Thursday, December 21, 2017


First I have to say we have not had great luck with “snowcations”.  If you’ve read this blog for a while, you remember the story of my family’s hunt for snow when I was a little girl.  Then nine years ago, we took a trip to Vermont, leaving our home in Virginia the day after Christmas.  A week earlier, there were record-breaking snowfalls, but suddenly, there were record-breaking high temperatures, and all the snow melted!  There was a tiny little patch of dirty snow under a tree in someone’s yard, and I remember Skyler tearfully begging us to ask the homeowners if we could play in it.  Then, seven years ago, we took a trip from Florida to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee just before Christmas and again, there was no snow! 

Matt surprised me last week with the announcement that he was going to take a few days off work, and suggested that we take the family to Muju, a popular ski resort town a few hours from here.  We wanted the kids to have a snow fun day. But give. Our history, agreeing to this vacation filled me with a certain amount of... well... trepidation.

Still, I packed all the snow clothes we had — which is to say, not a whole lot.  I mean, we were living in Hawaii for three years prior to coming here, so... yeah.  I fill the gaps in local stores, but really didn’t find much.  But then again, knowing our luck, maybe it wouldn’t matter? 

We left Monday and stayed in this quaint, if pretty basic, guesthouse.  We didn’t do a whole lot that day besides trying to find places to eat and figuring out where to go the next day. We did play in the snow near the ski resort for a few minutes, but Annalee said, “It’s cold. I don’t like it!”  My little island baby!

We finally decided to eat dinner in the pub that was attached to the guesthouse, and then headed to the basement room with snacks and cards to play games.  There we met another American family and struck up a conversation with them as we played.  It was fun and cozy, but we were all pretty tired and turned in just after 8.  

We had paid for two bedrooms.  One was supposed to be a room with a full-size bed and a single, but instead, both rooms were all bunk beds.  The kids were thrilled, Matt and I... less so.  It felt like we spent the entire time telling the two youngest not to jump on the top bunks, and there were a few hair-raising spills anyway.  

Thankfully, we got to sleep instead of taking anyone to the ER, and the next day, to my amazement, we woke up to a beautiful winter wonderland.  Snow was falling and had covered our car!  Hooray!  A snowcation with actual snow!  
We ate our breakfast in the basement room and headed to the ski resort.  Matt had forgotten his warmest coat (grrrr), and I hadn’t been able to find any snow pants for Wyatt, so all I had for him were his fleece-lined PE pants.  There were several shops that had parkas and pants displayed in the window, as well as skis and snowboards, so we decided to see what we could find for him.

This was one of the biggest differences between my (very limited) experience with skiing and snow stateside and here.  Apparently, you rent everything here in these shops.  We went in looking for snow pants for Wyatt, and were able to rent that and snow pants for Matt and parka, plus some weird knee/ butt pads for Wyatt (that we hadn’t asked for but anyway), PLUS buy waterproof snow  gloves for him — all for about $25!  I guess if we did this all the time, that could add up, but for a day, it kind of seemed like a steal.  They could be warm and dry, and then I didn’t have to figure out where to store more bulky clothing that wouldn’t be worn often!  

Buuuuut, here’s another difference.  It seems that in the States, snow and outdoor gear in general is pretty.... hmmmm, what’s the word I’m looking for?... tame?  Neutral?  Basic?  Subtle?  Okay, well, since a picture speaks a thousand words, here you go.  

Maybe the idea is that if there were a blizzard or avalanche or something, you would not get lost? 

When Matt was getting his parka, the guy helping him guided him first toward the jacket on the right in this picture.  

Maybe it was the way he said, “Ummm, Joy, what do you think?” or maybe it was the mental image of him wearing that when in the twenty-three years since we first started dating I have NEVER seen him wear ANYTHING like that, but I burst out laughing before I could stop myself.  They went with the one on the left.

We didn’t rent ski equipment because we had decided to just go sledding and play in the snow for now.  And that ended up being loads of fun.  It was definitely different; in Northern California and Washington (my main comparison points because I’ve lived in both places), there are “snow parks” by the side of the roads in the mountains.  I don’t remember ever having to pay for one of these, but if you did, it wouldn’t be much.  You just take sleds or saucers and play till you’re tired out.  

Here, it is more structured. And a little pricey, at least compared to the free I’m used to.  We paid for entire day, and that was about $13 per person.  It covered the use of the sleds and the “hill”.  Both the top and bottom of the slope were monitored by people telling us what to do in minimal English.  The good news is, I learned a few more Korean words.  For a while, though, every time I got to the bottom, the man there would say things like, “Sit!” or “Knees! Bend!”  I was scratching my head a little because I actually had been sitting and bending my knees.  But just before the lunch break, he smiled and said, “Good job!” I was so proud of myself, if not still very puzzled about what I’d finally done right! 

  Then came the hunt for lunch.  *Deep sigh* There were plenty of options, but all appeared to be Korean barbecue or chicken places.  Which I’ve heard are great if you eat meat.  But we don’t. We found a little shop that appeared to sell kimbap, which I love. It’s kind of like sushi rolls (seaweed wrapped around rice with various vegetables and maybe egg inside), and since it’s made to order, it can be customized to not have meat.  All was going well — I had communicated (in Korean!) that I did not want meat, and she seemed amenable to the idea. 

But then I asked if the noodles pictured on the wall had meat.  I don’t know if it was that, or because all seven of us had entered the shop, but suddenly, she got very hostile and shouted, “Anneyo!” (No) To further drive home her point, she made an X with her arms and started herding us toward the door.  It reminded me of the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld.  I imagined her saying (and am pretty sure it’s not far from the truth), “Noodles without meat?! How dare you! I don’t need your type around here!” 

It didn’t really bother me because I couldn’t help thinking it was ridiculously funny.  But we still had a minivan full of hungry people.  Matt and I went into the next place together — a pizza joint, or at least that was what the sign seemed to indicate since it was called "BHC Pizza".  

The menu was on a board behind the cash register, and there were headings in English like “Chicken”, “Pizza”, and “Drinks”.  But everything under that was Korean.  We tried to use our translating apps, but they didn’t work, so we asked the man behind the counter if he spoke English.

“A little,” he replied. Great! Progress!  So we asked if we could order a couple cheese pizzas. “Ah, sorry, no pizza,” he answered.  “Next week pizza.” 

I wanted desperately to point out that since pizza was in the actual name of the restaurant, it didn’t seem far-fetched to go in and expect there to be pizza. But whatever.  We got back into the car feeling pretty defeated.  Matt continued driving then suddenly swerved into a parking lot.  “This,” he said, “I’ve got a good feeling about this place.”  I told myself his heart led him there, but really it was probably because it was the only restaurant that didn’t have a giant picture of a farm animal on it.  Anyway, he was right.  We soon found ourselves seated on the floor in a traditional Korean restaurant with bowls of vegetable bibimbap and a mushroom stew that did have meat, but it was easily removed (Matt and Wyatt still eat meat, so it didn’t go to waste). Success!

 Anyway, the rest of the day was spent sledding and playing in the snow.  There were snowball fights and snow angels, and running around with plenty of space to move without bumping into anyone else.  
Annalee never really became a fan of the white stuff, but I did capture the two minutes when she was okay with it.  


And I'm kind of proud of how this picture I took of Skyler turned out.  Sun flare? Check.  Snow in the air?  Check.  

It might sound silly, but one reason I’m kind of crazy proud of my kids is because of how they’ve adapted from our heavily outdoor life in Hawaii to living in an apartment in a big Korean city.  But I think it’s interesting how they — and most of the kids they play with — are drawn to the wilder places.  There’s a big, gorgeous playground that we meet our friends at when the weather is nice, but all the expat kids migrate toward the shrubs and trees and patches of dirt or rocks.  I think most of us parents watch with a pang of guilt, mixed with a certain admiration of knowing this is how our little ones are making it work — taking what isn’t exactly ideal and showing that  life doesn’t have to be perfect to be lots of fun.

But to be able to give the kids space — even for just a day — to run and yell and be outside?

 That felt pretty great. And that there was actually snow — beautiful, magical, and er, freezing snow for once?! That was even better!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Getaways and Gratitude

Sometimes you've just got to get away, am I right?

I was kind of desperately seeking a change of scene.  I’d been dreading this particular Thanksgiving for... oh, let’s see... the past year and a half, since we found out we were moving to Korea, and I realized there was probably no chance that Jayna would be celebrating with us after moving to college.  I decided that if this year was going to be different, why not go really different?  As in, I wanted to go out of town.
But Skyler is a traditionalist and adamantly insisted that we be home for our feast or the holiday would be completely ruined.  Plus the kids still had school on Thanksgiving Day.  Last year, we kept them home, but this year I decided to have them go because it seemed like they had missed out on some fun celebrating.  So Lilly and Wyatt had a cute turkey trot and did some crafts.  I decided to bring them home after their school feast so we could do our family’s celebrating.  It was just us, and it was a nice quiet time, even if I had a lump in my throat as I pulled out only six plates from the cupboard, reminding me again that Jayna was gone.

The next day, Matt had to work, but he texted me around noon saying, “You know how we were talking about going somewhere this weekend?  Well, I just booked a room.  Can you pack for me and pick me up when you’re all ready?”  Well!  Nothing like a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure!  It took longer than it should have to get out the door, of course, and there was at least one full u-turn and 20minutes of backtracking before we could get over to Matt. So it was pretty late when we got to our hotel that night in Yongin, a city just outside Seoul near the popular Korean amusement park Everland.

Other than the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived, this was the first hotel here for us that was not military affiliated.  And it was... an experience. The room was supposed to accommodate up to eight people according to the website.  We walked in, and well, it’s safe to say we’d never stayed in a place quite like this.  The room where we stood was very large, so there was definitely space for at least eight — or actually, maybe twenty — but... there weren’t beds for everyone.  In fact, in that room, the only furnishings were a refrigerator, and two tables, one on each side of the room.  The rooms had sound proof tiles because... drumroll... there was an absolutely enormous television with speakers and karaoke mics.

“This hotel room... has karaoke?!” Our kids were over the moon.  We were definitely winning at parenthood for a few minutes, until we spent longer than we should have trying to get it to work (everything was in Korean except the titles of the English songs).  But we promised the kids that the following evening we would figure it out and have a genuine karaoke party.

We went into the bedroom and found two full-size beds... for eight people. Okay, yeah, there were only six of us, but still, the website had said eight.  I’d like to think they were planning to bring in floor mats and bedding, but they’d seen all of us check in and no mention of additional beds was made.  So... three kids went into one bed, and Matt and I took Annalee in our bed. And thus began a mostly sleepless night because there just wasn’t a lot of space so when one person rolled over or moved, everyone had to roll over too.  

Somewhere in the gray, early hours, Wyatt, Lilly, and Annalee got up, while Skyler, Matt, and I tried to sleep a little more.  Through an overtired fog, I saw Lilly come in and announce that the toilet was "flooding water everywhere”.

“Did you one of you throw a bunch of toilet paper in it?” Matt asked. Both Wyatt and Lilly insisted all the business conducted had used minimal t.p., so I got up to see. It was simultaneously as bad and not as bad as expected.  There was just water (*thank You, Lord*), but it had totally flowed all over the floor.  So I found myself in the lobby a few minutes later saying, “The toilet overflowed.”  

The man at the desk replied with a blank expression. I sighed.  There had been too little sleep and no caffeine, and yet it was time to play Charades.

“Toilet?” I repeated.  He nodded this time. Progress. “Water?”  More nodding.  “Over.”  I moved my hands in an arcing motion.  “Over Toilet.  Over floor.”  I spread my hands horizontally to show the water everywhere.  It took a couple tries, but within ten minutes we had a toilet that was flushing — sort of normally — again.  

Matt had decided to take Lilly and Wyatt to Everland, but Skyler and I took Annalee and went to the nearby Korean Traditional Folk Village.  It was a good day, though pretty cold. The folk village was very picturesque and interesting.  Taking two-year-olds to places like this is fun, as the following photos clearly demonstrate.

Me: Ooh, Sky, this is so pretty and scenic! Can you take a picture of me with Annalee?


She was much more fond of the silk-making part of the village, though, and could have stayed and played with the silks hanging down all day.

She also loved “the Christmas tree” which — spoiler alert — wasn’t actually a Christmas tree.

I enjoyed the quiet seclusion and vibrant colors of the temple area.
Meanwhile, Matt had a great day with the other two at Everland. 

 They all had lots of fun on the rides and were approached for pictures several times like celebrities.  Clearly, Wyatt didn't mind.  

Side note: Matt is the much cooler parent.  Not only did he take the kids to Everland, he bought the pictures on the rides.

That night we met back up in the hotel room for the promised karaoke party.  We were all having a great time, and then trying to get them into bed when the phone rang.  It was the front desk asking us to quiet our children.  Now, not only were we in a room with a massive karaoke system, we were also in a room with six people, two beds, and a barely functioning toilet!  Then calling us just after 9 pm to tell us (not kindly either) to quiet our kids?!  I had to bite back the snappy response, "Maybe if you'd given us more beds that would actually be possible!!!"

The next day was a tiring day of driving and spending a couple extra hours in traffic outside Busan, I have to say that the familiar parks and playgrounds, the convenience stores, and the twisting driveway into our garage that always makes me a little carsick even when I’m driving, never looked so warm and inviting.  Knowing that the toilet flushed -- or that I could fix it if it didn't -- was a huge relief (yeah, pun intended!;-) ).

More and more, I'm learning in my life that very few things are 100% one way or the other, but when we try so hard to put labels like "Awesome" or "Miserable" we miss the full scope of the experience.  Honestly?  This wasn't my favorite getaway.  If we'd gotten an incredible deal on the hotel room, I think I could have more rose-colored perception.  But it was sort of a budget room -- plus karaoke! -- for not budget prices.  It sort of felt like one of those lots-of-work-for-little-reward kinds of things.


Still honestly, we saw something beautiful.  We had a lot of fun.  We created memories.  And all weekend, I kept thinking of my friends who have lost family, thinking that my missing Jayna was a tiny fraction of the pain they felt.  I was so incredibly grateful knowing it was just two weeks till she was back with us for Christmas.  

So I still stand by my words: this little getaway was exactly what I needed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Being Touristy: Palgongsan


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

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

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

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

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

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

Well... why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Summer To-Done List

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

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

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

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

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

"No, they were rhinoceroses!" he insisted.  

"Pretty sure they were cows."

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But, grace.  

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

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

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

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

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