Budgeting for food, and art supplies

P1060675Leaving work today, it was an art night. I could feel it. Even during my stay in California art had failed to surface as an outlet, and I could feel the lack of creativity in my life suddenly reach an immediate and painful boiling point.

Tight budget, and tonight it’s going towards art supplies. Some nights I feed my belly, tonight I feed my peace of mind. It’s a fair trade, and a healthy one in the long run.  I headed to Alpha, the art store around the corner from my house. Thinking it was just full of the usual nauseatingly cute Korean stationery that is everywhere, I stumbled in a few days ago and was surprised to find a fairly decent collection of art materials, supplies, handmade paper and, of course, cuteness. The back half of the store is basically Emmy paradise. I got lost in the shelves the first time I was there and had to literally make myself stop and walk out the door. Dangerous. But at least I know where to go if I want to do a project.

Giving myself the 8,000 won I would have spent on food today was a great exercise in self control, but it stretched. Origami paper, a length of ribbon, some craft wire, two big pieces of handmade printed paper and a calligraphy pen accompanied me out of the shop. Score.

At home, determined to not spoil my creative evening by just eating ramen, I cooked up a sweet potato and scarfed some white rice mixed with cheap packaged curry powder. Sort of a fried rice stir-fry, and it did the trick. A few moments to eat and practice Hangeul (the Korean alphabet). To work! To work!

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Although completely incorrect, I’ve been playing with Hangeul  initials drawings. Mine, ESH, for example, looks remarkably like a winking face. I love it. Thanks calligraphy pen and my mediocre knowledge of Korean! I can’t wait to explore this further. Too bad it is grammatically incorrect for most combinations. Still looks pretty cool.

All I knew I wanted to do with the art paper was decorate my walls; they are painfully bare. Luckily, I brought along some watercolor pencils and a watercolor pen. We’ll see what the painting turns into over the next few days.

In all, dinner rations well spent. It’s a whole different kind of satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

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Kimchi jjigae!

528695_796113909505_2009643140_nIf I’ve learned anything in my brief time in Seoul, it is that if you open yourself to the world, the world will do the same. What a whirlwind of experience, all condensed into a few short weeks. Moving into a new apartment, New Year’s eve and day, my first experience making home-cooked Korean food and a jimjilbang… the ‘Wow Moments’ just keep coming and each one is unique. I feel myself adapt to a new life, a new city, a starkly different culture.

New Year’s weekend rolled around and it was finally time to move into my school-appointed apartment. At last! Tim had been a wonderful host, but living out of two suitcases got old really fast. What should have been a smooth transition quickly proved to be a huge mess, in more ways than one.  My contract replaces that of RJ Teacher (everyone is a teacher here, even the accountant and the janitor), meaning that I take over his classes and his apartment. Basically, I come and he goes. Well, he went alright… without leaving me any information on his classes, and (dun dun duuun) without a key to the apartment. Jump to: Me standing on the landing with all my things and no way to get in. I’ll spare you the details of that day, except to say that it just kept getting worse and worse. When I finally did open the door a few hours later, it was to a scene out of a horror movie. RJ had basically just packed the things he wanted and left everything else. Cigarette butts, spilled cat food, dark dried stains on the floor, piles of stained bedding… despite the custom of not wearing shoes indoors I ended up throwing out the first two pairs of socks I wore inside.

Luckily this was on the Saturday of a four day New Year’s weekend. Translate: plenty of time to get on my knees and start scrubbing, but what a way to spend a holiday! With a faucet-like head cold to top it off, the whole scene was a nightmare.

 

Around five in the evening of my second day of cleaning I hear a knock on my door. I lay the scrub brush on the floor of the bathroom, hastily wipe my nose on the nearest piece of tissue and try to pull the dish gloves off my hands enough to be able to open the front door. My neighbor and co-teacher Jennifer is there, eyes straining past me into the apartment, searching for confirmation of the rumor that RJ had left the place a mess. Her eyebrows go high and stay there when she sees me; I must look pretty insane after two days of intense cleaning, nose-running and general fuming.

Jen had heard that I was interested in learning Korean cooking, and is here to invite me to another co-teacher’s house to make kimchi jjigae. My savior! A break is exactly what I need, not to mention some spicy Korean soup to clear my sinuses. I literally can not get out the door fast enough to meet John Stephen and Jen at the market for supplies.

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Now when I say market, I mean the grocery store in the subway station. I know. Apparently there are many other markets and grocery stores in Seoul, but I have yet to go to them as this one is the most convenient. It’s your basic small grocery store, stocking everything from cleaning supplies to snacks, to a small selection of alcohol and some meat and very expensive produce. That is definitely one thing to note: produce is the most expensive food group here by far. And the selection is slim to none, mostly onions and sweet potatoes, with some imported tomatoes and peppers. Lettuce is nearly impossible to find, and ridiculously expensive when you do. So much for salad.

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When they don’t have exactly what we want, John Stephen suggests we go to the outdoor market for the bulk items, like kimchi. We step out of the subway station, go down a main street I pass every day on my way to school, and turn right into a narrow alleyway. Suddenly we are in a different world, surrounded by late-night shoppers, stalls of salt fish, buckets full of grains, garlic, ginger, chilies, literal wooden tree stumps used as chopping blocks covered in fish scales with a cleaver slammed into the center like something out of a morbid still-life painting. Everything from the last two days of depressive scrubbing evaporates instantly. THIS is the foodie Korea I want to see! The stalls are so close together, their awnings nearly touching overhead, and each has thick sheets of plastic hung over the entrances with an overlap for a door to keep in the heat. I’m not sure if Jen and John Stephen are entertained or thrown off by my enthusiasm, maybe just surprised. The smell of ground ginger is in the bitterly cold air and I am in culinary heaven.

The old lady that John has bought kimchi from before has already closed her stall, so we go in search of another vendor. I find a man with two tables covered in kimchi of various kinds: cabbage, green onion, radish, cucumber, grass… you name it. I don’t see the kind we are looking for, however, so I ask him as politely as I can, bowing, “Kimchi jjigae kimchi, juseo?”

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He nods, and reaches under one of the tables to pull up an enormous bucket. Motioning to me with his hands to ask how much I want, he winds the opening of a clear plastic bag around a wire loop, slips kimchi in through the opening, and pulls it back off, tying it with a clean swish. Simple. Effective. Korean. He holds up four fingers, I hand him 4,000 won (about $4), he hands me a football-sized bag of kimchi, and the deal is done.

Back at John Stephen’s apartment, we slip off our snowy shoes at the door and Jen and I sit on the floor as John starts to prepare the meal. I’m taking copious notes on my iPhone until I realize that kimchi jjigae is really incredibly easy. If you like kimchi and can find a decent variety, you should definitely make this. It is spicy (depending on your kimchi) and tasty and filling. Oh, and CHEAP.

 

 

What you’ll need:

A good chunk of cabbage kimchi (standard kimchi)IMG_3717

Some pork cut into 1 in. cubes

Firm tofu

Pork or beef bouillon or seasoning

Water

That’s it.

First, sauté the pork in a deep pan until mostly cooked. Don’t get it too brown or overcooked or it will be tough. Add your kimchi, mix, and cook until everything  is heated through. Fill the pan with water so that the kimchi is pretty much covered, add a small amount of bouillon/ seasoning, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir well, then cube your tofu and layer on top. Cover again and simmer for another five minutes. Kimchi jjigae!

As the kimchi is really the main ingredient, I’d only recommend making this in the States if you can find some good kimchi at a local Asian market. If you do stumble on some, make this immediately. In a Korean restaurant it is served in a hotpot, literally boiling like lava and much too hot to eat at first. Torture… the smell is so appetizing that I always burn my tongue anyway. It is also always served with rice, which is delicious to mix in to soak up the broth. Also recommended: Soju. Kimchi, soju, rice. TIK.

This is Korea.

How to Survive the Subway, and other Seoulful Tales

It was fifteen degrees in Seoul today. 15. I’m not quite sure if you West-Coasters can fathom this temperature.  Yes, I’m talking Fahrenheit.

The air outside is so cold that your face hurts. You pull your scarf up over your nose and your hat down to your eyebrows, and still your eyeballs hurt and every breath in is painful as it saps all the warmth from around your face. It’s too cold to snow, too cold to think, your brain cells serve one purpose: to keep your legs moving until you find the next available indoor heated space. Pray you don’t have to carry anything, as that would mean your hands are out of your pockets. Wear two pairs of socks. On your hands if you have to.

Koreans care a lot about how they look; it is a display of respect to others, and a sign that you respect yourself. I’m violently resisting the urge to just put on every article of clothing I own every time I walk outside. Instead, I layer up, bare my stocking-clad knees to the weather, hurry from one place to the next. Screw my hair. I’m wearing two hats.

Today is Boxing Day, I’m informed by Canadians and Brits, a day that never held much (read any) meaning for me in the U.S. Today is the day you eat leftovers, take out all the wrapping paper to the rubbish bins, and watch Junior League hockey. It’s “Recover from Christmas” day. Good one.

No recoup for me, though—today I made my first appearance on the Seoul subway and went to day one of New Teacher Orientation. Located across Seoul, I ventured out two hours early to ensure I was there on time and was introduced to Seoul commuter traffic.

Lessons from the Subway:

  1. If you want on the train, get your ass on that train.  The little Korean woman in front of you is sure as hell gonna elbow her way on. Follow her.
  2. Don’t bring coffee, and hold on to something. Luckily, I didn’t learn this the hard way. During rush hour it is super unlikely that you will have a seat, or even something to hold on to. If it’s busy enough the other bodies will hold you up. If not, learn how to surf.
  3. There is an area reserved for the elderly, pregnant women, etc. If you are a foreigner and don’t see the sign, you will get dirty looks until you get the hell with it and look around.
  4. Subway stations are incredibly well organized and labeled. Color coded, even. Run little mouse, run through the maze to make your connection.
  5. Wanna buy a dress in the subway? No problem. Coffee? No problem. Dried fish? No problem.
  6. Everyone EVERYONE wears black. Tomorrow I’m going to wear my magenta down jacket, stand in the middle of the car and let everyone play ‘Let’s spot the foreigner’. Heehee. Just kidding. I’m going to take up three seats because I’ll be wearing every article of clothing I own.
  7. Subway seats are heated. Things like this just make my day.

 

After arriving a half hour early at my station, I walk the two blocks to the training school and there on the corner is a Starbucks. A mother <beep>ing Green Mermaid Queen of the U.S. Starbucks. I felt my body go into this kind of confused-disgust-panic-relief mode, and found myself walking across the street towards it before I really knew what was happening. It was like some West Coast honing device suddenly switched on, my arms went up in front of me in zombie mode, and my eyes glazed over knowing exactly how it would look inside. Now THAT is marketing power. About two steps from the door I woke up, noticed a Coffine coffee shop two doors down (I’m assuming they were going for a clever ‘coffee/caffeine’ wordplay, but the similarity to ‘coffin’ didn’t escape me) and broke the magnetic pull only to walk in and find that a latte is 4,500 won, roughly $4.50 USD. Damn you, coffine addiction. Seriously world, let me keep my last—cough cough—vice! I’m really not asking for much, just coffee for under $3 in a land where you can get a whole pizza for $6. C’mon.

Orientation starts and I’m not only the first person there, I’m the only person there. The teacher gets a text on his phone and pulls one of the remaining two desks to the back of the room, continuing to make small talk while he repeatedly looks at the clock on his phone. Matthew: Orientation Teacher, five foot eight, big smile, definitely gay. Like, the gay where you just leave your gaydar gun in your pocket because his nametag says, “Hello, I’m Gay Matthew”.

Eventually the other teacher comes in, nose red with the cold, carrying a small suitcase. He’s travelled from Daegu, and managed to only be fifteen minutes late. He is definitely not spiking the Gaydar meter, and his shoes confirm it. Straighty straight straight. Matthew, however, looks like it is Christmas morning all over again and his present just arrived. I just sit back, happy to be done with my end of small talk and pleasantly surprised that I get my own live Korean drama to watch. Actors: Nicolas and Matthew. Set: Korean elementary school classroom. Plot: Gawkwardness (that’s my new term for when a gay man gawks at a straight man and it’s awkward). It’s hilarious. At least I think so.

What’s NOT funny is that our heater seems to be broken. Did I mention it was fifteen degrees outside? Nick and I both huddle in our student desks still fully bundled in our outdoor gear, passing furtive “What the heck? How am I supposed to learn like this?” glances at each other.  I start making jokes about burning our workbooks in the middle of the floor for warmth, and a new friend is made. Sometimes it’s that simple. Common problems, survival, comic relief.

It makes me wonder about the people in North Korea, and if they have heat.

Lessons from Day One Orientation:

  1. Korean superstitions include: If you leave a fan on at night and have all your windows closed, you will die. If someone writes your name in red ink, you will die.
  2. Almost 50% of Koreans ‘don’t have a religion.’ I’m not sure if they are atheist, agnostic or just don’t practice one, but I still found the number interesting. A personal Plus One for Korea. The remaining percentage is divided between Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.
  3. If you wrap your scarf around your legs and sit on your hands you may save them from frostbite.

 

If I remember any of the actual lessons, I’ll let you know. It was pretty basic. I led a 20 questions mock game. With two people. Woo.

Insert: subway travel, reverse order. Once back to the apartment, I turned up the heat and lay down on the floor to defrost my bones. The temperature outside is twelve degrees. Holy sweet baby Atheist-Buddha-Jesus. Some cold sweet potato curry pizza (you heard me, and yes, it’s amazing), a cup of tea, and it’s time for this old girl to hit the hay.

Merry Boxing Day.

 

 

The Great Korean Adventure Begins

And so… Here I am. The Mayans may not have predicted the end of the world, but they certainly had an idea when my world would take a drastic turn.

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IMG_3673It’s Saturday, around 1pm Seoul time (you are all just finishing dinner, I expect) and I’m sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the apartment I’m crashing in. Americano in hand, I’m almost enjoying the Christmas music blaring on the stereo. A few songs in, you can tell the Korean cover of ‘White Christmas’ from the others and it is rather endearing with its ‘May arr your Christmas be white.’ Ill take little bits of home where I can get them. Next up: Korean techno Christmas song. My favorites are the ones with an English chorus and a Korean-rap verse.

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The apartment where I’m staying belongs to Tim Teacher, one of my fellow English teachers from Canada. The place is kind of what you’d expect from a 25-year-old male recent college graduate: dirty, clothes everywhere, a few necessary dishes getting cycled through the dish rack, nothing in the fridge save some eggs I definitely won’t touch and an entire condiment shelf packed FULL of Korean Taco Bell hot sauce. Homey. To tell you the truth, I’m super grossed out, and the thought of having a place of my own in about a week feels like the best prize someone could give me for completing a week of training.
There are some perks of the place though, namely the heating. It comes through the floor, I’m assuming distributed by heated water in pipes. It’s awesome. It keeps the room warm and when you step out of bed it radiates up through the soles of your feet. Ok yeah, that’s really the only perk I can think of.
YBM Sungbuk ECC (my school) is pretty amazing. The children already know so much, and they are only six! In Korea you count your age from when you are born, so when you turn one in America you are two in Korea. The age system makes a lot of sense, and explains why the kids here are so advanced. I certainly couldn’t read another language, much less do addition and subtraction, when I was in kindergarten! It almost makes me feel better when they count on their fingers.

Fish, anyone?
Fish, anyone?
The classes themselves are small, usually under ten kids to a class. We have a set curriculum to get through but if we finish early we play games like hangman or quackdiddilyoso or Simon Says or Freeze Dance. The ‘kindies’ are so adorable. One girl came up to me and just put her cheek on my arm and didn’t move. I think she was trying to be a kitten. Another boy tried to tickle me under the arms and I had to ask him to stop a few times before giving him a stern look… Which totally worked. Guess I can be scary when I want to be! Ill have to remember that. They are all very interested in my tattoos (I actually put a cardigan on after the first class), and are a little surprised at how big I am. The door in the bathroom is covered in ‘being slim’ propaganda (well, I think it’s propaganda): posters about ‘you are what you eat’ and why ‘slim is healthy’. It made me immediately feel bad for the one girl at the school who is bigger than the others… And for myself,  if you must know. I am definitely the tallest of the female teachers, and all the male teachers have quite slim, Emo body-types. As we were walking back to class, one little boy said, “Teacher, you are heavy,” and I just smiled and said, “It’s because I’m so tall!”  He seemed to accept that after a minute of mulling it over, although I think he was trying to get a rise out of me. Ahh children, you don’t know but you will teach me so much about myself.
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Can you find the heron? 
***
Ayesha meets me at the coffee shop after we message back and forth on Facebook. She has spent the morning at an international fair at school, and is tired and a little grumpy having had to work on a Saturday. We head off to Daiso (the dollar store that has EVERYTHING) to pick up some things she needs, and walk the couple blocks to where her apartment is. I have been so looking forward to seeing what my apartment will look like, and apparently I will be in a different building that is much nicer. That’s always good, although her apartment is nice enough, and definitely big enough for one person to live comfortably.

 

Let me tell you something about Korean apartments. The bathrooms generally don’t have showers. Well, not the shower you would think of, rather a hand-held nozzle on one wall and a drain in the middle of the floor. You basically stand in the middle of the room and get water on everything, including the toilet, washing machine and sink. In the states this might feel luxurious, but here it is taking a little getting used to. Bathroom Slippers, plastic slip ons that you can wear after everything is wet, are necessary for survival and will be my first Daiso purchase.
Everything is new, and strange, and exciting, and overwhelming, and wonderful. Minor moments of panic are pushed aside by the amazing feeling of walking down the street of a completely strange city and realizing that this is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I really do thrive in moments of change, and this… this takes the cake.
Notes on Korea:
1. If you don’t jaywalk, you won’t get anywhere.
2. Octopus is more likely to be roadkill than squirrels. (Probably off the back of a truck, but still. I’ve seen three with tire marks today. Took me while to figure out what it was.)
3. Convenience store gimbap (rice rolls) are perfectly acceptable. The orange triangle ones are quite good. And cheap.
4. Coffee is big here, and refills are available. My americano this morning cost 2,500 won, and my refill was 1,000. Not too bad, since in the states I could spend upwards of $5 on coffee a day. To save money, I bought some instant coffee today. It tastes like… instant coffee.
5. Men on the street are polite, the old women are the ones you have to look out for. Shameless. They look you up and down and sometimes shake their heads. I always wonder what they’re thinking.
6. Everyone wears dark colors. I feel super flashy in my magenta down jacket. Not like I wouldn’t stand out anyway.
7. Faux fur vests are super in. So are super baggy sweaters. Hopefully a baggy sweater on a Korean will be a decent-fitting sweater on me.
8. There is no flouride here, in the toothpaste or in the water. All the kids have silver molar teeth. Their baby teeth have cavities!! They also brush their teeth after every meal. Someone please send me some American toothpaste.
9. Korean BBQ is amazing. You can sit for hours, eat slowly, drink slowly (or not), and come out smelling like a campfire. They have bottles of Febreeze by the door in case that smell is not your thing. I think it’s homey. There are worse things to smell like than smokey delicious meat. (ha)
10. I have never seen anyone carry this much stuff on the back of a motorcycle. It basically becomes the size of a small car, and you can barely see the person driving. INSANE. I will not be jaywalking near anyone driving a giant moving pile of garbage bags.
Until next time, love from across the pond.
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Landed!

Is it strange to say that the adrenaline of the last twelve hours made the flight seem not all that long? It must be the lack of sleep, dehydration and wide-eyed discombobulation talking. But seriously, if you can sit through Bourne Legacy, the Iron Lady, some Korean War movie about coffee, and half of the newest Sherlock Holmes atrocity (yes, I only made it halfway before my literary snobbery overcame my Hollywood bad-plot-forgiveness gene)…. Well, you can do anything. 

Plane food:"Would you like beef steak  or Bibimbap?"
"Bibimbap, please."
Plane food:
“Would you like beef steak or Bibimbap?”
“Bibimbap, please.”
I did make friends with a 66-year old Thai lady, who is going home to Thailand because her brother has spinal cord cancer and is in the ICU. Oh, and her son has schizophrenia and let me tell you, we had a good conversation concerning recent events and gun control. So really, the flight was an experience.
Which is kinda what I’m going for.
So.. Off the plane, rapidly through the immigration booth, passport STAMP!, Visa CHECK!, and I’m staring at the baggage claim board like a beer drinker in the wine aisle, head tilted, confusion sinking in until the screen flashes and Boom! It’s in English. Phew. Carousel 22. And off I go.
IMG_3660Minutes later, bags in hand, I’m through the exit doors and am faced with a solid wall of Asian faces looking at me like “Move over! I can’t see my daughter/husband/person more important than you!”  The only people who look happy to see me are the taxi drivers swarming like sharks for the kill. At least they bugger off when I botch my Korean and just say “Aniyo, kamsahamnida”. Close enough. According to my ‘teaching kindergarteners’ booklet, it’s 80% body language anyway.
The cold outside actually feels good after the recycled air of the plane. I did a quick change into jeans and a t-shirt in the bathroom to at least feel somewhat less travel-gross. On the bus, I think I annoy the driver by fumbling for my Korean money and then staring at it to make sure I’m not overpaying. I hope he lets me off at the right stop.
So, there you have it, folks. I’m on a bus, somewhere, heading into the middle of an enormous Asian city, hoping that the next few steps will be as easy as the last.
Think I’ll look out the window for a while.

Chuck Close, Up Close

This morning at my uncle’s house in Marina, just north of Monterey, I woke to the smell of coffee. This must be a common Harris thing: wake early, brew a strong pot, catch up on what’s happening in the world. A family morning ritual I can stand behind. This particular morning, Rabobank mug in hand, I watched footage of a major tunnel collapse in Japan, political stirrings in Egypt, heat-mapped weather projections of the storm raging outside. Good to know what’s going on over the horizon. It starts to make sense towards the end of the first mugful.

I had planned this weekend to take some ‘me time’—perhaps a jaunt in the Freedom camper into the redwoods, or a night camped by the beach. California had other plans in store for me. The storm that raged up the coast was enough to make outdoor activities less than desirable. Luckily, the Saturday I spent touring Monterey with my Uncle was relatively clear, and what fun we had!

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I learned about Chuck Close during my studies at University of Washington. It’s difficult to learn about twentieth-century artists without his name popping up, and for good reason. His large and dynamic portraits, specifically the ones made up of hundreds of colorful tiny abstract squares, have always appealed to me with the sheer depth of creativity taken to produce them. Yes, yes, he has a huge team assembled to help him. Yes, yes, the inspiration for leveling a face into a two-dimensional image may come from a learning disability preventing him from recognizing faces. No matter. Even if you’re not ‘into portraiture’, it’s easy to see why these works are genius.

In contrast with his contemporary Andy Warhol’s famous stylized images of celebrities (e.g. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe), Close chooses subjects unknown to the general public (at least at the time of the portrait) and breaks the images down into grids of abstract color. In my eyes, the true talent of Close’s work becomes apparent when the viewer examines the image up close, noting the grid-like systemization of color, then falls back to a distance and is surprised to see that as a whole these many abstractions combine into something like photorealism. It’s amazing. A video played on a projector in art school does them absolutely zero justice.

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The exhibit included more than Close’s large paintings. Huge wall sized portraits of men and women done entirely by thumbprint were scattered through the exhibit. By thumbprint, you ask? Yes, by thumbprint.

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There were also some amazing pieces involving a mirrored cylinder surrounded by a drawn-out image. This process completely blew me away. The angle of the cylinder to the paper produced a reflected face that was completely indistinguishable on the surrounding paper. Amazing.

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SO, you can understand my excitement when Uncle Greg mentioned the Chuck Close: Works on Paper 1975-2012 exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. A day to visit with my Uncle AND see Close’s work up close? (buh dun chhhh) Yes, please.

The Monterey museum has two locations: one in downtown Monterey on Pacific Street, and the other, La Mirada, in the surrounding hills. I love the separation of spaces allowing for a more intimate viewing experience, but I had no idea what a gem the La Mirada location was. An old Spanish-style building surrounded by gardens, rough-hewn beams sprouting from ceilings, whitewashed walls catching the sun and echoing sounds… even if it wasn’t filled with fantastic contemporary art I would feel at home here. The intimate, elegant space flowed easily from one room to another, and the deep colors of the polished hardwood floors brought out the rich hues in the artwork. It is definitely a place I will be visiting again.

More photos from our day of fun:

Follow Through

This morning I signed the contract offered to me by YBM Sungbuk ECC. As I slipped the documents into the FedEx International Priority envelope, my chest swelled with a sense of completion, even though there are still many steps to take before I leave. Once the documents are received, I will be issued an E2 Visa number that I can give to the Korean embassy in San Francisco. They will take my passport, my picture, and give me approval to enter their country to work for the Sungbuk school.

Completion. Approval. I followed through on a decision I made last February, left my home, my friends, my Seattle family. I followed through. If you don’t know me well, this may not come as a shock. For those who have patiently listened to my years of dreamy, idealistic inaction, I hope you can share the pride that I feel. No, I did not go back to school to be a graphic designer, nor attend culinary school. I did not get a high-paying job in order to afford medical insurance by the time I turned 26. I did not blaze a trail across Seattle with my success and motivation.

Instead I am a survivor and opportunist.  An opportunistic survivor, if you will. A lazy one. When I was laid off last October, I spent over a month idling on “funemployment”, doing art projects, creating this website, enjoying the break, running the numbers. I burned through all of my savings, freaked, and dug in my heels. By mid-November I was working two jobs, had moved out of my studio apartment and in with Alec and Jeremy, saving every penny so that I could find a place with Laura when she came back from Korea. I worked a lot, exercised more than I ever have, and was happy when I looked in the mirror, both for what I was accomplishing and for actually doing it. Desperation is certainly a driving force. Amidst the stress of change, I found my strength.

My initial decision to go to South Korea was fueled by a similar desperation. I had just left one job and been promoted at the other, but despite my love for what I was doing every day it was hardly making ends meet. I was, I am, sick of living paycheck to paycheck, worrying about money constantly. And yet… cooking is the most creative job I’ve ever had and I can honestly say that I love it. I’m good at it. It makes me feel empowered. If only what I love could empower my bank account! When Laura suggested a year in Korea to save up, I was intrigued. Her experience sounded so wonderful, and while I wasn’t ready to go with her the year before, something inside me had changed. I felt stronger, more capable. Ready for an adventure. I wasn’t running from anything, instead I was running towards what I wanted my life to be. Ultimately, the thought of waking up at thirty in the same boat scared me more than the prospect of moving overseas for a year. So I told myself I was going.

Telling yourself and actually taking the steps to make it happen are two very different things. I’m great at the former. A real pro, actually. I have self-delusion down pat. Tomorrow will be chores day. Yeah, right. This week I’m going to eat well and exercise. Sure. Uh huh. I think I’ll go to graduate school. My inner self just smiles and nods.

With Korea, I knew things had to be different. Maybe that’s why I actually followed through: I came to the decision with a list of past failures and was unwilling to accept another. I waited awhile before telling my friends. I knew it would be difficult to say I was leaving for at least a year, and I wasn’t sure I could take the shame of another “I’ve got my life figured out now; I’m going to__________!” only to later tell them with averted eyes that that plan had flopped. When I told my dad, he asked questions and I could tell he didn’t quite believe it. When I told my mom, she said in a very I know you voice, “You better follow through with this, Em.” That’s probably another reason my signed contract is in the mail. Damn it, I’d rather just floss than get the lecture from the dentist! Sometimes it sucks having people who know you so well. In the end, though, it always saves me from myself.

So the year went by, and Surprise! I procrastinated. I sent in the fingerprints for my FBI background check later than I should have. I got my sealed transcripts from University of Washington literally the day before I left Seattle. In every case the actual process was simple and straightforward; I was the only one making the process difficult.

Even more hindering was the job offer I received a month before leaving Seattle. The restaurant I was laid off from wanted me back, at a high salary and with benefits. It was tempting, being able to stay in Seattle and make over twice as much as I currently was. I could still save. I could buy a car. I could continue dating that tall, handsome redhead I’d met a year before. I could see my friends daily. But when I was really honest with myself, I knew it wasn’t the right decision. And luckily, I made that choice before the offer fell apart. (Long story short, they wanted to hire me back to save the business. When I tried to have them put the offer on paper, they said they had found buyers. As far as I know, the business is now closed and still for sale.)

So, onward! I got my paperwork in order, confirmed the date I would leave Seattle, and gave notice to my job and my landlord. Once you make those moves, it all gets real. And now, a month later, I’m sitting at Cole Coffee in Rockridge, right on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, celebrating with myself the fact that my contract is in the mail. I have my laptop on an outside table, am drinking a cup of fresh-brewed Sumatra, and reveling in the familiar smell of rain in the air. Mentally patting myself on the back for completing something, and telling myself Life is what you make it.

I’m definitely starting to believe it.

 

In the Saddle

Today Ali took me riding. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in the saddle, but as soon as jeans hit leather it all came rushing back. Shoulders, hips, ankles in line. Heels down. Look where you want to go. My aunt’s voice saying, “Relax the (w)hole.”

I have such an immense respect for my sister. Like me, she has found and chosen a career path that she loves. Despite the long hours, lack of recognition and low income, she spends each day perfecting the elements of her world she can control. As I walk through the several barns on the property, I know when I enter hers; I can literally feel the sense of dedication and love she puts into her work. It shows in the cleanliness of the barn, the organized and labeled tack, the healthy look of the horses. I know she spends the extra time to make sure everything is done right.

I spent the morning doing paperwork, going to the post office, sorting through loose ends. Without complaint she is my chauffeur; we get lunch and complete my errands. By the time we are done it is nearly three o’clock, and we head to the barn. As soon as we turn off the highway, we are in her world. Any sense of ‘older sister’ immediately fades. I am in her capable hands. I lag behind, watching her assume a quiet confidence I know she finds here in this space. I can feel by extension my step get lighter, a wave of happiness. I find such joy in knowing she has this place, this small part of the world that gives her a sense of responsibility, courage, work ethic, motivation. Her horse, Dezi, seems to know the peculiar sound of her footsteps and cranes her head, searching. She takes a while to warm up to me, but we make friends. Maple oat cookies help.

We spend the day riding in the fields, up the road to look at neighboring goats and cows, the flocks of geese that have landed everywhere on their journey south. There is no one else around. It’s peaceful. We break the silence with peals of laughter at silly jokes, little things only sisters share. It’s so good to spend time with her.

In the arena she lets me urge Dezi into a trot, after scolding me for trying it in the pasture. “There are holes!” she yells from a few yards behind me. I make her laugh, passing her doing the Gagnam-style dance move with my arms, almost falling out of the saddle as I miss a post and crack up. She catches it all on video.

All in all, a great day. I’m filled with a sense of awe for my sister who has found this valuable place in the world. I’m also realizing our similarities, reveling in them, glad that we are so similar in the way we work. I think we both thrive in a leadership role, whether or not we seek it out. She has a quiet power to her that I respect, love, appreciate. I hope we have more time to explore our other similarities. It’s so easy to see the differences that sometimes the things we have in common get overlooked.

We spent the ride home belting the soundtrack to Wicked at the top of our lungs, me cracking up while she changed parts every other line, making it impossible to sing along. No matter. Now that I’ve seen the musical (right before I left Seattle Laura and I went to see it at the Paramount) I actually know some of the words. I’m happy to sing back-up.

Love you, sis.

Southbound

And the path starts… now. Closed my front door this morning, locked it, slipped the house keys into the mailbox for the landlord and set off towards the street. Right. Left. Right. Left… right.

I’ve moved many times in my nine years in Seattle. Moved from apartment to house, to California and back, lived with friends and by myself, but always with a tangible plan spread out before me. This move feels more like… that moment when you go to dive, arms spread wide in the air before forming an arrow that will lead you decisively into the water. That moment when your toes aren’t quite on land but haven’t fully committed to the air. That moment when your eyes want to instinctively close but you keep them open anyway to see what’s ahead of you. Leaping into the unknown. Eyes wide. Body tense. Wind in your hair. Lungs at capacity.

Being on the road feels good. Natural. Travelling with my dad is something so familiar to me; we have used roadtrips and car time—‘Wanders’—as our time since I can remember. “Where should we go, Wup?” he’d ask. “North or South?” Today we go south. In a month, I’ll travel further west on a plane than I’ve ever been. (Although really, when you’re going that far, east and west kind of lose their meaning.)

I’m going west, to the East.

It has been nine years since I moved to Seattle. Nearly a third of my life has been spent exploring the Pacific Northwest, a region I knew little about and have grown to love immensely. “You’re going to Seattle for College? It rains a lot there, doesn’t it?” Yes, yes it does. Salmon. Cedars. Native Americans. Punk rock. Grunge. And then you live here, and there’s just this certain something about it—like you are an integral part of this beautiful, tiny corner of the world full of cyclists and foodies and craftsmen and the most delicious fucking beer you’ve ever had. Surrounded by people who enjoy good things and take the time to do them right. We would. It’s raining outside.

Leaving seems… well, beyond the sheer feeling of adventure, it feels like crawling out of a warm blanket and into the cold, crisp, potentially brutal air of possibility. Seattle will always be a home for me, but I do believe there are others to be found out there. Korea may or may not be one, but I have no doubt it will be a lover of mine for a while. Seattle, you’ve done me well. Within you I’ve gained lifelong friends, loving family, and a sense of self. I have no doubt or regrets about you. And perhaps that is why I can leave you knowing that the part of my heart I leave behind will always be kept safe. Don’t change too much while I’m gone (and for goodness sake, stop building condos).

Farewell, my Northwest home.

I, Freedom(the camper), Yonder(the truck), my dad, and a U-Haul containing my material life head South. So does the rain.

Travel and a sense of Self

Last night I flew from Seattle to Oakland, CA where I am spending a couple of weeks with family. After devoting myself almost exclusively over the past month to getting this website up and running, the change in scenery was a shock to my system.

I love to travel. I could wax poetic about scenery and freedom and seeing new things but what I really get out of traveling is a true, simplistic sense of self. When I’m traveling I’m not surrounded by the daily reminders of routine and responsibilities, nor by acquaintances, nor my apartment full of ‘stuff’ that has come to represent the physical proof of my existence. When I travel those things break away and I am left with just me. Sometimes that’s a scary realization: I am who I am independently of my external surroundings.

So this morning when I woke up I had one of those “where am I” experiences. Since I moved to Seattle from the Bay Area both of my parents have moved a few times, so when I come to visit the feeling of ‘home’ centers around people, not places. Lying there on the hide-a-bed in my dad’s home recording studio, it really hit me that when I travel I break myself down and find the essence of ME.

Last April I was lucky enough to travel to Italy for two weeks where I spent my first few days wandering Roma solo (sola). Before leaving Seattle, I comically spent three weeks cramming on Italian language CD’s yet made the (somewhat irrational) decision to just immerse myself as much as possible once there, sans map. I landed at Fiumicino airport with directions to the hotel I had booked for one night and not much else. Over the next few days I just walked. I had been to Rome once before in 2003 so I had an idea of the places I wanted to revisit and things (mostly art) I had missed the first time around but was determined to avoid ‘a plan’ as much as possible.

After two days of aching feet, a full belly, two memory cards full of pictures and a new-found appreciation for the Italian way of life (and homemade pasta), I noticed that the anxiety I sometimes experience before throwing myself into a new situation had never even come up. I reflected on this over many cappuccini. Like I did this morning, I came to the realization that traveling by myself in a new environment had stripped me down into my component parts and what was left was a true sense of self. Once this idea had sunk in, it was like a fire had been lit inside me. With everything else stripped clear, I felt shiny and literally able to accomplish anything I set my mind to. I was also so far removed from my usual surroundings and acquaintances that all ties felt severed and I was free to just EXPERIENCE without external influence.

In those two weeks I just ABSORBED. Having a true sense of self in an unfamiliar place was like a license to try everything on for size to see how it fit. I very much admire people who are present enough to experience this daily. Apparently I need to get out of dodge before the realization hits.

Have you experienced this before?