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On Wednesday of this week, Koreans celebrated their own version of Thanksgiving. Called Chuseok, it is the most important holiday of the year and combines a harvest festival with the vestiges of ancestor worship. There is also a great deal of booze involved.   

While Chuseok proper was on the 22nd, it’s a three-day break from work. And in my wife’s family, the visit to the tomb comes the day before Chuseok. So, on Tuesday, Ian and I joined two of KJ’s cousins, their wives and children, and my father-in-law on a visit to the tombs of his mother and father. Other families do this on the morning of Chuseok itself.   

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

 

While very few South Koreans actually still worship their ancestors, they continue to pay their respects to their parents and grandparents by trimming the grass and plants around their tombs and making offerings of food and makgeolli (a milky-white Korean rice wine). Then, everyone gets down on the ground and bows before the tombs. After this, it’s time to drink the makgeolli and eat the food. Kind of an interesting concept for a picnic really.   

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

 

KJ didn’t come with us to the tombs because there was cooking to do. And this being South Korea, cooking is women’s work, so she stayed behind to help her mother out. After we returned, the wives of the cousins pitched in as well to help get everything ready for the big day. We men did absolutely nothing to help. I might point out here that South Korea is a land of cutting-edge electronics and Fifties-era social mores.   

On the morning of Chuseok, we all got up very early and waited for my father-in-law’s elder brother to arrive from Busan. He’s a retired priest – actually a monsignor, which is even better, just below a bishop. In fact, he trained almost all of the priests currently active in the Busan area, I’m told.   

Well, if you’re Catholic, it’s pretty darned handy to have a priest in the family because you can have Mass without leaving the house. And that’s what we did. It’s part of the Lee family’s way of celebrating Chuseok – Mass first, bowing to photos of the patriarch’s parents and then eating breakfast. However, I should confess, that I missed the bulk of the Mass and all the bowing, because Ian just couldn’t stay still that long. Since I didn’t understand a word of what was being said anyway, it fell to me to take him outside and walk around in the rain.   

Now, there are some important differences between Korean Thanksgiving and North American Thanksgiving. One is that there isn’t just one big meal in the Korean version. There are three – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and they’re all the same. Each meal featured a bowl of rice; bulgogi (a marinated beef dish); Korean-style tempura; marinated squid; a variety of kimchis (fermented vegetable dishes); some other dishes I’ve forgotten about; and makgeolli. Yup, rice wine at about 7:30 in the morning. Lots of it, too.   

Lunch was the same, except it featured soju instead of makgeolli. Soju is basically the national drink of Korea. It’s a distilled beverage typically between 24 to 27 per cent alcohol, clear, slightly sweet and cheap as borscht. A 300 mL bottle costs about 60 cents in the supermarket. Not the greatest alcoholic beverage in the world, to be honest, but after about three shots you don’t even notice it tastes a bit like mouthwash.   

Dinner was also the same, except that the cast had changed. The cousins and their children had gone off now to visit the families of the wives and they were replaced by my father-in-law’s sister, her husband, their two sons, and KJ’s two sisters, their husbands and their kids. The booze changed, too. This time, it was Scotch. And lots of it.   

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

 

Once dinner was finished, it was time for the main event, which was the priest uncle giving KJ a stern lecture in front of everybody about how terrible it is that we’re traveling all over the place with a baby in tow when we should be buying a house or some such and being respectable people, instead of, in his words, being “worse than gypsies.” After he was done, my mother-in-law took a pretty good run at KJ, too. I’d been instructed by KJ in advance (we knew this was coming) not to say anything at all, so I went out for smoke breaks anytime the urge to spout off approached irresistible levels.   

And here is where Thanksgiving Korean style revealed itself to be essentially the same as Thanksgiving in Canada or the United States: It’s a time for family to travel sometimes great distances to get together for a big meal and to remember just how much they really piss one another off.   

Good times.

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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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Regular readers of this blog, of whom there are a few, will remember that I once made a crack about the Scottish thinking Haggis is food. Well, I tried it the other day and must now reach deep down into my soul to find that last shred of integrity I’ve been hanging on to and make this admission: The Scots are right. Haggis is food and it is awesome.      

We’re currently staying with my cousin Fiona and her husband Richard at Park Farm, just outside an English village called Assington. Fiona’s parents came down from Scotland many years ago (before she was even born), and she is very proud of her Scottish roots. Hence her decision to serve us haggis on Sunday.      

This is the mythical haggis.

This is the mythical haggis.

 

Fiona has a great sense of humor and quite enjoys putting on a Scottish accent. She also really enjoys quoting Robbie Burns, and so our first taste of haggis was quite the occasion. She read “Address to a Haggis” with extraordinary enthusiasm and made sure that she served this Scottish dish with the traditional trappings – tatties and neeps. In other words, mashed potatoes and mashed turnips.      

Fiona and Richard making final preparations for our meal.

Fiona and Richard making final preparations for our meal.

 

What I had heard of haggis before all this certainly didn’t make it sound too appetizing, but it was clear that sampling this little delicacy was not optional.      

Well, when the time came to dig in, I must say I was somewhat surprised. Haggis is damn tasty. It’s rich and spicy and I couldn’t get enough of it. Little Ian loved it, too. KJ didn’t like it quite as much as Ian and I did, but she had no trouble eating it.      

Ian's first bite of haggis. Our little guy isn't shy about letting us know what he thinks about the food we give him. If he hates it, he spits it out immediately. If he likes it, he grabs his little spoon and digs in. The kid dug haggis.

Ian's first bite of haggis. Our little guy isn't shy about letting us know what he thinks about the food we give him. If he hates it, he spits it out immediately. If he likes it, he grabs his little spoon and digs in. The kid dug haggis.

 

KJ and I were curious to know what was in our haggis and Fiona said, “Oh, lamb, oatmeal, herbs, spices and some other things.”      

We continued eating, but I became curious again. “So what are the other things that are in this?” I asked.      

“Well,” said Fiona, “maybe it’s best not to say.”      

“It’s okay,” I said. “I really like it, so I’m not going to stop eating it if you tell me what else is in it.”      

Fiona and Richard chuckled a bit. “Well now,” said Richard, “it’s best just to eat it, Jeffrey. Don’t get too enthusiastic.”      

KJ and I exchanged glances and then said no more as we continued eating. I had seconds and so did Ian.      

I must say I keep wondering what “other things” are in haggis. But out of respect for our hosts (and because it’s kind of fun not to know, actually), I haven’t looked it up. I’m sure whatever these mystery ingredients are, they are probably pretty gross.      

One thing I do know, though, is that once again, the Scots have gotten it right.    

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For the past week, we have been in Ohrid, Macedonia. For a week before that, we were in Sofia, Bulgaria. Both cities are in the Balkans and both spent decades under Communism. However, that’s about all these two places have in common. Whereas Ohrid is dynamic and thriving, Sofia gives every indication of needing a Prozac.

Sofia is a positively gloomy place. Many of the buildings are crumbling. You look at some of them and see rebar showing from the bottoms of balconies – not a place you’d want to be in an earthquake. Many of the roads are rutted and potholed. And the sidewalks! Dear God, pushing Ian in his buggy in Sofia was pretty difficult in a lot of places. It also seemed pretty unfair for him to be jostled about so much, so we often just carried him instead.

Typical Sofia sidewalk. Pretty tough to push a baby buggy on one of these!

Typical Sofia sidewalk. Pretty tough to push a baby buggy on one of these!

If Sofia had a lot of interesting places to see or really vibrant people, none of this would have mattered. Unfortunately, Sofia does not have a lot of attractions and most of the people seem sad. You can see all the sights in about three days, and the gloominess of the place makes you want to leave before that.

No shock that drinking is a bit of an issue in Sofia. Really cheap beer and hard liquor is available everywhere. Walk about twenty metres in any direction, and you’ll find a bottle of vodka just waiting for you to take it home or to the park – a popular drinking place. I remember seeing a granddad out at the park with his granddaughter at nine one morning sitting on a bench. Cute scene, except for the liter bottle of beer the old man was working on.

In Sofia, you get the sense that people have either given up or don’t know how to even begin improving their lot. Many times, I saw locals sitting deep in thought, looking depressed – as though they had only one or two bad options in life and were thinking really hard in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, they had somehow overlooked one good option.

Typical crumbling building in Sofia.

Typical crumbling building in Sofia.

Ohrid, by contrast, is a vibrant and happy place with lots of friendly people. I guess it’s easy to be happy here – big, beautiful lake, mountains, gorgeous old town and a thriving tourist industry. But the thriving tourist industry is not something that happened by accident. They had to plan it and work hard at it. They also have to work hard at maintaining their city’s infrastructure and buildings – and at planning the city so that it is an appealing place to visit and to live.

Ian playing in a park by Ohrid's lakefront.

Ian playing in a park by Ohrid's lakefront.

There seems to be something about the people in Ohrid that makes them more resilient than the folks in Sofia. Sure they’re pretty poor by Western standards, as are Sofians, but they don’t seem to let that get them down. They don’t seem like they’re busy resenting their lot in life. They do seem pretty busy improving it, though, and I guess that’s one of the main reasons that Ohrid wins over Sofia hands down. We can’t wait to come to Ohrid again, but we will never visit Sofia again.

Ian and I at one of the beautiful old churches in Ohrid's Old Town. Nice pasty white legs I'm sporting, eh?

Ian and I at one of the beautiful old churches in Ohrid's Old Town. Nice pasty white legs I'm sporting, eh?

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I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels over the years. Many are just places to sleep and many others are great places to meet fellow travelers and swap stories and travel tips. The most rare type of hostel, though, is my favorite: a place to meet other travelers as well as lots of local people. Art Hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria is just such a place.

Whether by design or happy accident, Art Hostel’s set up means that you have to be a recluse not to meet lots of interesting people while staying here. To get to most of the rooms, you have to leave the reception area and go around to the back of the building – right through the garden.

The hostel’s slogan is “Usually we spend our time in the garden”, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very inviting place to hang out, especially at night when it is filled with backpackers, staff hanging out after work and local Bulgarians who just like the atmosphere of the place. Spending time talking to locals, as well as travelers from England, France, Germany, the U.S., and other countries has been a great treat. Many of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had in the past couple years have happened right out back in the garden this past week.

Ian loved playing in the garden after his morning nap. In the evenings, the place was filled with backpackers and locals.

Ian loved playing in the garden after his morning nap. In the evenings, the place was filled with backpackers and locals.

The bar here is also great and another excellent place to meet locals and backpackers. Down in the basement, it’s right next to the garden, so you can drink outside or in the bar. It has a variety of rooms, many of which have been decorated with murals by local artists.

And how many hostels can say that one of their owners is the host of an arts program broadcast on national television? Art Hostel can.

Boris Georgiev, a rather charismatic 30-year-old veteran of Bulgarian theater, hosts Antrakt on Probg, Bulgaria’s largest TV station. When he’s not acting or working at the hostel, he is often in – you guessed it – the garden, enjoying a beer with local friends and guests. He’s very easy to talk to and will welcome you into whatever group he is with. Great guy.

If you’re ever in Bulgaria and actually want to learn about the local culture, check in at the Art Hostel and have a beer with Boris. You’re also guaranteed to meet a lot of other interesting folks while there.

In all my travels, I have stayed at only a few hostels like this one. It’s a rare treat to find such a place, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. It was actually my favorite part of Sofia.

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For a heart-stopping moment, I thought the taxi driver was going to drive away with our stuff. I began banging on the trunk, yelling, “Get back here!” while I started to memorize his license plate number. Thankfully, the taxi stopped. I stepped aside and he backed up to the curb.

I stood in front of the taxi now to make sure he wouldn’t drive away. I also noticed there were some shopkeepers and shoppers who had come out to see what was going on.

“Excuse me, sir,” I called out to one of the shopkeepers. “Do you speak English?”

“A little.”

“This driver lied about the fare and won’t give us our stuff. Could you please call the police?”

All of this happened on Tuesday afternoon when KJ and I learned the hard way about the unpleasant manner in which a goodly number of visitors are welcomed to Bulgaria – taxi scams. Maybe we should have gone to Hawaii instead. The Aloha State’s custom of welcoming visitors with a garland of flowers sounds so much more pleasant.

My long standoff with the scam taxi driver began. His company’s agent at the airport had quoted us a price of 2 euros (about US $3) to get to our hostel in the city center. Hot, tired and sweaty, I guess I forgot that whole “If it sounds too good to be true…” rule. The woman at the airport’s Visitor Information desk had said the ride would cost 5 euros, but I guess we had wanted a bargain just a little too badly.

I asked the taxi agent three times on the way to the car if the price to get into the center was two euros total. Each time, he said, “Yes. Two euros.”

When we got to the taxi, he opened the back door for my wife. This seemed like a gallant gesture, but what it turned out he was doing was shielding the rate card on the rear passenger door window from our view. The one that said two euros per kilometer. Very slick.

I put our big backpack, one of our daypacks and our fold-up stroller in the trunk. I kept the daypack with our valuables on me and got in the back of the car as well. One more time, I asked, “So, it’s two euros total to get to the city center?”

“Yes,” said the taxi agent as the driver nodded. “Two euros.”

It wasn’t until we got near the hostel that it finally became clear we were in trouble. Looking for a clock to see the time in Sofia, I noticed that the taxi’s meter was running – and it was getting close to 60 leva, which is about 30 euros. I had a bad feeling suddenly, but I tried to cheer myself up with the notion that maybe the driver had forgotten to turn it off. Then I noticed that rate card.

When the driver stopped at our hostel, he told us the fare was 60 leva. I told him, no way. The deal had been 2 euros, and he just laughed. “This is a nice car,” he said. “You are crazy.”

And perhaps I was, but I told him we were not paying 60 leva. He kept insisting so I told him we should get the police. “Okay,” he said and started driving. “No problem. We go to the police.”

I had no idea where the hell he was driving us to now, and I ordered him to stop the car. “Park here. The police can meet us here.”

The car stopped and we got out. This is when the car started to go forward and I thought we were going to lose all our stuff.

It took ages for the police to show up. All the while, I stood in front of the taxi while the driver sat placidly in the driver’s seat. And, yes, I was very painfully aware that his driver’s seat was not just literal but metaphorical.

I tried to reason with the guy, but it quickly became clear he wasn’t the type who could be reasoned with. Hot, sweaty and tired, I lost my temper and argued with him instead. This attracted a small crowd of locals, all of whom were sympathetic to us. It seems these scams are common and the locals don’t like the bad image these scam drivers give their city.

I told the driver I’d give him 5 euros. No dice. He wasn’t budging from 60 leva, so I just looked at him and said, “I can stand here all day, buddy.” And that seemed fine with him.

Finally, two unshaven cops arrived in an aged car. They were a bit different from the police back home in a couple of ways. First of all, their shirts were semi-untucked after they got out of the car and they made no attempt to rectify this. Second of all, they smoked on the job. They both lit up a  couple of times during the long process of waiting for one of us to back down. The taxi driver lit up a couple of times, too.

I was quickly disabused of the notion that Sofia’s finest would make things right. After they checked the taxi driver’s ID and registration, they basically said they couldn’t do anything. Even the fact that his taxi company impersonates a legitimate taxi company was technically legal. In Bulgaria, as long as a scam taxi company changes at least one number in a legitimate taxi company’s phone number, they’re in the clear – even if they have exactly the same logo. As the taxi driver pointed out, “What I’m doing is legal until September.”

Legal until September. I like that.

One of the important things in life is to know when you’re beat – and this was one of those times. I dragged things out for as long as I could, but I ended up giving the bastard his 60 leva. The only satisfaction I could get out of the whole ridiculous ordeal was that I tied my driver up for close to an hour and a half. At least he couldn’t rip off anyone else during that time.

I guess we should have gone to Hawaii instead of Bulgaria. At least there, we’d have gotten leid instead of waylaid.

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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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