Sunday, July 22, 2018

Here is an Amazing Story.

I don't even know where to begin with this one...

Those of you who have known us for more than a few years will no doubt recall the LQA audit nightmare we endured back in 2013. During our ordeal, I got to know many other DoD civilians around the world through our closed Facebook group. I would say that the two largest geographical regions were Germany and Korea, which is not surprising as those two countries feature the largest - and largest number of - bases. Whereas many of us had daily contact while we were 'fighting the good fight', most of us have lost touch with each other since the nightmare ended. There are a small handful of people I have remained in contact with however, a couple of them from here in Korea. 

When I was debating whether or not to take the job here, I quickly reached out to two of the Korea guys to get their thoughts, advice, etc. One of them is a Korean-American gentleman who is retired Army and has worked here in Korea for many years both on active duty and as a DoD civilian. He is very protective of his privacy so let's call him "JP". JP gave me a lot of good advice and encouragement while I was debating making the move and once I made the decision to take the job, we made plans to get together once we got settled. I figured it would be great to have a friend here who knew his way around, right? And of course I thought it would be cool to finally meet one of the other LQA victims that I knew only through the FB group since, believe it or not, I've never met a single one. I messaged JP shortly after we arrived, let him know we were in country and we traded cell phone numbers. He said to let him know once we were settled and maybe we could get together. That was about three weeks ago or so and I'm embarrassed to say, I'd completely forgotten all about him with all of the moving, in processing and such. 

As you know, we moved into a beautiful place last week. We are close to the base but there really isn't a lot of stuff near us, we're kind of secluded. There are a couple restaurants nearby (the duck one is the only one we've tried) but the saving grace for us is that right next door there is a tiny little "shopping plaza" that has only two things; a coffee house called "Timeless Coffee" and a little convenient store chain called "GS25" (sort of like a small 7-11). The GS25 has been a Godsend for us, it has drinks, snacks, some takeaway food, ice cream, you name it. Before I bought my little car I would go in and ask them to call me a taxi to take me to the base. They speak no English at all but are so completely nice and friendly. The first day, the boys and I went into the Timeless Coffee place so I could grab and espresso and I loved it right away, very cute little coffee house serving all kinds of coffees and teas as well as pastries, cakes A few days ago I stopped in for a beer before going to the GS25 and to my surprise, the Korean woman working there spoke very good English. We chatted a bit and she was so nice, I thought "Well, this could become my new hangout as it's the only walkable place I can go to get a beer".

Today I took the family to a movie (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom...little disappointing, I'd give it a 6.1 at best) and Virginia and I had planned to go check out one of the big markets downtown afterwards which is on our local bus line. The kids were fighting and acting up which put me in a bad mood and it was 1,000 degrees so I just was not in the mood to explore the market so I told Virginia that she could just go by herself if she wanted to, I'd drop her off at the bus stop. The bus stop is very close, just up the street from us and it happens to be just after the little plaza with the coffee house and the GS25 mart. I dropped her off at the bus stop, then pulled into the GS25 mart to grab a bottle of soju but it was so hot that I thought I'd enjoy a cold beer first so I popped into Timeless Coffee next door for a Red Horse. The same woman was working so we chatted a bit. I asked her if she was the owner and she said yes. She asked if we had bought a place nearby and I said no, we are renting a place there and pointed to our house. I took my beer and sat at one of the tables, sipped it while I surfed the net on my phone and I thought to myself "Dammit, I meant to ask her how she learned to speak English so well..." Figured I'd ask on my way out when I paid for my beer. After a few minutes, a maroon vehicle pulled into the parking lot and around the side. I didn't really pay it much notice. A Korean guy got out and came into the coffee house. I drank my beer, didn't pay him much mind. After about 5 minutes, he was walking out, turned to me and said "Do you know me?". I looked at him confused and said "Um...I don't think so". He sat down and said "You're new here, right?" I was starting to get a little freaked out that some random Korean guy seemed to know a little too much about me but he told me his name and said he was one of the LQA guys and it finally hit me - he was JP

We are friends on FB but he doesn't post pics of himself so I really had no clue what he looked like. But, I post pics all the time so he recognized me in a second. I asked what he was doing there and it turns out that his wife owns the Timeless Coffee house! Seriously, what are the odds?! This is NOT a small community. Pyeontaek's population is roughly half a million people and Camp Humphreys itself is home to almost 50,000 people. And it just so happens that his wife owns the little coffee house right next door. Amazing. 

Anyway, I invited him back to our place where we spent a good couple hours or so talking about everything from the LQA nightmare to living in Korea. I wanted to get a picture of us to post with this story but as I mentioned, he is wicked private so, sorry, no picture. 

Just thought that was an incredible story. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

More Thoughts and Impressions of Korea...

So tomorrow will be exactly three weeks since we arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm. With everything that has happened since we got here, it seems like a lot more than 3 weeks. We are starting to settle in now - we've moved into our house and have started to get to know the area a bit - so I figured I'd share some more random thoughts and such on our new life and surroundings...

* South Korea is expensive. I probably shouldn't be surprised, considering the fact that the country is completely cut off from the rest of mainland Asia by the evil empire to our north which means that pretty much everything here is imported via sea or air. The quality of life here is very high and that does come at a cost and I'd been warned prior to arriving that everything here is expensive. However, there are some things that just seem disproportionately expensive. For example, we ate at a Chinese restaurant on my birthday and the kids wanted their Coca Cola so I let them order a can each. Halfway through the meal I was looking at the drink menu to see what kind of beer they had and I was shocked to notice the price of a can of Coke - $9.50! And it wasn't even a regular 12 oz can! I wish I'd looked before I let all three kids order one, that's for DAMNED sure. On the other hand, some things that I thought would be pricey are actually cheaper than expected. Taxis are cheaper than I expected. Train tickets are cheap - all 5 of us took the train to Seoul last weekend for roughly 20 bucks. And soju, which I have already developed a love/hate relationship with, is surprisingly cheap (about a buck and a half for a bottle at the convenient stores). The worst part so far is probably the produce at the commissary, which is usually cheap. The selection here is horribly anemic and grossly overpriced, even prohibitively so. Fortunately we have already discovered the cheaper "3/8 market" (so called because it is held on days ending in either a 3 or an 8) downtown that usually yields better and cheaper produce. Unfortunately, restaurants also fall into the pricy category. A good dinner at a Korean BBQ place for all 5 of us could easily approach the $100 mark and could just as easily go way over if you're not careful. Speaking of Korean restaurants...
Produce at the commissary: over $7 for a small carton of strawberries and over $6 for a small carton of blueberries. No thanks. 

* I'm sure I will be proven wrong on this as we spend more time here but for now, Korean cuisine doesn't seem very diverse. It's most famous for the Korean BBQ where they bring all kinds of vegetables and you cook the meat at your table - affectionately called "Beef and Leaf" by Americans - but outside of that I haven't been able to find any other identifiably authentic "Korean" food. I don't even know what else there is, to be honest. There is something called "bibimbap" that we have been dying to try, it's basically a huge bowl of rice with sautèed vegetables, chili paste and either a fried egg or sliced meat on top...but we haven't found a place that serves the real thing yet (full disclosure, we haven't really looked that hard). And it seems like everything ...and I mean EVERYTHING - here is spicy. This is causing problems for Luca and Max as they can't order anything anywhere we go. Chicken nugget kids meal? Chicken is too spicy. Hot dog? Too spicy. I'm getting used to it but it'd be nice to have some normal food that is not spicy. Of course we are at a huge American base so there is also no shortage of American type places selling burgers, wings, Mexican food, etc. but I'm in South Korea, I don't want that crap. Luckily there are plenty of ethnic Asian places such as Indian, Thai, Filipino and such. I'm a huge fan of Asian food so that suits me just fine. 
Spicy noodles with dumplings for lunch today; so spicy it burned my insides for a good hour after I ate it.

* South Korea is hot. Like, wicked hot. And the humidity is absolutely unbelievable. People told me it was bad but I had no idea it would be this bad. The heat and humidity here, I would put it on par with the Philippines believe it or not. It really is that bad. I am sweating constantly, it's very uncomfortable. Italy is hot and humid but nothing like this place. I try putting on sunscreen but I sweat it off within minutes of being outside and being in the sun makes me feel like a frigging vampire it burns so much. From what I've gathered, June through August is like this. Hopefully it will get better after because my God, this weather is absolutely oppressive. 

* Remember when I wrote about how easy everything was here compared to Italy? Well...things got a little more difficult the last week or so. The biggest problem here is the absolute massive size of the base. I honestly can't understate how huge this place is (for my friends in Vicenza, you could probably put at least 10-15 Caserma Ederles inside the base here and that is a very conservative estimate). It's basically a city. Taking a taxi from one end of the base to the other can take at least 15 minutes or more. Taking the free shuttle bus from the PX to the front gate can take more than half and hour. Almost all of the in-processing stuff is done in the "One Stop" building as I mentioned earlier and it's so convenient but anything else you have to do quickly becomes a nightmare. An expensive nightmare. They have three different free shuttle bus lines (red, green and blue) that do different routes but sometimes marrying up the different changes and transfers is often akin to doing a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. If you need to go to the big places - PX, walk in gate, etc., no problem. But anything even slightly off the beaten path,'re screwed. Now, the saving grace SHOULD be the taxis. And for us, they were the first week or two. They have a very 'convenient' AAFES Taxi app for your phone where no matter where you are on base you can order a taxi simply by putting in your location and where you are going and they will send a taxi out to get you. The first week or so it worked great but suddenly the last week or so, probably 75% of the time I order a taxi, I get a response back saying "Sorry, no taxis available at the time, please try again later". And let me tell you, when you are standing outside with NO cover or shade in this heat and burning, searing sunlight with no hope of a taxi or bus coming anytime will make you question your entire existence. Which leads me to my next topic...

* I bought a car today. Given what I just wrote in the above paragraph, I honestly wish I'd done so last week. I shipped my car before we left Italy but I checked the status earlier today and after almost an entire month, it says my car is STILL AT THE PORT IN GERMANY. Which means it could be another couple months until it gets here. When we got to Italy last year I made the mistake of doing a long term rental car while I waited for my car to arrive and it ended up costing me almost $2,000. The smart thing to do would have been to buy a cheap 'hooptie' (used car) to drive until my car arrived, then just sell it. Well now I'm a year older and a year smarter and so that's what I did. You simply cannot survive here without a set of wheels unless you are a single soldier living on base and even then it's damned near impossible. I met a soldier this past weekend who told me that the policy here is that single soldiers below the rank of E7 are not allowed to own a car. That shocked me. I can't fathom living here without a car. He described in great length how much he hates it here simply because he can't have a car and it takes him forever to get anywhere using the slow and confusing bus system. He said this is the worst duty station he's ever had and he'll never come back (perhaps he'll change his mind once he makes E7 and can have a car?). Anyway, we've spent way too much time being stranded on base in the blazing sun for me to even consider not buying a car. Plus we live off base now which means I have to go next door to the 24 hour convenient store and ask them to call me a taxi to the base, then take another taxi once I get to the base. And then depending on what I have to do, when and where I have to do it, I could end up taking 2 or 3 more taxi rides while I'm on base. There is virtually nothing on base that is walkable distance. It's absolutely insane. 

* There is wonderful news on the vino front (or bad news if you're my loving but nagging wife); the shoppettes here carry an outstanding selection of the same Italian, French and Australian wines I used to buy in Vicenza. There will no doubt be many things I will have to learn to live without here but thankfully, world class vino will not one of them (Sorry honey!). 
The finest Italian vino right here in South Korea. Who could ask for more?

* I absolutely LOVE our house. Location aside, it's possibly the nicest house we've ever lived in. It's completely new - we are the very first people to ever live in it - and so clean and modern, it's like a luxury house. I think my favorite part might be the showers. They're completely open with tons of room and feature two different shower heads to choose from. As much as I loved our apartment in Vicenza, the shower was basically the size of a phone booth and had barely enough room to get in and out of. One of the coolest things is the couch that came with the place. It has a bluetooth hookup with speakers on each side - I connect my computer to it when I watch Netflix and put the sound through the couch which is amazing. Sometimes I connect my computer or phone to it and play YouTube videos as the sound is so loud and clear, it's like having a complete surround sound system. 
Our couch with built in bluetooth speakers. Futuristic!

* Language has probably been the toughest challenge for me so far. I've traveled all over the world and for the most part I've been able to get by with some basic phrases or simply by learning how to ask "Do you speak English?" in the local language. Not so here. I've been completely astonished by how few people here speak no English at all, not even one or two words. In my experience, countries that host American bases usually have at least a a slightly higher than average amount of locals who can speak a bit of the language. And Korea has been one of the the biggest homes of overseas American bases since the 1950's so I really thought I'd have no problem here but I was completely wrong. When I lived in Germany it seemed everybody spoke English. In Italy, less so but still a large enough amount that I had no problem getting by using English and my rudimentary French (which is very similar to Italian) until I started learning the local language. Most other countries I've visited - France, Portugal, Holland, Hong Kong, Thailand, you name it...never had a problem. But I'm really struggling here in South Korea. I will learn some Hangul (Korean) in time but for now it's making things very difficult. One of the hardest things is that they don't use the western alphabet in most things, such as trains, buses, etc. So for example, I'm looking for a bus stop with the name "Gaek sa ri", I can't find it because they only use the Korean name: 가에 사 리. It makes things really difficult...

Anyway, there's the most up to date...umm...update. I'm sure I will have much more to add as the days and weeks roll by. But three weeks in, we are still loving it here, having a blast exploring, learning and experiencing all that this wonderful land has to offer. Until next time - 땅에 발을 들여 놓고 별을 향해 계속 ...

Monday, July 09, 2018

South Korea is the Anti-Italy, Part 2; Housing

For those don't remember our epic house hunting saga from last year in Italy, let me just say that it was legen...

wait for it...


I will not recount the entire sordid episode here but suffice to say that in typical Italian fashion, things did not go smoothly. When DoD Civilians relocate overseas we receive what is called TQSA. Basically it pays for a hotel and meals for a fixed amount of time until we find a place to live. In Germany and Italy I was allowed 90 days of TQSA which really should be plenty of time to find a place to live. In Germany it was but in Italy last year, it was not and I ended up having to request an exception to policy and in order to receive an extension because it took so long. In the end we found an amazing place right in the historic center of downtown Vicenza but it was anything but easy. We had originally found, and agreed to rent, a huge villa not far from the base but the landlord jerked us around and after weeks of claiming he was cleaning and fixing everything, it was discovered that he had in fact not done anything and so we told him to "vai a cagare" and kept looking. 

So let me back up and explain how things work, for the uninitiated. DoD Civilians overseas receive something called LQA (Living Quarters Allowance). It basically pays for our rent and utilities. The amount you receive is based on where you are stationed, your civilian rank and how many dependents you have. For me, I'm in the upper third of the government civilian rank and I have 4 dependents which means my LQA rate is, well, pretty high. With this in mind, it SHOULD be easy to find a place to live anywhere, even Italy. However, as you have no doubt learned by now, Italy is not like most places. Let's start with the housing office - they have several properties in the greater Vicenza area on the "for rent" list but almost all of them are well outside the historic downtown. And many of them are, to be honest, subpar. On top of that, the housing office in Vicenza is like many other places in Italy - corrupt. I know for a fact that they have a "secret list" of really nice places that are not shown to the general public because they are being reserved for the highest ranking people. Virginia doesn't drive, she takes the bus everywhere so she wanted to live in the downtown area where she could walk everywhere but of course the housing office had nothing big enough there so we were forced to hire an immobiliare, which is basically an Italian realtor. Immobiliares are great at finding you what you're looking for in a house or apartment but they are expensive. Very expensive. The reason they are expensive is because in Italy (and Germany) the landlord does not pay the realtor fee, the tenant does. It is generally one month's rent + 22% VAT (value added tax), so it's not always financially feasible for some people. We dealt with a few immobiliares who were horrible but were extremely lucky to end up with an absolutely wonderful immobiliare named Francesca who took GREAT care of us. I obviously was not thrilled at having to pay such an exorbitant amount of money but in the end at least she found us just what we were looking for and she worked her ass off to find it. {If anyone would like her contact info, feel free to message me!}
In Italy we lived in a big, beautiful apartment on this very historic street in downtown Vicenza; we paid handsomely for it but it was worth it. 

Once you find a place in Italy (or Germany), you contact the civilian personnel office and arrange to have your LQA started. The rent is a fixed amount but the here's where it gets difficult. You have to put the utilities (gas, electric, water, etc.) in your name which means you have to go to the various utility companies and arrange to have everything put in your name and turned on which always includes high activation costs and such. Then, for LQA purposes, you have to "estimate" how much you think your utility bills will be each month. Whatever you estimate is what the government will pay you for the first year (in addition to your rent). After 12-15 months, you then have to do an LQA reconciliation where you must submit your utility bills for your first year. They then total up the bills and compare it to what you estimated; if it's more then they refund you the difference, if it's less then you pay the government the difference. As you can imagine, this process is a tremendous PAIN IN THE ASS. Fortunately you only have to do a reconciliation one time, after your first year. They then adjust your LQA payment amount to reflect whatever your utilities cost your first year. Sound confusing? Trust me, you can't even imagine. But, that's Italy.

Once again, South Korea is the anti-Italy. My buddy Jack told me how great the housing process here is when I got this job and it sounded great but as the saying goes, "I'm from Missouri; you gotta show me". 

And show me, they certainly have! 

Believe it or not, one of the things that almost prevented me from taking this job was that we were still in debt from all of the fees we had to pay in Italy a year ago to move into our place - first months rent, security deposit and immobiliare fee altogether came to almost $10k. When Jack and I first discussed the job, I told him I probably couldn't afford it because of this and he informed me that here in Korea, the landlord pays the realtor fee. Well that certainly changed things. He also told me that most places include all utilities in the rent which means no activation fees, no "estimating" monthly bills and most reconciliations! Even better, he said that most places come with cable and internet already installed, so the only thing I would pay out of pocket was our cell phone plans. I really had a hard time believing all this, I thought there must be some kind of catch. Anyway, Jack hooked me up with his realtor and I contacted her before we arrived and introduced myself, let her know what we were hoping to find when we arrived. I pretty much realized during my in-processing brief on the first day that things would not be as difficult as they were in Italy (or Germany) when the personnel guy told us that we are only authorized 60 days of TQSA here instead 90 as in Italy and that he would be shocked if it took any of us more than 30 days to find a house. He also told us that they have an "80-20" situation here; for every 20 people that arrive here they have 80 houses available and that he found exactly what he was looking for - a 3700 sq/ft place on the river - in 2 days.   

Holy crap.

Anyway, I went up to the housing office afterwards to go through the housing brief crap and was told "No man, you don't have to do anything...whenever your realtor finds you a place, just let us know and we'll have you come sign the lease." Once again, I was floored. Anyway, on our third day here we finally hooked up with Ashley, our realtor to start looking at places. She asked what rank I was, I told her I was a GS12 with 4 dependents so I was pretty sure I got a high amount but I wasn't sure exactly how much and she replied "It's ok, I already know!". And they do. The realtors know exactly how much everyone gets depending on the rank and dependents. It turns out I'm sort of in the VIP category, which means realtors LOVE me because they can put me in an expensive place and get higher commission. So we finished our errands and met her and her boss outside the front gate at 4pm last Friday, they literally whisked us off and showed us place after place after place. They were all nice but the second place she showed us made quite an impression. Virginia and the boys wanted it badly. Me, I was in no hurry. Why should I be? Knowing that I was finally at the top of the housing food chain, why should I settle for something I saw on the first day? Shouldn't I be patient and wait for an absolute palace? Well, maybe. Or maybe, that was just my past experiences in Germany and Italy affecting my judgement, who knows. All I know is that we looked at probably 10 places that first afternoon and the second place was much, much better than all the rest. As well, all three boys were literally begging me to take it - they were terrified that we would lose it if we waited. I told Ashley we loved the second one and might end up taking it in the end but that I'd like to look at some more places on Monday and keep my options open. She said sure and that she was also happy to meet us on Saturday if we wanted. The second place kept nagging at me but I just could not get past the idea that I'd be crazy to settle for the second place we looked at. Back in the hotel room Friday night I was trying to discuss it with Virginia but she kept giving me her usual "Whatever you want to do is fine..." routine. I told her to take me completely out of the picture and tell me what she would do if it was 100% her decision; she came clean and admitted that she would take it in a second. It was big, beautiful, new, modern, close to the base and the markets, shopping, etc. and most of all, had an area for the garden that she so desires. And so I called Ashley and told her that we'd like to look at the place the next morning and then make a decision. 

Of course we ended up taking it. We had the inspection this morning which of course went well as the place is brand new and we are the very first family to ever live in it. When you think about it, it was the second place we looked at which means we found our perfect house in literally 20 minutes. Twenty minutes! And everything Jack told me was spot on - all the utilities are included, I have two parking spaces, free WiFi and cable, AND a free water purifier/dispenser (cold and hot) small thing, that! In Italy we paid $75 for a culligan water cooler, then had to pay $8.75 for each 5 liter bottle of water, which we would go through in about 2 days which meant every few days I was going to the shoppette and spending 20-25 bucks on 2-3 huge bottles of water, which I had to lug upstairs one bottle at a more of that shit! I asked Ashley about the filters and she said "No worry, they will come every two months to change for you!". 

*wiping away tears*

I never dreamed places like this existed...

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

South Korea: The Anti-Italy

I love Italy. I mean I love Italy. Everybody knows this. It is quite possibly the most beautiful country in the world. is not always easy to get things done there, even for americans who work or are stationed on one of the bases there as the extreme bureaucracy extends there as well. As much as I enjoyed my time there, the problems I had getting stuff done are well documented. Arriving in Italy and leaving Italy can test even the most patient person as nothing ever seems to run smoothly. Trying to in-process or out-process can be frustrating as everything is spread out and then you try to do something that should be simple but then you find out you can't do it until you go to this other place and take care of that first, and then you go back to take care of the first thing you were trying to do only to find out that you were also supposed to do this other thing as well which nobody told you the first time so now you go back to take care of that and it's lunch and everything is closed for the next three hours so you have to wait and then start the process all over and there's a good chance that at some point in your struggle, you will encounter an Italian telling you "Domani...domani..." (We'll do it tomorrow) which is sort of the unoffical national motto. In fact, there's a popular joke among Americans that the real reason people stationed there don't want to ever leave is because it's just too difficult. Anyone who followed the constant hi-jinx that affected everything I tried to do the past couple months knows a little of what I'm talking about. It is a common occurrence for Americans to apply for jobs in Italy and head there all excited with visions of eating gelato and riding in gondolas in their heads and then after a couple months of trying to get their internet hooked up, dealing with non-existent customer service, people who never stand in line for anything...they start hating Italy and regret ever going there. I was one of the lucky ones who fell in love with the country and the culture despite the constant bureaucracy and difficulty getting things done. After all, I found out during my short stint back in the US that things don't seem to be much better there these days. 

South Korea though, man...  

What a difference! Whoever designed this base deserves an award. You realize right away that things are different here. It all starts with the in-processing; they put just about every single office that you have to in-process in ONE building and called it, appropriately enough, the One-Stop Building. ID cards, vehicle registration, security, passports, housing, etc....all in one building. I've never had such an easy time in-processing in my life. It might be different for soldiers who come here but for me as a civilian, what a difference from Italy and hell, even Germany and the US. There are Koreans working in just about every office and they can't seem to do enough for you, it's the complete opposite of the Italians working on the bases there. The biggest difference? Without a doubt, the housing. I'll be penning (well, typing) a separate blog post about the differences in housing between here and Italy so I won't go into details here. Suffice to say, it is night and day.

It is no small thing to say that in my first week here, I have not been frustrated once. Not one time, by anything...those who know me are probably shocked by that! 

I've traveled around Asia a decent amount and I've found the culture here to be different than in the west. In countries like Japan and South Korea, they are workaholics and it's normal to go above and beyond in just about everything they do. It's no accident that South Korea currently has the 7th largest economy in the world despite its small size. They are industrious here, they figure out how to get things done and usually in a very efficient way. I realize it's only been about a week but so far I am finding it exceedingly refreshing...