Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Korean wedding or two

There were huge flower displays in front of the church.
They were all unique and had writing on the ribbons;
I think they were gifts to the bride and groom.

Pretty standard-looking Christian church
and pretty typical "Western" wedding ceremony.
Just to the right of the bride and her father, note the
mother and grandmother in traditional Korean gowns.
Aaron and I sometimes marvel at the interesting situations we find ourselves in, not the least of which was sitting through two weddings in one day on our vacation in Seoul. It all began with Mr. Bahng, the Korean representative for Aaron's company. He's a very kind and conscientious man who I think felt some responsibility to make sure we were taken care of during our stay. When Aaron invited him to come to dinner with us one evening, he made a counter-offer inviting us to join his family for a wedding and lunch reception at their church. They're Presbyterian (he later informed me that there are about 10 million Protestant and 3 million Catholic Christians in Korea, and while most of the rest of the country claims Buddism as their religion, only about 10 million practice faithfully). Of course we worried about being "wedding crashers" but apparently it is very normal for people from the community to attend weddings even when they don't know the families. A large number of guests indicates an important event so the bride and groom are happy; and the guests are happy about a free lunch.
He picked us up at our hotel and we went directly to the wedding lunch, which we ate before the ceremony. Their church has outgrown their banquet hall space so the reception happens in two shifts. We stood out as the only white people in the room and felt a little uncomfortable not knowing the customs and traditions. More stainless steel chopsticks here- oh bother! There was an unbelievable amount and variety of dishes, including a fish as big as a table (I'm not exaggerating this) that they were cutting up and serving sushi style (raw) in the buffet line. Wow!
The ceremony seemed pretty standard- father walks the bride down the aisle to the groom; we pray; the pastor talks a lot; the bride and groom say their vows; there is some nice music; the pastor talks more and then there's the recessional- dah dah da dum dum dum dum...
I gotta say that it loses a little something when you can't understand a single word that's being said.
After that wedding, we took a break at Mr. Bahng's apartment nearby, watched some golf on TV (he even showed us how he practices his swing in the living room) and then took a short driving tour of downtown Seoul. Then we were back to pick up his wife and her friend at church and we drove for what felt like hours to get to another wedding across the city. By this point Aaron and I had had more than enough for the day but didn't really know how to get out of it. At the second wedding we didn't get to eat anything and we just stood in the back of the room during the ceremony. It felt a bit like being at prom, officially the action was inside the banquet room but everyone was hanging out and talking just outside. We didn't stay long; apparently it's enough to show your face and give them some money.
You'd think that the day would finally be over then but we still hadn't been to the tailor shop to order the custom-made suit that Aaron wasn't sure he quite wanted or met Mr. Bahng's son and wife (with their dog in tow) out for another traditional Korean dinner! More to come...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stainless steel chopsticks...

...are ridiculously slippery! I should have been practicing weeks, if not months, ago. Of course I've used chopsticks before and thought I was reasonably adept with them. But it had been a while and I had never encountered stainless steel. Of course Aaron, who has spent several weeks in Korea in the last year, seemed to have no problems, while I struggled and dropped things and just failed to get anything into my mouth.

Korean dinners involve about a thousand different little dishes covering the entire table. Everyone just reaches across for what they want. That means that whatever you've grabbed has to hover in midair while traveling across other dishes, other people's drinks and bowls before it ever reaches your own territory. It's intimidating! The first dinner I had was with Aaron's colleagues- five Korean men, one German, Aaron and me, the only female. Of course I wanted to make a good impression and seem cultured and worldly. But alas my neighbor at the table saw me fighting the dreaded chopstick cross-over and asked the waitress to bring forks. So discouraging! But then it was a matter of pride so I refused the fork and continued my efforts. Eventually I got full. Or maybe I just got tired of trying, I can't really remember which came first.

The food was good but I couldn't tell you what most of it was. There were so many different things, literally dozens of bowls. I saw some tentacles with little suckers all along one side so I'm pretty sure it was a squid or octopus. I ate it because it was easy to pick up and it tasted fine, just a little chewy. We had a bowl of little crunchy dried fishes. They tasted fishy. A lot of the food was spicy, I mean really spicy, and it was mostly seafood, vegetables and noodles. Every Korean meal I ate contained kim chi, which must qualify it as the national dish. Kim chi is fermented vegetables flavored with red pepper paste and fermented fish paste (or something like that). There are many variations but it was absolutely essential, so much so that the Air France meals of chicken and noodles were accompanied by kim chi. The Koreans have to have it.

As much as we enjoyed our meals of traditional Korean food, we could not eat it for every meal. But big cities have good food of all kinds so we tried a great Thai restaurant and had some delicious Chinese food. We even went to Kraze Burger, which was a pretty good representation of an American burger joint. We went to an Italian place for lunch one day and a French bakery another day. So we ate well, which in my mind is one of the best aspects of traveling.

I'll sign off for now but I have lots more to tell about my Asian adventure. Meanwhile, I'm going to practice eating oatmeal with chopsticks- next time I will be ready!

Monday, April 26, 2010

A week in South Korea

Whenever I travel, I think I will write blogs along the way but never seem to fit it in. I'm sorry about that. I'm just back from my first visit to Asia! Aaron was in Korea on business for the fourth time, and probably last time for this project. He has found it very interesting there, so different from Western culture. I don't know when I'll ever have another opportunity so I decided I would meet him there at the end of the work week and we would spend several days exploring. We started in Incheon, where Aaron's customer was and then stayed five days in the center of Seoul.

This is what I always imagined an Asian city would look like (probably from too many movies)-rows and rows of brightly colored signs along narrow streets. It's even more overwhelming at night when all the signs are lit. After nearly two years of rural life, cities can cause sensory overload for me. There are so many things to look at, so much noise, so many people moving fast in all directions, traffic zipping by, the stink of exhaust and city sewers, etc. Seoul might even make the heads of some European city dwellers spin a bit. It's the eighth largest metropolis in the world, with about 20 million people in the city and surrounding area. And it's dense. It seems that everyone lives in a highrise apartment complex. I guess when you live on a peninsula, you just start stacking up.

They are coming up with another solution to the lack of space, though. They're filling in the Yellow Sea. It's called "land reclamation" and they basically drain the water out and fill in the space with dirt. Can you imagine where they get that much dirt? The whole area where Aaron was working sits on reclaimed land, which was underwater just over five years ago. Now it's a planned city that is half filled with sleek silver skyscrapers and corporate buildings while the other half holds vast fields of dirt, weeds and trash. All the municipal infrastructure is there- nice brick sidewalks, pretty parks, six lane roads with stoplights- but no people! It's a very strange place at the moment.

But in Seoul there are plenty of people! They have a great subway system and we read that over five and a half million people ride it every day. I believe it. The only time we had a place to sit down was when we rode to the airport at 5:45 AM. But it's fast and cheap and goes everywhere so we took it all over the city. Normally we prefer to walk around a new city to really get a feel for it but Seoul is just too big to see on foot. Thanks to the subway, a tour bus and Aaron's business colleauge we were able to pack a lot into our week. I'll tell you all about it...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Now that's a church!

It's so tall you can't get it all in one photo.

Here you can get a better idea of
the scale. Look at the tiny van!

A few weeks ago Aaron and I spent the weekend in Köln (that's what the Germans call Cologne and since it's their city I figure we should use their name). The absolute centerpiece of the city is the Cathedral. It is the 3rd tallest church in the world (516 feet) and in the top 10 largest churches in the world (over 85,000 square feet).
I arrived in town by train and as I stepped out of the station, the cathedral towered over me and the entire city center. The exterior is a quite ornate Gothic style but I couldn't help feeling sad about how dirty it was. If you don't believe in air pollution take a look at the second photo above. All the way on the left you can see a column that looks like it was recently scrubbed- that's the real color of the building!
Like most churches we've seen in Europe, it has been under construction for most of its life. It was started in 1248 but wasn't completed until 1880. Amazingly it survived WWII bombings fairly well, unlike the rest of the city which was 95% destroyed.
We even took the dizzying, crowded and claustrophobia-inducing walk up a 509-step spiral staircase to the spire. We had great views of the city and the Rhine River. Near the top we saw the church bells, the biggest of which weighs 24 tons and is called Fat Peter. I can't imagine how they got it up there.
Inside, the church is cold, damp and vast but in spite of all that, I still felt reverent. The sheer size is meant to humble you and reminds you of how small you are compared to God's greatness. There was some really lovely art but we missed some of the best pieces. We learned that Lent is not the best time to tour a Catholic church -the thousand-year-old crucifx was draped and the altars were all closed.
We also went to a chocolate museum in Köln! Maybe I'll tell you about that next time! You know how I am about chocolate...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Red Light therapy

It's not what you think! Though the red light district in nearby Hamburg is legendary, I'm talking about something completely different. I was sick last week with an awful cold- sneezing, runny nose, aches, etc. Our friends were insistent that I use their red lamp and that it would cure me within a day or two. The idea is to sit in front of this hot red light for 10-15 minutes every hour or so and it will take care of all your sniffles. I tried it out at their house because they basically sat it right in front of my face and I couldn't exactly say that I thought it was a bunch of hocus pocus.

I had to close my eyes because the lamp was so bright and I felt pretty silly trying to participate in conversation while blind and spotlighted in red. It didn't help that Aaron was singing The Police song, "Roxanne." You know the words, right? All the while I was wondering what possible difference it could make that the light was red versus any other color? Does the nose know?

After ten minutes I was very sleepy, my face was very warm and my nose was very drippy but I felt just as crappy as I had before. They sent the lamp home with me and- shhh, don't tell- I didn't use it again! But you know what? Two days later I felt better anyway.

So, I'm trying not to be disparaging of their attempt to help me and I am sure there are some home remedies of dubious efficacy that I've tried before. I guess I'm just a skeptic- there's not much I believe in without a double-blind, controlled study. Must be the scientist in me!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Someone wants to be my pet!

I know how lonely it can be, being the new kid on the block. And apparently this little guy feels it too. We recently got some new neighbors on our street and their cat, who seems to be strictly an "outside" pet, has been hanging around our house more and more.

It's really friendly and vocal, sitting by the door meowing to get our attention. And since many of our windows are full length it follows us around the house from the outside, watching us eat dinner in the kitchen and then looking at us sitting on the couch in the living room. Really funny!

My days at home can be long and we've missed our cat since moving here. This cute kitty seems to be begging to be ours. It's really tempting to open a can of tuna and leave the kitchen door ajar...