Winter vacation: Island hopping in London and Dublin

Well, it is March, so we might as well share what we did in January.  Such is the schedule of blogging and living – always so much to do and much less time to record it in.

Korean public schools break for a few weeks every winter, and everyone gets a vacation. We get 24 days of winter break, which is a pretty good deal, more than the private school teachers get, which is next to nothing. And, since our time in Korea is drawing short, we did what American teachers who don’t have jobs lined up do – went to a job fair!

The nearest one was in London, and while England isn’t your typical winter vacation destination, we booked tickets, threw in a few nights in Dublin, and viola! An island-hopping winter vacation is born! True, the islands are Ireland and Britain, and the season is all wrong, but you get the idea.

Here’s a quick photo tour of the highlights:

Korean Restaurant

A Korean restaurant in Dublin – You can take the foreigners out of Korea, but you can’t take Korea out of the rest of the world. We did not eat here, since we can get Korean food in Korea, and because we wanted to sample all the other wonderful food the isles had to offer.

LondonDublin02

We were out of Korea, and jumping for joy at our beer options. This is on the Guinness Storehouse tour. Also in Dublin is the Jameson distillery, home of the smoothest whiskey in the world! Ireland, you may gather, takes its libations quite seriously, and we, being gracious guests, did our best to appreciate the local flavors.

Then we went to the Dublin zoo, a nice little zoo in the middle of Pheonix park. While it’s not as large as many zoos, the animals were in fairly large enclosures and seemed happy, except for the big gorillas, but then again gorillas seem pretty grumpy even in the wild. Here’s Harry, elder statesman of the gorilla paddock, having a chat with Akasha:

HarryA woman we met there said that this is one of Harry’s favorite things to do – squat next to the glass and socialize with the people on the other side. Not a bad retirement plan, when you think about it.

Irish history is long on oppression and invasion, none more important that the British occupation that ended in 1920’s. There were many frequent uprisings during that time, so it’s no surprise that Irish prisons played a great role in the planning of the new country that emerged. The most famous and well maintained of these old prisons is Kilmainham Gaol, a large building with expansions marking many steps in the evolution of prisons.

Kilmainham GaolIt’s also been used to film many movies, so if it looks familiar, that may be why.

Dublin is also famous for all the writers it produced, none more important the James Joyce:

JJoyce

Here’s that picture of Mike telling James Joyce he’s a pretty okay writer.

Then it was on to London.

London Tower Snow

This is what London looked like most of the time – cold and menacing. This is the kind of weather we saw most of our stay – snowy and cold. In fact it shut down the airport just after we arrived. We did our best to stay warm, but there was a lot of shivering going on.

London is of course famous for it’s musical theater, so we had to get some tickets for something. Luckily, this show was in town:

Palace Theater

Yeah, Singing’ in the Snow would have been a more accurate title. We found a half-price ticket booth and scooped up a pair of discount tickets, and, come showtime:

InsidePalaceThese were our seats. They sold oxygen at the concession stand. You can see the stage down there in the corner, somewhere.

The show was fantastic! It rained on the stage and the dancers took glee in splashing the front rows! (We weren’t in any danger of getting wet.)

Buckingham PalaceHere we are at Buckingham Palace, far from the massive crowd that had gathered to await the changing of the guard. As you can see, the Queen was not available to receive our visit, so we had to get our own coffee.

Akasha got a good chuckle that the Royal band was playing Dancing Queen during the changing of the guard ceremony.

Overall it was a wonderful stay, and then got we down to the business of the job fair. For three days Akasha, trooper and thrill-seeker, braved the crowds and elbows of six hundred other candidates to look for our next adventure. Long story short, we are going to be moving come next August, to Bilkent Laboratory and International School, just outside Ankara, Turkey. Hooray! I’m pretty sure that probably deserves a post of its own.

Sorry Mike, you missed one of the most important parts of our trip – the food! We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Korea has great Korean food.  If you want non- Korean food you’d better lower your expectations.

We ate well on this trip.  Our Dublin guest house, The Celtic Guest House, was fantastic.  They provided a full English breakfast and we ate like kings!  Their bacon was thick cut and delicious. Even better was the bistro next door, Le Bon Crubeen.  We like to try a variety of restaurants when we travel, but the food here was so good and affordable that we kept coming back.  Their head bartender had a warm personality that made us feel like we were back at Sen Yai Sen Lek chilling with Nicole.

One of our first meals in London was Ethiopian at Addis Restaraunt near King’s Cross.  Their Selata Aswad and Misser Wot were perfect and their Injira was moist and fluffy.

Our last week in London was my most stressful.  The Search Associates International Job Fair was worth the time, but it was a 3 day long 8 hour a day interview based job fair and I was on edge all day.  It was great to return to our motel neighborhood each night for r & r.

Two of our favorite places in Fulham were Chaam Thai and the Cock Tavern.  Chaam Thai was cozy, and relaxing and after a long day of interviewing it was so nice to enjoy a big bowl of Tom Yam and a spicy plate of Naam Prik Noom.  The staff at the Cock Tavern were super friendly, they had a great sampler menu and amazing beers.  Our last night in London we celebrated my job offer with a pub quiz.  The host was hilarious and teased us for not getting any of the answers.  We came in 2nd to last place, but had a great time.

Well, here’s hoping our next post is a little quicker coming than this one. We have about 50 days left in Korea, so we hope to pack in a few more baseball games and weekend outings. Then it’s back to the States for a few months before our new adventure begins. See you soon, America! See you soon, Turkey!

Eek! It’s skatefish!

Skatefish, or hong-uh in Korean, is a traditional delicacy with a great deal of notariety among the foreinger community of Mokpo. I (Mike) have eaten skatefish twice now; the first time by accident, the second time more or less by design. I can’t account for this lack of proper judgement, but the story may prove amusing, and a warning to those of you planning a culinary tour of Korea.

Skatefish has a lot of things going against it. First of all, like most flat fish, it’s a bottom feeding scavenger, most comfortable lying around in the muck of the ocean, away from all the cool fish. Second, the skatefish has no kidneys. You’d think this would doom it to blood poisoning, but it’s adapted itself in a clever way: All urine gets processed within the muscles of its ‘wings.’

The wings, not coincidentally, are the parts of the skatefish people eat. And, because they are soaked in urine, and the skate is fermented from 2 to 10 days, the flesh gets a pungent, out-housey scent that sends most people running for the exit. This, oddly, doesn’t keep skate from being eaten in the west. Western cookbooks simply advise that if the skate has not been processed properly, the meat will smell strongly of ammonia, and should be discarded. I suspect Korean cookbooks have the opposite warning.

I can’t really justify my eating something that smells of ammonia except by saying, that 1) I did not order the skatefish either time and 2) I don’t smell very well.

At the teahouse. It was quite lovely, actually.

The first eating was at a teahouse that recently opened near Akasha’s school. We wandered in, and the jovial hospitality of the owners made me excessively polite, and I ate whatever was offered. (Akasha does not succumb to this kind of pressure. She is smart enough to avoid skatefish at all costs.)

The second time, I was at a teacher’s dinner, another situation where politeness is important. It was a restaurant where they specialized in raw seafood, such as the Hong-uh, and a raw blue crab that was soaked in soy sauce and garlic, hacked to pieces and set out on a ceramic tray. So it seemed only polite to give the skatefish another try.

You may be wondering why I put something that smelled so bad anywhere near my mouth. But I was wondering the opposite, how something that I had eaten didn’t smell so bad at all. So it was here at the teacher’s dinner that I finally held a piece up to my nose, and learned, once again, that my nose is pretty much useless for long-range smelling. An inch from my nose, the smell hit me. I teared up, my eyes watering, and I nearly ran from the restaurant.

My co-teacher showed me a trick, though. It’s an ancient method of coping with the ammonia smell. You eat the hong-uh in layers, with sliced pork and kim chi on either side. This provides a nice ‘sandwiching’ effect, where the sweetness of the pork and spice of the kimchi can contain the smell until it reaches your mouth. And, finally, you sense a paradox of skatefish: It doesn’t taste that bad. It’s kind of sweet and delicate. It’s almost a shame the smell turns people off.

Or is it? Because there’s one last problem that even buffering cannot solve. Skates are related to sharks, so they have no true bones. They do have cartilage, however, and the cartilage is not removed before serving. This means the skatefish is like chewing on, say, fingernails, or velcro tabs, or fish-flavored bubble wrap.

I tried to chew the skate for several minutes, but it did not yield to my weak, western jaws. Finally, because politeness only goes so far, I spit the skatefish discretely into a napkin and set it near my plate for disposal. I felt a bit like when I was eight years old, hiding the peas under the edge of my plate so I could leave the table. So, my adventures with skatefish have ended. I won’t be trying it again.

How to clean a skatefish.

Another tale of skatefish (with pictures)