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Archive for August, 2008

School’s out

This week I’ve been enjoying time off from work. Botond and So Young have gone to Japan. One of our colleagues has gone to Cambodia, I think. Earlier this week I took ₩150,000 out of the bank, reducing my balance to low five-figure proportions. I certainly wasn’t going abroad (besides the financial reason my visa is single entry (although apparently it’s easy enough to change it to multiple entry)).

I had two touristy ideas in mind to occupy me during the week off: go and see the Glories of Persia exhibition at the National Museum of Korea which finishes at the end of the month, and visit Suwon Fortress. Both of these aims have now been fulfilled, and it’s only Thrusday. Additional goals included seeing a doctor for my annual (since last year) bowel exam and going to a dentist. These I haven’t done, but I’ve been paid today, so maybe I’ll get on them tomorrow.

I’d been to the National Museum of Korea once before – in February last year when my colleagues and I went to the Louvre exhibition there. The Glories of Persia entrance fee was ₩10,000, while a ticket to the main part of the museum was free. I got one of each. I was a little disappointed with the Persia exhibition. While there were a number of boards retelling episodes of Persian history in both Korean and English, none of the exhibits had English descriptions.

National Museum of Korea

Maybe I wandered round too quickly. There were two or three rooms of artefacts on loan from Iran. Most impressive were the golden bowls on display just inside the entrance. They looked very fragile, made of thin sheets of rich yellow gold an ornamented with human and animal figures. One in particular had three or four bulls, each with its horns projecting outward – these horns being hollow. Also quite memorable was a black stone mastiff – probably life-size (and therefore representing a big doggie).

After the Glories of Persia I wandered round the garden at the back of the museum. I hadn’t recharged my camera’s battery since I’d been to Bukhansan, so it ran out of juice quickly, but I took a few photos.

Next I went into the museum proper for the first time. In a couple of hours I covered maybe one sixth of the exhibits – specifically, I wandered round the archeological displays of pre-modern Korea which takes up half the ground floor. Of note here were a pair of large ornate golden earrings, designated National Treasure number 83 or something, and an incense burner decorated with animals people, stylised mountains and with a dragon forming the base.

Getting a little tired and hungry, I fortuitously discovered the cafeteria at the end of this section and had what was effectively mushroom risotto – yangsangi bibimbap I think it was called. Also in this general area was a ten storey pagoda – a kind of stone monolith about, I don’t know, 25 feet high, designed to look like a pagoda, with a number of little figures carved in relief on each floor.

The museum itself has the feeling of being brand-spanking new. On the outside it’s broadly a great concrete cuboid, while inside it’s clean and airy – pleasant but dull. Nevertheless I must go back sometime and investigate more of the exhibits – with a fully-charged camera battery.

After leaving the museum (taking a walk through grounds in front of the building) I went to Itaewon and bought a hat.

Yesterday, armed against the sun with my new hat, I set of on the long journey to Suwon, south of Seoul. Most of the way, I travelled on line 4 – which was my route into Seoul when I lived in Ansan – then changed at Geumjeong.

I intended to walk from Suwon Station to the fortress, having previously determined a route using Google Maps and Congnamul.com. It turned out not to be quite so simple as that (obviously) – I reached some sort of office complex for Kyeonggi-do, the province surrounding (but not including) Seoul. I turned around and looked for another route. It seemed a simple enough proposition – just head uphill until I reach the wall and then look for an entrance.

I followed a road with woods on the uphill side to the left and some views of the city on the right, and eventually this road went under the wall and I climbed up a path to the fortifications. The wall is actually a ring maybe a mile or two across, the western part on the wooded hill, the eastern part threading through urban Suwon. The ring isn’t quite complete – a couple of hundred metres either side of the southern gate is missing – but what’s there is definitely impressive.

I arrived at the wall near it southern extreme, just west of the southern gate and walked pretty much the whole extant perimeter in a clockwisely direction. It’s not like the Great Wall of China, where you can actually walk on the wall (not that I’ve ever been to China), but instead you have the wall on your left-hand side (if you go clockwise like me) with a narrow stone path adjacent to it, then sometimes a little grass slope and the woods, or sometimes just the woods on your right. The wall has broad, closely spaced crenellations which are topped with tiles, and every so often there is a sentry tower command post, gate, or even a pavillion.

Hwaseomun and Seobukgongsimdon

I’m not sure if there’s a museum – I didn’t see one, but I didn’t particularly look into it. It took me about four hours to do my near-circuit. At the end, I descended from the last part of the wall to a stream (which earlier on I’d crossed, along with a load of middle school schoolgirls) then into a shopping area with a pedestrian street following the course of the wall. Then, in a roundabout like the historic gates in Seoul, there was the southern gate. I took a couple of photos of it, then hopped into a taxi and headed back to the station (where I had a vegetable rice bulgogi burger at Lotteria – instead of a bun, it comes sandwiched between two patties of rice; a bit tricky to eat, but nice).

Quite a pleasant day out, and I have a few hundred photos to show for it this time. I hope to get them up on Flickr soon (which probably means before the end of the year).

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Categories: Travel

Review of Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm FrontI have two or three friends who’ve been reading The Dresden Files (named after the main character, Harry Dresden, rather than the German city), so it was really past time I got round to sampling them myself. I saw Storm Front in What the Book? in Itaewon a little while ago, bought it and purposed to read it at the earliest opportunity.

My experience of it probably suffered a little by having read it shortly after two very intelligent, literate novels, The Name of the Rose and Journey by Moonlight. Even so, I wasn’t unduly impressed by Storm Front. It wasn’t awful by any means, but I found it a lightweight read.

Harry Dresden is a wizard – to all appearances, perhaps the only openly practicing sorcerer in the world, although there is a secret organisation, the White Council, overseeing the activities of magicians. He puts his skills to use as a private detective in Chicago, and at the start of the novel is presented with two cases – a sorcerous double murder and a missing husband. Inevitably the two cases are linked.

It might be best to characterise the book as a bog standard detective novel spiced up somewhat by the addition of a number of equally bog standard fantasy/horror elements: Dresden is a loner and seemingly continually down on his luck – he’s continually behind on his rent, and modern technology often refuses to work because of his magical aura; he works sometimes with a police detective who is open to ideas about the supernatural, but she’s always pestering him for results and their relationship deteriorates; the White Council is suspicious of him and has set a minder to keep tabs on him; in the course of his investigations he is perpetually running out of resources and must improves, and is nearly killed several times; the book is written in first person perspective.

On the plus side, it’s a fairly quick read.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Summer in Seoul, part two

29 August 2008 2 comments

Sleep

Over the past four weeks, I’ve been teaching summer classes at the hagwon, and this has involved getting into work for 8:30 (or thereabouts) six days a week. As I can’t really go to sleep between about 9 pm and 3 am, this schedule presented some problems, and for the first two weeks I wasn’t especially punctual (although I was never late for a class – that happened occasionally in Ansan).

I seem to have got used to the early starts, though. I don’t like them, but either my body has acclimatised somewhat, or – much more likely – I’ve simply learnt how to manage my sleeping better. In particular, I’ve been in the habit of going to bed as soon as I get in from work at, say, 5:45 pm. Then I either sleep for a few hours, get up for a few hours, and sleep again until my alarm goes off at 7:30, or I just sleep right through to around dawn.

북한산

On Saturday I had lunch after work with Botond. He offered to show me the library he went to, but then he suggested we could take advantage of the good weather to go up a mountain in Bukhansan National Park. After umming and ahhing for a bit I agreed to the second proposal.

As we started out, the sky was largely overcast, and it seemed that the little rain earlier on in the day had dissuaded the usual crowds from visiting the park. We got a bus, then walked up some roads through the forest, then on to a track leading to Baegundae, the highest peak in the area at 836.5 metres.

It was a fairly long walk. For the most part, these urban mountains are completely forested, but here you have great slabs of rock showing, usually near the summits. The paths through the woods are also often crudely paved with rocks. We passed a campsite – or at least Bo said we did: the trees made it difficult to see anything at any distance. Then, following a path following a stream, we also went by a small temple – where we stopped to gather fresh water running from the stream into a large covered plastic bowl and out through a pipe. This temple also had a white shag-haired dog, a little like an old English sheep dog.

We also stopped briefly at a gate in the old fortifications. Bo climbed up on to the wall and followed it upwards along the newly rebuilt section looking terribly incongruous with its bright grey stone. From here there was a wooden staircase and then we were on the rock face. The climb to the summit from here was a little challenging, but was made possible by the steps carved into the rock and the metal railings driven into the mountain and joined with thick steel rope.

Bukhansan National Park

And then we were at the summit. The view across Seoul was obstructed only by Baegundae’s sibling peaks, Insubong and Mankyeongdae (there is a movement to rename Bukhansan Samgaksan, which means Three Horn Mountain; Bukhansan means North Han Mountain (‘Han’ referring to the Chinese dynasty)), but it was spectacular. The sky had cleared so it was mostly blue, but with some clouds drifting across, and the sun was setting. I filled the remaining space on my camera’s memory card – more than once, as I kept deleting extraneous shots to squeeze in a few extra.

Darkness fell in earnest as we descended. Bo had a headlamp – without its light the descent would have been tricky. We stopped again at the little temple to get more water and were given an apple each.

30th

On our last Friday before the break, Botond, youngster that he is, was 30. His wife, So Young had been in touch with me previously to enlist my help in arranging a surprise party for him. I’d been informed a couple of weeks earlier that there had been calls for me at the hagwon from a Korean woman who said she was a friend but left no name. Eventually, I called back – but not before mentioning it to Bo, who said he’d ask at home.

Anyway, the plan for a party at Bo and So Young’s place was replaced by one to go for a meal. Not wanting to be late, I arrived well beforehand, wandered up and down the street for a while. Then settled to wait in front of the restaurant in the drizzle, umbrella up. A while later a couple of westerners approached and headed towards the restaurant’s entrance – I turned as they passed and there to greet them were So Young and a friend of hers.

Also in attendance was So Young’s sister; another couple of guests were late – as was Botond; the western couple were Hungarians in Korea for a year to learn the language. The meal was galbi – often described as a barbecue – and it was the first time I’d had it since being back in Korea. When I’ve had galbi in the past there have only been a couple of different types of lettuce to wrap up your morsel of meat, kimchi, beansprouts etc, but here there were at least eight different kinds. For dessert someone had brought a cake that tasted like cheesecake, but had a very soft texture – in fact, it fell apart when it was cut.

Bo received an electronic dictionary and some brie among his presents. I’m slightly embarrassed to say I hadn’t even thought about buying him something.

Hirsute return

With the early starts for the summer classes, it’s been easy to neglect to shave. I’ve taken advantage of this to grow another beard – my third, or maybe fourth, this year. And this time I’ve opted for a format I’ve never had before – shaved on the neck and central cheeks, leaving a band of beard all along the jawline and around the mouth. I think it looks pretty good.

Whilst growing it, I’d had a few comment from my students comparing me to 예수님 – Yesunim: -nim being an honorifc suffix, Yesu from the Latin. In other words, Jesus. Although, for a time, while I had only scalloped out a little area of bristle from my cheeks, and while my hair was in the right condition, I looked more like a member of the Beegees.

Categories: Employment, Life

Review of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

25 August 2008 1 comment

Journey by MoonlightMy Hungarian colleague, Botond, lent me this book. In his afterword, the translator, Len Rix, says that a friend had pressed the book on him, saying, ‘Every educated Hungarian knows and loves this book.’ The novel was originally published in 1937, and Szerb himself lived through the First World War and the communist revolution as a teenager and, being Jewish by ancestry, died in a forced-labour camp in the Second World War.

The main character of Journey by Moonlight is Mihály (pronounced something like ‘me high’), a gauche, introverted man who is haunted by his adolescent relationships with the beautiful siblings Tamás and Éva, thoughts of death and suicide, and his bourgeois upbringing. To try to finally lay these ghosts to rest and assimilate himself into the conventional world he spends years working in the family business and finally marries Erzsi – who is also troubled by her relationship to conventional society.

Of course, it all goes wrong – very quickly, in fact, while they’re still on honeymoon in Italy. And thus begins a kind of odyssey as Mihály travels hither and thither, meets old acquantances and vacillates back and forth between pursuing different desires.

It would be easy to imagine that this novel would ultimately be annoying or too dry, but it’s written with a quite postmodern sense of irony and a kind of inevitability that is carried off with a light touch and is thus never quite certain. The reader is taken into the minds of the central characters, but an authorial voice provides objective insights into Mihály and Erzsi’s weaknesses.

The plot could be likened to a labyrinth – Mihály’s journey is an inner one and one that has only one route through it. The story seems to lead towards a realisation of Mihály immature fantasies of death, but the conclusion is a textbook example of bathos – and entirely apposite.

In short, Journey by Moonlight is a fascinating, masterfully-crafted and eminently readable book.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Review of The War Against the Rull by A E van Vogt

The War Against the RullThis is the second A E van Vogt novel I’ve read – the first being The Silkie about a group of superhumans – silkies – who can become human submarines (hence the name) and spacecraft, as well as having a range of other ludicrous powers – and there are a number of differences that disguise the essential similarities between the two books. While the main character here, Trevor Jamieson, is a mere ordinary human, he seems infinitely competent and manages to extract himself (and, at one point, his son) from a series of deadly predicaments. The narrative, is perhaps more intimate, focussing on Jamieson’s adventures, but it is set against a background of galactic war between humans and their allies and the Rull, an alien species with great powers of mimicry and mental control.

The story is very episodic, as I indicated – Jamieson goes from place to place, problem to problem, each time getting closer to being defeated, but each time coming away victorious with another item in his inventory to use against the Rull. The writing is, I suppose typical sixties sf – workmanlike and slightly self-important, teetering occasionally on the edge of absurdity, but generally doing a reasonable job. An enjoyable read, but nothing too spectacular.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Review of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the RoseI saw the film of this book many years ago on TV and I remember (albeit vaguely) liking it. I bought the book a few years ago, but never got round to reading it. Whilst in Korea last time I bought and read the other well-known Eco book, Foucault’s Pendulum, and that bumped
up my priority reading list.

It’s easy to imagine Sean Connery as William of Baskerville, the Sherlock Holmes-like character who is tasked with facilitating a meeting of minds between representatives of the Pope and of a near-heretical monastic order who insist on Jesus’s poverty (thus undermining decadence of the Church). In the course of this mission he’s additionally tasked with investigating a possible murder, which then becomes two murders, then three, then four … It’s less easy to imagine Christian Slater as Adso, William’s novice assistant – partly because he’s the narrator and partly because he narrates the story as an old man decades later.

The novel proceeds quite slowly, with Adso detailing the events of each day in detail; so the six days thus described fill a 500-odd page B format paperback. There are many discussions about the, if you will, hate triangle between the Catholic Church, the Western Roman Empire and the ‘Minorite’ orders – and the meeting that occurs halfway through the book is a key element of these relationships. There are also some lengthy descriptions of the architecture of the hilltop monastery that provides the setting of the novel, and of its extensive collection of relics. The book delights in these extended digressions and in the use of obscure words (most of which will be coming to a blog near you soon).

Characterisation in the novel ranges from the naïveté of both the younger and elder Adsos, the omniscient inscrutability and smug modesty of William, and the doom-mongering of the two oldest monks who declaim about the coming of the Antichrist and the Apocalypse. These aspects tend to be a tiny bit grating and, in combination with the diversions the narrative takes into mediaeval history and Adso’s miscellaneous musings, make it difficult to maintain focus on the story (and may explain why it took me about a month to read it).

On the whole, though, The Name of the Rose is a fascinating book – often dense and challenging, occasionally quite funny, and well worth the read.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Kids say the funniest things

A couple of weeks ago … or was it more recent than that? Whatever – Recently, I was teaching a unit on ‘Movies’ and I happened to look at this girl’s book as I was wandering round the classroom. In describing the setting of The Lord of the Rings she’d written that it took place in the Netherlands. Which gave me the opportunity to draw a map of Middle Earth on the board.

This week I’ve been teaching interjections (and other devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration) to a number of classes. I have one quite fun class of elementary school students. They’re pretty bright and good at English so they’ve been lumbered with the advanced level ‘add-on’ classes – involving all sorts of literary techniques.

I wrote up a few examples of interjections – ‘Oh!’, ‘Argh!’, ‘Great!’ etc. One of the boys, Brian (about seven to nine years old – I find it difficult to tell, but this class is one of my youngest), suggested ‘Shit!’ as another interjection. I told him that was a ‘bad word’ and he shouldn’t say it. ‘Really?’ he said, ‘Worse than “Fuck you”?’

Categories: Employment