Images: Cherry blossom; Conch that became dinner; Green tea and banana frap; Korean steak tartare
Dear G and B
I’m in a “limousine bus” on my way from Yeoksam in Seoul to Incheon Airport after a week away here. It is April and the cherry blossom is out everywhere making the city look almost Japanese in parts, especially the small side streets jammed with traditional restaurants (including tons of Japanese izakayas and sushi bars). The weather has been perfect – sunny and 21 degrees and this makes everything more pleasant and people happier.
I’ve been coming here for many years now and feel like I know the city reasonably well and have made some good Korean acquaintances through work. Korean is another language I wish I spoke as generally Koreans don’t have good English and it must be incredibly hard for them to learn. Even the people I meet who have studied overseas for several years still struggle with pretty basic stuff. Not that I can talk (literally) my language skills are appalling. Korean is a pleasant and polite sounding language.
When I arrived at my hotel I was looking at an art exhibition being run there and thought I recognised the name of the artist. I checked Facebook, and sure enough it was an ex-student, so I got in touch and we met up the following evening for dinner. She talked me through her work and then took me down the road for dinner to somewhere “very Korean”. I like to try something new on the food front each time I come here and this time it was boiled conch, a kind of shellfish that looks exactly like a giant snail. It was chewy, fishy and not all that appetising, but I poked it down in politeness. The restaurant was a really run down little place full of loud, noisy, drunk salarymen toasting each other and talking business. Atmospheric. We left and she introduced me to two of her business colleagues – Mr Ahn and a girl called Jenny. What cracked me up was that Jenny would not stop either taking photos of me (with her in it) or taking pictures of herself on her phone. Unabashed narcissism that is totally normal here – one of the origins of selfie behaviour. They were nice enough and we had a couple of over priced drinks in the rooftop bar of the hotel.
I walked around Gangnam the next day after I’d finished work in the afternoon to get some air and notice a proliferation of two types of business: coffee shops and plastic surgery clinics. More clinics on one street than in the whole of London probably. Plastic surgery has become normal for Korean young people of a certain social class, endorsed by the stars of their soaps and K-pop. They have nose jobs (to make them thinner but bigger), an eye operation to make their eyes rounder and they even have a jaw operation to saw away the bone to make it literally more chiselled. I actually interviewed someone today who was straight from having an eye operation – they just had shades on!
You cannot believe that one city can sustain so many coffee shops. A Starbucks on every corner and then the home grown big names (An Angel Inside Us, Coffee Bene, Paris Baguette, A Twosome Place) followed by loads of American outfits like Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Creme. They must drink about 5 cups of overpriced brown stuff a day. They really like iced coffee here, which I don’t really like, but I do like the crazy frappuccinos. This time had green tea and banana and it was awesome. With all the fast food joints and donut/cake shops you would think the Koreans might have an obesity problem on the way, but it doesn’t look like, not compared to the west anyway. Must be the main diet of healthy Korean BBQ and the high levels of superficiality! Maybe that is just Gangnam.
I wanted to have a run by the river, but didn’t get time, mostly because I have suffered with horrendous jet lag once again. No matter what i tried I could still not get a good nights sleep and it really gets to you after a few days. I should sleep like a baby on this flight home. I’ve done some shopping: some equivalent to £1 stores for crazy stationery that your mum likes and some Korean sauces and kimchi for Ouma, who has watched a TV chef and now wants to make Korean food. Good luck to her.
You two have had your first photoshoot together this week, which I have missed but can’t wait to see the results of. You are very cute together: B loves watching G playing and G loves cuddling B. You are going to make quite the team as you grow up.
Dear George and Bea
[This is another delayed entry from October 2013]
Currently on another plane, this time somewhere over Lake Erie on my way to Mexico for a week. BA, economy, terrible.
Since I last wrote I’ve been working pretty hard which means travelling too much and stressing a little. I went to Malaysia and Korea a few weeks ago and it was the first time George realised I was leaving – you held onto my leg and asked my not to go. And cried. It was really difficult to leave. Was back for a few days and then flew to Brazil again so you have been camped at the farm where there a few more hands to look after you. Bea is less than 3 months old and is changing daily. Thank god for Skype.
Continuing on my fitness regimen I’m trying to run in every city I visit and in São Paulo I managed to get out for a 5km in Pinheiros, a really nice neighbourhood, but with little to see – some churches, mobile phone towers, and a lot of people walking dogs. A lot of dogs each, maybe 10-15. There seems to be very little open space to make use of in SP as when I asked the reception of my hotel for directions to a park to run in, they told me it was 35 minutes away by taxi! When I did go (just outside the hotel) there was a weird kind of concrete exercise area where lots of Paulistas were power walking in cycling shorts and looking serious about it. Basically, that place needs more parks.
I flew to Rio early on Sunday morning and spent the whole, lovely day on the beach relaxing, drinking the odd caipirinha and jumping in the sea when I got to hot. Escaped with minimal burnt skin, which was surprising given the pasty state it was in. In the afternoon I notice a lot of men in tight, small swimming costumes seemed to be congregated in this particular section of the beach. I turned around to see rainbow flags and realised which part of the beach I was in, confirmed by a lot of male canoodling and frolicking in the sea. I moved along a little.
The next day I got up early and heading out with two colleagues to run along Ipanema and to Copacabana stopping at the workout stations along the way and a muscle beach type affair in between. It was a lovely day and so many people were out doing the same thing, or riding bikes, or skating or on long skateboards underneath the palm trees that line the route. We went to the lookout point between the two beaches and took in the views before descending to the beach gym. This place is great – the weights are iron bars with concrete on the end! No nonsense and packed with meatheads who obviously spend a lot of time either working out there or eating chicken. After another section of jogging we bought coconuts to drink and jumped in the sea to cool off, throwing in some body surfing for good measure, all before 9am.
Rio is a special place, changing fast and gearing up for the spot light of the World Cup and Olympics heading there soon. It has it’s issues, but generally it’s a really positive place to visit and for once I came back from a work trip feeling refreshed rather than exhausted.
I land in Mexico in two hours and will hopefully see some interesting things to write about for you. Part of the British Government’s Great campaign, this being a creative industries tour. There is an ambassadors reception (I’ve been to quite a few now) so that in itself should be amusing.
I’ve just woken up on an Airbus A380 on my way home to you and your mum from Hong Kong via Dubai. I’m flying business and managed to sleep pretty much the entire (9 hour flight) like a baby. I love this plane.
This latest work trip was back to Bangkok for a week and then to Hong Kong for a week as there were two large exhibitions I had to attend as well as some other meetings. I stayed at Novotels (jokingly “Novo-hells) in both cities to try to be loyal and they weren’t too bad, apart from mosquitoes in the lobby in Bangkok and the pool being drained in Hong Kong. At least I get my points in.
I’m on a fitness regime at the moment, which started on January 1st. It involves:
1) Doing P90x for 90 days – this is a set of DVDs where you follow an American guy called Tony jump around, lift weights, do pull ups and strain through yoga. I’m a third of the way through and actually really enjoying it, but it’s pretty intense and time consuming.
2) Not drinking. I thought this would be hard for me, but turns out it isn’t. And I feel really good on it. My family think I’m weird though.
3) A diet that mainly involves eating healthily and avoiding white carbs. Again, if you told me I couldn’t eat bread I’d have thought it impossible, but it makes you experiment and try a lot of new stuff.
I’ve lost about a stone (7kg) in weight, although I don’t have goal, or even really any idea why I’m doing it. I think it is a reaction to the news that your mother is pregnant again with your brother or sister! I think I want to be a healthy dad so I go hell for leather at it. I tend to be all or nothing. He or she is due at the end of July so we’ll have double trouble and will probably need to buy some sort of mini van to transport you, him/her and your cousins around. It all feels very lovely.
I spoke to you on Skype a few times this trip and it is amazing how quickly your speech is coming on. You are two in three weeks. You can pretty much get your point across for anything you want and you are cheeky as hell. Last night you stirred pasta in your mum’s tea and told me there was a shark in there.
So what of Bangkok this time? I had plans to go the Thai boxing at Lumpini Stadium, see a snake park and even fire machine guns at the rifle range, but none of these came to fruition. Instead I went to some nice restaurants and did a morning run around Lumpini Park with a colleague, which was great and incredibly tiring in the heat. I went to a restaurant called Bed Supper Club which is in a really interesting structure. You sit on beds (free massages are available) for your dinner and are entertained in the central part of the restaurant by contemporary dancers. It was great. I had a night out with a colleague at “In the mood for love” which is a Japanese restaurant and some of the best food I have ever eaten. Afterwards we went to a pool hall and played a few sets with the women there who are ex-sex trade workers and also happen to be very good at pool.
In Hong Kong I feel I have been so many times it is hard to get motivated to see sights, so I did a morning run there to and ran half way up The Peak to Bowen Road fitness track and took in the views. That’s quite a few cities I’ve gone running in around the world now and it is a great way to get to know them and soak up atmosphere.
Looking forward to giving you a huge squeeze when I get home
Photos: bed supper club, Siam Square decorations, street art (all Bangkok), halfway through my run up the Peak in HK