’tis almost the season

This blog has not quite stagnated.  I will bring it back to life somehow.

Hard to believe it is December already.  Perhaps the combination of having a European soap opera to feature in at work and a nearly hyperactive two year-old to get along with at home warps time.

Medina is a very bouncy wee lass and has energy in abundance.  Below is a recent photo of her ready to stride out for a lengthy walk through our local park.  She has started nursery this week.  So far it is only an hour and a half a day for acclimatisation but after the few minutes of tears on the first day or two she appears to be taking to the new surroundings like a duck to water.

Photograph courtesy of Leyla Robson

In recent times I have started a new band.  If a presentable photograph and/or video clip can be obtained from either of the two gigs we have played so far it/they might appear here.

Ulsan felt its first snowflakes of the season yesterday.  I would not bet on a white Christmas here but one never knows.

Two Going On…

It has been a while since I posted news of Medina and now is definitely the time to update as she has officially entered “The Terrible Twos”: last Sunday was Medina’s second birthday.

The children’s party will be held later as the majority of Medina’s similarly aged friends are away on summer travels at the moment. Instead we made Sunday a family day. Medina’s grandmother had come to visit from Azerbaijan; the three of us went to the Kids’ Café in the morning (excellent indoor play area where the parents get fed and watered) and to the beachfront in the afternoon with lunch at one of our favourite restaurants in between.

Trying to take a presentable photograph of an active toddler is a challenge but hopefully the three below will give a flavour of the day.

On This Day

The Republic of Korea has gone to the polls today and at time of writing looks to be on the verge of electing the nation’s first female president.

Voting appears to be serious business in this country.  Election Day has been a national holiday to enable people to cast their votes – not something I can recollect happening in England during my lifetime.  A local news headline a couple of days ago proclaimed that 84.9% of Koreans asked said they would be voting today – a predicted turn-out that again I can find no recent parallel for back home.

Conversely trying to engage some of my Korean friends and colleagues in conversation on the subject has yielded little by way of results.  Reactions have ranged from statement of some basic facts as can be found in the international news reports through to indifference.  Perhaps one is not supposed to discuss such things with non-Korean people; it is hard to say.  Whatever the reasons, whatever the statistics and whatever the outcome of today, I wish Korea the best with her new leader.

In other news, work is crazy as ever, Christmas is almost upon us and Medina is becoming a sharper observer and mimic by the day.  As I have not posted a picture of her for a while, here is a quick one of her posing for the iPhone while trying to put a clip in my hair…

One Is One

If you blinked you will have missed it – Leyla and I nearly did.  Young Medina is not quite so young any more having celebrated her first birthday last weekend.

When such an occasion rushes upon you in the midst of temperatures of thirty-plus and humidity of eighty-odd percent, you can find yourself wondering how best to mark the occasion.  With outdoor activities rapidly black-balled due to fears of heatstroke we chose to invite a few friends (most also with young daughters) to visit for drinks and cake in air-conditioned comfort.

The event ran smoothly, the ladies looked lovely in their party frocks (see picture below) and with seven assorted nations represented amongst our small group we managed to sing a very presentable rendition of Happy Birthday round the cake.

Medina started walking a couple of weeks ago and would happily be running if her legs could keep up with her ambitions.  Something tells me subsequent birthday parties will not be so easy to host…

One more month to go…

A bit later than planned with this update; apologies.  Auditors at work, a baby full of energy at home and rising temperatures in high humidity throughout keep one on the toes.

Compliments of the day to readers in the United States of America.

All is well here.  Not a minute of Euro 2012 football graced our television screen which is probably just as well judging by the news reports I read of England’s performances.  Tennis is a sport more accepted by the family and Day Nine of Wimbledon is getting back under way in our living room after a brief rain shower at time of writing.

Medina continues to grow, smile, laugh and tire us out in good order.  Walking can be but moments away and she has four teeth on the go in the meantime.  The photograph below was taken on the day of her reaching eleven months old (no prizes for spotting the missing shoe).  Soon there will be a birthday party to celebrate.  Don’t children grow up fast these days…!

Bikes, Babies, Buses, Bands, Buddah

Yes it has been a month of B since I last wrote.

Our baby girl is definitely sprouting a tooth or two now and getting ever closer to walking.  The day that she reached ten months old coincided with the 2556th birthday of Buddha which is celebrated here as a national holiday.  That morning we discovered via the rhythmic pulse of wood-blocks that there is a Buddhist temple a few minutes down the road from us.  It was a warm, sunny day and it seemed fitting that we take Medina along to see the colour, smell the incense, hear the sounds and meet the smiling faces.  It was time well spent as the photograph might help demonstrate.

The band has had a couple of good gigs and after last weekend’s we have unfortunately bid farewell to a couple of singers as their project has concluded and is back to The States for them.  An other singer and our drummer may soon be moving on too; such is the way of things in expat bands.

A couple of weeks ago I had a crack at the Korean test for a motorbike license.  Habitual readers may recall my posting after the occasion of gaining a Korean car driving license.  With Korea and the UK having a reciprocal agreement on such matters it was a straightforward case of completing a form, passing a rudimentary eye test and walking out with a permit to use the roads.

No such agreement exists with regard to motorbikes and in many ways I can see why.  The test station that I attended with a few like-minded colleagues one lunchtime had extensive networks of simulated road available that would put most if not all British test facilities to shame but not one yard of it was for motorcycle use.

After walking past several acres of perfectly surfaced and painted junctions, bends, inclines and kerbs with perfect signage we came to the little corner for would-be bikers at the far end of the plot.  Two bikes stood ready with engines idling while thirty or forty hopefuls gathered with forms and existing licenses in hand to take the test.

The task before us was simple to describe.  A course with four obstacles:

First a stretch of track two feet wide where you go straight for ten feet, take a right-angle bend to the right and proceed an other ten feet, take a right-angle bend to the left and then exit after ten feet.

Second a left-right S-bend again on a piece of track about two feet wide, total length about thirty feet.

Third a dead straight piece of track about thirty feet long but about only about a foot wide.

Fourth and finally a chicane through four sets of traffic cones.

All four obstacles have to be negotiated in under three minutes.  If you touch an edge on one of the first three obstacles more than once or knock a cone down on the chicane or put a foot down at any stage more than once you are disqualified.  A clean run or one small fault will be a pass.

On the sort of bike I passed my test on in Britain (small) or indeed on any bike I have bought since this would be a pretty straightforward exercise.  The real test is negotiating this course using the bikes that are provided and are the only bikes permitted.

The Hyosung Mirage is a Korean-built low capacity V-twin that wants to be a Harley Davidson custom.  It is long, it is low, it is heavy and it is as suitable for high precision low speed handling as wearing gardening gloves is for playing guitar.  Unfortunately it has been chosen as the one and only test bike.

Even though I knew in advance what the machine would be and the limitations it would present, I was not ready for the challenge.  My grand plan was to sit as far forward as possible for good balance and tickle the back brake for control as per British training.  That fell to pieces as soon as I sat on the bike and found that the rear brake pedal was nudging my shin rather than waiting near my toe as expected.  Clearly this was a bike for Henry Fonda wannabes rather than Lampkin or Rossi fans.  I failed at the first obstacle and so did all my colleagues.

Secretly I had probably resigned myself to failure.  The only prerequisites to attending the test had been completing a form, providing passport photographs alongside my existing Korean car license and paying a fee of six thousand Won (a little over three pounds Sterling at current exchange rates).  If people could turn up and gain an unrestricted permit to use all two-wheeled beasts on the nation’s roads with ease for such little outlay the country would probably awash with teenagers on litre-plus sports bikes and Harleys (arguably Korea’s two favourite types of bike) and the fatality and injury statistics would go through the roof.

That said, you can keep going back every two weeks or so at six thousand Won a throw and keep trying until you do pass.  Alternatively those with more money than patience can pay four hundred thousand Won or more to go to a private school with the same track as the government test centre and get the license there.

Your money buys a three hour session in front of a tuition video (Korean language only) plus ten hours you break into chunks and spend going round and round the track until you can virtually do it blindfold; after which the government tester comes to the school and you take the test on the same track with the same bike.  If you don’t pass first time you can try again the next day – day after day if need be – until you do: no extra charge.

A couple of my colleagues signed up for such a school within days of failing the first test.  They reportedly had the track beaten in two hours and after ten passed the test with no difficulties.

There is clearly a reason why no reciprocal agreement exists between the UK and Korea for exchange of motorcycle licenses; just as there is no doubt a reason why motorcycles are not permitted on the motorway classified roads of Korea.

To end on a brighter note, today there was one of those moments that can give the spirits a lift.  I took a bus yesterday afternoon and did not have the correct change for the 1150 Won fare so I place a 5000 Won note in the collection box.  The driver’s change machine did not have sufficient coins and neither could the note be retrieved from the box but I was happy to leave it at that.

Over the following ten minutes the driver asked me for bank details (showing him my cash card did not suffice) and then asked for my ‘phone number (easier to provide and proven satisfactory).  This he wrote down somewhere and then wrote 3850 on a small receipt with an office ‘phone number and handed it to me.  Words and gestures suggested a refund of some sort might be available.  All of this spread across a mile or so of driving in moderate traffic.

This morning I confirmed with a colleague that I would be able to call the number on the receipt and the bus company would transfer the change of 5000 Won to my bank account.  Before I could get round to doing so, my ‘phone rang a few hours later.  I passed the caller to a Korean-speaking colleague and it transpired that it was the bus company calling to ask for my bank details.  Within moments all was completed.

Somehow I don’t imagine the driver of my local double decker in England will be offering a similar service any time soon.  Hats off to Ulsan Buses.

Saturday Double Bill

An other month under Medina’s belt and an other year under mine this weekend.  We had beautifully warm, sunny weather and friends to to share the occasions with: a good day all in all.

We also experienced “yellow dust” for the first time this weekend.  It apparently blows across from somewhere in China around this time of the year but while we were told about it in Geoje we never saw it there.

The first I knew of it was when I got into the car and noticed the windscreen needed cleaning.  Nothing unusual there as there have been strong winds most days leaving a fine layer of muck everywhere.  The difference was the dust suddenly turning bright, mustard powder yellow when swished to one side of the screen by wiper and washer-fluid.  My guess is we have just had a light sprinkling as I have heard stories about it being visible in the air and a breathing hazard on bad days – something I have no particular desire to experience firsthand.

Come rain, shine, wind or otherwise Medina continues to grow at a strong pace and is becoming more and more mobile.  Crawling is already so easy it is boring and most waking hours are spent pulling up using anything that will provide purchase (such as the sofa in the example below).  There have been a few falls and bumped heads but nothing is going to deter her.  Chances are I will be writing about first steps next month.

Eastern Easter

Happy Easter one and all.  It not being an event that comes with a bank holiday weekend in this country, we have not experienced the typically grey weather that often accompanies such times in England.  Rather it has been the first warm, sunny weekend of the year here and a sign of good things to come.

Coincidentally or otherwise it is election season just now.  As before in Geoje, it is the groups of people dressed in colour-coded and numbered outfits dancing to loud music on major road junctions that give the game away.  Candidates 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 have had their cheerleaders out from dawn ’til dusk for the last week, thankfully not parked just outside our apartment as happened last time.  This coming Wednesday is election day and it will be a national holiday to enable/encourage people to vote.  I wonder if giving people the day off for general elections in the U.K. would make an appreciable difference in turn-out.

Medina is now eight months old and has been coming along in leaps and bounds almost literally.  Crawling started with more reverse gears in the box than forward but she has rectified that in the last few days and is now tearing around the flat exploring everything.  When stationary she bounces up and down a lot and seems very keen to stand; probably won’t be long.

Other developments include waving hello and goodbye and kissing.  The latter started off with certain parts of a picture book (particularly a young girl on one page) and has extended to her mother’s cheek but she is not particularly keen to kiss her dad yet.

When the Novruz Bayram holiday took place in Azerbaijan in mid-March, Medina’s grandmother came over to visit for three weeks.  All went well and an other development was discovered during the trip.  As can be seen in the photograph below, Medina now poses for photographs.  She was happily looking at a book and her grandmama started snapping away with a camera ‘phone.  Within seconds Medina had worked out what was going on and started mugging to the lens.  What was that one about children growing up faster…?

Photograph courtesy of Irada Manafova

Not quite leaping into spring

The extra day in the year flashed by just as quickly as the ones before and after it did.  It makes me twenty-four hours later than I might otherwise have been in posting a quick update on the occasion of Medina reaching seven months old.  She continues to grow, is very happy sitting up and has almost mastered getting on all fours – crawling will surely start soon.  The chirpy smile is still available in abundance as captured below.

In other news, it is getting warmer here and we are in the middle of several days’ rain but I would not go so far as to say we have reached springtime yet.  My immediate colleague has only just stopped snowboarding on the Korean slopes and has plans to catch some late snow in northern Japan quite soon: cherry blossom will be a while yet.

Last night I played my first gig with the band I have joined here.  The drummer and a couple of the singers are familiar friendly faces from Geoje days but the other guys and many of the songs were new to me.  We gave a good account of ourselves overall and the audience certainly sounded appreciative.  Let’s hope an other gig follows soon.

The neighbourhood we live in is turning out to be a pleasant spot (dubious pushchair access notwithstanding).  The number of slightly dog-eared and empty looking bars, restaurants and cafes I have seen suggest that there may have been busier times here a few years back and we have arrived in a lull but as we are supposed to be responsible parents rather than party animals this is of little consequence.  I currently find it raises more of a smile to note the names of some of the premises round here.  The hair salon down the road for example is “Barbie” and as it is apparently unisex I am rather tempted to pay a visit come shearing time just so that I can say I have done so.  As for the local butcher’s shop, who could not buy beef from “Cow Village”?  Simple things may please simple minds if we following the saying; I will stand up and be counted.

Half way to a birthday

It feels a little early to be saying so but Medina is six months old today.

Celebrations started with a good night’s sleep and rising to a morning temperature approaching the positive figures in the Celsius scale for the first time this week.  The sun soon broke through the light cloud to improve things further.

The main event of the day was admittedly more for the benefit of the parents than the ‘birthday’ girl as we met a small group of friends for smoked duck lunch.  One advantage of the restaurant however (as with many in Korea) was that we all sat on the floor bringing youngest and oldest alike to comparable elevations.

After a couple of hours and a fine meal it was back home for some play and relaxation before bath and bed.  Below is a photograph a freshly fed girl with her mother and smiles all round.

Compared to Oslo, London and Baku, Medina has been causing quite a stir in Ulsan and thankfully taking most of it in her stride.  We knew from our previous visit that Korea is a very child-friendly nation but it is not until you arrive with one of your own that you learn just how much so.

As Korean babies are traditionally strapped to their mothers for transport from a very early age, pushchairs are a rare sight and a foreigner with a pushchair is a beacon that attracts a good deal of attention.

At the innocuous end of the scale you can walk down the street exchanging nods and smiles with numerous men and women alike (mostly older folk) who clearly know what you are pushing and why and they are happy to share the acknowledgement in passing.  On the same street you can count the number of oncoming heads; again irrespective of gender; that lock onto the pushchair and swivel round to follow it as you pass, craning with varying degrees of enthusiasm to see what is inside.  I sometimes feel I could be a little more accommodating to these more curious folk but simultaneously realise that on a busy street it could then take ten minutes or more to cover one hundred yards so I keep walking and keep smiling.

Moving up the scale you find levels of enthusiasm that are rarely expressed in public when in London.  One of the chambermaids in the hotel was a lovely example.  It did not matter if she was right by our door or far at the other end of the corridor when we left the room to go out, the moment she spotted the pushchair she would come rushing up with a huge smile on her face, grab Medina by the foot and shake it vigorously while speaking animatedly to her in Korean and smiling all the more.  Medina’s reaction to new people and new sensations can vary considerably depending on her mood; thankfully she was never less than bemused by the leg shaking monologues and even smiled a few times.

As the weather gets warmer and Medina gets older the wraps will come off (she is currently bundled up again sub-zero temperatures plus wind chill) and she will sit facing forwards.  I imagine these revelations will stir inquisitive folk to further moments of interaction and thankfully it does not make me feel uneasy in the slightest.

Ironically the only thing I am unsure of in this, the nation’s third city is how much use we can get out of the pushchair.  Provision for non-roadgoing wheeled apparatus here is no better than it was in Geoje, perhaps worse as Ulsan does have more pavements and has a larger bus network but the former are rough and crumbling and the latter have posts in the middle of the doorways that make them too narrow to permit pushchairs.  Even taxis are a gamble because many have a tank for LPG fitted in the boot and there is not enough space left for the pushchair chassis.  I would not want to be a wheelchair user here.  Thankfully we have been able to borrow a car for the last few days and will have one of our own from next week.  Sad to say but I am not sure what we would do without one but that no doubt will be an other story.