The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

Get Anything Hand-Delivered By Travelers From Anywhere

hand-delivered stuff from mmMuleIn my two years as an expat in Istanbul, I’ve asked visiting friends to bring me everything from bacon to Ziploc bags and iPads, and in return, I visit home with boxes of Turkish delight, baklava and coffee. But for those long winter months when I don’t know anyone visiting Turkey, how am I supposed to get my chocolate-and-peanut-butter fix? Now there’s a social network that connects locals and travelers who can bring you anything hand-delivered from anywhere in the world. mmMule aims to get hard-to-find or foreign items to locals everywhere, and rewards travelers with a local experience for delivering it.

Let’s say you are visiting Paris. You can log on to mmMule and find locals who want stuff ranging from Big Red gum to South African biltong cured meat. Maybe you want another jar of that Dijon mustard you loved on your last trip to France or some good old American mac & cheese if you’re abroad (seriously, all expats miss mac & cheese, and yes, we know we can make it ourselves). You can post a request on mmMule and wait to be connected with a traveler who can bring it. In exchange for the delivery, the “mule” is repaid for the cost of the item and rewarded in some way, from drinks at a local bar to an overnight stay in the local’s home. Illegal, embargoed and other illicit stuff is strictly verboten, so don’t think you can get someone to re-enact “Midnight Express.”

Should you feel inspired to help someone in need of more than supermarket goodies, you can check out the listings for AngelMule and bring supplies to non-profits. Your donations can be rewarded with cultural experiences like stays with local families or just an offer of “a big hug and eternal gratitude.” They’d probably be even more grateful if you threw some peanut butter cups into the deal.

Get whatever you want at mmMule.com or volunteer to bring stuff to someone else.

Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]

Expat Workforce matches expats and employers

Are you an expat? Do you need a job or could you benefit from having a second gig? We found a matchmaking website that might be able to help. A new job board called Expat Workforce is connecting businesses who outsource work to English speakers living abroad. And it’s absolutely free for expats.

As an expat, all you have to do is register and post a profile – which includes your location, availability, skills and education/work background – and then you are able to browse jobs. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes, so it can’t hurt to throw up your information if you’re on the hunt for a job. You can also follow the job posting updates on Twitter.

Expat Workforce is the brainchild of former expats. The website is still a brand new concept, so right now they are recruiting expats to submit profiles and promise they will “begin promoting aggressively” to businesses in the coming months. There are no success stories yet, but since it’s the only site of its kind we wanted to spread the word to all our expat friends.

[Screenshot courtesy Expat Workforce.]

Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

weekend bulgaria travel varna
Back in September, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan offered locals and expats like me an excuse to go on holiday while our American friends were celebrating the end of summer and Labor Day. With more time to explore than a typical Weekending trip, I checked out Turkey’s most western neighbor, Bulgaria, and fell in love with modern and medieval captials Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

The place: Varna, Bulgaria

Varna is known as the summertime capital of Bulgaria, a Black Sea beach town that’s a destination unto itself with several notable museums, an active cultural scene, and the gateway to the coastal resort towns.

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  • Unlike many of the purpose-built, touristy resort towns that litter the coast, Varna manages to maintain a nice balance of beach town and actual city. Pedestrian streets Knyaz Boris and Slivnitsa are great for window shopping and people watching day and night, and Varna has a handful of quirky and interesting museums to visit. The Archaeology Museum is one of the country’s best, and my visit to the creepily-cool Medical History museum (with nice Bulgarian lady following me around turning lights on and off as in VT) was one of my favorite travel experiences. Strolling the Sea Garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though the zoo is maybe the grimmest I’ve seen yet (I could have easily stuck my head into the lion’s cage with no interferrence) but with admission under $1, it’s hard to complain.
  • The variety of daytime diversions extends to nightlife too, with everything from sceney beach clubs to seedy casinos to dive bars. Indian Bar has an eclectic decor of Native American art and Italian soccer banners which manages to be more charming that offensive, while Saloon Bar is just the kind of place I’d love in my neighborhood: cheap drinks, good music, and a bartender that remembers you after one drink. Varna is also the birthplace to Happy Bar & Grill, a chain restaurant all over Bulgaria (and now in Spain too) that resembles a love child of Hooters and T.G.I. Friday’s, in the best sense. Happy has a vaguely nostalgic rock-and-roll Americana theme going on, a menu of Bulgarian food and pizza (they also have some sushi restaurants), and waitresses clad in miniskirts and nude pantyhose. There are several location including a tiki beach bar, and any of them are good spots to take advantage of free wi-fi, decent coffee, and as many ’80s music videos as you can handle. Varna is a bit pricier than other towns in Bulgaria but still a steal by Western standards.

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  • Lovely as Varna may be, the travel season is really limited to summer. While there is plenty to do in cool weather, there is greatly reduced transportation in and around town, many waterfront cafes will close in winter, and you’ll miss out on experiencing the summer scene. The Black Sea has been the hot weather refuge of many Europeans for decades and Varna retains some old-school (and Communist-era) flavor (see the above photo of the thermal pools frequented by the elder residences) while joining the modern world with boutique hotels and sushi restaurants popping up to serve a growing international clientele. If you visit Bulgaria in cold weather, your time would be better spent exploring the old towns and museums in central and western Bulgaria.
  • I’d be remiss in wrapping up a series on Bulgaria without pointing out the obvious obstacle: Cyrillic. Invented in Bulgaria and not Russia, the alphabet is less complicated than you think but takes some adjustment and practice to feel comfortable reading signs and maps. I was fortunate to travel with my Russian-speaking husband who could at least read the alphabet (though Russian and Bulgarian are as dissimilar as English and Spanish) but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Rather than trying to memorize the alphabet in advance, transcribe a few key and familiar words, such as your name, your hotel, and the towns you are visiting so you can begin to recognize the characters. Also, Bulgaria’s quirk is the reverse head nod: they nod horizontally for yes, vertically for no. This feels very foreign the first time you experience it but makes an odd sense after a few days.

Getting there

Most of the international flights to Varna are from Eastern Europe, though the great budget carrier Wizz Air flies from London and Sofia. Bus service is excellent throughout the country (about 7 hours from Sofia) or from Istanbul (10 hours) or Bucharest (7 hours), but train service is slower and less comfortable.

Make it a week

Rent a car or bus hop along the coast if the weather is good, taking note that if a town has a foreign name (like Golden Sands) it’s probably an overbuilt tourist town. You could also combine with other regions of Bulgaria. I fit in Sofia, Veliko Tarnavo, and Varna comfortably in an 8 day Saturday – Sunday trip, traveling between cities by bus and returning to Sofia for my international flight on Wizz Air.

Read about more Weekending trips here.