And Aubrey Was Her Name...

Like a lovely melody that everyone can sing; take away the words that rhyme, it doesn't mean a thing.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


There it was, printed forthrightly across a nondescript sign hanging just outside of the baggage claim area. Though translated into several languages, including the English "welcome," just below, I couldn't help but gaze with happiness at the mellifluous French version. And welcome, indeed.

Having just transported an obese amount of luggage that included two overweight check-in bags (53 pounds and 59 pounds) along with 5 carry-on pieces (yes, 5!), all of which by their conservative sizes belied the exceptional weight within (the heaviest piece was 45 pounds by itself), I was exceptionally ready to be welcomed to my new home. Truth be told, I was ready for anywhere that meant I could drop my luggage without sitting on it like my personal, over-sized nest, and lie horizontally on an actual bed. Yet my journey was not yet finished.

Perhaps a preface is needed. You likely already know I am a francophiliac (a personal invention, indeed, but it feels stronger than the plain "francophile." Mine is more like a disease; therefore, an excessively adoring francophile creates a francophiliac!). I have been such since my first day in French class in ninth grade, when my teacher walked in with such serene levity and explained happily to us why she loves the French language so much. "'La poubelle' just sounds so beautiful while 'trash can' in English has to be something ugly, don't you think?" And, of course, after enduring years in the land of Kimchi, I decided the greatest reward to myself, and something that I just needed to do in life, was to go to live in France. One year later, here arrives Aubrey at the airport, dragging with her the contents of her former apartment.

Thus far I had made the trip well enough. Check in at Chicago was nerve-racking, knowing how overweight my bags were. Yet I was fully prepared for the front desk; my plan of attack included either crying a little bit to induce pity, or talking in the friendliest, most engaging manner about getting to live in France for a year (sans return ticket, hmm...)! As I stepped up to the counter and assessed the woman's face, I decided the second option was better. She replied with equal enthusiasm, wished me a great year, tagged my bags and waved me through. Walking away buoyantly with my 5 carry-on pieces, I attempted to appear as if they weighed nothing at all. I must be a great actress, because no one along the full trip gave me any trouble, save for a somewhat snide comment from a stewardess in Copenhagen: "Well, THAT'S a lot of bags."

From the airport, I had to buy tickets on the TGV (France's speed train) to my sister Ashley's town of Orléans. This was my first opportunity in roughly 8 years to speak French without the clear mutual understanding of me being a student who is only learning the language. The lady at the guichet (ticket window) had no idea I was coming. Silently practicing my French in my head as I waited in line, as I detest looking like a feckless tourist who makes obvious mistakes in language or is socially disrespectful, I tried to ask for my ticket in the best, clearest, most rapid French I could muster. "Je voudrais un billet pour Orléans, s'il vous plaît." Ah. Not bad, not bad. The lady didn't even miss a beat when responding. And as I strained to listen, I realized that I understood NOT A WORD. Oh, crap.

"Uh, pardon?" I demanded.

She sighed. Gesturing with her hands, she repeated only 5 words. "Aller simple ou aller-retour?" (One-way or round trip?)

But of course. Stupid tourist. I managed through the rest of the conversation, able to answer that I wanted a (1) one-way ticket (2) for that day (3) in second class (4) and that I would pay with cash.

Approximately two hours later, exhausted and ready to throw my luggage into the nearest poubelle, I waited on the curb in front of the Orléans train station for Ashley. As she pulled up, hair thrown into a messy pony-tail, riding breeches still on, the exhaustion disappeared and I was overwhelmed at my fortune of getting to be here with my beautiful sister.

A greater fortune for me is how much Ash loves it here, too. With a first weekend that included both mucking horse stables and forgoing a hotel room to dance the night away with Ash in Paris, we were given ample opportunity to discuss our respective futures. Since my arrival, we have been working on ways to become contributing members of French society, mostly so as to prolong our stay here. We have some ideas, which may mean a slight change in my plans for this year. But more on that (and my own city of Montpellier) at another time.

Until that time...
(Uh, turn your head on that one; blogger and my computer weren't coordinating!)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

When I'm writing, I always find that I fight this duality in me: one girl who wants to curse, spit on the floor, and tell off the world; the other who wears pink with pretty flowers in her hair and showcases a perpetual look of doe-like innocence. In short, when I attempt pessimism, the optimism always drops by to leave the last word. Anyway, you have been warned.

So, I didn't get the job in France. And I'm gutted. True, it was just an assistantship. And with my work experience and opening my own damn school over here, I was wickedly over-qualified. But I feel devastated. I allowed myself exactly one day to cry, feel terribly sorry for myself, make others who had to be around me that day feel unreasonably guilty, and then I stopped. What's the next step?

I decided that I have two viable options. Firstly, I could go home for the summer, then return to Korea to oversee the future potential expansion of our school. I love the business aspects of this job (I don't believe anyone was betting on me to love the business world), and always tell my business partner that I would remain here forever if only Korea weren't actually in Korea. Anyway, the other option is to take a page out of "Say Anything" and stand, John Cusack-like, outside the window of France with a boom box on my head, trying to play a song and win her affection. (Did that work for him? I wasn't old enough to have commited any larger portion of that film to memory.)

After some consideration, some wise counsel (including Jess clearly telling me over the phone, "Aubrey, we've been over this before. Korea's been good for you, but it's enough. You're done there."), and the general gagging induced by the thought of signing on for much longer living here, I have decided that I must go for France.

I have no possible reason to stay there beyond the length of a tourist. I have no job prospects, nowhere to live. My sister is there, but I detest the thought of showing up expectantly at her doorstep. Yet I cannot escape the lure of being in a place I have always loved so dearly and with a language that turns my heart into butterflies. I will keep searching for opportunities, including university study, to keep me long-term in the country.

Some people move places to see about a boy. I need to move to see about a country.


By the way, in a final twist of irony, I received notice the other day that I passed the DELF B1 test, a rather difficult language test that presents you with a "Diploma" proving your efficacy in French and ability to communicate within a business or school. This is the ultimate anti-climactic cheer for myself.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Scattered Mind

It's 5:57 right now. Since the late afternoon, the sun has inched its way across my living room floor; light which, even on a cold day, settles subtly in the room until, near the end of the day, it overheats this place enough that I feel surprised when I look outside and see the cool death of winter that yet hangs. In the afternoon, there's no need to turn on the heated floors of my apartment; the sun has done its work in deluding the gullible room, save for the air which somehow cheats my fingers of the sun's warmth. Now, drawing my cold fingers near my mouth to breath warmth onto them, I look outside to watch the hazy purple settling on the horizon as the sun ensconces itself behind the distant mountains.

My computer hums quietly. It's a strange sound, really; one that I never seem to feel completely at ease with. Actually, it's much less like humming and more like a long, breathy sigh. It breathes to cool itself, though comes off sounding like an impish child, interrupting class to make very clear their boredom...

At this moment, I am trying to choose that which I must focus on. My computer has no less than 5 documents open. Photos, set aside in a folder currently entitled "Random" must be organized. Photoshop is open beside it, waiting for me to test its abilities with some photos that could just use some retouching; it's been over a month that I've had the program and, though it has spent many hours open as a reminder that I must learn it, has been used twice. iTunes is open, too, needing music to be organized. There's also a document open with the story my friend and I have begun writing together, expectantly waiting (these last two weeks) for me to pen my half. And I left VLC open with an episode of Ricky Gervais's "Extras," after having decisively stopped it, twice, to get real work done. My internet browser has 12 tabs open, with subjects ranging from French tests, to a blog on poverty I've been reading, to a recipe for a homemade fruit cleanser. Behind me, a book loaned to me by my friend lies open, half-read, on top of three others, also on loan, also half-read. Next to me is a letter I have begun writing to my brother; just beyond that is the package I'm putting together for my cousin in Uganda, one that I promised when leaving Uganda after New Year's. And I just stopped writing moments ago to answer my phone; did I remember the plans to come over to my friend's new apartment? My mind skips again, remembering happily that three good friends are moving closer to me, while sadly another friend has left Korea for good.

My mind is scattered and fractured, though in a way that invigorates me and makes me feel a strong sense of purpose. Often preferring mild chaos to a planned existence, I check and recheck each tab, each unfinished project with a dreamy smile. I sigh audibly along with my whining computer; here are the things to which I may look forward to completing.

Permit me to tell you of at least one of my projects, the one that has filled my head with the most foolish of hopes; the potential of a finally-fulfilled, lifelong dream. This past month, I applied for a job in France, a teaching position as, let's say it together now, an English teacher. Part of my grasping toward this aspiration of just a slight adjustment to my reality has been to take a semi-intensive French class during February. Actually, it was two different French classes, at two different but similar levels, started late and therefore taken simultaneously. Nine hours of French per week for one month have caused that language which lay so still and dormant these past ten years to awaken, rise from its place, and, with bits and pieces of its decayed shell falling off, attempt its work of forming actual sentences and ideas from its sparsely filled cache of words. Suddenly this language I so idolized and even for so long have spoken fractured and banal sentences to only myself, has taken real life in me again.

I love French
. And, much like an infatuated teenager scribbling the name of her crush over and over in her notebook, knowing if he just looked at her, he would undoubtedly return her fidelity of affection, this is how I feel of France. And like that teenager, I often become tongue-tied when face-to-face with my infatuation. Regardless of how hard I try, what I want to say gets stuck, gets turned around. Invariably the wrong word masquerades as something entirely different in my mind. I blush and then start to stutter. With a growing frustration, I see that I am not accurately portraying myself when speaking; I lack the words and the ability to convey my personality. In the end, it is an altered Aubrey who speaks French.

Yet I press on (with no measure valiance or bravery, just the foolishness of love). I am told that I will hear whether I get the job at the end of April. If so, do expect a post. This teen would not miss declaring to all that France has returned her affections.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Sitting on the heated floor of my silent apartment, my fingers are curled around the steaming mug of my day's third cup of coffee, I stare somewhat blankly at a somewhat blank screen. One week ago, I was in Africa; now, I am back at my quasi-home in Korea. Sigh. Perhaps this third cup, or a fourth, will resurrect my tired mind. Perhaps the warmth of the floor will imbue in me my weakened ability to articulate thoughts. Or perhaps the blank screen will start to write itself. Perhaps.

Really, I'm trying to remember not being here in Korea. A week out from vacation and it feels as though I never left. Did I go to Africa? Or did I just dream it? The winter's cold has seeped through my skin into my bones, into my memories, and has altered the warmth and beauty of Africa. I'm back in Korea and my mind has tuned back to a single, monotonous note. Please pardon me for a moment as I grab the fourth cup of coffee awaiting me.

There. Such a simple solution. How can one not remember the glint of the sun, the soft singing of the birds, and the slight relief of a gentle breeze when looking into her eyes?

Back in Uganda, the hut of our host is small and dark, a great relief from the scorching rays of the sun outside that burn white skin even under the impotent protection of the shade. Balanced on my lap is a plate heaped with food that took this small family the length of this tortuously hot day to prepare. Brown rice, chicken, freshly killed for the two guests who now bless this small home, a salty broth with thin slices of a small carrot and onion, and finally an overly generous portion of matoke, the staple of Ugandan cuisine. While the plantains, in the banana family, yet hang unripe from the tops of the tree, they are cut down by nimble hands of a man who has been using his machete since the age of six or so, then steamed and mashed by the woman. Its taste is that of mildly bitter, unsalted and unbuttered mashed potatoes. It is found on nearly every Ugandan's plate at meal time.

I take a bit of the matoke, mixed with some rice and dipped in the sauce. "It's so wonderful!" I exclaim, attempting my best to demonstrate my appreciation and gratefulness for the generosity of this family, having so little, but sharing everything with her guests. Did I mention that they killed one of their chickens to feed us? This having been a last-minute visit, as we ran into and were invited by Maria when Chad took me to show me his work place, we had brought no gifts to offer. She, however, knowing and esteeming Chad, felt blessed to have him and his visiting cousin at her home in one of Mbale's outlying villages. While Chad and I sat in the shade, Maria disappeared without announcement. With my querrying glance, Chad said, "She's going off to prepare lunch. That's just how they do it here." Two hours later, when Maria had not returned, I started to question Chad. "Should we thank her for inviting us and leave?" Again, he replied simply, "It's just how they do it here." Yet another hour later, we cut to the scene of us being served before her, of her bringing us water as we sat to wash our hands, of her heaping seconds onto our already full plates, worrying aloud that we were not eating enough, before taking any for herself. Her husband and daughter did not join us for the meal; I do not know if they ate.

Maria's family is quite small by Ugandan standards. In a country where more children equal more help working in the fields and at home, families tend to balloon. Their neighbor across the street has twenty-seven children, born to him by three wives. Maria and her husband have only one son and two daughters; the unmarried daughter is living at home while the other two are married and living elsewhere. She had another daughter who died at age twelve. The girl is buried in the front yard, under the shade of a banana tree next to Maria's grandson, who died last year. That, Chad tells me, was the last time he was at her home.

Their house is a somewhat impressive home in Uganda, for, though yet unfinished, as building in Africa is done stage by stage as money comes in, it has cement floors and several rooms; most village houses are a single room with well-swept dirt floors, walls constructed of dried cow dung and roofs of either tin or bundled straw. One should also note that Ugandan adults, regardless of the state of their wealth or poverty, take exceptional care to remain clean. Clothes, torn sometimes beyond recognition and often unwittingly displaying the parts of the body that westerners take such care to conceal, are nonetheless spotless in a country that, during the dry season, has dust hanging in a semi-permanent, light curtain.

I have two days left in Uganda. Before coming, I tried not to create any expectations, as I always find that the most fulfilling traveling experiences come when you have no expectations. Chad, my cousin, has been working in Mbale, a modest town in Eastern Uganda approximately 25 miles from the Kenyan border, for one and a half years with the Peace Corps. We decided long ago that, both of us being unable (financially, for him) or unwilling to travel home (it's freaking COLD in Michigan now; give me summers at home instead!) for Christmas, I would come to visit so we could celebrate together. And, being busy during the day with my job and rather lazy at night, I did little research on what to expect in Uganda before coming. Which is perhaps why I was surprised by the sheer beauty of it.

Though Chad kept insisting that, since it is the dry season, everything was now very brown, it did nothing to dissuade me from walking around in a mild trance, awed by the presence of grass, trees and flowers. It was everywhere you looked. People even warned me about where I walked since, "That's an avocado tree and one might just fall and hit you on the head." An avocado hitting me on the head? I pay nearly five dollars for a single avocado in Korea. If one fell on me, I'd probably weep with pleasure. Yards are littered with flowering trees and bushes. The sky is a pure azure, punctured by billowy white cumulus clouds that explode into color around 6:15 for the sunset.

Winston Churchill (perhaps you've heard of him...), in his book "My African Journey," spoke of Uganda, saying, "For magnificence, for variety of form and color, for profusion of brilliant life -- bird, insect, reptile, beast -- for vast scale -- Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa. " Who am I to disagree?
So it is with my fifth cup of coffee in hand and the sun having sunk into the haze that settles in the Korean sky that I raise tribute to such a place of beauty and human warmth, another small corner of this world that I'm so grateful to have seen. I have more to write of the trip and the blind optimism that I will overcome my laziness to actually write it. Yet dinner plans, and the possibility of a sixth cup of coffee, now call me away. Perhaps, for my own memory's sake, I'll post again by next week about Africa.

Again, perhaps.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Bit of Math

It has been 1501 days since I first moved to Korea. I now have 211 days left here. For those of you still working out the math, that's just 12.3 percent to go.

I have worked at three schools here. 33% were hell on earth. 33% included responsibilities that could have been performed asleep. And 33% I created and now run with my business partner.

Additionally, 16.9 percent of my life has been spent based from Korea, meaning four birthdays passed as I have been a resident of Korea.

While here, I have added 10 more countries to the list of those I have visited, putting the official total at 20. I will have made 100 percent of friends and family at home jealous with that information.

Then comes the somewhat diaphanous totals of friends I have made here, depending on whether they are calculated by facebook or by the amount of time spent and intimacy created whilst they were here.

And given this slight excess of statistics, I must finally mention the approximate 300 days I spent loathing living here, proclaiming with 100 percent certainty that when I left, I would venture forth without a trace of nostalgia. Yet perhaps, against my preference to never be wrong (or at least never to admit to it), that last figure may be slightly off. Perhaps, PERHAPS, I will miss life here.

And if I can be convinced to sit down for long enough, perhaps I will figuratively pick up this blog again and, in future posts, explain my reasoning for this. Perhaps.

Happy now, Dave?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What a Jaunt Have I Had

I've got a secret. And burdened by both the order to keep this esoteric information to myself and the desire to tell every passer-by, I have decided to confide in the world's greatest secret-keeper: the World Wide Web.

For weeks now, my cousins have been planning a surprise party for my Grandma's 80th birthday. This woman, my mom's mom, is the bedrock of a very tightly knit family. When my Grandpa died over 20 years ago, she turned her full focus on her grandchildren. I am the oldest of 13. My fondest memories of my childhood are set at Gram's cottage on Big Whitefish Lake. We slept 4 or 5 to a room in that 3-room cottage; Gram slept between two children, both of whom always wanted to hold her hand as they fell asleep while listening to the children's series "Adventures in Odyssey." All summer long, she cooked for us and planned activities. She was tireless and epitomized patience and love. The stories are endless and exceedingly precious to me, though I won't attempt to take space relaying them to you. Suffice it to say that those times helped shaped my identity.

This information, then, is enough to illustrate my desperation at knowing I would miss out on another family activity, especially this one. It is also why at some point I stopped reading the emails my cousins sent me.

Last Thursday, though, I decided it was time to get through the emails and get over my disappointment. The first I opened was from Amber, saying that her dad, my Uncle Jim, wanted to use his airline miles to fly me home for the weekend. I was in shock. Moving slowly so as not to explode with this information, I phoned the airline company. After about half an hour on the phone, they found me a ticket. Leaving on Thursday afternoon and returning on Monday, I make it home with just enough time to surprise my grandmother.

And so you can understand that this excitement pulses through me. In one week, I leave for home. In 11 days, I'll be back. And though I know that I will be overcome with exhaustion and a general confusion of what time zone I am in, the excitement is palpable. Though I won't be able to spend nearly enough time with my family and none with my friends, I'm going home! I'm going home! I'm going home!

After nearly two years, I'm going home. But, wink, wink, don't tell...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


This morning setting out to work, I decided to take a walk from my apartment along the beach. As I stepped outside the icy cold filled my lungs, chilling me to my extremities. The oft hazy sky had opened slightly and a periwinkle blue shyly shone through. Walking rather hurriedly, I was caught by a sudden wind, tunneled through the narrow streets. I closed my eyes as it swept past and was brought back home by the sound of crisp leaves blowing in the fall. Quickly opening my eyes, I was greeted instead by the sight of several wrappers, discarded carelessly, swirling in the gusts of whirling wind. A few meters later, the smell of an open sewer reminded me firmly of where I am.

I believe I have over-written about my general distaste for my current situation, exacerbated no doubt by my decision to co-open a business here. I feel like, over my time here, the excitement and optimism of being in a new, different place have drained away. I remember my first year in Korea, laughing lightly at people who gaped as I walked past, shrugging off those who believed me to be a prostitute, looking with interest on the cultural differences that now merely feel wrong. I remember riding the city bus, staring out the window and saying to myself in wonder, “I live in Korea.” Now, when I ride through the city, I wearily breathe to myself, “I live in Korea.” Is it a sign of aging and part of the natural process of acclimating one’s self to a place? Or is it an arcane racism now clawing to get out? Honestly, I hate for it to be either.

Racism? I have so long been ardently opposed to any form of oppression, finding it to be among the basest of human instincts and a catalyst and excuse for every treachery. To have that burgeoning in myself…

And if this is natural? I plan to live a great deal of my life outside of my country. Am I destined to become a permanent nomad, always growing increasingly unsettled and unhappy in every new place? Am I just inclined toward change in every situation? In relationships? Could this prevent me from maintaining long-term relationships or friendships, as my inclination is to quietly cut out those which become too inconvenient?

Some friends say that this is just what happens after living in a place for too long. You discover the “buts” of that place. They say it is bound to happen anywhere you live. Is it? Here in Korea, I live on the ocean, literally a five minute walk from the most famous beach in Korea. But an ugly cityscape of dull-gray concrete stands next to it and the beach itself is so dirty and crowded (they boast of a million strong in the summer, though in reality they will pack no less than 100,000 on the sand at one time). There are mountains that line the back of the city, even twisting in and out of developed areas. But a polluted haze and massive groups of Soju-drinking middle-aged men and women mar any hiking experience. The people can be so kind and helpful when you are in need of it. But the culture moves as a group, not respecting individuals; they collide past others without eye contact; those who are different are disposed of. My students whom I teach are so adorable. But their parents push them beyond the point of exhaustion, instilling in them competition with and animosity toward other children even before their schooling age of three or four. My foreign friends here are great, some of the best people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. But the foreign community is so transient, often you are saying, “good bye,” moments after you have said, “hello.”

In my mind, “but” echoes more loudly here than it would in so many other places. For all the good you may optimistically speak of here, there are detriments which dye all else in that same color. Before, whether due to youth or unfamiliarity with this place, I could look past it so easily. Now it consumes me.

If I am not destined by age or experience to lock myself into this mindset, I want to find ways to regain my optimism. I want to leave Korea one day and look back fondly on it. I want to find the good here. Yet after three and a half years, I wonder at the good that is to be found.