor here, went for Japanese food with him, went back to my room to write e-mails and reports, and decided I’d go see the show “Jump” tonight.  Now I think the show’s flash player killed my browser last time, so let me save this before I go copy the link for you.  (See, I can learn from past heartache!) 

It didn’t kill my browser.  You can click on it without worries. 

I walked there from the hotel and got there so quickly I had to wait for the ticket booth to open.  When it opened and I got to the counter, the seller asked if I’d reserved a seat.  Uh-oh, I thought, it’s sold out.  I can’t say my heart sunk too far, because I’d passed a movie theater on the way and almost given in to the temptation of watching the Bourne Supremacy dubbed in Korean.  But apparently there was just one seat left, P17.  It sounds like what it was.  No, not a hip-hop artist or a secret governmental organisation.  It was an aisle seat in the penultimate row. 

There was still time to kill until the show.  Following my nether instincts, I walked toward where Burger King was on the map, but I caught myself and stepped into Caffé Pascucci on the way, where I got a bulgogi panini and, in a judgment lapse, a raspberry ice tea.  Without a book on me, I leafed through a Korean translation of MOTOR TREND.  A Giugiaro looks the same in any language – slick and out of any thinking person’s reach.  The combination of bulgogi, cheese, and bread was worth the wait and makes me want to find a recipe for bulgogi to try other combinations. 

I got an ice cream on the way out and trolled around town, looking for a bookstore, not realising I’d probably be kicked out with ice cream in my hand.  I wanted to see if I could find a copy of Archiworld.  Instead, I found countless restaurants that would have been more interesting, but you can’t regret bulgogi.  I walked along the giant double row of piano keys to the elevated granite keyboard, which had two children jumping from key to key, and passed on to the Cheonggyecheon creek, which has been remade as a walking course.  It had looked pleasant when I first passed on my way to the theatre, but now the lights were one and I, for one, would have preferred the stepping stones not to have inlaid blue LEDs.  Blue LEDs somehow fail to emanate that natural look the designers seemed to have been striving for. 

Back at the theatre I was thirsty and still early, so I drank ice tea in the Coffee bean and tea house.  They charged 50 won extra for the cup, which they refunded upon return, so now I have two 50-won coins to give away. 

I walked downstairs to the theatre and took my seat way in the back.  I heard Japanese and Korean in the hall, Japanese next to me, and looked around.  I couldn’t spot another Caucasian in the audience.  All the more authentic an experience, I figured. 

Jump doesn’t have a lot of plot.  Think of a series of goofy Jackie Chan martial arts comedy routines strung together by some bare-bones story about a family preparing for a guest, who turns out to be the grandfather’s pick for the daughter’s husband, and a break-in that pits the family against two burglars.  For the same reason, there’s no character development to speak of – the characters barely talk, and instead let their smooth moves speak for themselves.  And they manage to get the audience roaring with laughter at their highly acrobatic and well-timed slapstick goofiness. 

After the initial part of the show, the grandfather stepped into the audience and after a few steps up the aisle his eyes locked onto me.  So that’s what a deer in the headlights feels like.  Oh well, being singled out in Asia is almost routine for me, so I stood up when he asked me to and told him I was from Switzerland and bowed a little.  Then he told me to come out into the aisle and defend myself from his fan.  He showed me how.  So when he moved toward me, I held up my left forearm to ward off the blow that didn’t come.  Then he told me to follow him on stage. 

Of course I followed.  Not because I love the stage, but because he asked me and I couldn’t say no.  I didn’t really think about stage fright or what to do, and once up there I realized that stage fright is pointless because when you’re in the limelight, you can hardly even see the audience.  That made it easy to focus on the actors.  Besides, the grandfather guy was telling me what to do.  I had to imitate the drunk uncle character’s moves.  The first was some fighting kick.  I imitated, swaying after landing my kicking foot.  Trying something like that shows you how much skill goes into their performance.  Next he followed up a forward somersault with a backward somersault into a handstand.  Right.  I mastered the forward somersault.  I managed a graceless backward somersault.  I didn’t even attempt the handstand.  Even when we practiced those in middle school I never managed one, so out of a backward somersault?  But thinking back, maybe I should have tried.  It might have added to the comic momentum to see the big guy flop on his face, and the stage was springy enough for it not to hurt. 

Then the father character came to pat us down before the fight.  I didn’t understand that he was going to pat me down, too, so I faced the uncle guy and only on the grandfather’s direction stood with my arms spread like at the airport for the father to pat me down.  A quicker mind would have taken off his belt, watch, and wallet, or maybe initially refused the pat-down on grounds of pride, but I was not in my character, whatever it was.  But maybe that was the point…  The father patted me down, and I turned to face the uncle again, but he was looking at the father.  The father was carrying an axe, and in rapid sequence the other characters behind me “pulled out” a whole arsenal from my clothes – sword, chain, stick – dropped them in the middle of the stage and fled to the other side.  I looked around with a grin and moved toward the weapons.  They yelped and shrank back.  I moved another step – they yelped and shrank back again.  I tried to be like one of them and picked up the sword in a swift movement, then stood clueless in what I hope was at least a moderately menacing pose brandishing a sword with a floppy blade.  A quicker mind might have repeated the move and yelp routine, or brandished his chapstick, but even more clueless as to what to do next, I just put the sword back down.  I’m not even quick enough for esprit d’escalier, mine’s an esprit de chez soi…  I don’t really remember what happened between then and the grandfather declaring me the winner and the uncle guy giving me a glossy “Jump” program book and beckoning me to stand in the middle of the stage.  I think people applauded, but I only remember walking back up the aisle with a silly grin and the three people sitting next to me applauding for me as I sat down again. 

Drunk uncle picked a cute Korean girl next, who was spared the patting down routine only because the mother anticipated the father’s intentions and challenged the Korean girl to a slow-motion fight which ended with her punching the mother K.O.  That punch, as all other punches and moves, came with the typical over-the-top sound effects, which in retrospect makes me think the sound guys really also ought to take a bow at the end.  I was well entertained and by the end my cheeks hurt from laughing, but next time some guy says there’s only one seat left and it’s an aisle seat I’ll slit my eyes, wrinkle my nose, growl, give him a mean stare and buy the ticket anyway.  I don’t mind being the fall guy if it makes people laugh. 

Anyway, go see the show, and choose your seat wisely.  I hope they tour Switzerland sometime! 

What also struck me as funny in a much more low-key way was that at the end of the show the guy next to me and I conversed in Japanese about how cool the show was and whether I was in on the stunt without him batting an eye.  It was pleasant in two ways: first, to be able to talk with someone at all, and second, to be able to talk with someone in Japanese without him making a big deal of it. 


Dolce far niente

I had no appointments today except a phone call, so I spent just over an hour working reading and writing e-mails and the rest of the day lazing in bed, reading and watching TV and telling the hotel staff that yes, it was ok for them not to make up my room. 

Now I’ll go for dinner, my only meal today, and perhaps a soak in the hot tub.  In keeping with the much-needed restful day I’ve had, I’ll spend a minimum of time blogging. 


500-Won pieces

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Myeong-dong – Seocho – Myeong-dong – Coin Laundry – Dinner

I got up early, so as to be able to not only shower and eat and get dressed (in not quite that order) before being picked up at 10am, but also read work e-mails and prepare the meeting that was to follow.  One of the employees of the business I was meeting today picked me up at my hotel and drove me across the river to the Seocho district in his Hyundai station wagon.  I later found out the car used to be his father’s, who stopped using it because it afforded too little protection in the case of an accident.  The father now uses an SUV.  This is not the sort of thing to tell a passenger in Seoul traffic, where half the cars already have a scrape or dent. 

It never ceases to amaze me how different basically similar companies can be.  Premises, office setup, protocol, A/C levels, technical equipment, order, language ability – they vary wildly.  But at the current outside temperatures, they have one thing in common: all offices are cooled down to frigid levels.  When you think of it, cooling systems are pretty silly: It’s hot outside, so to feel good inside, you pump more heat outside (and generate a little more), which contributes to the heat outside, so to feel good inside… 

For lunch we went to a nearby Italian restaurant.  It was over thirty degrees out, so the company owner suggested driving there in his car.  Only hitch: the car had black leather interior and took as long to cool down as it took us to get there.  He realized himself on the way back that this bet hadn’t paid off, when we went through the same routine again. 

Between when his employee dropped me off at my hotel in Myeong-dong again and my next meeting I decided to do some much-needed laundry in the coin laundry room for guests.  I took my revelatory book with me and read while my laundry sloshed around in that bathtub of a top-loader and then tumbled dry.  To buy soap and run the machines I required 500-won pieces, and behold! the changing machine there accepted my 5000-won bill just fine.  It can be done, Seoul metro, it can be done!  All the while I was wearing my dress pants and a T-shirt that said “I’m Big on the Pig” on the back and showed the Piggly-Wiggly logo on my tummy.  (Thanks, Westfalls!)  I do think I got a funny look or two in the elevator. 

I’m starting to tire just a bit of my revelatory author’s tendency to load his story with purple prose (and some obvious plot twists).  As usual, he praises his editor and agent in the overleaf, but after he’s had people wait with baited breath (did they eat worms?), made uneven use of contractions, and bloated a couple sentences too many, I think he may need a stricter one, not just one who’s a good friend.  But what has become most tiresome are the chapter headings, just like the heading I used for this entry, a blurb stating time and location.  Many thriller authors use and abuse this device, which I find pointless.  Does it really add extra realism to state that something happened on Thursday, April 14, 0746 hours?  Or just extra tedium?  I for one almost immediately forget the information thus proffered.  It means even less when, as in my revelatory book, the section under that heading includes flashbacks. 

Now I jump back and forth myself in this blog, I know, but that’s precisely because I’m too lazy to edit it to perfection, and because it’s not going to print.  So, if I ever write a book with those silly section headings, someone please slap me hard.  And if someone ever publishes this blog unedited – well, then someone please slap him hard. 

Thanks in advance. 

Oh, I almost forgot dinner.  I had an evening meeting that finished just in time for me to make it to the buffet dinner.  They don’t have bulgogi in the buffet, but they did have a nice selection of grilled meat and other tasty bits to satisfy me.  Their dessert, however, reinforced my prejudice that Asians have a hard time making European sweets.  I don’t know what it is, but something was wrong with that walnut pie and that crème brulée.  During dinner soccer was on and I kept ogling at the TV to see South Korea beat Uzbekistan in a pretty nasty match with two red cards, but the second Korean goal was well worth being distracted for.