Cities I’ve lived in

It wasn’t until E asked me the other day where I’ve lived. Somehow I’d always thought that I “lived” only in Seoul, and I have only “been” to other cities. It’s probably because I knew exactly when I would go back to Seoul, well, except for one case.

Anyway, according to his definition of living—staying five months or longer (Don’t ask me why five), I’ve lived in five different cities so far: Seoul, Philadelphia, Nottingham, Arlington/Washington, and Nuuk.

I was born and raised in Seoul.
I lived in Philadelphia for 11 months back in 1998-9 to learn English.
I spent five months in Nottingham, for a study abroad program.
I lived in Arlington/Washington for 1.5 years for graduate school.
And recently, I lived in Nuuk for five months for work.

Certainly, there’s difference between living and visiting. Looking back, I didn’t really explore around those cities as much as other cities I was traveling. But I would get better ideas how the local system works, and what the local people and culture are like.

Now, I’m excitedly curious about what city I will be living in near future. (Although I’m not quite looking forward to the international move. grin)

My song of the trip

The driver who had rented this car before me must be a country-music lover.
All the radio channels already set were playing country.
As I didn’t realize until the last day of the trip that the channels were set and that there’re other radio stations that play other than country, all I listened to on the road during the entire six-day trip were—yes, call me a fool—country music.
Although I don’t dislike the genre, listening to that, only that, for more than five days straight wasn’t fun.
Then, this song came out from the radio: “Pretty good at drinkin’ beer” by Billy Currington. (The title says it all.)
What, a drinking song?! (Didn’t know then that drinking songs aren’t a stranger to the genre.)
Listening to the lyrics, I laughed out loud. Oh, dear. Real loud. And then, oh.. how much I wished to drink a beer!
There’s no question that it made the song of the trip.

A friend I made while driving on the highway

Feb. 23, 2011

It’s going to be a long long drive: From New Orleans to Washington.

According to the Google Maps, I will have to drive some 1,100 miles and it will take about 18 hours if I drove non-stop. My initial plan was to visit Atlanta, GA, on my way back, but it seems like I wouldn’t have time for that as I have to get back to DC by as late as 5 p.m. tomorrow for a class.

Driving for some 20+ hours alone is not fun at all. Even if it’s on a no-traffic highway. But if you make friends on the road, yes literally on the road, it’s a whole different story.

I usually take the first lane on highways. So that I don’t need to change lanes often to avoid trucks. So that I don’t need to tolerate slow drivers.

I was singing along to the radio out loud to prevent the boredom from making me fall asleep. Then, I noticed a green pick-up truck right behind me. It’s almost bumper-to-bumper. Hah! If he thought I would clear the track for him, he’s wrong. So wrong.

I sped up slightly to make the distance far enough. Then he caught me up. I sped up a little more and made the gap wider. Soon he got me again. After a couple more catch-me-if-you-can moments, he passed me. HE. PASSED. ME.

That’s the moment the racing instinct came out of me: I wouldn’t let him pass me.

I was waiting for the right moment, and finally my red Prius hybrid passed the green Dodge pick-up truck. Yoohoo! I smiled looking at the rear mirror. I saw him smiling too. He actually seemed impressed. He didn’t try to pass me again, and drove behind me keeping the distance. Haha I beat him!!

Then, there was a car before me driving quite slow. Much slower than the max speed on this empty highway. But I usually don’t pass such a car or try to push it away. I just keep the distance and wait until they go back to their lane. Usually it doesn’t take long as they come to the first lane only to pass trucks before them. Well, most of the time. But there was this driver who seemingly enjoyed the scenery on the first lane.

And apparently the Dodge driver couldn’t stand it. So, he passed me and pushed this car away with the near bumper-to-bumper trick. And then he moved to the second lane and waited until I passed him. Only then he’s back to the first lane.

It felt so good. SO GOOD. It’s like having a big brother on the road.

There was a moment that I outpaced him so much on an uphill. He disappeared from my mirror for about 5-10 mins. I was wondering if he exited or got tired of driving “with” me. It was a little sad that I lost a road companion.

Then, boom! He came back on! It was good to see him again. I raise a thumb and saw him say hi, through the rear mirror.

We kept driving together for about an hour. Whenever he passed me to shoo away a slow car ahead of us, we nodded or smiled to each other. It was like we’re having a conversation.

When he passed me out for the last time, it was to say good bye. It felt like a losing a friend, but c’est la vie. It was such a great drive and I’d never imagined to have that kind of experience on the road. You know, having such a warm-hearted feeling on the cold concrete highway.

“Thank you sir for the great trip. I really enjoyed driving with you.”

+ Watching him exit, I was somehow reminded of the Chinese saying: 會者定離. Those who meet must part. That’s actually what I had to realize a long time ago. Well before this road trip.

An unexpected healing moment

Feb. 22, 2011

It was right in front of Jackson Square where I met Alexander “Greatness.” He is a street painter in French Quarter, New Orleans. He displayed colorful, cartoon-like paintings and some huge scratchy drawings on and under the fence on Decater Street. Those that caught my eyes first were the colorful, oil paintings on wood canvas.

I stopped walking and started looking at his paintings. He walked to me and asked where I was from. And that’s how we started our conversation. For one hour. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk, whole time.

Alexander was a very interesting person. He was born and raised in New Orleans, but he was very curious about other parts of the world. He wanted to hear about my hometown and other places I’ve visited. I told him about my crazy road trip that I was on.

Anyways, I really liked the colors he used in his paintings, and decided to buy one of his “dancing lantern” series. Then he said he would paint one for me at the spot, and it wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. So, why not? I chose a wood canvas whose background was already painted in yellow, green, blue and purple. He asked me what instrument I’d like to add in the picture along with the dancing lantern. I thought about saxophone at first, as I’m in the home to jazz music, but it seemed somewhat lame. So, I went for drums that I’ve always wanted to learn.

On top of the canvas, he started sketching a lantern, dancing to drums, in black ink. While waiting for the sketch dried up, he showed me his other works and explained their meaning. The main theme of the works was human embracement.

The picture above was hung on the fence, and I hadn't realized until then that it was depicting two people sitting together. Embarrassingly, I had thought that it was an abstract in black and red. (Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexandergreatness/5694733464/in/photostream/)

“When you start a relationship, it should all begin with the brain, and move to the heart, and to the ‘reproducing’ organs,” he said, pointing at and following the red spots in the painting. At the stage of the brain, he continued, you should be able to accept the way the other person lives: The way s/he thinks, acts, their family and everything. And if you or the parter is “immature” to do that, “both of you are wasting your time.” You have to think hundreds of times, if not more, to see if you can fully accept this person as s/he is. Only when two completely understand each other and accept the other as s/he is, then you move to the heart. And the same goes to the next step.

All of sudden my eyes got wet. A couple months ago, I had a bad break-up. Actually it’s much more complex than just bad.

Looking back, there were things about him that I found difficult to accept from the very beginning. In my head, reason and emotion were fighting. But I ignored them all, because my heart beat for him. I was telling myself that’s what matters. One of my friends one day asked me why him, and he literally laughed at my answer: his smile. That heart beat caused by the goofy smile defeated all the logic, reason, and everything else.

But that wasn’t enough, I figured a few months later. The things that have bothered me from the beginning are the ones that cannot be changed. Because it’s what he’s born with, because it’s his history, and because it’s engraved in his genes. And it’s because what I was born with.

Besides, even though I was sure about me loving him and him loving me, I was certainly not happy with who he was, what he did and what he didn’t do, and he was certainly not happy with who I was, what I did and what I didn’t do. And it wasn’t just him and me. There were also our families.

I was confused. I didn’t understand how the two feelings could coexist. The “I like him = I’m happy with him” formula didn’t work in the relationship with the man. I didn’t know what to do.

When I was weighing which would be more hurting between my-life-with-him and my-life-without-him, he gave up on me. He said he’s tired of being my daily disappointment, and I deserve a better person. And I was disappointed again with that he wasn’t resilient.

There were a few more efforts to recover the relationship, but after all, it all ended.

And here, in New Orleans, 1,100 miles away from him, I was shedding tears in front of a total stranger, in the middle of the street, where lots of people are walking by and where horsemen are trying to hook up tourists to their wagons. It was embarrassing, but this artist seemed understanding what’s going on inside me.

“Believe me, dear. I tried every possible way, starting from heart to the head, or skipping heart, or another,” he said. “But all failed, except this one,” from brain to heart and to further down.

Then he went back to the painting for me. He filled the sketch he drew in black with white. And then he finished it up writing “Nawlins” on a signboard attached to the lantern.

A Dancing Lantern, by Alexander "Greatness"

It was certainly a healing moment that I wasn’t expecting to have, particularly on the street talking with a complete stranger.

Alexander wrote his email address in the back of the painting, saying “Keep in touch, and  come back to New Orleans someday,” to the French Quarter, as he’ll be there, as always.

Oddly, I found his words comforting. It felt like I just made a good friend. And he wasn’t a stranger anymore.

After parting with Alexander, I walked into the Jackson Square and sat on a bench. I heard someone singing and another playing whatever horn that was from far.

Yeah, this is N’awlins, baby.

The city of resilience.
The city of hope.

Silver-man or -doll?

Feb. 22, 2011

There are many street performers in New Orleans, from musicians to painters, and to living dolls. In the French Quarter, near the Louisiana State Museum that has a must-see, permanent exhibition on the Katrina, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond,” I found this “living doll” in silver.

A man or a doll?

I was standing next to it for about three minutes without breathing to see if this guy actually moves or not. ‘If this is a real person, he is really good,’ I thought, as I didn’t see him trembling for a couple minutes, at all. Then I finally caught him shaking a little bit. “I gotcha!” I shouted, quietly, as if I won a breath-holding battle.

However, I wasn’t completely sure, and couldn’t take my doubts away. I decided to wait for a few more minutes until I was sure about it.

[Warning: If you’re to go to New Orleans and want to find it out yourself, stop reading from here.]

Right then a bunch of tourists flocked in, and started buzzing about the same question I had. And then a man, who had been standing at the corner, reading a book, walked toward the group and the living doll. I don’t know if it was he or the tourists who started talking to each other, but all of sudden this guy lifted the silverman without any difficulty and put it on his shoulder to pose for the tourists.

Adam (left) and Boudreux

It turned out, Adam, originally from SC, made the silverman, named Boudreux, of styrofoam. (The name doesn’t mean any, he said. He didn’t even have a spelling for it until I asked.) It was simply the wind that made Boudreux shaking.

“I saw you watching it for a couple minutes trying to figure out if he’s real or not,” Adam told me. “And that’s what I love about doing this,” he said with a smile, running his fingers through his hair.

+ Adam, who’s now living in New Orleans with his son, is a musician like many others I met in the city. But not jazz. He just began a metal band, which plans to have a national tour later this year, including Washington D.C. perhaps in April or May.

Day1 – Charleston, SC

Feb. 18, 2011

I didn’t decide to visit Charleston for any particular reason. I just thought it would be a good place to stay a night on my way to Daytona, distance-wise.

After driving for about 10 hours from Arlington VA, I was about to check in at NotSo Hostel believing that I had made a reservation. But apparently I did not. (sigh) And they didn’t have a bed available. This’s when I learned that NotSo is the only hostel in the entire state of South Carolina, not just Charleston. It’s almost 10:30 p.m. I was exhausted from the driving. Furthermore, I only slept for 3 hours last night. The nearest accommodation around this area is a hotel that costs well over $100 a night. I was debating whether I should stay the night in a luxury hotel, or sleep in the car thinking, ‘Thank goodness I brought a blanket.’ But is it safe to sleep in the car in this neighborhood? All the thoughts were cramming in my head.

The girl at the reception was perhaps reading my mind.

“Well, if you want, I can offer you a cot for $10.”

A cot? Ah, a camping bed. Brilliant.

After making the bed at the center of a six-bed room, I called Mike back, who had called me while I was driving down here. Thinking of it now, he called me everyday during the entire road trip to check if I was still alive. Sometimes more than once a day to make sure I’m taking enough rest and not falling asleep while driving. Thanks Mike! I really appreciate it!

So, my well-informed friend told me about the history of Charleston—it is one of the first European settlements, and what I should try while I’m in the city, like grits. (And not to forget to stop by the Waffle House!) Interesting. So there must be something to check out tomorrow, before hitting the road again. Exciting.

It was almost 11:30 p.m. when I hung up the phone. I was super tired, but still tempted to go out to try sweet tea vodka—perhaps the only thing I knew about the city.

The kind lady at the reception told me that there’s a restaurant nearby, called FUEL, which used to be a gas station. Sounds good.

As I ordered a sweet tea vodka and a kebab, the waiter recommended me fried plantain, saying it’s one of the best in the house. I usually listen to the servers if they look they know what they’re doing. He seemed one of the kinds. Sure. So, I ended up having a huge midnight meal. The plantain was really good. If you ever go to the FUEL, I strongly recommend you try it. And the kebab was good enough. Not fantastic, but good enough. On the other hand, sweet tea vodka was a little disappointment. It’s simply a mix of vodka + iced tea. It wasn’t just for me. (Personally I like Firefly‘s mint tea vodka a way better, which I bought later at a local liquor shop in Charleston. But well, I’m a mint person after all.)

— Charleston, to be continued …

Road trip to the South

20110218

The only thing I really knew is that I was hurting and needed to go someplace where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside. — Anderson Cooper

Probably not at the same level, but I was hurting. And I needed to do something crazy that would distract me from the pain I was feeling inside and that would soothe the pain.

So, I planned a rather extreme road trip, by myself.

6-day road trip

Arlington, VA –> Charleston, SC –> St. Augustine, FL –> Daytona Beach, FL –> New Orleans, LA –> Atlanta, GA –> Washington, DC.

All in seven days.

I ended up driving 2,669 miles in a red Prius (’10, hybrid) and visited four cities—sorry, Atlanta. I stayed in the car for almost 27 hours, both driving and sleeping, not at the same time, on my last days as I had to rush back to my class. I met wonderful people on the road, made lots of fun memories, and even had an unexpected healing moment.

I am probably still hurting inside, but certainly I’m much better now.