Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Being Touristy: Palgongsan

 

True confession time: I once stood in line for almost an hour just to get a seven-layer burrito from Taco Bell.

This is (obviously) not a sponsored post.  I've just had quite the longstanding relationship with Taco Bell ever since my college days when I was mostly sustained daily by two bean burritos and a Mountain Dew.  So when the first Taco Bell in Spain opened while we were living there, it was only natural that I would be one of the first customers, and that I would wait an inordinately long time for my burrito.  

And, well, some things never change.  Now that I live in Korea, it's not weird at all, in my opinion, that one or two Saturdays a month, when we make the two-hour drive to the Daegu commissary, it is naturally assumed that we will stop at Taco Bell too.  It's something the whole family looks forward to.  But for most of the school year, the older two girls were so busy with their schoolwork, even the promise of a cheesy bean burrito was not enough to get them to come with us.

As the school year wound down, though, we started to see a little more of the older girls.  The Saturday before school ended, we made our drive to the commissary, and Jayna and Skyler actually wanted to go with us!  We all piled into the car, got to Daegu, purchased the groceries and had our burritos.  It's all about the little things, so I was already quite pleased with how the day had gone.  

But when I got back into the car to go home and Matt said, "Want to go exploring?", my answer was a resounding, "Yes!  Of course!  Always!"  I feel like I've hardly seen this country because so much "real life" has to happen, so I jump at the chance to go somewhere.  And it got better.  He had found something that sounded truly intriguing: an interactive museum where you can practice what you would do in a variety of emergency situations.  Since Matt is an actual owner of the book The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook, we felt like this was an obvious win. As fast as we could, we drove several kilometers out of town into the surrounding hills to a little town called Palgongsan, and sure enough, there was the museum.

Unfortunately, we soon learned that while the museum was indeed free and open, we would need a reservation to experience it with an English-speaking guide.  We asked if we could just guide ourselves through but were told that would not be possible.  They did, however, provide us with a guide who could give a partial tour.

Well... why not?

The young man apologized for his English skills (which we thought were actually excellent) as he led us to the first display.  In February 2003, an arsonist set a terrible, devastating fire in a Daegu subway, which left 192 dead and 151 more injured.  Our guide took us to a room made to look like a subway, where the actual charred cars from the incident were.  There was an eerie soundtrack of a roaring fire and screams, and on the walls we could see handprints in the soot. The terror the victims must have felt was almost palpable, and we were all relieved to move on to the rest of the museum.  We didn't take any pictures because it was so haunting.

Fortunately, the rest of the museum was focused on safety with a good dose of fun.  We didn't get to do most of it due to our lack of a reservation, but I'm sure we could have spent several hours there.  One room had several practice dummies for CPR. In another, you could try out the emergency harness used to escape tall buildings in case of fires.  There was even an earthquake simulator where we practiced covering our heads while unplugging appliances and lamps and turning off the stove.  It would have been great if we'd known about this place before our dramatic move-in to our apartment a year ago!  Another room had simulated fires to practice spraying with a real fire hose.  (Sorry the quality is not better -- technical difficulties -- this is a screen shot from a little movie I made for my Instagram story as for some reason I could not upload the actual film clip.)
 
The kids loved what we got to do!



Our abbreviated tour did not take very long, and on our way into Palgongsan, we'd seen signs for a "natural park" and gondola.  We headed back to explore a little more.  Calling Palgongsan a town might be a bit generous.  Really, it mostly consists of a few small hotels and restaurants, with at least three convenience stores (Koreans loooooove their convenience stores) (and actually, so do I now), but it was picturesque and nestled against hills that were covered by dense forest and winding streams with outcroppings of granite.
 

We followed the signs to the gondola and found that acquiring tickets was very easy to navigate even with our lack of the Korean language.  There was also the option to hike one way or both, but since it was getting late in the day, we decided to take the gondola up and down the mountain.  

All seven of us were squeezed into one gondola.  
 
There were wonderful expansive views of the city of Daegu and far beyond.   
 
We found a couple walking trails and chose one but decided to turn around because of time constraints.  In the distance, against the base of a further, more remote mountain, there was a monastery which, according to a sign, held significance to Buddhists, Confucianists, and Christians.  


There was also a "love garden" with a bench (see the top picture) for cheesy photo-ops, and a place for love locks.  
 
The restaurant had food that looked and smelled delicious, and it was packed with people (which is why we didn't stop at that point). But we lingered a while, taking pictures and being a little silly.
 
 
It was the golden hour as we descended the mountain, so the view was almost even prettier.  The whole family had fun, and we didn't even get to explore the "natural park" yet -- which, given the way I've seen Koreans do parks, I'm sure it's great.  Now that the weather is cooling off and the fall colors are starting to show, we're all hoping to make a repeat trip!

 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Summer To-Done List


Several years ago, I was awaiting a cross-country move and knew I had a giant to-do list but couldn't start checking things off until we got our orders from the Navy.  I did the next best thing  -- complain about it on Facebook -- and a wise friend suggested that I write a list of what I'd done each day, even the small, seemingly insignificant things.  This proved to be brilliant.  It made me feel like I was still accomplishing something even while my hands were tied and probably saved my sanity.

Today I'm doing the same thing.  I want to be a better, more regular blogger, really I do. But there's what I want so badly, and what I have time and energy and focus for.  I didn't update my blog over the summer like I planned, and I've been home in Korea for a full month now and still haven't written.  On the one hand, I feel like a terrible slacker, a poser-writer, a girl with big dreams and no follow-through.  But then again... I did a lot this summer. So here, if I may, is my grand summer "to-done" list:

1) I had an amazing time stateside.  I hope and plan to write more about this, but to keep it short and to the point for now, it felt like summer the way summer should be. I spent time with family. I was actually there for things, starting with my newest nephew's adoption hearing -- the hands-down best reason ever to be in a courtroom.  When you spend almost all your time an ocean away, you feel deeply honored to be present for such an incredible occasion. 

My kids got to spend precious time with their grandparents, doing the things kids should do in the summer, like swimming almost every day, 
 
riding and driving their grandfather's tractor lawnmower around his farm, 
   
drinking out of a hose,
 and chasing goats around.  We spent a week with one of my dearest friends who lives out in the country, 
 
held sparklers on the Fourth and ate the best food, 

drove over to the coast -- two moms with ten kids, outnumbered and exhausted but so very happy. 
 
We even took the kids to the California State Fair!
 
 Here's a funny side-story.  We were driving through the California countryside just after our arrival, and Wyatt -- who is super into animals these days, but especially African wild animals -- said, "Oh!  Mom! I just saw some animals!  I think they were rhinoceroses!"  Having just past a herd of cows, I said, "Uh, I don't think so, buddy, I think they were cows."


"No, they were rhinoceroses!" he insisted.  

"Pretty sure they were cows."

Finally, we passed some more, and he said, "Oh wait, you're right.  They're cows."  Yeah!!  Mommy does now a thing or two!

Then Annalee piped up, "Cows!  Neigh-neigh!"

So if nothing else, I'd say I got them out of the city just in the nick of time!

2) I got to take another amazing roadtrip with my family when Matt arrived.  
 
We drove from San Francisco, through Sacramento, then to Salt Lake City, Moab, and St. George.  And we didn't go to one single national park!  
  
 
  We didn't deliberately avoid them, but when we saw what we could do outside in local and state parks and other public places, and we found that there were almost no people there at all!  It was such an amazing time and so perfect for our family.  We spent so much time outdoors, hiking, swimming, running around.  We all came home to Korea feeling refreshed.  
 

 


3) I survived August here in Korea.  No, seriously, I'm counting this.  It was muggy and hot, and even though we used our air conditioning as little as possible because of how much electricity costs, I'm pretty sure I will have to sell some organs to pay the bill later this month.  My million dollar view?  It didn't exist in August because we had our black-out curtains and shades pulled down all month trying to escape the infernal heat that radiated from our wall of windows.  I felt like I was in a hot, stuffy box.  We had all our kids sleeping in one bedroom at night, which we called the refugee room because we went there to escape the heat.  It was the smallest bedroom and out of direct sunlight, so it didn't take much to bring it to a near-polar temperature.  

I like to think that it helped bond them.  If nothing else, they grew some character in August.  We all did. 

Just like last year, though, the end of August brought welcome breezes and at least a 30% drop in humidity.  Suddenly I'm happy again, kind to my kids and husband again, cooking again.  And my curtains are open again!  *praise hands*

4) We hit some big milestones this summer.  Matt and I celebrated our 20 year anniversary
 
 and Jayna turned 18.  

On Monday, she left us to head to university in California.  

It's... so weird.  I don't feel like I know all the answers about marriage or parenting.  I can tell you for 100% sure that we did a whole lot of things wrong.  We were two flawed people that came together in marriage (really young!), and then we had kids starting much earlier than everyone said we should.  I mean, talk about a recipe for disaster.  

But, grace.  

This summer, while we were in Moab we hiked out to Morning Glory Bridge.  
 
It was a long hike -- about 4.5 miles roundtrip, and it was extremely hot that day, right around100 degrees Fahrenheit. In many ways, it was exactly the kind of trail I love, the kind that truly feels like an adventure and keeps your mind engaged the whole way and your eyes and heart richly rewarded.  
 
We crossed a stream seven or eight times each direction, and there were places where we had to kind of scrabble over rocks.  We all loved those parts.  But there was so much poison ivy!  We were alternately holding our breath and yelling at the kids, "DO NOT TOUCH THAT!!!"  Disaster, in the form of an insufferably itchy rash, seemed inevitable.  

We got to the bridge, coated in red dust that stuck to us thanks to the copious sweat, and the view was spectacular. 
There was a spring coming from the rocks where we filled our water bottles, and that was maybe the best tasting water I've ever had.  But then we had to go back on the same path, and face all the same problems.  Somehow we managed to avoid all the poison ivy, and once we'd had lunch and some frozen treats and naps, we were as good as new.

From this viewpoint on "the hike", I see the amazing view.  But I remember what it took to get here too.  Sometimes we feel exhausted and messy; sometimes it feels like we can't take another step.  I wonder how we got here, and all I can think is, "There but for the grace go I."  For me, getting to this point doesn't have me thinking I did it all so very right as much as being utterly humbled by the grace -- grace upon grace upon grace -- that was poured out on me and my mistakes, my failures, time and again. 

*********************
So that was my summer, in the smallest nutshell!  It was memorable, and sweet, and I wouldn't trade it even for status as the Best Blogger Ever.  But I will try to post more very soon -- no, really, I promise. ;-). 

What's on your "Summer To-Done" list?

  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ketchup. Catsup. Catch-up.

 

Why does anyone ever spell ketchup "catsup"? It's kind of weird and unappetizing to me that the word "cats" would appear on a plastic bottle of red, tomato-based stuff I squeeze on my French fries.  I spell it "ketchup" and to my Australian or British friends who call it "tomahto sauce", I'm sorry, but that is something else entirely that comes out of a can and is used for making marinara.


Anyway.  It comes down to this: it's high time for me to blow the dust off this blog and play some serious catch-up here. For starters, I am writing this post not in Korea but in the guest bedroom of my in-laws' house in California!  A few weeks ago, as we were discussing our plans for the summer, I was punching in various places I wanted to go and checking airfares when I came across such a crazy good deal, I kind of still can't believe it.  I mean, it was less than the cost of almost all the places in Asia that I wanted to visit. 

 


This way I get to meet the nephew my sister-in-law adopted since I left and the baby my soul sister had.  My kids get to swim and run around in the country like a bunch of ruffians, Wyatt can stomp around being a T. Rex for several weeks without me worrying about our downstairs neighbor who is quite possibly the crankiest man in Korea.  (I am not exaggerating when I say that when we are in the elevator with him, he actually growls at us!  Story for another time...). And next month, Matt will join us for the last couple weeks for a roadtrip.  You know I love my roadtrips.


The only catch with our amazing airfare was that the travel itinerary was abysmal. We had six hours in Shanghai on our way over and will have thirteen there on the way back.  When I told my friends in Busan about this, those who had been there winced and groaned.  They informed me that it was actually good to have a long layover,  Now I completely understand.  I was told that you have to go through immigration to get a 144-hour pass, and that you had to claim your baggage and check back in, then go through passport control and security again.  I thought this would take two, maybe three hours.  The kids and I would grab dinner to kill some more time before our flight.  Maybe we'd play some games and nap while we waited to board.


The story of our time there can best be summed up in Wyatt's words when he saw the line for passport control to check out, after waiting an hour past the time we were told the check-in desk for our airline would open before it actually did.  An hour. Yes.  Anyway, he started crying (it was 11 pm our time by this point) and said, "No! No! NOOOOO!  I don't WANT TO WAIT IN ANOTHER LINE!!!"  


Bro.  I feel ya.  


We ended up sitting at the gate for only about forty-five minutes before it was time to board.  So yes, a long layover, while terribly painful, is necessary there.  Some of what took so long was due to total lack of information and having to figure it out through trial and error, and I would like to tell you I know better what to do next time, but... I'm not entirely sure that's true.  I can't claim bragging rights yet, I'm afraid.


But anyway, we arrived safely in San Francisco late Monday.  Which was weird because we left after midnight on "Tuesday".  I've been doing this my whole life, but I still feel like we should be able to say time travel is possible if you can gain or lose entire days by crossing an ocean.  I'm always left wondering about how to talk about the time on the plane.  Was it "yesterday"? "The day before yesterday"?  All last night, Wyatt, Annalee, and even Jayna we're struggling with sleeplessness... so I was too.  It was frustrating on the one hand, and I plan on more naps today. Buuuut, California.  *Heart eyes.*


Travel isn't the only piece of news, though!  My first baby has graduated from high school!! 

 

 I have so much I want to say about this, so hopefully I'll be able to grab the time to put it into words to post.  But suffice to say, I'm filled with so much gratitude and awe, I cried all the way through the ceremony.  Motherhood is such a crazy trip.


And speaking of crazy trips, Skyler, my new high schooler, is in Hawaii right now and will be joining us in July.  

 

She had begged and begged to go see her best friend all year, and she worked a very regular babysitting job this past semester to help pay for it.  It was a little scary to send her off by herself, but so wonderful to see her surprise reunion with her friend.  This girl and her whole family are just such precious people.  Lilly's best friends with her little sister, so she wanted to go too, but she has been sweetly supportive of Sky.  They are moving to Japan later this year, so hopefully we will all be able to see each other more.


Before I left Korea for the summer, we got to do some fun adventuring that I will post about soon, I hope.  But I think I've covered all the big news.  So now it's time for some serious caffeine dosage to compensate for the lack of sleep.  


I hope you all are kicking off summer (or winter, depending on where you are) with lots of happy fun!


 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Roller Coaster

 

I've said it before, but I've realized I feel like a fraud every time I try to write about "what I've learned".  It's like life tries to prove me wrong.  It's like a kaleidoscope, and how the tiniest movement completely changes what you see.  That's what I think happens when I try to claim I "officially know" something now.  


Buuuuut, that being said, I was thinking about how this is my 18th Mother's Day of being a mother, and it occurred to me that there are actually a few things I think I can justifiably say I've learned by now, and if a new mom asked what to expect, this is what I'd tell her.  


-- If you ever say out loud, "My kid will definitely____ (insert positive behavior) because ____ (insert logical reasoning)," you are spelling doom to whatever you just said.  I know this, and I still do it all the time.  I was at a baby shower this week and said to the hostess as I was leaving, "Annalee will fall asleep on the walk home and then I don't even have to worry about getting her down for her nap!"  


Guess who was still wide awake, singing "Let It Go" as I opened the door to my apartment? 


-- Vomit. Barf. Yak. Puke.  Whatever you want to call it, it will happen a lot.  And you will actually catch it in your bare hands, many times.  Last December when the kids were so sick, Wyatt coughed till he threw up.  I was putting oils on his chest, and no way no how was he going to puke on the comforter on my watch!!   Not when I know what it takes to do the laundry around here!  Without so much as a blink of the eye, I caught it, turned and walked to the bathroom sink and washed it off.  Then I calmly returned to the bedroom where Matt was sitting on the bed with Wyatt, his eyes wide.


"That was kind of awesome," he said.


"I know," I replied nonchalantly.  I almost flipped my hair but decided that was just a little much.


-- Head wounds bleed a lot.  Like... a LOT a lot.  I remember reading this.  But let me just say when it's your kid, the words "Head wounds bleed a lot" mean something entirely different.  Think of the goriest movie you've seen and multiply it by ten.  Okay, that won't be reality (I hope), but it will better prepare you for your child's first head wound than any words about the circulatory system or childhood injuries.  


One day, five-year-old Jayna and almost-two-year-old Skyler were playing out on our patio in Spain   (Matt was gone, of course.).  I had my back turned to them for just a second when Jayna said in the most unaffected, matter-of-fact voice, "Skyler bumped her head and now there's blood everywhere."  


I mistakenly responded to her tone rather than her words and turned to see Skyler stumbling toward me.  She was doing that cry where all the air in the lungs is fully expelled, and then suddenly they inhale and scream loud enough to wake the dead.  And there was blood... my goodness.  It was like Carrie, I'm not even kidding -- dripping from her head, all over the tile floor, soaking into her shirt. And it all came from a wound no longer than my pinky fingernail.  It literally took me all day to stop shaking from the shock.  This is what they mean when they say "Head wounds bleed a lot."  Prepare yourself.


-- You will wear pee that is not your own outside your house and live to tell about it.  In fact, I did this just recently, not for the first time.  I'd put on clothes that were very comfortable and I felt good in, and a certain small someone peed on me.  And though I was still home, and really should have cared enough to change, I thought about my laundry situation, scrubbed it with a diaper wipe, and headed out the door.  No one was the wiser! If it were poop, that would have been another story, of course.


Speaking of poop:

-- Your kids' poop can look very strange.  I about had a heart attack the day I was changing the diaper of one my children who had, the day before, eaten a bunch of tomatoes.  Colored icing and kiwi can also really weird you out.  Even with all the diapers I've changed, I still find myself startled sometimes. Before you panic and call the doctor, ask yourself, "What did my kid eat recently?"  Odds are excellent you will calm down, though that food will never quite be the same to you again.


-- You will spend an alarming amount of time thinking about other people's poop.  You will talk about it casually with other parents (and may even write about it on your blog)!  (You're welcome!) You will probably even have dreams (nightmares?) about it.  I say this even though I've never had more than one kid in diapers at a time.  It just becomes such a huge, stinky, normal part of your life.    


-- You will be alarmingly tired.  On Saturday night, I talked Matt into watching a movie that I've been wanting to see for a really long time.  It was great!  Really, truly great!  But still... not even halfway into it, I felt my eyelids getting soooooo heeeeaaavyyyy.  This was not happening.  I was going to stay awake!!  I was... totally...   going...      to... 


I jolted awake to find him staring at me.  For a long and awkward moment, I stared back.  How long had I been sleeping? I wondered, feeling guilty.  "I'm sorry, I'm just too tired.  I really want to watch it, but I can't keep my eyes open," I said.


"I'm so glad you said that because same here!" he answered.  


I laughed, "I thought you were going to be mad at me for falling asleep in the movie I'd picked!" 


We were both laughing now.  "And I bought you'd be mad at me for falling asleep in the movie you picked."  This is clearly marriage at its finest. We stumbled off to bed.


It was maybe 10 pm.


We party so hard.  


-- This morning, I was served breakfast in bed by my sweet kids.  There was a bowl of sliced oranges, a bowl of delicious oatmeal with coconut, craisins, banana slices and peanut butter.  There was also a coffee and a glass of water and a gigantic pastry that was some kind of amazing combination of muffin and cream puff.  As soon as the older three had delivered my tray, the younger two were sitting there, Wyatt serenading me with fart noises (from his mouth).  


"That looks like good water, Mom," Wyatt said after about ten seconds.


"It is," I answered, "would you like some?" (Never mind our ample water/ cup situation.)  He nodded. 


A few seconds later, "What's that?" pointing to the pastry.  


"I don't know, but it's super delicious.  Want a bite?" 


Dumb question.  Annalee also wanted in on the action.


And I sat there, dispensing my water, orange slices, and pastry-from-heaven only too happily.  Because while they might be completely unreasonable, stinky, messy insomniacs, they might embarrass me more than I thought possible and stretch my patience to it's breaking point, my kids are without a doubt five of my favorite people on the planet.  I smile more when they're around.  


This past week, I was remembering the amazing movie Parenthood with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen.  Toward the end there is a wonderful scene between the two of them, where they are having a pretty heated argument, and the grandma of Steve Martin's character Gil walks in. 


She says, "You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster. Up and down, up and down.  Oh, what a ride!"


Gil replies (sarcastically), "What a great story."


Then she says, "I always wanted to go again.  You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together.  Some didn't like it.  They went on the merry-go-round.  That just goes around. Nothing.  I like the roller coaster.  You get more out of it."


I was so scared to become a mother, to tell you the truth.  That's a story for another day.  But I can tell you all of the above and this too: I like the roller coaster.  



Monday, May 8, 2017

Expat Memoirs: Vive La France!


 Last fall, when we had just moved into our apartment and I was still figuring out the crazy garbage system and feeling pretty overwhelmed, I decided to take on a reading project.  It started with my love of certain movies like A Good Year or The Hundred-Foot Journey, where people find themselves in a new situation (preferably an international setting -- and if at all possible, Provence), and even if it's less than ideal, they learn to cope and even, eventually, triumph. 

But I didn't want to read fiction; I needed the real, been-there-done-that stories, especially as the kids kept getting sick and we were trying (sometimes it felt quite literally) to survive. 

Now I feel less like I "need" the stories now, but I've found some wonderful books.  And my list keeps growing!  You may not be living the expat life right now, but there is so much to learn from these tales, keen observations of those who have come to love a new place despite its quirks, to thrive and call it "home".  

If you made a pie chart of expat memoirs, a huge chunk of them would be about France.  And probably at least 95% (maybe even all???) of those would have to do with food -- at least to some degree.  Being a bit of a Francophile, I decided to start my book reviews with these French foodie tales.

*****Disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order.  These are just the ones I've read since my arrival in Korea.*****

My Life in France by Julia Child
Why you should read this:
It would be more difficult to find a reason not to read it.  I honestly don't know what took me so long.  Child's unpretentious story-telling and effusive personality shine from the pages. She was educated and intellectual, and she had a very scientific approach to cooking, as she detailed in her descriptions of the research she did for Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its "son".  But her love for people blended with her joie de vivre triumph over any kind of vanity she could have laid claim to.  I like to think that if I'd been in Paris in the 40's or 50's, we would have been good friends.  But I also think that was part of her charisma.  Bonus: The text is peppered with fun words  like "collywobbles" and "muckity mucks", which in my opinion are tragically underused and I hereby endeavor to inject into my daily conversations.  Bonus bonus: the wonderful black-and-white photographs, mostly taken by her husband Paul. 

Why you should read this:
Because it's SO funny.  This was recommended by bloggers I generally agree with, but again, I waited too long to read it.  Most chapters had me laughing out loud at least once.  Lebovitz takes on some of the stereotypes and quirky ideals of French (in particular, Parisian) living, and discusses them to hilarious ends.  I came away having learned a few things but mostly with a strong reminder to find humor in the situations around me.  Bonus: as a famous pastry chef, he has some recipes that look amazing and I'm tempted to try in my beautiful new oven.

Why you should read these: 
As an American who moved to Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman, Bard might have just glossed merrily over all the nitty-gritty details of French life.  Instead, she tells an interesting and realistic tale of adapting to a new culture, as well as navigating the highs-and-lows of family and relationships, through the filter of an outsider.  She discusses issues that we American women like to talk about at length, such as the French attitude towards the female physique and eating, or fashion. But she also bravely wades into more grim territory such as  Stage IV cancer and death of a family member in her new adopted culture.  

Bard also explores what happens when the French national motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" crashes into the American belief that anything is possible.  These are both, in many respects, books about "crazy ideas": her husband's quest to fulfill his lifelong dream of working in film, writing a book about her own life even though she isn't -- quelle horreur!! -- a prize-winning scientist or former prime minister, or opening a specialty ice-cream shop in small town in Provence.  She has lived in the country long enough that hers is no longer a starry-eyed puppy love, but an ability to see what is truly there and still want to call it home.  Bonus: lots more yummy recipes.

Why you should read this:
I felt the strongest personal connection to this author due to her husband's career similarities to my husband's, and the frequent moves that has entailed (though the same was true for Julia Child). Unlike the Childs, their dream of living in Paris takes a bitter twist when he is sent to Iraq for a year, and she has to forge a life without him.  Though it's not a sad book, I read parts of it with a lump in my throat -- like when she describes the first days after her husband Calvin leaves, or the wistful thoughts about staying in one place long enough to put down roots while still being incredibly grateful for the opportunities in her life.  

I also related to her love of the French language, though discouraged by her mother who instead made her study the more "important" and "useful" Mandarin.  Both I and now my eldest daughter have received such blunt scrutiny -- i.e. "Why would you want to learn FRENCH?!" (Insert look of disgust). "It's so pointless these days."  But as she says, her mother underestimated the power of love in the ability to learn a language.  Similarly, it's through her passion for food that she survives her year of separation from her husband as she explores France and details culture and history as it relates to what the French eat.  

But even if you don't identify so strongly with the author's story, Mastering is an interesting and educating read, while remaining personal.  Bonus: (do I even need to say it?) yummy recipes (though these seemed more meat-centric than the other books).

*****
I know that there are so many excellent books that fit into this category of expat memoir, but these five reminded me that keeping your sense of humor, enjoying good stories as they happen, and finding -- or rather, living -- your passion are the keys to thriving, wherever you are.


{Also recommended, though read before this project: A Year in Provence (and sequels) by Peter Mayle,  A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Mollie Wizenburg (doesn't entirely take place in France, but still), and Lessons from Madame Chic (and sequels) by Jennifer L. Scott.}

Monday, April 3, 2017

One Plus One

 
Wherever in the world I've been, one thing I have learned for sure is that everyone likes a bargain.  In markets everywhere, I've heard the words, "I give you special price!"  Which usually means about twice what the locals would pay.  But at least you felt like you were getting a deal!

I also had the unique experience on the selling side once when I lived in Spain.  I hosted a garage sale at my house with two of my friends.  I sold a whopping $15 worth of baby toys (which was probably foolish since I've had three more babies since), while my friends hauled in quite a bit more.  That afternoon, when everything was cleaned up and my girls were down for siestas, the doorbell rang.  It was a Spanish woman and her teenage son, both nicely dressed.  She had a bathrobe in her hands and was carrying on about a belt.  Ah! She didn't have the belt that was supposed to go with the robe!  I hadn't sold it, but I called the friend who had.

My friend started laughing. "Joy!  That woman!  I tried to get her attention because she was running away really fast after she bought it, but I guess she didn't hear me!  Then someone else came up and bought the belt!  Without the robe!!!"

I also cracked up and went outside to explain the situation to my visitor.  To my complete astonishment, I found her digging through my garbage can, I assume looking for the errant belt!  Now... I love a good bargain as much as the next girl, and I have friends that get amazing treasures by dumpster-diving.  But in this case, I'd have drawn the line as soon as I lifted the lid.  I had a toddler at the time, so the garbage was filled with stinky diapers, doggy-doo bags from picking up after our puppy, and a dead bird I'd found on my driveway the day before!

To each her own, I guess.

Koreans love a good bargain, too.  After only a couple days in the country, I became acquainted with "1+1" or, "2+1".  These are "BOGO" or "buy two get one free" deals.  And yes, I realize this sales tactic is not unique to South Korea.  But what is unique is that I have yet to meet a Korean sales employee who will let you leave the store without getting your "+1".  Say you're buying ice cream for your kids, and in the commotion of the whole, "I want chocolate!... Wait, she has strawberry?!  I want strawberry!  No!  I want vanilla!" (hypothetically speaking, of course), you fail to see that you were entitled to one free popsicle.  When you go to pay, the cashier will emphatically tell you (if not yell), "One plus one!"  And if you don't take this moment to hurry back for your free ice cream, well then, what hope even is there for you?

Generally speaking, I love it.  I've always wanted to be one of those extreme couponers who pays five cents to feed her family dinner.  But then... my life.  The coupons get lost, torn, chewed, or used as someone's Kleenex.  I really do need these salespeople and cashiers yelling at me to go get my free ice cream already.

It's just that sometimes... Well, sometimes I don't want that one.  There is one kind of tofu I especially enjoy here.  There are others -- a whole large section of the store, in fact, devoted just to tofu -- but this one is extra firm and cooks up well with the sauces and spices I like.  But darn it, if there isn't a 1+1 deal on another kind every time I go to buy it!  And there's always a lady there with that brand, yelling at me to stop paying more money for the kind I want and buy her kind already.  (in Korean). And then I smile politely and say through my teeth, "But I like this kind! I don't like that one! I won't buy it!" (in English). 

Like I've said before, it's amazing what can be communicated without speaking the same language   

But also, the 1+1 phenomenon led to one very unique experience.  

First I must digress.  I can purchase feminine products at the commissary, which is at least ninety minutes away, and I can also order them online through Amazon.  But sometimes the ill winds of bad timing and miscalculation of supply and demand blow strong.  And so it was that I found myself at the Korean Target/ Walmart store nearby staring at a row of pads (because they don't sell tampons).  Of course, all the labels were in Korean, so I was struggling to determine what would meet my needs when I felt a gentle-but-firm "whack!" on my upper arm.  I looked up to see the kind, smiling face of a saleswomen.  

"One plus one!" she said, pointing to a sign on another brand nearby.

"Oh... sure enough!" I replied, smiling politely but not ready to make my decision.  She pointed to the sign again and, using both hands with index fingers pointed up as sign language, repeated herself, "One plus one!!!"  She indicated the items that were included in the deal.  I started to look at them, realizing there were measurements in English, but they were written in centimeters... so I had to try to remember about how big 30 cms was, and did this one have "wings" or no?  In the meantime, the salesperson walked away but reappeared shortly with a giant binder.

Have you ever gone to a home improvement store to buy new counters or wood floors or carpet?  Yes?  Well, this binder was exactly like the ones you would be shown at Lowes or Home Depot, only instead of 50 different granite pieces or carpet samples, it was filled with pads of all shapes and sizes, for every kind of flow a girl might ever have in her menstruating years.

I might have been doing this period thing for ages, birthed five babies (and written about it), had lots of "woman visits" to the doctor, even had countless "girl talk" conversations with close friends.  But I have never, ever, EVER shopped for pads like this.  Was it a little awkward to stand in the middle of a busy supermarket, staring at page after page of maxi pads mounted on cardboard?  Why yes, I would say it was. 

Still, it was somewhat comforting with my new best friend at my side, guiding me through the catalog, showing me the features of this one versus that, and asking me things I couldn't understand, so that I had to shrug and smile sheepishly.  I made a selection as quickly as I politely could and hurried on my way.  

Since then, I've bought feminine products every time I go to the commissary, without fail -- even if "Aunt Flo" isn't visiting for a month, even if my bathroom cupboard is still chockablock full, even if it does seem a little OCD.  But when I pass that particular aisle at the store, I smile to myself.  Because shouldn't we all have a friend like that saleswoman, who stood patiently beside me that day?  Yes, I'd say we all need that, people who can guide us through all the ebbs and flows of life, so to speak, all the while making sure -- 100% sure -- we get the best deal.