4 surprising things about Zurich

We all have some preconceptions about famous cities or tourist destinations. Certain expectations may arise from reading many tourist brochures or perusing pictures on the Internet to the point that it feels like you have seen the real place. I surely had a few set ideas about Zurich. But, I am happy to say that in just a few hours of walking around the city, I noticed 4 things that you can never read in any tourist booklets.

1. Zurich feels like a very short city. Churches still remain the tallest buildings proudly displaying their bell towers. Buildings are located on the slopes of the bay, so the ones on top have bird-like views, but they are still around 5 or 7-floors-tall. I found it to be very charming.

Zurich

Zurich

2. Even though Zurich is not a stranger to huge corporate brand name stores, it was great to see that preserving the original architecture is of high importance to the city. Try playing “I-spy-the-store-name” with these pictures.

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3. Love for recycling and renewable energy is visible anywhere in Europe. And this city turns it into an easy, fun and simple activity in which to engage. This is a wall near the entrance at a supermarket.

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4. Guess what kind of a building this is? A hint – it is public. A hint – it provides essential services for citizens…. Answer: a police station. Yes, I know you saw that coming…

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Foliage 2013 at Seoraksan National Park

I never liked Fall: brown leaves, rain, and chilling wind – everything seems to be decaying and dying. Yet, Fall in Korea is a joyful breath of fresh air that lasts well into November. The best place to enjoy the foliage is somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of the city… However, you pay a price for the opportunity to see the dramatic beauty of Fall by having to share it with thousands of other pilgrims who also came to pay homage to Nature. And that is a very heavy price… These pictures were carefully cropped to cut out the multitudes of hikers so that nothing would distract you from the real un-doctored colors of the season.

Garden of Morning Calm

In Korea hiking is a national pass time, and as a result there are hundreds of picturesque walks, trails, parks, mountains, and botanical gardens. Professional and amateur photographers can capture stunning images of nature during any season. However, winter landscapes may get a little sad, and to combat that, as I have noticed, many botanical gardens make use of decorative lightning. For example, check out the images from the Garden of Morning Calm located in Gyeonggi-do province, where a Festival of Christmas lights is taking place from December to March. As you can see, a tourist can find places of interest during any season to make the trip to Korea worthwhile.

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Seoul Art Center

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Seoul Art Center is the representing arts complex visited by two million users every year in Korea. It presents more that 1,400 performances and 100 exhibitions in the specialized spaces offering various events of the renowned national and international artists, musicians, and dancers to the audiences. In my opinion, the highlights of this February are: London Symphony Orchestra (Feb 28th), Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti (Feb 6, 7), Suwon Philharmonic Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky Series (Feb 20), Musei Vaticani Exhibit, American Impressionism (1870-1940) Exhibit, Van Gogh in Paris Exhibit. If you happen to be in Seoul this month, check the full schedule at www.sac.or.kr

Seoul Art Center can surely keep a tourist busy with 1 opera house, 2 art museums, 1 design museum and a music hall. Do not miss the exhibit “Van Gogh in Paris” which runs till March 24th, 2013.  The exhibit showcases the work of Van Gogh before his move to Paris. His time in Paris was the period of discovering new art and becoming a new artist. We can see his artistic talents and genius in art since he absorbed art of the time, and was able to developed his own style within such a short period of time. The time in Paris is the fruitful academic research that changed Van Gogh from a realist into a modernist. This exhibit is the result of 7-year academic research of experts in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Difference between Wi-Fi in Korea and the US

Wi-Fi in the subway car

Wi-Fi in the subway car

I remember when I first bought my MacBook in New York about 5 years ago. I wanted to take it with me everywhere, and I did. I was hoping to search for special hidden places, Skype people overseas and show them the city in real time. In short, I thought I would stay connected. However, it is hard to stay connected when there is no free Wi-Fi connection. I remember the frustration of having to pay 5$ for accessing a hot spot. I even tried to go with the AT&T wireless connection for $70 per month. Since AT&T was involved, as you might imagine, nothing good came out of it. Companies keep developing more and more technology that requires a wireless connection, but free wireless hotspots are rather rare.

In South Korea, Wi-Fi is basically everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that Samsung had something to do with it. After all, a company that is specializing in selling smartphones should be interested in their customers actually using that technology. Of course, all phones come with a data plan here, just like in the US. But it is Wi-Fi that allows people to watch US shows (e.g. “House MD,” “Person of Interest”, etc.), news and play Internet games on their cellphones during their daily subway commute. An average South Korean family will have one smart phone per person. It would be financial suicide to sign up all 3-4 smart phones for the unlimited data plan. Yet, kids and parents alike keep using their phones as portable computers and TVs. How can they afford it?  Free Wi-Fi is available in a great number of places: public transportation (including the subway), public buildings, cafes, restaurants, and etc.

Wi-Fi on a subway

Wi-Fi on a subway

Chasu – Korean Embroidery

IMG_20120701_162242Touring historical sights one cannot miss the lustrous colors of green, red, orange and pink. The colors are reflected in the architectural designs on palaces, decorations, and national clothes. Palace walls, furniture, pillows, blankets, flags, uniforms, accessories, traditional outfits, and much more are made with silky fabric, which is embroidered with shiny pictures of animals, flowers, trees, birds, and so on. The pattern of embroidery bears the distinct Asian character. One may easily recognize local mountaintops or patterns of cherry blossoms from the back yard.

 

Chest

Chest

Historically speaking, “it is believed that the Korean People used the embroidery quite early in its history. However, historical records only record usage in much later periods from Joseon Dynasty around 14th century.” Chasu, the Korean word for embroidery, was a method of cultivating beauty in every corner of daily life. The remaining examples of Korean embroidery are spectacular. While looking at the examples, one forgets that the pictures are made using threads with fish-bone needles, and not paint with brushes. Most of the folk museums, palaces, and cultural cites will have a few examples of embroidered items. Most famous ones are in the Korean Folk Museum and the Jeonju Provincial Museum.

detailed view of a chest

detailed view of a chest

Cabinets

Cabinets

Detailed view of a cabinet

Detailed view of a cabinet

Accessories

Accessories

Paperwork in Korea Part 5 – Getting a teaching job in Korea while in the US

Luther University, Chapel Building

Luther University, Chapel Building

And just a few notes are left on the topic of Paperwork in Korea that I started 4 months ago, specifically “a job application in Korea.” I know it can be a nerve-racking experience applying overseas online and providing sensitive information about your identity and background to people you have never met, and may never meet. So, here is a list of typically asked papers. Something beyond this may (or may not) be suspicious. In general, if you feel uncomfortable with the request – it is OK to say that to the potential employer.

If you ever decide to apply to a teaching position in Korea, be prepared to provide the following documents:

  1. Diplomas to confirm your degree – notarized copies with the Apostil stamp. (In some states it takes up to a month to receive Apostil.)
  2. Some schools will want a teaching certificate. In Korea, unlike Hong Kong or Taiwan, many schools will not care if you are a certified teacher, as long as you have a BA.
  3. “Work passport” – a list of all places and dates you worked to gain your teaching experience. Resume can suffice here.
  4. TESOL certificate is a major boost to your possible salary and job placement. So, invest into one before applying for a job. It will have to be a notarized copy with the Apostil stamp.
  5. Transcripts.
  6. References.
  7. And a photo. Why? To see what color you are and if you look good. I kid you not, so smile on your photo!

If you go through the application and get offered a position, the school will require the same papers for the immigration clearance and a few more. Here is the list of additional things.

  1. FBI background check certified in Washington DC! (Takes about 3 months to obtain this)
  2. US Passport
  3. Visa related papers.

Be prepared that the Korean side will ask you to mail these documents tomorrow ASAP. It is very common to wait until the last minute before proceeding to the next step. So, be proactive and prepare these yourself.

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Luther University, May 2012

Luther University, Rose Festival, May 2012

Luther University, Rose Festival, May 2012

Rapid development of transportation: subway

Public transportation in Korea is cheap and accessible. Although Korean moms love their cars, people prefer to use buses or the subway when commuting to work or the city.

The present-day construction of a subway is extensive and fast. Within the past 10 months that we have been living here, 3 more subway stations were opened on our Bundang line.  The closest subway station from our house used to be a mile away. Now, Luther University (Yongin) got its own station with a direct connection to Seoul. (See photos) Moreover, Yongin is not the last suburban city on that line. Yeongtong with Kyung Hee University have a subway connection now as well. The next city to be included is Suwon with its UNESCO protected Hwaseong Fortress and KTX (high speed rail) train.

To imagine the Korean subway system, we can compare and contrast it to some compatible metro systems of other counties. For example, unlike the NYC metro, the Korean subway has almost no express lines, which makes train commuting time consuming. In Korea there is only one DX (express) red line. Therefore, depending on the destination, often it is more practical to use an express bus. However, unlike the NYC metro, the Korean subway is much safer because it has sliding doors along the edge of the platforms at almost all stations. In the worst case, the platform will have a metal railing blocking the edge of the platform. Such reasonable safety precautions are also the reason why the tracks are extra clean and trash free.

To continue, unlike the Moscow subway that boasts award-winning designers, architects, materials and artwork, Korean stations are very generic with cookie-cutter designs. All 5-8 year old stations look absolutely alike and were built with the same materials and layout. Therefore, when using the newer subway stations it is important to read the direction signs.

Finally, unlike the London tube, it is very easy to navigate the Korean subway. Stations have names in Korean, English, Chinese, and if all fails – stations are numbered. Inside a train car the announcements are made verbally in three languages and visually in the same three languages on TV screens. Free Wi-Fi and cell phone signal are working underground, which means it is very easy to consult a subway app on a smartphone to make sure you are still heading in the right direction.

Overall, other than the fact that the Korean subway system is so slow, it seems to be a superior one to many in the modern world. However, when you take under consideration that the other metro systems were built a 100 years back, the credit has to be given where it is due, because it seems that the Koreans had a chance to study the existing subway systems before building theirs.

Seoul Lantern Festival – Photo Journal: November 17, 2012

An annual Seoul Lantern Festival located in the middle of the historical center. Lantern sculptures were placed along the brook for 2 miles. It was a magical walk, very festive way to start off a holiday season!

Paperwork in Korea Part 4 – Public library

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Yesterday I signed up for a public library access card. I can tell you upfront – do not even attempt to do it without a Korean interpreter. This is a 3-step process where the first step takes 45 minutes with the last one only 5.

A new Bora-dong library opened in our area. It has a children’s room, an adult section, a media section, a quiet study room, and a cafeteria. The library is only one week old and they are working on enlarging their selections of children’s book in English. Besides, this is a well-conditioned modern technological over-equipped building where children can enjoy themselves on a hot summer day. In short, I was pleased to try to enroll.

Step #1: Get an ID by applying online. The good news – the page was in English. This step asks a foreigner to input all immigration numbers, work place info, cell phone number, work phone number to verify against the immigration database. If everything checks out – the library system will allow you to continue.

Step #2: During this step one has to create an access ID, password, login name, security questions and security question hint. I bet the security requirements to create these things equal to the security requirements on a nuclear station. For example, Login name has to have minimum 4 letters and 4 digits and at least 1 capital letter. By the time you go through inventing all four items, they lose any meaning for you, and so, there is no hope to ever remember how to log back in. By the way, this page is in Korean only.

Step #3: The librarian will print and issue your library card.

I tried to register at a local much smaller library that is hosted in one of the apartment complexes near our place. We were denied. I did not ask, but I bet it is because that small library had no way of running our background check. Again, I want to underline a parallel of how much easier it is to be a foreigner in the US. All you need in order to open a library card is your Driver’s license and a bill sent to your mailing address.