Whales, Umbrellas, and the Power of Language: Vignettes from Korea

I recently wrote about my trip to Korea and how everyone kept asking why I would vacation there.

As promised, I’m back with a few vignettes from the trip.


My friend Pricilla and I arrived at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport after nearly 24-hours of uninterrupted travel. After a bit of bumbling around the airport, we managed to find the correct counter to purchase a bus ticket for the 1.5-hour ride to Namsan.

We were two of only four passengers on board the clean, air-conditioned bus. Our flight had landed late in the afternoon; and as we bumped along, the sun slowly setting in the hazy sky, I struggled to keep my eyes open. My one goal was to stay awake long enough to find my friend Robby, take a shower, and maybe eat a little supper before falling asleep.

I leaned my head against the window and gazed across the Han River. The Seoul skyline slowly flickered to life against the darkening sky.

Suddenly, from the middle of the river right next to our bus, a whale breached, setting off a chain reaction of foamy waves. What an amazing sight! Water sloshed across the highway and misted the bus window.

Wow! We had only been in Korea a few hours, and already we were seeing amazing sights! I knew this trip would be unforgettable, but I had no idea something like this would happen.

I turned to make sure Pricilla had seen the whale and jerked myself awake. There was no whale; nor was I even sitting against the window. I was slumped over in my seat, gently drooling, backpack clutched to my chest and hoodie draped over my torso like a blanket. It was now totally dark outside, and I’d been dreaming.

Because of course.

There are no whales in the Han River.

At least, not that I personally witnessed.


We’d left Florida one day after a close brush with Hurricane Dorian and arrived in Seoul just in time for a sideswipe from Typhoon Lingling.

Hence our first full day in Korea, we were met with strong bursts of blustery wind, periodic rain bands, swaying tree branches, and pelting clumps of wet leaves. Classic “stay at home” conditions, which of course we were not going to do. We hadn’t flown halfway across the world to sit in Robby’s apartment while it rained.

But we weren’t totally insane. We switched up our original plan for the day and decided to spend it mostly indoors at the Seoul Museum of History.

“Don’t worry,” Robby said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Maybe he didn’t say that exactly. But he did seem to have plenty of umbrellas because he had enough for himself, Pricilla, and I to take one each as we headed out to catch the bus.

All went well enough until we hopped off in front of the museum. The wind, which had been nominal to that point, suddenly picked up, accompanied by bursts of needle-sharp rain. We fumbled with our umbrellas as we hustled toward the entrance.

Robby and Pricilla snapped theirs open and ducked underneath like the normal people they are. I, however, began the first of what turned out to be multiple Korea-based, umbrella-related debacles.

It had all started so normally. I’d gripped the umbrella handle with one hand and used the other to push the round plastic runner up toward the spring at the top. That’s where things went awry. The wind got under the umbrella, flipped it inside out, and then by sheer force, snapped the canopy away from the shaft completely. I snatched at it, attempting vainly to reattach it before anyone noticed, but both hopes were in vain.

Pricilla and Robby were already wheezing from under the comfort of their properly opened umbrellas while I flailed about in the rain in my soggy, slapstick attempts to piece the umbrella back together.

I’d been in the country fewer than twenty-four hours, and I’d already broken something.

At least it wasn’t a bone.


Later in the day, before parting ways with us, Robby handed off his functioning umbrella. He wouldn’t let me pay for the broken one.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I have plenty of umbrellas.”

Which did seem to be the case.

Once again with a 1:1 umbrella-to-person ratio, Pricilla and I set out to check a few more sights off our to-do list before making an early evening of it and escaping the foul weather.

“It’s actually not that far to walk from here,” I said in a fit of enormous stupidity. “Why don’t we walk down, and if the weather gets bad again, we can always take the bus back.”

We had only made it a few blocks before the wind and rain kicked back up. People around us scurried into nearby shops to wait out the worst of it. Not us. We were made of sterner stuff. Plus, we had come prepared.

“Umbrellas up!” I crowed to Pricilla.

I wasn’t going to let history repeat itself. I took a firm grip on the handle at the bottom and fitted my hand around the plastic runner, pushing it gently but firmly toward the top of the canopy.

In that moment, the wind got under more than just the umbrella. It also got under my shirt. As I stumbled forward, wrestling the umbrella into submission, the hem of my shirt blew up and plastered itself directly against my collar bones. Desperate not to break a second umbrella in as many hours, I refused to release my death-grip.

“Help!” I crowed foolishly, inadvertently ensuring that the maximum number of people left on the sidewalks would turn to gawk.

They were joined by the line of onlookers who had ducked inside a nearby glass-fronted bookshop to escape the rain, gazing wide-eyed at the hapless foreigner twirling nearly topless down the sidewalk beneath a flapping umbrella.


No matter our plans for each day, Pricilla and I got in the habit of stopping somewhere for afternoon coffee.

Often we chose a Starbucks since they were familiar and also ubiquitous in Seoul; but we also tried a few local chains, one being Angel-in-Us. There, the staff members all wore jaunty brown fedoras with gold bands; and with a mix of English and Korean, we managed to order items more-or-less in line with what we thought we were ordering.

We were in the Sincheon-dong district of Seoul that day. The coffee shop was packed, and the people-watching excellent. Young couples had scooted their seats close together and were sharing Airpods. Clusters of upscale-looking housewives and middle-aged intellectuals engaged in lively discussions. Next to us, a dad and his miniature daughter FaceTimed the grandparents.

It was a whole scene.

In the midst of all this commotion, an oasis of silence.

A twenty-something young man sat at a small table all by himself, one leg crossed neatly over the other, bent studiously over a white-covered hardback novel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone reading with such obvious deliberation. No matter how the sound swelled around him, he never raised his head, never broke his focus.

He also never turned the page.

I leaned forward and squinted.

Oh, yes. That makes more sense.

He’s totally asleep.


For months leading up to our trip, Pricilla and I worked to learn Korean.

Since we only planned to be in the country for ten days, we didn’t have any illusions of making friends or having meaningful conversations, but we did want to avoid being completely helpless. We wanted to ask for directions, make purchases, and understand a bit of what was happening around us.

Our efforts proved successful.

One day, while buying water near Bukchon Hanok Village, I tried out my meager Korean on a store clerk.

Assuming (rightly) that I’m a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, he started out by nodding at my water bottle and ringing it up. I planned to pay for Pricilla’s water as well and decided now would be the best time to put my language studies to good use.

The rest of this conversation took place in Korean.

Me: Two of them.

Him: (surprised) wahhh!

Me: Please.

Him: [You] speak Korean!

Me: No. Very little.

Him: Very good!

Me: [I’m a] Korean person.

Him: wahhh!

Me: No, [I’m an] American person, LOL.

Him: LOL!


I found that speaking even the tiniest bit of Korean to wait staff, shop keepers, and people on the street seemed to bring out something personable and kinder in each of them. I mean, I guess it makes sense. But it always touched me to see people warm to even our most awkward attempts.

One day, when Pricilla and I stopped for lunch at a sukiyaki restaurant, the woman serving us seemed stand-offish (even a bit surly) until I spoke a few words in Korean. Then her face softened, she looked us directly in the eyes, and she came over to mix my sukiyaki for me as if I were a helpless infant.

Which, by that jet-lagged portion of the afternoon, I actually sort of was.

When we left, she had to chase me down to give me my phone (which I’d left on the table), and we were down the stairs and out on the street before I remembered I’d also left my umbrella in the umbrella stand.

Because for whatever reason, umbrellas in Korea were never not a problem for me.


There’s so much more I could write.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, scribbled furiously in my travel journal at the end of each long day. I love re-reading them. They remind me of what a fun, relaxing, and truly restful holiday this trip to Korea turned out to be.

Umbrellas or no umbrellas.


Guys, somehow it’s mid-November already.

You know what that means.

You get a new book from me in less than a week!

Head Back to School with Rachel Cooper (4)

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration releases November 20, 2019.

I can’t wait for you guys to read this one. It was a treat to write, start to finish, and I loved revisiting these beloved characters–especially with Ann in charge.

If you pre-order the e-book today, you will be among the first to clamp your beady little eyes on it when it releases next Wednesday!

Until then, I hope everyone is enjoying a productive and happy fall.

May your hearts be warm, your coffees hot, and (if you’re in Florida, at least), your air conditioners ice cold.

 

 

Why Korea

Last month, I took a ten-day trip to Korea.

Seoul’s a fantastic city to visit. It’s easy to navigate, welcoming, and relatively clean and safe. It was definitely one of the most enjoyable and restful trips I’ve taken in a while.

In the run-up to the trip, however, as I announced my plans, I was faced with an almost universal question: “Why?”

Why the Why?

I’ve traveled internationally a bit. Most places I go, nobody asks why.

The last few years took me to Scotland, New Zealand, England, and France. People invariably told me to have fun seeing the castles, say hi to the Hobbits, pack an umbrella, enjoy the cheese, and take lots of pictures.

“You’re going to have so much fun,” they told me, and “That sounds amazing.”

I did, and it was.

Practically no one spoke this way about my trip to Korea. Instead, they asked why I was going.

Beneath the Question

As to what’s driving the why question, I have a theory.

As a member of Generation X, I came of age in a school system teaching a version of World History that was basically Euro-centric with a few global frills. Our curriculum did reference Asian or African countries, but only as their timelines intersected with the overarching Western narrative. Most of the mentions were war-related and negative.

Until I started traveling the world, I had no sense of the gaps in my education.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been playing catch-up. I read where I travel and travel where I read.  Sometimes I forget how wide my gap used to be.

Until I’m asked repeatedly why I’m going to Korea.

There’s More

Someone actually articulated it to me like this, “The only thing I know about Korea is the Korean War.”

If war is all you know about a place, then sure. The why question makes sense.

But Korea’s more than a place where a war happened.

Most places are.


My next post will be a series of vignettes from the Korea trip. Things we did, what we saw, and what happened along the way. I just want to clear everything with my travel partner first. Though she’s responsible for zero of the truly embarrassing incidents, she deserves a say in what goes public.


For now, please enjoy a few snippets from my daily travelogue.

Friday, September 6, 2019

4-hour flight, then 14-hour flight, then 1-hour bus ride.

Whole day was a blur. More like a smear.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

We only got lost(ish) twice!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

We walked the route down to the main road correctly for the first time, but because we’d done it wrong so many times, we thought we were lost because nothing looked familiar.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My overconfidence got us lost.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There’s a Popeye’s near the DMZ! Didn’t get to check if they have the sandwich.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Ramyun, sweet fried chicken, dumplings, hotteok, bindaetteok, knife-cut noodles. Perfect broth, sublimely chewy! I forgot everything else about today except that I have a huge blister.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A woman in a public restroom at the park gave us paper towels from her purse to wipe our hands with.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Wasted a bunch of time because I thought we were locked out of a building when really the door was push instead of pull. Still want to die as I think about this.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

We sucessfully hiked Bukhansan! Well, I bit it pretty early.  But I didn’t hurt myself. So that’s a success.


The whole trip was a success, really. Other than the push/pull situation. And all the times we got lost.

Plus two incidents with umbrellas.

But that’s for next time.

Seeing What’s There

Last month, two friends and I took a road trip to Montgomery, Alabama.

Our intent was not simply to eat, drink, and be merry, though we did manage to fit those things in as well. Our main purpose was to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of American history. We’d centered this particular trip around hitting some of the historical stops along the Civil Rights Trail.

I’ve always enjoyed seeing locations I’d previously only read about in books. Inevitably, I come away with lessons that only experience can bring. It’s why I so often read where I travel and travel where I’ve read. The realtime learning cycle makes eureka moments nearly inevitable.

On this trip, my keenest realization came not from anything I read in the museums or saw at the memorials. It arose from a deep sense of place.

The evening we arrived in Montgomery, we walked down to the waterfront. On our way back up Commerce Street, I had the first inkling of what was to become my major takeaway.

You don’t need a tour guide to tell you that the city of Montgomery had originally been centered around a single focal point.

Market Square.

As it appears today, the intersection presents as a wide, innocuous traffic circle with a fountain in the center. The night we first approached, it was relatively free of traffic. Quiet and peaceful.

Historically, Market Square was home to Montgomery’s thriving slave market.

This was once the nexus of the city, and when standing in its center, you’re afforded a clear line of sight down Commerce Street to the waterfront, where still rest the crumbling foundations of city’s enormous cotton slide. Pivoting only slightly grants a view up Dexter Avenue to the state Capitol Building at the top of a hill, looming over all.

Standing there in Market Square, I felt the wheel of history slowly swing around us. Laws and regulations handed down from the capitol, goods and slaves streaming up from the waterfront, cotton flowing down the slide.

Though America’s chattel slavery system has been dismantled, Montgomery’s original design still clearly reflects its legacy.

These things weren’t done in a corner, in Montgomery and beyond. The slavery system wasn’t a footnote. It was a focal point.

And it left its mark.

I know I promised you a summer blog series, and here we are at the end of August. It’s not that I forgot. It’s just that my summer took some unexpected turns and disrupted my best-laid plans.

You know how life does.

But look! We’re all still here, and I’m just as happy with the prospect of a fall series as a summer one. My current schedule is much more coherent than my summer one was, and I look forward to leveraging that cohesiveness for our mutual advantage.

Catch you on the flippity flip!

COVER REVEAL: Unseasonable

Unseasonable_h12861_750

Coming in December 2019 from Pelican Book Group!

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration

Ann Cooper does not panic. From her demanding job training horses to her family role of keeping tabs on her high-maintenance sister, Ann remains cool, calm, and collected at all times. This holiday season, however, Ann’s fortitude will be tested like never before. Not only is she pondering a potential shift in an important relationship, but she’s also facing the prospect of riding out an unseasonable hurricane with the doubtful help of her sister Rachel. This December, Ann’s patience and faith will both be stretched. Will the risks involved in taking a leap of faith outweigh the possible rewards?

For more information, see here.

To be among the first to know when the book goes up for pre-order, see here!

Florida Summer Is Your Winter

The evidence is undeniable.

Holing Up Indoors

Those who spend winter huddling under a pile of blankets truly appreciate the arrival of the summer sun. As one of my Midwestern friends is fond of saying, “Sun’s out, guns out!” (She’s referring to her arms. She lifts. She’s crazy strong and enjoys sporting tank tops.)

Down here, however, we have a different summer motto. “Flee the sun lest it boil your face.” While November through March are nearly idyllic, drawing visitors from around the globe, April through October cause us to question why anyone ever settled here. 

Most of us prefer to spend summer inside huddled under air conditioning vents.

Extreme Storms

For most of you, winter is the time to brace yourself. You dress for extreme cold and fortify your homes and vehicles against major storms. For us, the opposite is true. Extreme temperatures and damaging storms arrive during summer.

In addition to soaring temperatures, Florida summer heralds the arrival of rainy season.

These aren’t just cute little rain showers, either. They’re tropical deluges. Towering thunderheads build quickly, unleashing torrential downpours accompanied by electrical storms. Personally, during summer I plan to run errands in the morning or evening to avoid getting caught in them.

In addition to near-daily storms, summer heralds the threat of named tropical storms and full-blown hurricanes

Is it any wonder our seasonal residents abandon ship every spring?

Complaining on Social Media

Northern friends spend the winter posting pictures of the snowfall accumulating on their back porches and Tweeting low temps. They bemoan the wind, decry a lack of sunlight, and wish for winter to end.

Meanwhile, during Florida summer, we post that it’s still 90 degrees after sunset (seriously, how??) and complain that we broke into a sweat while walking toward the gym at 6:00am.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to turn this into a contest about whose seasonal issues are worse.

I think we can all agree Siberia has us beat.

All places have ups and downs. All things considered, Florida’s pretty great. Once winter rolls around, I’m sure plenty of you would be happy to trade places. 

Bear in mind, however, that we do have other problems.

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Note: An early version of this post appeared in June of 2016 on my former blogging site. With record highs hitting the northeastern United States this weekend, it seemed like an opportune moment to dust it off and trot it back out. Keep cool, check on your neighbors, and take care of each other!

Publication Announcement

New Book

You asked. I listened.

Coming in December 2019 from Pelican Book Group:

Unseasonable: A Novel of Sisterhood, Storms, Sunblock, and the Occasional Christmas Celebration

Ann Cooper does not panic. From her demanding job training horses to her family role of keeping tabs on her high-maintenance sister, Ann remains cool, calm, and collected at all times. This holiday season, however, Ann’s fortitude will be tested like never before. Not only is she pondering a potential shift in an important relationship, but she’s also facing the prospect of riding out an unseasonable hurricane with the doubtful help of her sister Rachel. This December, Ann’s patience and faith will both be stretched. Will the risks involved in taking a leap of faith outweigh the possible rewards?

Fans of the Collapsible trilogy can look forward to meeting plenty of old friends in these pages, as well as some fresh faces; but since this is a straight-up spin-off, new readers will have no trouble quickly orienting themselves in Ann’s world. (Ann’s world is extremely oriented.)

This book was an absolute treat to write, and I can’t wait to get it in front of your beady little eyes.

More info when I have it!

(Tip: Subscribers always know first.)


You’ve all been very patient as my blogging frequency dropped during the first half of 2019. Now that you know why I trust you’ll forgive me.

Because NEW BOOK!

I look forward to posting some reflections from my recent trip to Montgomery and a short series before the summer is over.

Happy Friday, everybody! Until we meet again, may your A/C be cool, your coffee hot, and your hearts warm.

 

Florida Summer: The Ultimate Bummer (A Poem by Me)

When thunderclouds rise in the deep Western skies

And the air is as heavy as lead –

When fat Bufo toads squat right there by our toes

And the snakes topple down on our heads –

When we feel ourselves frown as the sweat trickles down

From our necks to the smalls of our backs –

Then we know without doubt that our luck has run out

And the summer’s arrived right on track.

Oh, this Florida summer–it’s really a bummer.

The sunshine’s so bright we go blind!

It’s hot and it’s muggy, and outside it’s buggy.

That heat index? Simply unkind.

The gators are gloating, the fire ants floating,

The snowbirds have all fled up North.

On the Fourth of July, we’ll sit inside and cry

As the A/C once more proves its worth.

By fall, you may find that we’ve all lost our minds.

But there’s a good reason, remember.

(The number one reason is Hurricane Season,

Which stretches from June to November.)

So let’s hang down our heads for the season we dread –

It’s summer down here in SoFlo.

Sure, we know how to deal, just don’t ask how we feel

Unless you–in fact–want to know.


Despite the tone of the poem above, I’m actually doing pretty well today, both mentally and physically. After nearly two years of almost strictly running, I’ve rejoined a gym. My arms are remembering what weights feel like. It’s a whole scene. So that’s how things are going here.

It’s true I’ve been slacking on the blogging front. There are reasons. I hope you’ll accept this little post to tide you over until my next personal essay is ready.

Speaking of which, I am planning a short series this summer that’s going to blow everybody’s hair back – including, probably, mine. Actually, if you wouldn’t mind praying for me as I prepare it, I’d appreciate that. It’s sort of a doozy and a has proven a stretch for me to write. But I can’t not write it. It’s basically boiling a hole in my brain!

In the comments below, be sure to check in and let me know how you are. Critique the poem if you like, and feel free to write a few lines about summer in your own hometown! I’d love that.

Happy Wednesday, everybody!

May your coffee be hot, your A/C cool, and your hearts warm with joy!