Thursday, June 28, 2018

Our First..."Real" Korean Meal?

We have been craving for the real deal Korean meal where they cook your food on the grill on your table in front of you since even before we got here and tonight, ostensibly, was the night. There is a place close to our hotel that has a good looking menu and a few people recommended it to us so we decided to give it a shot. We actually liked it a lot although I am fully aware that I am basically a tourist so I cannot rightly judge the "local" food, so I'll just go by what I know and what I like. 

It started out innocently enough, with a middle aged Korean women with a plastered on face who spoke decent enough English seating us and then an older Korean guy who spoke really good English helping us with our order. We ordered the boneless beef and some mild chicken (I wanted the spicy but Max wanted chicken so mild it had to be). In short order a tray arrived with all the requisite vegetables and accompanying sauces and such, most of which I have already grown to adore in our modest two day stay here.

Eventually the meat arrived and the middle aged Korean woman, who seemed really bitter for some reason, threw it on the grill and then announced, as she dismissively slammed the tongs and scissors down in front of me, "In Korea, the MEN do the grill..."

Well it was go time. I will not attempt to hide the fact that in our family, Virginia is the chef and usually the master of the grill. Her culinary skills are unmatched so why mess with perfection? But the gauntlet had been thrown down and my masculinity was being questioned; I could not let this bitter, Korean woman with the plastic face have the last laugh. I could not and I would not. And so I grabbed those tongs and started grilling the hell out of that meat...of course I whispered to Virginia to tell me when to turn everything but that's neither here nor there - I WAS IN CHARGE OF THE GRILL. Things were going great and I was feeling like king of the castle...until plastic face came over and said "You have to cut the meat so it doesnt overcook" and then proceeded to take the scissors out of my hand and cut up the chicken in front of me. I felt so emasculated. I have so much to learn about this country...

The ubiquitous vegetables...

The beef goes on the grill

Two of my favorites; spicy bean sprouts (top) and cabbage in some kind of white sauce that plastic face would not give away the ingredients to...

Veggie paradise

Working the grill; the pressure was apparently too much for me.

Virginia taught me how it's supposed to be done; one piece of meat in the big lettuce leaf, then a slice of fresh garlic, a little bit of kimchi, a little cabbage with the white sauce, wrap it up and then shove it down your gob. One of the tastiest things I have EVER had. 

The woman is a culinary savant. 

The fresh garlic, these are sometimes called "elephant garlic". 

I asked the waiter who spoke English to give me the low down on Soju; he said this one is sort of the 'original' soju, and is stronger than the ones being made today. I, of course, had to try it. Stupidly, as it turned out. But I would have the last laugh. (Notice the frog on the label, Dad...)

Virginia was just adventurous enough to try one shot and then was done, leaving me to finish the bottle. It was a struggle and it took me a good 30-40 minutes but goddamnit I did it. Challenge accepted; CHALLENGE DEFEATED.  

The offending bottle of original soju. MUCH stronger than the sweet, flavored ones that most Americans know here. 

Promised the kids an ice cream on the way home so we stopped at the 24 hour mini mart and lo and behold...look what I found! My friends in Italy will be happy to know that it tastes just as shitty here as it does in Italy. Still, old habits die hard...

Virginia managed to find a green tea ice cream bar. Because that's what she does. 

Good night from South Korea!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

South Korea; First Impressions...

So here we are in the "Land of the Morning Calm"; South Korea. Everyone keeps asking me what my first impressions are, how do I like it? It's only been one day but so far I can answer that easily: I love it. 

Let me rephrase that...


It did not start out great however. We arrived into Incheon Airport and to my pleasant surprise it was probably the quickest and easiest immigration/baggage claim/customs experience I've ever had. Though I may change my thinking in time, so far the Koreans seem to be very efficient (especially compared to the Italians!). Anyway, we found the USO and waited a half an hour for the shuttle bus to Camp Humphreys. When it arrived we went outside to board and it. was. POURING. We're talking monsoon level wind and rain. Normally not a problem but when you're trying to herd three kids and five large bags, it just plain sucks. I was eagerly anticipating the drive to Humphreys so I could survey my new surroundings but the wind and rain were so pervasive that visibility was basically non existent. Virginia and the kids slept the whole way, as is their custom. We finally pulled into Humphreys and drove what seemed like forever until we got to the drop off spot and they announced that people PCSing should disembark there. I did so and after some confusion, the Korean soldier called the taxi for us. Now, with all our bags, we needed either a big van or else two taxis to carry everything. He said they had no van available but that they would send two taxis. We went back downstairs to wait under the awning and within 5 minutes, two taxis came into the parking lot, one right after the other. I started loading the bags into the first one and realized right away that we could have a problem; the trunk could only hold one big bag. Apparently in Korea the cars (or maybe just taxis) carry some kind of fire suppression thing in their trunk which takes like half the space. I actually thought it was a nitrus oxide cannister to be honest. Anyway, I figured we would just put most of the bags in the back seat of one taxi and we would ride in the other. But as I started loading the bags in the other taxi, a young soldier came out and said that the second taxi was his, that he had called it. I told him no, we ordered two taxis and they came in together. He insisted it was his and showed Virginia something on his phone saying "See, look at the number, this is my taxi". We were getting soaked and I was getting annoyed so I just said fine and asked our driver to order another taxi, which showed up in less than 5 minutes. I found out later that you can order a taxi online here on base and when they send it they give you the taxi number that is coming so you know which one is yours. So it was indeed his taxi. 

{Now, let's take a time out here so I can play crusty old curmudgeon and complain about the 'younger' generation; If I was that soldier and saw a guy and his wife with three kids and all those bags struggling to do everything in the pouring rain getting soaked...I'm sorry but I would have said "no problem sir, just take this taxi and I'll order another one, I don't mind waiting an extra 5 minutes." I guess some of the younger generation never learned proper manners. After all, "selfless service" is one of the 7 Army Values. But I digress...}

Anyway, we finally arrived at the hotel and I checked in which was a bit difficult as the owner and his wife barely spoke a word of English. Eventually we got through it and then the dark cloud that followed me for the last month or so in Italy made a triumphant reappearance; my government travel card got declined. Now, the GTC lady in Vicenza upped my limit to 10k so I thought I would have enough but nope. I had to pay the first month up front so I thought maybe it was too much so he tried a smaller amount. Still declined. He tried an even smaller amount. Declined again. Finally he tried to charge one night only. You guessed it - declined. So that tells me that there was something else wrong with my card. Finally I told him to use my personal credit card - AGAIN - and just charge 5 nights and then once I got my government card un-assed this week he can cancel the original transaction and use the GTC. Of course my personal card worked just fine, which was surprising because with the amount of stuff I've had to put on it the past week it's got to be pretty much maxed out by now [Insert angry face emoji here]. So we go up to the room and the first thing the lady says is that we have to take off our shoes at the door. Now I'm a huge Seinfeld fanatic and I love the epsisode where George's dad had an affair with a Korean woman years ago but it didn't work because he refused to take off his shoes ("I had a potential foot odor problem") and her father would not have it. I thought it was funny before but after one day here I have realized that taking off your shoes is really a major deal here. I mean REALLY a major deal. Thank God I don't have a potential foot odor problem...

People in Korea are small. And it shows in many things here. Our hotel is a perfect example. We were able to get a "suite" with a kitchenette which I'm told is pretty rare here but it literally is the size of a double room in most countries I've been to. The bathroom is small and, well, how do I describe the shower? Let's see...picture your bathroom at imagine a shower head in the corner; that's pretty much our shower. No shower curtain or stall. Just take a shower and the water goes all over everything in the bathroom. Crazy. 
This will take some getting used to...

It was late and I was jet lagged and grumpy and so I was, shall we say, not enamored with our room. I had flashbacks of our return to Italy last year and the loooong 4 months stuck in a hotel room. We asked if there was a place to eat and the lady said everything was closed even though it was not yet 10pm, but there was a 24 hour minimart around the corner. Things were not going well thus far. Our hotel is in a scummy looking alley so my initial impression of Pyeontaek was not a positive one; I started wondering if I'd somehow managed to move us to the Korean version of Scumter. We went and to our surprise there was also a 24 hour Korean eatery next door to the minimart so we went there instead. Of course we had to take our shoes off again and the lady spoke no English so we muddled through and eventually ordered something to effect of "meat on a bone". This being Korea, she prepared a bunch of fresh vegetables and then put a bunch of small bowls filled with various things on our table. Then she came with a huge dish of pork on the bone standing tall in a soup of various vegetables. She then put it on the stove burner on our table and lit it, then took a bunch of the mushrooms and vegetables from various bowls and put them in the pot to cook around the huge bone in the middle. The meat on the bone was ok but I'll be honest, the real star of the meal was the veggies. In all my years, I've never had kimchi before because spicy cabbage never appealed to me but there it was sitting in front of me so I figured when in rome, err, I tried it and WOW, it was so delicious! I am a kimchi fan for sure now. 
Luca and Xavier were a bit unsure...

But then the meat came and they were all in.

Kimchi; never thought I would like it so much but it's everything they told me it would be.

I went to bed feeling a little disappointed last night, hoping things would get better. There's a popular saying that "Tomorrow is another day" and that was certainly true in my case. 

I awoke this morning still suffering from jet lag and the time difference but I had to be at the CPAC to start in-processing at 0900 so I dutifully took a shower and got ready to go. The hotel is a mere 7 minute walk to the walk-in gate but the base is so completely massive that you pretty much have to take an on-base taxi everywhere. As I sat through the in-processing brief and then spent quite a bit of time afterwards talking with the CPAC (personnel) reps, I quickly realized that things are different here. Everybody and everything is very laid back, things run smoothly and easily (so far anyway). It's almost like the anti-Italy. The guy I'm dealing with spent time in Germany and Italy and he says I will be amazed at how much easier things are to get done here. So far he has been spot on. 

As I departed the hotel this morning and turned on to the main street, the smell hit me. Anyone who has traveled in Asia knows that smell. It's the smell of working class people cooking food for the common man on all the back streets and alleys and it permeates the very air you breathe as you walk around and it's nothing short of intoxicating. The Pyeongtaek I found this morning as I walked to the base was vastly different than the one I saw - or thought I saw - last night. It was night and day (literally). For a moment, I felt like I was back in Hong Kong or Manila and I felt, for lack of a better word, reborn. This is exactly why I took this job and moved us here after only a year in our beloved Italy. I know it's only been one day but for now I am 100% certain that I made the right choice. I'm so completely anxious and excited to see what the next 3-4 years hold for us, I wish I could experience it all right now. After work we walked around town and it is just as I hoped it would be. We had dinner with a friend of mine who I used to work with in Scumter (here on a one year unaccompanied tour) at an Indian restaurant that was a thousand times better than our favorite place back in Vicenza and cheaper too. Afterwards he bought me my first ever bottle of soju which I've longed to try after years and years of hearing countless stories about it from friends who have been stationed here. 

We are going to love it here. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Italy 2000-2018, In Pictures...

With us leaving Italy again, possibly for the last time, I thought I would write all kinds of flowery prose about our time here, try to capture the essence of our 15 years here in words and such...but in the end, I figured pictures would tell the story much better than my addled brain ever could. And so I present my/our life in Italy 2000-2018...

Summer of 2000. Shortly after arriving in Italy I was whisked off to PLDC in order to get promoted to Sergeant. Here's me at my graduation.

Upon graduating from PLDC I was immediately promoted to Sergeant.

Me and Mike Rayfield, the first good friend I made here in Italy. I was so lucky to meet Mike as he introduced me to so many places in the area and things to do. He was a Godsend.

My first ever trip to Venice, September 2000. Little did I know at the time what a huge impact Venice would have on my life in the years to come.

Some of the other early friends I made here, Mark and Jane Santaw. This was taken in 2000, before they got married. Mark and Jane and their boys are still some of our closest friends, they live in DC theses days. 

Me in the office, somewhere around 2001. This is where I first learned how to do JOPES, the career field that I've worked in since then and that I am going back to in Korea.

Cinque Terra, September 2001. Mark and Jane and my friend John Pitt took me my first time and I was instantly smitten. Cinque Terra was different back then, before all the Rick Steves zombies discovered it. The trails were open and free. Paradise. 

Me and my good friend John Pitt. He introduced me to many facets of Italian life and culture and I'm forever grateful to him for that. 

Cliff Jumping in Arsiero, about an hour north of Vicenza. At some points, the Astico river is barely 5 feet wide but it's so deep that it's popular with scuba divers. A popular pastime is to jump off the high cliffs on either side. 

The so called "Bridge of Death" in Arsiero. We considered it a test of manhood to jump off the bridge and more than one person climbed over the rail, looked down and climbed back over out of fear. I myself made the jump several times, it was exhilarating.

My first foray to the beautiful and historic city of Florence, 2001. 

Re-enlisting in the summer of 2002. Doing so kept me in Italy so it was a no-brainer.

Colosseum in Rome, January 2003

Virginia and my first trip to Venice together, spring 2003. The first of many...

Swimming in the frigid waters of the Brenta River in Bassano del Grappa, 2003.

Hiking to Vernazza, Cinque Terra, 2003

Vernazza, Cinque Terra, 2003

Me and Steve-O at the Devil's Forest Pub, Venice 2003

Virginia, 5 months pregnant, getting ready for our friend's wedding

Preparing for the arrival of the X Man, 2003

The X Man has arrived, December 2003

The beautiful walled city and castle of Soave, birthplace of the X Man.

Adele, me, Agnese and Monica with a baby Xavier

Holding my first born at our old apartment in Caldogno. So many great memories in that place. 

Giampi and Angese with Xavier. They practically adopted him as their own the day he was born. It's a bond that will never be broken. 

Virginia, me and Xavier at Arsiero, summer of 2004

Grammy meets Xavier for the first time, spring of 2004

Visit from Grammy and Tracy in the spring of 2004 with her kids Brianna and Logan

Virginia and Brianna in Venice, spring 2004

Memorial Day ceremony at the American cemetery in Florence, 2004. 

With our good friend Monica and her baby Maristella, 2004. Monica and her husband own the restaurant "Il Castello" in Vernazza.

Xavier trying to steal my beer, Innsbruck, Austria, 2004

Italy-Sweden, European Championships in Porto, Portugal, 2004

Daddy and Xavier on our 'laptops', early 2005

Pub crawl in Venice, May 2005

Hiking Cinque Terra, summer 2005

Fly Fishing the Brenta River, summer 2005

Me and my Italian fishing buddy, Fausto. 

Virginia's first Thanksgiving meal, with Giampi and Agnese, 2005

Weekend in Milan, on top of the Duomo, 2005

Caldogno, 2005

Monster trout taken on my fly rod in Bassano del Grappa, 2005

Me and Danny Arrowood, St Patricks Day in Venice, 2005

Dinner upstairs with Giampi and Agnese, Agnese's pasta with shrimp

With my Masshole buddy Kevin "Elvis" Boucher. Everyone who has ever been to Vicenza knows Kevin, he is a legend here and he's from Sutton, Mass., just outside of Worcester

Returning to Italy after 2 years in Heidelberg, Germany, it was time for Xavier to start school at the Italian scuola materna (Kindergarten). Giampi insisted on bringing him on his first day, he was so incredibly proud.

Xavier's first teacher, Beatrice

Xavier's first best friend, Daniele. They are still best friends to this day and I have a feeling they always will be.

Me and Xavier at the Devils Forest Pub in Venice

On our terrace in Caldogno, 2009

Me and dad in Venice, 2009

Cinque Terra, 2010

Daddy and Luca, asleep on the couch

Xavier trudging to school

Playing foosball with Luca after work at the Enal Bar in Caldogno

Making bruschetta

Day out in Vicenza, 2012

Welcoming Maximus Amadeus Thibodeau, December 2012

Luca and Xavier welcoming their new brother

Luca's first trout, San Pietro in Gu, 2013

Fulfilling a lifelong dream; taking Luca and Xavier to see our favorite team, AC Milan at the San Siro in Milan, April 2014. We would depart Italy only days later. 

Returning to Italy and visiting Giampi and Agnese, 2017

Reuniting with Mauro upon our return in 2017

Max at his first ever soccer match. He would dominate his league, averaging 10 goals per game. He is a natural.

Max with HIS first ever trout, San Pietro in Gu, 2017

Me and the kids having a snack at Tazza d'Oro in downtown Vicenza, spring 2018

Vacation on Lago di Garda (Lake Garda), Memorial Day 2018

Family hike up Mt. Berico, Vicenza. 

Thus ends our adventures in Italy. Looking forward to making new memories in South Korea!