For what felt like the hundredth time, I trudged off the bus at Busan’s main bus station and boarded the subway for the hour-long ride into the centre of the city. I arrived at the ferry terminal in plently of time for the afternoon jetfoil to find that all fast ferries had been cancelled due to poor weather, and so, fearing a rough crossing but having little choice, reluctantly booked onto the overnight service. While the ferry itself was luxuriously appointed (including a public bath), the peasants travelling second class (myself included) were piled into communal sleeping spaces with sleeping mats to fight it out amongst themselves for floor space. Of course, there was one atrocious snorer in our room and neither the constant pitching and rolling of the boat nor regular hails of pillows could silence him. I suspect it was a fitful night for all except one.
Once safely back on dry land, I made a beeline for the Korean consulate and, having been shooed off a low wall by the security guard while waiting, dropped my passport off and took in Fukuoka’s main facility for people wanting to do some paperwork (the excellent Rainbow Plaza). I spent a peaceful night at an internet cafe (with an actual flat-bed booth), headed out bright and early to pick up my new visa and got back to Korea in time for dinner (I was expecting some furious checking at Busan immigration, but the official barely glanced at my passport and, despite my having written “work” and “one year” on my form, was about to blithely stamp me in as a tourist before I pointed out that I needed my visa validated). More hectic apartment-equipping and lecture-preparing followed, with the occasional aside such as university paperwork and musings on how much I’m contributing to the Chinese economy with the amount of stuff I have to buy.
With our holiday time fast diminishing, Amy and I took the opportunity to climb Namsan (a hill-cum-park roughly in the centre of Seoul) and then wander around Namdaemun market a little before going back to Yongin for what proved to be a weekend full of wholesome goodness. We began with some thoroughly excellent food and several rounds of board games, and the following day went out to play some football, jump some rope and shoot some hoops. The weather was glorious, and, as far as I can remember, a good time was had by all.
Term-time came around quickly, and I turned up on my first day to find that I was pretty much left to my own devices – no meetings, few requirements and a quiet office in a separate building. My first lecture, as expected, was a little nerve-wracking, but it got easier as the week progressed and now I only have to fret about my students understanding what I’m trying to explain to them and how to get chalk dust out of my best suit. On Wednesday, I was told that the coming weekend would be a “freshwoman orientation” at the university’s conference centre and countryside retreat and that my presence was required. I made my preparations (cancel Friday’s lecture, to a cheer from my students) and turned up on Friday morning to find that the 0820 “sharp” start time was slightly flexible as we eventually rolled out around 9.
We arrived to the sound of food being laid out, and later on to the sound of kitchen staff scrambling to make something vegetarian as I meekly took a few pieces of cabbage from the only steam tray free of meat. The first order of business was the introduction of the faculty to the students, and I stammered out a few niceties in Korean before sinking back into merciful obscurity in the front row of seats. The longest-serving (and thus the most venerable) member of staff gave a lecture about his recent visit to the North Pole (to collect rock and plant samples), and we then had some free time before dinner. I elected to take a walk up a nearby hill and, returning around an hour later with my short hair and grey jacket, was almost mistaken for a monk. The after-dinner activities centred around groups of students doing variety show-style performances and hilarious (despite me not understanding any of the Korean) quizzes involving staff members, and after an hour or two the teachers and scholars retired to separate pastimes for the remainder of the evening. The teachers went to a local traditional establishment for a little food and a lot of dongdongju (a kind of sweet rice wine) – it’s culturally required to keep up with the toasts, and as far as other staff members told me I made a good impression. We tottered back around midnight – to go to bed I thought, until someone turned up with a crate of beer and two bottles of whisky. Thankfully, this was designated “free talking” time and I was allowed to retire early in my English-speaking-ness.
Breakfast was taken bright and early, despite a few severe hangovers, and everyone trooped out to nearby Mungyeong Saejae, a provincial park and the only route between Busan and Seoul in ancient times. Old gates, watering points and traditional huts dotted a gently undulating path amongst huge mountains and clear air, and by the time we reached the other side a few hours later there was general contentment at the though of lunch and some rest on the bus back. We arrived on campus to the sound of a traditional dance being played out on the steps of the student union, and headed to our respective homes to enjoy the rest of the weekend.
For me, the rest of the weekend began with Anne’s birthday. While I was off on the orientation, Amy, Anne and Dan had taken a long day trip to a series of limestone caves, and I was shown some jealousy-invoking photographs as we waited for our food in a swish Italian restaurant. The food and wine left us eager for dessert, and so we headed back to Sinchon where Amy had prepared an ambrosial multi-cake bonanza (vanilla and chocolate sponge cakes glued together with strawberry cream cheese, Battenberg-style). Next, we hit a local bar (described to me as “the best bar in the world”), drank a few drinks in the wood-and-cushions setting, played some Carcassonne (yes, they have board games!) and watched the local wildlife shimmy and shake to what could have been the playlist from Birmingham’s student union. I will be returning.