Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stella journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

Being Nobody, Going Nowhere

Buddha-Meditation-TreeI can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learnt about Vipassana meditation. It could’ve been from reading this hilarious travel memoir of India, or from watching the excellent and poignant documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, about the technique being taught to inmates on death row in the American south. There were also fellow travelers I met ‘on the road’ who had done it (it’s like number three on the travel To Do List after a diving course and learning Thai massage).

So as I find my interest in meditation deepening, I wanted to tick it off my list too. So I applied to the center in New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. Being the chicken that I am, I didn’t read too much about it for fear of psyching myself out at the last minute. All I knew what that you couldn’t talk, read or write for ten days, had to get up at 4am, and could only eat twice a day. Oh, and you couldn’t use the Internet. The not talking part I could get on board with – being an introvert, it’s basically like normal life for me. But the other rules, they would probably kill me. Spoiler: they did not.

Having low or no expectations sometimes pays off. In this case, there were some nice surprises: we got our own little cabin that had a heater (being a cold-blooded reptile, this mattered in winter). Although bathrooms were shared, they were clean and the showers hot (for the first five minutes at least). The other people seemed normal (and didn’t turn up in straight jackets as I had initially imagined). The setting was gorgeous, full of native flora and fauna. Men and women were completely separate, except for the meditation hall, so I didn’t need to worry about being victimized by the intrusive male gaze. Nobody checked my bags and found the contraband candy and pen and paper that I had smuggled it. Win.

I gave it my best shot the first few days. I followed the rules, got up and 4am, worked hard huffing in and out through my nose for ten hours a day and rewarded myself with hot shower before bed at 9pm. By the fourth day, when the meditation technique changes and becomes more complex, requiring more dedication and concentration, I was losing interest. I started to ignore the 4am incessant donging of the bell. I would give up midway through a session and open my eyes surreptitiously and scan the room. Why is everyone so still and quiet and in the zone? Why can’t I stay still for more than a few minutes at a time? Where does the teacher stay? Why does she just pop in and out like the bird in a cuckoo clock and never leave the little house attached to the meditation hall?

Then, when we went back to our cabin for hours of self-practice, alone, I would crawl into my sleeping bag and take a nap. I was bored. I was ruing the day that I handed in my iPad. I would’ve killed for a book, a distraction from myself and my spastic monkey mind. The only things to look forward to were eating, walking around the forested pathways and hopefully seeing the big fluffy wild rabbits that sometimes hung out, and showering. (Although once, I did indulge in a rapturous two minutes when I found a cotton tip in my bag and was ecstatic to clean out my ears for the first time in a few weeks.

So I was getting increasingly tired and grumpy listening to Mr. Goenka’s droning on and on. I was also becoming more sensitive to noise, smell etc. My body ached and I spent more time focusing on not farting in front of 60 silent meditators than actually meditating. I was conscious of disturbing my neighbors with all my squirming – of course, the Russian IT exec in front of me, the American classical musician on my left and the German princess/supermodel on my right were perfectly still all the time and obviously accessing some deep state and inner peace that was available to everyone except for me. However, my true nemesis was the woman who was sitting north east of me. She was one of those tall, eccentric, commanding ladies who take up too much space. I named her ‘Geisha’ after the ridiculous Japanese kimono thing she wore which rustled like someone was making balls of aluminium foil every time she moved. I spent good amounts of meditation time thinking about how I was going to murder her. So, without ever having spoken to her, I made her my enemy number 1. Every time I saw her in the food hall or walking to the bathroom with her oversized Japanese silk duffel bag, I gave her the stare of death.

I soldiered on, somewhat half-assedly. And lo and behold, my mind did become still and clear. I did experience ‘equanimity’. I did become ‘equanimous’ (that has to be read with Goenka’s thick, drawling Indian accent). I was able to step back from the ups and downs of my thoughts. To look up at the sky and watch the clouds come and go and realize that my mind was the sky and my thoughts were the clouds. I had moments of ‘choice-less awareness’ and experienced interesting meditation states. Not blissful per se, but otherworldly. I was not, however, one of those people running around, hugging trees with a maniacal look in my eyes. But alone in my little cabin, I felt present and a sense of what it is to be nobody and go nowhere.

So  finally at the end of the ten days, we were allowed to talk and to get out phones back. Two interesting points about this. First, I didn’t really want to start talking again and kind of liked the protective shield Noble Silence gave me. Second, I really, really didn’t want my phone back. At times during the ten days, I had worried about missing important work-related emails, and had catastrophized about something bad happening to a family member or friend, but I didn’t have any FOMO. So when I got my phone back and had an Internet connection, I was reluctant to plug back in. Of course, it was inevitable that I had to, but was relieved to find that there was nothing of importance awaiting me.

Also, another nice surprise: the other ladies were really, really nice. We all admitted we had made up stories about each other, including names (because we had talked so minimally before the course started, if at all). The people were normal! There was doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a film person, a Harley Davidson dealer, an art gallery director, a Dutch social worker, a Tahitian dance teacher and a gaggle of requisite characters straight from central casting (yoga teacher, German travelers, massage therapist). We all felt bonded by our shared experience.

As we were cleaning up in the final hours before heading back to civilization, one of my meditation hall neighbors apologized for moving so much and distracting me. “You were so still and quiet, I felt bad every time I moved,” she quipped. I found this rather ironic and told her that I should be the one apologizing to her. We laughed. As for Geisha, well she came and plopped herself down beside me on the last day at breakfast. We started talking and of course it turns out she is in fact not a bitch but super simpatico and funny. I felt like such a jerk, just for a minute though. I didn’t want to get too attached and disturb my equanimity.

“Home”

After four years of being away, of making some of my travel and life dreams a reality, I finally stepped foot back on the fertile soil of home. I have been back in the land of the long white cloud (and the long black) for two weeks. It has been intense, confusing and a bit of a roller coaster – which is to be expected.

A few months ago, as I tried to sort my life out and plan what I would do over the vacation (or if I would move back permanently or take another job in another country), I had a romanticized idea of what my time back here would be like, based on an amalgamation of my favorite memories from the past: drinking wine in a cozy bar with leather couches and a roaring fire with my friends, hanging out at the public library and writing everyday (which I’m doing right now, but it’s the second time in a few weeks), going to yoga and capoeira classes everyday, shopping at farmers’ markets and eating like a rabbit, being cultured and going to concerts and arthouse films, lounging around in my mother’s bathtub under a heaping of bubbles bought from Lush, walking the family dog along the beach, hanging at the esplanade sipping decaf flat whites, shopping for classy and original clothes by local designers so I don’t need to dress like a 14 year old anymore (thanks Seoul!).

Alas, I was thumped on the head by Reality. While I’ve been able to live out bits and pieces of my being home fantasy,  expectations and reality have been often clashed. It would be appropriate to insert a Buddhist quote about impermanence here, but we all know intellectually that everything is impermanent and nothing stays the same. It’s just jarring to be confronted with it on a daily basis, in both big and small ways. An obvious example is that old shops and restaurants have closed down or moved. It’s disorienting. On a more personal level, friends and family have changed jobs and careers, gotten married or divorced, had more kids, gotten sick or even passed away and your old friends from back in the day, a clique brought together by being big fish in a small pond have dispersed and are only held together by the fraying thread of Facebook. After a bit too much wine, the family stories come out and you find out that people are much more complex than you thought. There’s a bottomless pit of family secrets to fall into and coming to terms with the fact that those you put on a pedestal do not belong there.

There’s coming to terms with the fact that everything is so damn expensive. I knew I would spend a lot of money, but not THIS much money. Holy crap. $3 for a bottle of water? $3 for a one way bus ride? Talk about reality slap. But there are so many things that I have been ‘deprived’ of that I go nuts: chai lattes, marinated mussels, merino wool sweaters, organic NZ yogurt, authentic Japanese food, real carrot cake, sexy underwear, op-shopping, leather boots, lamb everything, licorice, and of course all those movies and concerts cost money too.

Also jarring is the fact that I have had to step out of my Peter Pan bubble of denial. Yes, my friends are buying multiple houses, stepping up their career game and breeding. Family, family friends, and friends all take me aside at one time or another and ask that most Kiwi of questions, ‘So, when are you going to buy a house?’ It’s a national obsession (after rugby) – on the six o’clock news, on the front page of the paper and the talk of the chattering and working classes. I start feeling very inadequate and very poor. To add insult to injury, I sometimes get the ‘why don’t you have a husband and kids?’ question too. I retort that when I die, my face will be eaten off by my thirty cats, but I’m OK with it.

Then there’s trying not to fuse with the reality of those you are bound to by blood. I have had many moments of biting my tongue, of trying to be generous and compassionate. Instead of flipping out with a snarky ‘Well, all you do is go to work, come home, cook dinner then watch TV and go to bed’ statement, I breathe and remind myself that this kind of boring, predictable, stable life has advantages too. It’s just not for me, and that’s OK. I do not need to keep reverting to my sixteen year old self and slam doors every time I disagree with someone else’s life choices.

And we can’t forget the lifestyle piece: in this small city on the coast, sandwiched by pristine mountains and beaches, people talk about the lifestyle. While some smart, ambitious and enterprising people have been able to forge incredible careers and still get to enjoy the lifestyle this part of the world affords, most people I meet and know work to live. They don’t care about climbing up the greasy monkey pole. Instead, they want their freedom and free time to enjoy the outdoors and slow pace of life. To stay home and raise kids, to be able to head out camping for weeks at a time when the mood strikes them, to survive on a part-time wage so they can do other things. It’s seductive, this idea. Leaving behind the rat race and all its pressures and pitfalls. But again, it’s not for me.

I’m in the midst of this ‘coming home’ story and I’m sure with more reflection, my experience and opinion will change. In the meantime, the beauty of this little paradise on the east coast of NZ’s South Island  still takes my breath away. Enjoy.

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Jakarta-ing

Although I have been to Indonesia twice before (to Bali specifically), I had never been to Java, the most populated island in the world (145 million humans and counting). So I jumped at the chance to visit a friend living in Jakarta (the biggest city in Indonesia) to get a new perspective of this Muslim nation outside of the Bali/Hindu bubble I had previously experienced.

Jakarta is home to some ten million inhabitants and even more motorcycles. The public transportation system is undeveloped, which is both surprising and unsurprising for a large, developing Asian city. This means that there’s crazy traffic congestion and ‘slow chaos’ as my friend described it. Luckily taxis and Ubers are plentiful and cheap (but beware the dudes who zoom by stealing phones and handbags from unsuspecting tourists).

Jakarta is also a city of contrasts – extreme wealth juxtaposed with extreme poverty; slums next to high rises. The kind of place where white, expat privilege gets you far. Where there is still a colonial legacy (Dutch) and where someone with a middle-class income can have a cook, maid, driver and live in a beautiful, safe environment complete with swimming pool.

It’s an interesting time to visit the city before the western capitalist behemoth takes over completely and the little guys – the small, family-run traditional shops, markets and restaurants are washed away in a tsunami of giant malls and McDonald’s. But for now, one can still buy a bowl of chicken curry from the street for less than a dollar. And it will be interesting to see how the culture evolves – currently a very corrupt Muslim country, sex, alcohol, and drugs are plentiful for a local or expat with money. Ridiculous rules come and go (a woman applying to the military must undergo a ‘virginity test’). For a country with thousands of islands and languages, without a tenuous national identify, Jakarta itself is probably like a foreign country to those living in the often impoverished countryside. While I can’t speak about the boonies from my own limited experience, perhaps one unifying factor is the warmth and friendliness of Indonesia’s people. Below are a few photos from my visit to Jakarta, if you’d like to see.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

The view at sunset from the 29th floor of a central Jakarta highrise apartment.

A visit to Jakarta's mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

A visit to Jakarta’s mosque during Ramadan. The large structure is reportedly the largest mosque in Asia.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta's port has played an important role in the city's development - from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Some locals rowing from their make-shift housing to the mainland. Jakarta’s port has played an important role in the city’s development – from small colonial Dutch settlement to Asian megacity.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city - just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.

Street food is a big part of life in Jakarta. Delicious and super cheap, buying local food from vendors is the ultimate tourist experience. It also provides an interesting window on life in the city – just across the road is a glittering megamall selling Louis Vuitton.

 

Whimsical Aotearoa

The Wizard - he's still a thing

The Wizard – he’s still a thing

I came across this wee gem on the Interwebs yesterday and was in stitches over what a strange and wonderful (strangely wonderful?) place I come from.

The writer (I use the term loosely, the piece was from BuzzFeed after all) compiled a list of, as the title suggests, ’69 Things About New Zealand That’ll Blow Your Mind.’

Mind blown. And I had quite a few LOL moments and chortled heartily right to the end. Which caused a flareup of my homesickness. (Which will likely lead to a very expensive plane ticket being bought soon).

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite ‘facts’ about that wacky lil’ country at the end of the world.

6. Only 5% of NZ’s population is human- the rest are animals.

17. More people die in New Zealand each year playing lawn bowls than scuba diving.

20. Auckland is one of the most affordable cities in the world to live in. (I’m including this one because it his hilariously UNTRUE! Auckland is more expensive than Manhattan!!).

38. In 1996, a man broke into a radio station in Wanganui and took the manager hostage, demanding that they play the Muppet song “Rainbow Connection”.

40. The Kiwi badminton team name was ‘The Black Cocks’, but after a year, had to change it due to complaints.

41. In 1990, the NZ prime minister appointed a National Wizard.

42. Rugby player Wayne Shelford got his scrotum ripped open mid-game in a bad tackle. He was taken off the field with one testicle LITERALLY hanging out, got stitched up on the bench and continued the game.

46. There is a clock in Dunedin which has been running since 1864, despite never having been wound since it was made. (Shout out to my hometown!)

58. In 2008, Henry the tuatara became a father for the first time at the age of 111. (A tuatara is a reptile native to New Zealand.)

59. New Zealand is the only country with the right to put Hobbit-related images on its currency.

64. In 2007, the NZ courts banned a couple from naming their child 4Real. In the end they named him Superman.

68. Niue, a self-governed island of NZ, has images of Pokemon on its legal tender coins. There is also a limited collection of coins with images from the Star Wars films.

69. There are more vending machines in Japan than there are people in New Zealand.

Ladies and Gentleman, the land I call ‘home.’

 

 

 

 

Uncharted territory

bwsailingAs we move through life, two things are said to be certain: taxes and death. Of course, everyone must die and any rational person will realize, at the very least, they will lose someone they love and/or are related to. We know that our grandparents and parents will one day pass away, we just don’t know when. Those of us who are particularly unlucky may lose a sibling, a partner, a friend, or the worst kind of loss, a child.

I have been lucky so far – having never actually attended a funeral due to being overseas despite having lost three of my four grandparents, a good friend and three other friends from my university days who passed away (from murder, two car crashes and one mystery). These stung less because I wasn’t in touch with them and hadn’t been for years.

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my mother recently relayed the news that a childhood and family friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given two months to live. This came just weeks after an old colleague and flatmate died tragically on the roads at Easter. At first I was in denial, thinking my mother had her facts wrong and that with treatment, his outcome would be better – if he couldn’t be cured, surely the doctors could extend his life by at least a year or more? But no.

I haven’t seen this friend for many years and barely even thought about him. But now my childhood memories come flooding back – we shared baths, games, holidays, Christmases together. He has just entered his 30’s, is married, and has a young son. I glimpsed his Facebook timeline to see that he had posted a photo of himself and his son sharing some moments on a lake, with a caption about how precious life is. I cried twice over that photo.

I thought about his kind mother who just recently lost her husband after unsuccessful heart surgery. His sister, who was once my closest friend in the world moved back from overseas to be with him in his last months. Their lives will forever be turned upside down.

I told a good friend about the situation and how it had made me feel very sad. She then asked a profound question: “What would you do if you had two months to live?” While this horrific situation is not about me, I did start thinking and realized that I would want to visit all the places I had never been. To spend time with loved ones. To definitely not be in my current situation. But at the same time, I have to be grateful that I am alive and healthy and am lucky to be in my current situation.

Having absorbed the information and come to terms with my friend’s fate, the next challenge is to consider how to reach out. What do you say to someone who you haven’t had any contact with for two decades and who only has weeks to live? I don’t have the luxury of time to sit around thinking about it too much. But in the meantime, I think we could all agree upon this message: fuck cancer.

The mysteries of love

harris woffordA few months ago I posted about the news story of a young man and a much older man in New Zealand having a seemingly unconventional relationship (a huge age gap). Recently one day as I was doing my routine perusal of the New York Times, one headline caught my eye, Finding Love Again, This Time With a Man. While you’re more than capable of reading the article yourself, let me just give you the highlights mixed with my always insightful and illuminating commentary.

Former United States Democrat Harris Wofford was happily married to his wife, Clare, for 48 years. They had three children together. Clare tragically died from cancer close to both of of their seventieth birthdays. Wofford assumed that he would not experience such love again and settled into a fulfilling but lonely life.

Cut to five years later and he’s swimming at a Florida beach. Two men recognised him and came over and struck up a conversation with him. One of the men unexpectedly caught his eye. “As we talked, I was struck by Matthew’s inquisitive and thoughtful manner and his charm. I knew he was somebody I would enjoy getting to know. We were decades apart in age with far different professional interests, yet we clicked,” he wrote.

By “decades apart” Wofford means fifty years. So his partner Matthew was 25 when they met. The couple began as friends and slowly, through sharing many things together, including traveling abroad, the pair fell in love. Now, at 90 and 40, the couple have decided to get married.

Of course Wofford has political intentions in writing this article. He seeks to redefine love and promote same-sex marriage. As he writes, “Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between. I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love. I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness.”

He goes on to quote Robert Frost:

And yet for all this help of head and brain

How happily instinctive we remain,

Our best guide upward further to the light,

Passionate preference such as love at sight.

This highlights the importance of instinct and listening to one’s heart, especially in matters of love. So what else can we learn from this relationship? That it’s never two late? That love comes when we least expect it? That love is mysterious? That we get second chances? That people should be more open-minded? That external, biological things such as age, physical appearance, status etc. matter less than we think? The importance of sharing a friendship? This whole thing brings to mind something actress Maria Bello wrote – a heterosexual woman who fell in love with her best friend, also a woman: “Whatever, love is love.”

Seoul through new eyes

seoul templeIt’s been an interesting two weeks – some schizophrenic weather happening as the season transitions from spring to summer. There have been a few scorchers and then some crazy rain and wind storms, as if a very drunk God was peeing and farting at the same time. But it has also been fun – hanging out with my girl Carolyn again and seeing Seoul through her eyes – she used to live here and has since been living in South East Asia, South American and India – so she brings an interesting perspective.

We have, in fact, been extolling the virtues of this complex wonderful-awful, beautiful-ugly city. “It really is an amazing city,” Carolyn said as we were walking along a lantern-lined street at dusk. For once, I had to agree. We proceeded to throw out a series of reasons why – the cheap, safe, efficient, convenient public transportation, the abundance of western shops, restaurants, cafes etc, the flourishing salsa scene, the relative safety and affordability, the mountains so close to the city center, the mix of the traditional and modern, all the interesting things off the beaten tourist track, the diverse expat community…we could’ve gone on.

Then, a few days later, we were sitting in a cozy restaurant in the trendy Hongdae district. It was evening, and the sun was slowly dimming. Rain was gently falling from the sky, the lights in the boutique stores shone, there was a Vespa or two parked outside the restaurant. A well-dressed mixed Korean-Western couple ran across the road, sheltering under a large umbrella. Although just minutes away from the throngs near the subway station, it was eerily quiet. It felt almost European, but with that Seoul aesthetic that I know well but struggle to express in words.

And things like this are coming out all the time, telling the world just how cool Seoul is. I don’t believe all the hype, but I know the city hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves. Let’s hope that changes.

 

 

By the apple tree

apple tree“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”

From Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum

 

Rebirth of cool

best-grunge-songsThere comes a time in every adult’s life when they have to look in the mirror and stare long and hard at themselves, asking the life-altering question, “When did I become so fucking uncool?” For me that time is this weekend (as I type this from my bed at 9pm on a Saturday night). And really, being single with no children, I have no excuses.

This has been nagging at me for a while – when I started to realize that my Google searches consisted mostly of “What does YOLO mean?”, “What’s a hashtag?”, “Who is Taylor Swift?” and “What does ‘bae’ refer to?” Still don’t understand that last one.

Let’s go back fifteen or twenty years. I was into grunge. I had pinkish hair. My friends told me I resembled Bjork. I was in love with Damon Albarn from Blur and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. I watched edgy films. Even as I entered my 20s, I still dressed cool, had good taste in music, was a bit of a scenester. I was kind of a platonic groupie. I got free tickets, backstage passes and hung out in recording studios. I worked for a couple of musos who had toured the States with Sonic Youth and Pavement. I dabbled in illicit substances. Hell, I even drank alcohol! I wore red lipstick and high heels (no actually the heels part is a lie – too clumsy, some things never change). In my late 20s, I once flew from Seoul to Tokyo for the weekend to see friends, hung out in one of the hottest clubs and got upgraded to business class on the flight back on Sunday morning, all of this with my aviator sunglasses on. It was perhaps the peak of my rockstardom before the decline began.

I suppose the decline from cool to really, ridiculously uncool happened gradually so the changes were almost imperceptible until one day recently I found myself talking with an attractive male friend. Instead of flirting and dropping names and retelling tales of my international party girl days, I started lecturing him about the travesty that is female genital mutilation. Yeah, if you ever need a buzzkill, that’ll work pretty well. Oh, but I didn’t stop there. No, I took it a step further and segued into a rant about pedophilia. I really know how to reel ’em in. And all this in Asia where it’s hard enough to get laid as it is, without my making it worse. Needless to say, I went home alone that night, like every night. This wasn’t always the case in my young carefree 20s when I could spend Friday night with one guy and Saturday night with another. But I digress…

So, all this calls for a solid ‘recooling’. This means that I must buy some cute new clothes without worrying about the price and fact that they are made by children in Bangladesh. I won’t go on a tirade about how morally bankrupt fashion is. I will buy and wear make up like every other female on the planet without bitching about the cost or how it’s false advertising. I should listen to a wider range of music and not care if it is low brow or high brow or shit American pop music (seriously though, I don’t look like that at 7am). I shall not worry about misogynistic lyrics in rap songs. I will waste several hours of my life in a dive bar without telling the patrons about the virtues of AA. I will no longer judge hipsters. I will not use the word ‘vapid’ in relation to anything pertaining to popular culture. I’ll bust out the soundtrack from my life circa 2000. I will finally watch Singles and rewatch Chasing Amy, which used to be my favorite movie before I became an idealistic tree-hugging, polar bear-saving bore. The first mission: to sit through that new documentary about Amy Winehouse and not lecture the next person I encounter about the perils of addiction. Wish me luck.