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We’ve been back in South Korea for about a week now. How long we’ll stay this time is anybody’s guess – anywhere from one month to one year. It’s good to be back, too, because there is still so much left to write about. But before I get to all that, I feel I must give props to the one item that KJ and I simply could not have done without during our eleven-week tour around Europe. So now I shall announce the Europe 2010 MVP.  

The envelope please…  

And the winner is our little Cosco fold-up stroller!  

Very early on in our European travels, KJ and I realized this was the one piece of gear we could not live without. We could easily replace any backpacks and clothes that might get lost, ruined or stolen.    

Even losing our passports would have been preferable to losing “the buggy”. Passports can be replaced. But it would have been extremely difficult to find another fold-up stroller as good as “the buggy”.  

We got the buggy second-hand from my dad’s fiancée, and it’s about as unprepossessing a thing as you’ve ever seen. The canvas bit has slightly garish multicolored stripes and the frame has a couple flecks of rust. However, it has four outstanding features: 

  • It is sturdy;
  • It is easy to fold up;
  • It is great for restraining your kid when you get tired of carrying him and/or when his little legs and short attention span mean you can’t get where you want to go as quickly as you need to; and
  • It’s fantastic for carrying your daypack and whatever else you can strap on to the buggy while your kid is on the prowl.

So a big thanks to the buggy, the runaway winner of the Europe 2010 MVP Award.  

Our little Cosco buggy at Cambridge University. Great for keeping Ian where we wanted him when we wanted him to be where we wanted him.

Our little Cosco buggy at Cambridge University. Great for keeping Ian where we wanted him when we wanted him to be where we wanted him.

When Ian was out of the buggy, it was darned handy for carrying our daypack and other stuff that wouldn't fit in it.

When Ian was out of the buggy, it was darned handy for carrying our daypack and other stuff that wouldn't fit in it.

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The Continental Awards


Right, well it’s been a while since the last post. In the time that has passed, we’ve been to Florence, Paris, Brussels and now we’re in England again. The best way I can think of to catch up is to present awards to the cities we visited during our fifty days of travelling throughout continental Europe. So, without further ado, here are the Continental Awards:   

Best Flavor Award – Ohrid, Macedonia   

I got my first pair of glasses when I was sixteen, and I still remember getting home and just staring out the window at the back yard for about half an hour. I could see leaves on the trees, the texture of the wood on the fence, blades of grass on the back lawn – I could see things in detail for the first time in years. “I’ve been missing all this?” I thought.   

Eating vegetables and fruit in the Balkan countries we visited (Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania) was a very similar experience. Carrots tasted so… carroty! Peaches exploded with flavor. Apples were crisp, juicy and incredibly delicious. Cherries… well, I could go on and on. Basically, it was an absolute revelation. Instead of the washed-out fruits and veggies back home (even those of the absurdly overpriced organic persuasion), produce can actually have vivid flavor.   

In a close race, Ohrid narrowly beats out Sofia, Bulgaria, and Durrës, Albania, to win the Best Flavor Award.   

Best lemons ever.

Best lemons ever.

 

Best Eye Contact Award – Durrës, Albania   

I’m pretty sure my wife KJ was not the first East Asian person to visit this small city on the Adriatic Coast, but it would seem she was the first to visit in a pretty damn long time. She got stared at constantly while we were there. And any time she happened to catch someone staring, they almost never looked away. They just kept at it. KJ says she felt like she was a zoo animal.   

Clean Streets Award – Paris, France   

Many cities around the world struggle to find ways to reduce littering. Paris has found a novel solution: put garbage bins pretty much everywhere and empty them regularly. We covered a lot of ground over fifteen days, and I don’t think we ever walked more than 100 feet without passing one – and we certainly never saw one that was overflowing. The result is that the streets of Paris are unbelievably clean. Since the city is doing its bit, everybody seems a lot more conscientious about doing theirs.   

Other cities that (rightly) make littering subject to fines but which (wrongly) don’t supply enough places for people to throw away their trash ought to consider this ingenious approach. Any city that doesn’t supply enough garbage bins really doesn’t deserve to be litter free if you ask me.   

Ian does his part to keep Paris clean.

Ian does his part to keep Paris clean.

 

Underachiever Award – Sofia, Bulgaria   

An easy win for Sofia. Here is a city with lots of old buildings just disintegrating before your eyes. Not all of these buildings are architectural masterpieces, but a great many in the central part of the city would be pretty appealing with a little fixing up and a fresh coat of paint. The people could try to smile now and then and stop looking so bored and miserable as well.   

Sofia needs to shake off the ennui that rules over the city. Until that happens, it will continue to be so much less than it could be.   

Early Bird Award – Sofia, Bulgaria   

All throughout Europe, we were surprised to find a goodly number of people starting their day off with a beer or a glass of wine. We saw this everywhere we went, but no place matched the sheer epic scale of Sofia’s early bird tippling, where it seemed at least half the city hit the bottle around seven in the morning.   

Best Espresso Award – Ohrid, Macedonia   

You would expect this award to go to a city in Italy or France, but no. Little Ohrid in little Macedonia takes this one. Awesome espresso here.   

Ian starts the day off right with a hit of espresso in Ohrid, Macedonia.

Ian starts the day off right with a hit of espresso in Ohrid, Macedonia.

 

Best Rotisserie Chicken Award – Durrës, Albania   

Macedonia and Albania seem to be obsessed with rotisserie chicken. Rotisserie restaurants are everywhere and very cheap. For backpackers, obviously, cheap equals win, so we ate our share – and then some. The very tastiest of all was at a restaurant owned by a cool guy named Saba in Durrës. Fantastic Greek salad, too.   

The best of many rotisserie chicken places we ate at. Very lucky that Ian loves chicken.

The best of many rotisserie chicken places we ate at. Very lucky that Ian loves chicken.

 

Best Beer Award – Brussels, Belgium   

Brussels wins this one easily. This city offers an amazing array of beer at very affordable prices – every type of beer you can imagine and most of them delicious. The chocolate is pretty damn good, too.   

Best Pasta Award – Florence, Italy   

Good old Tuscan cooking. You can’t go wrong. Florence was filled with culinary delights and the pasta especially was out of this world. A bit expensive, sure, but so delicious.   

Yum! That's all I've got to say.

Yum! That's all I've got to say.

 

Best Piazzas Award – Rome, Italy   

No city I’ve ever been to can touch Rome in this category, and its piazzas are a major reason it is one of the best cities anywhere to just chill out and relax. Piazza Navona alone guarantees the win.   

Ian cooling his tootsies in one of the amazing fountains at Piazza Navona.

Ian cooling his tootsies in one of the amazing fountains at Piazza Navona.

 

Livability Award – Paris, France   

To visit Paris is to feel inadequate about your own city, no matter how amazing it may be – and my city, Vancouver, is truly amazing. Whatever your city does well, Paris probably does better. Whatever your city doesn’t do well, Paris probably does very well.   

Beauty abounds everywhere you go in Paris, it has a ridiculous number of incredible museums, the food is great, the wine is fantastic, parks are scattered about liberally and, as I mentioned above, it is really clean. It is also very safe and  the people are actually quite nice. Parisians also read voraciously, which is a nice thing to see and which supports a wealth of big and small bookstores.   

All of this and much more made KJ and I constantly delay our departure from Paris. It also makes us want to live there. Now if only I could figure out a way to make that happen…   

KJ, Ian and I at the Luxembourg Gardens.

KJ, Ian and I at the Luxembourg Gardens.

 

   

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I’ve just done about twenty-seven seconds’ worth of research, and here is what I’ve got to show for it: About three per cent of people have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Simple math says about 97 per cent of the population does not live with this condition. Well, if you’ve ever wondered what ADD is like, I have the perfect way for you to find out.

What you want to do first is travel to Rome with a toddler. Don’t leave home without him. He is essential to the simulation of ADD.

Next, you want to go to one of the many museums or churches in Rome which house an artistic masterpiece or two or a hundred. Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Peter in Santa Maria del Popolo is an excellent painting for this exercise.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

Once you and the toddler are standing in front of this astonishing work of art, lean your fold-up stroller against the wall and look at the expression on Saint Peter’s face as –

Oops, the kid is about to go down the steps from the alcove where the painting is displayed. Better go make sure he doesn’t faceplant on the hard marble floor of the church and crack his head open.

Got there just in time. He probably would have gotten down the steps okay, but it’s been a long, hot day and he’s tired. This is when he gets clumsy and accidents are much more likely to happen. You just can’t take a chance.

Once you’ve held the little one’s hand as he walks down the steps, and up the steps, and down the steps and up the steps yet another time, tell him he can’t walk down the steps again and pick him up. He’ll let out a loud shrieking wail of protest now, but just wait a few moments until it begins to decrease in volume and then threaten to put him back in the stroller or to give him a time-out – whatever works.

Hold your precious one now as you look again at the painting. It almost seems as though that’s a look of surprise on Saint Peter’s face – as if he didn’t expect crucifixion to be quite so painful. Or maybe he didn’t –

The toddler is squirming now and beginning to wail again. Better put him down before you get booted out. Say something like, “Okay, I’m going to put you down now, but I want you stay close to me, alright?”

He’ll do this for a short while and you can look at the painting once again. Those three workers hoisting the cross up into position look so ordinary, shades of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil theory. You can almost imagine them going out for a beer after their labors are finished for the day. Just doing my job, following –

He’s heading for those steps again. You say, “Wait!” and get there just in time again. Just like last time, you hold the little one’s hand as he walks down the steps, and up the steps, and down the steps and up the steps yet another time, tell him he can’t walk down the steps again and pick him up.

Oh crap. He’s done a number two. Time to grab the stroller, find your partner and leave the church to find a discreet place for a diaper change.

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There was a one-day transit strike in Rome on Friday. That in itself is nothing remarkable, of course. Transit strikes are common around the world. But this one was different from others I’ve experienced – bus, subway and commuter train drivers actually showed courtesy to the citizens who would be affected.

We’re staying at Camping Tiber, which is on the outskirts of Rome. The commuter train into the downtown area of Rome is what we depend on to get into the city, so when I heard there would be a strike I was very disappointed. As lovely a place as Camping Tiber is, it is no substitute for exploring the Eternal City.

Then I found out that there were two periods of the day when the strike would not be in effect: 8:30 to 10 in the morning and 5 to 8:30 in the evening.

This struck me as a bit odd. Why would the drivers work at all on a day when they were on strike for better pay and working conditions? It certainly isn’t how things are done back home.

I remember very, very well (and still a bit bitterly, yes) the four-month long bus drivers’ strike that caused so much chaos in Vancouver back in 2001. Getting to and from work was a challenge for thousands and many elderly and handicapped people experienced great difficulties getting around. It was an incredible hardship for the latter. As much of a pain in the ass as the strike was for me, at least I was able to walk the thirty blocks to work.

The morning commute was chaotic as, predictably, thousands of extra cars filled Vancouver’s streets. It was absolute gridlock every morning and evening. It didn’t take long before most people lost any sympathy they might have had for the drivers.

Maybe this is why Rome’s transit workers kept the buses, the Metro and the commuter trains running during the morning and evening commutes. But I think it’s more than that. I believe it reflects a certain decency and civility that seems to permeate life here.

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Faithful readers of this blog are well aware that my level of proficiency in the Korean language is just slightly above non-existent and well short of pathetic. From my fumblings, I understand how difficult it is to learn another language and how amusing the attempt may be to native speakers.  

It is a soothing balm to my ego, then, to encounter so much broken English here in South Korea, on signs and T-shirts and what not. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you now. They range from simple (but amusing) spelling mistakes to odd grammar and finally to the surrealistically poetic.  

If you enjoy these, then you will definitely enjoy a website called www.engrish.com, the king of broken English websites.  

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

 

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

 

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

 

This has got to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

This has to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

 

Very impressive indeed.

Very impressive indeed.

 

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Every country has its strange beliefs. A goodly number of Americans are convinced public health insurance is a Commie plot, many Japanese believe keeping a toy cat somewhere in their home is lucky, and the Scottish think haggis is food. Here in South Korea, a lot of folks believe in something called fan death.   

When I was teaching ESL back in Vancouver, I heard a lot about fan death. Basically, what many Koreans believe is that letting an electric fan run all night in a closed room can kill the people sleeping inside. This is why the electric fans here have timers that turn off these dangerous appliances automatically. People are very strongly encouraged to make sure they are set before going to sleep.   

Any time the topic of fan death would come up with my students, I tried to get them to explain to me how exactly an electric fan in a closed room could kill you while you slept. Some interesting explanations were offered.   

One theory is that keeping an electric fan on all night in a room with the door and windows closed can lead to suffocation. When asked how, students would explain that people suffocate because the fans move air away from them. When I pointed out that a fan moves as much air in your direction as it pushes away, they usually looked somewhat taken aback.   

Another theory I heard often is that electric fans give off carbon dioxide, which builds up to deadly levels in a closed room. Well, I see two problems with this one. First of all, you would need an airtight room for this to work. Then there is the fact that electric fans do not run on fuel and so do not produce carbon dioxide when in operation.   

Undeterred, some of my more creative and ardently committed students moved on to my favorite theory: that the blades of electric fans chop up oxygen molecules. Now, I’m just about the farthest thing from a physicist, but I am nonetheless pretty darn sure that the energy required to split apart oxygen molecules is higher than that generated by your typical household electric fan.   

Besides, all of these theories (and the many others I haven’t mentioned) also leave a couple interesting questions unanswered: Why do only sleeping people succumb to fan death? Why don’t wide awake people die as well?   

Unsafe at any speed.

Unsafe at any speed.

 

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WARNING: This blog post ends with a really lame attempt at humor. You’ve been warned.     

I’m always surprised by the things I miss whenever I’m overseas. When I was 21 and backpacking around the world for a year, it was Old Dutch potato chips (click here if you’re not Canadian). When I was living in xenophobic Dublin from 1999 to 2000, it was Vancouver’s racial tolerance. Now that I’m in South Korea, I miss grass and strong coffee.     

When I say I miss grass, what I really mean is that I miss all the parks and playing fields that Vancouver and Victoria have. In Vancouver, especially, you don’t have to walk very far to find a nice big patch of grass. This is fantastic if you are the parent of a really energetic little kid like Ian.     

Back home, it was easy to find places where he could run and run and run until he was all tuckered out. If he fell down a hundred times, it didn’t matter. That soft cushy grass was no danger. And it was easy to keep him well away from cars.     

South Korea, by contrast, is unfortunately not greatly endowed when it comes to parks and playing fields. This is pretty understandable when you consider the twin facts of its small geographical size and relatively large population.     

South Korea is about the size of Portugal, but seventy per cent of the country is covered by mountains. This means that 46 million South Koreans and all the factories, farms, shops, roads, military bases, etc. are squeezed into a very small area. In a country this cramped, it’s no wonder there are nowhere near the number of parks and fields we take for granted back home.     

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

 

Coffee is another thing I miss – strong coffee. KJ and I are on a constant search for a nice French or Italian roast, but so far we have had no success. We’ve tried many of the cool little independent coffee shops, as well as the chains with interesting names such as “Angel in Us”. We’ve even tried Starbucks. You would think Starbucks in South Korea would offer a nice strong cup of coffee, but no. The strongest they’ve got here is what would pass for a medium roast back home.     

So there you have it. Those are the two things I miss. For the reasons mentioned above, I can accept the paucity of parks and playing fields in South Korea. I wish it weren’t so, but I can accept it. However, the total lack of strong coffee is not acceptable. I know the South Korean government has more pressing matters to attend to at present, but I do hope they will address this situation as soon as they have the time.     

There are quite simply no grounds for weak coffee.  

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