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.