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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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It is a curious fact that Russia produces plenty of chess grandmasters but is apparently unable to find anyone who can manage an airport. We learned this on our trip from Seoul to London on June 23rd, which included a three-hour layover at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

I’ve been to quite a few airports over the years, and landing at one terminal and having to get to another for my next flight is an exercise I’m quite familiar with. It has always been a fairly straightforward affair. Find out which terminal you have to go to, follow the signs to the area where you catch either a bus or a train to it, get on and get off. Sometimes you have to hoof it. But it is a pretty easy task.

Except at Sheremetyevo Airport, where they have found a way to make this simple procedure into an absolutely baffling experience.

As soon as we got off our plane from Seoul, we started to look around for a sign telling us where we had to go to catch our flight to London. However, there were no signs with this information. Instead, we ended up in an area which had several booths. Two of them were staffed by unsmiling women who seemed absolutely uninterested in the fact that a couple hundred weary travelers were standing around waiting for some instruction.

A few brave souls went up to them to ask where they had to go to catch their flight to London, Paris or Frankfurt. They were told to wait. In the absence of information from airport officials, we began to seek information from our fellow travelers.

KJ and I ended up talking to a blonde-haired British guy and a Middle Eastern woman with two small children in tow. We had a bit of a laugh at the chaos of the situation, and the Middle Eastern woman informed us that this was the worst airport in the world – worse even than the one in Baghdad.

After about twenty minutes of standing around and still no wiser as to where we needed to go next, I decided to budge up to the front of the line and ask one of the women. KJ followed and I carried Ian. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak English?”

The woman nodded slightly.

“Where do we go for a flight to London?” I asked.

“For London? The woman is calling you now. Terminal D. Terminal D,” she said urgently, pointing down a passageway.

“Thank you,” I said and we started to hustle in the direction she had indicated.

This just seemed to make her agitated, though. “Not yet! Not yet! Wait here! Wait here!” Apparently what she had meant to say was, “The woman will call you.”

We went back to our new friends to share this bit of info. Amusingly, it seemed there was a high chance the information we had received from the airport official was incorrect.

“I was just talking to another English guy,” said our English friend, “and he said a girl told him a woman came to take people to the shuttle for Terminal D. He just went down there to find out if it’s true.”

Sure enough, it was. The second English guy, a dark-haired fellow, came rushing back to tell us that the London passengers were being taken to the shuttle right then. We all started to motor to catch up, afraid we were going to miss the shuttle.

The Middle Eastern woman had a very hard time keeping up, and whenever we turned a corner in the hallway, I waited for her to make sure she was still coming. In the end, though, we all made it and caught up with the other people flying to London.

After a few minutes, it was time to get on the shuttle bus. The young  woman who had led us this far was replaced by another woman. Our new boss was a middle-aged woman out of Central Casting. She was stocky and powerful looking, her straw-colored hair pulled back tightly in a bun, and she looked like she might have been top dog on a collective farm back in the day.

And she was obsessed with finding anyone who might be flying to Paris.

Once we were all on the shuttle bus, she stood up at the front. She looked like a kind woman, even though her eyes were narrowed and her lips were tightly pursed. “BAAA-ree,” she said, before adding, “shhhh.”

Nobody said anything. The woman looked about the bus suspiciously, and she reminded me slightly of John Cleese in The Life of Brian asking, “Are there any women here?”

“BAAA-ree… shhhh,” the woman said again. There was still no response, but she was determined. “BAAA-ree… shhhh. BAA-ree… shhhh.”

And still nobody said anything. We all just sat there looking at her as she grew more incredulous.

“BAAA-ree… shhhh. No?” she said, her voice going up. “BAA-ree… shhhh. No.” And this time her voice went down and then she took her seat.

The bus was absolutely silent for a couple seconds and then Ian said, “No?” his voice going up and, “No,” his voice going down.

The whole bus erupted with laughter. Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty damn funny.

In the end, we got on our flight and everything was okay – but the whole process was so much more confusing and complex than it should have been. I don’t know if the Middle Eastern woman is right and that Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is the worst in the world. But I do know it’s the worst one I’ve ever been to.

The Russians may be great at chess, but they don’t have the first clue when it comes to running an airport.

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Well, the time has come to say goodbye to Yangsan, our home in South Korea since March 24th. And now the real backpacking begins. Three-month stays in comfortable houses are a thing of the past for us. From now on, my wife, our baby and I will be moving about much more frequently and relying on one big backpack, two daypacks and a baby carrier. 

For a lot of parents, the above probably sounds like a nightmare. It’s difficult just to go grocery shopping with an 18-month-old toddler. What kind of crazy person would want to go backpacking with one? 

It’s a fair question, and I’m entirely open to the possibility that we are indeed nuts. I’ll be honest and let you know that it all does seem rather daunting now that we’re only nine or ten hours away from our train trip to Seoul and just two days away from our flight to our next country –  and the beginning of our “for real” backpacking tour. 

I’m also really excited, though. Most of the best times of my life have come while living out of a backpack and exploring foreign countries. I’ve never brought a baby along for the ride before, but our little guy is pretty resilient and seems to really enjoy new places, people and things. I have a feeling he’s going to be an excellent traveller. 

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be difficulties. Of course there will be. There always are, but it’s the difficulties that give travelling a lot of its flavor. In fact, some of the hardest times I’ve had backpacking are some of my favorite memories. The weekend I was homeless in Munich, visiting a war zone in the former Yugoslavia, a broken-down car in the middle of the Australian Outback – these are all experiences which I am deeply grateful to have had. The first two profoundly affected my life. 

There are also all the other experiences which go along with travelling: the amazing people you meet, the extraordinary art you see, and all the new cultures you get to immerse yourself in and learn about. This is what my wife and I really want for our son. They say the first four years of life are the most important, and we’re operating on the theory that giving him such a stimulating start to life can only be a good thing. 

Or maybe we’re just crazy. Who knows? We’re about to find out. 

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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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Imagine an election campaign where you are phoned only once, where nobody knocks on your door and there are no attack ads on TV. A lot of people in the West would think, “Sounds great.” Well, not so fast. South Korean politicians have other ways of making sure folks know they’re running for office. And in the leadup to the provincial and municipal elections held here on Wednesday, they made darn sure voters did not forget them.          

Perhaps the main means of accomplishing this was through the use of what I call speechmobiles – something I’ve never seen before. The best way to describe them is with a thousand words worth of picture, so here you go:           

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

 

 These little things were absolutely everywhere in Yangsan and Busan during the election. And you definitely knew when they were in your neighborhood, because they had loudspeakers mounted on them – and they were turned all the way up to 11.          

Often, a candidate’s speechmobile would drive around with nobody in the back. However, it would blast out bits of his or her stump speech, as well as campaign songs praising either the candidate or the party.          

I was quite amused by the fact that one of the campaign songs was set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, while another was set to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People. A lot of other campaign tunes were set to old Korean pop songs that the older – more likely to vote – people would remember. Frequently, the speechmobile would have a few ajumas in the back, too, waving at all the folks as they drove by.          

Every now and then – and with greater frequency as Election Day neared – the candidate would be in the back of the speechmobile giving a rousing oration.          

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

 

The candidates were also out and about at all the various community events and festivals, just like back home. They would also hang out around churches on Sunday morning to greet worshippers as they filed in.          

The candidates were not the only ones working hard, however. The ajumas were out in force, too.          

Every time I entered or exited a subway station over the past several weeks, I would see a big group of ajumas all wearing their campaign uniforms and bowing to the riders. They would say something about how So-and-so was going to work hard for them. Usually, one of the ajumas was holding a portrait of their candidate.          

It was also common to see these ajuma armies standing at busy intersections and doing choreographed dance routines while singing their candidate’s song. Another popular campaigning spot for ajumas was in shopping malls.          

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

 

 In addition to the speechmobiles and the armies of ajumas, I was also interested in the fact that Election Day is a holiday in South Korea. To encourage turnout, everybody gets the day off work. Of course, human nature being what it is, many people simply take advantage of this bit of free time to sleep in and head out of town to do something fun instead of voting.          

For example, my younger sister-in-law and her husband took KJ, me, Ian and their son to a dinosaur theme park in Masan. Turnout on Election Day was about 56 per cent.          

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

 

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I’d like to show you some photos today of where we’ve been staying in South Korea these past couple months. Below are pictures of the in-laws’ house in Yangsan, as well as of some spots nearby. The first part of this visual tour will focus on places Ian enjoys visiting. Then I’ll really ramp up the excitement and show you where I smoke.     

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

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