A small taste of the photographs I took last weekend at the Gyeong-Ju Cherry Blossom Festival. No words can fully describe how beautiful spring is in South Korea…even if it only lasts a few weeks!
I have been so lazy with my blog so far this year and for that I truly apologize. Usually I write about the big goals I have set for myself then post regular updates on whether those goals have been successful or not.
For Lent this year, I vowed to give up my two biggest vices; Facebook and Alcohol. I decided not to post about this because I was sure, like every other year, that it would most likely be an epic fail and would be a bit embarrassing to admit defeat!
For anyone who knows me in person, you know how much of a party animal I can be. For the sake of my liver, my general health and maybe even my sanity, this needed to stop! As for Facebook, I realised I was totally addicted. I think most people I know are pretty addicted to Facebook, but I discovered that I really do post an obscene amount of times each day and it was wasting so much of my time. I de-activated my profile, un-installed the Facebook App from my phone and vowed to everyone who would listen that I would be staying off Facebook for the grand total of 47 days (None of that cheating on Sunday’s nonsense….I know my Dad would not let me get away with that!!)
As you may or may not have guessed, this particular challenge was nigh on impossible for me. I could list a million excuses as to why I could not stay away, many of them genuine and a few made up, but I will not go into details and instead will admit total defeat. In fact within 6 short days I had logged back on and posted the “Pharrell Williams – HAPPY – I am from Seoul” video which I filmed and edited. It seemed nothing could keep me from sharing the good stuff in life with friends and family. I was told off by some close friends and soon deactivated for another few days but FOMO (fear of missing out) settled in pretty bad and soon I found myself logging in again and decided this was one battle that, for the moment, I was not up for fighting. Facebook, for the time being, was staying out.
As for the other half of my lenten fast, I am delighted to say that I have, miraculously, stayed off alcohol for over 1 month now and have even decided to EXTEND this no-drinking extravaganza for another month. The hardest day of all was St Patrick’s Day, but once that hurdle was complete, the rest of the month was a breeze.
So what makes an impossible challenge (for me!) suddenly possible? How is this, Lent 2014, the first time in a decade that I have successfully managed to give up drinking? The answer to this question is one small little word. One word which changes everything. And that one word is….Running.
For the first time in about a decade I have seriously committed to getting in shape and am doing this by running. Every morning and every evening. Sometimes in the gym, sometimes around town. Up hills, along tracks, over bridges. Up stairs, down stairs, in stadiums, down motorways. For the past month I have committed 100% to running and it has been an incredible experience and one which I hope I will keep up for the foreseeable future. As part of this new found love, some friends and I signed up to a variety of 10km races all over Korea which have been great fun and these shorter races even led me to signing up to and completing my very first Half Marathon, an experience which I will write all about in my next post.
Here’s to another month of alcohol-free weekends full of fitness and fun!
Each day this week on the Irish Times website, members of Irish communities around the world will be sharing plans for St Patrick’s Day where they live. Today, I had the opportunity to share my experiences in South Korea and to write about Seoul’s 14th St Patrick’s Day festival, taking place this weekend.
To read the article on the Irish Times website, click here.
Back home in Ireland, preparation for St Patrick’s Day does not involve too much planning, aside from stocking up the fridge, planning crazy green outfits with friends and deciding how early is too early to start the festivities. This year, all that changed for me.
On arrival in South Korea last July, I was asked to join the Irish Association of Korea (IAK), a not-for-profit organisation which promotes Irish culture in Korea. As well as hosting events for the Irish community, it also provides the opportunity for Koreans and other expats to experience and learn more about Irish life. The main event of the year is the St Patrick’s Day Festival in Seoul, now in its 14th year, with up to 10,000 spectators showing up on the day.
Being a part of this active and engaging organisation has given me incredible behind-the-scenes experience of what it takes to plan a St Patricks’s Day Festival abroad. It takes months of hard work by an extremely dedicated team of people. Over the last few months, much of the committee members’ free time has been tied up at meetings, fundraising events and sponsorship talks. I could never have imagined how much time and effort goes into organising one day of craic agus ceoil until I was involved myself.
Now that all the ground work has been done – sponsorship secured, a perfect venue located, great musicians, experienced Irish dancers, story-tellers and local volunteers recruited – we are all very excited for the event to begin.
The festival here Seoul is known for the keen participation from members of both the Irish and Korean community, and this year will not disappoint with traditional folk dancers and musicians playing Irish music, both traditional and popular rock, coming from all over Korea to perform.
Musicians from Ireland will also feature heavily on the bill and the festival will offer an opportunity for the public to get involved, with traditional ceili-dancing, which has grown in popularity every year, taking place at the main stage. There will be face painting and story telling for children.
No festival promoting Ireland and Irish culture would be complete without the GAA present and thus a display of Gaelic football will be hosted by the one of the most successful teams in Asia, the Seoul Gaels Gaelic football team. The Seoul Gaels will also be using this opportunity to seek new recruits for their upcoming season, which starts in April.
The Seoul St Patrick’s Day Festival is the perfect opportunity for people living in Korea to experience Irish culture and get a feel for the wonderful array of Irish talent living here. March 17th is a day when we all think of Ireland and its rich history. To be able to celebrate that here in South Korea shows the extraordinary power of the Irish abroad and I am very proud to be a part of such a great expat community.
With the help of my amazing friends, and quite a few total strangers, I just finished filming, editing and uploading a Seoul remake of the Pharrell Williams HAPPY music video. Considering all filming was done on smart phones and the entire video was edited in a few hours, I think we did a pretty good job. Let me know what you think! :)
Last weekend my friend Sonja and I headed to Phoenix Park and Yongpyong resort for a mini vacation. It was so good to get away for a few days and the scenery up in the mountains was spectacular.
We spent all day saturday hitting the slopes in Phoenix Park ski resort which has a great variety of slopes to suit all levels. Everything was so easily accesible even the laziest skier in the world could not complain!
You could literally ski straight down any slope and into a Dunkin Donuts, Coffee shop or Apres Ski bar. The ski rental place was less than 5 minutes walk from the chair lifts and there is even a youth hostel overlooking the slopes.
As we went as part of a WinK tour group, we got amazing discounts on both ski rental and lift passes. The full day including skis, jacket and pants and lift pass was only 50,000 won (about 30 euro) which you really can’t beat. Even though it was very busy and there were groups of school kids and students everywhere, the queues remained pretty short throughout the day which I was very impressed by.
After a long days skiing on only about 2-3 hours sleep we were absolutely shattered come 6pm. Luckily all we had to do was sit on a bus and relax as we headed to our hostel which is part of the YongPyong ski resort. Following quick showers and naps, a big group of us all headed out for a delicious pork BBQ dinner.
Another relatively late night of bowling, arcade games, socializing and making new friends meant come 8am Sunday morning nothing (not even giant chocolate muffins and hot tea) were getting me out of bed. Maybe it was a waste, maybe it could be considered laziness, but in a move to help my aching muscles and tired body recover, I opted out of skiing at YongPyong and decided the spa and waterpark was more to my liking.
Again thanks to WinK we got an amazing discount price, and only ended up paying 10,000 won to enter. What we discovered inside…and more specifically outside…meant we knew within seconds we had made the right decision!
Outside the waterpark, was an assortment of hot tubs full of various colored, scented and therapeutic water. Oh, and thanks to the fact that it’s winter, all surrounded in snow!
Sitting in rose scented jacuzzi with the sun shining brightly while taking in the breathtaking, snow covered surroundings was an incredible experience. We literally sat outside, dashing through the snow from pool to pool, for about 2 hours. In fact we were enjoying ourselves so much we failed to realise how sunburned our faces were becoming. Small price to pay for a little taste of paradise in the mountains!
Last weekend myself and about 8 friends from Paju attended SantaCon in Seoul, which is a gathering of 100′s of people all dressed as Santa Claus, his elves and everything in between parading around Seoul’s nightlife district singing Christmas Carols and simply being merry.
I ordered 3 elf costumes off ebay and was delighted when they arrived just in time. I also got creative with some fairy lights, colored paper and a giant piece of black foam and made myself a YouTube video / photo booth which I must say I was fairly proud of!
Sadly I didnt take as many pictures as I would have liked (cause I was having too much fun!) but here is a quick glimpse of the shenanigans had on the night.
I am really enjoying working out at the moment and am well on my way to succeeding in my 9 week challenge to get my bikini body back in time for my trip to Cambodia. Apart from cutting out all junk food, eating healthier meals, and attempting to drink less alcohol at weekends, my local gym has been my biggest friend over the last month. As Korean gyms are really different to your run-of-the-mill gym back home in Ireland, I thought I would write a quick blog post about the Top 10 Reasons to Join a Korean Gym! If you have any other suggestions, be sure to leave a comment.
10. Storage lockers for your toiletries
This is a little random, I know, but Korean gyms really are totally different to gyms back home. Everyone gets a big locker for their gym bag and you can also get a small locker (if you choose) to store your toiletries in. Everyone at my gym has a cute little basket to store all their stuff in so after a good work out they stroll into the changing room, strip naked (this is also pretty different to home!!), take their toiletries basket with them into the open plan shower area (again, different from gyms back home) and continue to wash, shave, scrub, moisturize and every other cosmetic related activity you can think of. Some of these girls have more bottles of lotions in their gym basket than I have in my entire house! It’s a nice idea though, and save you having to haul your toiletries to the gym each day. Never agin will you get “the fear” that you have indeed forgotten your deodorant!
9. Unique group exercise classes like KPOP Dance
I recently signed up for GX classes in my gym thinking GX stood for Aerobics. Turns out GX stands for Group Exercise (DUH!) and one of the many GX classes (ABT, Zumba, Hot Yoga, Pilates, Aerobics etc) on offer is K-Pop Dance. My friend Tammy and I just signed up to this and are actually pretty excited for the classes to start next week. We are going to be the envy of every (teenage) girl in every Korean nightclub in no time! BAR BAR BAR Jumping, Jumping! :D
8. Catch up with your favorite TV shows
No longer can you say, “Oh I can’t go to the gym tonight, My favourite TV show is on at 8pm”. I think most gyms all over the world have TV’s attached to treadmills at this stage but in case your gym doesn’t, let me tell you all Korean gyms do! And they have up to 10 channels in ENGLISH including 3 movie channels. Granted you are probably not working out as hard as you should be if you strolling along ona treadmill watching NCIS or Mission Impossible 4, but it’s a good motivator to go to the gym when the TV on your treadmill is larger than the TV in your apartment! :D
7. They have machines like this….
I actually don’t know what this is. Put as I see every one else sitting on a bench on putting their legs on it after a long run on the treadmill, I have started doing the same. It’s seems to be a leg massager/leg fat jiggling machine. I have never seen one before so if anyone can inform me of what this machine ACTUALLY does, please leave a comment!
6. They have FAT JIGGLING machines!
I think these bizarre machines disappeared from Western gyms in the 60′s or 70′s, when people realised that a machine that wiggles and giggles your fatty bits is, in fact, not helping you to lose weight. I’m not sure what Koreans use this machine for, but I think it’s more of a massager to loosen up your muscles than anything else. If you’re gym doesn’t have one of these ‘magic machines’ you’re going to the wrong gym!!
5. Huge saunas where you can sleep
Korean saunas are not really like western saunas. First off, you not sit in a burning hot wooden cabin butt naked. Korean saunas are in fact much more relaxing and convenient. You go in wearing the matching gym clothes (provided by the gym) and lie on a clay floor covered in mats. The room is hot, but not so hot that’s it’s unbearable. Many people come in here after a hard work out and just fall asleep for half an hour. You could even bring a book in if you wanted, but for me its the perfect time to block out the world close my eyes and simply relax away from all sorts of technology. It’s more like a ‘relaxation room’ than a sauna but I absolutely love it.
4. No more smelly gym clothes!
This could well be the BEST thing about Korean gyms. Say farewell to carrying home a gym bag full of sweaty, smelly clothes each day. Say farewell to those worries about not having anything to wear to the gym. Say farewell to spending money on clothes you would only ever wear while working out! Korean gyms provide gym clothes and towels for you every day and do all the washing and cleaning. Sure orange might not be your colour, and you may feel silly looking like EVERYONE else, but boy does it make life easy. All you need to do is bring your trainers/runners and a pair of clean socks and you are good to go. For me, this makes going to the gym 100 times less stressful as I never have to worry about having clean gym clothes!
3. You can play screen golf!
This one is a bit random, I know. But never in my life have I seen a gym where you can go for a workout, chill in a sauna and THEN practice your swing! Many gyms in Korea have a screen golf facility where members can practices their swing in a small, enclosed and heated environment. I have not tried this yet, and probably never will if I’m honest, but it’s a bonus for all you golfers out there!
2. Koreans come in ALL shapes and sizes
Yup, it’s TRUE! Not all Koreans are the small, skinny beauties you imagined. Over the last month I have discovered that Korean women really do come in ALL shapes and sizes. This can be a real confidence boost for us foreigners who often feel like giant sumo wrestlers next to cute Korean girls. There is so much negative media regarding cosmetic surgery and the constant aim for perfection..which in their eyes involves calf reductions, butt lifts and leg extensions. It is so uplifting to see Koreans who love their bodeis and working hard to look and feel good the “old fashioned way”. In my gym, Strong is the new skinny and I like it a lot!
1. Friendly Trainers
In my (somewhat limited) experience the trainers in Korean gyms are super friendly and motivating. While they may not speak much English they know the basics, and are always willing to help you figure out how to use those awkward weight lifting machines, encourage you to run faster on the treadmill or just chat with you about why you are in Korea, if you are liking life here and if you know anyone else who might want to join their lovely gym!
Over the weekend, I went to a Soccer game in Seoul World Cup Stadium with a big group of friends. We had all had a very late night/early morning the night before so were a little worse for wear come Sunday afternoon. Lack of makeup and unwashed hair aside, we spent the day cheering on Seoul FC and feeling pretty proud of ourselves for opting to be productive rather than hibernating in out match box-sized apartments.
After the match we headed into the shopping centre to grab a coffee, relax and try to warm up having being outside in the almost freezing cold Korean winter for the last 2-3 hours. As we walked in a well dressed, perfectly manicured Korean lady approached me and my friend and asked if we would like to get our photo taken for free. It all looked professional with proper lighting, cameras and a “set” where we could sit and pose so without delay my friend and I signed up.
The photo shoot was organized my Korean Cosmetic brand “Skin Food” which specializes in all sorts of lotions, moisturizer and cosmetics for your face, body and hair to make you look both younger and “whiter”, two aspects of beauty which every Korean aspires to be. We answered a few questions which had been roughly translated from Korean to English with regards to our skin tone, how old we were, how old our skin looked, what we would like to change about our skin and other questions which I usually avoid/hate to answer.
After about 5 minutes we sat down and were asked to pose naturally, which we attempted to do. While they loved my dear friend Mandy (a 38-year-old with the skin of a 31-year-old, or so they said with much delight and awe), they kept telling me “smile bigger”, “smile with your eyes” “You’re too awkward” and “Still too awkward”. The 3 hours of sleep I had had the night before, many hours of dancing, cocktails, hours of shopping, match day pints and general tiredness was suddenly catching up with me and I simple did not have the energy to pose like a Korean. We gave our phone numbers and the woman said we would be sent 2 photos; the first one would be of us “au natural” and the second one would be photo-shopped by the “talented” photographers and would make us look younger and whiter, the look we should aspire to be.
Instead of writing any more, I’m simply going to post the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots as I am still slightly frightened and slightly horrified at how they think I should look as opposed to how I look right now. I may look tired, I may look hung over, I may look “too dark”, but I still like the way I look “au natural” way, way more than their idea of “photoshopped perfection”.
Lately I have really been craving various Irish foodstuffs that I simply cannot get here. I decided to ask my wide range of expat friends (who now live in Canada, Dubai, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Poland, Japan and Myanmar/Burma and many more exotic locations) what Irish food they missed the most while living abroad and the following were the Top 10 answers! Feel free to leave a comment if you have any more good suggestions. :)
Number 10: A decent pint of Guinness
In fact this isn’t limited to Guinness, more Irish drinks in general which you often can’t get abroad. A decent Guinness, a pint of Beamish or Murphys, and an ice-cold bottle of Bulmers Light (for those watching the calories!) are the top contenders on the list of most missed alcoholic beverages. Along with Buckfast Abbey, that is.
While Korea does have a good choice of local alcohol ranging from low quality beer to a cheap distilled beverage known as Soju ( top selling alcohol brand in the world!!) and delicious rice wine called Makeoili, none of these will ever live up to a good Irish pint.
Number 9: Clonakilty Black Pudding
Clonakilty Black Pudding is a staple food item in houses all over Cork, and Ireland. Black Pudding , and the sausages, bacon, eggs, beans and toast which go with it, can cure any hangover no matter how bad and are not only eaten for Breakfast but can be easily transformed into a Gourmet Lunch or Dinner should the need arise!
There is NOTHING that comes even close to replacing Clonakilty Black Pudding here in Korea. Eating rice and spicy cabbage (Kimchi) to cure my hangover just doesn’t quite do the trick!
Number 8: Chicken Fillet Roll from Spar
One of the biggest things I crave from back home is the humble ‘chicken fillet roll’ made up for you in a matter of seconds and found in every deli in the country. The fact that nearly every shop has a Deli, and that there is a shop on nearly every corner in every town, makes the lunch time experience back home a blissful experience!
When it comes to lunch time choices in South Korea, the choices are pretty limited and far from appealing! Most food is deep friend and if on a rare occasion it is not, my lunch time choice are limited to a variety of dishes made with rice, spicy cabbage and spam. No thank you!
Number 7: McCambridge Brown Bread
I think most Irish people will agree with me when I say that there is no better brown bread that McCambridge Brown Bread. Be it for toast in the morning, or sandwiches at lunch time or with soup in the evening, nothing beats a few slices of McCamdridge!
Here is Korea they seriously lack good bread, which is a bit of a mystery given the fact that there is a bakery to be found on almost every corner. In Ireland, bread is pretty much part of our staple diet where-as in Korea it is more of a treat or a luxury thus all the bread, and bread products are sickly sweet and could never be used the way they should be….to make a decent sandwich!
Number 6: Ballymaloe Relish
The relish SO famous, they sent it to space. Enough said.
Number 5: Cadburys Chocolate
No matter what country, no matter what continent, no place does a chocolate bar like Ireland. Ireland has the biggest selection of delicious milk chocolate, available in every shop, on every street corner, in every town (similar to the infamous deli counter!) and no amount of Hersheys, Peanut Butter cups or whatever other bizarre chocolate is on offer around the world will ever compete with this! Be it a Dairy Milk, a box of Heo’s or a tin of Roses at Christmas, nothing beats Cadburys chocolate.
Number 4 : Tayto Crisps
By sure Ireland’s favorite crisp. You just can’t beat a salt and vinegar crisp sandwich or opening up a packet of Cheese and Onions Taytos in the pub and sharing them with all around you. Soon enough, some other kind soul will return to the table with a new round of pints and another packer of delicious Tatyo crisps. And so it goes on…
In Korea we are given magical choice such as Wasabi flavour, Seaweed flavour and worst of all….Cuttlefish flavour. YUCK.
Number 3: Garlic Cheese Chips (and other Chipper Food!)
While many Irish expats will admit to always having a wide range of foods available to them late at night, ranging from 24 Hour McDonalds, late night pizza joints and Turkish Kebab stands lining the streets, we will also cry out for Garlic Cheese Chips at 3 O’ clock in the morning, yearning for those late night chippers back home! (KC’s chipper in Cork is so popular they have a Queue Camera on their website!)
Number 2: A Jumbo Breakfast Roll
A brilliant mixture between number 8 and number 9 on this list is the Jumbo Breakfast Roll, whereby us Irish have perfected the method of putting an entire Irish Breakfast into a Cuisine de France bread roll. A favourite amoung early morning workers, Builders and college students, nothing beats a Jumo Breakfast Roll after a night on the town.
Number 1: Barry’s Tea
Stop an Irish person in the airport and ask them what’s in their suitcase and about 90% of them will admit to having packed a box of Barry’s Tea bags. Us Irish just can’t seem to survive without them. Ideally served with Irish milk (real dairy!!) and a spoonful of sugar, a cup of Barry’s Tea has many magical attributes and is the perfect start, middle and end to every day. Be it relaxing at home, gossiping with friends, skyping home to family or reading a good book, a cup of real Irish Tea is always the perfect companion.
Last weekend I celebrated Halloween in South Korea for the 2nd time (albeit 3 years apart!) and have to say I was yet again HIGHLY impressed with the high standard of halloween costumes. As Koreans don’t celebrate halloween the only people dressed up were the “Waygooks” (Korean word for foreigners!) and our group of about 70 people sure did make an impact.
The weekend was spent in Busan, Korea’s 2nd biggest city, situated on the East Coast on the Southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Along with a few friends I joined a trip being organized by WiNK (When in Korea – Travel group) which organizes trips around Korea and to neighboring countries on an almost-weekly basis. Busan was hosting its annual Fireworks Festival so it was the perfect place to celebrate my favourite holiday of the year.
Following a 2 hour subway ride and a 6 hour bus ride from Seoul to Busan we arrived at about 5.30am o Saturday morning, just as the sun was rising over the ocean. Half the group stayed sleeping on the bus while the other half of us headed straight to the beach where we camped out of mats, hammocks and blankets to enjoy the sunrise and maybe even drink a sneaky beer or two. Watching the sunrise from the beach was pretty magical, and was made better by the great group of friends (both old and new) who I was with.
After a few hours of napping on both the beach and the bus, a local expat bar called Sharkeys agreed to open early for us ( Is 10am too early to start drinking?? Nah!) and served us up amazing breakfast platters, Bloody Marys for some and some delicious apple juice for me (ahem read as: Cider).
We spent the better half of the day in this great bar overlooking the beach, listening to live music and planning the night ahead. As the day went on, the area progressively got more and more crownded with 1,000′s and 1,000′s of people from both Busan and other Korean cities arrived and set up camp on the beach for the Annual Fireworks Festival. Some people were camped out on the beach up to 5 hours before the show was set to start, determined to get the best view in the house.
Following a delicious traditional Korean BBQ dinner with the group everyone headed back to our motel over-looking the beach to put on our halloween costumes and get ready for the fun-filled shenanigans which lay ahead! Fat forward an hour later, and our cute/retro motel was transformed into a sea of waygooks wandering around in funny, scary and some what questionably halloween costumes much to the delight of the cute old ajumma who owned the place. Im sure she had no idea what was going on in her precious motel as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Grumpy Cats, walking YouTube video, Zombies, Cross-Dressers, Santa Clause, some ghosts wandering the hallways.
We were allowed stand on the roof of the motel to watch the Fireworks show which was pretty lucky because there was NO WAY we would have been able to push through the crowds of people down below. We had one of the best views of the Fireworks which I must say were simply spectacular and way better than I thought they would be. The amazing dispaly went on for almost an hour and the only fireworks that was more impressive than this one, that I personally have seen, would be New Years eve in Sydney.
The remainder of the night involved pushing our way through 1,000′s of people on the subway, getting pushed into the trains like sardines in a can and getting pulled off said trains as if we were the rope in a game of tug-o-war! It was total madness but the fact that we were all in crazy costumes made the entire experience hilarious rather than miserable. The rest of the night was spent bar-hopping around Busans main night life district and posing for photos with hundreds and hundreds of local Koreans who most likely believed we were mad for dressing in such bizarre outfits!
There is so much more I could write but on this occasion I believe the photos tell the story 100 times better than my writing ever could. Let me just conclude by saying that it was fanstastic weekend with an mazing group of people and it really made me realise how much I LOVE my life here in Korea and how lucky I am to be going on such adventures on a regular basis. Right now, I am loving life and would not change it for the world.