Saturday, October 18, 2008

Foundation Day Excursion: Herb Island

A few Fridays ago was Foundation Day here in Korea--a national holiday celebrating the mythical foundation of Korea by the god-king Tan'gun in 2333 BC. This mythical foundation story is also part of the central creation story of Taejong-gyo, a particular breed of Korean shamanism, and the Foundation Day holiday is celebrated as a religious feast by those who still practice this ancient religion today.

But for most folks these days, Foundation Day is an excuse to get out of the city for a little while during one of the most pleasant seasons of the year. Our Foundation Day excursion brought us to Herb Island, about 40km northeast of town.

Herb Island
Herb Island defies description. In theory, it's a botanical garden devoted (you guessed it) to herbs, and that reason alone makes it one of the nicest-smelling spots within an hour's drive of Seoul. In reality--well, Nana described it best as a sprawling Cracker Barrel, in Engrish.

At first, the afternoon started out just about as normally as an afternoon can in Korea, in a little hilltop cafe, with an "herb pizza" (actually quite good) and a "beauty tea."
You'll have to tell me if it made me more beautiful.
After lunch, we perused one of the greenhouses and a few of the herb-themed shops. The Herb Bakery was a bit of a disappointment (for some reason, people here can't seem to make bread without sugar on top), and while the herb candy (below--the sign says "eucalyptus") was good, it was also ridiculously marked up.
From there, though, the afternoon took a nosedive into the weird. First, we stumbled upon this unexplained--nay, inexplicable--life-sized witch.
Then, we lost thirty minutes wandering through a labyrinth of country kitsch . . .
. . . which, for whatever reason, included an impressive collection of antique or antique-looking phones, scattered throughout the grounds.

Needless to say, most of these were for sale.

The weirdness escalated when we found, tucked away on a big deck at the back of the complex, a row of little pavilions with top-down, 3D dioramas built into the walls.
Bathtime, anyone?
Hands-down, though, the weirdest sight of the afternoon was this hanging blue Santa twisting, lifeless, in the wind. In front of a 15-foot man-made waterfall, of course.
Which even the statuary found a little perplexing.
"Oh, please."

We capped the day off, naturally enough, with Herb Island's mascot--a giant, anthropomorphic persimmon.
I never thought I'd see the day when a five-foot fruit was more shocked to see me than I it. Yes, that persimmon is covering its mouth in surprise.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Limited time only - Columbus????

I love me some Columbus, Ohio, but let's be honest: it's not exactly the sort of city people write songs about. This is why I was blown away last Friday at work to see that the BrainPop video on Christopher Columbus features the most over-the-top ironic salute to the hometown of yours truly, complete with a "hallelujah" sound-effect skyline and a trip to the Shoe.

Check it out at

BrainPop's a fee site but this one is free for now as a Columbus Day promotion.

And if anybody can explain "The Arch City" thing - I mean, you know about German Village but forgot that the arch is in St. Louis? Unclear.


Prepare yourselves for the dumbest thing you've ever heard:

As I mentioned in a previous post, Nana and I are taking the GRE here in Korea. Now, if you've been following our blog, you know that just about everything we try to do in this country goes horribly, comically wrong. The GRE so far has been no exception: between our first round of admissions ticket snafus and our disastrous dry run (it took us 90 minutes to find the testing center after we got off the subway), it'll be a minor miracle if we even get to take the test at all.

To be fair, though, many of our continuing problems with the GRE have nothing to do with Korea--and everything to do with the combination of byzantine registration procedures and abysmal customer service at ETS, the company that administers the GRE. First of all, the GRE registration forms don't make it clear that your admissions ticket (the original copy of which is required for admission to the exam) will be sent to whatever you list as your permanent address. In other words, if you're an expat with legal residence back home, you're stuck--your admissions ticket is going to be mailed to the other side of the world, no matter where you're hoping to take the test.

ETS does, however, offer a version of the admissions ticket that can be printed online--but this ticket apparently doesn't work for the split-administration test. At least, I haven't been able to get it to work.

A few weeks ago, then, I decided to contact customer service at ETS to see if there was any way to have the tickets mailed to our current address in Korea. The result? After no fewer than six e-mail exchanges (I turned to e-mail after being put on hold for thirty minutes when I tried to call), four of which elicited the exact same ineffectual reply from ETS, the problem still isn't solved: our parents have had to mail us the admissions tickets, and we're left hoping desperately that they get here in time.

Honestly, the ETS responses to my questions read like some kind of Kafkaesque farce. One exchange even included the exact lines below:

Me: As suggested in a previous e-mail from ETS, I have tried accessing the online admissions ticket, but I can't get access to the site (

ETS: You can view and print your ticket at

Then, these EXACT SAME SENTENCES were repeated in the following exchange. (No joke!)

Finally, then, in the sixth exchange, the ETS folks seem to have given up, telling me that I could print the e-mail they sent me and use it as my admissions ticket--even though when Paul (our hero) talked to the test center they categorically refused to honor anything but the original admissions ticket.

Long story short: our entire hopes for applying to US graduate schools for 2009 depend, not on our test scores, not on our GPAs, not on our recommendations, and not on our personal statements, but on the ability of the notoriously whimsical Korean postal service to get us our admissions tickets by October 25th.