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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hanging with the gals . . .

As those who know the Kiwi know, and casual readers probably suspect, although she can scrub up okay, she's a bit of a boy at heart. She's much rather talk bikes and boats than makeup and manicures and finds cowgal boots a lot more practical than heels. Most of her friends are male (she makes a great wing-gal) but she makes a point of cultivating their better halves also so they'll be allowed out to play.

The one huge exception to that is at the Kiwi's volunteer job, at the Second Hand Rose Thrift Shop on Yongsan Garrison. The store is run by the American Women's Club Thrift Shop Association and affiliated with the American Women's Club. Given that, it's not surprising that almost all of the volunteers are female, though a couple of husbands hang in the "boy shed" out back at times, supposedly checking donated electronic equipment.

Another women's organization here in Seoul that the Kiwi has had dealings with (she was a guest speaker at one of their evening events some years back) is the Seoul International Women's Association. Formed in 1962, the organization includes members from about 80 different countries and has two major fund-raisers each year to raise money for the many charities it supports. For one of these, it partners with embassies to throw the Annual SIWA and Diplomatic Community Bazaar. (The brochure given out at this year's 33rd such event stated more than 40 nations on the front but listed only 29 on the back - the Kiwi didn't go around counting.) Held in late autumn, the bazaar is said to be a perfect place to source unusual holiday gifts not easily found elsewhere in Korea. But, despite having spent a number of years based in Seoul over the past decade, the Kiwi had never attended.

Until last week, when she boarded the courtesy shuttle bus (happily alongside two new friends she'd made just days earlier at a wine tasting - great minds DO think alike) to the Grand Hilton Seoul hotel. The Kiwi's main mission was to get some good New Zealand wine, as she's been told the embassy always donates some.  But also to look at what else was available, perhaps write a story and network with the "ladies who lunch" (a large part of SIWA's membership is made up of the wives of corporate executives, embassy personnel and officers - not the Kiwi's usual social set).

Mission accomplished! Despite a little jostling from a combative ajumma (in the hierarchical age-conscious Korean society, elderly women feel justified physically pushing aside anyone in their path), the Kiwi captured a Babich Pinot Noir and a Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc, both from the Marlborough region of Te Wai Pounamu (The Waters of Greenstone is the Maori name for Aotearoa's South Island). She also reconnected with the embassy Public Affairs Officer and met the ambassador's wife, as well as a good many other contacts. She was highly tempted by the possum/merino gloves and scarves but decided they were a little too pricey and probably not sturdy enough for her ruffian lifestyle. The wine was not inexpensive, but still great value for money.

Amanda Valentine and Michelle Mann (wearing a beautiful pounamu pendant) at the New Zealand stall. 
Olga, Elina, Viktoria, Andrey and son, Mark, at the Ukraine stall.

Jayme Heywood, the daughter of a Greek mother and an Australian father. Jayme's grandmother made this outfit for Jayme's mother when she was a child.

Kristina Meeks, of Norway.

Three young members of Dance Group Moscovia play spoons.
Having achieved her main purpose, the Kiwi wandered around taking photos, watched a lively performance by Dance Group Moscovia, caught up with a few of her fellow thrift shop volunteers and sampled a variety of different cuisines. Nom, nom, nom. As did the many, many others who attended. Not having access to a corporate or embassy salary, she found the prices of most  items rather high, but appreciated that the proceeds all go to needy Korean charities. Having served as treasurer on the Thrift Shop executive board some years ago, and therefore been both part of the Welfare committee and the person who got to actually give our donations to the charities, the Kiwi knows all too well the good work charities here do.

Thanks for a fun day SIWA and Seoul's diplomatic community, thanks for the wine Aotearoa!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pairing Kiwi with Wine

And no, the authorities in Aotearoa frown very seriously on the consumption of the Kiwi bird, but this particular Kiwi has an affinity for and appreciation of good wine, preferably from her homeland.

And it has been a good week for the Kiwi and wine, as well as the Kiwi wine  of the Kiwi's friends. (Which makes up for leaving a gift bottle of wine behind last week, but I do hope the gifter enjoyed it and thought of me for at least a few sips of the bottle.)

Saturday, while at Yongsan, I noticed banners advertising a wine tasting at the Dragon Hill Lodge so phoned a military buddy to meet me there. For those who have never lived in Korea, the local wines range from atrocious to undrinkable. Koreans have a sweet palate and no history of wine making so the result is usually a cloyingly sweet cordial that has little resemblance to wine. I'm sure they could make spectacular wines as they have wonderful grapes but it would require an excellent winemaker to come over and do so, preferably partnered with knowledgeable vineyard managers who know how to achieve the best grapes for making the best wines.

Side note: The Kiwi is surprisingly knowledgeable on the subject, having grown out of her late-teen affinity for Asti Spumante, a sweet sparkling wine preferred in those days by those with aspirations to elegance but no understanding of class. She has since worked at and managed some of the best bars and wine bars in New Zealand and Australia, learned about wine at the shop of one of New Zealand's foremost experts (who brought in other experts regularly) and spent whenever possible on vineyards, both tasting and tending grapes.

So the nastiness that Koreans mislabel wine just will not do for this gal.

There are other wines available in Korea, and a much larger selection at a much better price each time I return here but, as with anywhere, its those that are produced in huge quantities that are mostly available. So the chance to expand my knowledge and taste some unknown drops was not one to be sneered at. I happily paid $18 for a ticket and another $5 for a perfect tasting glass, and it was time to have fun learning.

And what fun it was! Aside from the wine, I enjoyed time with old friends, reconnected with recently-made friends and made a few new ones while on a roll. (One gentleman sidled up behind me to ask, "Is there an event that involves alcohol in this city that you don't go to?" He'd been on the Craftworks Brewery Tour the previous week and hasn't been in Seoul long enough to know that it would take a few thousand cloned Kiwis to attend every event that has alcohol. Maybe more.)

I talked up those few New Zealand wines that were on the tables, though none of them approach the standard of our best; discussed wine-making and tourism and Seoul and Kim Jong-il; ran out of business cards to hand out and met a vivacious fellow journalist whom I hope to work with in the future. It being the day of the Marine Ball, which was being held in the hotel, I also got to admire some buff, handsome men-in-uniform and thank them for their service. (Offering to buy them a drink didn't really work under the circumstances.) And, of course, drank a little wine, and found a lovely Zinfandel Port. (Port being far more difficult to come by here.)

Then, on Tuesday, I attended the 2011 SIWA and Diplomatic Community Bazaar at the Seoul Grand Hilton. I intend to write a separate post on that but, having heard tales from earlier events, planned to get there as early as possible and head straight for the New Zealand table as I'd heard our Embassy sold good Aotearoa-made wines but they always went quickly.

That event was also improved when I arrived to catch the shuttle to the hotel (about a 30-minute ride) and found my new journalist friend from Saturday also there, along with another friend of hers I'd met at the tasting. Great minds do think alike, as she pointed out.

Once at the bazaar and checked in with the relevant people, I was off to find my compatriots and buy some good wine.  I walked away with a Babich Pinot Noir and a Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, both of which await a special occasion or a whim. I was also sorely tempted by the possum/merino scarves and gloves but decided they probably wouldn't survive my vagabond lifestyle too well.

Then this morning, Wednesday, in keeping with the week's wine theme, I was informed that the wines from two vineyards whose owners I know well and have been involved with had won trophies in the Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2011. I'm happy for both pairs of vintners and  feel proud to have personally been part of the making of one of the winning wines, or at least the nurturing of the grapes.

During a long-overdue return to Aotearoa from Nov. 2010 through May of this year, I was fortunate to spend time living and working with friends on Tussock Ridge Vineyard in Central Otago. The vineyard's label is  8 Ranges for the eight separate ranges you can see surrounding it.

As you can see from above, it was a magical place to be, and each day I learned more about grapes and vineyard management and all the many factors that must come together to make a great wine. It's a small vineyard with only a small output, but the wines are superb.

The judges at the wine awards obviously agree, and the 2011 Pinot Rose made with the grapes I helped prune and tend took the gold.

I had hoped to help harvest also, but the weather did not cooperate and I had a date with a motorcycle and good friends in the U.S. I had also wanted to work the harvest at another vineyard close by owned by other friends, but again the weather had other ideas. But I was happy to hear that one of the wines from Maori Point Vineyard also won an award.

Well done all involved! I know what a team effort it was and wish I could be there to celebrate with you.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lisa's shirt goes out in Seoul

The brewery tour on Saturday was to start the new winter brew for Craftworks, and I got home to find a friend in Virginia had been on a brewery tour also. I promised to send her the Seorak Oatmeal Stout t-shirt, then thought I should take it out on the town first. It didn't suit me so I accosted random strangers and asked them to model or pose with it for me (except the dog, he's my roommate so not random).
Here are the results, and there's a story to each:

This guy was sitting in his pickup, obviously moving house and waiting for someone (his wife, he told me later) and when I asked if he was going to be there long, thought I was trying to move him on and got quite aggressive. After I explained that I just wondered if he had time to pose for a picture, he explained that someone had tried to carjack him the previous day. And he was so, so apologetic . . .

This little lady is the graphic artist that designed the shirt, hence the proud smile

She's also one of the lovely staff members at Craftworks, as are the next four models

Punk dude really didn't want to be part of this

The Kiwi prevailed

Random Nigerians

A charming Frenchman and his beautiful daughter - trying to explain what I was doing in pidgin French was difficult

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The new brew . . .

I'm trying to blog on the brewery tour yesterday but need some information and it's 0-too-early on a rainy Seoul Sunday and nobody wants to talk to me in this country.

Thank God for America and time-zone differences, I'll just debate ows on DM's wall and chat with Nicholas (who gets paid to swim with dolphins - what a job!), Jisu (my very own Jeju guru), and Lisa (a new friend in VA).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Itaewon Freedom

The following is the original of my latest feature for Yonhap News Agency - the shorter published version can be found here (worth looking at for the photos by Jake Hanus, if nothing else:

Koreans Drawn to Freedom of Foreign Enclave

Situated just outside the concertina-wire topped concrete walls of U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan  –  home to the headquarters of United States Forces Korea  –  the suburb of Itaewon has long been known as a foreigner-friendly enclave. U.S. troops roam the streets, monitored in the evenings by Courtesy Patrols of Military and Korean National Police; English-language teachers mingle with international students; Africans of various nations peddle jewelry on street corners; and Pakistani, Indian and Turkish restaurants share street space with Western diners and English-style bars.

Itaewon’s foreign flavor precedes all of these newer immigrants, however. Historian Robert Neff, co-author of “Korea Through Western Eyes,” said the Japanese were based in the area when they occupied South Korea and before the Americans moved in. Neff has also been told that a Chinese presence preceded the Japanese but has no proof of that claim.

The faces on Itaewon’s streets have changed again recently, as Koreans reclaim this most non-Korean of suburbs, which was once considered both unsafe and undesirable.  

When Ashley Cheeseman, Executive Assistant Manager of the Grand Hilton Seoul, first visited Seoul in 1997 with his Korean wife, she did not tell him about Itaewon, “because she had only heard bad things,” he said.

The Englishman was told of the area by another Westerner and visited, finding a home away from home. Cheeseman and his wife subsequently lived one suburb over in Hannam for many years, and he continues to visit Itaewon three or four times a week.

“There wasn’t so much of a mix back then,” he said. “People were very segregated. You had the African community going to one place, Filipinos going to another.

“Now, I see this community where everybody is accepted and nobody is looked down or frowned upon.

“You have this perfect combination of young Koreans being in an environment with a lot of foreigners.”

He believes the change began when Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and Koreans wanted to socialize with foreigners and be part of a global experience. Itaewon was one of several focal points in Seoul where locals and visitors gathered together to watch the games.

Kevin Cyr, the Canadian owner of the Chili King burger bar, is another long-time visitor to Itaewon who has watched the area mature along with Korea itself. After coming to Korea as an English teacher in 1996, Cyr started selling chili burgers from a truck on the Itaewon main street in 2008 and moved to permanent premises on a side street in April 2009.

In 1996, he said, Itaewon was dominated by young American military and English teachers, he said.

“Most Koreans didn’t come to Itaewon because it was still considered dirty and dangerous.”

He said that perception has changed with promotion of the area by the Korean Government and as Koreans “slowly but surely become more wordly.”

“The late-20s, early-30s generation wants to experience more than Korea. A lot of them have either gone abroad, studied abroad or been on trips, so when they come back to Korea, they still want that authentic feeling. They don’t want to go to a Bennigans. They want to go to an Italian restaurant that actually has an Italian cook. They want to go to an American burger joint that actually has a Westerner cooking. They want the authenticity.

“Itaewon is basically the only place that really offers that.”

Koreans on the Itaewon streets gave similar reasons when asked what brought them to the suburb. Young parents Shim Gyu Sang and his wife Choi Hye Young said they both first came to Itaewon as middle school students and now visit every year or two. Bringing their 10-month old daughter for her first visit, Choi said she had noticed many more Koreans in the area.

Koreans frequented the area, she said, because “there are lots of tasty restaurants and many authentic restaurants.”

Nineteen-year-old Lee Jeong Sun, who was visiting to take photos with two of her friends, said she had been to Itaewon “just a few times.”

“When I was just a high-school student,” she said, “I heard that Itaewon is a beautiful place, similar to Europe, with so many foreigners.

“I think Itaewon is not like Korea because so many foreigners live here so they have their own culture and their own behavior.”

Kang Jeong Moon (26) said that he has visited Itaewon to shop, go to dance clubs and meet friends about 20 times in the past 10 years. He had also noticed a lot more of his fellow citizens in the suburb and said it was the foreign experience that attracted them.

“If you can’t go to America, you can still come to Itaewon,” he said.

Another factor that draws Koreans to the area, in a country where social media is an enormous influence on so-called “Netizens,” is a song that became a Facebook and Youtube phenomena in March of this year. “Itaewon Freedom” is an ‘80s-style disco/rap parody that speaks of freedoms unavailable elsewhere in a culture that has rigid expectations of its citizens.

The duo UV, consisting of musicians Yoo Seyoon and Myuji, and rapper JYP donned faux afros to sing lines that include translations of “a world full of youth” and “the world is there.”

Cheeseman said the song and the influence of many more foreigners on Korean television added to the attraction of Itaewon.

“There’s nobody there judging you,” he said.

“Especially with young couples, it’s an ideal location to go. They can be more affectionate with each other without people looking at them and criticizing them with their eyes.”

Cyr agreed that the area offers a freedom not easily found elsewhere in this strictly-regimented society.

“For them it’s like they’re living on the wild side,” he said.

Other long-time foreign residents grumble about the influx of Koreans to what many view as their own small part of the peninsula, though none spoken to wanted to go on record doing so.

Cheeseman said he had heard such complaints.

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “we’re in their country. We are the visitors here so to have Koreans with us and socially accepting us – there can be nothing better.”