Posts Tagged 'Winter'

Borders

It’s not yet 10 AM. The first snow of this winter is falling outside, tracing the city’s edges in white. Janice is humming along to Yozoh & Sokyumo Acacia Band as their instruments whisper out of her laptop’s speakers. The coffee is brewing. I fill up with the sense that everything is right here.

SEOUL — ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I passed the half-year mark of living in this city, without the slightest bit of ceremony or significant reflection. But now a comparison between the last six months against those I spent here as a student four years ago seems unavoidable. The unfortunate if perhaps inevitable truth is that while I felt I had “arrived” at some deeper level of understanding of Korea when I departed here in December 2004 — and grown a great deal in the process — it appears now that I’m still (as they say here) “licking the skin of a watermelon.”

Surely, however, the experience has affected and informed me. The thing about being immersed in another culture is that one loses their point of reference. By that I meanĀ  it is difficult to determine how circumstances have changed an individual until he returns to a familiar environment with a new pair of eyes.

The biggest thing I have missed is free time, and all the opportunities for growth it affords. Whereas I spent August 2004 hopping between different neighborhoods of inner and suburban Seoul, meeting families, visiting the ancient capital of Kyeongju, becoming horrendously ill and burning myself to a crisp on the beaches of Busan, I spent August 2008 mostly in an office. Drag.

Janice and I certainly spent a decent amount of time rediscovering Seoul during late summer this year (not to mention that we got married), but I’d say the amount of self-discovery we did fell on the lower end of the spectrum. And while in the ensuing months we’ve done a good amount of soul-searching (no pun intended) as to the direction of our lives, answers have remained elusive.

If anything, the experience has been a testament to the importance of taking time out to travel. A week spent on the road — or in one’s city but outside of routine — can turn out to be more meaningful and memorable than years spent plugging away towards a vague notion of progress. The irony is that it is these routines (our careers, jobs, etc.) that we allow to define us.

During my lunch hour today, I sat at Gwanghwamun park and stared off towards the misty silhouette of Mount Bukak while noshing on a PB&J. I couldn’t help but indulge the thought that, were it not for human politics, I could trudge right over it, then scale Mount Bukhan beyond that and march onwards until China. The notion was inspiring. These borders are fabrications, permeable to our imagination and will.

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A Bicycle, $1.50, and the Greatest Afternoon

IT WAS SHAPING UP to be a disappointing morning. I stumbled sleepily from bed and into the kitchen, knocking over the recycle bin along the way and littering a blizzard of hole punches onto the carpet. Sitting on the floor and trying to gather them into a pile, I grumbled to myself about how all I wanted was some juice…

Things got a little better when I noticed a note that my fiancee had left me, telling me I was her “hottie from hottingham.” I had the day off from work and so the hours were all mine – I just had no idea where to begin. For a checklist-making man like myself, this was a very bad thing.

In the back of my mind I knew there were things that needed done: research for articles I wanted to write, studying Korean, blogging, emails. I started by doing none of that and browsing pictures on flickr instead, sipping coffee and being jealous of a friend’s recent trip to Berlin. Then came the inevitable waves of restlessness. By the time I sat down to do a bit of study my work ethic had crumbled, and after scribbling a few sentences of Korean all I wanted to do was sit in bed and eat cookies. I took a shower.

I was a mess of procrastination. I did laundry. I washed dishes. I downloaded music. I checked my email at least ten times. It was coming up on 12:30 and I hadn’t done a damn thing worth doing, and I was suddenly reminded of what co-worker had said to me the previous night: “It’s ironic that we spend all our time at work wishing we were doing something else, and then when we have our own time we just end up taking a nap.” I was like a dog spinning circles trying to find the perfect spot to lay down – only I never found it. I got back in bed, and wished for a do-over.

After 15 minutes of breathing deeply and seeking my inner calm, I came to a realization. In doing each of my menial chores I had been seeking an escape from my restlessness. Before each activity I had convinced myself that it was utterly necessary to finish it before starting my day, and meanwhile the hours had slithered by. What I really needed was to do something simply for the sake of doing – something I could throw myself into for my own enjoyment. Taking the advice of a recent commenter, I did what few would think to do in the days following a torrential snowfall; I went for a spin on my bicycle.

In the middle of my third Wisconsin winter my enthusiasm for riding had been dwindling; slushy streets and below-zero windchills meant I only hopped on my bike when necessary, and it was rarely a joyful event. But with cycling being my only source of exercise this also meant I had become a bit sloth-like, with fitful cabin fever. And so determined to again feel the wind on my face and the the joy of gliding over the streets, I set out.

For the first mile or so I pedaled uneasily over the snow, nearly biffing it as I rounded a corner and hit a chunk of ice. Internally I fought with myself over whether this was really a good idea – my legs continued to spin through sheer unconscious will, like passing prayer beads between my fingers.

I was headed around the lake, a familiar 12-mile route through Madison’s suburbs – an easy cruise in the summertime, now made interesting by gaping potholes and unrideable stretches of heavy snow. Within the first mile my shoes were soaked through, but I welcomed the stimulation, the invigorating cold and racing pulse. It was my tiny adventure, my personal escape. I felt giddy as I careered down slippery hills, conquering the abandoned streets.

As I rode, threads of blue were woven into the sky’s patchwork grey – there was even a smattering of sunshine. Having almost completed my circumnavigation, I paused at an empty park that was covered in knee-high snow – it caked onto the cuffs of my pants as I trudged through, my feet now partially numb. I noticed sled tracks spilling down the nearby hill and suddenly wished for my old plastic toboggan.

Cruising back into downtown I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. Stopping into a neighborhood market the first thing that caught my eye was the pastry case, and I began to salivate over the seductive glaze of the apple fritters. I bought one for myself, and a plain glazed to take home for my fiancee – the fact that any bakery purchase came with a free cup of coffee sealed the deal, and for $1.50 I was a happy man.

I stepped outside, inhaling my sweet lunch and warming up with slurps of coffee. Though I’d left my list of tasks untouched, the afternoon had been properly siezed – and I felt content with that. Sensation tingled back into my toes, and I hopped back up on the saddle to pedal the rest of the way home.

Photo: lake monona, by click-see. madison.


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