The Gwangju Chronicles

Homigot

Homigot: Land of the Rising Sun

At New Year, both Lunar and of the Gregorian variety, Korean people tend to visit places in the east of the country to watch the very first sunrise. There are often Sunrise Festivals (there is a festival for everything in Korea. EVERYTHING.) organised with bands and dancing and free tteokguk, a rice cake soup traditionally eaten at the dawn of a new year and of course,we musn’t forgot about the sunrise-watching.  The easternmost point on the South Korean peninsula is Homigot, in Pohang. We visited Homigot in September as a detour on the way home from Gyeongju (otherwise known as ‘The Museum Without Walls’) and I have to say, it was worth the trip, despite the absolutely horrific lunch I was exposed to (Think beef-flavoured water with a few scallions floating on top. Highly unpleasant and abandoned in favour of coffee and digestive biscuits). Homigot is a small place, dominated by a giant, and I mean GIANT, pair of metal hands. One is on land, on Sunrise Square, while the other rises from the sea. All I could think of when I was there was that a gargantuan man was trapped beneath the surface and poised to emerge angrily at any moment. It was a bit freaky really, although I’m sure seeing the suns rays passing through the fingers of the giant is a pretty amazing sight on a New Year’s morn…

Seollal: Lunar New Year

Seollal is the first day of the lunar year and fell on January 23rd this year. Korean New Year generally falls on the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. Seollal is a three-day holiday usually spent with family and has many associated traditions.

 

The Seollal feast is prepared with great care, as it is thought that the look and taste of the food determines the ancestors’ level of satisfaction. Food eaten on Seollal is part of an ancestral rite. The food is arranged on a table with an ancestral tablet and a ritual called ‘Charye’ takes place. Incense is burned, the food is offered to the ancestors and the family bows to pay their respects.

 

Tteokguk, a soup made with rice cakes, is one of the foods representative of Seollal. According to tradition, eating tteokguk on Seollal adds one year to your age, so a fun way to ask someone how old they are is to ask how many servings of tteokguk they’ve had!

 

Many traditional Korean games are played on Seollal, like yut-nori, tuho and go-stop. Yut-nori is a board game involving a board, four wooden yut sticks and small tokens. Yut-nori is played with two teams and each team gets four tokens. The yut sticks are thrown like dice and the first team to get their tokens around the board is declared the winner. Tuho is a game where players must throw sticks into a container from a distance. Go-stop is a card game played with hwatu or flower cards. There are usually two or three players and the aim is to score points and then call a ‘go’ or a ‘stop’. When a ‘go’ is called the amount of points increases and the game continues. When a ‘stop’ is called the game ends and the person with the highest points is the winner.  

 

Kite flying is also a popular Seollal activity. The kites are raised into the sky and then their strings are cut and a wish is made.  

 

In the lunar calendar, each year is represented by one of twelve zodiac signs, and 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. The dragon is the fifth animal in the zodiac and represents hope and courage. Those born in the Year of the Dragon are said to be passionate and have abundant health. People born in 2012 (and 1952) will be Water Dragons (water is the element associated with 2012). Water is said to calm the dragon’s fire, resulting in people who are able to see things from other points of view.  

Happy New Year to all and 새해 많이 받으세요 (please receive many blessings in the new year)!

 

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on www.gwangjublog.com on January 20th, 2012.

I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day…

Since this was the first time we’ve been away from home for the big day, Brian and I decided to go on a ‘Christmas Offensive’ this year by making things as festive as humanly possible for the entire month of December. We started off right, puting up our tree in the first week, helped along nicely by a number of decoration deliveries from our mammies and my auntie. We had three different advent calendars on the go, a set of reindeer antler headpieces (with bells), several santa hats, christmas socks, christmas hairclips, a poinsettia, candy canes, and even a santa suit for Brian! The only thing missing was tinsel, but Brian wouldn’t let me bring it across the threshold of the apartment…

The ‘Christmas Offensive’ plan also included a baking section, because I decided that the mince pies my Mum sent us (and the ones brought back from Scotland by a friend of ours) simply weren’t going to suffice, so I made my very own. From scratch. Once I’d procured the candied peel (from the owner of a candle/baking company in Busan), it was easy as, well, pie. I boiled up the fruit and spices with some orange juice, butter and a sizeable amount of whiskey, then whipped up some almond and orange pastry and I was ready to go. The only complication was that I could make only six pies at a time, but even this turned out to be a lucky break because I forgot about one batch while watching Home Alone and burnt them to a crisp!

As well as mince pie construction, I was also in charge of baking the dessert for Christmas Day: Toblerone Cheesecake, recipe courtesy of Brian’s mum (because apparently ‘it’s not Christmas without Toblerone Cheesecake’).  I made it the day before Christmas Eve and left it in the fridge to become delicious. The starter was also my responsibility, and thanks to our neighbours super-early and unbelievably loud ‘romantic interlude’ on Christmas Eve morning, I had made vegetable soup and white soda bread before Brian even opened his eyes (he sleeps so deeply that a tornado wouldn’t wake him, never mind a bout of romance from the next door).

We spent the remainder of Christmas Eve making even more mince pies and watching Christmas movies (my recommendation: if anyone asks you to partake in a viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation JUST SAY NO), before heading downtown to The First Alleyway for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a buffet of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and all the trimmings of a regular Christmas dinner, so we figured it was a good back-up in case we somehow ruined our own turkey. Brian dressed up as Santa Claus for the occasion, which made me feel unbelieveably festive and also upped the Staring Quotient to off the charts levels. 

After a LOT of dinner (and two desserts, yum yum yum) we headed to the Speakeasy for some Christmas beverages. We didn’t stay too long because the big man was on his way, so we were home and tucked up in bed by 1.30am. We left a carrot for Rudolph on the roof (when will I start feeling too old to do that I wonder?) and a glass of whiskey and a mince pie for Santa and then fell fast asleep…

…but not for long! Brian couldn’t hold in his excitement and had me up and rummaging around the end of the bed for my stocking at 6.03am. I wasn’t complaining though, and we spent the next hour opening all our lovely presents before indulging in our traditional Christmas morning breakfasts (me: croissants and jam and tea; Brian: a fry with toast), before heading back to bed to get some energy for the cooking of the turkey. We emerged at around noon and started prepping. Luckily my parents couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve so they were on hand for some last-minute turkey queries. After our questions were answered, we got rid of the neck and the giblets, then got out the cleaver and chopped the poor bird in half, right along the breastbone (there was no WAY a whole turkey could be squeezed into our sad excuse for an oven). After shoving balls of stuffing underneath it and covering it in slices of bacon we put it in the oven and crossed our fingers. A little over two hours later, it was done, and it was perfect, golden brown and juicy. Brian was a busy bee in the kitchen while it was cooking, so we didn’t have to wait too long for dinner: a lovely table of garlic potatoes, carrots, broccoli, stuffing, gravy, roast potatoes and TURKEY! It was amazing and Brian was cool as a cucumber throughout (discounting a wee bit of fussing over the gravy). All in all, our Christmas dinner vastly exceeded expectations, and left us feeling so full we hardly even dipped into our giant box of goodies afterwards (thanks Mammies!).

We spent our time post-dinner collapsed in a comatose heap on the couch, and eventually mustered the energy to Skype home one more time and watch a movie (The Guard, with Brendan Gleeson) before falling into bed at 1 in the morning happy as pigs in, well, you know…

Christmas in Korea

Seoul: Food, Glorious Food

We went to Seoul last weekend for the first time since we arrived in Korea six months ago. The cover reason for the trip was because it was our anniversary, but really, we went to Seoul for the food. Don’t get me wrong, I worship at the alter of Korean food (bibimbap, samguepsal and galbi: my love for you will never fade) and eat it all the time, but sometimes the cravings for Western loveliness are overpowering.

We did our research and went to Seoul armed with the addresses of some Western groceries (thanks Megan!) and the names of restaurants we wanted to gorge ourselves in. As soon as the bags were unpacked we headed to Itaewon, the ‘foreign’ part of Seoul. There are restaurants serving every type of food imaginable (apart from Denny sausages, much to Brian’s dismay), but we had limited time so we had to be strict. The first stop was a Jordanian restaurant called Petra Palace, where we indulged in shish kebabs, tabouleh, falafel and hummus. It was epic.

After Petra, we went food shopping. The first place we went was simply called ‘Foreign Food’ and looked pretty shabby from the outside. We went in anyway and proceeded to have a food-induced excitement seizure. They had everything. Brian found herbs and spices galore (Fenugreek leaves anyone?) for all the Indian dishes he wants to try and I picked up lots of baking things, like vanilla extract and nutmeg and food colouring.  They even had Rich Teas, my absolute favourite biscuit from home, and impossible to locate in Gwangju. When I saw them I started squealing and jumping up and down in the aisle. After about twenty minutes of this we made our way to the counter and discovered that our pile of stuff came to 70,000won! Totally worth it, if you ask me.

After the Rich Tea Fever wore off, we went straight to another Western supermarket, called High Street. It was super-trendy and a total let-down after the wonders we found at ‘Foreign Food’. I did get mini marshmallows though (chocolate biscuit cake here i come!), so it wasn’t a total bust.

After a quick pitstop in the hotel, we made our way towrds dinner…or so we thought. Saturday night was when we discovered that Seoul is GIANT. We took a wrong turn and wound up wandering in the opposite direction to our chosen restaurant fr about twenty minutes. By the time we copped it (actually, Brian copped it, I was just moaning) and started walking in the right direction all the restaurants we wanted to go to had stopped serving and the less said about where we ended up the better.

Things took a turn for the better though on Sunday when we went for brunch. Now, brunch is my favourite meal EVER, so my expectations were high. I’d read about twenty-seven ‘Top Ten Brunch Restaurants in Seoul’ articles before we left Gwangju, and finally chose a place in Itaewon called Suji’s. It’s a super-popular place so we had to wait for a table, but I was so excited I didn’t care. We went for a wander and a coffee and returned at the appointed time. We both wanted to order everything on the menu, so we decided to order three things and go halfies on them: blueberry pancakes, Eggs Benedict and a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich (I also had three coffees and a mimosa, which led to a SEVERE case of post-brunch hyperactivity). Everything was delicious and we stopped talking entirely except to make yummy noises through huge mouthfuls of food.

We eventually rolled out the door and made our way to Insa-dong to peruse some Korean handicrafts. It was icy cold so after a while we went to the cinema for a spot of Brad Pitt-watching (Moneyball, in case you’re wondering) to pass the time until dinner. We went for Middle Eastern again, this time choosing a Turkish place called Kervan. We overordered as usual: mixed grill, shish kebab, rice, salad, hummus, baba ganoush, stuffed vine leaves and falafel. It was yum in my tum and I could barely fit a post-dinner beer into my belly. Beer was a must though, because we found a rugby pub called Scrooge’s (Let’s reflect: A rugby pub. In Korea. Heaven.) that was showing the Leinster match! Several pints later, we made our way back to the hotel for a very short sleep before our bus back to the ‘Ju on Monday morning. 

Food-wise, it was quite a successful trip, but Seoul? It’s too big for me. I’m a small town gal at heart for sure…

Andong: Minbaks, Jjimdak and Fireworks

After several hours wandering around the Mask Dance Festival (not to mention the four hour journey it took to get there) we were totally exhausted, so we all piled back into the van and headed to our sleeping quarters, which were in a traditional village just outside Andong, the Hahoe Village. Festival events were also taking place there so the traffic was mental and it took us almost an hour to crawl a couple of miles.

We were staying in a minbak, a kind of Korean bed and breakfast. I was very excited about the minbak, because we’d only ever stayed in love motels before going to Hahoe. When we saw our bedroom though, the excitement faded rapidly - it was tacked onto the back of a souvenir shop and the only way in was by climbing up and along a series of rickety tables. The room was tiny, with gloosy white walls and a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The toilet was a three minute walk away and I didn’t even look into the shower room after I heard the wails of our fellow travellers. There was no bed as we were sleeping in the traditional manner - on a heated floor with lots of quilts. The excitement levels rose again after I opened the quilt cupboard. It was full to the brim with pillows, throws and blankets of every size and colour and I immediately set about making a nest on the floor, which was already starting to warm up.

The situation continued to improve when the nest was complete and we went outside for dinner. Huge, steaming plates of Andong Jjimdak were waiting for us, along with bowls of rice and cold beers. Andong Jjimdak is kind of a steamed chicken stew, which doesn’t sound overly appetising, but it was AMAZING. We ate till we were fit to burst, then went for a swift post-prandial stroll around the village.

When we returned, it was time to wrap up as best we could (by this I mean we put on every single piece of clothing we brought with us) and head to the riverbank for a traditional Korean fireworks show. I wasn’t expecting there to be too big of a difference between Western fireworks and Korean, but I was seriously mistaken. The fireworks were quiet, understated and simply amazing to behold. One type floated along the river like huge golden eggs, another type moved along strings connecting the riverbank and the cliffs opposite, but the best of all were the giant balls of flame which were flung off the cliffs, bouncing all the way down. It was an otherworldly experience, and well worth an hour or two standing in the cold. To top it all off, at the very end we were treated to an almost-private show of Western-style fireworks, because everyone else had gone home…

Happy Pepero Day!

Pepero, for the uninitiated, are biscuit sticks either covered or filled with chocolate. They are a super-popular snack in Korea, especially in my apartment, because in addition to being super-popular, they are also super-tasty!

Pepero are quite the phenomenon here and they have their very own day of celebration - every year on November 11th (11.11 - like pepero sticks!) people all over Korea buy Pepero to give to their friends and loved ones. Kids have been coming in and thrusting Pepero into my welcoming hands all day long, so I should have amassed quite a stash by the end of the day.

I also gently reminded Brian that boyfriends give girlfriends Pepero on 11.11, so I am also in possession of a heart-shaped basket of the good stuff. Score!

 Andong: Hahoe Village

Andong: Traditional Korean Performance

Now, I say Traditional Korean Performance, but the only reason I know that is because I was told in advance. We watched the whole thing, but we had no more idea of what was going on at the end than at the start! At first there were two warrior-types having a knife fight and a beautiful maiden who spent most of the time wafting from one end of the stage to another, waving her super-long sleeves around the place. I thought it was a simple love triangle situation, but then two giant, shaggy lions appeared on the scene (I actually thought they were dogs, but Brian swiftly informed me otherwise). When the village idiot made her cameo a while later, I lost the plot completely. After that I stopped trying to figure out what was going on and sat back to enjoy the rest of the show.

There was a set of drummers contributing background music to the whole affair and two children were being carted around on the shoulders of a pair of very stressed-looking minders, all of whom were also doing the sleeve-waving. Eventually, one of the lions ate a poisoned rabbit (a.k.a teddy bear) and promptly died, the maiden disappeared and everybody else transformed into a marching band and left the stage.

I still haven’t got a clue what was going on, but the show was very entertaining and the constant drumming was mildly hypnotic. Also, we were sitting right at the front, so it would have been rude to leave…

Andong: Getting Married

At the Mask Dance festival, there was a booth where you could try on traditional Korean clothes, called Hanbok. I’d been dying to do this since we got to Korea, so I leapt into the booth as fast as my legs could carry me. Brian was having none of it, but when the ladies in charge saw that we were a couple they dragged him in and started taking out the wedding outfits!

He was a good sport (and also secretly delighted I think) and we were ready for our close up after a few minutes of preparation, which for him involved simply throwing on a hat and a giant robe and for me involved the complicated (and very heavy) combination of a dress, a bolero cardigan-type thing, a big silky belt, several bits of fabric draped around my neck, a sword through my ponytail, a headpiece and stickers on my face. Typical.

We stood behind the ‘wedding table’ and the ladies arranged us into position. One of our friends took the wedding snaps and then we realised that all the press photographers for the event were lining up outside the tent to take photos of us too, and after a minute or two, several Korean people with smartphone cameras joined them. It was totally mortifying, especially when an old man started asking Brian what his intentions for me were in broken English.

We hotfooted it away from the paparazzi, but the wedding wasn’t over quite yet. I decided that giving my mother a heart attack was a fabulous idea, so I sent her a text message (how mean is that?) to tell her that we’d actually gotten married. That night, after several beers and a LOT of barbecued meats, we decided to phone my parents and continue the ruse, but it all fell to pieces when they heard me whispering bits of the story to Brian. The sigh of relief when my mother realised it was all a joke was so loud that I reckon we would have heard it all the way from Ireland even without the phone! A bit more organisation though and it could have been the prank of the century…

Andong Mask Dance Festival: We saw the performances of three nations at the maks dancing competition - India, the Philippines and Israel. The ladies from India were telling some kinds of ‘Tree of Life’ story, as far as I could tell and looked like they’d thrown the routine together the night before. After India came the act from the Philippines - Ballet Manila. These guys were unbelievable and did an entire routine blindfolded. We ended our session with a very unusual set of dances from Israel. Giant foil slinkies were involved, as well as umbrellas and pipes, but there was hardly a mask in sight! It was strange from start to finish and even more so when I ended up INSIDE a giant slinky with one of the dancers. She looked at me with wild eyes, said “hellloooo” and then she was gone! After the acts were finished, I was approached by a TV crew and gently shoved into doing an interview, during which I got a severe attack of the monosyllables. I escaped as quick as I could and we returned to the festival, ready to get married…

Welcome to Apartment 403

So it’s taken me five months to get around to even mentioning our apartment, and it’s lucky I waited, because Apartment 403 is actually our second abode in Korea. The first one didn’t take to us and during the rainy season it kept dumping water on our heads while we slept. So we moved next door for a much more successful attempt at Korean living.

We no longer have keys, which is a very strange feeling, instead using this super high-tech keypad to get in and out (super reflective too, which gives you a bonus image of me in my Hello Kitty Panda pjs).

There’s also a pretty cool camera contraption outside the door for weeding out any burglars who may come calling. At the moment though, the only person who actually rings the bell is me. I spend far too much time putting ice cream and takeaways in front of the camera and pretending that they rang the bell and I’m invisible…

Come on in…this is basically the whole apartment: living room, the alcove that is supposed to pass for a kitchen and the bedroom. Nobody will ever actually see the bedroom though because Brian is permanently conked out in there. Our boss thought we were mad when we first moved in and requested a couch to sit on. I reckon he didn’t have much experience of couch shopping, because it’s basically an upholstered bench made of fake leather (which causes serious damage any time bare skin comes in contact with it), but the main problem is that IT DOESN’T MATCH. Grrrrr….

I really shouldn’t complain about the couch though, because this is the fridge, otherwise known as The Elephant in the Living Room. Note the sparkly, flowery, headache-inducing wallpaper behind it…

The other side of the living room, this time giving you a lovely of our hallway (Brian insists that I’m not allowed to call it that because it’s too tiny to be a real hall) and our table, which, in addition to hosting our meals also serves as our library and Shithead-playing location.

Brian’s domain: this is our entire kitchen. I only make pancakes and soup, so dinners are Brian’s responsibility. He makes a mean chilli and he’s also mastered The Art of the Curry, among other things. You’ll notice that all the sauce and herb bottles are lined up in order of size. This is one of Brian’s most hilarious foibles: he gets seriously irritated if they’re out of place, which obviously means that I have to mess with them at least once every 48 hours…

This is our beautiful view: the stairwell of the building next door. Our old apartment was at the front of the building and overlooked a vegetable garden, but I’ll take a stairwell view over a dripping ceiling any day of the week…

I’ll leave you with this one because I know nobody wants to see the bathroom…our television, and the home of our protectors: Optimus Prime, Bumble Bee and Mr Lego Fisherman.

Yes, Brian is obsessed with Transformers. And Lego. 

Sheep Mountain Neighbourhood: The Top Ten

We live in an area of Gwangju called Yangsan-dong, which, when literally translated, means Sheep Mountain Neighbourhood. It’s a pretty compact little place, but due to the absence of a sense of direction in my brain, Brian still had to draw me a map to carry around for the first week or two after we arrived. Jump forward five months or so and I’m now a Yangsan-dong expert and could probably find my way around our little corner of Gwangju blindfolded, especially to any of these places, which are, in no particular order, our top ten:

1. Our coffee place: Pascucci. After my coffee sampling tour of Yangsan-dong when we first arrived, Pascucci came out on top of the pile. I really don’t think they had me in mind when they thought up the reward card system though…

2. Our supermarket: Super Mart. Or Soo-pah Maaa-te if you say with a Korean accent. It’s close to our apartment and very cheap (although the fruit is horrid), but it was a little tough to get used to at first. The butcher and the fishmonger have microphones to roar out their specials, but when two new foreigners started to frequent the place, they started directing their attention at us and roaring any random English word they knew. I am happy to say that we’re old news now and thus completely ignored.

3.Our bakery: Paris Baguette. This place is the home of all things ‘French’ in Yangsan-dong, if French means hot dog pastries and red bean paste EVERYTHING. The bread is delicious though and the staff wear berets, so we’ll let them off.

4. Our convenience store: Ministop. There are about five other convenience stores within two minutes walk of our apartment, but this one is 100 metres from our front door and so it wins the pleasure of our business. It’s run by a very nice family. For some reason, the granny is permanently stationed behind the counter on an upturned crate. She never serves anyone though.

5. Brian’s post-work snack joint: Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin’ is right across the road from our school and sometimes impossible to pass by. Boston Cremes are just too hard to resist…

6. Our fruit guy: I visit this fruit cart every Monday for apples and mandarins. I know the exact amount of Korean necessary to procure said apples and mandarins and not a word more. Doesn’t stop the owners chatting away to me though! For monetary reasons, Brian no longer goes fruit shopping. Last time he went there, he got 9 mandarins for 5,000won. When I went I got 17. Enough said.

7. Date Night Destination #1 - The Samgyupsal Place. This is where we go on Wednesday nights (if we’re not at Destination # 2 that is) for dinner. It’s a barbecue place and we’ve been there so many times now that we don’t even order anymore, they just bring the food to the table! (Pork belly with all the trimmings, a bibimbap, a beer and a coke. Just in case you were wondering.)

8. Date Night Destination #2 -The Galbi Place. This was one of the first places where we managed to order food correctly in Korean (albeit with a little bit of miming) and we’ve been regular customers ever since. The food is unbelievable and the staff are really nice. One of the ladies even sits at our table and cooks our beef for us (I think she’s convinced we’re going to poison ourselves if she leaves us unattended). We’ve also started getting free stuff now, so the chances of this place slipping out of the Top Ten are slim to none. And slim is out of town…

9. Our local Kimbab Nara (Korean version of a fast food joint, but the majority of the menu won’t give you a heart attack), otherwise known as the home of the best bibimbap in town! I like it because lyrics from John Lennon songs are stenciled on the walls. I also like it because the lovely ladies who work there allow me to try out my atrocious Korean on them. 

10. Last, but not least, our school: LangCon English Academy. It’s the blue place on the second floor. There are so many school stories that I shall have to save them for another time…