Holiday Spirit

December has been a flurry of holiday activity. From Christmas shopping in the underground shopping centre at Express Bus Terminal...

to enjoying dinners with friends and colleagues...

to putting up our own little Charlie Brown holiday tree, we've been having a busy but joyful time. Now, we have only one more sleep until we get on an airplane and do it all again, Canadian style.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!


Counting down

As Seoul slaloms into winter, we are in the midst of an always enjoyable flurry of Christmas dinners and drinks. When you factor in the excitement of hearing George Michael's Last Christmas fourteen times a day with the small number of sleeps remaining before a few weeks in Canada, we find ourselves merrily infused with the holiday spirit.


Съединението прави силата

Until yesterday, I knew no more of Bulgaria than the average person: Sofia is the capital city, it was the birthplace 1100 years ago of the Cyrillic alphabet, and Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski twice won the Ice-Dance competition at the World Figure Skating Championships. But after eating at a Bulgarian restaurant last night to celebrate a friend's birthday, my eyes are open. Stunning topography, a rich appreciation for its cultural heritage, and the best spinach-stuffed chicken breast in a dill cream sauce this side of the Danube make Bulgaria my new favourite former Eastern Bloc country.


First snow

The best-laid lesson plans went awry at Rainbow International School this afternoon, as Seoul experienced its first snow of the season. For the eight students in my class from Saudi Arabia, this was their first snowfall ever, and its arrival was greeted with nothing less than rapture. They frolicked and made merry, trying to catch snowflakes in their mouths, as I chased them around for their first face-wash.


Chuncheon Marathon

Chuncheon in October, with its lake surrounded by mountains, is a beautiful place for a race. Here we are looking happy at the start. We felt just as happy, though more tired, by the end.
Many thanks to Mike and Angie for the photographs and great company, not to mention the pre-race peanut butter snacks and post-race pecan pie.


Entrepreneurial Artistry

Speed, precision, and witty banter combine to make this calligrapher a success with tourists and locals alike.


One mask of many

Beloved by traditional ink and wash painters, calligraphers, and generations of Asian poets, the chrysanthemum is a symbol of nobility. This beautiful yellow specimen stands in quiet contrast to the dark reds and browns of Bongeunsa's main prayer hall.


Jinyeomun (The Gate of Truth)

Bongeunsa, built in 794AD, is a quiet hillside temple in the middle of this busy city. The giant painted doorways leading inside portray these fierce guardians.

Once the threshold is crossed, one can see what they're protecting.


عيد مبارك‎

Eid Mubarak! To celebrate the end of Ramadan, Muslims the world over now celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, a three day 'blessed festival' to mark the end of the fasting period. For the very excited little Muslims in my class, this means a few days away from the Grade Three grind, family trips to local amusement parks, and wallets bursting with extra pocket money.


Local Sculpture

Ilsan Lake, in the north of Seoul, offers a nice respite from the city streets. I'm not sure if these statues are supplicating, or just deeply appreciative of their surroundings.


What, no rabbit?

One of us at OOFALWO is no fan of David Blaine's schtick, with his slow-talking and his space-invading. The other of us at OOFALWO forgives all this because the creepiness is superseded by the sheer brilliance of the legerdemain. But both of us are stumped by Blaine's latest stunt, hanging upside down for sixty hours. Risking one's eyesight, an aneurysm, and damage to internal organs is far less intriguing than pulling a signed card out of a spectator's shoe.


What, no chainsaw?

I have been running on and off, but mostly on, for the better part of a decade and a half. I long ago gave up any pretensions to being fleet of foot (this, in fact, occurred sometime in the late spring of 1984, when at the Ruth M. Buck Track and Field Day I was unceremoniously lapped by James Ling in a two lap race - that kid had serious wheels). In organized races and just out running for fun, I have been passed by everybody - pre-teens, octogenarians, the sightless, the barefooted, the no-footed, people pushing strollers (once with twins), people pulling carts, people holding flags, people in ridiculous costumes, people in speedos, soldiers in full kit and heavy boots, race walkers, and once by a guy running backwards. But today was a new one, out for a gentle Sunday long run on the Han River path, and blazed by a juggling jogger, a joggler. The very word makes me cringe, but this guy was seriously impressive - three balls constantly in motion and moving at least at seven minute miles. Whatever floats your boat, I say.


Happy 추석!

About the closest Seoul ever gets to being quiet is Chuseok, the annual harvest festival and sort of Korean Thanksgiving, when millions of people leave the city to go back to their ancestral hometowns. Activities over the long weekend include tending the area around the family tomb, preparing and devouring a feast, and playing some traditional folk games.
For us, it is a few extra days to run, relax, and catch up with friends.


For Deanna

Happy birthday, my love.


City Summer

Although it's quite a challenge to compete with Saskatchewan sunsets, once in a while the Seoul sky puts on a nice show of its own.


What is the sound of no traffic moving?

There hadn't been this many baldies in one place since the last McLurg school reunion.
The angry Buddhists were at it again yesterday, with upwards of ten thousand monks staging a solemn protest in downtown Seoul at the height of the afternoon rush hour. At issue still is President Lee's perceived favouritism towards Christian groups, which the monks take as a snub against their historical attempts to promote interfaith harmony.


A fine day indeed

Those who know me well know a few things - I don't sleep on airplanes, I'm virtually unbeatable at Tetris, and I love to watch marathons and triathlons from the comfort of my own couch.

In the final event of the Beijing Olympics, Sammy Wanjiru, a 21 year old Kenyan, ran what is now being hailed by many sports journalists as the greatest marathon ever. Though two minutes short of the world record, he obliterated both the Olympic record and arguably the strongest field in history, running in high heat and humidity to a 2:06 finish. 2:06 is a darn fine half marathon time for most of us.

Half a world away in Penticton, Chris and Alison were obliterating records of their own, taking huge amounts of time off their Ironman Canada personal bests. Those old records, of course, were set before they had two more mouths to feed, which proves not only how effective they are at managing their time, but how dedicated and disciplined they are in fulfilling their goals. Deanna and I watched via the Internet live feed, and couldn't have been more proud.

And my crowning achievement on the anniversary of my birth? A record-setting demolition of the finest pan of puffed wheat cake that has ever been brought down from the heavens above. Well, from Deanna, who so kindly trounced around the city to find the ingredients before whipping it up.

Thanks to all who called or sent me birthday messages - very much appreciated.


Birthday Presents

Remind me to send thank you cards to the organizers of the Beijing Olympics and Ironman Canada. Scheduling both the Ironman in Penticton and the men's Olympic Marathon in Beijing on August 24th is perhaps the greatest birthday present Lee could hope for. We'll be watching the live feed for both, marveling anyone who can run a marathon in sub-2:10 and cheering on Chris and Ali in their two-time Ironman quest.

Happy Birthday, Lee!


Who needs Beijing?

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps would have met their match in Seoul last weekend. My colleagues, always a spirited bunch, reanimated China's Olympic fervour with the first ever GNUCR Olympics. After much discussion, it was decided that one's country of birth determined which team they'd play for. We ended up with Team North America West, Team North America East, Team Asia, and Team Europe, all of whom fought for victory in arm-wrestling, balancing-on-one-leg, coin-catching, almond-tossing, and everybody's favourite, hanging-a-spoon-on-your-nose. After a well-fought battle, Team Europe emerged victorious (see above Jonathan, Jon, and Lee with their gold medals). Nourished by pina coladas, kahlua vodka espresso milkshakes, mango strawberry rum smoothies, and plenty of snacks, good times were had by all.


Mr. Denisovich

Coming back to work on Monday was a shock indeed to my summer-softened sensibilities. Three days of meetings, planning, and beating the dust out of the classroom find me eagerly awaiting tomorrow's arrival of a dozen eight year-olds. With students this year from nine different countries, I expect to learn as much from them as they hopefully learn from me. And I'm already counting down the days to next February's International Food Fair.


Well, who wouldn't be?

One of the headlines on the front page of today's Korea Times reads "President Embarrassed Over Angry Buddhists". The article relates how the Venerable Abbot of one of Seoul's major temples was pulled over in a traffic stop, and in his estimation, dealt with unfairly by the police. Hidden agendas loom, and this can only be indicative of this Christian President's disrespect for the traditional ways of the Buddha. The story is inoccuous enough, but it is headlines like these that I enjoy when reading the Times, along with a decent Sports section and the crossword puzzle.
While the staff reporters technically adhere to the rules of English grammar and employ an ample vocabulary, they add a certain, and likely unintended, flamboyance that I rarely saw in their Canadian counterparts. To wit, the first paragraph of a page two article regarding recently implemented Internet regulations states "Enduring haymakers from angry regulators, politicians and newspapers, the country's top two Internet companies, NHN and Daum, find themselves dazed and confused." When's the last time you read of haymakers or disgruntled monks in your morning newspaper?


Six sad cicadas

Try saying that five times fast. Summer brings these boisterous beasts out aplenty in Korea. For OOFALWOians who have not heard the cicada's incredible song before, as we hadn't before moving to Seoul, it is a very distinctive high-pitched, vaguely metallic, almost electrical-sounding drone. And loud - no, loud doesn't quite cut it - how about cacophonous? The trees along the river path are teeming with the insects, and the noise is nearly deafening.

Using my newfangled language skills, I stopped a passerby to ask what the bug I was pointing at on a tree is called in Korean. They are called maemi, so all the way to school I practiced the sentence "Oneul maemi noraerul bureumnida - The cicadas are singing today" to awe my teacher. Turns out that Koreans don't say that the maemi are singing; instead, the maemi are said to be crying - which is a turn both more solemn and more poetic than the English.


The Seagull

We are currently in the deluge of Tropical Storm Kalmaegi, with pounding rain and a strong breeze ensuring a cozy Sunday spent inside the apartment. Thankfully we are at the dissipated tail-end of the typhoon's path, as it has already cut its swath to catastrophic ends in Taiwan and southern China.



A fifteen minute speedboat ride from the main beach of Saipan takes you to the islet paradise of Managaha. On the way there, we slowed to see a nearly perfectly preserved and intact Japanese fighter plane just metres below the surface, which served as a visceral reminder of Saipan's importance in the WWII Pacific theatre.

Once on Managaha, there's not much to do besides enjoy the magnificent setting.


Jeoneun haksaeng imnida.

While I had managed to pick up plenty of words and phrases and learn to read Hangeul since our arrival in Seoul, I had not taken any formal direction. So, in an attempt to not be a total chump for the rest of our time here, I signed up for a one month, four days a week, three hours a day Korean class as a way to pass my summer holiday. We started a few weeks ago from the very beginning, with the formation and proper pronunciation of the letters. Straight-forward enough, until the sounds we so assiduously practiced morph in combination to become something new. Then onto grammar, so devilishly labyrinthine and not entirely logical to this Western thinker. To wit: the straight English transliteration of the Korean sentence "The pencil is on the desk." reads "The desk on the pencil there is." Factor in thirty or so new vocabulary words each day and review tests to ensure we are doing the hours of expected homework, and this has become a challenging, rewarding, and very enjoyable mental exercise.


Blue skies, clear sailing

We have visited our fair share of islands and beaches, but neither of us have seen water as clear and blue or sand as fine and white as Saipan. Combine the snorkeling and tanning with identical daily weather reports (high of 88, low of 79, 70% relative humidity, and a 20% chance of isolated showers), and we were wishing for a longer vacation.


Happy Canada Day

141, really?! You don't look a day over 129!


A hammock beckons.

This is Saipan. We are going there. Today. We are happy.


The great secret

Doris Lessing, last year's Nobel laureate in Literature and no spring chicken herself, wrote "The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion." But somebody forgot to tell Mr. Kim that there is meant to be some confusion. At 79 years old, he is a fixture of Seoul road racing. He seems well-known and adored by the running community, chatting and waving to all he passes, and saves enough energy to cross the finish line with a huge smile. Oh, and he's fast. On this very hot day, he finished the 10km course in 70 minutes.


Camping, Korean Style

On Saturday, we went to Nanji campground with some Korean friends. It's possible to camp and picnic right in the middle of Seoul, with all the amenities available for rent. Helpful staff set up the tents, ready the grill, and carry rented coolers. All we had to do was bring food and prepare it over the fire, which left lots of time for flying kites, playing soccer, and enjoying the cold beer.




The summer monsoon season has officially arrived, according to the trusty folk at the Korean Meteorological Administration. Actually, it arrived yesterday, four days earlier than it reared its highly humid head last year. For us, this means some treadmill running, laundry that won't totally dry, the very pleasant smell of foliage, and honing our skills at wading through a sea of umbrellas.


Greatest. Day. Ever.

Well, greatest school day ever - hands down. As our final field trip, uh, educational sojourn, three teachers and nine students visited Lotte World, a strange amalgam of ersatz Disney and local flair. With rides and games both inside a giant mall, then outside on Magic Island, great times were had by all. When you factor in the gratis Turkish kebabs and ice cream provided by the uncle of one of my students, and the genuine wonder and thrill on the faces of nine, ten, and thirty-six year olds, it seems an ideal way to wrap the school year.


Street Commerce

Here is further evidence to support my theory that if you wander far enough in this city, there's nothing you can't purchase from a roving vendor.


Sunday Afternoon

Luckily, Lee has found a new friend - one who, after a long morning exploring the Han River pathways, appreciates a midday nap as much as he does.


Veni. Vidi. Edi.

I believe it was Marcus Fabius Quintilian, everyone's favourite first century Roman rhetorician, who declared "That which prematurely arrives at perfection soon perishes." After finding my first Asian package of Toffifee in a swanky department store last night, then having an empty box to recycle moments later, I must concur.