Seoul Good


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.

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Cute little Hanok houses – the area I stayed in in Seoul.

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.

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All you need is love.

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:

  1. Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
  2. Rinse.
  3. Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
  4. Tone.
  5. 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.
  6. Use mask (twice a week).
  7. Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
  8. Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
  9. 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.

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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.

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A Feast of Firsts


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.

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The other day’s make-up haul. I have an addiction. 

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.

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Little Buddha figurines at Haedongyonggunsa Temple (say that with your mouth full)
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Haedongyonggungsa temple – the temple by the sea
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Ramen socks! The love for the ramyeon is all around, here.

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Crying cockles, and mussels, alive, alive-o. 
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Rabokki – ramen, tteokbokki (rice cake), boiled egg, spring onion, fish cake.

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Enjoying my second baseball game of the season – go Giants!

Spring Has Sprung


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.

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Reflections in the 온천천

 

 

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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.

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The beautiful people

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!

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Enjoying the colours
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Not a selfie in sight for us
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Whole potato, cut and then deep fried. Perfect hangover snack.
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Not the perfect hangover snack. Silkworm larvae – an adventurous friend bought it, and instantly regretted it.
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Crab, anyone?
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Rabokki – a mix of tteokbokki, which is a spicy rice cake dish, and ramen, with egg and fishcake.
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Making a human pyramid at the Holi festival. Gage professes his love to Soju.
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Me and Ruth all coloured up
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The face of happiness. Let’s leave it there.

 

Finding my Feet


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.

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School meals…are you jealous, Jamie?

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.

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Busan tower

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.

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All you need is love

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.

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Yum!

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.

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A vending machine of insanely cute Japanese trinkets

 

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Cat sushi collectables. Of course.

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Korea Kalling


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.

Hello Korea.

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Eating Off the Beaten Track


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.

Vermut

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.

Some good places to ‘Vermutear’ are:

Bormuth, Plaça Comercial 1, El Born.

Espinaler, Cami Ral, Vilassar de Mar (served by Rodalies Renfe, taking the train towards Mataro)

Bodega Marin, Mila i Fontanals 72, Gracia.

Fem vermut!
Fem vermut!
Bormut
Bormuth

Pintxos

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).

A selection of pintxos
A selection of pintxos

Catalan fodder

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.

Calçots roasting away.
Calçots roasting away.
How to eat calçots - it certainly isn't pretty, but it is fun!
How to eat calçots – it certainly isn’t pretty, but it is fun!

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.

Can Culleretes (going since 1786), Career d’en Quintana 5, El Born.

El Toc de Gracia, Carrer de Bonavista 10, Gracia.

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)

Cal Pep, Plaça de les Olles 8, El Gotico.

La Taberna Gallega de Marcos, Moll de Gregal, 23, Barceloneta.

Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.
Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.

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.

Xampanyeria
Xampanyeria – you’ll fight to get a place, but you’ll be glad you did

What Makes Me Love The UK


I’m currently back over in the UK, visiting family and a few friends – trying to fit as many people in as I can, which always makes things stressful. This time I decided I would come back for quite a long period of time, as I hadn’t been home in about a year, and then I could take things at my own pace. People I have been staying with have been working during the day, so that means I have been at my leisure to enjoy exploring on my own, and generally go places I’ve either never visited before, or haven’t been to in a long time.

On the one hand, it feels quite strange to be back. It was actually very odd when I first arrived and found that English didn’t roll off my tongue so easily when speaking to a stranger. This might strike you as weird – I speak English every day, teaching it, and I live with English speakers, but I’m so used to going to restaurants, supermarkets, and wherever it might be, and starting in Spanish, that I instinctively went with that, and had to remind myself I was back in England, and could be understood in every situation. On the other hand, I’m really enjoying my time relaxing here and taking my time to re-acquaint myself with my country. I think, to a certain extent, I have found myself romanticising about it during the past year (in the time I haven’t been back, but what I’m genuinely surprised with is that I have found all the things I played up and boasted about are true.

1. The large, lush green spaces.

Barcelona lacks in green park areas. Whilst it’s a beautiful city, the climate of Spain and Catalonia doesn’t allow for large green fields and trees sprouting leaves from every side. Everywhere I go here, there are parks and benches crammed to the hilt with people basking in the (very little) sun, reading a book and generally enjoying being outdoors. Sure, I can do that on the beach, and I love doing so, but lazing on the grass is one of my favourite things to do, particularly because it means I won’t find sand in my lugholes ten days later.

Who would believe this is in a city centre?
Who would believe this is in a city centre?

2. Chit-chat

I don’t know if this is just because I’m clearly foreign, but people in Barcelona don’t talk to me in shops. There is no countertop exchange of words other than the basic needed to acquire the needed product. At first I was surprised when shop assistants began to natter away to me (I have always remembered people as being surly and sneering to customers), and felt slightly awkward, but it’s nice to be nice, and talking to the boy in Tesco for five minutes about his motorbike certainly  isn’t going to hurt anyone. I particularly felt more welcome in the north, where I relished being called ‘petal’, ‘flower’, and ‘love’ in almost every shop situation.

3. People’s innate ability to stand on the right.

Yes, yes, it’s hardly something to write home about, but I really like that in London people get on with their commute and are very aware of the fact that other people have places to be. Of course, London isn’t a hugely personal place, but with an ever-expanding city of 7.5 million, it’s understandable. People have jobs to get to, and I don’t have  to shout at the person in front of me to get out the way, because they just understand.

4. Cider culture.

Why, oh why, can I not buy cider as a given in all the shops in Barcelona? A can of Kopparberg costs around 4-5 euros, which is just plain ridiculous, and I only know of a smattering of places that sell this wondrous drink. Here, I can buy a variety of flavoured ciders and variants on beer, like Crabbie’s, for a nice cheap price, and sip away to my heart’s content on a balmy evening. I genuinely don’t understand why it isn’t bigger in Spain, as it’s a culture that enjoys sitting and drinking slowly: exactly what you should do with a cider. Nursing a good strawberry and lime cider would make my day in Barcelona, particularly if I could do it for under 3 euros.

Nectar of the gods
Nectar of the gods

5. Sleep.

Our weather is a bit crap. That’s true, for sure. Although, as I look out the window now, the sun’s shining, there’s a light breeze, and all seems well with the world. The problem with UK weather is that it’s so changeable, which can be irritating as I’ve found I have to carry a jumper and jacket, and take them off, then put them on every five minutes. However, something to be said for the UK’s weather, is that it is nearly always cool in the evening, and I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed being able to sleep with a duvet on EVERY NIGHT. No more sweating above the sheets listening to the buzz of a mosquito, the shout of drunken men, and that dog that just won’t stop barking, because it’s too sticky and horrendous to shut the window – a breeze of about 0.154890 mph is better than nothing in Barcelona. Here, window shut, duvet on, quiet – fantastic.

6. How much we have to offer.

Nobody comes to the UK for a sun holiday. But, because our weather isn’t our selling point, I think we’ve built up a wealth of activities, especially indoor, that can be done either cheaply, or, and here’s the great thing – for free. I hardly ever visit museums in Barcelona because you have to pay an arm and a leg to visit them. I think the state should fund more art galleries and museums and request donations – because they would get them, and perhaps more people would visit. Every day this week that I’ve been in London, I’ve been able to visit a fantastic museum or exhibition for free. This doesn’t just exist in London – there are so many free activities across the UK that culture and learning are something which we can take for granted. I’ve been moved, fascinated, and interested by each museum I’ve been able to visit for no more than the price of getting there on the tube.

7. The variety of food.

English and British main meals, for me, are nothing to write home about. As I eat very little meat, that makes it quite difficult for me to get into the meat and two veg culture. I’d rather have the two veg, which actually makes Spain ideal for me, as they often have plates of veg as a course on the menu. However, I do like the fact that we are very open to other cultures and buying products from foreign countries, importing them as standard. In a regular Sainsbury’s, I found a huge selection of fresh herbs, like parsley, coriander, lemon-grass, rosemary, and many others, which I could whistle for even in the biggest hypermarkets in Spain. I often find myself looking for recipes and writing off the entire thing because I won’t be able to find the key spice or ingredient, or if I do, it will cost me half my monthly rent.

8. Fashion and personal expression.

Spanish people are very beautiful and fashionable (with the exception of those mullets I see wandering around occasionally). This is, of course, nice to look at, but one thing I like about the UK is that we are more accepting of the unconventional, and you will see many people with brightly coloured hair, tattoos, piercings, and funky clothing walking about the streets, and, what’s more, serving you in shops or doing their job however they wish to look. Provided they’re presentable, people have a much better chance of working with tattoos or piercings and so on here than they do in Spain. I worked in various jobs, including a bank, where it should of course be standard to look as professional as possible, with a piercing. Now, I would never dream of having one in a place that wasn’t my ear. It’s a shame, really, as I don’t think anybody would care if I had a lip piercing, but the culture dictates it looks non-professional, so I steer clear.

9. The Boots Meal Deal

It might seem a strange one to include in a top ten, but that is how good the meal deal is. I can’t get a nice sandwich, snack and a drink for three quid anywhere in Barcelona (unless I stick to a boring old cheese or tuna, no piri-piri chicken deal there). I can’t stress how lucky British people are to have Wotsits, Monster Munch and Skips available whenever they want. Life just isn’t fair.

10. A cracking sense of humour.

Again, this is probably more of a language barrier thing for me, but one thing I love about the British is their need to take the absolute piss out of each other within five minutes of meeting. It’s a contest and  something of a national sport – who can be more sarcastic, dry and witty? Who’s got the best put-down? Who’s more insulting without actually being insulting? Whilst I’ve met a few people who take this too far and are actually offensive under the excuse of ‘It’s only banter, mate’, generally I like this sense of humour and wish it were understood fully in other parts of the world – I’m not being rude if I insult you, it means I probably like you.

JNiVDps
A Brit isn’t a friend unless they insult you.