Won Seok Wonka and the Krazee Kimchi Factory

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I remember that time. It still exists in my head, kept well, the memory’s shelves dusted and lawn trimmed. Everything was bizarre. Fan death, the idea that an oscillating fan could steal your breath and kill you in your sleep. Double eyelid tape, butt pads, skin whitener. Ordering a live octopus and having it cut up with scissors, then chewing up the severed tentacles as they wiggled around like inchworms. Hooker karaoke, intestine soup, black goat tonic. Men who looked prettier than some of the girls I’ve dated, and women who wore super short miniskirts in snowstorms. Rice wine, soju, neon lights and vomit on the street. Electronic music – Fantastic Baby! – and schools that required students to bring their own toilet paper.

This was the Korea I stepped in to. One second I was on a plane, listening to Boston’s Greatest Hits (favorite track: Peace of Mind), the next minute I was in some anime dream sequence, like I’d pulled a golden ticket and was shipped off to Won Seok Wonka’s Krazee Kimchi Factory. If an orange-faced-green-haired midget approached me in a bar two weeks after I’d gotten to Korea, I don’t know that I would’ve batted an eye.

“Oompa Gangnam Style!” the Korean Oompa Loompa would have shouted, and I would’ve just nodded and gone with it. The place was fun and freaky. They buried live pigs and ate dogs, got surgical procedures to increase the slope of their forehead and committed copy-cat-suicide if a favorite celebrity took his or her own life.

But lately, shit just ain’t the same. I walk around a Korea that hasn’t changed one bit since I arrived here over two years ago. It’s drab, depressing. Things like rampant alcoholism, which seemed real rock ‘n’ roll when I got here, now seems sad. Like it’s not a good thing. Even all the beautiful girls bum me out. They’re doll-like, manufactured, assembly line. The neon lights don’t seem so bright anymore. It rains a lot and nobody looks at each other on the subway.

Two years might do that to a place. Korea, it seems, has lost its weird appeal. The place seems downright normal. We’ve spent lots of time together and I’ve seen it without its make-up.

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Every now and then I go to the bank and wire money back to the USA. My girlfriend asks me why I do this. It’s actually not a bad question. “Well,” I’ll say, “that’s my main bank account. I’m sending money home.”

Home. The use of the phrase is a turn-off, like how most women react to the dreaded c-word. She makes a good argument. I haven’t been to the US in over two years, and I don’t plan to return any time soon. I don’t have anything there, no house or home or friend’s basement where my record collection and blow up doll have been keeping each other company for the past 800 days. Nothing’s waiting for me, with the exception of some bill collectors, and I’m in no hurry to finally meet them.

The thing is, I try to tell her, I have to have someplace to belong to. I don’t want to think of myself as transient, nomadic, a man with no home like Marco Polo or Woody Guthrie. And it feels funny to refer to the US as something other than “home.” It’s sort of similar to when I was 19 and living in an apartment with four of my friends. On Sunday mornings, I’d jump in my car and tell them I had to go “home,” and when I said that, I meant my parents’ house. The apartment was temporary. I still had a room dedicated to my existence at my parents’ house, and as long as that room was still there, not being used as a library or a shrine to the Buffalo Bills, then God damnit that was the place I’d call home. Sure felt more like it then the mattress on the floor I slept on in the apartment.

But the room in my parents’ house eventually let go of me – I was replaced by a new computer.  It seems like my American bank account is the new version of the room I grew up in. It’s what makes the US still my home. My parents kept my Elvis Costello poster and my suit, the only one I owned, a blue ensemble that I would call on once or twice a year, and the bank account keeps all my money for me.

It’s about the same, just slightly less sentimental.

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I’ll never call Korea “home.” I could live here for the next 20 years (which is a ridiculous notion – I’ll never live that long) and I still wouldn’t feel like anything other than a tourist. Which, after some thinking, I’ve decided is mostly by my own choosing.

For all my plans to avoid the US, I still know what’s going on there. I read Huffington Post and other similarly slanted news sites daily and make too many political posts on Facebook. I watch the Oscar movies every year. I know what’s on the Billboard charts and get nervous when bad storms hit New York. In short, I still care about what’s happening in the USA. I’m interested.

And Korea? As groovy as the place is, I just don’t care that much about what happens here. The presidential election is this month, and I have no idea who’s running. I don’t even know what the issues might be. I don’t study the language and I avoid the entertainment like it’ll give me angina. I’m bored with hearing about the culture. I have no clue as to what’s happening in the news. Why? Because, bottom line, I don’t give a shit.

Home might be where the heart is, but it’s also where the head is. Wait, let’s change that – it sounds dirty. Home is also where one’s interest is. You would think, logically, that when the weirdness wears off a place, when things stop being polite and start getting real, that it would be a signal you’ve found a place to call home. But it doesn’t always work that way.

There’s a different feeling after the novelty is gone, I guess. I might not have a home, but I’m not really lost. This place, conversely, has lost me.

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Europe Is Funky and Full of Neat Shit

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Okay, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, since I’m in the throes of one of my depression spirals, and so, in an attempt to cheer up, I’ve decided to look back at my Euro-trip and reminisce on some of the highlights. And by highlights, I mean goofy stuff that sets my heart a flutter.

Big Baby Heads, Madrid, Spain: The train station in Madrid is the bomb and, apart from the Prado Museum, maybe the most awesome thing there. First, there’s a huge turtle rain forest inside the train station itself. And secondly, once you exit, you’ll encounter two enormous baby heads randomly placed outside. I like randomness, and hence the train station in Madrid is easily my favorite train station in the world.

 

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Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium: For reasons I’m too lazy to research, Brussels is all about statues of things urinating. There’s apparently a squatting girl, a dog lifting its leg, and the most famous one of all – the “manneken pis” – which is a boy taking a tinkle. It’s one of their big tourist attractions and I spent about an hour and a half trying to find the thing. Each day it’s dressed in a different outfit; the day I was there, it had hip-hop clothes on and there was a real boy breakdancing on cardboard in front of it. Now that’s what I call culture!

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Opera Toilet, Vienna, Austria: Vienna is famous for its opera houses…so famous, that they have the charming “Opera Toilet” located in the subway station near the State Opera. For a Euro (I think, I could have the price wrong), you can go into a fancy cubicle constructed to look like an opera balcony seat and do your business, enjoying opera music as you relieve yourself. I did it, and it was a classy experience. I even washed my hands afterwards.

 

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Jack the Ripper Walk, London, England: Nothing says fun times like taking a stroll around London, stopping everywhere Jack the Ripper cut up a hooker. That’s exactly what you do during a Ripper Walk. It was actually really interesting and informative. I kept expecting something crazy to happen, like someone to jump out of the bushes and attack us, but sadly all the violence was contained to the stories the tour guide told. Despite the lack of real action, I recommend taking the tour; it definitely makes you want to live back then, in a time where getting away with crime was far easier.

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Disturbing Puppet Shops, Venice, Italy: Having seen Don’t Look Now more than once, I knew Venice would be creepy. And it sure is. One of the more delightful things to do is to walk around at night and peek into the weird mask and puppet stores that are everywhere. These gift shops are seriously horrifying. Don’t believe me? Take a look a Pinocchio and his terrifying rabbit friend!

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Obama Bar, Barcelona, Spain: Nothing brings out my American patriotism like a live music venue named after the president himself, Barack Obama. Inside, you’ll find cover bands and extra strong San Miguel beer. You’ll also find lots of African stuff. So what does it have to do with Obama? I’m not sure. There is, though, a life sized Obama chilling out at one of the tables. So when you get drunk (off that extra strong San Miguel) (which the Spanish seem to claim as their own despite my understanding that San Miguel comes from the Philippines), you can go up to Obama and hang out. In closing, here I am with the president, the beer going to my head, believing that it would be funny to put a hoodie on him and stick a cigarette in his mouth.

I’m so sorry, Mr. President. No disrespect, O Dog. Anyways, on that note, Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Cheers!

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Q: What Killed the Electric Pot? A: Me

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Very few things in the domesticated world excite me like goofy kitchen appliances do. Take, for instance, the Salad Shooter. It’s sort of the culinary equivalent of a flamethrower. Really, what man doesn’t want to own a device that slices up food and literally blasts it out? It’s the closest to hunting that I’ll ever get. Likewise, The Ronco Company is a smorgasbord of cool stuff. They make super knives, the Chop-o—Matic, and a food dehydrator so I could make my own beef jerky. That’s a whole weekend of fun right there.

“What am I doing Saturday?” I’d say, ripping a piece of beef jerky in two with my canines. “Just hanging out in the kitchen. Cutting stuff.”

It would be great. And since I’ve seen the Ronco knife commercial, I wouldn’t simply contain my cutting to food. Pennies, my friend’s wedding ring, the wall between the living room and the bathroom – you name it, I’d cut it. After all of that, exhausted from the tunneling, I would make dinner on my George Foreman Grill. In only a matter of minutes, I’d have a finely cooked steak, and, because I have a bad habit of forgetting to put the little trap down, rivers of blood and lard all over the counter.

Yes, kitchen apparatuses are great. There is a dark side, though, which is that a person needs to have a small amount of intelligence to make these things work. Nothing in this world is moron proof, not even a urinal (ever seen the floor of the men’s bathroom?), and I, on occasion, tend to prove this.

Three weeks ago, I arrived back in Korea after having traveled Europe for around two months. The flight was brutal – 12 hours from Madrid to Qatar, 10 hours in the Qatar airport, and then another 12 hours back to Korea. Upon my return, I took the subway to my girlfriend’s apartment. I was starving and she wasn’t home from work yet. To keep things simple, I bought some ramen noodles from the corner store, punched in the door code, threw my things down, and settled in for a quiet first night back.

Noodles. One would think cooking them would be no problem. Chicken, seafood, Jello, pot brownies, crystal meth – all of these things have a higher difficulty rating than cooking noodles. My girlfriend’s apartment in Seoul is super small; she doesn’t have a stove, but instead a little stovetop burner that plugs into the wall. There it was, and sitting on top of it was a pot. I put water in the pot, turned the burner on, and walked away, waiting for the water to start boiling.

What I failed to notice was that she had placed her electric pot down on top of the burner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a pot with a thick rubber bottom that plugs into the wall, so it can boil water on its own. In other words, I was supposed to plug the pot in, and not turn the burner on. What I did was sort of like putting burgers in a George Foreman grill, and then taking the Foreman and placing it into a big giant charcoal grill.

In a matter of seconds, it seemed, the apartment was engulfed in thick, toxic rubber smoke. I couldn’t breathe. Melted rubber dripped and oozed out everywhere, coating the portable stovetop. I ran over, coughing heaving, trying my best to stop cooking the electric pot any further. It was done. At the risk of sounding like I’m exaggerating, the apartment really was covered in smoke and it stunk to high hell. I have no idea what it would take to set off the fire alarm in this place; I practically had a reenactment of Waco, Texas going on and still that thing was dead silent.

When my girlfriend got home from work, she found her boyfriend back from his travels and her apartment in a state of chaos. Poison air filled the room, and her electric pot and stovetop were gone.

“Honey, I had a little accident,” I said. “I destroyed two of your appliances cooking noodles.”

I’d forgotten how beautiful she is. That’s what I was thinking as she looked around the place in awe, the same way I’d imagine a person looks at their body after a sex change operation. “What did you do?” she asked.

It felt great to be back. I’d learned so much from traveling, including how much I care about this girl. In the long run, that was important. Killing two nifty kitchen appliances and forgetting how to boil water was, really, just a minor price that needed to be paid.

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The Third Man Ferris Wheel vs. The Crazy Weird Vienna Pony Carousel

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“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

-  Harry Lime, The Third Man

The truth was goofy; I’d traveled a long way for a Ferris Wheel. But this wasn’t any damn Ferris Wheel, a city’s underwhelming version of the London Eye, which, I hear, is underwhelming itself; this was THE Ferris Wheel, the one Orson Welles made his famous cuckoo clock speech on in the classic film “The Third Man.” Welles ad-libbed the speech during filming, and as it turned out, was completely erroneous – the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany. But ask anyone who has a passion for black and white movies where the cuckoo clock comes from, and I’ll bet you a hundred bucks they say Switzerland.

So when I learned that The Third Man was shot in Vienna, Austria, I decided I had to make a pilgrimage out there. On my last day in Vienna, I went up to The Prater, Vienna’s oddball amusement park, with my heart set on riding the Ferris Wheel, which is called the Risenrad. And I did. I bought a ticket, and I rode it.

And that’s it.

There’s no story here. Nothing. I’m not sure what I expected to think or feel. What were my expectations? Did I think I’d be transported back in time a la Midnight in Paris, so I could go and have schnitzel with Joseph Cotton?

I wasn’t sure and, to be honest, I don’t even like schnitzel or Joseph Cotton all that much. After riding the Risenrad, I felt satisfied. “Okay,” I said to myself. “I can say that I did that.” I had nothing else to do all day, and I lazily walked around, looking around the Prater for nothing in particular.

It was after some time that I stumbled upon something I’d never seen before. Passing numerous amusement park rides, suddenly my nostrils flared with the strong odor of manure. “Jesus!” I thought. “Where is that coming from?” The smell led me to a carousel. A big green sign stood atop the structure. “That carousel smells like shit!” I keenly observed to myself. I walked closer, got a good look, and instantly figured out why.

Instead of wooden horses, the “Wiener Ponny-Caroussel” had real ones. About six horses stood there, harnesses on them, hooked up to a big wheel. I looked at my watch and saw that it was two o’clock, the middle of the day. There weren’t many people at the park. Luckily, a married couple and their son happened to come by while I was standing there. The boy apparently wanted to ride the Pony Carousel, and so they paid and he was put on one of the horses. The corny organ music fired up, the boy looked around confused, his parents watching him with bored looks on their faces. The horses didn’t move. A few seconds passed, and then the man working there took a whip and smacked the boy’s horse right in its ass, hard, and that got the animals to start going around and around. The horses looked miserable, and so did the boy. I left before the ride was over, wondering if the Pony Carousel actually makes any money.

“Business has been slow,” the owner might say to one of the horses. “I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you here. It breaks my heart to do this to you, but we’re going to have to set you free.”

And then the horse runs around joyously, because it’s the happiest day of its life.

I left Vienna the next day. I’ve told some people about how I rode the Ferris Wheel from The Third Man. Truth be told…nobody seems too impressed. I’ve also told people about the horse carousel, and how they had to whack the horse on its butt to start the thing. People typically laugh and seem interested.

For those keeping score, that’s Third Man Story 0, Horse Carousel 1.

That’s cool. The outlying details in a day are typically more interesting than the main activities anyways. Just like how riding a wooden horse, sometimes, can be more magical than riding a real one.

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