Monday, October 21, 2019

our new home in South Korea

We moved in to our Korean apartment nearly 3 months ago and I am finally getting around to doing a home tour! Between unpacking and finding space for everything, then furnishing and decorating, it's taken this long to feel ready to show it off. Luckily my pregnancy nesting stage has helped get it mostly finished up just in time for baby boy and our first visitors!

We didn't know before we arrived in Korea if we would be living on the Army base or off-post. Housing on post is based on rank, family size and availability and while it would definitely have it's perks and conveniences we were hoping to get approval to live off-post. We wanted to get a fuller experience of life in South Korea and we also suspected that we could get more apartment for our housing allowance off-base. Around day 2 of in-processing we got the go ahead to start our search outside the gates.

House hunting and working with realtors in Korea was a very different process than back in the States in a lot of ways. First of all, each realtor here has different listings which means we were basically expected and encouraged to meet with several different realtors during our search which felt a little awkward and rude but is just how things are done. I did a little research on the spouses facebook page before we arrived and got a couple ideas for realtors to contact and we ended up seeing properties with two different ones. They were both so nice and showed us similar properties but we found our new home with the second realtor. Our realtor is now also our property manager while we are here. Basically he is the go between for us and the apartment owner. He is who we pay our rent and utilities to and who we contact if we have any problems with our apartment or life in general in Korea that we need help navigating. So far he's helped me translate all our appliances in the new house and I have a feeling I'll be texting him a lot of questions.  He and his wife took us out to dinner, our first Korean BBQ, and we had such a great night so I am really looking forward to getting to know their family better during our time in Korea.

We had a list of things we wanted in our apartment and this one checks mostly all the boxes. I feel like when we stepped into the apartment we kind of forgot to do that really thorough run-down of our list because we were so excited and distracted by how it looked and felt to us. It's just such a cool and different space than the other places we were shown. It wasn't until the day after we decided to sign the lease, as I was going back through pictures, that I realized it didn't have a dishwasher- but no worries our realtor got the landlord to give us a Korean mini dishwasher which I may or may not ever use but it's there.

Our apartment has 3 (huge) bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, plus a great open kitchen and a large living and dining area. It's actually several hundred more square feet than our house in Washington and it feels really open and spacious which will be essential with a toddler and another baby boy running around. There is an underground parking garage and the best playground that's always bursting with other moms and their littles. It's also really close and convenient for T.J. to commute to the Army base (we are close enough to see helicopters throughout the day and hear revelry at 5pm) and it's in walking distance to tons of cafes and restaurants.

There are always a few quirks to living overseas and our apartment in South Korea is no exception. They're not necessarily bad things just new challenges to get used to. We've quickly learned to not be surprised when something isn't how we expect it to be. We take so many conveniences for granted living in the U.S. and that's just not how most of the world works.

Yes I miss having a dishwasher, and sorting the trash is basically a part time job, and I will never understand why the light-switch for the kitchen is not located in the kitchen but rather in the living room....  But even with it's quirks, it was the place that I stepped in to that first week in Korea- still jet lagged, still reeling- and it felt like where my little family would fit.  Our retreat, our comfort zone, our safe place to come back to from adventures in the middle of so much unfamiliarity. I love our home!

And now for the video tour of our new home...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Lanterns and Oktoberfest in South Korea

Everything I do these days I wonder if it will be the last time before baby brother makes his arrival. Will this be my last trip to the grocery store? Our last Sunday in church without a newborn? My last time tucking Tommy in to bed as my only son? So far I've had to make additional trips for more groceries, and another Sunday has come and gone. But I can safely say that we have taken our last vacation as a family of three. The other weekend we journeyed south to explore Namhae Island. Our drive down took us pass stair stepped tea fields, green mountains with tunnels cut through them and eventually brought us to the ocean.

In case you're curious the Korean word for ocean is "bada" which I only know because of Tommy's "My First Book of Korean Words" which informs me that B is for bada, the sea deep and wide, Korea sticks out and has one on each side. Yeah...we've read it a time or two.

Anywho... I had heard about Namhae Island because they curiously host an Oktoberfest in a German village on the island. Huh? A German village in South Korea sounded too quirky to miss. Using google translate I managed to find an Airbnb that appeared to meet all our needs. The listing described it as a "pension" with waterfront views, just a quick drive to the German village, and the perfect home-base for exploring the rest of Namhae. Plus it specified a real bed not a floor mat which this very pregnant mama was not about. I wasn't entirely sure what was meant by "pension" but have decided it's like a mix between Bed and Breakfast (without the breakfast), a condo and a hostel.

We left Friday afternoon and on our way down we stopped in Jinju to check out their annual Lantern Festival along the Namgang River. The festival is in honor of the lantern lighting custom used to warn and prevent a Japanese invasion back in 1592. Giant lantern displays float up and down the river and line the banks. Floating bridges are erected to cross from side to side, there are tons of food stalls and vendors selling kits to make your own lantern wishes.
Obviously since we arrived in the late afternoon the lanterns weren't lit up yet but the displays were impressive nonetheless.  Since we had our stroller with us we weren't able to easily get down to the riverside walkways but we were able to enter the Jinjuseong Fortress set up high overlooking the river and full of its unique scenes and characters. The fortress was open for free during the festival (at least at the time we arrived, not sure if there is a fee to enter the festival once nighttime arrives) and we were happy to discover a lush and peaceful oasis in the middle of this bustling city. The battlements were shaded with trees just beginning to show the hint of fall and lined with lantern archers and soldiers, tigers and other animals, Korean folk scenes and of course Baby Shark characters... 
I would have loved to see it once the sun set but we decided to get out before it got more congested and continue making our way South to Namhae Island. We crossed the bridge onto the island and then fully dependent on our gps made our way to the German village in search of dinner and a gander at what Oktoberfest translates to in South Korea.
There is a historical reason for the existence of a German town in this least likely location. In the 60's and 70's South Korea sent thousands of workers (mainly nurses and miners) to Germany in exchange for funds. The homes and village were built to honor and reward the workers who returned to home to South Korea. It's a quaint little part of the island with fantastic seaside views. We parked and began winding our way up the hilly streets following the sounds of KPop to where the main Oktoberfest festivities seemed to be taking place. Once there we grabbed a bite to eat from a couple different food stalls and then made our way back down and finally on to our Airbnb.
Since we arrived after dark we got to take in the full view from our pension's little porch in the morning. Tommy excitedly explored the shared deck which had a converted school bus where at some point during the day you can fix yourself a cup of coffee. (Just not in the morning. For some reason it seems this country prefers to drink its coffee towards the end of day.)
We then got back in the car and set off on a little scenic coastal drive winding our way around the island until we came to Sangju Silver Sands Beach. Tommy promptly fell flat on his bottom soaking his shorts but happily buried his toys in the sand, splashed in the surf, and kept a close eye on a little crab. We had pretty much the whole beach to ourselves for a good chunk of the morning and enjoyed the sunshine and salty air.
Since we hadn't really brought the gear for a full beach day we determined to find a good seafood restaurant for lunch near the ocean. Much easier said than done.  There were dozens of restaurants tucked along the streets near the beach but none appeared to be open at noon on a Saturday except for one that was full of Korean woman who were apparently having a private luncheon which we discovered after the owner waved us out. This is is maybe one of the strangest parts of living here. Shops and restaurants just do not keep predictable hours, you cannot expect a coffee shop to be open before 9AM or a restaurant to serve lunch at lunchtime. And even if you find a place open one day there's no guarantee it will be open at the same time the next day. Oh well... we are learning to roll with it. 

We drove back towards our Airbnb and pulled in to a parking lot where we could see actual people eating inside the restaurant. Of course this restaurant had zero English which is fine, but also zero pictures to point at so we pointed at another table's spread and after some more gesturing we were brought lunch some sort bulgogi bbq with vegetables that we grilled at the table. We left full and satisfied that we successfully managed to feed ourselves and our toddler, no small feat here. 

Tommy took his afternoon nap and T.J. and I also rested since trying to navigate and communicate and eat in a foreign country is sometimes just plain exhausting. Later in the day we headed back into the German village to explore some more and grab dinner. The village is situated up high overlooking the ports and many of the cafes and restaurants have wide open air patios for enjoying the views like we did. We had an easier time getting dinner than we did lunch that day as I can read German a lot better than I can read Hangul. Plus, T.J. was pleased that Ayinger beer is the same in any language.

Although the German village and the island's seascapes attract tourists (both Korean and Westerners) I can count the number of foreigners I saw the entire weekend on one hand. The farther we venture from Seoul (and the Army base) the more we stand out and the farther from anything familiar we feel. It can be awkward, uncomfortable, humbling, and daunting but at the same time I am reminded what a privilege it is to see a piece of South Korea and a piece of the world, that I never even knew existed and that few have the chance to experience. Namhae Island, while quirky in its charm, was a fun little getaway for our last adventure without baby brother in tow.

***Here's a link to our Airbnb which I would highly recommend, though I would also recommend you bring your own bath towels so you're not drying off with the provided hand towels like we were... and if you are new to Airbnb sign up using this link and you can get a credit towards your first stay.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

and the third trimester slips by

Oh sweet baby boy. Somehow this pregnancy has slipped by while we were settling in and unpacking boxes and now I'm 34 weeks we are so very close to meeting you! You wiggle and squirm and kick and roll doing your best, I suspect, to make sure we don't forget you're right here with us in the thick of it. You don't have monthly updates, or a picture of your mommy each week next to the appropriate sized fruit like your big brother but I promise your arrival is no less eagerly anticipated. Clothes still need to be washed, freezer meals need to be made, and a hospital bag needs to be packed but even though my to-do list is growing I feel so much more relaxed going in to this birth. I'm not worried about whether I'll know what you need, how to feed you or bathe you, silly little things I fretted over during my first pregnancy. I know that, just like with Tommy, you'll teach me and I will learn how to be your mama. Your cues, your cries, your expressions, will become a part of me like your hiccups and fluttery kicks have been a part of me these past nine months.

You'll be sleeping in our room for the first little bit of your life but my dream is for you to share a room with your big brother. Setting up this shared brother room when we moved in to our new apartment definitely brought out the water works in this nesting mama. It makes my heart soar to imagine my two little boys sleeping in there together, chattering as they fall asleep, and probably keeping each other up some nights.
I try to picture what our days will look like with you alongside and I'm trying not to wonder or worry too much about how I'll manage nap times and leaving the house and instead just picture sweet mornings with you laying beside us on the floor, all herky-jerky like newborns do, as we read books and play with trains and I can just see Tommy piling up his favorite books beside you and telling you the names of all the trains, not quite understanding why you're not bigger so you can play with him. While there won't be the quiet endless days of nursing-napping-nursing and laying in bed cuddling until 11 and binge watching Gilmore Girls (probably more likely to be Thomas and Friends) I have a feeling these newborn days will be just as sweet the second time around.

Here's where things stand with our little fella #2:

How Far Along: nearly 35 weeks

Size of baby boy: a head of cabbage. Yep that sounds about right. I definitely have that "smuggling a big ol' cabbage under my shirt" look about me. I simply can't imagine how I will possibly get bigger in the last few weeks.

Weight Gain: We don't have a scale in the house and at my appointment at the Korean hospital my weight was in kilograms so it went in one ear and out the other but I'd estimate close to 20lbs since I was up 17lbs around 30 weeks. I'll try to pay better attention at my next appointment.

Gender: BOY. And I think we've mostly settled on a name but won't be sharing until he's born. We told Tommy though but I don't think I have to worry about him spilling the beans no matter how much our family may press him.

Cravings: Sandwiches. Unfortunately there is no Publix or Jimmy John's here so I've settled with buying the fixings myself (including lots of pickles and banana peppers please). Also the usual, bbq chips and lemonade, which are my constant pregnancy craving both times!

Symptoms: I've had a pretty easy pregnancy so I can't complain... much. But around my bra line and rib cage I am really sooooo sore and achy. It feels like a combination of nerve pain, stretching and just that my torso is quite small and quite out of room. I remember having this a bit during my pregnancy with Tommy but it seems so much more pronounced this time, however as we round the final bend I've accepted that these aches and pains are probably here to stay until the little guy arrives.

Looking forward to: You mean aside from the obvious - holding a teeny tiny wrinkly newborn boy in my arms again and smelling the top of his head and kissing his perfect little face??  Watching his daddy hold another son and then getting to introduce him to his big brother?? Not much can top that!

I go back for my next appointment at the end of the month and they are going to do another ultrasound and getting to see baby boy is always a treat. I had an ultrasound at 32 weeks as well to follow up on baby's kidneys (all perfectly normal) and they noted that baby boy seemed to be measuring ahead which is why they want to peak at him again in case my due date needs adjusting again. If you recall... at my very first appointment they moved my due date back from October 22nd to November 2nd. My guess is he'll come sometime between the two but whenever he decides to come, I'm just hoping that I go in to labor on my own like I did with Tommy.
Even though I know how this all works and I know more or less what to expect this time around there's still so little control in my hands, a true surrender to my body, my baby, and the Lord's timing. It's amazing and exciting anticipating the day I will wake up and it will be the Big Day, go time. It's like being a kid again waiting for Christmas, without actually knowing when Christmas will come. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Our Weekend in Seoul

This Labor Day Weekend T.J. was on call at the hospital in Seoul but we decided to take our chances and book a hotel room for all of us to stay up there for a couple nights. We found a suite at the Aloft hotel in the Myeongdong area of the city, which we picked mostly because of it's location and partly because they had on-site parking! Booking a hotel in a city you're still verrry unfamiliar with is a bit of a gamble but this one paid off. It was the perfect home base for us to get out an explore, close to a metro, plus smack dab in the middle of innumerable shops, late night street markets and more restaurants than you could eat at in a lifetime.

We decided to get a later start with the hopes that Tommy would nap in the car and be rested by the time we arrived at our hotel, ready to go once we got checked in.  Needless to say that never works and Tommy didn't nap plus he managed to spill (on purpose) his entire water bottle all over himself so he arrived at the hotel shirtless and not exactly rested. Still, we dropped our bags and then headed out to see Namsan Seoul Tower which was a convenient walk from our hotel. 
We took the inclined elevator up to the cable car and bought our tickets however just before we were about to get in the queue for the cable car, T.J. got a call and after a little back and forth we headed back down the elevator and then he headed to work leaving Tommy and I to figure out a plan B. I'll admit that initially I didn't handle the change in plans all that well as I was pregnant and hormonal disappointed and slightly overwhelmed being dropped off in the middle of Seoul on my own. But we rallied and cheered ourselves up with mandu, several yummy things on sticks, and of course a 32cm ice cream cone!
 T.J. had to work for a bit longer in the morning so Tommy and I decided to try our luck again at Seoul Tower and this time we succeeded! Going first thing in the morning also meant that it was much less crowded when we arrived and we were able to get right on the cable car. At the top we were greeted with panoramic views of the city plus a rainbow of colorful love locks lining every available surface.
 I decided not to purchase the lift tickets to take us further to the top of tower and just let Tommy run around the base which had plenty to see plus several cafes where I treated us to a churro before we headed back down. We headed back towards our hotel and picked up lunch to go from Paris Baguette to take back to T.J. Tommy went down for a nap and mom and dad crashed too. Once we were all rested we dithered for a bit on what to do with the rest of the day before deciding to trek over to Gyeongbokung Palace. This had my initial plan for earlier in the day as I wanted us to be able to see the changing of the guard (which takes place at 10am and 2pm) but going later in the afternoon still sounded like a fun idea!

We found the metro, not the one we thought we were getting on at but still in the right direction, and after buying a new T-money (metro card) for myself since I'd left mine back in the hotel, and a quick line transfer, we came above ground at the palace. Unfortunately our little delays and misreading the details online meant we arrived 10 minutes after the last entrance (it changed on September 1, the day we visited, from 5:30pm to 5:00pm).  I had to just laugh and shrug my shoulders at this point since it was very in keeping with the theme of the weekend. We wandered around for a little bit at the main entrance gate and then hopped back on the metro in search of dinner, as yummy food seems to always compensate for the best laid plans.
 We successfully found our destination, Gangnam Myeonok,  tucked down a side street and up on the 5th floor, and were shown to a table right away.  We ordered galbi jjim (the small size is enough for 2 people to share) and dumplings. Soup and kimchi arrived first followed by our steaming bowl of fall-off-the-bone braised short ribs and we happily tucked in.
After dinner we wandered around the bustling Myeongdong roads which fill up with even more people and vendors the later it gets. It's such a fun scene and I definitely need to go back and do some shopping!  We grabbed more ice cream and a yummy hotteok (korean donut thing filled with some sort of brown sugar type goodness) and Tommy charmed every little girl he passed.
The next day we were determined to see Gyeongbokgung Palace! We grabbed a quick (but delicious) breakfast at an adorable cafe. That is one of my favorite things about South Korea so far- the sheer number of delicious and unique cafes with different styles, themes, creative and beautiful desserts and drinks! They may turn me into a "coffee drinker" yet! 
Filled up on pastry, we hustled to the metro, this time knowing exactly what we needed to do. Of course that didn't stop me from accidentally getting on the metro as the doors were closing leaving T.J. and Tommy waiting on the platform for the next train. Oops. We reconnected at our destination and arrived at the perfect time to see the changing of the guard which takes place twice a day at 10am and 2pm inside the Ganghwamun gate. We bought entrance tickets (only ₩3,000 each) and got a good spot to watch. 
The palace is MASSIVE which was sort of unexpected since it's smack dab in the middle of this bustling mega city. It's surrounded by modern towers but in the distance you can also see beautiful soaring mountains.  We seriously underestimated how much time we'd need to properly take in all the palace grounds. I definitely plan to go back and set aside more time to explore and also try to hop on one of the free English tours. Even in our quick breeze through, it was impressive to take in. 
I've realized that I made a small mistake when planning this little weekend and forgot to check my expectations before we headed out. I had this picture perfect plan in my head of what we'd try to do each day- a list of 1-2 big things to check off each day, plus some recommendations for restaurants to check out and foods to not miss. Of course, I should know by now, married to someone with an unpredictable job, with a two year, navigating a foreign city, not to get too attached to any plans.... I just need to let the weekends unfold as they need to and enjoy every sweet moment wrapped up in the unexpected ones. Plans or no plans it was a fun weekend exploring more of this city that I'm quickly falling in love with!

**If you want to see more of our weekend in Seoul check out my youtube video here!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Gakwonsa Temple

On Friday we decided to break out of our bubble and drive further than the distance from our apartment to the army base. Driving in South Korea so far has been exactly like I was warned told it would be. Let's just use the word "interesting" and leave it at that. But even though the public transportation system is excellent sometimes, especially with a toddler, having your own car and being on your own timetable is easier than figuring out buses, trains, and taxis. We plugged in our destination to Waze and headed out onto the open road feeling pretty confident we could manage a short 30 minute ride. Well that 30 minutes turned into about an hour with three unexpected trips through tolls and several u-turns but we finally reached Gakwonsa Temple.
This buddhist temple is tucked into the green hills outside Cheonan and was such a pretty escape. We pulled up to a nearly empty parking lot and took in our first look at the stunning temple grounds. Gakwonsa is an active temple which means it's not simply a tourist destination but the actual home of monks and a place of worship, and meditation for buddhist practitioners. It also means that it is open early to visitors (4am-6pm are the hours I could find online), which we appreciated because so far we've noticed that many places in South Korea tend to open later in the day and we prefer to get up and go so we can get back before nap time.
This temple was enshrined in 1977 to pray for the reunification of South and North Korea. We know little to none about Buddhism so we hesitantly approached the first structure, not wanting to disturb anyone or be disrespectful of their sacred space. Of course, with Tommy, quiet respect is not exactly a concept he understands and he's definitely not temple ready. Visitors are welcome to enter the temples as long as they remove their shoes. In the main temple you could see two large golden Buddhas that were stunning and would have been interesting to see closer up but we satisfied ourselves with peering in from a distance instead since there were people gathered to meditate, chant and pray, not just snoop around and snap photos.
We then climbed up another set of stairs and the trees opened up to reveal a large space centered around a huge bronze buddha. It used to be the largest in South Korea and, though it is now the third largest, it's still striking. Tommy pointed and exclaimed "big people!!" when he saw the statue before quickly running on to see the colorful paper lanterns strung up around the base.

All of the signs and descriptions at the temple were in hangul but with a little help from google translate, it is my understanding that the buddha's open palms displayed in this statue symbolize that all are are welcome here and his long ear lobes are meant to show that he is listening to to the world. 
Had it been less muggy and had there been less mosquitos we might have explored some of the wooded trails that lead higher into the hills. We decided instead to add this to our list of places to return to when family visits in the fall and the leaves are changing, or in the spring when the flowers are blossoming. I've also heard it's especially beautiful all done up for buddha's birthday sometime in May. While we probably need to read up on the history of buddhism to better understand all the symbolism and practices we noticed, I consider our first experience at a buddhist temple a peaceful morning away from the hustle and bustle. 

**Check out my youtube video from our morning at Gakwonsa temple here