Friday, February 22, 2008

Day 254 - Home from the Trees

We spent the morning with my grandmother, stopped briefly back at my mom's, and then dashed off again to go to the jeweler to have some stones we bought in India set and to meet up with my dad for lunch before driving down to VA Beach to see Cz's mom. With a schedule like that, it is easy to see how it has not yet registered that we are done travelling. We may have made it all the way around the world, but we are in no way yet still.

Everyone we see seems to greet us with 'What a phenomenal experience', or something of that ilk. It was a phenomenal experience, but a part of me feels like I missed it. Throughout the trip, I was so focused on each country as we experienced it, or on planning the next destination that I never felt like I had the time to step back and reflect on the journey as a whole. As the months telescoped down into weeks, days, and finally just hours, I found myself wondering where all the time had gone. It felt like we had been gone only few weeks rather than more than half a year.

And that may not be entirely a bad thing. Part of the joy of taking time out of one's everyday routine is to live more in the moment. Living in the moment on this trip opened us up to a depth of experience that we probably would have missed had we been trying to keep the scope of the whole thing in perspective at all times. On the flip side, each section of the trip feels like its own entity. I have trouble connecting that we finished the Camino, rode camels in the Indian desert, walked across the Himalayas, and visited Korea's DMZ all in the same voyage. Because I never looked on the trip as a whole, I feel like I missed a significant part of the experience.

Perhaps that understanding is only possible in hindsight. It is not possible to be physically two places at once, just so, neither is it possible to be mentally two places at once. Ironically in eight months, the one luxury we never had was time. Only in hindsight, do we have the luxury of choosing to pull up a certain memory and mull it over. Or to sit with a cup of tea and reflect on the experience as a whole.

Over the next few months I plan to read through this blog (I haven't actually read most of the posts - I write them, Cz edits them, and off they go to the interweb without a second glance from me.) I think I might be surprised by what I find. By reading the blog, looking at photos, and trolling my own memories, I hope to be able to feel some kind of though line on the adventure. As I read and mull and jot notes and sketches, I hope that I can coalesce the experience into a travel book.

With luck, it will be a travel book that other people will want to read, and so be published. With even more luck, maybe enough people will read it that the royalties will help fund a trip to South America, or China, or Africa, or the Balkans... If there's one thing I learned planning and going on this trip it's that there are always more places to go.

There's an adage that goes something like "Of all the places I roam, the finest of these is home." There's another saying that says "You can never come home again." Both I think are true.

Home, when one is gone for more than a few months, takes on a tinge of memory and nostalgia. Even if home doesn't really change, it will not match the Home with a capital 'H' that has formed in one's mind. For me, home as I remember it has ceased to exist. Because we knew we would only be in NYC for 9 months, we subleted someone else's apartment, and when she returned, put our remaining books, clothes and tools in storage, never establishing roots in the big city. In January 2007, my horse died. For as long as I can remember, the front yard had been defined by the fences of her, and her predecessors' paddocks. Soon after we left in June 2007, the fences were finally pulled down. The landscape of my memory was irrevocably altered. In October, Home with a capital 'H', my childhood home, was demolished to make way for a new house. It is a good change - my mother is much happier with the new house, and it is a solid, well laid-out, good building - but it means that even without the filters of nostalgia, there is no way for me to return Home as I knew it.

Home with a capital 'H' now lies in the people we love - in the familiar faces and personality tics, in the cats who still find the warmest sunbeams, and in the daffodils that resolutely bloom along the now-gone fence lines. Because we left no home to which we could return in the city, it is now up to Cz and I to build a Home for ourselves. We have found the geography of our new Home in the form of four rooms and a two year lease in Manhattan. We have the foundations in each other, our families, our friends, and our experiences. With luck and time, we hope to build something beautiful with many windows to eight months where Home was nothing more than 2 forty litre packs and each other, and nothing less than the whole wide world.

A few of my favorite things III (cz)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 253 - Effin' Delta

But before I go on my Delta rant....

Our new apartment is on the 'A' train which runs directly out to JFK. It is also within walking distance to one of the express bus to LaGuardia stops. Which means that if anyone wants to visit us, we are easy to reach from either airport.

Fortunately, our friend's apartment is near the 'E' train, which also goes out to JFK. Even better, our flight was midday, so we did not have to wrestle our packs and ourselves into a rush-hour train.

Once at the airport, the fun began. First, the computer had a little trouble finding our reservation - nothing major - we found it by typing in the destination and flight time. On to the gate, we went through security with no issues, but upon checking the notice board, discovered that our flight was delayed 15 minutes.

Cz moseyed over to the bookstore, while I sat at the gate to watch the pack. About 15 minutes BEFORE the posted boarding time, we hear our names announced over the PA being called to the gate because 'the plane is ready to depart and your seats are about to be relinquished'. I fuss and fret as Cz makes his way back from the bookshop, and we dash to the door.

I tell the guy at the door that the boarding time isn't for another 15 minutes. We 'discuss' the fact that there was no announcement that the flight wasn't delayed after all, and that the board is still showing the delayed boarding time. The two employees at the gate were really rude about the whole thing, and I might have cursed at them a little as I boarded the plane.

This is not the first time I have nearly missed a flight because Delta has failed to announce a boarding gate change or a departure time. It seems pretty par for the course on Delta flights in or out of JFK. And in general, when something does go wrong - nearly missed flight, lost luggage, etc, the customer service reps are thoroughly rude. Moral of he story is: If you can avoid flying Delta, particularly Delta into or out of JFK, do so.

Not that I'm going to follow my own advice. I have a Delta frequent flyer card, and a whole lot of miles built up. Delta may suck, but they are cheap. You get what you pay for, I guess.

As we lifted up through the clouds, we were able to watch the skyline of NYC receding below us. Unfortunately, we were to far SEE to see our neighborhood, but it was good knowing that we have a home in the city.

The flight itself was only about 45 minutes - we were on the plane from 3:45-5:30, and only 45 minutes of that was in the air - and entirely uneventful. We landed in Richmond where my mom was waiting as close to the gate as non ticket-holders could go. She managed not to cry. I was very impressed.

We spent the drive to Callao talking about the trip and watching the woods go by. Right now, her house is under construction, so she and my godfather are now living in a few rooms of a second old farmhouse on the property. It's been rigged up with heaters and and running water...the bathroom manages to be both the warmest and best-outfitted room in the house. We couldn't wait until morning, so with a flashlight, my mom took us around the property to feed her new goats saltines (even past their bedtime the goats love salty crackers), visit with the Brooklyn chickens (the little peeps we dropped off in June have grown into an giant rooster and two fat hens), and to see the new house. From the outside it doesn't look like anything special, but the interior is beautifully laid out, and every room has great water views.

We were only able to visit for a little while before heading to my grandmother's house which is not under construction and is nice and warm. Once again, we were greeted with much excitement. Unfortunately we were too tired to be really sociable. It's good that we have a few days to spend in VA, or everyone would only get a cursory hi-bye. As it stands, it hasn't really registered than we are back at our exact starting point. We have officially made it around the world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Day 252 - 10031-3321

We signed the lease this afternoon. We now have an official NYC address with an official NY zip code. We are thrilled with the apartment. Aside from being an a great older building with architectural details like high ceilings and embossed crown moulding, it's in a great location.

Sugar Hill is the section of North Harlem that runs from W135th up to W155th street. It is so named because it was the 'sweet and expensive' place to live from the 20's to the '40's. Several of the buildings are landmarked both for architectural detail and because of the writers, musicians, and politicians they once housed. Alexander Hamilton's country home is just around the corner, and is now a branch of the NYC library. Miss Sylvia's Soul Food, considered one of the top restaurants in Harlem, is only one subway stop or a 20 minute walk away, and Fort Washington Park is about two blocks West of our building. For a while in the 80's and 90's, Sugar Hill was pretty dangerous because of drugs, gangs, and gambling, but recently has been cleaned up into a quiet, safe, residential area. Fortunately for us, the rents still reflect the darker days to some degree, which is the only reason we can afford to live on the island proper. Oh, and our building is rent-stabilized, meaning that the rent can only increase by small increments, not at the booming rate of the rest of the city.

After signing our 2 year lease, we spent the rest of the day puttering around the city and not doing much of anything.

We met up with our friend W in the evening to watch a free pre-screening of Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden. Spurlock is the same guy who brought us Supersize Me. In this latest film, he travels to the Middle East, ostensibly looking for Osama before the birth of his first child. He spends most of the film talking to the locals in each place he visits, and over and over they express the same sentiments of people we met on our travels. "We HATE the American government, but we love the American people."

I hope we can change that government.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Day 251 - Waiting Game

Once again, we woke up early in order to be at the building manager's office as soon as they opened. And today there was somebody there. The first question we asked was 'what is the pet policy for cats'. The policy has changed. Cats are allowed now. So we filled out the application forms and crossed our fingers that our combined income and credit rating would be sufficient for them to offer us the place. If not, we put in a call to Cz's mom to give her a heads' up that we might need her as a co-signer. As cosigner, she would not be required to pay anything, but if we screw up at all, it would go on her credit rating. Now all there is to do is wait.

Because all of our financial records are still in storage, we called the Art Students League to have them fax all our info to the office. When we called, the model coordinator was thrilled to hear from us - someone had canceled at the last minute and could one of us please fill in. Cz was only too happy to get out of a morning of apartment hunting.

I spent the morning visiting apartments, and trying to set up appointments to see even more apartments. All of the ones I saw today were nice, and one was even right on Prospect Park in a slightly nicer neighborhood near where we used to live in Brooklyn. Once again, however, none of them was as good as the one on which we are waiting to hear if we are acceptable tenants.

By 2:15 I finished all my appointments, and went back to 57th street to meet Cz. At his urging, I called the office to see if they had finished running our credit and employment check. I was told to call back in five minutes. We waited five minutes. We called back.


So then we called home to beg one of the parents to please, please, please let us borrow money to make first month and security. My terrific godfather pulled through for us, and is fedexing a certified check. If all goes well, the money will arrive tomorrow morning, and we should have a lease in hand by noon. We hope. I don't think we'll relax until that lease is signed and filed...

About our apartment. It's at W150th street. In Neighborhood terms, that's the border of Harlem and Washington Heights. It has a huge kitchen, huge bedroom, and decent living room. We can paint it any colours we want to. The bathroom has a full tub and great water pressure. The appliances are all only 2-3 years old. It has a gas oven. It has windows in every room except the bathroom. It's 15 minutes to Central Park, work, and the Columbus Circle Farmers' Market. It's 20 minutes to The Cloisters, and 2 blocks from Riverside Park. And on the local train, it's only 4-5 stops from the science museum! We are tickled about as pink as the living room walls are currently. Cross your fingers that Fed Ex doesn't fail us.

We had already made plans to meet my godmother, Cz's brother, and his boyfriend for dinner. Now that we are not homeless, there was even more cause to celebrate. It was great seeing everyone and devouring delicious sushi.

Today was WAY better than yesterday. And we're not homeless!!!!!!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Day 250 - The Hunt Continues

We arrived at the building manager's office 25 minutes before opening because I accidentally wrote down that they open at 8, when in fact, they open at 8:30. Cz was not pleased at the prospect of waiting in the cold with a cold. Fortunately, the office is in a neighborhood peppered with little delis, so we soon found a place to sit at a counter and eat tea and toast in the warm while we waited. At 8:32, I called again - no answer. At 8:40, we stopped by and rang the buzzer - no answer. We called again, and left another message, then headed out to check out our other options. Because I was still curious what else was out there, and Cz because he was afraid that because of the cats we wouldn't have a chance with this apartment.

Cz hates apartment hunting. Cz hates having a cold. Both make him crank -eeee. Apartment hunting with a sniffly Cz is about the worst way I can think of to spend a day in NY. But we muddled through. We saw a couple of studios at a great location on 153rd in Manhattan that would be acceptable for a year until we found something bigger, but nothing to match the second 1br we saw yesterday. I'm hoping that the other couple that wants the apartment is more successful in their hunt today and signs on somewhere else. Cz is less optimistic, and is freaking out that we will end up having to stay at his brother's apartment for a month while we continue looking (his brother is moving too, and his old apt is vacant for march). As stated before, Cz is done with being rootless, and refuses to face the possibility of not having his OWN address by the time we head to VA on Feb 21.

I'm crossing my fingers that the pet policy has changed on the apartment we want.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Day 249 - The House Hunt

We visited three apartments today, and scheduled appointments for six more tomorrow. Cz is so over being rootless, and was ready to sign on the very first place we saw, a largish studio in a nice part of Queens. I wasn't ready to settle, and of course didn't want to sign on the very first place without seeing what else was out there.

The second place we saw was a huge one bedroom with a nice kitchen. Unfortunately the price listed on Craigslist was incorrect, an the apartment was about $200 out of our price range.

Next was another large one bedroom with a big bedroom, decent living room, and an enormous eat-in kitchen. The present tenant has table for 6 in there now, and there is still room to move around. Best of all, it is on the express line just two stops from Columbus Circle, which is the subway stop closest to our day job. The only drawback is that it might not allow cats. As the present tenant said "It's technically a no pets building, but I know people have them". I was ready to take that as a 'go' and just smuggle the cats in. Cz wants to be honest. She said that another couple seemed interested, so we went into competitive apartment mode. We called the agency as we were leaving, and the phone rang and rang, without even going to voicemail. When we arrived home, we called again, and this time succeeded in leaving a message (which did NOT include mention of the cats).

Apartment hunting complete, we met up with W and an old TheatreVA friend for Ethiopian food. After dinner we went to see a screening of the Oscar nominated animated shorts where W were met by our friend B. Most of the films were pretty disappointing, but the re-imagined Peter and the Wolf was brilliant. It uses the original score and the original animals (cat, bird, duck, wolf), but it is set in a harsh winter landscape, and roars with black humour. The fatty cat is especially funny. See the film if you can.

Home again, we set the alarm for super-early so that I could further troll Craigslist, and so that we could be the first ones at the building managers office in case it was open on the holiday.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 248 - New York, New York

Other than the delay, our flight to NY was uneventful. However, as we approached the runway, I didn't feel the same elation or the the sense of coming home that I felt in Seattle. Perhaps Seattle got all the excitement because it was our first port of call in the USA, or perhaps because it had been almost two years since we had been there. I suspect though it is because I have very ambivalent feelings towards NY, whereas I really loved Seattle.

Granted, we had 3 years to discover how great Seattle is, and only 9 months in NY. Perhaps in time, I will develop a feeling of 'home' in the Big Apple too. For that reason, it is essential that we find a good apartment where I can nest.

I had hoped that because we were arriving on a weekend that there would be loads of open houses or people showing their apartments. Strangely though, everyone seemed to be planning Sunday showcases. So I spent most of the day trolling Craigslist and sleeping off the jetlag. Cz finally got his full day of rest in front of the TV and video games. Perhaps it will help him shake our cold.

We did go out in the evening to meet up with the production manager and stage manager of Merry Go Round Playhouse where Cz will be designing this summer. They were both lovely people and we had a great time reminiscing and talking theatre.

Afterwards, we headed back to our friend W's in Astoria (in whose apartment we are crashing) and ordered a huge NY pizza and mozzarella sticks. All that cheese is going a long way to up the 'home' factor of NY.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Day 247 - Last Call

Cz has caught my cold and has therefore been feeling under the weather. Unfortunately, he is not very good at being sick, and whines, mopes, and grumbles incessantly. It may be a bit callous of me but I was happy to strike out on my own this morning and leave Cz to grouse in the hotel room by himself.

First order of business was a haircut at my old salon. Freshly shorn, I walked to the corner to catch a bus up to Capitol Hill, but it was a relatively pleasant morning, and I was early to the haircut (so got out early), so I decided to walk instead.

I needed to go to Capitol Hill to visit our old building and to pick up a letter of recommendation from the landlord there. As I walked, I admired all the shops, the clean air, and the general air of relaxed friendliness which has always been one of my favourite features of Seattle. Once at our old home, I was pleasantly surprised that the building manager not only recognised my face, but even remembered my name!

While she found our letter on file (she wrote us a rec when we went to NY the first time), I took a walk up to Volunteer Park. The sculpture in front of the museum had been moved to the new Olympic Sculpture Park, but otherwise, the scene was unchanged, complete with frolicking dogs, Space Needle views, and gossiping neighbors. In the two little ponds the koi, which I remember being about 6" were now at least 1'-18". Time moves on even for fishies...

Rec letter in hand, I made my way back in to the U District to close out my BOA account. BOA has screwed me over with so many ridiculous fees that I am really happy to finally be free of them. I may open another bank account at some point, but for now, I am going to try to get by with just my credit union account in VA. We'll see how it goes living in NY with an out of state account.

Errands done, I reluctantly returned to the hotel to drop off my key, and then crossed the street to the scene shop computer room where Cz was surfing the web and stewing over having to get out of bed. Did I mention that in addition to being incredibly whiney when he's ill, Cz also get incredibly grumpy. It's not a good combo. I think it might be a guy thing though. Most people I've spoken too seem to agree that women are less likely than men to be thrown by a minor illness. Perhaps it is a cultural thing - men are taught to be strong and not show emotion because that's 'weak', but they're also raised to believe that when they're ill it's perfectly OK to succumb completely to (an to expect) pampering. It's one of the few outlets where weakness is not only accepted but even endorsed, and so most men turn into quivering balls of patheticness at the merest whiff of a virus.

I managed to coax Cz to our favourite pho shop (Vietnamese noodle soup - good for what ails ya) for lunch. Feeling a bit revived by the tea and spicy soup, we made our way down the Ave to the Birkenstock store. Not to buy Birkenstocks, but to pick up a pair of The World's Best Tights - the actual (and accurate) brand. They are a little pricey, but the last pair I bought lasted over 2 years, and was totally comfortable until I wore them out entirely. I've only seen them for sale in Seattle, though I haven't checked online. I'm sort of afraid of what would happen to my bank account if I discovered that they had a webpage...

Across the street from the tights store there happened to be a movie theatre showing the Oscar-nominated live-action shorts. Luckily, even being ill doesn't stop Cz from loving TV and movies, and because we caught the early showing, we even got discount tickets! By the time we left, it was time to go meet our friends in the pub, and it took Cz 3 blocks walking from the movies to remember that he was feeling poorly and should be complaining.

At the pub, the cold took a back seat to the nachos, beer, and good company. Unfortunately the movie ran long, so we were a little rushed getting through our pitcher in time to make it to our friend's thesis show.

As for that...Well, our friend's set design was pretty...

It was Shaw's She Stoops to Conquer. I think it might have been clever, but unfortunately none of the team found the lightness in the script, so it was very slow. We were guiltily relieved to have to leave at intermission to catch our flight.

Our friend that collected us from the airport also generously drove us back. On arrival we learned that our flight was delayed by 1hour. This was a little nervous-making as generally when JFK flights are delayed by an hour, they have a tendency to get even more delayed, sometimes even get canceled outright.

Thankfully after the announced hour delay, the plane took off, we reclined our seats, and did our best to sleep all the way to NY.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day 246 - Love, Seattle

Happy Valentines' Day all!

This was our last morning with our friend V. Before delivering us to our hotel, she drove us down to the arboreatum, one of my favourite haunts when we lived in Seattle.

Spring comes a little earlier here than on the East Coast. In sheltered areas near buildings daffodils and crocuses are already starting to bloom. Daffodils are my absolute favourite flower, and the first of the season are my favourite daffodils, so my day was already made by 8:30AM.

The arboreatum contains plants for all seasons, including a winter garden. The winter garden is so named because it is primarily occupied by plants which present 'winter interest', such as colourful bark, evergreen leaves, interesting branches, or winter blooms. My favourite of these are the yellow hazel. They have one of the loveliest smells of any plant in the garden.

After the arboretum, our friend dropped us at the College Inn where we waited and fretted for a key until it was time to assist a class lecture. I left my cell number and our packs at the hotel, and crossed my fingers that we would have a key in time.

Class went swimmingly - The new first years are good bunch, and it was great to see our scenic design professor again. After class, the three of us joined up with the costume design professor for lunch. It was really great to visit with them as fellow designers rather than as students.

We had just enough time when we finished eating to race to the College Inn to FINALLY retrieve the keys and then rush to the bus to catch the ferry to Bremerton.

We made the bus with time to spare, and got our ferry tickets with no hassle. Cz promptly fell asleep. I ended up playing cards with a high school dropout (he's in the process of getting his GED now) kid with black and red hair for most of the route. He knew all kinds of card games including one that's 'fun to play in jail'. I thought it best not to ask. In between playing cards with GED boy, I spent time looking out the windows, and even spotted a harbor seal!

In Bremerton, it was a simple matter to catch another set of buses to the housing complex where Cz's dad is staying. He met us in his nice, 1br apartment with bags of food and news that some friends would be coming over soon. Unfortunately, both Cz and I have rather spectacular colds, so wound up napping until the guests arrived. We managed to be sociable for the little party, and really had a great time.

On the return trip, the lights of Seattle glittered across the harbor. I wasn't able to get a good picture from the ferry, but once we were on solid ground we snapped this shot. Check out the building near the right side of the picture. You can just make out the Space Needle on the far left.

Love from Seattle indeed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Day 245 - Home

When we lived in Seattle, we spent very little time in our apartment. Home was the studio and our respective shops more than anywhere else, so today we sat in on Studio class (the main class for UW grads, held in where else, but in The Studio, it's to the right of the ticket office). It hasn't changed. There are a few more shelves, and there may be a new coat of paint, but there's still the coffee shakes, the completely unproduceable ideas, and the futile attempt to make sensible discussion on 3hours of sleep. I've missed that.

After class, we went to lunch with the two students left from our generation (they were first years our second year) and a group of current first years. It was comforting to feel a part of design graduate student life again; to be a part of a world with which we were so familiar.

After lunch we stopped briefly to see the major renovations being done on the theatre in which Cz did his thesis show, and then walked up to the main theatre building to visit the costume shop. Before I knew it, the afternoon had flown by, and it was too late to catch the ferry out to Bremerton to visit Cz's dad. Luckily our cell phones are back on, so Cz and I quickly called and shuffled all our commitments around in order to go out tomorrow instead.

Which has the added bonus of being able to see one production tonight, and another two friends' thesis show on Friday.

This evening's production Wild Black Eyed Susans was a bit of a mixed bag. The script read like a lifetime movie - it had several good moments, but was overly sentimental. The set, which was our reason for going, however, was lovely. The scene shop had managed to find an old trailer home (a real one) and put it onstage. The evident rot and wear that old trailor had couldn't be reproduced with new goods!

Overall, it was a very satisfying day of reminscing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Day 244 - 2/12/08 Again...

Courtesy of that wacky international date line. We actually arrived in Seattle 9 hours BEFORE we left Korea. The time difference is minus 24 (the date line), plus 7 (the seven times zones one physically crosses). Confused? I don't quite understand it either.

The flight from Korea was pretty bumpy. Luckily, I took a massive dose of motion-sickness medicine before we took off, which both kept me from feeling ill, and also knocked me out, so I was able to sleep through the worst of it. Cz was not so fortunate. I gave him some of my drugs mid-flight, but it was already too late to help very much. He was looking pretty green by the time we landed.

*sidenote* if you have no Drammamine (or even if you do) a hefty dab of Tiger Balm under the nose stings like hell but provides instant relief of motion sickness. Sipping ginger salts or chewing a bit of ginger also helps

Despite the roughness of the flight, we arrived in Seattle more than an hour ahead of schedule.

And breezed through customs. It went like so, and took less than half an hour, including waiting in line.

Customs Guy (CG) - How long have you been out of the country.

Us (with some trepidation) - 8 months

CG - What were you doing

Us - I got a travel grant through the UW

CG - Wow! That sounds great. Welcome home

And then we were back in the US. It was that simple.

A friend from the UW picked us up from the airport and brought us to the house of a longtime family friend. We ate lunch, and promptly conked out for nearly 5 hours, stirring only to change loads of laundry in the washing machine and dryer.

In the evening, we met up with several of our former classmates from the UW in our old haunt of the College Inn Pub. What was strange was how not-strange it felt. I expected to feel some distance or disconnect, but slipping back into old banter and designer-speak, eating nachos, and ordering beer by the pitcher for the table came as naturally as if we had never left.

In fact, it feels like we have been gone barely 8 weeks rather than 8 months. The amount of time only registers when I think about all the things we have seen, and realise that there is no way we could have done all that in a short time.

The strangest thing so far is being surrounded by American accents. For the whole trip, we have been able to get by with English, and have been surrounded by English-speaking fellow travellers, but never this saturation, this background babble of American voices.

It hasn't really sunk in yet that we are back in the country for good. Right now, it feels like just another stop in our travels, and in a sense, it is. We are visiting friends in Seattle for a few days, then heading to NY for a few days, and then on to Viriginia. We don't really stop travelling until March, when we (hopefully) move into an apartment of our very own in NYC. I expect that it won't hit me until the end of March or beginning of April. I will probably not be very pleasent to be around for a few weeks when that happens.

Day 243 - 2/12/08 Last Day Abroad

PS from yesterday. Namdaemun Gate (the one that burned down) was inscribed with fire symbols to protect Seoul and Gyeonbukung Palace from fire. I guess it worked. The city is still standing...

Today we visited Changdeokung Palace where the unfortunate Prince Seja on whose life Intimacy Between Father and Son is based on met his demise. In both history and the play, Seja goes insane with murder and debauchery. His father, to save the dynasty, kills Seja, and names his son (the king's grandson) the new Crown Prince. That boy grows up to become one of the best loved rulers in Korean history, and the dynasty continues until the Japanese occupation in 1910.

The palace is an interesting blend of East and West. From the outside, the structures are pure traditional Korean. Inside, however, because it was used by the royal family until 1910, the furnishings and light fixtures are very European.

The palace is perhaps best known for its gardens, and for the way the buildings blend in with the surounding nature. Other palaces in Seoul are built symmetrically. Changdeokung is asymetrical, following instead the natural lay of the land. The result is a feeling of harmony throughout.

After the tour, we were too cold to find a new restaurant, so we instead visited one near the palace where had eaten before. Korean meals are as much about the condiments as they are the main dishes. However, the condiments are never listed on the menu, so even if you know what your main dish is going to be, the sides are always a surprise. The little dishes that arrived with my meal this time included pickled sweet potato vine (one of my favourites), bok choy kimchee, and candied dried squid (at least that's what I think it was) - strange, but very tasty.

After lunch, we braved the cold to make a quick dash downtown to see the Hammering Man sculpture. The sculptors' names sounded familiar, and we were both well aquainted with Seattle's Hammering Man, so we were curious to see if it was the same one. Sure enough, it was as if a little piece of the Pacific Northwest had found its way to a street corner in Seoul.

By the time we found Hammering Man - he's in the guidebook, but not on the map - we barely had time to dash back to the hostel and grab our packs before hopping on the bus to the airport.

This time tomorrow/today, courtesy of the international date line, we will be back in Seattle having lunch with a friend of the family.

Leave it to world travel to make tomorrow happen today.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Day 242 - Never Put off 'til Tomorrow...

What you can do today. Because the 14th century monument you were planning to photograph might burn down in the night. Really. We had planned to take pictures of the Namdaemun Gate last night, but decided to wait until today to get both a day and a night shot. When we arrived at the hostel last night however, the entire staff was gathered around the TV watching in shock as Seoul's national treasure #1, the oldest wooden structure in the city, went up in flames. Arson is suspected. Our photo opportunity turned to ashes. Literally.

The gate stood in the heart of the business district, which could easily be mistaken for Manhattan with soaring skyscrapers standing sentry over hoardes of people all carfully choreographed by the traffic lights. We arrived right before lunchtime, and floatillas of businessmen in nearly identical suits flocked to and from the ruins on their way to lunch. It was sort of surreal.

From there, it was a little walk to the Seoul Museum of Art, which according to my guidebook, was the only museum open on Mondays. My guidebook was wrong. It was deciededly closed.

So we walked back to Namdaemun, whose market supposedly boasted a store with 2 floors of toys. Head filled with visions of Gundam, PSP's, and Transformer's, Cz really wanted to pay a visit. It too proved dissapointing, occupying only 1 floor, and containing only a few shelves of Gundam, though the market itself was pretty impressive.

Undaunted, we headed out to the (hard to find) Myong Dong Cathedral, oldest Catholic church in Korea, and known for its neogothic architecture. It was under renovation. Behind screens. At least the inside was open.

Seoul has a kimchi museum in the Coex Mall (where we spent day 1). It was closed then for the Lunar New Year. Turns out it's closed Mondays too.

By now I was so frustrated with spending my last full day in Korea travelling from burned, closed, and under renovation attractions that I was ready to hit someone. So we went to the Coex arcade and blew up a legion of zombies. That made me feel better.

Then we went to 63 Tower, Seoul's tallest building. The Imax was already closed, but the aquarium and skydeck, with views of the city were both open. In addition to the fishes, the aquarium was also home to a flock of penguins (who did not tapdance), seals, sea lions, and a friendly sea turtle.

One touch tank consisted of the standard starfish and hermit crabs, but another was populated by 'Dr fish', small fishes that feed on dead skin. Plexi boxes with finger holes invited a feeding frenzy on anyone who dunked winter-chapped fingertips. The little fish mouths tickled fiercely, and kind of gave Cz the heeby-jeebies, but he held out long enough for a picture.

A feature of every Asian aquarium seems to be the beautifully lit jellyfish display. This one was no exception with luminious jellies of every colour floating in their individual tanks.

After the aquarium, we rode the glass elevator up to the 62nd floor observation deck. Elevators make me nervous to begin with. This one had the added fear factor of being able to see all. the. way. down. All 600+ feet of it. Once on the skydeck, the walls of windows provided 360 degree views over the city of Seoul and the Han river, lit up like a Christmas Tree. There was also a section with a glass floor so one could look past one's feet all the way to the ground, some 62 stories below. It was terrifying. I did it twice. We finished out the trip with nachos overlooking the lights of the city.

It almost redeemed the rest of the day.