Monday, April 12, 2021

Springtime in the Secret Garden

Saturday morning the Army casually dropped the news that Seoul was no longer off-limits! It’s been on the USFK restricted list since before Thanksgiving so when we saw the official announcement that as of Sunday 6am the entire peninsula was open to us we quickly booked a hotel room at the Army lodge up in Yongsan for later that evening. Our plan was to head up after naps, have dinner at our hotel and then be ready to head out into the city first thing in the morning. 

From our Seoul To-Do List we decided to check off the Changdeokgung Palace and its secret garden.  We had previously visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace on our first family weekend in Seoul what now seems like ages ago. It is probably the more recognizable of the palaces in Seoul and we throughly enjoyed seeing the changing of the guard there and exploring that massive royal complex. But after this weekend T.J. and I both agree that Changdeokgung is our favorite. It’s less overwhelming in size, more peaceful, it meanders and winds around, forcing you to duck through open doorways and peek around corners to find a new surprise each time like a surprising green space with a 700 year old juniper tree. Though it's maze-like, there are signs designating a tour-route you can follow if your strong-willed toddlers are game. 

(I wonder how many royal babies from dynasties past tumbled off these steps??) 
And then, tucked into the back corner, a walled garden within the walled complex exists like an oasis within the city. It’s called a secret garden (“biwon”) or huwon (“rear garden”) and was reserved exclusively for the use of the king and palace women during the Joseon Dynasty. Today it’s tranquility is preserved by limiting the number of visitors allowed per day. A separate ticket with a reserved entrance time is needed to access the secret garden from with the palace walls. We purchased these online ahead of time and were able to show our mobile tickets for entry, which made it much simpler and guaranteed we didn't miss out on the garden.  Typically, pre-covid, you have to enter the huwon with a guide. Since covid, they’ve cut back the numbers allowed even more and for now it’s simply self guided, which means we probably missed a lot of its unknown charms. However, with two little wild ones in tow it probably worked out for the best to be able to move at their pace. But even with a sweaty hangry baby and a toddler we were able to appreciate this little unexpected paradise. 
After we found our way out, we wandered around the Bukchon Hanok village which buts right up next to the palace. This hilly neighborhood is known for its traditional and historic hanok architecture. It's full of private homes, guest houses, quaint coffee shops, artists boutiques and little shops with tiled roofs and charm to spare. 
We didn't stay too long though before getting back on the metro and making our way over to Itaewon. There we found a table outside at one of our favorite spots and enjoyed lunch outside on this beautiful spring day before heading back to our car and saying goodbye to Seoul again, although hopefully not for 6 months this time. 

*If you want to peak inside the walls of Changdeokgung Palace and its Secret Garden check out my vlog here

Sunday, March 28, 2021

the end of winter in Pyeongchang

Before moving to Korea we heard from a lot of fellow army families that they loved everything about their experience in Korea except for the air quality (this was pre-covid). Coming from the states where I have never once questioned or really even wondered if the air quality was healthy for myself or my kids to be out in, this was hard to understand and appreciate before we moved here. My attitude was well, the entire population of Korea deals with it so I'm sure it can't be all that bad. We have now spent two winters here and I can tell you that it is that bad. The winter months here tend to see the worse levels of air pollution and this winter was especially hard because, thanks to covid, we were restricted from seeking relief from the bad air at our usual indoor escapes like cafes, kids’ play places, the mall.  Walking outside for fresh air, spending time outdoors without first checking the AQI monitor... this is a privilege I will never ever take for granted again and the thing I am most excited about for our return to America.  

Thankfully Spring is blooming and I am so ready to greet it with open arms. Cherry blossoms on every corner, warmer temperatures and cleaner air! It is hands down my favorite season in Korea and it almost makes up for the long dreary months before it.  But before we said a fond farewell to winter we squeezed in one last cold weather hurrah at the end of February in Pyeongchang. 

Pyeongchang is a 3 hour drive north east from where we live and was the host of the 2018 winter Olympics. T.J.'s unit had planned a little overnight retreat at a ski resort there and we decided to extend our stay an extra night since that's a bit further than I like to drive with the kids for just one day. We booked two nights in a "korean/western apartment" type condo at the Yongpyong Resort and set off after lunchtime, always foolishly optimistic that the kids will just nap in the car.... they didn't. 

After checking in to our room we bundled up and headed out to explore the resort. The second his feet touched the snow Tommy demanded skis and poles and a gondola ride like he didn't just learn all those words five minutes earlier.  We compromised and got him a snowball scooper before meeting up with friends for dinner- yummy Korean fried chicken, pizza and beer. 
We headed back to our room where we tucked the boys into the bedroom, Tommy in the bed and Will in the pack n play. Then T.J and I unfolded our ondol beds out on the floor of the living room. We always try to book a hotel room with a separate space from the kids so we're not sneaking around or going to bed at 7pm. Normally we get two beds but that’s not always common in Korean hotels, in fact some rooms we looked at had zero western style beds, but this was our first experience with the korean futons. They're basically a suuuper thin mattress or a really thick comforter, which is a fancy way of saying we slept on the floor.... but the boys slept great and that's what counts.  

The next morning we bundled up again and walked over to a cafe for breakfast then headed over to the sledding hill so Tommy and T.J. could tube. We weren’t sure if Tommy would like this so we just bought a pass for a couple runs so he could feel it out. After his first ride down he came bounding off the tube with a huge smile and immediately hopped back on the lift so we grabbed more tickets. I wrangled Will while dad and big brother went again and again. He did agree to go down once with mom, and apparently I was too slow, but I loved watching his little eyes squeeze tight and his mouth break into the biggest cheese. I’m so glad he’s brave. It took me years to be as brave as he is, as confident as he is in new unfamiliar settings. 

After tubing we hopped on the gondola and rode to the summit. It was a leisurely ride and we got a better look at the many slopes and admired the view. Mostly we spent the ride listening to Will say “woOow” and point as we passed other gondola cars, and convincing both boys to sit on their bottoms. 
At the top we made our way out onto a windy sky walk with panoramic views of the (snow-less) peaks. Then headed inside to warm up and indulge in a yummy lunch of bulgogi, ramen, and katsu pork. Back at the bottom we settled Will down for a nap and the rest of us snuggled together on the floor/bed to watch a movie.  

After a rest we headed to one of our favorite Korea fixtures, the kids cafe. I mentioned it above but these "cafes" are like a cleaner, prettier, more awesome Discovery Zone- remember those?- and a lifesaver on bad air days, rainy days, or just an average Tuesday when you've run out of ways to say no to screen time. They are everywhere,  all over the country, all different styles, and themes, all fun! You pay an entrance fee per child and a smaller fee for the guardians, pop your shoes in the little lockers and let your wild child loose. Inside there is typically a place for the parents to get a coffee and a little snack, some even have massage chairs for you to enjoy while your toddler literally climbs the walls or plays in the ball pit. (Side note: are there any ball pits left in America? They are everywhere here!) And though we haven't taken advantage of this feature, you can also choose to drop-off your children, which I think is an excellent service to have especially at a ski resort.  Anyway... I could go on and on about my love for kids cafes and how much I'm going to miss them when we return to the states... but all that's to say is we hit up the Champion Black Belt kids cafe at the Yongpyong Resort so the boys could burn some energy before heading to dinner. It only backfired a bit when T.J. had to forcibly drag a certain three year old kicking and screaming out of there... but yeah... he slept well that night! 

We woke up to actual snow flurries but didn't linger too long before packing up and getting on the road home. This was like many of our other adventures in Korea where we left feeling like we wish we could come back again knowing we saw only a small fraction of Pyeongchang. But since we only have a limited number of months remaining in Korea we're trying to cross of new places on each excursion we're able to take. As much as we wish we could have gotten to explore and travel off the peninsula and around Asia, I will say that even with two years just in Korea we've barely scratched the surface on all there is to see and do in this beautiful and unexpected country. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

is this thing on?

 Hello... um, hi. It's me, Shannon. Dusting off the old blog here. I feel like somehow blogging isn't a thing anymore unless you're an influencer linking to the products for your nighttime skincare routine (which, by the way I do appreciate). But my mom still blogs, still typing away sharing her voice and her wisdom, a picture of her life in the season she's in and I still love to read it. And maybe one day my boys will wish I had written down more for them about what their mom and our little family was up to. And somehow I have an almost 18month old and while it seems impossible that I could ever forget the way he turns and looks at you and sticks his tongue out, or the way he immediately starts clapping  and bouncing whenever music comes on, or the way his big brother sings "when you pretend you can be anything" ... I don't want to leave it up to chance. 

So where am I? How am I? Basically I'm fine, we're fine, everything's fine. Like I said above, Will turned one a few months back and is becoming a toddler despite my best efforts to keep him a baby. I absolutely love this age so much. He's running, climbing, jumping, bouncing, dancing all over the place. But he's also so snuggly, giving big squeezes and pulling book after book off the shelves to read cuddled up in our laps.  His sweet little voice is trying new words every day and he loves to growl like a dinosaur and yell like a hooligan. He still nurses, sleeps great, and looks so much like his brother did at this age but with a mop of blonde hair instead of brown.


Speaking of his brother... Tommy and him are becoming actual friends.  I love watching them really play together and hearing the sounds of them chasing each other around, giggling and falling on top of each other is the loudest most joyful soundtrack in our house. Tommy is going to be four before I know it. He is so smart and nothing gets past him. If he hears a word he doesn't know he drills it down. He also loves to read and read and read with mommy and daddy.  He got a bunch of floor puzzles for Christmas this year and likes to do them all by himself and then ask us if we're so proud of him. We are! He asks endless questions, loves to sing loudly, has acquired quite the collection of airplanes, and is always coming up with new and elaborate ways to delay bedtime. One of the things that makes my heart so happy is all the little friends Tommy has made and hearing from their mamas how they all say Tommy is their best friend. I hope he makes and keeps friends easily his whole life long! Our neighborhood is full of little boys his age and he is never without a playmate. I hope we can find that wherever we go next. 

The countdown has started for our time left in Korea and Facetime has made the distance between us and our family seem a lot less than the 14 hours and 8,000 miles it actually is. I think everyone experienced a little homesickness this past year, even if you live just around the corner from family, we've all felt that tug of isolation and a longing to just be with our people. I knew I'd miss our family but I think it was made especially hard by that thing were all sick of talking about: covid. Rather than being busy and distracted with exploring Korea and all around Asia, going and doing as many things as we possibly could during our short assignment here, we were stuck in a groundhog's day loop, inside a very small bubble. And I'll admit that I often found myself thinking that if we were back in the states at least we could be with our family.  

But things have the illusion of settling down here. Restrictions are being lifted slowly but surely and there is hope for the remaining months we have left in Korea. I know we wont get to do even a fraction of the traveling I had imagined we would, but even now I wouldn't trade our time here. Despite some of the complaining I may have done, I still would have chosen to spend these strange months of social distancing, mask wearing, isolation in Korea.  We love this country, the community we've met, all the bizarre and wonderful quirks, the beauty we've seen. We got to- we're still getting to- experience life in a foreign country and explore a corner of the world very few people ever have a chance to see.  

We may never travel off the peninsula like we hoped to, but if nothing else, I want to leave here feeling like I did Korea right! We're putting some fun little trips on our calendar and even though traveling with two little ones, especially after spending so much time not going anywhere at all, can be overwhelming we're doing it. We're busting out of our comfort zone... and lets be honest... going anywhere I'm not familiar with the parking situation here is outside of my comfort zone. (Will I be able to fit my jeep into that tiny space? What if the parking garage doesn't accept foreign credit cards? If I park on the street will I get a ticket? Sometimes those questions keep me at home.) 

Our next duty station is still a bit up in the air and I strongly dislike (trying really hard not to use the word "hate" here...) the uncertainty and the feelings of being totally out of control over our lives. Since we can't do anything concrete just yet I have zillow searches saved for rental homes in several corners of the country, we've paid deposits on 4 preschools in almost as many states, and I've joined facebook spouse's groups for a couple different posts. So whenever we do get the final word I'll be ready. 

But I'm not going to be one of those people counting down the days until we leave because I know I'm going to be sad to say goodbye to this place we were lucky to call home for a short while.  We're on the downhill side of this assignment, though and before I know it... we'll be scheduling movers, selling our cars to a frazzled fresh-off-the-plane family, canceling phone plans and trying to remember where we stuck our U.S. sim cards, going to our favorite restaurants for last meals, saying goodbye to the friends and the playgrounds that made covid-19, HPCON-C measures bearable. Then it will be on to the next adventure!