Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Moving day

There was a skidding sound of paws on a polished wood floor followed by a thump. Then a brown and gold shape streaked from the main room to the bedroom. Rinse, repeat.

I leaned back against the kitchen wall and lifted the remains of the 2 litre soda bottle to my lips, waiting.

After a few more minutes the cycle seemed to break and my cat appeared beside me.

** There is nothing here! NOTHING! **

Then she was off for another lap around the apartment that had just been emptied by the movers in the first stage of shipping my belongings to Japan.

This had been my first experience with a moving company that packed as well as shipped. Normally, not boxing up everything yourself adds a ridiculous amount to the moving cost but it seemed for a journey over these distances, the company wanted to do it themselves and basically threw it in for free.

I had stood watching while one of the movers painstakingly wrapped my plastic water bottle in three layers of paper before gently placing it in a box before deciding I wasn't going to understand this process and retreating to the basement. Down here, I had put all the items the movers weren't to touch: my suitcase for the next 2-3 months, a few items I was donating to a charity thrift shop and my cat. Said feline had decided to take no chances and had curled up actually in the suitcase as a rather pointed hint.

Despite the simplicity of my instructions to the movers ("please take everything"), I was still asked a few of bizarre questions:

"Is this bookcase coming? And all the things on it?"

No dude, that's just my hand luggage. The mind boggles.

Now, however, they were gone and all I had left was a suitcase. Tallis came back from her mad sprint and sat at my feet.

** Our life used to be so much cooler than this. **

I picked her up and submitted to having my face washed. Possibly she was remembering the last time our house was emptied; an event that preceded a bunch of car rides and a three hour flight up from Florida to Canada. 

"Basically," I told her. "However bad you think this is going to be...? You're out. Waaaaay out."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Punch buggy

"This isn't a normal amount for you to deposit, is it?"

I looked down at the bank teller's desk where the cheque for several thousand dollars was sitting. "Sadly," I replied. "No."

The teller grinned and went to find her supervisor to countersign the cheque. The second lady came over and recognised me from a previous visit where I'd moved US dollars from my Canadian bank account to my Japanese one, much to the anguish of the bank's computer system[*].

"How's the move to Japan going?" she asked.

"It's progressing," I nodded towards the cheque. "That is for the sale of my car."

In the comment part of the cheque was scrawled the note 'For sale of 2002 VW Beetle'.

"Oh we both drive bugs!" The supervising teller indicated herself and the lady serving me. "It's so funny when you see the kids punch each other when you drive past!"

.... What?

"You didn't realise? It's punch buggy! If you see a beetle, you have to punch the person next to you on the arm and call out 'punch buggy! No punch back!'."

"It's important to remember the 'no punch back' part," the other teller added. "Otherwise you just get hit back."

I opened my mouth but all I could produce was a slightly bewildered "....Oh."

Both the tellers laughed. "You've just been thinking Canadians are all extremely violent? But no, it was because of your car!"

[*] For some reason, it had thought that CAD or at least Yen should have been involved somewhere along the line.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stick short

By my quick assessment of the sea of red jerseys the other side of the score keeper's box, I would estimate our opposing team had at least three lines of players.

We had two.

Players, not lines.

To be totally fair, our first line was on the ice, so we had one complete set of players and two substitutes. For those not glued to the NHL, in ice hockey a line consists of five players; two defence, two wings and a centre who both attacks and defends. For novice hockey, an ideal team would have at least two sets of defence players and three sets for the wings and centre; so a total of 13 players plus the goalie.

Seven players was therefore slightly short-handed.

Apparently, people went away in the summer; a shocking lack of commitment to this predominately winter sport! In the end, we managed to capture three extra players from teams that had played earlier that evening, making our bench a cheerful rainbow of coloured jerseys. Just don't pass the puck to anything in red.

One of the fun things about playing slightly short-handed is everyone tends to play their absolute best. After all, there is no point in leaving the leg work to someone better than you if your only substitute has collapsed from exhaustion a mere 30 seconds previously. This works until the third period where no one can move any more.

In the end, we lost but narrowly by a goal scored quite late in the game. I ate nachos with my team. Then found I couldn't stand up. It rocked.

Monday, August 15, 2011

One last love song

"Try and take a seat over there."

For the first time in over a year, I was driving to the USA after more than three months since my last airflight in. This had the unfortunate side affect that I needed to stop and get a new green tourist I-94 visa waiver. My flight from Buffalo airport was at 1:10 pm and --knowing as I did the affection US border control has for human kind-- I had left just before 9 am for what would be a 90 minute drive if I was in an armoured Bat mobile with a disregard for international laws.

I arrived at the Niagara bridge around 10 am and shuffled my way for half an hour through the giant car tetris game to the border crossing. There, my passport was sent up a pipe leaving me to follow through the more traditional entrance of the office's main door. That was the point where I was told to try and take a seat.

... the operative word here was 'try'.

As far as I could see, everyone in Ontario required a US tourist visa right now and they'd each brought seven possibly-illegally-immigrated friends along for the ride. I stood for the first fifteen minutes before managing to squeeze into a seat beside a family with two children. The mother was exclaiming at the men in uniform while her ten year old son wanted to use up all her US change in the drink vending machine. She refused him. I obnoxiously decided to buy a soda, just so I could suffer slightly less than at least one other person.

Really, it was worth getting an iPhone just for situations like these. I worked my way through two games of 'plants versus zombies' and multiple chapters of my ebook before I was called to the counter. The border guard in charge of my passport was evidently a new recruit; he smiled at me and was fascinated by the computer system. A detailed conversation with a colleague ensued while he inquired why the system required both my sets of finger prints but no thumbs; apparently variations on this biometric theme are demanded depending on what the database finds when the passport is scanned.

Enchanting though this was, time was running out before my flight. I tried to keep smiling pleasantly and resisted the urge to tell him it was a magic 8 ball and just live with that.

Eventually, cash was handed over and my passport was stamped. The guard asked me the time of my flight (I had the impression that many he'd asked that day had replied with an hour in the past) and how many times I had visited my friend in Missouri before.

"Oh ... uh .... none."

I tried to make it sound damn casual in a manner that didn't suggest this was someone I had met on the internet. Fortunately, he seemed to consider this normal. Maybe the computer was just more interesting or perhaps no-one ever visited the mid-west more than once.

I took my passport, smiled at everybody, nodded to the guards on the way out... then I slammed on the gas. It was lucky that I'd checked in for my flight online. I was the last person to board the aircraft but then, I was totally worth the wait.

It occurred to me as we headed down the runway that this might be the last time I would face the US border for quite a while. Will you miss me, guys?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cat tales

"Look, it's your mommy!"

My cat was milling around the door to the apartment when I arrived to pick her up after my month in Japan. I held a hand down to her as I slid out of my shoes. She sniffed it, let me rub her ears and tickle her chin.

Then, she fled.

It took me fifteen minutes to locate her under one of the beds. I had to move several boxes and other items out of the way before I spotted the pair of yellow-green eyes staring back at me. Evidently, her time at the home of her feline foster family had been a success.

Saddened by the loss of a cat of their own, this family had decided not have another pet. Instead, they enthusiastically cared for other people's animals while their owners were away. I had been put in contact with the family's daughter through a friend and had explained that I was moving to Japan, but would ideally leave my cat in Canada for the first six months while I found an apartment, my possessions were shipped and things generally became sorted enough that we would have a place to recover from what would undoubtedly be a traumatic journey for the pair of us. It seemed like a rather high demand, but the response I received was extremely enthusiastic. So, we set up July as a trial run for both the family and Tallis.

Apparently, it had worked out well.

I sincerely hoped (as I pounced on my cat and carried her back downstairs) that Tallis' reluctance to stick around was due to her knowing that the next step involved the hated cat carrier and a car ride, rather than a declaration of her home of preference from this day forth. Since, upon arriving at home, she reverted to a furry ball of purriness, I've convinced myself this is true.

If it's not, well tough. I missed her even if the feeling of loss wasn't reciprocated.

This week I sold my bed. This move was apparently also not appreciated since Tallis refused to sleep on the sofa bed with me at all and spent all night on her seat by the window. There are times when I feel my home lacks support.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The soul of Seoul

Window shopping in Seoul was proving to be somewhat challenging since the shops didn't have windows. Well, strictly speaking they did; the mall consisted of the usual array of glass-fronted stores on multiple levels connected by a central escalator. The difference was that the shops seemed unable to be contained behind their façades. Like an outdoor market, rails of goods spilled onto the aisles making it impossible to tell where the actual front of the store began. It also bustled with people and it was past 10 pm.

When booking flights between Sapporo and Toronto, I discovered I would have to stop in Seoul for an eight hour layover. Feeling this was a stupidly annoying length of time to be stuck in an airport, I'd added an extra 24 hours to the stop and booked a couple of nights in a hotel. The plan was to see the entire South Korean capital in exactly a day and a half. Much more sensible.

I'd already fluffed part of my plan by falling asleep when I reached my hotel (it had an air-conditioner) so I emerged rather sheepishly in the evening to see if I could still get something to eat.

Since the hotel was in the Dongdaemun Market commercial district where the shops are open for 18 1/2 hours a day until 5 am, this turned out not to be a challenge.

Outside the mall, I browsed through the stalls of street venders trying to choose between meat skewers, sushi-like rolls or an orange pasta-looking dish. In the end I selected the possible-pasta, accepting a bowl of hot somethings with a cocktail stick to eat it with. The orange sauce turned out to be pretty spicy and the pasta consisted of a glutinous rice dumpling. I took a photo with my phone and posted it on facebook. This action had two results: the first was the discovery that the dish was called 'Ddukppoki' (떡볶이) and is apparently a very popular snack in Korea. The second was facebook asking me whether I had a Korean name that I'd like to add to my profile...

It was just dinner, I tell you! It didn't mean anything.

Prices in Seoul varied a great deal. My hotel was good value for its location, but not cheap at $100 a night. Food prices ranged a fair bit and transport was very cheap. It costs only $1 to ride the (extremely nice) subway and the shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel cost only $14 for roughly an 1.5 hour journey. Also, I did not invent the cheesy title to this post; every English language guide book I saw was entitled something similar. By contrast, the French version had the boring translation of "A guide book to Seoul". But, eh, they deserve it.

The following day I set out for some serious site-seeing. I started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace (top left photo); a royal palace that dates from the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This period of Korean history lasted five centuries and ended --ultimately-- with the annexation of Korea by Japan at the start of the 1900s. This had the unfortunate consequence of most buildings being reconstructions of the original (although some are still quite old) which met their untiming decimation at the hands of Japanese forces. Each of the small information plaques beside the buildings states their use, their original date and the date they were destroyed by the Japanese.

... I was starting to see the historical problem between these two countries.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Koreans hate each other. Their history is bloody, destructive and recent, with the annexation of Korea only ending in World War II. The present conflict has a different feel to it than the one between the English and the French. Don't get me wrong, of course I can't stand the French! But that's because it's just such fun to beat them at football[*]. One of my Japanese friends (while somewhat inebriated) once told me; "Older people are very prejudice against Koreans. I don't feel that way and yet ... I understand why they do." Some wounds are still too raw to be confined to sporting events.

My guide books' pictures of Gyenogbokgong palace did not do it justice. They shows the outer wall; a military-looking affair at one end of a large concrete square. Behind this, however, the palace buildings extend back into large gardens around a central lake. There is not one huge building like the large houses and palaces in the UK but rather a multitude of smaller establishments designed for different purposes. Each of these was compact enough that you could see its extent by looking through the wide doors and windows. Despite their open frontage, the breeze passing through high-ceilinged rooms felt cool, smelling of wood and incense. If it hadn't been completely inappropriate, I would have jumped the rope barrier and laid out on the tatami mats; Seoul in July is not comfortable.

After the palace, I took a cable car ride up to the communication tower overlooking the city. It was slightly cooler here and there was a demonstration of ancient battle techniques which was pretty awesome. Many a straw dummy did not live to provide opposition for another day. I later walked back down to street-level where I saw a mother luring her small children up a steep set of stairs with a game of 'rock, scissor, paper'. The person who won each round was allowed to climb five steps. Cunning, very cunning.

Finally, I browsed in Namdaemun Market (right-hand photo); the largest traditional market in Korea. It was remarkably similar to the malls.

I left my hotel early Sunday morning to head out to the airport. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad but at 6:30 am it was still relatively quiet. The main people about were the street cleaners ... all of whom had "The Seoul of Asia" embroidered on his breast pocket. The old jokes are apparently the best ones.

[*] When, you know, England knew how to play