This Korean Life

Well, I moved to Korea.

At the DMZ

All Packed UpYes, as in Seoul, South Korea.  Four months ago I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to everyone I’ve ever known, and hopped on a plane with a one-way ticket and a one-year contract to teach English to children in Gangnam.

I really like it here.  My students are exasperating but adorable.  My apartment is small but exactly what I need.  Seoul is crowded and bustling and somehow familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.Giraffe Class

I’m at that stage in expat life where things have ceased   being exotic and romantic and completely exciting all of the time.  I have a full-time job.  I have a long-ass commute.  I have to go to the grocery store and clean hair out of the drain in my bathroom.

Seoul in the summertime is hot and humid, and it rains all of the time.  I mean allllllll of the time.  I can probably count on one hand the number of Insadongtimes the sun has shined since the turn of the month.  Monsoon season means grey skies, sudden downpours, fog, and humidity that physically weighs on you.  I guess you could say my relationship with Korea is out of the honeymoon stage.

That initial stage is immensely fun, true enough.  It’s filled with lots of peace-sign pictures, new and weird foods, bizarre language barrier confusions, and fascinating places to explore.  But now I’m feeling that familiar itch to buy a plane ticket and discover somewhere new, somewhere with IMG_7597a different language, different architecture, different climate.  It will be a growing experience for me to stay put for a while yet.

My struggle will be to maintain this sense of adventure when it isn’t all new for me anymore.  It’s easy to be enamored with a place where everything is different and all of your senses are alive and overwhelmed.  Can I stay in love with a place, even when it’s hot and rainy, even when my heart is broken and my life is quiet, even when I have a daily grind?Seoul

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Five Weeks & Eight Countries Later: Bitten by the Travel Bug

In the twelve days between deciding to go to Europe and actually leaving, I still had to work.  Go figure.

Traveling

Traveling

Suddenly, though, something was different.  I had an end in sight, something to work for, a countdown in my head.  I knew I was about to be living a better, more interesting story.

And my trip was affecting my customers, too.  As I poured wine for people and the subject of Europe would come up, a change came over them, and they sat up straighter, their eyes would light up.  Stories of their own European travels, whether they happened two months ago or thirty-two years ago, would spill from their lips.  They were alive with joy, with the memories of their own trips, eager to share with a pair of willing ears.

One woman backpacked for six months after spending the summer on a diving team in Spain, and with her first stop she found herself at a German train station at night all alone.  A stranger and her husband took her in for the night and cooked for her.

A man sporting round, wire-frame glasses told me all about traveling with his now-wife.  They spent all their money on hashish and custom-made leather jackets in the 70s.  He laughed a lot as he recited their itemized expense list.

A former travel agent told us, “You have to go to Interlaken, Switzerland.  It’s the most beautiful place on earth.” (That person was telling the truth, by the way.)

Hiking in Interlaken Switzerland

Hiking in Interlaken Switzerland

I heard stories about getting lost, getting found, serendipitous meetings, falling in love, adventure after adventure after adventure.  As they told stories, their minds traveled to another place, to another time.  They relived the best parts of their lives with me as an observer.

One woman, after nearly an hour of crazy stories, snapped out of her memory dream and told me, “This will be you.  In just a couple of months, you’ll be full of stories just like this, lighting up at the memory of it all.”

And boy was she right.  About halfway through our trip, my travel partner and good friend Michelle and I started to dread going home to the question, “How was Europe?”  We were accumulating unbelievable experiences and stories at an awesome pace, and the idea of having to distill all of that down into a five minute response was just too hard.  Even the nearly 5,000 pictures (yes, that’s a five with three zeroes) weren’t good enough.  We snapped photos of a La Sagrada Familia, the Swiss Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle, the Eiffel Tower, or even just down random streets or the views from our hostels, look at the photo, and would shake our heads.  “No one will understand from this,” we’d say to each other.  It felt like an entire lifetime in one five-week-long span.  I was afraid I’d come home and go back to work and that all of it would feel like a dream–an amazingly vivid one, but a dream nonetheless.

I’m still afraid of that as the days pass by and Europe gets farther away.

Excited to be at the Eiffel Tower

Excited to be at the Eiffel Tower

So forgive me for being so late with this blog entry.  It’s simply because I had no idea where to start.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be chipping away at it all, sharing my favorite moments and lessons learned.  Also, some of you might be wondering, “Hey, wait a minute, isn’t she supposed to be starting grad school in Seattle?”  I’ll talk about that, too.

The other day, post-Europe, I was pouring wine for a couple of ladies.  They were asking me about my trip, and I was glowing with memories, spilling story after story.  One said, “Sounds like it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip!”

And I responded, “I sure hope not!

It’s amazing how a spur-of-the-moment decision can alter your whole perspective on the world, how it can change your whole life.  I’ve been bitten by the travel bug, as one friend put it, and I can’t wait to go back.  Travel as an answer to the “Get-a-Life” dilemma is working for me, and I don’t plan on giving up on it quite yet.  Hopefully reliving it here a little bit at a time will extend that feeling until my next trip.

Have you traveled?  Share one of your stories in the comments!  Or, if you’d like to guest post on this topic, email me at allison.rivers@gmail.com with a lesson you learned from your travels or an experience you had that will stay with you forever.  What is it that makes you light up and come alive?  And how do you hang onto that feeling when the daily grind sets back in?

Get a Life vs. Get a Job

In four days, I’m getting on a plane.

Moments after purchasing my airline ticket.

This plane is going to take me to London, where I will begin a five-week-long trek around Europe.

Let’s back up.

When I started this blog back in 2010, I was frustrated and angry.  I was stuck in a job that sucked the life from me, and I thought if only I could get the right job, if I could put my skills to work and feel like I was making a difference, then I would be making something of my life.  I titled this blog “The Get-a-Life Project” because I felt that at best, I was biding my time, trapped in a holding pattern until something better came along, and at worst I was wasting my life trapped in a cubicle.  Somehow I had confused “The Get-a-Life Project” with “The Get-a-Job Project.”  And those things are definitely not the same.

In the course of these two years, I’ve switched jobs three times in search of something better.  I’ve applied to grad school and been accepted.  I’ve spent significant time unemployed, and I’ve moved back into my childhood home.  I’ve followed every practical step I thought I needed to get a decent job, and therefore a good life (or one with meaning).

It’s easy to do – get a job confused with life.  We spend such a large percentage of our lives at work…where do we draw the line?  People talk about work-life balance, but what is that, exactly?  Our job is a huge part of what defines us, but it’s not everything that defines us.  While battling with this conundrum and working at jobs I feel do not even define a part of me, I’ve made some wonderful friends with my coworkers–one of whom was planning a backpacking trip through Europe.

As the time for her to leave was drawing closer and closer, I was mourning the loss of a bright presence in my otherwise dull job.  She kept saying, “Come with me!” and I would laugh and say, “Oh, if only I could.”  I had already resigned myself to a bleak summer at another dead-end job.  Until a wise person asked, “Well, why don’t you go with her?

So I called my friend and asked if she was serious about me going.

And then a week ago I bought a plane ticket.

No, it’s not necessarily “practical” in the way I thought I always had to be, and obviously I can’t backpack through Europe forever.  I have to work, too.  But for now, I have some clarity, and dang it if I’m not getting a life.

I want to hear from you...
Where do you find your work-life balance?  What do you do to get a life?