Au Revoir Korea

The eight weeks since I last wrote have been a race against the clock as we close business at the yard office.  The hard work while making me a poor correspondent did thankfully result in my clearing my desk punctually.  Yesterday the office door was closed for the final time and we few remaining members of the site team bid farewell to Samsung shipyard and to each other.

Next stop Norway and a return to the Oslo office.  After two years in Korea there was a lot to sort out first though.

Last Wednesday I experienced professional house packers at work for the first time and they certainly were impressive.  Four men arrived with flat-packed cardboard boxes and left a near-empty flat behind them an hour and a half later.  Getting it all out of the boxes again will take us far longer.

Yesterday was striking demonstration of how efficient things can be in Korea.  In the course of the day we:

– Visited a government office to certify cancellation of ownership of two motorbikes
– Visited City Hall to register two name stamps as official forms of signature
– Opened two bank accounts (joint accounts are not readily offered in Korea it seems)
– Completed paperwork to sell a motorbike via one dealer
– Sold the other motorbike to an other dealer
– Sold our car to a third dealer

All was completed with the minimum of fuss and I can not imagine how I might achieve all that so quickly in London let alone anywhere else.  Even the background action was fast.  The bike was paid for by electronic transfer and the car in cash.  I deposited the cash at the bank and found that the transfer had already completed within a couple of hours.

At time of writing I am air-side at Incheon Airport, Seoul and pausing a moment to consider the last couple of years.  It has been a whirlwind time and the fuller effects of my stay in Korea will take a while to sink in but living here has certainly been enjoyable and educational.  I will miss the very fresh food that is so prevalent here (ranging from vegetables with earth and nobbles on to sea life that still moves on the plate) but I will not miss the local beer.  I will warmly remember the old fashioned good courtesy that seem ingrained in so many Korean people but I am less concerned about leaving the TV-screen-on-every-surface culture that the nation’s leading modern technology has provided.

This country has a lot to offer and I would recommend anyone offered the chance to visit to accept it.  I will happily return here should the opportunity arise and visitors will be welcome.

Annus novus? Tempus fugit!

Somewhat belatedly: Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year.

This is the first time we have spent the festive season this far east and so far away from home*.  As one might expect in a place where Christianity is not the national denomination, Geoje Island does not ‘do Christmas’ in a big way.  Commercial elements were recognised by the local shopping mall and the hotel up the hill but some pretty lights and PA systems playing 140 bpm happy hardcore remixes of Jingle Bells et al were about the extent of it.

A couple of carefully chosen decorations have been providing a seasonal lift to our flat along with cards that managed to reach us in spite of December’s snowbound turmoil in Europe (for which many thanks).  On the night of Christmas Eve we visited a Canadian/Chinese couple with a young son and on Christmas Day we invited a couple of Dutch friends plus their young children to visit us.  Between us all we created some high Christmas spirits and enjoyed the weekend.

We decided that New Year’s Eve had to be celebrated big-city-style and headed to Seoul.  As it is mighty cold up there at this time of year (and the city was suitably coated in snow and ice) we decided to forego the annual ringing of the centuries-old Bosingak Bell (Seoul equivalent of gathering in Trafalgar Square) and headed for the university district of Hongdae.

Plan A to get into Club Evans for a bit of jazz came to an abrupt end when we discovered that they did not take reservations and we got there early (21:30) to find that no seats were available.  Plan B became a dive underground into the FF Club where a selection of Seoul’s hippest indie bands (whatever that might mean these days) where giving it ten tenths and the bar offered a free drinks happy hour between 11 and 12.  The music was good, the alcohol awful, the crowd eclectic and the atmosphere great: for a few hours I felt like I was an undergrad again.

While Lunar New Year has yet to occur; during which the year of the Tiger will become the year of the Rabbit; I will leave the final ‘word’ to a Hongdae street artist who clearly has a sharp eye for an occasion…

Happy New Year, Seoul Street-Art Style (photograph courtesy of Leyla Robson)

*For those who are checking the distances, I concede that Cape Town is further from London than Geoje but being able to visit family while in RSA during 2008/09 made a difference.

Steady as she goes…

Time to open the first door on the advent calendar already; where did November go?

It has been without doubt the busiest month of the year at work.  Three weeks ago saw the naming ceremony for the vessel and two days ago she set sail for Norway (behind two tugs as she is not designed for self-propulsion).  The amount of effort put into the preparations for that departure was immense.  After all the build-up, the office seems eerily quiet now.

Work will continue here for a month or so yet while a reduced number of us tidy up the remaining paperwork.  All being well we should not be interrupted by any sudden re-starting of the 50-53 war.

Last week’s events on Yeonpyeong were terrible but in some respects are only the latest of many similar ones that have occurred over the years.  South Korea has grown accustomed to turning the other cheek and no immediate effects have been felt this far south.

That said, this is the first time in a very long time that there have been civilian casualties and the proverbial camel’s back is feeling the strain.  Conflate this with the other local events that are featuring in the international news reports and tensions can run high.

Nobody here wants an other war.  We are keeping our eyes and ears open while continuing ‘business as usual.’

I name this ship…

Attach two large tugs…

…and set forth for three months at sea

…everything else is just waiting

Last Sunday saw the inaugural Korean Grand Prix take place as part of this year’s Formula One fixture list.  There had been much debate up to the last minute about whether or not the track would be ready in time and would pass its final safety inspection but it was and it did.  As it’s not every day one finds oneself living in a country about to join the F1 circus, a group of us bought tickets and went to enjoy the event.

The Korea International Circuit (KIC) is in the south-west corner of the peninsula near the city of Mokpo; about four hours’ drive from here and a similar time from Seoul.  We had been warned that there were neither many hotels nearby to stay in nor much work yet done to prepare the local roads for the heavy race traffic.  The race started at 3pm so we agreed to set out in a coach at 7am to be safe.

Sunday morning dawned grey, grim and filthy wet.  It was miserable bad luck: the weather is typically very dry at this time of year and there had been no rain for days if not weeks prior to race day.  What a way to introduce Korea to the GP-watching world.

Arriving at KIC just after 11am, we were greeted by huge expanses of mud, gravel and puddles.  Yes the track was ready for use but the surrounding facilities were clearly far from finished.  Aside from some food and merchandise stands in the main grandstand building the site was bereft of amenities beyond a scattering of portable toilets.  I collected my tickets from a tent by the edge of the car park then crossed the mud to Grandstand C via a pathway of ineffectual sodden blankets.  It felt more World War One than Formula One.

There was an advantage to the work being unfinished: while our tickets bore seat numbers they had yet to be applied to the actual seats so we were invited to pick our places.  As relatively early arrivals we had a fair choice and found a spot close enough to Turn Four to enjoy the action but high enough to see a good portion of the track.  It also afforded a good view of the green and handsomely hilly surrounding countryside.

Our three-and-a-half-hour wait for the race to start was briefly punctuated by a ‘support race’ of Genesis Coupes (a popular local car) which ran a total of three laps, all driven behind the safety car due to the weather.  Later and fortunately during a brief pause in the rain, the drivers plus camera crew and an interviewer did a lap of the track on the back of a truck as a pleasant ‘meet the fans’ exercise, all relayed on the PA and big screens.  The rest was damp silence.

Then unannounced the cars came out to form up.  Sitting by the fourth corner we were far enough away from the start/finish line and the pits to hear nothing of the activity there.  First we heard a sound like the distant wail of a sports bike with an after-market exhaust pipe.  Seconds later Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull flew into view leading a spray-shrouded procession of snarling, spitting machines into the corner beneath us.

Bellowing engines popped and banged on the over-run with flames flashing from the exhausts and revs bounced high to low as each car shifted down the gears for the turn.  Gleaming clean paintwork was firework bright in the subdued light.  The air became redolent with aromas of exotic lubricants and materials heating up and rare fuels combusting, smells that seemed simultaneously natural, synthetic, foreign and familiar.

Sensual overload was complete, raising the hairs on the back my neck and spreading a large smile across my face.  The 7am start, the hours of waiting, the mud, the expense of the whole exercise: they were no longer a problem.  My first encounter with a living, breathing Formula One racing car had me completely hooked.

The rest as they say is history: three laps behind the safety car, an hour’s stoppage, a re-start behind the safety car followed eventually by some actual racing which after all the delays finished in twilight.

Up until this point I had only ever watched Formula One racing on television and I often sympathised with the complaints about boring processions, no overtaking and similar.  Such points of view are still valid but my approach to them has been amended.  While a wealth of camera angles can show much more of a race than will be visible from a trackside seat, the more immediate, near-visceral experience of actually being next to the tarmac is on a different plane.

The live experience affords a detailed insight into the man-machine racing dynamic that no amount of in-car footage or slow-motion replays can ever convey on screen.  I will continue to watch the races on television and do so feeling an even greater amount of respect for the efforts of the drivers and the teams but at the same time I will be wishing I was watching from the trackside.

Harvest Holidays Are Here

Hard to believe it but Chu-seok is upon us once more.  Korea’s Thanksgiving/ Harvest Festival follows a lunar cycle and it has not quite been a full calendar year since last time but close enough.  Full moon falls on Wednesday I am told.

The week ahead will be marked by a near-empty shipyard, closed restaurants and tales of traffic bedlam as people drive across the nation to be with their families.

As I mentioned this time last year, Chu-seok is a time for exchanging gifts, many on a food theme.  The local shops have indeed been offering presentation packs of everything from shampoo to shrimps and – still to my mild amusement – Spam.  Last year I was admonished for not providing photographic evidence; this year here it is.  Happy holidays everyone.

Give Spam…

Time to get away

What a mixed summer it has been so far.  I was hoping to have some good football results to write about but South Korea went down fighting in the last sixteen and the less said about England the better.  Thankfully Wimbledon has been providing some sporting respite, albeit just the first couple of hours each day because it’s bedtime over here soon after play begins on Centre Court.

The sun appears to have been shining consistently in SW19 this year: to be expected after the venue has fitted an expensive new roof.  More typical English tennis weather can be found here instead where the last week or so has been warm but very humid, misty and frequently rain-soaked.

At time of writing I am sitting in Busan airport waiting for a flight to Beijing.  We are taking a week away and neither of us has visited China yet.  We are looking forward to exploring a new city in a new country in what is forecast to be good weather.  Escaping the numerous England Team jokes offered by my Scots colleagues will be an added pleasure.  Next stop Beijing.

Poll Dancing – On The Streets

It is election season here in Geoje.  The first signs appeared three or four weeks ago when one morning a corner of the five-way road junction near the entrance to the yard sprouted a man wearing a sash who bowed to as many passing vehicles as he could.  Over the following days, the single figure seemed to change each morning, then become two figures and occasionally three; always wearing sashes and bowing continuously.

Two weeks back things started getting more serious.  One morning the duo/trio on the one corner was suddenly replaced by groups of a dozen people or more on several corners and lining the road leading to the yard.  This is still going on every morning and every evening to catch the rush-hour going to and leaving work at SHI.

The most I have managed to find out about the election so far is that voting will take place for a city leader (I guess a mayor) and some sort of representative for education.  Candidates are plentiful, well supported and committed.  Each candidate has a number and each number has a bright colour so that one can differentiate between the groups (some readers might be interested to note that Number Six is conspicuously absent from this village).

Each group has a light pick-up truck with the flat-bed made up like a cross between a carnival float and an advertising hoarding.  Obligatory posters can be augmented by any combination of flat screen televisions, preaching pulpits and deafeningly loud PA systems.

The pick-up being smaller than a campaign bus, it can be creatively parked in a greater variety of places to maximise impact.  On Thursday last week, Number Five, Orange parked up on a traffic island just outside our flat and let rip with and all-day blast of endless pop music and shouted exhortations over the mic from six-thirty in the morning through to sunset.  For the full eleven hours, forty to fifty supporters lined all sides of the street dancing in unison to the songs, chanting to order and bowing to all the traffic during the breaks.  Number Seven, Red did the same trick on the same spot two days ago.  Who needs Eurovision when there is all this to enjoy (especially when the UK entrant is reported to have the longest odds in national history this year at 175/1)?

Exactly when the voting is due to take place I do not know but sooner would be preferable to later as the blaring PA systems are starting to get a bit wearing.  Best of British to them all.

Number Five, Orange on the campaign trail

Six Weeks Later…

…and all of a sudden it is May already.  Hong Kong was lovely but the planned continuation of the story from there fell by the wayside almost as soon as the previous posting was uploaded.  I could blame the British Airways strike.  Doing so would not be entirely fair but it is entitled to a mention.

Hong Kong was a stop en route to London to celebrate a family birthday.  Our flights booked with BA, we were concerned when the strike was announced but received many assurances that we would be all right, flying as we were outside the action dates.  Not so: at short notice our departure from Hong Kong was cancelled and rescheduled leaving us disappointed but still grateful to make it to London in time for coffee and desserts at the birthday dinner.

From London I went to work in Oslo for a week while Leyla headed to Baku for two weeks of catching up there.  Having been away from Norway for over a year I had forgotten just how quiet Oslo can be on a public holiday.  During the fifteen minutes I spent waiting for a bus in the city centre on Easter Monday morning, I saw a total of three cars, one tram and six people.  The only thing missing was a tumble-weed.

Back to Korea via London went smoothly for me and it was nose back to the grindstone straight away.  The following week Leyla was due to fly Baku- London- Korea but the small matter of an erupting volcano in Iceland put paid to that.  Re-routing via Istanbul eventually saw her safely back in Geoje a further week later after a few more delayed and cancelled flights along the way.  With jetlag now dealt with, we are just about back into the swing of things over here.

Spring has been hesitant on Geoje Island this year.  Cloud, rain, mist and fog appeared just as frequently as sun if not more so during April and temperatures remained cool.  Warmth and sunshine seem to be returning with the onset of May and with them a general feeling of good cheer.  Trees are in leaf, flowers are blooming even the dark humour in the office is a shade lighter than pitch black on occasion.  Next stop: the beach?

Time to get skates on…(?)

Our passports with renewed visas were returned just in the nick of time as we had to fly thirty-six hours later.  Curiously, the people at the immigration office decided that our marriage certificate was acceptable without the aid of a piece of paper from the British embassy.  Naturally their change of heart coincided with the embassy completing their part of the business so I was unable to cancel the production of that particular, somewhat expensive memento.

Meanwhile, this year’s weird weather continues.  In addition to reported blizzards in the Mediterranean, our little island off the south of Korea was heavily snowed on last night and this morning.  In a place which seldom sees a single flake of snow even in the deepest depths of winter, this has come as quite a surprise.

The roads and the drivers were completely unprepared and I am told that routes over the hills have been blocked by stuck cars.  Only one of our bus drivers has managed to work today which seems to corroborate the story.  I have just had lunch in a half-empty canteen when usually it is full plus queues.

In the little (Samsung-owned) apartment block estate where we live next to the yard, a small army of people with snow shovels were out in force clearing roads and pavements as I left for the office this morning.  Something tells me the rest of the island will not receive such prompt attention though.  Fingers crossed for a thaw by morning.

For better, for worse

Happy Lunar New Year and Happy St. Valentine’s Day to one and all: the year of the tiger is now upon us.  Will the occasion of these two celebrations falling on the same day result in a record number of marriage proposals this weekend?  Only time will tell.  There is no doubting the significance of Lunar New Year here though.  We are in the middle of a national holiday lasting several days, the yard is virtually closed, the island is deserted and people have travelled all over Korea to visit their families.  When it comes to strength of tradition and length of traffic jam, Lunar New Year is of a similar magnitude to Chuseok.

In the midst of this, I have been provided with further moments to reflect upon the joys of matching and hatching.  Tomorrow we will be attending the first birthday party of the daughter of friends and shopping for a present last week was an other reminder that a family of my own should be started before too long.

The Korean immigration authorities have been helping me along in slightly different manner.  As the anniversary of our arrival in this country approaches, Leyla and I have to renew our visas.  While we both arrived with work visas, Leyla now requires a family visa instead which demands proof of marriage to be demonstrated.

Previously this has been no problem as we possess a valid marriage certificate and a legally endorsed translation thereof; a combination that has been happily accepted in the UK and in Norway.  Here we are expected to produce two certificates – one from each country – something that we think might be related to the way in which British-Korean marriages require papers from both sides.

This has caused a bit of a stir.  The current position after two weeks’ discussion involving the immigration office here, the British embassy in Seoul and the British embassy in Baku is that I have to send the original marriage certificate plus copies of our passports plus a fee to the Embassy in Seoul so that they can write some sort of letter based upon information they have received from Baku to satisfy their inquiries.  This letter should appease the immigration office.

In the meantime, we both received automated text messages on the first of February reminding us that our visas were expiring at the end of the month (a bit spooky) and we both received letters in the post a few days later saying the same.

Circumstantially, we need to be in England very soon anyway but it would be good to have the papers in hand for a legal return to Korea rather than find ourselves feeling semi-deported.  Once the Lunar New Year holiday has finished we should be able to get things sorted and quickly.  We hope.  Watch this space.