Sunday, December 16, 2012

In living color

The results of the recent US presidential election were a revelation to me, and they completed a shift inside me that had been a long time coming. Romney won a very solid majority of straight white men but Obama won in every other group (blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, Asian-Americans, and on and on...)--and this led to Romney's ending up with 47 percent (ha!) of the vote. And this helped me realize that I'm not a straight white male American, (well, I am, but...) I'm just an American.

And living for four years in a very alien, very similar culture--along with my wide range of friends and acquaintances among foreigners here, and my miscellaneous travels to Taiwan, Denmark, and Germany--helped me realize that I'm not an American, (well, I am, but...) I'm just a human.

And 21 years of being a vegetarian and "animal person", helped me realize that I'm not a human... well, you get it.

But I digress. (Shocker.)

I saw Martin Luther King's famous speech live on TV when I was nine. I watched Alabama police use billy clubs, attack dogs, and fire hoses on peaceful protesters when I was 11. And ever since then I've been for the underdog, the people who are low in the eyes of society. I don't claim any credit for this.

And I don't assign myself any blame for this: I have always, without meaning to, thought of the granting of rights as something "we" did for "them". That is, we white guys should share our perks with everyone because it's the right thing to do; but there was always the "us" who should be magnanimous toward the "them".

But my experiences, and the demographic changes showcased by the election, have finally helped me internalize something:

There is no them; there's just us.

I might have said this for decades now, but now I know it. And my America--I'm coming back someday, although I've never really left--and my world are better in living color.

We couldn't go back to the "traditional" America if we wanted to. And I don't want to. Ever again.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The road goes ever on and on

Two years ago, in the town of Chuncheon, I ran my first marathon, in five hours, 40 minutes. Last year, I ran the Joongang Marathon here in Seoul, in five hours, 58 seconds. If I'd met my goal (five hours) then, I might have had a lot more free time in the summer and fall of this year. But that 58 seconds haunted me and, by the night of the 2011 Joongang, I knew I'd have to do it again this year.

I only had one goal: a "4" in the hours column; 4:59:59 would do just fine.

This year's training was a lot more pleasant than that of the last two years, as Valerie, the wife of one of our social studies teachers, agreed to be be my training and racing partner. As Val has Ken and their five-year-old son, Maddox, and a life, she wasn't always able to do the Sunday long runs with me. But we did the long runs together more often than not, including the 20-miler three weeks before the race.

We ran along the Yangjae Cheon (stream) from Gwacheon City in the southwest to the Han River in central Seoul, and the phrase "slowly but surely" was never more apt. One week, we were supposed to do 16 miles and both gave out in 12. The 20-miler was smooth and pleasant. When you go out to run, you never know what kind of day you're going to have.

The hours surely go by more pleasantly with a running partner, but more than that, I really value the conversations I've had with Val. She's down-to-earth and frank and funny and we share a lot of political and social views. Best of all, she sometimes made me realize that maybe I shouldn't believe everything I think. For example, I'd say that Koreans have no sense of personal space, and she'd say, it's a big city... have you been to New York? (After much consideration, I've come to the conclusion, yeah but...)

She brought me back to the moment many times, as I'd obsess over meeting the time goal in the training plan, obsessively doing the math in my head: we've done 6 1/2 miles in 74:40... let's see, that's the same as 13 miles in 149:20, that's 149.33 minutes, divided by 13 is... ah, heck. It's um... I know I drove her crazy sometimes. (I drive myself crazy frequently, and I'm not sure I ever drive all the way back.)

Anyway, one of the great takeaways from this marathon season is having Val as a friend. She (like Ken) is good people, as they say down south. I introduced her to the hash, which she took to like a duck to Perrier, and she fast became one of the pack's favorites. (She's one of the people who pushed the sheet cake in my face at my EM run, as seen in my previous post.)

Another thing that really helped me be in the moment was the death of my GPS watch. It just stopped holding a charge, six weeks before the big day. I found a German GPS watch at the running store not far from my place. (From Garmin to German...) My new watch measures distance traveled in feet (feet!), which is utterly useless, but once I gave in and switched to metric, it was a dream. I can set the display to show any arrangement of data I like, and there's a setting for average pace, so I could just make sure to keep at 6:52, or 7:11, or whatever per kilometer and otherwise forget it.

Anyway, the summer miles were brutal, even starting at 6 a.m. The fall brought some relief just as the runs were getting longer and longer. And then, finally, it was M-Day.

Fifteen thousand-plus runners and a whole bunch of balloons this year.

 I can't tell you too much about the actual marathon; as with a coast-to-coast car trip or, I suppose, childbirth, when it's over the mind blocks out a lot of the tedium and pain. Val was having intestinal issues and had to search out bathrooms several times, but we ran together for the first half or so of the race, then she caught me up, then I lost her again. I didn't see her for the last twelve miles. She finished ten or twelve minutes behind me. Everything considered, her accomplishment was greater than mine.

Our time running together was 'way better than running alone. Also, for once, the weather cooperated. In Chuncheon two years ago, it was much, much too hot, freakishly so for the time of year. Last year, the sky opened up for the first couple of hours of the race and it was impossible to get any wetter. This year, it was really windy, but otherwise the conditions were perfect, 50 degrees or so and overcast. It started spitting tiny raindrops for a bit just before the finish and I though we might get a real storm. But we didn't.

I'm very grateful to Jin, our school's executive secretary, who came out to the 10-K mark with Gatorade and food bars for Val and me, and to Mr. Park, my boss, who showed up at several spots to encourage us and to take video.

The last dozen miles, running north by myself, were purgatory. Everything, I mean everything (well, almost), below the waist hurt. My hips were screaming, my knees were whimpering, my calves were crying out (yeah, it was damned noisy out there). Because I are a genius, I'd left the ibuprofen with Val. I'd also left my iPod with my stored gear, so I didn't have P!nk and Joan Jett to pull me through. And the road just went on and on and...

I thought I was on track to beat five hours, but at one point I'd accidentally stopped my watch (for ten seconds? Ten minutes? I couldn't be sure.) So I didn't know.

And then, in the last few miles, the backs of my thighs seized up repeatedly, one at a time, to the point I couldn't have walked another dozen steps. I stopped six times in all, three for each leg, to stretch and employ colorful vocabulary. One time, a guy saw me and handed me an energy drink that turned out to be almost completely honey, so just to add to the fun, I was sweaty, dirty, swearing, and sticky.

But finally the Olympic Stadium was in sight. Two small groups of hashers were waiting just outside the stadium to cheer us on. I'm deeply grateful; it's so generous for them to take time out of their weekend and travel to the stadium just to see us go by for a few seconds. It gave me a big lift, and I needed it.

And then it was through the tunnel and around the track and somehow I pushed and pushed and crossed the line with the timer saying 5:05. I was pretty sure we hadn't actually crossed the starting line for around ten minutes after the gun went off, but I felt a lot better a little later in the day when I got a text with my official time:


Our art teacher Amber and her husband Kris were there for us, as were Ken and Maddox and a couple of their friends. I got to cheer Val all the way around the track--my voice, when I want it to, can fill up a 50,000 seat stadium--and we all exchanged hugs and smiles, Val and I picked up our medals, and we left. I was hobbling like a 90-year-old.

I was feeling pretty high emotionally and didn't want to go home to an empty apartment, so I suggested the Val, Ken, Maddox and I go to Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam for a little celebratory carbo-loading. When we got there, we found a 40-minute waiting line, so we settled for a little Italian place called Le Bois (French for "The Forest"; go figure.) It was wonderful, with excellent pasta and unlimited pizza (!) on the side, and Ken and I ate and ate and ate and all was right with the world.

I think this was probably my last full marathon. No matter how hard I train, I'll never get down under another touchstone such as 4:30, and until you've done it, you can have no idea what a slog training for the marathon, and the interminable race itself, can be. The only reason I can think of to do one next year is to say I did one at age 60, and that doesn't seem reason enough. A part of my ego says that no longer doing the full marathons would mean I'm getting old, but I know that's stupid. I think 2013 will be the year of half marathons and 10K's.
This is my medal. I think it's platinum.

I've been a bit at loose ends this week, without the self-imposed discipline of training and without cross country in school, which has ended for the winter. And without my obsessive checking of the election polls (which, incidentally, hooray!) But I'm good. I'm proud. I done good. Val done good. And that pizza done me real good.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

This is the dawning of the Age of Emeriyus

Saturday the 13th was a golden day, one I'll remember a long time. (Not on the scale of getting married or having a baby or that first time you get to Krispy Kreme when the HOT DONUTS NOW sign is lit, but still.)

Since November 2010, I've never missed a Yongsan Kimchi hash run other than a few times when I was out of the ROK and once for a mandatory faculty event. So now I am a very impo'tant man: September 29 was my hundredth YK run, and at a hundred runs, you become an Emeritus Master. That means nobody can make you carry anything on trail or drink as "punishment" for your "misdeeds" or do anything you don't want to do.  People also pretend to respect you, which for me is a biggie. I've been counting down (up?) to 100 for roughly the last 90 weeks.
The patch Oranguspray and I designed for the occasion.
Unfortunately, my hundredth coincided with YK's 25th Anniversary event, so my official EM trail was postponed. Sadly, my official EM Saturday was also the On-Out (last hash in Korea) for my buddy, the amazingly nice and enthusiastic Oranguspray, our talented, dedicated Haberdasher (t-shirt/patch designer and tschotske wrangler). We've gone out to eat and chat in Itaewon after almost every hash for months. At the last moment, Youth in Asia, our resident jester--I've seen him smilingly challenge a Korean girl, despite the language barrier, to race him down an escalator--also found out he was being redeployed. So our "EM and Out" hash was bound to be somewhat bittersweet.

Youth and Orang.
But everything, absolutely everything, went just right on the day. The sun was out, the air was crisp and clean (as it almost never is in this sticky, smoggy city); we had a great turnout, including many who came specifically because of the occasion; and the trail Orang and I laid got more compliments than any I'd ever done. We started within easy biking distance of my home and I'd scouted it thoroughly, so it went utterly smoothly. We led them through some back streets, up and down and across the Yangjae Cheon (stream), up and over a woods on a hill... it was exactly the kind of trail I like and people loved it.

After the run, we made merry in the usual way in a pretty, wooded park, and then it was time for ALL. ABOUT. CORNDOG. I like to think I'm shy, but given an occasion, I eat up attention with a spoon. A big, wooden, stir-the-cauldron-of-stew spoon. A two-hander. With a thong on the handle. Which has my name engraved in gold letters.

Sir Lost-a-Lot, our leader and the other EM's, one by one, roasted and praised me (which is better than being roasted and braised).

Then it was time for the solemn investiture, a ceremony a little less august than the Pope's ceremony and a little more than the President's:
 ...and I was awarded  my official YK EM shirt. Ironically (since I spend so much of my career proofreading stuff), the shirt actually reads EMERIYUS MASTER. (I think that's hilariyus.) Then Valerie and Susan brought out the sheet cake...
 ...and showed me the respect I've come to expect from my hash buddies...
Fortunately, I had deployed my eye-protecting force field...

(I told Youth in Asia it seemed a big egotistical to post photo after photo of myself on my blog;         he said, "No, having a blog is egotistical." Fair enough.)

To top off the day, we gave my friend and training partner (and hash mentee) Val her hash name, had a nice chat with a policewoman who wanted to know what all the hubbub was,
  said our official "happy trails" to our departing friends, 
and 20 or so of us went off to the Alley restaurant in Itaewon for one last, long, festive brunch with Orang and Youth. It was the best, best, best day I've had in a very long time.
It was golden.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

...and Back Again

The only thing more fun than a 26-hour trip home is a 26-hour trip home involving being seated right behind a toddler who squalled for the last three hours on the plane to Gwangzhou and then standing right behind the same, still squalling, toddler, and his mom, for another hour, in an interminable line to be allowed to walk through the terminal.

Like labor pains (I guess) and certain presidencies-in-the-last-decade-that-shall-not-be-named, it seemed do go on forever. But eventually, gelatinous with fatigue, I made it home.

So, at long last, what did the trip mean? What does it mean, ten weeks after my return?

(It's taken me so long to write about it, I guess, because, first, who cares about somebody else's travel memories? And maybe I've been afraid that in trying to set down the tenuous but real pleasures of the trip, I would diminish them in my own mind. But here goes...)

In a nine-day period, I spent a solid 60 hours in the air or on the rails. As wonderful as it was to catch up with Lauren and Carsten in Denmark and Turtle in Germany, nothing I did was remarkable. There was nothing to justify all that time, all that weariness, all that money--mostly my boss' money, for the airfare, but still.

But what I got from it was worth every minute and every Won, kroner, and Euro.

To start, I'm used to being alone. But the hours spent walking the streets of Copenhagen, Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Munich were a special kind of aloneness, without heft (for lack of a better word), or external meaning, because there was no one to share them with--but also of total freedom.

More than almost any time in my life, I was in the moment, no place to be, nobody to please, just--I'll say it one more time--walking around and looking at stuff. I felt light and almost young. And that was a great gift, being solitary and rootless and curious and content.

More than that, I need to be reminded periodically that there are other places. Forty-one years in Ithaca, 13 in St. Augustine, four in Korea (as of two days ago exactly)... I allow myself to be utterly stuck in space, to the degree that I almost forget there are places where the people aren't just like Americans, or Koreans, where people think nothing of storing their schnitzels in their dirndls and their spaetzel in their lederhosen.

Um. That was a metaphor. Sort of.

I know this isn't logical, but in the endless hours in the air I really felt the reality, that I'm alive on a fragile blue orb rolling around in limitless space. I could feel, if not see, the curve of the earth.

Most of all, it reawakened a desire I'd almost forgotten I'd ever had. Now I want to take every opporunity to travel. Next summer? Back to the US, probably, maybe back at last to Ithaca, where my heart is. But Lauren says I need to go to Thailand, and Suzanne suggests the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) in northern Spain. (That walk changed Paolo Coelho's life.) Lying on the beach by the Andaman Sea? Hiking the mountains overlooking the Cantabrian Sea?

It could happen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Now playing: "There Will Be Beer".

The German leg of my trip started inauspiciously, as I flew Air Berlin from Copenhagen to the superannuated (and originally scheduled to be mothballed last year) Tegel Airport in Berlin, only to sit well past the scheduled boarding time for the connection to Nuremberg... and finally to be told, without a word of explanation or apology, "Due to technical difficulties, your flight has been canceled."

This was at 12:45 p.m.; the next flight was scheduled for 6:00. But that was fine, just fine, just bloody well fine, I tell you! They gave us each a voucher for five Euros for food. That's $7.50, if you're keeping score at home. Do you know what five Euros will buy at airport prices? Three soggy French fries and a warm Coke, basically.

Tegel Airport is bigger than Tompkins County Airport in Ithaca, but not a whole lot more modern than the TCA was the last time I flew into it, in 1982. There wasn't anything to do for the next five-plus hours, I didn't have any Euros (or anything much to buy with them if I had), the geldautomat (ATM) wasn't taking my Korean check card--a recurring theme on my trip--and I needed to reach Turtle, who was planning to pick me up at the Bamberg train station, after my flight to Nuremberg, subway ride to the hauptbahnhof (railway station), and train ride to Bamberg, at 4:30.

I hadn't brought my laptop and my Korean Android phone won't work in Europe; I asked around and asked around for access to a computer so I could email Turtle, but apparently if you speak English you're disqualified from an airport job in Germany. Finally I was directed to an odd coin-operated email kiosk, where I sent an explanation to Turtle. (I found out later she never received it, so she went down to Bamberg Station at 4:30 and again at 5:30; of course, I was still in Berlin.)

Anyway, three-quarters through The Art of Fielding, Air Berlin finally took off. We didn't die on the way. From Nuremberg Airport, I couldn't figure out how to buy a ticket on the subway, so I bumbled my way through without one. (Don't tell the guy who works for the Copenhagen Metro!) At the train station, I found one of the last remaining Internet cafes in Europe and sent Turtle an email, telling her what time my train would get in. And she was there, cheerfully. Or at least doing a good imitation.

Turtle is an official with the Red Cross, working at the US Army base in Bamberg. As is true with the other military-connected people I've met, she has a lovely apartment, much bigger than the ones we wage-slave teachers get. She also has a lovely dog. Doobie is a sweetheart, very friendly and calm.

That evening, Turtle helped me work out a plan; I'd do Bamberg on Thursday, Nuremberg Friday, and Munich, including the hash, Saturday. As she was driving away to see our hashing friends Double Rainho and Spartakicks (and Sparta's dog Cooper, whom I'd once held on my lap while butt-sliding down a mountain outside Seoul), I'd have to get a hotel for my last night in Europe.

From Bamberg, it's an hour south by rail to Nuremberg, then another two hours south to Munich. The DB (German Rail) is quick, clean, pleasant, and, if one avoids the express trains, cheap. We Americans really messed up by shortchanging Amtrak and longchanging (shut up, I'm an English teacher) gas-guzzling cars.

Remember my credo for traveling, or, actually, for all of life: "Walk around and look at things." Boy, did I live up to my credo.


Thursday was Explore Bamberg day. I'd never heard of the town before, but I really like it. It was bypassed by the Allied bombings in the war, so it has a lot of authentic medieval buildings, cobblestone streets, and about 78 big ol' churches, all up on the hill at the south end of town. I passed on the bus and walked an hour from the army base into the old town.

I walked and I walked. And I walked. And walked. About nine hours' worth on Thursday... almost an hour from the Army base, past cigarette machines on every other block and apartments and cars sporting German flags (the Euro Cup soccer tournament was going on), over a stream and into the heart of the old city, then block after block of medieval/modern Germany, cobblestone streets lined with medieval buildings next to outdoor cafes, Starbucks and Gaps.

Bamberg was spared Allied bombings in the war, so its landmarks are authentic, from the Maxplatz (Maximillian Plaza), the big open square with ice cream vendors, a farmer's market, and a giant TV screen set up for the Eurocup games, to the Alt Rathaus (Old City Hall)...
(Set, hundreds of years ago, on an island between the church-dominated north side 
and prince-dominated south side of the stream that divides the city) the Cathedral, in the background here...

...which shares the Domberg (Cathedral Hill) with an amazing number of huge, gloomy medieval churches, as well as the New Residence and its lovely Rose Garden...
(Not many roses in this picture, but, hey, nekkid lady!)

...and its view of the old city and its hills beyond.

Before climbing the Domberg, I discovered Bamberg's claim to fame: rauchbier (smoke beer). It's a dark, dark beer native to the town; they dry the hops over an open flame, and the beer comes out 80 percent Guinness, 20 percent campfire. Maybe if I had it all the time, I'd get sick of it; as is, it was wunderbar. Actually, after four years of Korean beer, any German beer is simply unglaublich. (No, no, that only sounds nasty because it's in German! It's really good.)

That evening, when my feet were flat from all that walking--including a long, weary, hot, not-at-all fun slog around downtown in search of a geldautomat that would give me cash with my Korean check card--and it only took about ten ATM's to find one that would--Turtle and Doobie bused downtown and joined me for dinner at a charming outdoor cafe, where I had spaetzle (a delicious mac 'n' cheese topped with carmelized onions, apparently the only food avaliable in Bavaria that doesn't originate inside a pig) and more rauchbier.
Us. I wasn't squinting because I had been drinking... the low late afternoon sun was bright.

It took me a while to warm to Nuremberg the next day. Maybe I was a little burned out from the days of walking; maybe it was just too modern (even most of the "medieval" buildings had been rebuilt after the war); maybe I was just too aware of the city's history, from the gigantic party rallies before the war to the Judgment at... . Maybe the hauptbahnhof was just too huge, hot, and annoying.

Incidentally, if you plan on nature's calling you at any time in Germany, take coins. The tourist info bureaus have pay toilets and the train stations have big facilities with names like Neat and Tidy or McClean with a dozen uniformed attendants and turnstiles that cost a Euro to get through. The whole experience, however necessary, isn't the best entertainment value for your buck and a half... though it is more enjoyable than, say, an Adam Sandler movie. Are the facilities neat and tidy? Not mcspecially.

I wandered through the huge plaza, which was filled end-to-end with fruit and flower and sausage (especially sausage) and cheese vendors, then through the winding streets up the hill to the Albrecht Durer house.
I'm an art ignoramus, but I love Durer's Hare.

All the guidebooks say there's a museum in Durer's house, but all I found were studios (closed) andtrinket shops (very much open). I eased my disappointment with some more spaetzle and bier at a sidewalk cafe around the corner, gazing across the way at the Kaiserburg (Imperial Castle) and the very modern "Hare" statue in front of it...
...which in theory should be delightful, but close up is vaguely horrifying.
Then I wandered around the grassy battlements atop the Kaiserberg and back down to the city below. On the way, I found the church of St. Sebald, which seemed at first to be just another airless, gloomy old stone pile. 
 It was gloomier when I was there. (I didn't take these Nuremberg photos; my phone was dead.)

The church interior had a series of photo placards illustrating its reconstruction from a roofless pile of rubble at the end of the war. Where I started to warm to Nuremberg was at the photo of St. Sebald's sister church,
Coventry Cathedral. I found it touching that the British church destroyed by the Germans and the German church destroyed by the British had joined together in the spirit of peace.

I visited Coventry Cathedral with my then-girlfriend in 1976, and St. Sebald somehow brought my European experiences full circle and gave me a sense of connection with the me I was at age 22. (It's sobering to know that my visit to Coventry was exactly as close in time to the Battle of Britain, which in my mind belongs to dusty history books, as to today.)

I wandered some more and caught the train back to Bamberg. When I got back, it was dinnertime and Turtle asked me if I'd like to join her and a few of her work friends and a little beer garden out in the country. I would and I did, and that provided possibly my nicest memory from Germany. She drove a few miles out to a little town and an inn with picnic tables in a grassy yard, next to a stream and a mill. I can still recapture the taste of the beer, the friendliness of the conversation, and the relaxed, happy feeling from the warmth of the sun and the rush of the water.

On the way back to Turtle's apartment, I mentioned my puzzlement that there didn't seem to be any nice brown German mustard in German stores, so she took me to a supermarket and showed me the most amazing thing... mustard comes in toothpaste tubes! (Don't brush your teeth with it!)
I brought back Sahne-Merrettich (horseradish sauce), mittlescharf Delicatess-Senf (medium mustard), Scharfer Senf (sharp mustard), and Lowensenf (lion mustard?!)


Saturday in Munich was something new: something old. I mean that this was the first place on this trip that I'd been to before. I remember three specific places from my stay in Munich with my parents, when I was 14: the glockenspiel clock in the Marienplatz, the Hofbrauhaus beer garden, and the inside of our rental car when they went in to take the tour of the Dachau concentration camp. I had the time and inclination to revisit the first two.
I got to the Munich hauptbahnhof  in midmorning, grabbed a map, and headed for the Marienplatz. Between the railway station and the square there are blocks of pedestrian mall lined with all the same brands of shops I know from Gangnam in Seoul, along with the occasional rebuilt medieval building. I waited in the sun with all the other Griswolds for 11 a.m. and the ringing of the glockenspiel.
It's basically a giant cuckoo clock; the peasants march around and bow and twirl, a knight knocks another knight back in a joust... it's a real crowd pleaser, but things are more impressive when you're 14. (Or they were when I was 14... today's kids are probably a bit jaded when it comes to special effects.)
From there I walked around and looked at stuff. (Have you noticed a pattern in my activities?) I wound my way around to the world's most famous beer garden. I sat outside the Hofbrauhaus in the summer sunshine and enjoyed a 55-gallon drum (well, a full liter) of good German dark beer.
I resisted the European pastries, the chocolate, the saugage... not the beer. I have not a single regret.

In a way, I copped out by sitting on the terrace, across from the Hard Rock Cafe; the real HB experience is indoors, in a gigantic open vault with thousands upon thousands of happy biertrinkers at countless picnic tables and a ban in liederhosen. That's where I'd been, so many years before, with my folks. But the din in there was unbelievable, and to sit alone in that happy madhouse... well, I get lonely, but I don't like to wallow in aloneness.

Afterward, I wandered some more to and through the English Garden, a misnamed, massive public space that rivals Central Park. There's a huge green for sunbathing, streams and ponds for fowl play...

...and something wonderful I still haven't figured out: there's no striking drop in elevation, no generators, no source for rushing water that I could detect, but there are people surfing the rapids in the middle of Munich:

I stood and watched them for the longest time (and absolutely not the young woman in the wetsuit any more than the guys, I swear), and wandered out of the park, but not before stumbling upon the Chinese Garden, with hundreds and hundreds of diners surrounding yet another surreal sight...
...a big Bavarian oompah band playing jolly tuba songs from a pseudo-pagoda.

Oh, and finally there was an eight-person, round bike zipping by, full of lovely, laughing Bavarian maidens wearing dirndls. (I don't find Seoul as exotic as I once did.)

Before long, it was time to head out to the 'burbs on the S-bahn (local train) for the Munich Hash. I met my new besties on the train platform, we moseyed to a store parking lot, and we were off, through the suburban streets, through the woods, a quick stop at a hasher's house for a beverage (guess what), and back on the road.

Just as I did in Copenhagen (and Ventura, and Songtan...), with hashers I found instant friends. There's no competition, no meanness, just an openhanded welcome to everyone who wants to share a nice run, a naughty song or two, and a fun time. The Munich hashers were just as warm as the Viking Wankers in Copenhagen--and gave me two dozen pens and a tote bag to bring back to my packmates in Seoul. All the same, I guess I was a little let down by my hashing in Europe, just because I'd envisioned running down cobblestone streets past bell towers, and both hashes were so suburban I could have been in Florida or Illinois. But it was a great time and I think of both packs fondly.

I caught the S-bahn back into town with a new hashing buddy, who bought me a train ticket as I retrieved my stuff from a locker, I ran to the platform, got on the train, and went back to Nuremberg. When I got in, late and exhausted, I went to a very cheap hotel near the station, but it was full. They directed me to a nearby, not-so-cheap hotel, but it was full. They directed me to a nearby not-cheap hotel, it wasn't full, and I went upstairs and slept.

And then, in the morning, it was back to Korea.

There's one more blog entry coming about my trip. Warning: there may be Deep Thoughts.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I like Copenhagen very much. It's as if someone took some of the best parts of Ithaca (the environmentalism, the worldliness), and blended them with two scoops of European culture.

The first things I noticed on Monday morning, other than the fact that my jet lag allowed me to note that the sun was up at 4 a.m., were the wide streets and the stately, low buildings. Through Lauren's neighborhood of Fredericksberg, every public building was four of five stories tall, and every street was perpendicular to the streets it crossed. I'm used to Seoul, where a row of three-story apartment buildings will be across the street from a cluster of 40-story behemoths. Lauren pointed out that the identical heights of the buildings, along with the perfect squares in which they're laid out, make the whole affair feel a bit like a maze. But it's a very orderly, neat maze.

The next thing I noticed was the incredible number of bicycles on the road. It seemed to me that there were just as many bikes as cars, but I was a bit off: I have since read that only 36 percent of people in the city commute by bike. Still, that's a lot of bicycles whizzing along an endless stream of bike lanes, and you gotta be careful: a bike coming at you at 15 per doesn't make much noise.
Several blocks of downtown have double-decker bike parking.

As I was buzzed about by an endless stream of healthy Vikings and Valkyries on two wheels, another thought hit me: There sure are a lot of white people here. I'm accustomed to standing out in any crowd, to being taller and rounder and certainly pinker than almost anyone I see, and as such a de facto representative of my ethnic group. Not anymore! Even so, I still tried not to do anything too offensive. I said I tried.

On Monday, Lauren escorted me past the three serene man-made lakes that separate her neighborhood from downtown. I loved the area immediately... so many runners along the gravel paths. So many swans and ducks. So much civilization. I'm not comparing it to Korea now, or rather, I'm comparing it to Korea and America. Maybe it's the expectations I took along with me, but everything in Copenhagen just seemed so clean, so orderly, so civilized.

(Except for all the graffiti. Don't harsh my mellow. And the pork thing I'm going to mention later--FORESHADOWING!)

We strolled along the old pedestrian mall...
...and I bought a couple of books for the plane (Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and The Art of Fielding, for what it's worth--actually, it's worth about 150 kroner--and we relived our old Seoul days by stopping for a coffee overlooking a plaza with a crane-bedecked fountain and a crowd gathered around a juggler. Yeah, not a mime, but still pretty damn European.

Got a photo of the fountain, anyway. The cranes are sticking their necks out, 
but the photo is not in a juggler vein.

Afterward, we walked down to the old sailors' (read: red light) district and hopped on the sightseeing boat. We saw the new opera house and some sailing ships...
and a cruise ship and a war ship. (Yes, the Danes have a navy.)
---and the famous Some Building With a Dome.
The boat pulled up alongside a park and we got a glimpse of the famous Little Mermaid statue. It's the icon of Copenhagen (one guidebook said "It is possibly the most famous statue in the world"-- sorry, Liberty and David and Venus and Winged Victory and Pieta and Colossus of Rhodes and Rocky Balboa) and I have to say: I have never seen a less impressive landmark. It's little, all right, maybe three feet high, and not particularly memorable. I had always read that it guards the harbor, and I'd pictured it out on some romantic windswept promontory facing the sea. Nah, it's just sitting there, alongside the sidewalk, which is about two feet away, well within the placid harbor. We didn't get off the boat to take a good look at it.

But it was a lovely little boat ride. By the time we got back, it was misting little raindrops on us (the only time I got rained on the whole trip), and we hurried back to the apartment. I jet-lagged my way back into bed, because being on a once-in-lifetime trip and staying with a friend you've missed is no reason to stay awake, dammit.

Come dinnertime, I got picked up by a friendly hasher who drove me out to the 'burbs for a run with the Copenhagen Hash House Harriers (a.k.a. the Viking Wankers). I know I write a lot about hashing, but here are two things worth mentioning... wherever I go in the world, if I find a hash, I've found close friends. And the general public has never heard of hashing, but there are well over a thousand kennels (groups) around the world... the Wankers' t-shirt lists the ones that start with "C", and there are 97 of them, from Canberra to Curitiba.

Unlike the hashes in Korea, the Copenhagen H3 has a lot of middle-aged people, and probably half of them are locals. (Ours are 99 percent Westerners, split largely between teachers and military people.) The run itself was brief, but the on-after... a glorious buffet with Tuborg beer, macaroni salad, potato salad, cherry tomatoes, and twice as much stuff that I don't eat. We sang, we talked, we ate, and, quite late, my new friend Calapso accompanied me on the long bus ride past the famous Tivoli Gardens and back home.

The next morning, Lauren had a Danish-language class, so I wandered on my own, past the lakes, into the botanical gardens, around the pedestrian mall, through a huge park, and to the Rose Castle.
 It's on a more human scale than, say, Buckingham Palace.

It doesn't look like so much, but they keep the Danish Crown Jewels down in the basement, and they don't fool around: they don't have guards in scarlet coats and high fur hats that could be holding the Queen's corgis, for all I know; they have guys in fatigues with automatic weapons. (Yeah, the Danes have an army, too.)

Then it was time to meet Lauren. She guided me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where I had a delicious though undecipherable veggie sandwich. Then we went to one of the oddest places I've ever been: Christiania. It's an abandoned army base that peace-love-dope hippie freaks just started squatting in back in 1971. They've never been chased out, and they live basically untouched by larger Danish society.

There sure were a lot of people just kind of sitting around in the sunshine. We walked around. It was kind of funky and dilapidated, in a somewhat charming way. I was at school in Ann Arbor when the first Danish hippies turned the army base into Freetown Christiania, and it felt like Ann Arbor in 1971. I liked the place, but at the same time, I felt a bit like an anthropologist; I didn't belong there. Lauren told me not to take any photos--apparently the place, despite its semi-autonomous status, has seen its share of undercover cops, as the residents define "hash" in an entirely different way from my friends, and they don't like strangers with cameras.

When we left Christiania, Lauren asked me if I wanted to see more of the city, but like all the bicycles, I was two-tired. (I'll wait till your laughter subsides. Take your time.) we caught the subway back to Lauren and Carsten's. The whole time I was there, they fed me like a king (or possibly they were fattening me up for slaughter; who can say?) (Fun fact: Danes eat 20 pounds more pig per capita than any other country in the world. Do they know their country is on the ocean?) Lauren and Carsten had fed me handmade waffles with the best jam ever and whipped cream at breakfast; they'd given me bread so rich and tasty that I realized I'd never really had bread before in my life; the night before, Lauren had made homemade pizza, which I'd missed due to the hash. Anyway, now it was time for dinner, and, swear to Thor, I can't remember now what we had. But I remember it was amazing.

Then we nested in for the evening and watched The Dark Knight.

In the morning, I packed my stuff and said my thanks and my goodbyes to Carsten; then Lauren and I hit the subway. I had trouble with the ridiculous ticket machine; it wouldn't take my Korean debit card--this was a problem that bedeviled me on and off throughout the trip--and I couldn't get it to accept my change either. It did spit out a little receipt that said the amount of the fare and THIS IS NOT A TICKET.
(A word about the subway system: it's amazing how old-fashioned the ticketing is. When Lauren renews her monthly pass, not only can she not do it online, she has to go to the same subway station every time. With the vending machine, if you put in enough money, it spits out a multi-trip piece of cardboard that you have to insert into the CHUNKing machine, which CHUNKs a notch in it every time you take a trip. The card is too big to fit in a wallet without getting mutilated. Washington, D.C. had reloadable plastic transit cards when I was there--in 1975.)

Anyway, Lauren had to get to class and I wanted to get to the airport and we figured that conductors hardly ever come by to check tickets and it was only seven or eight stops to the airport... ah, heck, I'll use the THIS IS NOT A TICKET. And Lauren said goodbye and got off at her stop, and...

Immediately thereafter, a Captain Kangaroo-lookin' guy in a uniform came along and asked for my ticket. I played dumb (yes, I claim it was an act) and showed him my THIS IS NOT A TICKET. He looked as stern as he could in his avuncular way--can he be my avuncle if he's younger than I am?--and said, "Come with me." 

On the way up the escalator, he told me I'd have to pay a 700 kroner ($100) fine and said, "It says, THIS IS NOT A TICKET. It's in your language." (Yes, everyone in Denmark speaks English.) I had visions of missing my flight, possibly while dangling from my ankles in the Rose Castle dungeons, but when he tried my debit card in the vending machine and it failed, and I convincingly played Stupid American, he muttered, "German technology", and just let me go with an annotation on my THIS IS NOT A TICKET and said, "If another conductor stops you, tell him to call me."

,,,aaaaand, five minutes later, on the next train, another conductor was coming down the aisle checking tickets, but five feet before he got to me, we reached the next station, where I hopped off, and then caught the third train and skulked my way safely to the lufthavn.

And then it was farvel, Danmark, and hallo, Deutschland.

But that is a story for another time. Soon. Probably.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


"When I was very young and the urge to be somewhere else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch... now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job."- John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Well, I don't get that urge very much; after all, I spent 41 years in Ithaca and 13 in St. Augustine. But I am, in fact, 58, and as the school year limped to its end, the urge came over me really strongly.

"Miss Watson would say, 'Don't put your feet up there, Huckleberry' and 'Don't scrunch up like that, Huckleberry--set up straight,' and pretty soon she would say, 'Don't gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry--why don't you try to behave?' Then she told me all about the bad place [Hell], and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn't mean no harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change. I warn't particular."-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

That's it exactly. I've been in Korea for going on four years, as a teacher avoiding scrunching up and gapping and stretching, and I needed to go. Somewhere. I warn't particular.

Our school contracts allow for one free round-trip home (or elsewhere) each year. "Home" is a slippery concept for me; half the time I can't tell if I'm in exile or if I'm home already. I gave long thought to going back to Florida and to Ithaca--one day, I need to see if there's anything left there for me--but there are just so many of my personal ghosts in both places that I didn't have the heart this time around.

So I finally decided on Plan B: visit my good school friend Lauren in Copenhagen and my hashing friend Turtle (Samantha) in Germany. I hadn't been in Europe in 36 years (and actually on the continent in 44), and it was time to see if they'd changed anything. I'd never been to Scandinavia at all. I wanted to catch up with Lauren, as I have really missed our regular Sunday-morning coffees, and Turtle. I wanted to go hashing with some different packs. I wanted to be someplace besides here. And I wanted to follow my usual highly detailed travel plan:

Walk around and look at stuff.

I've never been big on museums and statues and such; I'd much rather get a feel for how people live in different places. What do they eat? What do they drink? How do they dress? What do they think about a long, pointless stream of rhetorical questions?

Here I am! No, over here!

It was a long and daunting trip: 24 hours door-to-door to get there, 26 to get back. Just writing about it is daunting enough. I am daunted. Heck, just sending all the photos from my phone to my laptop is going to be wearying. Anyway, I'm breaking up the story into four parts, There...; Danmark; Deutschland; and ...and back again. This is Part One.

Since I became an adult, I've been really scared of flying. I've only just realized that it is, in fact, mostly a story I've told myself. I don't know why I convinced myself of that; it was easier this time, somehow. No reason flights from Incheon to Beijing to Amsterdam to Copenhagen to Berlin to Nuremberg to Amsterdam to Guangzhou to Incheon should make me nervous, right? (After all, I was cool on the train rides from Nuremberg to Bamberg to Nuremberg to Bamberg to Munich to Nuremberg.) Gee, I've almost lost track. Heh.

Well, okay, I was nervous the whole time on every flight, especially on takeoffs and landings. But not scared. I even dozed off for as much as two or three minutes a couple of times.

I am totally adding China to my list of countries visited, even though I never stepped outside the airport. Of course, a Chinese airport is pretty much like any other airport, only with extra-long bureaucratic waits and very little guidance as to which line to stand in. The Beijing airport, or at least the part I was in, looks straight out of the 1950s. And China Southern airlines, my host for the long legs of my trip, needs to fix their in-flight map; I was amazed to see snow-capped mountains in June, but I have no idea if they were in western China, or Kyrgyzstan, on where. And a better selection of movies would have been nice; The Artist was okay the first time around. The second time, it was unspeakable.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was very modern and fancy; that and Incheon are the nicest lufthavns I've seen. It's too bad I was so weary that I was stumbling about as I waited for the flight to Copenhagen...

...which, incidentally, is a lot farther north than I realized. As the KLM jet started its descent at 10:10 p.m., the sun was still up. Then we landed, I found Lauren, and she took me via subway to the apartment she shares with Carsten. We talked a bit, I went to bed, and when I woke up, disoriented, at 3:45 a.m., the sun was already up again.

Ha! Disoriented, get it? Not in Korea anymore? Ah, never mind.

On to Part Two when I've rested up from writing this one.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Wack and white and red all over

Well, I had an active weekend. Saturday marked my home Yongsan Kimchi hash's biggest annual event, the Red Dress Run, as well as the departure of Katy, our former GM (and maybe my favoritest hasher of them all.) Yesterday, I did a 10K training run in the morning, turning around at the Gwacheon soccer field's track, where much to my surprise I crashed some church event where a few thousand people were sitting in neat rows on the field. In the afternoon, I hiked on a steep, steep trail on a new hountain near the Costco. (Well, it's not literally new, it's probably a million years old, but it's new to me... funny how I've lived so close to it for three years and never walked it before.)

But mostly I want to write about the RDR and what it means to me.

I've always been pitifully self-conscious. I can still remember, after 54 years, that I was so nervous on the stage  that I struck my triangle a second too early at the beginning of my kindergarten class' song and nearly died of humiliation. On my first day as a teaching intern, a mere 27 years ago, my hand shook as if there were an earthquake when I had to give a spelling quiz to sixth graders.

"But, Steve," you say, "you went on Millionaire in front of tens of millions of people. It can't be that bad." Yeah, but first, that was so weird, with the lights and music and bizarre set--and Regis(!)--that it was totally surreal, and second, shut up, you're hypothetical.

Here in Korea, at first I was always embarrassed to be the only Western (a.k.a. white) person in my neighborhood, in the subway, naked in the health club showers, wherever. Once I got used to having the subway seat next to me always be the last one occupied, I was okay. Then, when I started running with the hashers, it took a long time to be okay with running around shouting "On on!" and "True trail!" and "RU?", sometimes carrying a plunger or a bedpan, while the locals goggled.

But the Red Dress Run is something else entirely. It's the wackiest thing we do all year... everyone who can find one, both men and women, wears a red dress. Last year, I found a sequined, spaghetti-strap dress at a Halloween costume shop. It was so long, almost to my ankles, that I ended up tucking the hem into my shorts.

This year, my Korean friend Gloria, the school counselor, explained my situation to a seamstress, who cut the dress to mid-thigh. (As the saying goes, "As you climb the ladder to success, don't let the boys look up your dress.") It's pretty short, so I wore my pretty shorts, too.

It's a real flapper dress now, which is appropriate since I'm teaching Gatsby with my seniors--but I've decided not to wear it to school.
I'm not in this picture. (I have a good closeup shot of me in my flapper dress and pearls, but I'm not putting it on the Internet with my name attached. Email me and if you follow this blog and promise not to share it, I'll forward you a copy. It's worth the cost of an email.)

Anyway, running through Itaewon, Korea's premier international neighborhood, and up Namsan Mountain, past hundreds of locals on some sort of charity walk, with 35 other wacky waegookin, mostly men, in red dresses is so... liberating. Smiles and laughter from Koreans, dozens of people whipping out their cellphone cameras, a scowl from a Muslim lady in a hijab, even a US soldier calling out a highly indecent and highly descriptive proposition ("That'll be twenty bucks!", I shouted back)... it's so freeing to not care what other people think.

I will admit I felt more comfortable when I had a couple of dozen other men in red dresses with me than when I lost the pack and ran alone, but I survived even that. It's nice to throw off the crippling, self-imposed fear of what people think.

Doesn't the First Amendment say something about petitioning for a red dress of grievances?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ay, there's the rub.

The guy running our Yongsan Kimchi apres-hash circle on Saturday decreed that, for having come to 80 YK runs, I deserved not only the traditional patch for my happi coat and ceremonial beer, but also a shoulder rub.

I've never been one to dispute authority...

A guy could get used to this... my friendly massage therapists, Jedi and Steak.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, that's the spot.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I had an exhausting weekend full of sunshine and hashing, including my 80th YK hash and my 20th Southside, all in the last 18 months. My legs are sore and my lower back feels as if it's been given a Swedish massage by an angry golem.

Totally worth it.

Every day has been just gorgeous, sunny and hot with the early-summer convection-oven heat and breeze we get here before the steam bath of the long, real summer sets in.

On Friday, the school traveled south of the city to a picnic/sports area nestled in the hountains for our annual Family Day. I tossed a football, ran around being cheerful (which, for me, is exhausting in itself), and, with Billy Stewart, won the faculty water-balloon toss. By the time I got home at 6:00,  all I wanted was a nap in a cool room.

But there was no time; I had to get ready to head out to Itaewon for the Full Moon Hash. The sadistic hares led us aaaaaaaall the way up Namsan Mountain, on the trail and up the innumberable stairs, in the dark, to the deck at the base of Seoul Tower... and, of course, back.

It was one of the clearest nights we ever get around here (clearer than in this Google Images photo), with a big, bright moon, and the view was spectacular. The deck has a 240-degree view and, on this lovely May evening, was crowded with young couples and families. Half of them wanted to take their photos with our hasher friend WPOS, who is 5-foot-9, bald, black, and very outgoing. My theory is that they thought he was Michael Jordan.

Back at the bar in Itaewon, I succeeded in getting all stinky from smoke, leaving behind my best running shirt, and barely making it home before the subway closed.

In the morning, I overslept and all too soon it was time to go 'way north to Insadong for my home hash, Yongsan Kimchi. It was another glorious morning as we met in a big, open park across from Gyeongbokgung Palace. We had the biggest pack (about 40 people, including a couple of guests from Tokyo) that we've had in many months... I've been terrifically encouraged by the turnout of new, enthusiastic members; not too many months ago, I was worried about our survival, after 24 years, as a hash kennel.

The pack stayed together and somehow missed a vital turn; after 20 minutes we found the true-trail arrow, to go back to the start, that we clearly weren't supposed to see till much later. Most of the pack went back to find the right trail, but I... I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. (What? Oh, sorry.)

I mean, I was already exhausted from Friday and was committed to Sunday's hash, so I joined a couple of other guys and cut back to the start. Since we were in no hurry, we stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the palace:

We had a long wait for the rest of the pack, serenaded repeatedly by a traditional Korean drum group accompanying that ancient Korean folk song The James Bond Theme. Eventually it was time to go home and get some work done. So I did.

Today, the Southside hashers held a hash and barbecue on the occasion of two members' birthdays. This one started less than two miles from my place, so I biked there. Gorgeous, sun-drenched day again. The trail was varied and spectacular, up and down several hountains and along my beloved Yangjae Cheon. It was wonderful, though if it had gone another five minutes, they'd have had to drag me back, my head going bump, bump, bump, like Winnie-the-Pooh up the stairs.

The start and finish were at a shelter in a small park at the base of one of the hountains and we were all trying to have a nice time; there was potato salad and macaroni salad and burgers and dogs and Boca Burgers, because I have great friends, and beer and hard cider and a box of wine. And then one of the locals called the cops.

Apparently it's against the law to cook out in a public park, or by a mountain, or something (although there was no sign in any language to that effect). I certainly understand that they don't want people starting fires; I have no problem with that, though the grill was completely enclosed and on concrete, not near any greenery, and with 25 adults to watch over it. After a certain tense negotiation, our guy with the grill moved it way out to the sidewalk. Case closed, right?

Not so. The local guy who'd called the cops on us in the first place sat and stared at us like a hawk, the cops tried to take the name and number of the Korean hasher who was helping everyone out by translating, and eventually some park monitor dude ordered us to leave--even though nobody was drunk and there's absolutely no law against congregating, singing, or public drinking (a Korean passed out on the sidewalk is not a rare sight and heavy drinking is a big part of the business world here.)

Once we'd complied by moving the grill, we were doing absolutely nothing wrong or illegal. But they kicked us out anyway; we'd been busted on a charge of FWF: Fun While Foreign.

White Westerners have it easy here, unlike southeast Asian workers or sometimes, I hear, darker Americans. But there's a huge double standard: every expat knows that, in any dispute between a Korean and a waegook, the Korean is always right. It's against decorum for a man to run without a shirt, but only Westerners get told by the cops to put their shirts on. Koreans never get shushed on the subway, but waegookin do. And so on. The word is that if officers try to hassle you, all you have to do is try to take their picture or get their names and they walk away...

It all felt very Officer Obie at Alice's Restaurant.

Anyway, the pack started off to haul the table and the bowls and the now-cold grill and the coolers and trek off down the sidewalk for some blocks, looking for a place to finish the after-hash circle and picnic, and I biked home.

Because nobody is going to hassle you for FWF when you spend your afternoon grading ninth-grade Alas, Babylon tests.

Not even in Korea.

Good morning, America. How are ya?

I've been thinking a lot about home lately... home, as in Ithaca, and home, as in the United States.

I spent my first 42 years in Ithaca, and never thought I'd leave... it's a magical place, for all its ridiculous hippieness. It's the birthplace of Puff the Magic Dragon and, we claim, the ice cream sundae, and it's a beautiful, mIthical enclave of gentle, intelligent people, waterfalls right in town, Cayuga Lake (with its waves of blue) and my noble alma mater (glorious to view). When I close my eyes at night, sometimes I see lush, green hills rising above the long, narrow lake. One thing I love about Korea is the hills; Florida was just too flat, too not-Ithacan.

Ithaca is in my heart, whether or not I ever go back.

But mostly I've been thinking of the States. I prepare Korean kids to go to college in the USA, and as a representative of my country, I feel both proud and ashamed every day.

We were the first democracy in the modern world. We taught the globe about Liberty and Justice For All and Government of the People, By the People, For the People. We saved Europe. We've got the best popular music and the best movies, we gave the world baseball, and our ideals illuminate the Earth.

I love my country.

But we're also the land of the Trail of Tears and slavery and Jim Crow and drone strikes and empire and guns, guns, guns. We won't be capital-A America until our realities match our ideals. And it feels, from my vantage point over here, as if we never get any closer to that point; I hope I'm wrong.

I may be an expat for a long, long time. There are jobs here, and I get a certain je-ne-sais-quoi (but I don't know what) from being The Older American in Korea. But sometimes I miss Home.

Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Living in living color

Last week, I wrote a post that was triggered by hearing the lyric "Nothing's gonna change my world" in a cover version of John Lennon's Across the Universe. Go ahead down a couple of entries and read it if you haven't; I've got time.

Okay? Back?

Well, a day or two later, I happened to show the delightful movie Pleasantville in class, as a suggestion of the conformist 50s society Holden rebels against in Catcher in the Rye, as well as a basis for analysis of satire and the extended metaphor. And what should come up on the soundtrack but the same recording, by Fiona Apple. Hollywood is striking it rich with sequels, so here's my sequel to the previous post.

In the movie, teen siblings Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, in a kind of Twilight Zone conceit, get visited by a mysterious TV repairman (Don Knotts!), who zaps them back into a 1950s Leave it to Father Knows Ozzie and Lucy TV show. The teen couples do nothing more than hold hands, there are no toilets or double beds, the fire department only rescues cats in trees (when you're in a rush, someone will ask, "Where's the cat?"), and the basketball team never misses a shot. And everything and everyone is in black and white.

Then Reese introduces a boy to the back seat of a car, and on the way home, he sees a rose. A red rose. Soon more things and then people are turning into color, which frightens everyone else. (At Tobey's trial for fomenting this un-American trend, the "colored" people have to sit in the balcony. Joan Allen, as the mom, puts on gray makeup to hide her shame.) It isn't sex that turns them; it's the ability to change and grow. For Reese, it's learning to enjoy reading. For Tobey, it's being brave and defending his mom. For the soda-shop guy, it's being introduced to art. And the soundtrack swells with Fiona Apple: "Nothing's gonna change my world."

And thus, finally, I get to my point. I generally do, eventually.

I have lived in black and white. I'm a very cautious guy, by upbringing and nature. I would never have dreamed of running cross country in high school, or joining the Peace Corps, or sneaking into a movie. I'm easily habituated, which is why I don't have a video-game console; I'd never leave the house. I don't like surprises. I wear the same type of clothes (if not literally the same clothes, although with some of my socks I can't be sure) that I wore 40 years ago.

When I came to Korea, it was one of the few Technicolor/widescreen moves I'd ever really made. I know nobody was more shocked than I; it was a monumental change for me.

That was living in color.

And I've had flashes of color here from time to time, such as hashing or taking the train to Busan on a whim because I missed the ocean, or sending a message to someone on a dating site. But mostly I'm still living on a 16-inch screen in grainy monotone.

I swear there will be more color! I'm never going bungee jumping (the thought makes my palms sweat), and I'm not going to take up macrame or the zither or ice climbing. But I'm going to live more.

I guess I should start by turning off the compu

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Well, excuuuuuuse me!

Three years or so ago, I wrote here that the Korean for "excuse me" is "shilleh hamnida", but that no Korean has ever actually said it.

I wish to apologize to the Korean people:

Actually, the Korean for "excuse me", as in "please let me get by you" is "chamshi manyo".

...but no Korean has ever actually said it.

...especially not the man who wanted to get by me at E-Mart, so he put the back of his hand on my butt and nudged me out of the way.

I was really offended, but then I calmed down. At my age, I accept even backhanded compliments. No, ifs, ands, or... ah, never mind. Shilleh hamnida.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Nothing's gonna change my world

As I came out of E-Mart this evening, the coffee shop in the front of the building was playing a cover of John Lennon's Across the Universe, which is a lovely song. And its chorus makes a perfectly ironic title for this blog post.

If you ever want a classic example of the Buddhist tenet that everything is impermanent, come to Yangjae-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

E-Mart itself has been massively renovated and expanded and gone upscale, so much that shopping on a Sunday afternoon, when nobody knows where anything is, is like playing bumper cars on the 405. Every single item in the store is someplace else from where it was last week; the store's aisles are now marked in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese; there's an international cuisine section (peanut butter and baked beans are the mainstays of US cuisine by the way); they've put in dozens of upright coolers (and have realized, finally, that people like their beer cold); they've moved the sporting goods to a separate room (The Sports Zone) with a rubberized fake running track underfoot; they've made the bakery into a Bread and Honey alcove; and they've turned one whole corner of the store into Molly's Pet Shop, complete with vet-only specialty food--and an actual vet's office, the only one within two miles of my house.

I asked a man in a white coat if any of the vets speak English and he--in somewhat limited English--said he does. Now I have to decide whether to turn Tug's care over to him. My current vet is wonderful; Dr. Choi, the boss, speaks perfect English, they have a cat specialist whose English is quite adequate, and their office has every bell and whistle of modern animal care. But it's a 40-minute cab ride, with a yowling cat in a carrier and for a ten-buck fare, each way. E-Mart is a five-minute walk. Is a puzzlement. At least now I don't have to take an hour and two subway fares to get Tug's bladder-care food.

A bit earlier, I scouted for a hash trail I'm going to lay in a few weeks. I got a closer look at the endless array of high-rise apartments they've put up just across the Yangjae Cheon (stream) from me. They've bulldozed acre after acre of trees and field (no doubt killing or forcing the relocation of thousands of animals) and erected building after soulless 30-story building, and they're calling the development "Nature Hill".

Isn't it ironic, don't you think?

How many people will be moving into my neighborhood? Forty thousand? A hundred thousand? Everybody in Korea? I don't know. I do know that I can't see the mountains anymore and the running path along the Cheon is going to be a lot more congested this summer.

Also, a hundred feet from my ramp down to the Cheon, a bulldozer is filling in 75 percent of the stream's width in one spot, raising the water level there and submerging several of the steppingstones across the creek. And they've put up a footbridge nearby to handle the expected extra foot traffic. I realize that I'm hypocritical on this subject; I know that every meter of the Cheon from Gwacheon City to the Han River that runs through the heart of Seoul has been groomed, fussed over, diverted, landscaped, and denatured. But I guess we all would like good things to stay the way they were the day we first discovered them.

Foreground: the world's newest bridge.
Background: steppingstones and inexplicable landfill project.

I miss seeing the mountains out my window. And I miss the steppingstones already.

But the change that is hardest to deal with is the constant shuffling of people in and out of my life. "So many people have come and gone/Their faces fade as the years go by", as Boston sang. (What a great record!) Most of the core group of hash veterans has left, or is leaving, this spring. It's weird, when it seems that so recently I was a newbie, to be one of the veterans who's supposed to know what he's doing. Currently I'm the hash chef (supplier of comestibles) and longevity archivist/treasurer. I like the responsibility, but it's strange that the people who have been the heart of the hash are gone. I miss my friends.

We are getting fresh, enthusiastic people coming in, though. With the approach of spring, we've had a lot of first-timers. We named two hashers yesterday and there's another one coming up next Saturday. In particular, I've gotten to be buddies with Kat, who's bright and vivacious, talks with me about books and movies, and actually likes my jokes (or is a talented actor).

So life, as it tends to do, goes on. But I don't care what they say...

The more things change, the more things change.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I wandered lonely as a cloud

Before you begin reading the blog post proper, here's a question for you: How many squares are there on a chessboard? (Hint: a lot more than 64.) The answer is many paragraphs down.

I have only two hard-and-fast appointments during this week off from school: a bar trivia quiz with friends last (Wednesday) night and a follow-up hearing test/doctor visit tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon around 2:30, I was sick of being in the apartment and convinced myself to leave for Itaewon, even though I'd agreed with my friend Jane to meet her at Phillies Pub by 8:00 to save a table for the 9:00 game. I wanted to walk, I wanted to see things on this first full (very nice) day of spring, and mostly I just wanted to do something. (I'm thinking of a song my mom used to sing to me long ago: "The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.") In my pack, I had my hash happi coat, patches for the patch lady in Itaewon to sew on it, and books to trade in at What the Book. And I had lots and lots of time.

So I set out on the seven-mile-or-so walk to Itaewon, along the Yangjae Cheon and along the back streets amidn all the kimbap restaurants and convenience stores. After an hour, I'd walked three miles, I was in Gangnam, my knee was starting to twinge, I could already feel the wind off the river I'd need to walk across, and there was the 421 bus to Itaewon, just sitting there with lots of empty seats...

So I got to Itaewon a lot earlier than my ETA, which was already really early. I dropped off my happi and patches and went over to WTB to swap out a Janet Evanovich, a Robert B. Parker, and a Korean for Dummies book, which proved true to its title by teaching no Korean letters whatsoever, for one Dalai Lama.

No, not this one.

 Then I had a coffee and went back to pick up my happi. (Incidentally, I just Google Image-searched for "happi coat + hash" and found five pictures from this blog. Huh.)  By then, I only had 2 3/4 hours till I was supposed to meet Jane. It was time to wander.

I've written about Itaewon several times before, but I don't know if someone who hasn't been there can really picture it. It's just around the corner from the United States' huge Yongsan Army Base. Itaewon features dozens of people selling socks and hats and toys out of motorized kiosks on the streets, about a million bars and restaurants of every cuisine on Earth, innumerable shops selling oversized hip-hop clothing for American soldiers, a bevy of Korean gentlemen who stand in front of their shops (windows adorned with people like Walter Cronkite and US generals shaking their hands) and ask a thousand men a day, "Custom-made suit, sir?", and, on the sidewalk and in the streets, Nigerians and Russians and Turks and Americans and Pakistanis and Poles and Egyptians and even a whole bunch of Koreans.

I'd never really explored "Food Street" behind the monolithic Hamilton Hotel before, but I went in search of Honest Loving Hut, the vegan place I'd heard so much about. I didn't find it. In the lanes on the other side of the main street, I did find Hyundae Sauna ("Korea's Biggest Queer Shelter"), whose door had the repeated close-up motif of what I can only assume from the drawing style is Homer Simpson's Private Area, as well as the most honestly named bar in Asia, "Are You Ready to Drink?"

I wonder as I wander. I was thinking Deep Thoughts and enjoying the sights of Itaewon's back streets and my solitude in the crowd. The sun was lowering in the west but it was still warm enough to have my windbreaker tied around my waist. There is so short a spring here, and an even shorter fall, and they're both beautiful.

Then I started on the half-mile walk to the other great Waegook (foreigner) neighborhood, Haebongchan, home of Phillies Pub, our trivia site. On the way down the main road from Itaewon, you pass the huge, ornate Noksapyeoung subway station...

This is its skylight. Those little dashes are pigeons. It's a big place.

...walk along the interminable, razor-wire-topped wall of the Yongsan Garrison, turn left at the end of the wall by the big kimchi pots...

...and head straight toward Seoul Tower, whose shifting nighttime colors make it quite the sight, up on Mount Namsan.

But you mustn't get transfixed by the tower, because Haebongchan-daero, the street, is narrow and has neither sidewalks nor shoulders. What it does have, though, is haphazardly parked cars on both sides and a steady stream of traffic, much of which is being driven by drunks or, worse, cabbies. Too fast. At dusk, in this case.

After stopping on the main road for some gourmet basil/tomato pizza and exploring another little neighborhood on the slopes of Namsan, I picked my was along Haebongchan-daero to Phillies, where I arrived at 7:15. Phillies is tiny and if I'd met Jane at 8:00 as planned, we never would have gotten a table.

But despite my incessant prattling here about everything I saw, at its heart this post is about solitude. For many hours, I had nothing in particular to do and nobody to talk to. I wandered and felt alone. I don't know if other people feel as I do, or if it's just me being a loner, but for all my life I've many times where I've sought out solitude in the outdoors. The feeling isn't sadness, but it's not happiness either. It's a kind of satisfied loneliness, if that makes any sense, a sort of solace in separateness.

Hmm... separateness, serenity, satisfaction, solitude. The Sound of Silence. Stephen. And my favorite word in our language, solace.

See Robert Frost's "Acquainted With the Night"

Okay. My fifty minutes are up.

Moving on.

I held down the table at Phillies for quite awhile, quietly growling at anyone who looked as if they might want to steal chairs, till my peeps arrived.

 No, not these.

Finally, we were all there: my hashing friends Jane, Martin from Ireland, Emily, and Kat, Jane's friend Ally from Scotland, and me. There are only two big tables at Phillies and a half-dozen little round ones. The big ones housed us and the Team That Comes Every Week and Never, Ever Loses. (That was my folks, Brian, Nancy, Todd, and me, aka Hogwarts, in St. Augustine.) We wished very much to beat them.

We finished second, by one point. That was good for two free pitchers of beer (plus one from when we played a few weeks ago). But the good part...

After each trivia game proper, Phillies asks a bonus question. The pot starts at 100,000 Won and goes up 5,000 in each week in which nobody gets the answer. They had gone 17 weeks without a winner and the pot was now up to $185,000 ($163). The question was the one I asked at the top of this post: how many squares are there on a chessboard? Ally frantically scribbled "64" and ran toward the MC as I screamed, "Ally, come back! Come back!" (I knew very well they weren't giving out 185,000 Won for "64".)

He came back and the two of us figured it out: one 8x8 square, four 7x7 squares (two horizontally times two vertically), nine 6x6s (three horizontally times three vertically), 16 5x5s, 25 4x4s, 36 3x3s, 49 2x2s, 64 1x1s...

The answer is 204. If you got it right, I'll share my winnings with you when you come to Korea to visit me.

Ally tipped the bartender and bought shots for the quizmasters with the winnings, then split the money with me. I got 70,000 Won, or double what I'd spent on the whole day. I grabbed the subway home and got back at 12:30 a.m., coated in cigarette smoke, beer fumes, and glory.

But really this post is about solitude. That's what I'll remember about Wednesday, March 21, 2012. That, and 204.