If you don’t know what a jjimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse is, you’re missing out! Read all about my latest adventures at a Korean sauna at my skincare blog, linked here.
Jjimjilbangs are an essential part of Korean life and you can find everyone there – from young couples in love, to a whole family with boisterous children in tow. People come to take the waters and spend time together in the fiery saunas, sweating out all manner of sins, or getting the skin scraped off their backs, reborn a shiny new human. Doesn’t it sound fun?
I’ve just returned, travelling at 270 km/h, from a 4-day weekend in Seoul – Korea’s capital city and home to half its population. 25 million people live in Seoul Capital Area, making it feel worlds away from the port city of Busan I, and only 3 million others, call home. Busan is very big, of course, but differences were apparent immediately, from the moment I set foot out Seoul Station. Seoul, like many huge cities, gives off a ‘cool’ vibe.
Getting to my cute little guest house was the first challenge I faced – all 25 million people seemed to be taking taxis at the very time I wanted to ride in one. The queue at the taxi rank on both sides of the station was at least 60 people long, and wasn’t moving very fast. Frustrated, I decided it actually wasn’t a long walk to where I was staying, so I’d give it a shot. Even more frustrated, and with a heavy bag, I admitted defeat and stood on a street corner, along with those in the same boat, praying for a taxi to come past. They did indeed come past, but two turned me down before I managed to get one. One was a co-taxi, which I assume means I should have shared with others, and the other simply wouldn’t pick me up on that side of the street. Charming.
Happily, I was finally picked up, and at my guest house I was pleased to find myself in a traditional Hanok-style house, complete with under-floor heating and futon-style mattress – as people used to sleep on in days gone by. Very comfy it was too. In the morning, I ventured out to meet friends. Surrounding me were houses from a typical travel guide…exactly what you picture when you think of this area in Asia. Situated right next to the palace, the Hanok houses can feel a little like stepping back in time, and at 9am in the morning, there was virtually no-one to spoil the tiny streets by whipping out a selfie stick. The very few people I saw were dressed in Hanbok – Korean traditional costume, allowing them to get into the palace and certain areas for free, while looking beautiful doing so.
Our first stop was Namsan tower, which (clue is in the name) towers over Seoul, slap bang in the middle of it on one of the many mountains in the city. The highest point in Seoul, it is a slice of nature in a huge metropolis. We climbed to the top to find beautiful views of different parts of the city, and the famous love locks placed around the tower itself. Lovers have left padlocks on fences and metal bars surrounding the structure for years, a symbol of longevity for the relationship. We were left wondering how many of those loved-up couples were still together now.
Thursday was a national holiday (Children’s Day), and the government had granted us all an extra day off on Friday, so many families were making the most of it. We made our way around the famous palace buildings, and headed down to Itaewon for a spot of dinner. Itaewon is the foreigners’ district, and while it has a trendy vibe, it is, as you might imagine from the name, full of foreigners like me. Yuck. Itaewon boasts cuisine from all around the world – Spain to Singapore, Ethiopia to my little old England. Variety is not lacking there, but tables certainly were. With no space for us, we settled on a standard pub, and paid through the nose for fairly standard fodder. Itaewon would most certainly be the district I would try to avoid as much as possible if I were living in Seoul – perhaps the nightlife is its upside.
The next day, met with drizzle, I headed to Myeongdong, which I’d heard was the beauty district. Not a day goes by where I don’t read about a new cream or lotion that I now am in need of, because it will fix a problem I didn’t even know I had – so I had to go check it out. K-beauty is big business. People have beautiful skin here, and it’s easy to see why when you see the amount of lotions and potions they have available to slap on their wrinkle-free faces. Before I came to Korea, I simply cleansed and moisturised. Now, I:
Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
Apply serum/emulsion targeting specific needs skin may have. Mine is for redness, so I slap on a liquorice-based serum that is supposed to do wonders.
Use mask (twice a week).
Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
Use facial mist to top up moisture in face throughout the day.
I’m not even completing the ten-step skincare routine that many swear by, but I’m almost there, and I’ve got to say that my skin feels amazing. Beauty shopping is addictive, and worth it. I feel like every won I chuck in the direction of these shops is well-spent, but I’m struggling to find my limit. Strolling around Myeongdong, I could see that I wasn’t alone. The obsession must be strong enough with others too, as what other reason would there be for 7 Nature Republic stores on the same block? Nearly every shop I went in to thrusted free samples onto me. I walked away with snail treatment face masks galore. My debit card suffered, but my happiness certainly didn’t, and that’s all that matters (honest).
The rain meant we didn’t explore too much further in the day, but rather hit up Gangnam for a night on the tiles. It can be strange to go drinking in Korea – many places won’t let you order just drinks, and insist you eat there too. If you’ve already been out for dinner, this can be quite frustrating, and leads to endless walking until a suitable PLEASE LET US ONLY DRINK HERE venue can be found. It’s either that or street soju. Gangnam is pricey, as we found through going to a 30,000 won (€25) entry-fee club, where drinks were 15,000 a pop. Luckily, we were on the guest list, meaning we could enjoy the music, dancing, and irritating handsy Russian lads for free.
The final day arrived – and it was a day packed with sightseeing after the lazy rainy day we’d had the day before. First stop was Changdeokgung Palace, which boasted a secret garden tour. We strolled in the beautiful gardens, selfie-stick free for the most part, and saw stunning buildings galore, which the king once made his home. He even had a special pagoda for drinking games, so he sounded like a pretty cool guy to us. We later indulged in more culture at the Yeong Deung Hoe lotus lantern festival, where lights danced in the night sky, honouring Buddha’s birth. Parades were held through the city, with many carrying beautifully-designed lanterns in shapes such as lighthouses, lotuses, fish, and even the Korean alphabet. Lantern dragons roared through the streets, elephants trumpeted, and birds soared. Women in traditional headdresses stunned us with their beauty. The vibe was carefree, happy, and welcoming. It was certainly a great way to end our weekend in the capital.
Tourism in Seoul is big – but still not as big as many cities in the rest of Asia. It is a shame in some ways, as it means many do not rate Korea as a place worth visiting, when it most certainly is. Seoul, and the rest of the country, has lots to offer. On the other hand, it means culture and everyday life are relatively untouched, and are not sold at a price, as they are in many other countries to visiting tourists. I will certainly be making the trip to Seoul again, to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city, and bask in its cool-ness.
As the days fly by, I’m loving Korea more and more. There have been very few frustrations (the ones that exist are usually related to the fact that people walk really slowly here…and if that’s my only grumble, you can probably see that it’s an all round decent place to live), I’m getting to grips with the language barrier and am finally able to at least order something in Korean when eating/shopping, and I’m beginning to realise half of the information I read about Korea before coming is really not applicable to my experience here.
I expected people to goggle at me non-stop, but hardly anyone stares. Kids might, but children do that everywhere around the world, so it’s hardly unique. I stressed myself out for days trying to remember exactly how to greet the principal of my school, bogged down in all the information I’d received relating to first-time meetings – make sure you hold your arm whilst shaking their hand (as it’s rude to just extend one), bring gifts, address them with the correct title, bow, and at the company dinner, don’t refuse soju if your life depends on it. So far, when shaking people’s hand, I’ve not seen them touch their other hand to their arm once. Deep bows are for serious formal occasions. My principal is a wonderful human being who couldn’t care less about titles and invited me for tea in her office despite me never uttering 만나서 반갑습니다 (formal – nice to meet you), a sentence drilled into my head over orientation that flew out my head when I had to actually say it. Nobody even cracked open the soju at our school hweshik (company dinner). All the bottles that had been put out were taken back. Only one person drank beer. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but I really don’t find Korea to be as uptight and strange as the internet painted it to be.
Cosmetic stores here are on every street corner. Beauty is big business here, and Korea is quite image conscious. You can see girls touching up their make-up on the subway, quite often with a roller still in their hair. Sheet face masks are a big thing, and you can even get ones with animals printed on them, so you can be cute while your face gets the treatment it deserves. Every society is superficial in some way, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing at all. In fact, for a girl like me, who loves her make-up, it’s pretty dangerous. I want to try it all. I spend ludicrous amounts of money on snail slime cosmetic creams (no, really). As I type, I’m sitting with my feet in individual bags, a foot-peel solution working its magic on my poor rugged old tootsies. I’ve tried carbonated bubble masks that make you resemble human moss as they puff up over time, sheet masks with tiger faces printed on them, and am currently in love with Korean lipstick, which tints your lips and lasts for hours. Free samples are a given when buying make-up at most stores, which is an added bonus – except when the samples are skin-whitening cream. Think I’ll pass on that one.
This neatly allows me to move on to something I am not able to take a pass on – the school’s ‘enforced sports’. Participating in school sports is a must, lest the principal passively-aggressively ignore me for weeks. It’s bad enough being the token foreign teacher who doesn’t speak the language; there’s no way I’m ostracising myself by choosing not to take part in the weekly ‘yoga’ classes/hikes/volleyball. The ‘yoga’ deserves its own inverted commas, because it is not like any yoga I have ever seen. I have never seen so many flexible people in a room who weren’t putting on a dance show. The PE teacher moves these teachers-by-day, apparently-contortoinists-by-night, into deep stretches that even my yoga instructor at home wouldn’t do. The principal, a woman I assume to be in her 60s, can get her nose to touch her knees in a sitting position. I can barely touch my own feet. This is then followed by a round of volleyball, where bruises are easily gained due to how seriously the sport is taken. We have a match coming up in May, and as I am tall, I was Nakmin Elementary’s Most Wanted as regards to who would be playing. As you play, you’re met with calls of ‘Ni-suuuuuuh’ (nice) – Koreans are keen to add an extra vowel onto the ends of many English words. It is truly wonderful motivation, and as I understand it, I’ll leave the pronunciation class for now.
In Korea, even something as simple as ‘yes’ can be tricky to understand. Say I know that little Soo Young is sick, so I ask you the question “He isn’t here, is he?” What’s your answer, as an English speaker? I hope it’s a resounding “No”. The children here will do quite the opposite, and answer “Yes.” It was very confusing the first time I heard it, and I had to repeat the question – but was still met with “Yes.”
In Korean, if you make a negative statement, you usually have to answer “Yes” in a situation such as the one above. Imagine the full sentence to be “Yes, you are right. He is not here”, rather than the English “No, he isn’t here” that you don’t repeat back. It actually makes a lot of sense – you’re in agreement with the speaker and are affirming the statement, but it takes some getting used to. I do try to correct the yeses, but it can be really confusing for everybody involved. It may just be easier to ask questions that don’t merit a yes/no response.
Similarly, the signal for ‘come here’ looks rather like the signal you would use to mean ‘go away’. Stretch your hand out in front of you, palm down, and move your fingers in and out. Koreans do this, as it’s rude to do it palm facing upwards. That’s how you’d beckon a dog. On first glance, it can look rather like the gesture you’d make to tell someone to leave, or go. Whilst playing volleyball, I confused the 6th grade teacher rather a lot by backing off every time he beckoned me to come towards him. I finally realised what he was doing, and had to explain to him that I wasn’t stupid (honest), I had just misunderstood the hands. If I can’t even understand Korean hand gestures, I don’t think I have much hope when it comes to speaking the language.
With my skin feeling silkier than it ever has before, a newfound (slight) appreciation for team sports, and a love/hate relationship with soju, Korea is getting better and better as time goes by.
Tomorrow brings my first school trip with the kids from 5th grade. They are my favourites – last week I asked them “How are you?” and one of them responded “I’m angry.” I asked him why, and he responded “Teacher ugly.” Those little rascals. I’m pretty sure it’s because I had a spot on my chin, as it’s the only day they’ve said it to me. 10 year old boys certainly tell it like it is. Imagine what it’ll be like spending an entire day on a bus with them – my next post will probably be titled ‘Why I decided to go under the knife in Korea’. Watch this space.
Over a month in Korea, and it feels like it’s been longer than that already. I still have to really get myself into the swing of things at my school, but now I’ve started teaching solo in the afternoons, it’s become more of a challenge for me. Every day, after we’ve all stuffed our faces (or, in my case, due to my strong fish aversion, accepting I will be hungry until dinner time after only eating a select few items), I head to a homeroom classroom and teach 25 grinning faces some English. Unless the class is sixth grade, and the grinning faces turn into surly ‘What on earth could you possibly teach me?’ kind of faces.
Taking the class alone is certainly something which requires you to be on your toes. Kids in one class panicked as they realised they weren’t going to have their Korean teacher to assist them or translate (good), kids in another went mental at the prospect of Miss Lawrenson alone for forty minutes, and kids in the sixth grade glowered at me through too-cool-for-school eyes. The children at my school don’t have an incredibly high level of English either, so it can certainly be a tough forty minutes to get through. Worth it, however, when a third year tells you ‘I love you’ at the end of your lesson. Quite what the reply to that is supposed to be, I don’t know.
Teaching, however, is nothing new – the same problems have followed me around the globe, along with the same rewards teaching brings. Children here are a dream compared to wily, wall-climbing Spanish kids. While some of them are a little naughty, it’s usually one per school year, compared to at least half the class, as I was used to all those years back in Barcelona. Korean kids (and adults) are really inquisitive, too. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked in virtually every introduction class:
“How old are you?” (No English/Spanish child would dream of asking this)
“How tall are you?”
“Are you married?”
These are the standard questions we were told to expect from pretty much everyone in Korea.
Other questions, such as “What’s your favourite Korean food?” were met with sniggers, as apparently I can’t pronounce Japchae…even though I am relatively sure one can’t really go wrong with that one. I should be the one laughing at them, considering there is both an L and an R in my name, but I’m supposed to be the adult here.
“What’s your blood type?” however, was an interesting change from the same old same old, and the child seemed rather surprised when I told them I didn’t actually know.
Teaching, however, is not something that interests most people, so I’ll move on to the juicy part of today’s post – cherry blossoms and spring springing.
Korea, as I’ve stated before, is by no means striking. It has a certain homely charm to it, however, which means everywhere you walk, you feel comfortable. It is hard to describe quite what the feeling is, but the very streets themselves emit warmth. It is somewhat beautiful in its ugliness. I would really like to find out the method behind the madness of rebuilding the entire country as one singular tower block (or so it seems), and I’m sure I’ll get closer to finding the answer by the end of the year.
Now it’s spring, the edge has been taken off the stark, sharp towers by the arrival of the cherry blossom. Trees all over the city have bloomed into pink paradise, lighting up our path as we stroll. Cherry blossom festivals are held all around Korea, and I was lucky enough that one was in my neighbourhood. Down the 온천천 (Oncheoncheon) river, stalls popped up and lanterns were hung delicately between the trees, ready for the thousands descending upon the banks to see the glorious cherry blossoms. Food stalls aplenty, we were faced with so much choice that we didn’t quite know what to buy – craving starchy food in order to do away with our rotten hangovers from too much Soju the night before. Soju is a Korean drink, and at a ridiculously low price for 18%, it is pretty much the go-to. Koreans pushed their way through the crowds to take selfies by the trees, and in among the small patches of rapeseed. The selfie game was incredibly strong. You only have one chance a year to get that cherry blossom pic, after all.
Another spring festivity was today’s Holi Hai festival of colour, held at Haeundae Beach. Haeundae is packed with foreigners as it is, and today even more flocked to the area to chuck coloured powder at one another, dance around in the sand, and eat delicious samosas. Holi is a spring festival in India, which is becoming very popular around the world. Coloured dust is thrown into the air, sticking to everyone it comes across, and the spring festival sends out a message of frivolity, love, and togetherness. It is impossible to leave without a smile and ten different colours plastered on your face. You can almost smell the neon in the air. As it was my first Holi festival, I was unsure of how much this would just be some gimmick to get us to part with our hard-earned cash, but it was very much a day to remember – a time for us all to let loose and experience something new.
Spring makes everyone happy, and as the days get warmer and the flowers creep out of their dainty buds, our grins here get larger. Here’s to the new season, and to many a new adventure that lies ahead!
I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since I arrived in South Korea. I expected to be wailing under the covers by this time, sniffling and puffy-eyed because I missed home. Not true in the slightest. These few weeks have been very strange for me…mostly because I don’t feel strange here.
I imagined complete culture shock, foodshock, and oh-God-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life shock. Aside from the latter, which is felt by most people on a regular basis, I have yet to really experience any kind of shock. The language barrier is certainly very real, but it hasn’t been a cause for any kind of trauma (yet), apart from a shouty taxi driver who pretended not to know where I was going. 5 minutes later, we pulled up outside my local metro station – I get the feeling he only pretended not to know so he could drive around the block for that extra 200 won.
Not including my new shouting taxi friend, perhaps one of the reasons that I feel so at home here is that people are so genuinely friendly. They really want to help you, really want to talk to you. Even if they don’t speak a word of English, and you can’t muster anything other than ‘thanks’ in Korean. Old ladies have offered to put my bag on their laps when on the metro. Well-meaning gentlemen point out arrows leading us to where they think we might want to go. Being called beautiful in the street isn’t completely weird. Even if you stutter out ‘hello’ in your terrible Korean, people praise you and commend you on your wonderful pronunciation (so, yes, they are obviously a nation of fibbers). Korea is helpful, friendly, and safe.
I’m settling in to my school rather well. My co-teachers are both lovely, and keen to help me wherever they can, whenever they can. I hope that we will make a good team. My principal has already given me a toothbrush, a water bottle, and a phone charm as gifts – keen on me feeling welcome at the school, obviously. One day, the other English teachers and I were called to her office. A little worried about what I’d done to be summoned, I tentatively nibbled on the rice flour biscuits she passed around, and waited to hear the bad news. It turns out she wanted to start a tea club with the younger teachers in the school, and all of us were then called upon to arrange a day, chat a little, and finish up the biscuits. Not content with just a Tea Club, the teachers were told that they were to attend sports activities every Wednesday. No exceptions. Last Wednesday, we marched around the hall to rousing military-style music, and took part in ballet yoga. It was very surreal.
On Saturday, I awoke to find it was a glorious, sunny day. The sky was clear, the air was as fresh as it could possibly be here (more on my new worry, pollution, at a later date), and the chill in the atmosphere had subdued. We decided it would be a good day to explore. Busan tower, situated near the port area of the city, made for a fine excursion. A 120-metre high viewing tower, it sits on a hillside just out of Nampodong, a hustling and bustling shopping area with fashionable shops aplenty, and a rammed marketplace – selling everything from Korean won-themed taekwondo shorts to imported Japanese build-your-own sweet boxes. Up on the hill, it’s peaceful, and your climb is rewarded with a look over Busan. The port, with hundreds and hundred of fishing boats lined up and ready. The mountains, jutting out of the city, powerful and strong. The high rise Haeundae beach buildings – glinting at you in the distance, a faraway reminder of just how big this city is. Up the tower, dizziness greeted us, with even more spectacular views of the surrounding area.
Busan tower is also an area for true love. A mini-pilgrimage of romance, where star-crossed lovers put a padlock on the surrounding wire fence, along with a plastic engraved heart, or even phone case (well, you know, it is Korea). These pretty hearts swamp the whole fence, and the entire tower is surrounded by declarations of true love. Perhaps I’ll be visiting there myself, padlock in hand, at a later point.
Another weekend of food experimenting was also to be had. We ventured down into the local market, towards the food stalls and bars, not quite sure what we had in mind. Deeper into the market, street food was being sold at ridiculously low prices. Vats of kimchi, pre-prepared bowls of Japchae ingredients, ready to be tossed into a pan and cooked at any moment, among a myriad of things that we yet have to try…or summon up the courage to.We found a place quickly enough – slightly off-putting in that ‘Korean Pizza’ was written on the window, but not a lick of cheese was in sight. We ate Jeon, a traditional Korean pancake, ours stuffed with kimchi and meat. Jeon can be eaten as a side dish, or often with alcohol. We made sure to do both, and then order Kimchi Jjigae on top of that. Kimchi Jjigae is a warming, rich stew made with the famous fermented cabbage, spring onions, traditional stock, and tofu. It was truly delicious, and the best meal I’ve had yet.
Life day to day in Korea is very normal for me – and perhaps that’s not the interesting thing you wanted to hear when reading this blog. But to me, that’s the beauty of it. My year in Korea is letting me experience a culture at normality, just like when I was in Spain. I could truly enjoy the culture, and didn’t feel pressured to do everything I could, as quickly as possible, as one often does when visiting a new place on holiday. Korea is treating me well so far, and I can only hope I continue to have many more normal, slightly mundane adventures to share with you all.
The day finally came. The night before, I slept not a wink – tossing and turning in the Gatwick hotel room I’d booked. I’d said I wasn’t nervous, but my body was clearly telling me otherwise. On the morning of February 17th, I woke up long before my alarm, rubbed my blurry eyes, and told myself it had finally arrived. I was going to Korea. Problem was, it would take nearly a day and a half’s travel to get there.
My journey was London > Amsterdam > Doha > Seoul > Busan. A mammoth journey, on a minimal amount of sleep. I touched down in Busan 30 hours later, adrenaline coursing through my veins – even though I was exhausted, I was buzzing. That night, in the hotel I stayed at, I couldn’t sleep again. My roommate, luckily, was exactly the same. We chatted through the early hours of the morning, ready to start the next leg of our overwhelming journey.
We are here to teach English with the EPIK program. It places native teachers in schools across Korea in an effort to get kids in touch with real, native speakers of English. We had all come from around the globe to be a part of this. We, however, would not just be sent into schools willy-nilly – first there was an 8-day orientation to attend. During orientation, the English Program in Korea would be giving us thorough lectures on culture, teaching, tips and tricks, and the Korean language.
Busan University of Foreign Studies was the setting for our training period – a beautiful, modern campus in glorious mountain surroundings. We shared a dorm room for the 8 day period – I was lucky with my roommate. I don’t know how many others were! The first day on campus, we were all still exhausted but immediately went out to explore what the neighbourhood had to offer. Korea in the daytime, I have to say, is not the world’s most beautiful of places: but this is understandable when you think of what Korea was like almost half a century ago. The country was destroyed by the war, and Japanese occupation. The Korea that you see today is fresh and new – there is hardly anything that was still standing at the end of the war. Bear this in mind when visiting Korea. It makes everything they have accomplished that much more incredible. Suddenly, the streets you walk don’t seem so ugly.
Orientation was a series of lectures and classes designed to help us as EPIK teachers – there were people from all walks of life. Some people had taught before, others had little to no experience, and some were simply wishing to try the program out as a way to experience a new culture. Whatever we were there for, we all bonded and slipped into friendships quickly, much like at university. When everyone is new to a situation they use it to bring them closer. Eight days with perfect strangers might be scary to some (myself included – I’m not too good meeting new people), but in this new country it was easy, unforced, and definitely a lot of fun.
We also had to undergo a medical test (again, ridiculously early in the morning – sensing a pattern here?), which none of us were all too happy with, but was over rather quickly. We were weighed, measured, x-rayed, and tested on our eyesight – and last but not least, blood and urine samples were taken. Though not together. Our results would be given to us within a few days…all was well!
Lectures were broken up by a field trip out to Haeundae beach – where skyscrapers tower over the seafront, glistening in the sunshine. A flat in one of these is said to cost billions of won – meaning they don’t come cheap. For a pure, unadulterated view over the East Sea, and practically all of Busan, it might be worth it. The design of these buildings was also striking, compared to the uniform high rises seen all over the city. Barcelona is a hectic mess of old and new, closely crammed in together. It is beautiful because of this, a complete mesh of architecture. Korean housing simply shoots up into the air, and doesn’t do much more than that visually. Looking out over Busan, many districts seem to be a repetition of the same photograph – blocks upon blocks of flats have everything in common.
Our day out was brought to a close by a visit to the UN Peace Park. This is a memorial to those who fought from the UN in the Korean War. I haven’t studied too much about the war, and thus was interested in learning more about it. There is, however, not too much information given at the memorial park. I was met, unexpectedly, with a wave of emotion. A wall of all the US soldiers who died in the Korean War snaked around a pretty pond. Columns and columns of names went on and on, making eyes smart in realisation of just how many people lost their lives in this terrible conflict. Names from all over the globe were engraved there, and we were all shocked into silence as the list simply became a blur – too many names to take in. Over 30,000 US soldiers lost their lives, and over 1,000 British. The UN memorial is home to 837 of our British soldiers’ graves – more than any other nationality buried there. It is a quiet, contemplative place, where I hope they have found peace.
The rest of the week rolled on with further lectures, classes, and information. Visiting lecturers came, talking about Korean culture, engaging us with funny stories, and teaching us how to deal with alien concepts such as co-teaching, which is the widely used format over the EPIK program. In all, it was a tiring, but informative week, that I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience. Being thrown in at the deep end would certainly have been difficult to deal with – a new school, new apartment, and new life all at once might make anybody consider returning to their old life.
Then, finally, the day came where we were to leave orientation and meet our new co-workers: our co-teachers, in fact. Nervously waiting with our luggage, one by one teachers came out with signs, calling out our names (or how they thought our names might be pronounced). Finally, after an agonising half an hour or so – two voices piped up with my own. My co-teachers loaded my very heavy luggage into the car, knees buckling under the weight, and drove me across town to my new flat. My eyes were as big as saucers as I looked out over the city hustle and bustle – being confined to the university meant we hadn’t seen much of Busan life yet. It was just as you might expect Asia to be: terrible driving, hundreds of people crossing the road in all directions at once, and rows of tall buildings with bright, beaming lights. I was attracted to them immediately – like a moth to the flame.
The teachers chit-chatted away to each other in Korean, and asked me some questions. After some nervous laughter we began to talk a little more, and I learned small things about them, the area I would be in, and what kind of food I should try. As we drew up to my apartment block, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The flat inside was a pleasant surprise – quite large (we’d been told flats were a mixed bag), with a double bed, separate kitchen, and plenty of storage space. Underfloor heating is a complete revolution for me and I doubt I will want to give that up at the end of the year. Now, decorated and cleaned, my flat feels very homely. I’m very pleased with my lot.
The area I live in is called Dongnae, and I explored it at once. It’s very busy, due to it being right opposite the local market, and I loved it right off the bat. So many sights, sounds and smells were there to take in. Ahjummas sitting at the side of the road, selling all sorts, from kelp to ginseng, from sea slugs to hotteok – a hot Korean pancake stuffed with a cinnamon syrup filling. Navigating the Megamart (the local hypermarket) was a stress-inducing experience. Too polite to simply barge through the aisles with my trolley, I spent most of my time waiting for a gap in the throng, weaving in and out late-night Friday shoppers, getting everything but the kitchen sink.
I’m still finding my feet here, but I’m getting used to the idea of living in Korea. It still isn’t as real as I expected it to be, and I’m sure the culture shock and homesickness will set in soon – but until then, I’m going to enjoy strolling around the food stalls, singing my heart out at the noraeban (karaoke bar – yep, Korea loves them too), trying not to buy everything that has a cute face painted on it (even sponges do), and assuring the restaurant staff that spicy is absolutely fine, thank you. Korea, so far, is everything I ever hoped it to be!
Four years ago, I moved to Spain. In the UK, I had wanted to become a teacher. Applying for jobs and schemes usually had the same result though – ‘looking for someone with experience’. How can you get that experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? However, I soon saw a light shining at the end of a tiny tunnel. A conversation assistant in a Spanish school: great! That’ll give me something to pop on my CV. I’ll go back after a year.
Four years later, and there I still was. TEFL-qualified, experienced, and loving it. Barcelona is full of charms, and I am incredibly glad of my decision to move there. It helped me learn a language, blend into another culture, and taught me so many things.
Four years ago, I was also looking down other small tunnels, in the maze of life. One such was the opportunity to teach in South Korea, as a guest English teacher on a state school programme. I applied, and was interviewed. I pulled out because I was scared. I pulled out because I didn’t think I’d be able to be that far away from home, to live in a culture so different to my own. I pulled out because I told myself I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t experienced enough. There’d always be someone better.
Four months ago, I began again. I believed in myself enough to apply for a position in South Korea, and wanted it enough to know that I could do it. I wanted to live in another place, experience such a new world, learn a new language, and better myself as a teacher. South Korea, an economic powerhouse steeped in tradition, but pushing itself ever forward into the modern world of technology, beckoned me. So off the radar as a tourist destination, I believed it would give me a true glimpse of life on another side of the globe.
Four months later, here I am, back in the UK, after weeks and weeks of preparation. I’ll leave all that for another day – the hoops I’ve had to jump through, and the endless paperwork I’ve almost wept tears of frustration over, have given me enough stress to last a lifetime and even two panic attacks. Four months later, however, here I am with visa in hand (well, it’s on my desk), and a position with the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education. I’m €700 worse off (not even including the flight), but my heart is lighter and sings with happiness: I did it! I got there! I’m still pinching myself over it.
So now you all know: one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet on here recently. I was planning. Plotting. Scheming for my next great adventure.
My holidays this year took me to Thailand, where we spent a grand total of 17 days wishing we had booked to stay longer, and particularly wishing we had stayed in Bangkok for a longer period of time than just two days. On the advice of many, we visited beach areas, and lush jungle, loving the chilled feel and landscape in the latter, but being slightly disappointed by the former. Thailand is amazing. The beaches are equally amazing. However, once you’ve been to the beach, I can’t help but feel that most beaches in the world are rather similar, no matter how white the sand and how sheer the rock faces around them are. Everything is tailored to the tourists – and as tourists, we should expect this, and it’s rather ironic to complain about such a thing, but there comes a point where there is only so much ‘fake’ Thailand you can take. Trying to relax on a tiny patch of sand when there are 50 other boatloads of tourists milling around you taking selfies is not my idea of the best beach in the world.
The thing that I loved most about the Land of Smiles, as Thailand is known there, was the cheap, beautiful, flavoursome food that was available on every street corner, at every turn took, and even available at the beach, from sellers carting baked bananas, sweetcorn, and coconuts galore around with them in the sweltering heat. Curries with layers of complex flavour left me gagging for more, and I could have spent hours in the supermarket deciphering packages of snacks, drinks, and desserts, all of them calling my name, begging me to try them. Time was our enemy in this case – there were so many dishes I wanted to taste. The best places to eat where the dirtiest, grubbiest carts at the roadside, surrounded by plastic chairs and tables blackened by dirt and exhaust fumes. There, we enjoyed many meals at around just 1€ each – including drink. Going off the beaten track proved even more rewarding – places where English wasn’t on the menu meant we got to eat just like the Thais – cheaply and spicily! I’ve come back to Spain with a taste of Thailand in my mouth and an urge to learn as many recipes as possible, recreate them, enjoy them, and make them my own. I spend most days in the Asian supermarkets, fawning over foreign spices and strange-looking vegetables.
One thing we never got to try in Thailand was street fried chicken. With so much available to us, it was one of those things that just happened to pass us by. Whilst watching a Thai cooking channel on Youtube, I stumbled across a recipe for Thai fried chicken, and knew I had to try some. The problem was that the recipe called for chicken wings, and I really dislike chicken skin, so I decided to rehash the recipe to the best of my ability, and from what I remembered on the video. It was also my first ever time making deep fried chicken, so I was keen to see the results.
I was NOT disappointed. This chicken is the best I’ve ever had, and I realise that means I’m not only blowing my own trumpet – I’m practically doing it until I’m blue in the face…but seriously, this chicken is almost worthy of me adding swear words into this sentence. I’m not going to – that would be vulgar, but I’m finding it hard to describe how good this chicken is without using a four-letter word. It’s ridiculously easy and sure to be a hit with anyone who tries it, so why not give it a go? It was great for us to try as it uses rice flour, so my boyfriend finally got some fried chicken, as most places here use breadcrumbs or normal flour. This recipe, however, is gluten-free.
What you’ll need:
2 tbsp black/white pepper (mixed).
1 whole fresh red chilli
1 clove of garlic
1 tsp of sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 shallots/baby onions
1 tsp fish sauce
3/4 tbsps soy sauce
100g rice flour (approx)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (optional)
3 chicken breasts, cut into strips.
Vegetable oil for frying
2 more shallots, for garnish
First you’ll need a pestle and mortar. It would be quite difficult to make without one, but if you chop up your garlic and shallots rrreeeeallly small, you might be able to do it!
Chop up your garlic and shallots, then pound in the pestle and mortar until they resemble a paste. Add in your chilli, again chopped, and continue to pound.Now it’s time to stir in your pepper, salt, and sugar. Add these to the minced garlic/shallots and keep on pounding – hope your hand isn’t too tired yet!
Mix in the wet sauces – soy and fish. Transfer mixture to a freezer bag, or a container to marinate the chicken in. The bag is better as it allows you to rub the mixture into the chicken without getting yourself too messy.
Put chicken into freezer bag, and rub in the mixture. Make sure it’s fully coated, and then store in the fridge for 1hr minimum. The longer you leave it, the better the flavour’ll be.
When your chicken is ready, whizz up a batter in a bowl. Pour in some of your rice flour (you can easily make more, so I’d say play this one by ear…or eye) and bicarb, and mix well with water until a smooth batter is formed. It should be liquidy, rather than just a paste. Add further soy sauce if desired.
Prepare a plate with the remaining rice flour, and a sheet of tin foil to rest the chicken on before cooking. Dip the chicken in the batter, then transfer to the rice flour plate, and coat thoroughly. Set the battered chicken onto the tin foil. Do this until all are completely coated. Leave to dry out a little on the tin foil sheet. Chop up your remaining shallots ready for frying. Don’t chop them too small, just enough to crisp up.
Prepare a pan of hot oil. It’ll need to be enough to deep fry the chicken. Get the temperature up to optimum for frying, then add in your chicken strips, not crowding the pan (2/3 at a time). Keep turning the chicken and cook until golden brown in colour. Transfer to a plate with kitchen paper on it to soak up any excess oil. Keep going until all your chicken is cooked. Add the shallots into the pan and fry off, taking out as they become crispy. Garnish your chicken with the shallots; serve with plain thai rice, and sweet chilli sauce.
In June, we were given some terrible news. My boyfriend was to follow a strict diet, embarking on a gluten-free and lactose-free adventure. At the time, our hearts sank. What would he do without cheese? Bread, that staple of the Catalan community, was a thing of the past. Many things contain gluten that we don’t even think about – including things such as toothpaste. This news was given to me on my birthday, which rather ruined our fine dining Italian restaurant experience I’d chosen as a birthday treat.
Trips to the world’s most expensive supermarkets, selling Bio everything, were now a part of the weekly shop. Meals out became increasingly difficult, with almost half the menu often wiped out. In solidarity, I decided to reduce my gluten and lactose intake, expecting it to be one of the hardest things I’d have to do. I have a complicated relationship with food, and after just starting to enjoy it, and myself, in food-related situations, I thought life was about to become much more bland and boring.
Things couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s not that hard to eat ‘free-from’, especially now in Spain, as Bio supermarkets become more popular, and intolerances, or even life choices regarding diets, become widely more commonplace. I now have become an experimenter with food – my blender is my best friend, and my purse is suffering the consequences, but I don’t care. When your tummy feels happy, it affects everything in your life.
For this reason, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my experiments here, as I’d been posting many things on Facebook with people often requesting recipes – so watch this space for some interesting and (hopefully) delicious recipes!
Today’s experiment was based around chia seeds. These little balls of surprise contain huge amounts of fibre and protein, and magically bulk up things such as overnight oats and smoothies, to make a thicker texture. They have no taste, so are easy to add to recipes just for the nutritional benefit. But I wanted more from my chia seeds. I wanted to see what else they offered me. After browsing around the internet, I stumbled across a few recipes substituting egg as a binding agent for chia seeds. As it was a Sunday, my baking hat was already on – I love baking on Sundays, as it reminds me of home, and weekends spent licking the batter from spoons. I decided to create my own cake recipe that encompassed lactose-free and gluten-free.
Why not go the whole hog, though? If I didn’t use an egg, I could go further and make the cake dairy-free…and then push it more and make it refined sugar-free. A true experiment, because I bloody love cake. Nothing beats the light, fluffy goodness of it when it’s freshly baked. However, I’d sworn I’d eat less sugar (the ingredient in EVERYTHING, it seems) and was looking for recipes the other half could eat guilt-free. Needs must.
So, here’s my recipe for a banana loaf (one of my favourites in the loaf world), but tweaked to be free from nearly everything. Enjoy!
Chia Seed Banana and Walnut Loaf
The first thing to do is get your chia seeds into some water and let them soak it up. You’ll need 1tbsp of them, to 3tbsp of water. I just used tap water and left them in a little ramekin to do their thing. This will replace your egg and bind your mixture together. Plus so much good in such a little seed can’t be doing any harm, can it?
Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees centigrade. On a hot day in my kitchen, there was nothing less that I felt like doing, but having the oven ready means having cake much sooner!
While those absorb, mash up bananas in a mixing bowl. Then add your muscovado sugar. You could do this with other sugars, of course, but I’m very partial to it in baking for its rich taste, and the fact that it’s non-refined. It’s difficult to get hold of in Spain but you can go to Bio markets and self-serve nut/grain shops like ‘Gra’ in the Gracia neighbourhood – which is reasonably priced and crammed up to the brim with alternative flours, pastas and grains. You can also sweeten your cake up with dates, but I like to taste the banana more than anything, so I put quite little sugar in.
I added some maple syrup into my mix, but you don’t have to. I am a sucker for syrup in general, so it winked at me from the corner of the cupboard. I think it wouldn’t make much difference flavour-wise, so if you have some to hand, then do the same as me and pour a smidgen in.
Mix up your sugar and banana mix, and add vanilla essence/powder. I bought some pure vanilla powder from a local health shop, and felt it was quite expensive at €12, but I use it every day for smoothies and other puddings so it’s a worthy investment, plus it lasts a while. The chia seeds need to have rested in the water for twenty minutes, so make sure they have done so, and then add them into your banana/sugar blend.
Weigh desiccated coconut and buckwheat flour out, and add the tsp of baking powder. If you don’t make this GF, you can use self-raising flour and cancel out the baking powder. You could add chocolate pieces/cacao nibs/cocoa powder for flavour, but that’s another experiment waiting to happen!
Mix your flour and coconut into the mashed banana mixture. Now it’s time to add some almond milk, a little at a time along with the flour mix, until you have a nice smooth consistency. Your instincts should tell you how much you need to put in – if it’s a little on the dry side, add more almond milk, and if it’s too watery, then you may need to add more flour/coconut to bulk it up. This is the reason why you need to add it all a little at a time!
The finishing touch will be some walnuts. Cut them up small, if you like, or keep them rather big for texture. Fold them into the mixture and it’s ready to be poured into a baking tin, pre-greased (I did mine with vegetable oil) or filled with baking parchment.
Put your cake in the oven and cook for about 40-45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Take out and leave to rest, then get it while it’s hot! The loaf’s texture is heavy because of the buckwheat, so if you don’t like that kind of dessert, you can switch and experiment with flours. I wanted a dense loaf suitable for work time snacks, so the texture was perfect for me.
Voila! Here’s my finished loaf. The colour was a rich brown, and it might sound strange, but that’s exactly how it tasted to me – I told you I liked that muscovado taste! The bananas add a lot of flavour and the texture is completely different to your usual banana loaf, which is why I liked it a lot. You could serve it as a dessert and pour more syrup on it, if you liked, or you could do as I’m going to, and take slivers for fuel throughout the day.
120g buckwheat flour
2 whole bananas
60g dark muscovado sugar (dates can also be added to sweeten)
As I roll through the door with bulging belly, it seems only fitting that my next post should be about the culinary delights to be found in Barcelona. There was a time, long ago, when I did not think food was so important, and ate mostly to fuel myself along, but this city, along with growing to realise there is more to life than hopelessly counting calories, has changed my outlook on food – Spanish culture and their attitude to food in general is something we can all learn from.
“Paella, rice, chicken!” are the shouts that greet you as you walk down La Rambla. Now it’s not so much walking, but fighting your way through the shirtless, burned masses who populate the city centre come summer. Big, glaring pictures of seafood, blackened rice, loaded ‘bravas’, and er, traditional sangria leap out at you from the restaurant windows. It never ceases to amaze me that the outside terraces down the seaside end of La Rambla are always crammed to the hilt, full of those sporting ‘I Love Barcelona’ hats and #10 footy t-shirts. If that’s your bag, don’t let me stop you, but before you cram that ages-old frozen potato, otherwise known as ‘bravas caseras’ (home-made), into your mouth, and before you sip that ridiculously sweet, overpriced and over-fruited sangria, let me tell you something: this is not what Barcelona is. This is the same as going to Oxford Street and eating a Pizza Hut. You can do it anywhere in the world. The paella is frozen, but still costs the same as a real ‘casera’ paella, and the sangria, which isn’t even a typical drink of those who live here, is watered down so much it might as well be fruit squash.
Sure, you don’t know where to go. Sure, it’s convenient. I know I’ve eaten in Pizza Hut in London, too. But even five minutes away, you can find a treasure trove of beautifully cooked, authentic food which is well worth the wait, and you won’t pay through the nose for it. Food is a great part of daily life in Barcelona, and it is meant to be enjoyed. If you only have a day or two to enjoy the city, then try to eat as well as possible, but I understand convenience might be the best way to go. However, if you’re here for a longer spell, read on for some tips on where to eat like a local.
Ok, so I started with drinks, you got me – but it’s impossible to live in this city and not enjoy the culture of ‘Vermut’. It doesn’t actually just mean drinking vermouth. There is an art to this. On Sundays, locals flock to bars, order a ‘vermut’ and sit with a soda siphon, topping up, and eating raciones de tapas as they go. The vibe is jovial, relaxed, and friendly – meeting and watching the world go by as the sun warms your face. I hate vermouth, but I love the idea of what is pretty much an alcoholic brunch. Order yourself a vermouth, some chips de patatas, ‘berberechos’ (cockles), ‘almejas’ (clams), and don’t forget sauce to put on it – Salsa Espinaler, famed across Catalunya for putting on your seafood tapas, is a blend of spices with works particularly well with all the aforementioned tidbits. They even have their own bar in the nearby beach town, Vilassar de Mar, if you fancy catching the train and spending a relaxing Sunday at the seaside, away from the throngs.
Espinaler, Cami Ral, Vilassar de Mar (served by Rodalies Renfe, taking the train towards Mataro)
Bodega Marin, Mila i Fontanals 72, Gracia.
Pintxos, actually a Basque tradition, are famed all over Spain. The premise is an individual ‘tapa’, held all together with a stick – when you’ve had your fill, the waiter or waitress counts your sticks, and you pay for each one. You can try all manner of typical Spanish food this way, at the small (general) price of one euro. Head to Calle Blai, near Paral.lel metro, where ‘Pintxo Alley’ is located, to experience a wide array of treats-on-sticks (so far removed from cheese and pineapple on sticks). The entire street is full of bars and cafés offering a variety of more traditional (croquettes, Spanish omelette) to the experimental (falafel, kebab meat). Many will offer deals on a ‘caña’ (beer) and pintxo together. Tapas is also offered at most of the bars, so why not try a bit of both? Be sure to try ‘pimientos del padrón’, small fried green peppers, covered in crunchy sea salt.
Some notable pintxo bars on Calle Blai are Blai Tonight (23-25), and La Tasqueta del Blai (17).
Catalan food, it must be said, is not one of my favourites in world cuisine, but it is certainly worth a try – think hearty, earthy, more home-style meals, which is not at all to be sniffed at and you’re sure to leave with your stomach bulging in content. Washed down with a great wine, the rustic element of Catalan food is very enjoyable, particularly if you want to escape the typical, infamous frozen paella. Whatever you order, make sure it’s accompanied by pa amb tomàquet, the delicious bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and sprinkled with a dash of salt. Some notable dishes are botifarra amb mongetes (sausage with white beans), escalivada (grilled vegetables, typically aubergines and pepper, then served with what often feels like a sea of olive oil – but trust me, it’s delicious), and, if you’re here in the earlier months of the year, calçots. These thin onion/leek hybrids (taste of an onion, size of a small leek) are a Catalan staple and are absolutely not to be missed. Calçotadas, a special kind of barbecue where calçots are roasted on an open fire until blackened around the edges, dipped in romesco sauce, then eaten in the messiest way possible – you strip off the skin and then dangle the juicy inside into your mouth – followed by various grilled meats, are widely enjoyed all over Catalunya. Both a cultural and gastronomic treat, you can attend municipal Calçotadas if you’re willing to go a little out of the city.
Calçotada dates vary from year to year, but check on local websites and places like meetup.com, where they will often be advertised.
For a taste of Catalunya, try:
Ciutat Comtal (more tapas style, and if you’re willing to wait for over 30 minutes – no reservations are taken), Rambla de Catalunya 18.
La Panxa del Bisbe, Torrent de les Flors, 158, Gracia.
And what you’ve been waiting for…fish!
So, Catalan and Spanish cuisine are different, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a mean paella here. I’m no fish eater, unfortunately – I would so like to be, as the variety on offer and freshness of the seafood here is incredible. I am, however, dragged around to many a fish restaurant as my other half could eat the majority of the fish in the Med, if he so wished – so I do know where to go. Some of the best fish to be had will obviously be found by the port, where you can find everything from tourist trap to high class eatery. Any place that has a picture of a paella outside is to be avoided – no exceptions. Before you go straight in with the rice, though – consider your options. Another popular dish here is fideuà, typical of Valencia, with the same principle as paella but made with thin, vermicelli-like noodles. Taste this with a whacking dollop of allioli (garlic sauce), and you’ll reek for days but be happy for weeks. Other notable things to try are chipirones, which are small fried squid, chocos (other squid-type friends), pescado frito (fried fish), paella negra, and most types of salted fish – salted cod is typical here, too. You’ll probably be in fish-heaven with most choices on the menus here, so if you’re a seafood diehard, the Costa Brava and Barcelona is the right place to be.
Some recommendable places:
Can Carlus, Tossa de Mar (you have to get out of the city, but if you’re on a Costa Brava holiday, it’s worth it)
Some other notable places you may want to consider on your trip are:
Can Paixano (La Xampanyeria) – champagne at cheap prices, big cuts of catalan sausage and other typical tapas treats to be enjoyed – what’s not to like? Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta.
En Aparté – French run bar, generous portions, cheese platters, delicious wine, desserts, and crusty, beautiful bread (oh God, I’m drooling). Carrer de Lluís el Piadós, 2, El Born.
Kiosko – burgers that everyone talks about, queues often out the door – yes, we can say that about McDonald’s too, but this is the real deal and you’ll pay more or less the same for a more enjoyable burger right down by the sea! Av. del Marquès de L’Argentera, El Born.
Mosquito – tapas, Asian style. Dumplings galore. I could eat the dumplings from here every day. If I go, I pretty much order dumplings in all shapes and sizes – who needs anything else? Wide range of beer, including gluten-free, at very good prices. Carrer Carders 46, El Born.