The Giant Blue Balloon

With the Giant Blue Balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.


“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the U.S. tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.


The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.

Read more expat adventures in English is Crazy, Full Stop

And follow me on Twitter @SabrinaNemis

Deok Jeok Oh! Oh, God, Ow!

daytime view from the pension

Looking around at all the smiling, happy drunk people, I suddenly hate all of them. The fire is hot with a large crowd gathering around it. People roast hot dogs and pass out beer. I’ve been up since 5am and I’ve had enough, so I get up and leave.

Away from the warm fire, stumbling across the sand in flip-flops, I barely look at the stars that can’t be seen from my apartment in the city. Shaking sand off my feet as gnarling, twisting pine branches loom overhead, small groups of foreigners walk by with open beer cans. They smile and greet me. I nod and keep walking. The pension is at the end of the street.

The light in our pension room is on. The couple, Sarah and Ben, are there. Stopping to glare at the lit window, I hope they have their clothes on because I have to use the bathroom and I’m not going back to the beach.

Walking to the back of the pension, I climb the outdoor staircase to our fourth floor room. It smells like goat. The goat is invisible in the darkness, but its smell lingers as strongly as the smell of pine needles all over Deok-Jeok-Do. Waves of nausea fight with the urge to pee.

On the last flight of stairs a flip-flop slips out from under my foot and my body pitches forward, my left kneecap catching the metal corner.

“Fuck! Oh, god! Oh my fucking god!”

My beach bag falls, and my towel and sunscreen spill out. Cradling my knee on the landing, no one comes to check on me. Gathering up my bag after almost pissing myself in the fall, I need to walk up the rest of the stairs. I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the toilet.

Slowly, carefully, I limp up the steps to my room. If anyone gets in my way, I plan to throw them down the stairs and leave them to die.

I slam the door open, throw the bag down and stomp into the bathroom. Giving them time to put clothes on, I wash dirt and tears off my face. Bright red blood trickles down from my knee to my shin.

“Hello?” Ben says.

Sarah and Ben stare at me as I step out with blood still dripping and smelling of the beer I’ve been drinking since seven o’clock this morning. Fully clothed, they look at each other.

“Do you have a bandage?”

They glance at each other again and Sarah digs one out of her bag.

Tell me about your traveling injuries!

Read another story: Happy Children’s Day! Part 2

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Travel Blog Tuesday: Hercules Gets a Passport

When Marina and Kevin moved from the USA to England, they brought their four cats with them. They also started a blog about their travels called Hercules Gets a Passport

But this isn’t some weird niche blog about living with cats abroad.

This is a blog that makes me want to travel.

They blog about a style of travelling that I appreciate: less to-do lists, more doing stuff. I love wandering aimlessly, because you usually find something awesome that you weren’t expecting to find. Marina’s article Hercie’s Top Travel Tips celebrates this style of travel.

I keep hearing about friends travelling in the Middle East, but when I mention it at home, people look a bit worried. I’d like to cite this article as my proof that I’m not planning on going to a war zone. Trust me, trust Marina: people go there safely and have an awesome time.

The site also incorporates photography – a skill which I am somewhat lacking, although I really enjoy it. I particularly like the photos of Cerne Abbas and Durdle Door in this compilation of favourite photos they’ve taken around the UK.

Follow Marina: @MarinaLMaxwell

English is Crazy, Full Stop

Paul is from Yorkshire and sometimes I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I’ve spent most of my life under the mistaken assumption that because English is my first language, I have a really good handle on it. I even studied it in university. Living overseas has changed all that.

Today, he looks troubled, which is unusual for someone I usually see with a wide grin on his face. He walks into the staffroom, puts his teacher’s guide down, sits in the office chair across from me and stares intently into space. I look at him a moment and then turn back to my own desk and continue writing my lesson plan.

“What do you call a full stop?” he asks, looking at me.

“I don’t know,” I say, setting my pen down. Working together in Korea, these conversations come up once in awhile. He might get a text message from his Canadian girlfriend that I have to decipher. Or someone uses the phrase “fanny pack” causing confusion and hilarity: fanny does not mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.

He picks out a textbook from the colourful row of them on the shelf and opens it on the desk beside me. He points to the end of a sentence.

“That,” he says. “What do you call that?”

“A period,” I say.

“Well, why do you call it that?” he says, glaring at me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why? What do you call it?”

Every English-speaking country seems to have their own version of the language. It means you can understand one another ninety percent of the time, but then it betrays you in places you never expected.

“Do you know,” he says, completely ignoring me, “that I’ve been telling the gifted class to use full stops for months? Every day when I look at their writing, I say, ‘You have to remember your full stops at the end of sentences.’”

He sits down in the chair next to me, shaking his head.

“Then, today, Jody puts up his hand and says, ‘Teacher, what is a full stop?’” The corner of my mouth is twitching. “For a month they’ve had no idea what I’m on about.

“Period,” he says, looking at me. “Stupid word.”

Read more about adventures with Paul in The Art of Getting Lost: Jeju Style

And follow me on Twitter! @SabrinaNemis

Travel Blog Tuesday: Dayv Matt

Travel Blog Tuesday: Dayv Matt

What’s it like? You’re asked this question all the time. By your parents, friends, Facebook acquaintances. How can you possibly put into words what it looks like, smells like, feels like to live abroad?

If you live in Korea, your answer should be: Dayv Matt

Looking through his photos, I swear I can smell the same yellow dust and bundaeggi I smelled on my walk to work each morning in Mansu-dong. I’m looking through faces to see if I recognize anyone (I never do) because the streets look so familiar.

I come back to his Tumblr each week to see what new photos he’s posted and to guess at where he’s been in Seoul from the background.

You might even want to pick up a book of his best photos from 2008 – 2011. It’s reasonably priced, with shipping included.

My favourite photo this week is this girl in a blonde wig

Follow him @chiam

Happy Children’s Day! Part Two


“What we need, ” I say early in the evening, “is to find a way to combine Children’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and Ogyeopsal Day.”

It’s May 5th and Shauna, Alex and I are sitting at a rooftop bar in Itaewon, the foreigner district in Seoul. We’re drinking beer as the sun sinks behind buildings and mountains. It’s still cool in the evening and I find myself shivering as streetlights pop on along the street.

We saw children and ate Mexican food earlier, but have yet to celebrate Ogyeopsal Day. This is mainly because I think Alex made it up.

Samgyeopsal is a popular Korean barbecue menu item: pork with three layers of fat. On March 3rd we celebrated the third day of the third month with samgyeopsal. Alex insists that we should celebrate the 5th day of the 5th month with a pork dinner with five layers of fat. Thus, Ogyeopsal Day.

Alex smiles suddenly and says, “We could always grill a fat Mexican child.”

Alex’s suggestion puts off our appetites long enough to finish our beer, but the smells of other people’s dinners are wafting up to the rooftop. My stomach is gurgling in response and five layers of fat seems more and more like a brilliant idea.

We walk down narrow, uneven steps to get to a small restaurant just off the main road. The serving staff laughs at our request. Alex keeps insisting that ogyeopsal is a real thing, so we walk back up the steps and continue on.

Finding a restaurant that serves Korean barbecue in the foreigner district is a challenge in itself. Finding one that serves a meal I’m feeling more and more confident that Alex made up, is starting to seem impossible.

We turn down a narrow side street near the Taco Bell, with small foreign food stores and Ethiopian restaurants, the front walls made of glass and small tables crammed into tight rows. We come to a large Korean restaurant with a menu posted by the door. To my surprise, ogyeopsal is listed. Alex lets out a cry of triumph and we make our way inside.

We sit at a table with a metal grill in the centre and a rectangular, plastic utensil box placed to one side. There are a couple of electronic dartboards against one wall and handwritten signs for the bathroom posted at the back. There aren’t many people in the restaurant.

Within a few minutes, a waitress who clearly, and perhaps correctly, doubts our grilling capabilities, is cooking our dinner in front of us as we sit and discuss our summer plans. This early in spring, there are still so many empty weekends to be filled with beaches, concerts, beer and more barbecues.

Read Happy Children’s Day! Part One

Or read more Alex Gould adventures in Alex Gould, Legend

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Travel Blog Tuesday: Stupid Ugly Foreigner

Travel Blog Tuesday: Stupid Ugly Foreigner

Michael is just as funny in person as he is in writing. But since he has a blog and not a radio show, you’ll have to read Stupid Ugly Foreigner, and take my word for it that he’s a great speaker, too.

Michael is an ESL teacher in Korea, was a real teacher in Canada and he’s a diverse and interesting blogger everywhere. I highly recommend his recent postThe Unpopped Personal Bubble, about personal space as a non-universal concept. And his post Adulthood: No One Told Me There Would be Laundrycaptures my own feelings almost perfectly.

Basically, he reflects on his experiences as an expat in Korea by capturing poignant details and presenting them with great wit.

As far as I know, Michael doesn’t use Twitter, but you can subscribe to his RSS feed or just bookmark it. It’ll be worth your while, guaranteed.