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.