Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve

Well... 2011 has arrived.

I've got to say, I've never been a big fan of New Year's Eve. I can't honestly say what my ideal New Year's Eve would be, but it would likely involve some combination of the following: dinner, drinks, a movie, a dinner party at someone's house, or a quiet night at home with a special someone.

I have also enjoyed big nights out with friends, but those have been rare. I suppose I have the same problem with New Year's Eve that most people have: big expectations, and comparatively little pay-off. Hell - even if the expectations are minuscule, there is still comparatively little pay-off.

Anyway, it would have been lovely to have hung-out with my friends at home tonight - for a couple of reasons:

1) In recent years, I have found New Year's Eve to be more of a thoughtful time for me. Auld Lang Syne makes me satisfyingly sad, and gives me pause as I reflect on the past year and look to what the next year will bring. Honestly, I would rather a quiet New Years than another attempt to party like it's 1999. It's an artificial construction anyway, but if I'm going to mark it, I prefer to do so with subtlety. That's just me, and I realize that I am very much in the minority on this one.

2) I'm not on Spring Break. I just don't chase tail anymore, and since I've removed myself from the celebrated game, it's sometimes a challenge to be around those of a certain age who very clearly are an integral part of it. As I (briefly) walk the streets of popular University club districts such as Hongdae on New Year's Eve, I see people who have either adopted a healthy (and necessary) sense of irony, or who are looking for an experience that I stopped looking for sometime ago. Not saying that drinking for fun in public is something I don't enjoy from time to time, just trying to find a not-too-self-deprecating way of saying that such evenings make me feel old, and looking at the alternative, I don't really miss being young.

New Year's Day, on the other hand, is something I don't ever remember not enjoying.

Sincerely, Grandpa Dave

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Korean Jesus

Although Madonna might tell you differently, last night I learned that Jesus is Korean! True story. It happened like this: on a moonlit stroll through snowy Hongdae, the rabbit and I happened upon a Catholic church all done-up for the holidays. The church was unassuming in stature and it had its own holiday charm - most notably in the form of an outdoor nativity scene, adorned with lights and perfectly topped-off with snow. Couldn't have been more purty.

Upon closer inspection, I was surprised to find the following:

1) Mary and Joseph dressed in Hanbok (traditional Korean garb)
2) A little Janggu girl (playing a traditional Korean double-headed drum)
3) A little Gayageum girl (playing a long horizontal Korean harp)
4) A baby Jesus who would presumably grow-up to look nothing like Jim Caviezel without a little bit of help form the surgeons in Apgujeong.

It reminded me of a trip I took to Yonsei University a while back. In the university's chapel, the lobby is filled with traditional Koren style sketches of bible scenes, from the birth of Jesus up to the bitter end and the supposed beyond. But, it's all Korean, man. Even here in this picture of the last supper, dude is likely suggesting to his followers to "eat this haemeul pajeon, and think of it as me", or to "drink this maekgeoli and soon it will be the blood of our children all around." Of course, I'm just poorly paraphrasing Dave Matthews as opposed to King James.

Anyway, I do find it fascinating that racially different cultures are each tempted to make a holiday holy figure more like themselves - even for art's sake. We did the same, right? Historically and anthropologically, the man looked more like this, than he did like the happy white bearded man on the hill playing with lambs that we know from Sunday school. Just sayin'.

Anyway, I kinda dug the pretty little snow-covered house, and I found myself wondering what the wandering Korean wise men would have brought as gifts.

Christmas Coupon Day

It's been an interesting Christmas - some of which I will write about before my week-long holiday turns to the reality of Winter English Camp.

I've always found the period between Christmas and New Years to be a bit of a limbo, and this is the first time since maybe high school that I have found myself with the entire week off. With both official holidays falling on a Saturday, it became a 9 day vacation for me. I've decided to make the most of it by filling my post-Christmas days so far with a combination of much-needed sleep, university application stuff, reading, trying to complete a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Renoir's "La Moulin de La Galette" (one of my favourite paintings, and a gift from the rabbit over a year ago), and eventually getting around to finishing preparations for camp, and keeping-up with marking essays for my Saturday class.

So, there is a little bit of work in there, but it's nice to be able to space it all out with other pleasant things.

On of those pleasant things for me is the snow we've had here in Seoul. I don't need to work or get anywhere fast, so I've chosen to enjoy it. Today, the rabbit took me out to Hongdae for "Christmas Coupon Day" as she called it. As mentioned in a previous post, there are a few websites where people can purchase restaurant and cafe coupons to try-out new eating establishments in Seoul. You can find some great deals there - a 15,000 won coupon will sometimes get you and yours a 50,000 won meal. It's really a chance for new restaurants to promote themselves, as well as an opportunity for a dedicated and frugal rabbit to scope-out delicious deals for us. We've been taking full advantage and discovering some great places of late.

Tonight, we did a triple feature in Hongdae - starting with soup and sandwiches at Little Jakob's - a very tiny restaurant just further up the street past Dos Tacos and toward Hongik University. It's tucked-away on your left, and has seating for few. The food was good if nothing remarkable, but on a cold day, some hot soup and sangwiches certainly fit the bill. I also appreciated the cute Korean style kitschy touches - stamp and coloured-pencil sets and note pads to bring to your desk and get creative while waiting for the food. If you have a sweet someone to share a lunch with, you would do well to do so here.

From there, back through a less-visited section of Hongdae to find Noi Lounge Cafe - an architecturally interesting cafe/gallery for coffee and waffles. The huge front window wall opens-up completely in fair weather, which would have been welcome as Noi appeared to be one of the Hongdae cafes that allows smoking. Even hiding in the sunken lower level as we were, we both left there smelling a bit of blue choking death. So, go to Noi Lounge Cafe and smoke 'em if you got 'em, or visit any of the other hundreds of cafes that might be a tad more smoke-free, if a little less structurally intriguing.

After a stop-over at one of the three Hongdae Starbucks (that I know of) to borrow their internet to send a birthday message home to my oldest nephew, we took one more stop-over at "Irish Potato" - a New York Fries style French fry place for a bowl of fries with tartar sauce and a beer - the perfect Christmas Coupon Day night cap. Also, Irish Potato had one of the most convincing, however incomplete, wall murals I've seen in an eatery entirely dedicated to a starchy tuber, and I quote:

"People love potatos - mashed, roasted, or baked. And rightly so as the potato is a nutritional powerhouse, loaded with fibre and essential vitamins and minerals. Nonetheless, recent diet crazes have left people wondering if potatoes should remain a part of their diet. With so much nutrition misinformation out there, it's time to set the record STRAIGHT! Consumers are often surprised to discover a medium, 5.3 ounce potato has:"

...that's right - that's the end of the quotation. Now I'm left wondering what a 5.3 ounce potato has...

Today was lovely - a perfect antidote to a rather challenging Boxing Day. There was plenty of snow on the ground, in the trees, and around the nativity scene at a Catholic church we happened-upon. More on that later.

I will try to get-around to updating about Christmas properly, but I wanted first to break my blog-fast with a report about a good afternoon with my girl. Good things.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gee Whiz, it's Christmas

What I would like more than anything is to stay-up until the sun rises and sleep through the late morning, but as it is, I've got to get-up early-ish to train it south for an hour to pick-up mattress for guests to sleep-on tomorrow night when they come-by my place for games and a Christmas pot-luck. Got to get that Christmas veggie chili on the stove soon, too. Looking forward to it, but doing my best to get some sleep as well.

Skyping with family back home. Christmas socks are warm, and here comes the Kapibarasan!!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas in Sanbon

The rabbit and I made our way to dear friends' house yesterday for some afternoon Christmas cheer, and lovely meal. It was also my chance to get re-acquainted with the sprightly new persona of young Ms. Lyndsay, who is all about opening her eyes and smiling and giggling like a wee Christmas elf.

Conor, too, seemed very pleased to have house guests at this time of year. It's great knowing that though they are a substantial subway ride away, I've got friends here, and I fee fortunate to witness and sometimes share in the joys of their growing family. Of course it's hard to be away from "home" at Christmas, but this makes it all a little easier to take.

The rabbit and I were also happy to give the gift of reading to all but young Ms. Lyndsay - Ian and Bonnie will be introduced to Mr. Potter, each in their native tongue, and the young Mr. Conor will give Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse a read. I'm excited to hear what he makes of all of the vivid expressions in the book.

For my part, I got my first Ba-duk set - the black and white checkers-like board game known as "Go" in Japan and the Western World. Of course, it's much more complex than checkers - and like most other obsessions in Korea, there are hagwons (academies) available to learn more about the game, as well as gaming TV stations where one can presumably learn strategies and observe the masters at work. I'm looking forward to giving it a whirl.

Anyway, it's not the last few days before Christmas and there be lots of errands to run. I wish I had another week. Isn't that always the way...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On Our Way to the Abattoir

I've been on busy subways before, but tonight just sucked. As a point of reference, check out the photo above (from google image searches), and double the amount of people. That's what I dealt with for five stops from Yeoksam to Sadang on the green line, before transferring to the blue line #4 - knowing that I wasn't going to make it all the way back to my house by train because of the time, I opted instead to just try my best to go as North as possible before the trains stopped running, and I'd get a cab from there.

Honestly, though - some got hurt tonight just trying to get on and off the train. People turn into the most base and jackal-like versions of themselves when trying to catch trains home late at night. There was no room left on the train at Yeoksam... but oh yes there was! The doors open at Gangnam, people fight tooth and nail to get off while others are pushing their way on in fear that they'll get left behind on the platform, and the same things happens at the following stations - complete effing mayhem.

Tonight, I saw a child (maybe 4) smushed in-between enough people that someone had to hold her up or she was not going to be able to breathe, and woman beside me with a birthday cake in a box, who rebuked my offer to hold it up above the crowd only to have it crushed between her and some dude's backpack. Oops.

Finally, I was spat out of the train at Sadang, but not before having to swim against a wave of ass-clowns trying to get on at the same time, and a group of ajumas who stood on the train right at the clogged entrance and refused to move to let others on or off - I'm sure it must have looked pretty funny to a fly on the wall, but to me, who was comparatively calm, I was starting to get pissed. If you're going to accept that you are going to be crammed all higglety-pigglety into a rolling sardine can, you should be able to trust that those near the door will get off the train to make room for those who need to exit when their time comes. Oh, no - people brace themselves on poles and hold tight, fighting for their land like latter-day Scarlett O'Haras, and the result is about as dramatic.

When the train came to a stop at Hansung University station, I didn't even bother fighting with the mobs to catch a bus the rest of the way and I went straight for a taxi.

I won't be leaving Yeoksam that late on a Saturday night again. Complete jack-assery, that was.

Friday, December 17, 2010

One or the Other

As temperatures have dipped below -15 in recent days, students at my middle school have taken to wearing all manner of cozy garb in order to keep comfortable in a building that was clearly not designed for cold weather. Kids wear ridiculously huge scarfs that wrap up to their noses and they bring blankets to class whenever they can.

One other thing that the kids like about this weather is that they are then permitted to wear something on top of their school uniform - a proper winter jacket to help them regain any uniqueness among them which may have been lost while wearing the same school uniform throughout the year.

Of course, this is a complete failure, as the new winter uniform (unofficial among teachers, but official among students) seems to be the puffy North Face jacket - again, and even more so this year than last year, and that's saying something.

Honestly - my school's population has become a sad little cautionary tale of overwhelming sameness - not completely unlike the (for me) junior high school phenomenon of big baggy Roots or Beaver Canoe sweaters that we all seemed to be so fond of. We ALL needed one of those, so I can't begrudge my students too much about it, but I do find it quite entertaining to see the boys especially, with their custom tapered skinny uniform pants on skinny little legs, and a giant Michelin Man puff ball for a coat, all wandering down the hallway in their North Face posse formation.

All I can do it address them all as "The North Face" because the brand logo covers the spot where their Korean name badges would otherwise be visible:

"Hi, Teacher Dave!"
"Hi, The North Face!"

The photo above is of SOME of the male students in ONE of my grade 3 classes. If I were to invite North Faces Only to my classroom for a special photo - they actually wouldn't fit - standing shoulder-to-shoulder. It's a crazy thing, but there are quite possibly over 600 North Face jackets in my school alone - somewhere around the 50% mark. I'm not kidding.

Thankfully, there is a new challenger this year: The "Military Jacket". This is for the more discerning middle school student - tired of the bloated conformity that The North Face brings, these bold students have decided to strike out on their own, wearing the all-green (and much less winter-resistant) cotton canvas jacket, because they are clearly stoic individualists, and not the type to simply do what everyone else is doing. I have counted over 34 of these military jackets on students so far - all exactly the same as far as I can tell, though there appears to be no one dominant brand. If I had the time, I would happily choreograph and film a West Side Story Jets VS Sharks / The North Face VS The Military Jacket confrontation in the hallways of my school.

This actually gives me a brilliant idea for winter camp...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Good King Wenceslex

A great Christmas gift this evening.
Things started with a slow day at school as it was the last day for final exams, and I only taught one class. Then, off to see a matinee of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 with my essay students on opening day here in Seoul. Then, a freezing bike ride down to Insadong to meet Ed for what I thought would be an evening of last-minute Christmas shopping, only to sit down with him at Starbucks and hear a female voice singing "Good King Wenceslas" from behind me.

I have twice before been on the receiving end of surprise parties and they are very fun, very shocking, and so interesting in terms of how one processes the shock of seeing people you weren't prepared for.

When I heard the voice, what took in actual time about 2 seconds, took about 30 in my mind as I thought how only people who went caroling with us last year would be singing that song. Wasn't Ed supposed to be meeting me because he had something important to talk about? Aren't the only Seoul females who associate me with Christmas caroling living across the Pacific somewhere?

I turned around to see Lex - who moved back to Seattle last Spring, and was supposed to be in Australia studying for her Masters by now. I had to process this, too.

Truly - a great surprise. Once I realized what it was, I half-expected to see Shirley, Lexi, Douglas, and Andy coming up the stairs behind her.

Anyway, she's here on a 6 week pre-Australia stop-over vacation and is staying with her mom, who is still working here in Korea. They will be joining us for the Christmas weekend and I couldn't be happier about that. Lex's is a presence I missed dearly, and it's great to have her back - even if only for a short time, until she heads to Australia at the end of January.

Perhaps the best part is that she brought a mini metal Ark of the Covenant with her - one that she found in a garage sale in Seattle for only $1.00. Bureaucratic fools - didn't know what they had there.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Audrey 3

One of the PE teachers at my school, Mr. Choi, can be a bit of a wild man, as evidenced by his tendency to imbibe enough Korean spirits to either walk on his hands and wave a leg to hail a taxi, or to dive into rough night ocean currents and emerge with a fish between his teeth.

He is also, coincidentally, a caring father to two little girls and hundreds of rare Korean plants - many of which he has discovered on his travels and brought clippings of back to Seoul, and one of which he gave to me about a year and a half ago now.

Last month, the thing flowered for the first time. The blossom dried-up and dropped off soonish after it appeared. Now, I have two little blossoms. I have no idea what the name of this flower is, but it looks a lot like an orchid of some kind. Maybe Auntie could try identifying it for me. If you can, please click on the comments sections below and net me know, then I will tell you its name in Korean :)

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Next stop - Azkaban!"

I'm not quite this bad... but yes, I am.

I'm getting off early these days due to final exams and raiding my school's library of the Potter films in an attempt to catch-up before Wednesday. Azkaban was tonight - for anyone who might be considering reading the series for the first time (hello, Mr. Whittle), feel free to read them all, but avoid the first two films all-together. Start the movies with Azkaban, if you're so inclined. Cuaron knows what he's doing, and Columbus knew what he was doing stepping aside. George Lucas could have learned a few things.

It's the place to begin for an introduction to the series' film universe, and it's a fun one to revisit some major plot points now that I have the perspective of a complete series. It's also minus the extra helpings of cheese and gravy that Columbus served-up in the first two. Just watch Maggie Smith in the shrieking shack - unshackled, it seems, from bad direction - she actually seems natural. So, too, does Harry in the Gryffindor tower when Ron wakes up from bad dreams. I love the off-handedness of it all - something the previous films weren't quite confident enough to do.

In teaching news, the PPT that I spent far too long on yesterday in an attempt to have a fun Christmas game lesson, didn't work. I know eff-all about computers it seems. Well, most of it worked, but the video segments did not. I suck, and I'm nowhere near as nerdy as I need to be when it actually counts for something. Thanks to David Tho for letting me know about the quick fix. Tomorrow will be smoother.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"George Bailey"

A little while back, a lovely lady by the name of Carlyn Sills found my blog by accident through a Google search. She thought I had a lovely rabbit and liked my fridge full of beer, and most importantly, she left a link to this crazy little video for her song which she herself wrote, called "George Bailey".

Of course I miss the big guy at this time of year. Turns out others do, too. How charming is this?

Turns out she is quite an established musician (you can check out her website), and if you like what you hear, you can pick-up her 4 song EP on itunes. Well worth it, and what Christmas music collection would now be complete without Ms. Sills' contribution?

And how can this video not make you smile? It reminds me of my favourite Far Side cartoon - the one where all of the furniture shout "we're back!" as they enter through the door of a house where the presumed owner sits bored on the floor, waiting for their return.

This song and video are right up my Christmas alley.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hibernating in Hogwart's and Svalbard

Tried posting a little one last night, but couldn't access my blog for some reason. Actually, I still can't see it now, but I'm going to try posting and see what happens.

The weekend is here. I feel like I've been hibernating a bit lately with the colder weather. Though I have been busy after work, at work, I seem to have finally found a way to "take it easy" at the times where my schedule allows me to. I am the type of person, in the school setting anyway, where spare time makes me feel, let's say, a little uncomfortable. I end up creating work for myself in a less-than-constructive manner.

Well, not this month. My students (and teachers) are either in full lock-down mode for exam stress or exhibiting the lethargy of a post-exam shrug. The teachers are pretty much on vacation now along with the students, and I'm sure that next week will bring even more of an atmosphere of indifference. Yesterday, the bell to start class rang with one student in the classroom, more trickled in over the next 5 minutes, and at least a full 10 minutes after the bell had been rung, my beleaguered co-teacher teacher made her way to the classroom, too. In short, having high standards for my students (or co-teachers) this late in the season would only serve, as it did last year, to piss me off and heap a great deal of useless stress upon my shoulders. I've got fun stuff planned for post-exam classes late next week and the week before Christmas. It will be fun, interactive, and educational, but for now, I've been taking my co-teacher's lead and picking my battles much more carefully, and letting Rowan Atkinson do the entertaining since I've been running a little low on clown fuel this late into December.

Speaking of hibernating, I have also been revisiting a couple of stories from a time ago. As I previously mentioned in a very long post a while back, I have finally finished reading the Harry Potter series, and since I will be taking my after-school essay-writing students to Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows, I decided to borrow the first film from my school's library and have it on in the background at home while I got some things organized. I have also taken the time to re-read part one of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass.

Just wanted to report that in retrospect, though I appreciate the books, the Harry Potter films really started-off (for me) in a rather lackluster way. It wasn't until Alfonso Cuaron took the reigns for Azkaban that the series showed any real promise that it would try to be something more than Home Alone without the humour. The first two films try so hard to be charming, and end-up saying very little as they go from plot-point to plot point. The special effects also seem hurried and laughable. As with the reading experience, you do kind of need to trust that things really start getting interesting in year 3. Re-watching The Sorcerer's Stone, like Letterman would say about O'Reilly, I can't shake the feeling that it's about 60% crap, with the rest of it being not much better.

Re-reading The Golden Compass, I was again completely impressed. For me there are few better stories to lead into Christmas holidays than an adventure complete with travel to the snowy North where armoured bears rip each-others jaws off and children fight against the religious establishment to maintain their own free will. There are many reasons why the third book in the series became the first children's book to win Britain's Whitbread book of the year, as well as the first to be included in the nominations for the Man Booker Prize. Re-reading the book makes a fan of this series angry all-over again to remember how neutered the 2007 film version became as a result of pressure from the Catholic church and fear of smaller box-office returns unless the story was softened for the holiday movie-going crowd. 'Tis a shame, but we'll always have the books.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Oh, Tannenbaum

It snowed last night - quite a bit actually - but I was determined to head into work on my bike today. I took it rather slow and noticed that cars were thankfully (and surprisingly) doing the same. I've taken a few photos of Dobong-san (Donbong Mountain) from my apartment window by the elevators, but this one is noteworthy because it was the first lasting snow of the season, and it put me in a good mood - along with the fact that I was able to locate one of my favourite Christmas CDs: Wynton Marsalis' Crescent City Christmas Card on itunes. While there I learned that he has a new holiday album from a couple of years ago which is equally great if also a very different feel.

Anyway, with the onset of winter in Korea comes a dryness that is hard to explain. I've lived in Calgary most of my life, and it's dry there through the year, but not like here in the winter. Perhaps it's the "in the winter" that's the problem. Maybe my body gets used to the humidity of the summer and then gets the shock of its life as fall suddenly shifts into the driest climate imaginable. You would think being on a peninsula would mean moisture in the winter, well you would think wrong. It's all about that dry/cold wind from Siberia, blowing down from the North and right into Seoul.

Anyway, a few things suck regarding that: my hands being one of them. They don't even look human - more like they belong to Chief Woodenhead from Creepshow 2. Apply hand butter and hemp hand protector as I do, it's not really helping. Any suggestions? And don't tell me to pee on my hands.

School was okay today - had a few too many students who couldn't even bother to wake-up for Mr. Bean - well, "wake up" isn't really the right term. It was more like they were more invested in being "too cool" for it. "Too cool" for this crew today involved sitting slouched at the desks, arms folded, and pouting while EVERYONE ELSE around them was howling with genuine laughter. Who doesn't like the T-Rex in the manger bit? How could you not? Anyway, this was classic pouty-pout mode - the kind where you want to speak to the student like he's 3: "Come on... why are you so upset? Use your words..." Some students don't take kindly to being told that they can't sit with their friends because they are acting like buffoons and causing a ruckus.

Yesterday, I was notified that we would be having a pizza party for the English Teachers in the English Only Classroom (the one I teach in) after school. This was to mark the last day before grade 1/2 final exams which also happens to be the last day for half of our teachers as they are annually brought in on temporary contracts to assist with level-differentiated classes. After the exams are done, so are they. Some might be back next year, some won't - so I took it as an opportunity to say a little goodbye in the form of a Christmas card and a shortbread cookie from Canada - my mom having sent some of her specialty a couple of days before. They were nuts about the cookies - and don't worry, I have plenty left in the freezer, but I had to use these 10 in an attempt to warm the wintry hearts.

I will just say that I like all of my co-teachers as people, though our teaching styles aren't always on the same page, and we often have greatly differing standards of what we expect from the students. There can be friction, but more often than not, we are genuinely happy to see each other and are supportive of each other's needs etc.

I guess by the distance in the language I'm using, you can glean that we are not the world's most tightly-knit group. True, true. Today was just a chance to say goodbye, really, but being as it is December, I put some traditional carols through the speakers form my ipod, got the table ready near the tree, and had a little card and cookie for each teacher (I also added a small Canadian flag pin to each card just for fun).

It was all fine and good, but in the 30 minutes we were there, I have to say that conversation died more times than I can't count on both hands. Perhaps this shows how often we are all together (ie: never) and reveals that it might be part of our problem.

I know I shouldn't compare my situation to that of others, and I am grateful to the teachers who have gone out of their way to converse with me at lunch time etc., they are all lovely people, but I do feel that there's a great deal missing in terms of the potential social camaraderie that we could be enjoying, and should have been by now. I know it's not just me. Sometimes the right dynamic just doesn't take-hold.

Not to be too negative, but not everything I'm going to write here is going to be sunshine and roses.

But as for the sunshine, got a package in the mail today from Douglas from the 13th floor who now resides in Munster, Germany - that's "Moonster", as I can't seem to find a way to add the funky two-dot punctuation above the "U". It's been my lucky week for packages, that's for sure.

Douglas was kind enough to send me only the very best: German gummy bears, German chocolate, and German tea, with a scantily-clad female on the box. What would a package from Douglas be without it? Also - an inexplicable card with spear-chucking dancers on the front, the Pope on the back, and homemade references to Nike in the strangest of places. It all only made me miss the Douglas more, and I hope we get a chance to skype soon - if only so that we can sing a bilingual duet of "Oh Christmas Tree" because I'm sure that by now he's got those lyrics down-pat.

You've only got a card on its way in return, but I'll return the treat favour in due course.

It is bed time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Snowflakes and Giant Rabbits

Got on a Christmas bus today to get to school. Seoul Transit seems to set-up a few of these on routes all over the city - the lights are working all over the inside and I can't help but feel a little better about getting onto a crowded-ass bus while I'm still waking-up if there are strings of garland, tinsel, lights, and Christmas music in the air.

It was a good start to the day, then the kids went berserk at lunch time - big, thick, white flakes falling and everyone just had to get out there. I heard kids running and screaming through the hallway and one little guy with the English name of "Pepsi" stuck his head into my classroom and said "Teacher! It is... snow!" Well, I just had to join him.

I took the camera out into the yard where it seemed all students were gathering. Not enough to make real snowballs and it was melting fast, but we all loved it. Some students were trying to catch flakes on their tongues, and I was about to, until I remembered that fact that said flakes originated somewhere over Chinese air space, just like the yellow dust that pays us a visit every Spring. Meh - whatevs. I caught a few anyway.

After school, made my way downtown to the center of Christmas lights and shopping at the Lotte Department Store just West of Myeong-dong. I could take a thousand photos there, but it would be redundant after last year. I did, however have to take a couple of the "Giant Rabbit" on loan from Germany to the Lotte Department Store until later this month. To give you a sense of perspective, the big guy and gal are hanging-out in a climate-controlled habitat outside of the store's main entrance with a bunch of regular-sized bunnykins. They are likely here in anticipation of next year's "Year of the Rabbit" in the lunar calendar and Chinese Zodiac.

The biggest of the two was the lady rabbit, and she was content to loaf-about for the most part, while her slightly smaller suitor was anything but - he was far too interested in some holiday bunny love, but after a few of her rebukes, he settled for a kiss and a cuddle by the yule log.

Then, a stroll to Sam-cheong-dong for dinner, after which the snow started again. Wet and heavy. We were both a little too headachey and sniffly to properly enjoy the stroll, but it was still beautiful with all the snow. I don't think I'll be riding my bike for a few days.

Not my bike.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lotte World Review

A Sunday in December at Lotte World... a pretty decent afternoon.

The rabbit and I went to Korea’s largest indoor amusement park last weekend, and it’s taken me this long to write about it. I’ve been busy… ish. I just checked the brochure and it says that Lotte World is actually the world’s largest indoor amusement park. I believe them.

Lotte is one of Korea’s largest corporations – along with Hyundai, Samsung, and others I haven’t bothered to look-up at this moment, Lotte forms part of the “Cheabol” – a group of formidable families that was given the keys to economical re-structuring of the country after the Korean War. Not sure if Lotte is the Fannie or the Freddie in this scenario.

I’m not sure if Lotte makes cars or electronics, but they do make delicious Pepero and were savvy enough to create a holiday around said chocolate candy stick. They also sponsor major sports teams (the Busan Lotte Giants being the most notable) and they do well with their amusement park. Samsung runs Everland, Lotte runs Lotte World, and whoever once took care of Seoul Land has probably long ago pulled their sponsorship.

Lotte World is actually divided into two major areas: Magic Island and Lotte World Adventure.

Lotte World Adventure is the indoor portion, and it’s hard to properly describe how big it all is. The pictures I’ve included don't really do it justice do it justice, and the passage-ways along the four floors of the complex are something to behold and can't really be captured properly in pictures. The floor opens up in one section to see down to the lower ice rink level where you can rent skates and do as they do at West Edmonton Mall. Actually, West Edmonton Mall’s Fantasyland (if that’s what it’s still called) is a pretty decent comparison, though certainly not in size or theme – so I guess not a good comparison. Anyway, it’s an indoor theme park.

Magic Island is connected to the indoor area via monorail as well as a pedestrian bridge. In terms of available space, Magic Island is about a third of the size of the indoor area, but it’s got the best thrill rides in the park. While the indoor park has Disneyesque elements, Magic Island really has to work hard to avoid copyright issues. Its central structure (which takes up a sizable portion of the island) is a giant white and blue castle – bigger than Sleeping Beauty’s in California, but much smaller than Cinderella’s in Florida. There is a Snow White Castle, too, which proves that your villain can look exactly the same as its Disney counterpart, so long as the heroine has a different shade of hair and all dwarves - even Dopey - need to shave.

The rabbit and I got into the park with tickets given to her at school as a kind of “thank you” from the Lotte Company to the hard-working teachers of her district. The tickets included admission (usually a 37,000 won commitment if you want all of the rides) as well as 5 attractions each – perfect as we ended-up meeting there in the afternoon, and had enough time to explore a bit before heading to Apgu-jeong for dinner.

I’ll talk about the rides we went on, in the order that we did...

1)Gyro Drop (as the brochure says: “Free-falling from 70 meter height at 100KM per hour.”) This is essentially a giant tower which seems much higher than 70 meters once you’re at the top. Riders sit harnessed with seat-belts and shoulder-restraints around a circular car that moves up the tower. The ascent is slow, and the car rotates maybe one complete revolution before you reach the top. Then, you fall – very fast. The ride mechanism slows you to a comfy crawl at the bottom before you stop. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to be at all impressed with the ride, but it was probably the most impressive one there.

The rabbit was so brave. She didn’t want to get in line with me at first, but seeing as the line was so short (maybe 5 minutes), I was able to convince her. When it came our turn to get into the seats, she at first refused, then sat beside me. As the ride crew came around to check seat belts etc., she got out of her seat, walked to the gate, and then came back – no less than four times. I’ve never seen anyone so indecisive and stressed. She finally sat down, held my hand, and before we went up, the rider said in Korean that there was a “a lovely couple holding hands who won’t be holding hands when the ride is over.” That made her laugh and put her at ease and we went up.

I have to say – holy shit. Going that high up looking over the park and having your feet dangling (that’s the thing that really unsettles you) and not being able to see the tower that you’re anchored to is quite the rush. The fall is unreal fast – you accelerate like nobody’s business and then it’s all over. Our legs were shaking on the way off the ride and the cute little guy who sat beside us (maybe 7 years old) was flopping-about the loading deck, sprawling on the ground just bursting with the biggest belly laughs. It was a great first ride of the day.

2)Atlantis (as the brochure says: “Ride a boat racing at 72KM per hour.”) That’s kind of a confusing description. The ride is from the Aquatrax company and maybe the best comparison is the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, though it’s clearly much more.

I’ll start by saying that I had to approach the front of the line adopting my apologetic Canadian posture in order get through – the height restriction is 190cm (used to be 185) and I’m about 193. Not a big deal, but you never know.

The ride is basically a roller-coaster with a water-feature. You’re not going to get wet, but there are places in the ride where you are actually encouraged to reach out along a banked turn to touch water. It is over quickly, but it starts-off very well with ridiculous acceleration up into the first incline and turn into what’s referred to in roller-coaster lingo as a “Top Hat”. The one on Atlantis is indoors which is apparently pretty rare. It surprises the hell out of you and makes for the best portion of the ride, which is also unfortunate as it’s at the beginning.

What makes the experience very cool is the seating position – 8 to a car, seated two to a row, each with your own motorcycle style handlebars which makes you feel a lot more exposed while at the same time being much more secure than simply being in a seat belt with a straight bar to hold onto. The feeling of being encouraged to lean-out with your upper torso on a roller-coaster is a very unique one, and a first for me. Of course, you are both seat-belted and have a lap restraint as well. The remainder of the ride is a collection of fairly fast, but ultimately fairly tame drops and turns. Still, very much worth the 20 minute wait. I think we were very lucky on this day to have such short lines.

For a decent POV video, check out this link - though you'll want to turn the volume down to avoid the horrible Blondie dance remix.

And that was it for Magic Island. There are a handful of attractions there, including a “Gyro Swing” which we didn’t go on – the individual vomit shields being a bit of a detractor. On a day like the day we went, you could probably do all of the attractions on Magic Island in about 3 hours – max. On a busy day, that might be the line-up for Atlantis.

3) Jungle Adventure (as the brochure says: “Take a journey in the white waters of the jungle”) This was a very tame but charming circular raft ride. It is accessed in the indoor section of the park, and to get to the entrance, one has to follow a series of escalators and cave passages – many of which are lined with tiny shops and restaurants. It felt like a mall, but a cool mall. Anyway…

The ride itself was decent. Your usual floating through jungle-scapes, phosphorescent giant hallucinogenic mushroom caves, and racist animatronics depictions of natives trying to fillet you with spears. Disney is really no different in that regard.
To be honest, I don’t remember too much about the rides features, I was just enjoying floating through indoor chasms of cheesy glee with my rabbit, and I was happy that it met her suggested criteria of a ride that was “more comfortable” after the relative thrills and spills of the first two. It was also so cool to be doing a raft ride indoors.

4) Pharaoh’s Fury (as the brochure says: “Take a journey to find Pharaoh’s hidden treasures.”) This was by far our longest line (about an hour), and my biggest disappointment. The ride is basically a poor-man’s Indiana Jones Adventure – complete with jeep-like vehicles on hydraulics.

The theme is, of course, Egyptian, and here I have to hand it to Lotte World for at least getting the line-up right. The queue takes guests (and I thought I had shrugged the Disney influence) through something very similar to the Disney’s Indy ride. You begin in a museum with Egyptian artifacts displayed behind velvet rope, then into a curator’s office, then through a crumbling hole in the wall and through a series of excavated tombs. Very cool and very top-notch.

Sadly, the ride itself leaves a lot to be desired. The jeeps move much less realistically than they do in California and the segments on the inside are really not much more than what you’d see on the previously mentioned jungle attraction. The track you’re on is mostly visible in the larger rooms and any atmosphere of the ride is lost when you pop-out high above the indoor portion of the park, with all of its blinking and tweeting sweetness.

It’s a shame, because it still appears that a lot was spent on this ride. Its mountain casing forms pretty much the entire East wall of the indoor park and provides a solid theme. I have no idea how realistic it is to conceive of replacing the ride with another indoor coaster, but I can’t see the ride surviving too long – despite the lines on the day I went. Thematically, they have something, but it’s lost pretty soon after you board the transports. I’m sure there’s a better way to use that space – big mistake spending that 50 million… in my opinion.

5) The Adventures of Sinbad (as the brochure says: “Follow Sinbad on an underground adventure.”) That’s pretty straight and to-the-point. Nice. This was our last ride of the day and we were happy to pretty much walk on.

This is basically Pirates of the Caribbean, only with Sinbad – that, and an animatronic Cyclops gnawing on stringy human foot flesh. That, and a room filled with animated rotting corpses – a tad scarier than anything they’d allow at Disney.

What can I say about Sinbad? It was “comfortable”, and it was nice to float down into caverns filled with musty water and dry ice. For those in-the-know, you know I am earnest when I say this.

But, I’m just not impressed anymore with animatronics. And please don’t think I’m picking on Lotte World here – Disney doesn’t always get it right either. I remember one particularly horrendous Ellen Degeneres animatronic at EPCOT Centre that was scary enough to turn Anne Heche straight. Animatronic people are convincing only if they are standing in the Hall of Presidents and nodding in-turn.

Still, some cool dragon stuff, and a neat bit with a genie toward the end.

And that was my riding experience at Lotte World. Reading over this, it seems maybe a few shades more negative than I had meant it to come-out.

Overall, my experience at Lotte World was a great one. It was decked-out beyond belief for Christmas and that added a great deal to the park’s already considerable appeal. I'll admitted it - I was charmed right out of my socks. It was honestly the best day to go – decorated for the holidays, short lines (aside from Pharaoh’s Fury) and lots of opportunities for me to get all Christmassy and giddy with my rabbit who was happy to be showing me around the park for the first time. Very glad I went.

I don’t want to get into an Everland/Lotte World comparison, but I’ll suggest this blog I came across tonight. Though I didn’t check-out the parade or shows at Lotte World, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t compare to what Everland has to offer. On the right day, with the sun shining, there are fewer things that make me happier than rounding that first turn before the drop on the T-Express.

Next time I visit Lotte World, I want to try the following, just because the brochure has me sold:

1) Drunken Basket – “Spinning basket in the air that holds up to 108 people.”

2) Ball Battle – “Strange, but fun experience in a party filled with balls.”

3) Boong Boong Car – “ Magical Tour on spinning car into the candy and cookie’s forest.”

4) Crazy Bumper Car – “Crash into other cars for fun.”

5) Happy Picnic – “Let’s go on a picnic with little cars and trains.”

6) Eureka – “Eureka! You just invented a flying car!”

7) Speedy Gonzales – “Grab a burger, ride on Conquistador.”

8) Ghost House – “Scary experience as a cat jumps into a house on a stormy day where objects move around on their own.”

Merry Christmas, Lotte World!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Packages, boxes and bags

Wasn’t looking forward to today – been pretty tired lately and the thought of getting up early for school was a less-than-appealing one. But, as mentioned in the previous post, today ended-up being just fine.

I was motivated on my way out the door as I left with a package certainly big enough to get my bike re-certified as “cargo-class”. The rabbit and I had been wrapping presents and writing Christmas cards frantically to get them sent-out in time for Christmas. Mission-accomplished.

I have to say, postage is expensive. Not entirely sure how much my parcel weighed, but it was biggish and in order to get it there for Christmas, I needed to pay a hefty total of 81,000 won, or something in that vicinity. My choices were either 68,000 won for 20-25 days, or 81,000 for 3-5 days. Where’s the in-between? And who would bother paying the lesser price this close to Christmas? Yeesh!

Anyway, I felt rather sheepish when, upon returning to school after dropping my Canada-bound package off at the post office, I found my Christmas parcel from the family waiting for me on my desk – at a Canadian postage price of nearly double that. Dang. Sorry, mom and dad – clearly we need to re-think the limits on what we send through rush postage next year.

Anyway, despite the head-shaking over money spent on both sides to send Christmas greetings and gifts hither and yon, I couldn’t have had a better trifecta of Christmassy goodness today: good Christmassy classes, photos from my sister on facebook (to add to the ones I got from other friends on the weekend), and a Christmas package from home. Thanks for the photos, guys – they mean the world to me.

The rabbit and I sifted through everything, setting-aside the wrapped gifts for the 25th, opening cards, checking out Auntie’s photos, and then enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and some of mom’s shortbreads from home – the likely cause of the majority of that weight.

Anyway, I wanted to let the folks at home know that your parcel is on its way. Had to lie about the cost of items as Korean post was telling me something about Canada having a $51 limit on gift items entering the country – anything more and mom and dad would have to pay taxes on it before they pick-up the parcel. Not an appealing choice.

It was great getting that package today – the perfect start to the week. I love that I have a family that cares enough to send the very best. The rabbit marveled at Dad’s precise hand-writing on the wrapping, and took some samples as souvenirs. I was also very happy to see so many other little treats – magazines and Canadian Tire Christmas flyers from home (staple December morning, advent calendar-opening reading from my youth), photos form Auntie, and a hockey article cut from the newspaper by my dad.

And thanks, Sandy, for making me cry with Christian and Brandon’s snowflakes and Christmas drawings. It’s great to have these slices from home, but they also serve to remind me of how much I’m missing. Truly, I would give anything to be there with you guys this Christmas. If I had a magic wand, we would both be there on the 24th. If only.