The Girl on the Tram

tram

Soon after moving to Manchester I settled into a routine of taking the tram to work. It’s a sardine fest full of smartphone zombies, but it’s fast and convenient and relatively cheap.

I used to take what was the Rochdale via Oldham line before they changed the lines – now it’s Bury via Victoria.

The tram has around 12 carriages, so the chances of encountering the same person on the same carriage one day after the next seems pretty slim to me.

But that’s what happened. I can’t remember the first time I noticed her. All I can remember was the consistent eye contact between us every morning.

She had this kind of old-fashioned elegance about her, like a 1950s film star. Curly blonde hair, blue eyes (not the look I usually go for, admittedly), always smartly dressed. An understated elegance. Sometimes she’d have bright red lipstick on, and it suited her, it wasn’t too much.

As the weeks turned into months, even though I didn’t particularly like my job, I used to relish the excitement of getting up in the morning, in the hope that I would see her again. For those ten or so minutes the excitement of our mutual glances made my day. Then she’d get off at Market Street and I’d continue on to Shudehill or Victoria.

In the summer of 2015 major construction work started at St Peter’s Square, and the trams only went as far as Deansgate Castlefield. I used to see her more often, because we both joined the rank and file of commuters walking through the city centre to our respective office destinations. At the time I’d have the album Wilder Mind by Mumford and Sons on my iPod, and this became my soundtrack to her. The songs even seemed to match the way she walked. I was smitten.

As coincidence would have it, I began to see this beautiful woman in other places, like in the Arndale Shopping Centre one evening. I nearly dropped my bags when i saw her gliding through the foyer in a glowing purple summer dress. Such elegance.

After several months of this happening, I decided I had to do something. She was always on my mind. But how could I realistically attract her attention without embarrassing myself? The last thing a commuter wants at 8:15 in the morning is to be hit on by a random stranger. It’s creepy. Plus, she always had her iPod in her ear. There was no access to her.

Once, when I ended up standing right next to her on the tram, an idea quickly came to fruition. I deliberately tapped her foot, then turned and apologised, as if it was an accident (it happens all the time when people are hemmed in so close together on public transport – it’s plausible right?). She gave me a smile that would have melted a glacier, and my heart skipped a beat, but nothing else happened. Nice try, but no cigar! When I told the guys at work they cried with laughter, then suggested that I try an approach that wasn’t verging on assault.

Towards the end of August the construction work neared its completion, and soon the trams would be rolling on through the city again, past Deansgate Castlefield. Many people had been put off by the prospect of walking to work, so the trams were quieter during this period. Once the route returned to normal, the tram would be heaving again, and I wouldn’t see her as often. My window of opportunity was closing fast.

I got home from work one day, thinking what could I possibly do to attract this woman’s attention. All I could come up with was something old-fashioned and possibly embarrassing. I had no idea if it would work. I could crash and burn with this plan. But, I’m a man who likes to use words, and there was no direct way to start an interaction with her. So, I wrote her a poem.

Nothing sleazy, nothing cheesy, just an amusing anecdote about the situation. Everything rhymed, and I was really proud of what I had written. But would I have the guts to use it?

The next morning, I waited at the tram stop for the tram to arrive. When I boarded, I couldn’t believe my luck. She was sat down at a window seat, and there was an empty seat next to her! That had never happened before. I sat in the seat next to her.

Five stops to Deansgate Castlefield. My palms were sweaty and I felt palpitations in my chest. I chanced a glance to my left to look at her. She had her head down, engrossed in her phone, with earphones in her ear. Completely oblivious to me.

As the stops came and went, and Deansgate Castlefield became a mere few seconds away, I closed my eyes and wondered if I would truly have the guts to do this.

As the tram arrived at the final stop, I decided I was going to do the wimpy thing – dump the poem (which was written on a greeting card and sealed inside an envelope) on her lap, then bolt up and dash off the tram like a frightened animal before she could react.

As I reached over to do just that, her own hand shot up to grab her handbag and our hands collided. ‘Oh’, she exclaimed. ‘Er..sorry’, I declared. I left the card on her lap and bolted as planned. I dashed through the crowd ahead of me and on to work, never looking back. My heart was racing and I was scared and excited all at the same time.

That night, after work, I lay in bed pondering, over-analysing, like I always do. What if the card fell off her lap and onto the floor? What if she never picked it up? What if somebody else found it instead? What if she read it, and was repulsed by it?

I wondered what her reaction would be on the tram the next morning, if she was on the tram at all. Would she feign indifference and not react at all? Would she give me a look of disapproval? Would she hand the card back to me? So many possible scenarios, each one plausible in its own right.

Somehow I managed to get to sleep that night. And then the next morning came.

I boarded the tram at my stop. Immediately I located her in the same carriage, sat down at a window seat, with someone sat next to her and a bunch of people stood between us. I saw her glance upwards at each stop. But she did not see me. I wondered if she was going to pretend it never happened, and that would be the end of it. But when the tram got to Cornbrook, one stop before ours, a ton of people got off and on and the carriage cleared.

She looked up and saw me. And to this day, I still remember her smile. It was from her eyes, not merely her mouth. It was more powerful than the sun on that August day, wrapping itself around me like a blanket.

I thought to myself, ‘Blimey, this might actually have worked!’

At Deansgate Castlefield I disembarked from the tram and turned back to face the others leaving the tram also. She got off, still smiling. We both said hello and introduced ourselves.

We walked together through the city. It turned out that she worked quite near me, so we had the same journey (I never figured out why she got off at Market Street when the nearest stop was Shudehill – that remains a mystery).

We talked about life as we walked – uni, jobs. She was lovely. She was everything my dreamy mind had hoped for.

As we reached the point where we would go our separate ways to our respective offices, I decided to take the final plunge. After all, I had gotten this far. I asked her if she wanted to exchange contact numbers and grab a coffee.

She smiled again, and said, ‘I can’t, I have a boyfriend.’

Its moments like these where the whole world is brought down to its knees. Your shoulders sag in resignation, you look down at the ground. It’s like emptying a glass of water down the sink – before it was full of something, now it’s empty.

Hiding my dismay, I managed to hold my resolve and jokingly say to her, ‘Well, better not show him that poem then!’ She laughed, and walked away. I was absolutely heartbroken, which is ridiculous because I didn’t even know her, but I had built things up in my head over months and months of glimpses and eye contact and childish fantasies.

I’ve since changed jobs and take a later tram, so I don’t see Tram Girl much these days. But when I do, and when she sees me, she still beams at me with a smile to rival global warming. And that’s a small victory for me. Because it shows that deep down the sentiment was appreciated, even if she is already taken.

 

Why the Korean Diet is Better for Me (and Might Be for You Too)

IMG_0524

Without going into unnecessary detail I have suffered from what you might call a mild form of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) for about 9 years now.

Problems digesting food have been prevalent for nearly a decade, but I have never been able to isolate which food group my insides have taken a disliking to.

One interesting variable has been isolated, however: I never had any problems when I lived in South Korea.

For two years I never had any complaints in the digestion department. Then, the minute I returned to the UK, the problems returned within a week.

The typical western diet has many consistent patterns. Wheat and gluten are both prevalent, there is a high carb to protein ratio, a substantial amount of dairy and bread are consumed and fermented vegetables are a minority ingredient.

When I think about my daily diet in South Korea, I immediately recognise certain substantial differences.

Firstly, there is no virtually no wheat or gluten in the diet. While it is true that noodles are a big part of Korean cuisine, rice noodles for examples are not made from wheat flour.

Perhaps the most atypical Korean food is kimchi, fermented cabbage kept at a specific temperature in a kimchi fridge for weeks before it is served. This fermentation process ensures that digestion is greatly enhanced.

There is no bread in the Korean diet, and believe me when I say that if you are offered bread in Korea don’t expect it to be anywhere near as ‘normal’ as western style bread. Korean bread is so awful that you’ll be put off eating it completely, which in a way is a good thing, especially if you suffer from the same bowel issues that I do.

So, a diet in Korea would be almost entirely without bread, dairy (an old stereotype for Westerners is that we smell of sour milk – you’ll find milk in Korean supermarkets but it’s still considered ‘foreign food’ in Korea), wheat, gluten and carbohydrates.

Instead, a typical meal will be packed with an impressive array of fresh vegetables, small portions of meat for protein and a hefty portion of sticky rice.

If you think of our traditional meat and two veg dish, the main emphasis is on the meat, and the vegetables make up a side dish on the plate. Korea has the opposite philosophy. Go to a Korean barbecue restaurant for example and you will find that vegetables and rice are the order of the day with meat taking a minority role.

It cannot be coincidence that a large percentage of the Western world is now considered clinically obese, and yet in two years in Korea I very rarely saw any of the locals being remotely overweight.

If you’re teaching in Korea, I suggest that you embellish the local cuisine as much as possible because you are bound to reap massive health benefits from it. Just watch out for excessive salt and ensure that MSG is not added to food. The World Health Organisation recently stated that Korean food would be perfect, its only Achilles heel is sometimes there can be a little too much salt.

Now that I am back in the UK I am trying my hardest to replicate a Korean diet here. I buy kimchi from the Chinese supermarket in the city, and for July I have spent an entire month gluten and wheat free.

I am impressed by the range of gluten-free alternatives supermarkets now stock, and for the most part these products have the same taste as their wheat and gluten counterparts.

I am going to keep up this diet for as long as I can, even though I am not medically diagnosed as having Celiac Disease (an inability to tolerate gluten, which can damage the small intestine if intolerant to it).

I just don’t think that we were designed to break down wheat, barley, and rye in our bodies. Although wheat became the standard agricultural unit of choice some time ago, this seems to be for economic reasons than anything else.

I have felt a great deal healthier in myself since adopting a gluten-free, wheat-free diet. For breakfast I have eliminated toast and cereal (containing yeast and wheat respectively) and instead opted for buckwheat muesli with natural yoghurt and blueberries. This reduction of wheat and increase in protein seems to be sustaining me for longer. Now, when I’m in the office, hunger pangs don’t hit home until much nearer lunch time.

Why don’t you give it a try (if you’re not currently in Korea). If you are in Korea, embrace their cuisine, all those delicious vegetables and kimchi are so good for the gut!

I’ve also started a wheat-free, gluten-free recipes page here, please check it out.

IMG_3814

Top 5 Cafes in Ulsan, South Korea

IMG_0208

 

5. The Cat Cafe, Mugeodong (Namgu)

IMG_0704

In the leafy university district lies this phenomenon popular for couples on a date. Pay a small entry fee, enjoy a free cappuccino and play with the scores of felines running around.

 

4. Tom n Toms, Ilsan Beach (Dong-gu)

IMG_0072

In the east part of the city, also known as Foreignertown due to the volume of Western engineers and English teachers, grab a mint mocha and enjoy the beach views. The pine forest is nearby for a scenic hike.

 

3. Starbucks, Samsandong (Jung-gu)

IMG_0076

If you find yourself in the concrete jungle that is Samsandong, with the bustling Lotte franchises looming in all directions, take a rest and enjoy some people watching on the most commercial thoroughfare through the windows of downtown Starbucks. Also, head here at Christmas and enjoy the green and red festive decor you may not find elsewhere in the city.

 

2. Caffe Pascucci, Samsandong (Jung-gu)

IMG_0073

You can’t miss the bright red facade slap bang in the centre of New Downtown. Head to the rooftop terrace in spring or summer and soak up the sun and the views.

 

1. A Twosome Place, Seongnamdong (Jung-gu)

IMG_0064

Head to Old Downtown and enjoy an aerial panorama of the bustling commercial thoroughfare with the Taehwa River gesticulating in the background. The tiramisu is recommended.

 

Top Tips for First Time ESL Teachers in South Korea

IMG_2524

After spending two years in South Korea teaching English I thought I would offer some tips to teachers shipping out this summer on the EPIK or similar programs.

1. Flight Arrival Time

Most ESL teachers, myself included, arrived in Seoul about one or two days before orientation began.

If like me you are sensitive to the effects of jetlag, I think that this is a mistake. I would plan to arrive about two weeks before orientation if it’s possible for you to do so, to allow your body to adjust to the new time zone and climate.

Studies have shown that the effects of jetlag are worse when traveling from West to East, so Brits, Canadians and US teachers may suffer from jetlag worse than say Australians, for example.

I say this because while orientation is incredibly fun, it’s also incredibly tiring. For about 9 days you will be expected to get up at 7am (you’ll probably be sharing a dorm room in a Korean university, probably in Jeonju (unless you are based in Seoul)), eat a breakfast of food that you’re not accustomed to eating (sticky white rice, spicy kimchi and other vegetables first thing in the morning), then attend several teaching seminars.

As I say, this process is to be enjoyed but is intensive and tiring and if you’re already suffering from jetlag it will only compound the problem. Get there early, and get adjusted to Korea.

2. Packing

Pack a suitcase of clothes that caters for all four seasons. Autumn and spring are lovely times of year in Korea (especially April when the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom) but winter and summer can be extreme. In the height of summer in July and August it can reach 35 degrees Celsius with 80% humidity, and in winter it can drop to -20 (case in point being Ulsan on the south east coast – Seoul will be even colder in winter and there will be a lot of snow, unlike Ulsan).

Bear in mind that Koreans are generally smaller than Western people and so it can be hard to find clothes that fit you in Korea if you are, like me, 6 foot 3 (188cm) tall. Shoes and jeans were a no-no and I had to buy them from Australia.

Pack for a year, pack for all seasons.

3. Water

Don’t, under any circumstances, drink the water from the tap when you’re out there in your apartment. Drink bottled water only, despite what people tell you. The pipes in your apartment are likely to be old. I didn’t realise and drank the water from the tap when I first arrived. I contracted gastritis, which is a stomach inflammation. It’s no fun throwing up in the street on the way to school in the morning, trust me!

4. Playing the Sickness Game

Koreans are pill poppers. If they get a common cold they’ll be straight to the doctor or the local clinic/hospital to get a shot of antibiotics in their bottom (no joke). They will probably expect you to do the same. They do not understand this argument: ‘It’s a common cold, it will go away in a few days if I have vitamin C, drink plenty of water and rest’. This, to Koreans, does not compute.

I suggest playing what I like to call the Sickness Game. It involves telling a white lie but will prevent unnecessary arguments with co-teachers and most importantly save your body from unnecessary antibiotics (the more often you take antibiotics, the lesser the effect of them because your body builds up an immunity to them).

Basically, go see the doctor as instructed, he will probably prescribe some pills. Take the prescription to the pharmacy and get the pills. Don’t worry, it’s not expensive. The government pays for 50% of your healthcare. In Ulsan I would pay about 10000 won (10 US dollars, which is what about £7) to see the doctor and perhaps another 10000 won again to get the pills, total of 14 US dollars or about £10. It won’t happen very often so it’s a small price to pay, especially when you have zero rent and utilities are negligible.

Then, all you do is tell your co-teachers that you took the pills. Throw them at the back of the cupboard, put them in the trash, whatever, but as far as your co-teachers are concerned, they went down the hole under your nose. Believe me, this will save you a lot of unnecessary frivolity.

5. Don’t Get Angry

Nobody knows what to expect when you get placed in your school. It’s a bit of a lottery. You won’t know until you start what your co-teachers will be like, the level of the students, the wealth background and motivation of the students, whether or not you’ll have to teach after school classes in addition to regular classes and what the Principal of the school will be like.

As an ESL teacher in Korea you probably won’t be able to get involved in some of the regular teaching duties you’d be expected to do at home, such as grading homework, teaching grammar or writing exam papers. The Korean teachers do that. Being realistic, think of yourself more as a Teaching Assistant than a Teacher.

I guess what I mean to say is don’t take the job too seriously and try to have fun. There will be kids who don’t want to learn English, kids who find it too difficult, kids who are too tired, kids who are too shy. Basically, if you can let all of this wash over you without getting angry, you’ll greatly benefit from the positive elements, such as when the kids love the game that you came up with or when a shy kid starts talking because you gave them confidence.

6. Cultural Behaviours

Koreans will be greatly appreciative if you adopt some of their basic customs which relate to respect of elders and general etiquette. Age is incredibly important in Korea. Here are a few:

a. Bow to anyone older than you

b. If giving or receiving a gift to/from an elder, do so with both hands outstretched

c. If drinking alcohol with an elder, particularly  a soju shot, for example with the Principal at a teacher dinner or function, tilt your head away from him/her as you drink, as a mark of respect.

d. Never point with fingers or toes, it’s quite rude.

e. Don’t talk loudly on trains – you’ll be told off by the conductor if you do

f. Find out if your local City Hall offers free Korean Language Classes  – Ulsan did. Sign up if you can without hesitation. Learning a bit of the language goes a long long way and you’ll probably make some lifelong friends in the process. My entire circle of friends came from my Korean language classes at Ulsan City Hall.

7. Go With the Flow

Learn to be flexible from Day One. Why? Well, the Korean school system isn’t one of the most organised and well-oiled machines you’ll ever encounter. You’ll have situations where, for example, you spend all of Tuesday night working on your best lesson plan ever, then when you get to school on Wednesday you suddenly find out that all your classes are cancelled. Or, like me, you’ll decide to put on your best suit and look really smart one day, only to be told by your co-teachers first thing in the morning, ‘We are going hiking today’.

Basically, things are not planned in advance. This situation will often occur: after making a cup of tea, you sit down at your desk to start lesson planning tomorrow’s classes. Your co-teacher says, ‘There will be a meeting’. You ask when. ‘Now’ is the response.

If you can get into the habit of rolling with it then you’ll have a much happier time.

Finally, here is arguably the best online resource for finding and downloading lesson plans and ideas:  www.waygook.org

I hope you have a wonderful time in Korea.

IMG_2676

Forever Changed

IMG_0247

One year on, I can’t believe I actually did it. It was a leap into the unknown getting on that plane. I had no idea what to expect when I landed at the other side.

I couldn’t have put myself any further out of my comfort zone. I remember feeling completely jet-lagged for about three weeks. It looked like another planet – everything was completely different. The buildings, the food, the climate, the people. Everything.

The first weeks were completely overwhelming, overcoming stage fright, stood up there watching thirty small faces eagerly looking back at me. Drinking the tap water and contracting gastritis. Trying to learn a new language with a totally different alphabet.

Still, the love of a Canadian woman never hurts, does it? It certainly got me through some scary moments, such as having major eye surgery. Imagine having a needle phobia and then finding one going into each eyeball before my cataracts were removed.

I made friends from all over the globe, saw truly unbelievable things, almost stepped into a forbidden land through a militarised border. Oh, and I had eaten an awful lot of octopus.

And then it all abruptly ended about two years later. And I had to come back. Back to reality. To the real world.

And when I did finally get beamed back down to Earth, back to my small village in the North of England, it was like stepping through a time warp into a medieval bygone era.

It’s now been over a year since my adventure teaching English in South Korea came to a close, yet not a day goes by without me thinking about that magical place at some stage.

I think my body came back but my head managed to stay in the Land of Morning Calm. It’s inside me now, Korea, and it won’t ever leave.

As a result of my gap year experience, I am forever changed.

Korea, I miss you.

131355_4625477148845_1267171660_o