22 November 2008

Adventures in Real Estate

Idaho HouseFor the past two months, I've been commuting each week from St. Louis, Missouri to a small town south of Hartford in Connecticut. Although it is a nice town, it hasn't exactly been blog-worthy. More interesting is what I've been doing with my 3 days per week at home in St. Louis, where foreclosed homes are selling for less than the price of a car...


For the past 15+ years, real estate development in St. Louis has been booming. Neighborhood revitalization programs and community activism have helped to restabilize and restore the charm of early 20th century homes and communities, and have actually begun to reverse the 50-year population decline set off by the mass exodus of white people to the suburbs in the 1950's and 60's.

Now, many of the city neighborhoods are filled with interesting restaurants, beautifully restored historic homes, and a welcome diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and income.

Sidney HouseUnfortunately, several major real estate developers have gone out of business in the past year, and hundreds of independent rehabbers have had their properties foreclosed after property values dropped and rehab loans dried up.

This has dramatically increased the supply of old homes for sale, located in desirable neighborhoods, in need of significant rehab work.

My husband, Chris, somehow discovered this opportunity and started researching what it would take to be successful at flipping houses. The first I heard about it was in August, when we were in Santa Monica for a long weekend and he convinced me we should buy a house to renovate and sell.

Once we started looking at houses, it seemed unbelieveable how low the prices were. The first offer we made was for a 2000 sq ft (186 sq m) brick home listed at $90,000 that, after major renovations, could have sold for $200,000--even in the current economy.

We didn't get that house, but found a 2800 sq ft 2.5-story brick home in a good neighborhood for $40,000. As we were recovering from our shock and delight at finding such a great house for so little, we found a similar house on the very same block for $15,000!

Brannon HouseAfter putting in a few offers that weren't accepted because they were too slow or too low, we got a feel for how much to bid and how fast we would need to move to pick up a house for the price of a car.

We ended up buying three houses for much less than what we might have paid for one house when we first started looking. We've had to start referring to our houses by street name because we have so many now.

We are almost finished with the repairs on our Brannon house, which we plan to keep and rent out. After the holidays, we will start rehabbing our Sidney house, which should be ready for sale by the spring.

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19 September 2008

Reflections on Korea

View from my hotel room in residential area of SeoulI'm having trouble figuring out what to write about Korea. I have lots of stories swirling around in my head, but I can't seem to pull them out in a way that represents how I feel about this perplexing country...

Usually, by the end of an intense work project where I've been dropped into an unfamiliar country alone and have managed to figure out how to get the work done, I have learned enough about the local culture and people to make sense of my experiences and to put everything into perspective. However, in the case of Korea, there are still so many things I don't understand that I can't seem to establish my perspective.

Some sort of festival in downtown SeoulFor me, the best part about working internationally is the opportunity to see the world through a different cultural lens, and to gain enough understanding to begin to empathize with people who are different from me.

I'm always fascinated to learn what drives people to do what they do and to think what they think. But what drives the Koreans?

They certainly seem to be more "driven" than any group of people I've encountered before. From the tens of thousands of Koreans protesting American beef week after week, to the businessmen who rarely see their families and almost never take a vacation, or the young people on my team who stayed up literally all night to get their work done and then argued why they should go back to work after dinner the next night instead of going home to finally get some sleep.

The people I spent time with in Korea were tough to figure out. I had a great time drinking and singing karaoke and getting to know my colleagues, and could definitely see the appeal of this aspect of Korean culture--at least for the businessmen (and the rare woman who is invited to join). However, I couldn't help thinking about the impact on their families, and I couldn't even imagine the physical toll of doing this twice a week until I retired.

The average Korean (consultant, at least) works 14 hours in the office most days, some with an additional 1-2 hour commute to and from work. Those with families rarely see them during the week, and those without families have virtually no time for dating.

At least 1-2 nights per week the men manage to carve out an extra 3-4 hours away from home for after-hours partying, effectively reducing their sleeping time on those nights to almost nothing.

For the married men, I couldn't help wondering whether the after-hours obligations were a sacrifice, which kept them away from their families begrudgingly, or whether it was a welcome excuse to avoid the emotional commitment that would otherwise be expected from spouses they may not know (or even like) that much. Keep in mind, there is typically very little time spent with prospective spouses before marriage due to the significant work commitments.

Drawings, notes, and photographs posted on the gate of the bridge separating South from North Korea, from families who had been separated during the warThere are many things about Korean culture that I still don't understand. However, it's hard to imagine anything I could discover that would make me okay with the Koreans' extreme commitment to work over family, and the unquestioning, almost militaristic, following of orders from anyone in a position of authority, regardless of the personal impact.

I'm glad I had an opportunity to experience Korean culture, but it saddens me not to have found something there that would make me want to go back. It's hard for me to explain the involuntary emotional and physiological reaction that comes with any thought of returning to Korea.

I suppose it may have more to do with me than with the Koreans. I will never forget the pain and disbelief I experienced at the hotel in Seoul in June 2008, when I got the 3am call from my mom, 6600 miles away, letting me know that my dad had died. Everything I experienced in Korea was colored by that moment.

For pictures from the lighter side of Korea, visit my facebook photo albums:

South Korea Sept 2008

Real-Life Ratatouille

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28 July 2008

Glimpse of Buenos Aires

Buenos AiresAfter a few weeks off with my family in Missouri, I headed South for a work project in Argentina. It was my first visit to one of the "other" Americas, and my first project in a Spanish-speaking country since my Spanish obsession of 2005. I had less than a week to spend in Buenos Aires, and a lot of work to get done, but I managed to catch a brief glimpse of this intriguing South American city...

Buenos AiresFor me, Buenos Aires felt like a highly personable, customer-service oriented version of a major European city. There was this positive energy gushing from the Argentinean people, as if they had given up trying to contain themselves and decided to allow their overwhelming delight to spill out onto everyone around them. It didn't seem to Buenos Airesmatter that it was cold and rainy in the middle of their winter.

It was the first city in the world where I've been compelled to smile and say "no, thank you" to those annoying strangers who try to hand you advertisements or sell you something as you walk down the street. The first time I employed my standard Random Neighborhood Dogresponse--essential in more aggressive cities--of alternatively glaring at and ignoring the person invading my space, his reaction convinced me that he had actually been wounded in the process.

The porteños (people of Buenos Aires) also seem especially friendly to dogs and children. Pet dogs seemed to be as much a part of the community as the people.

Traditional BarbequeThe food in Buenos Aires is quite remarkable. Of course, it is easy to find great barbequed meat at a local asador, which is what Argentina is best known for. The meat is lightly seasoned with a great smokey flavor. I was fortunate enough to taste beef short ribs, steaks, and lamb shoulder at a traditional asador called Estilo Criollo, as well as Argentinean-style beef ribs accompanied by internationally inspired sauces and side dishes at a more modern place called La Cabrera. Both asadors were in a popular area in Buenos Aires called Palermo.

PizzaI have to admit, even though I had heard good things about the food in Buenos Aires, I didn't expect to find such great quality and variety of local and international fare. In addition Bread and Roasted Garlicto the superb Argentinean beef, I discovered delicious New York-style sandwiches, freshly made Italian pasta, homemade breads, and some of the best pizza I've ever had. They even had surprisingly decent Japanese sushi.

Half Portion of Argentinean Style RibsI should warn you that the food in Buenos Aires is served in very large portions. I suspect Argentineans might be the only people in the world who could go to Texas and be disappointed with their portion size. Fortunately, they don't mind wasting food, so you don't have to feel compelled to eat until you burst. Unfortunately, the food is so good that you almost certainly will.

Due to the limited time and intense work schedule, I barely scratched the surface of culinary potential of this city. Fortunately, I will be going back later this year to pick up where I left off.

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10 July 2008

The Flavor of Seoul

Side DishesBefore my Korea trip was cut short, I wrote about working conditions and ongoing protests against American beef imports. I never got around to writing about one of the best parts of Seoul--the food. Although I wouldn't recommend traveling to South Korea solely to experience their culinary prowess (as I might for Southern China), there are a few exceptional dishes that shouldn't be missed if you ever find yourself in Seoul...

Before I get into what to eat, I should let you know a little about how people eat in South Korea. As in China, it's always best to eat a meal with locals. Although many restaurants have portions of their menu translated into English, the English section is usually only a sampling of what they have to offer so not knowing Korean is a major disadvantage.

Unless you go to an Outback Steakhouse (which are everywhere in Seoul and not a bad choice for a reasonably priced American meal), don't expect the people working in the restaurant to speak English.

Korean food is spicy---really spicy. I love that about it. The Koreans have a very high tolerance for spicy foods, but they are also sensitive to the needs of others. They always have an eye out for a foreigner in distress and will bring out mild foods or broths to balance out the spiciness if you appear to be struggling. I recommend ordering steamed white rice to have on hand just in case. It works great for cooling off a tongue on fire.

Korean PlacesettingKoreans eat with unusual chopsticks. They are either flat or square, made of stainless steel, and much skinnier than the Chinese or Japanese versions. I find them relatively easy to eat with, especially compared to slippery plastic Chinese chopsticks.

Side DishesMost often, when eating with a group, each person will order his or her own main dish and share a bunch of side dishes, also known as service items. The side dishes come automatically, and are the same for everyone eating in the restaurant that day.

You can always ask for unlimited free refills of side dishes, which often include at least one variety of kimche and maybe a few other vegetable or egg dishes, and/or soup. To ask for a refill, just tell your server you want more. If there are communication problems, you can just point to the empty dish and they will probably understand.

One difference between sharing dishes in China vs. Korea is that you don't usually Peeling a Shrimpget a bowl of your own in Korea, just a plate. So if there is a big bowl of soup that the table is sharing, people take one spoonful at a time, rather than ladling a portion into their own personal bowl.

The other main difference in eating style is that Koreans often use their chopsticks or spoons as knives, and have no problem taking one chopstick in each hand and poking and slicing however necessary to remove a part they don't want to eat or to cut something into bite-sized pieces. The Chinese typically use their teeth for such things.

Now that you know the basics, you're ready to experience the flavor of Seoul for yourself. Below is my top 10 list of things to taste in Seoul.

If you print out the list, you should be able to find your way to the restaurants and order the right thing via pointing at the Korean phrases below.



    Famous Samgaetang Restaurant
  • #1 Chicken Soup with Ginseng: 삼계탕 (Sam-gae-tang). This is one of the most delicious chicken soups I've ever tasted. When we found out Chris would have only one meal in Korea before returning home, I took him to 토속촌 (Tosok-Chon), located 서울시 종로구 체부동 85-1 (경복궁 역 뒷 편: Near Kyongbok Palace Station), which is one of the 3 most famous Samgaetang places in Seoul.

    Imagine a stone bowl of boiling hot fresh chicken broth with ginseng root, each bowl containing your own personal whole chicken which has been stuffed with sticky rice Samgaetang Chicken Soupand chestnuts and tied up like a turkey. Samgaetang is served with a shot of cold ginseng liquor on the side, which you can drink straight or pour into your soup.

    Just add salt to taste and enjoy. There will be a bowl of salt served with your chicken soup, along with an empty bowl so you can scoop some chicken and broth out of the boiling hot stone bowl and let it cool before you eat it. There will also be a stainless steel bucket to discard your chicken bones.


  • #2 Steamed Beef Ribs: 갈비찜 (Galbi Jim). These are the most flavorful and tender beef short ribs I've ever had, which is saying a lot since Chris really knows how to braise a short rib. The galbi jim are cooked in the middle of the table in a large pot with beef broth and lots of vegetables. There are a multitude of side dishes around, including kimche, various sauces, vegetables, noodles, and lots of beautiful fresh leaves of raw lettuce, cabbage, and other greens that can be used as wrappers.

    Koreans love to wrap their food. The way to eat galbi jim is to take your wrapper of choice then put meat, sauce, kimche, noodles, whatever inside and roll it up and eat it. This is something you can do with your hands, although highly skilled Koreans can sometimes do it with their chopsticks. In addition to getting a delicious and surprisingly healthy meal, you will also get a very traditional Korean culinary experience.

    Where to find galbi jim: 수원 왕갈비 (Suwon Wang Galbi) located 서울시 중구 명동 2가 32-14 (Seoul Jung-gu Myung-dong 2 Ga 32-14) .


  • #3 Grilled Fish. The Koreans use very simple preparation for their grilled fish, which is most often seasoned only with salt. Somehow, they manage to grill the fish to perfection every time, with crispy skins and tender juicy flavorful meat inside. I've had enough delicious grilled fish in enough different types of restaurants that I feel comfortable saying that if you can find grilled fish in Seoul (and it's everywhere), you won't be disappointed.

    The only challenge can be getting the bones out. I learned a number of tricks from my Korean friends that can help with this. For example, sometimes you can take out the whole backbone first to avoid having to pick out individual bones that break off if you dive into the meat first. In any case, it's always best to order a fish with big bones.

    A great Japanese restaurant with grilled fish and udon soup is 이끼이끼 (Ikki Ikki), located 서울 파이낸스 센터 지하2층 (Seoul Finance Center B2). Order the 갈치 구이 (GalChi Goo-Ee). This restaurant is well known for its sushi, sashimi, and yakitori so you might want to try this too. Keep in mind all Japanese food in Korea is prepared Korean style by Korean chefs, so it will be different from what you would find in Japan.

    Many Japanese foods, especially udon noodles and fresh sashimi, are quite delicious the Korean way, although I prefer the traditional soy sauce with a touch of wasabi for dipping my sashimi, rather than the strong spicy chili sauce they recommend.


  • #4 Shabu Shabu: Meat and vegetables in a pot of boiling broth, cooked at your table. The Korean version of Japanese Shabu Shabu is quite delicious, although the broth is a touch heavier than Japanese style. In Korea, your server might even offer to cook everything for you in the big pot and serve it to you in your bowl, with no self-service cooking required.

    At the end of the meal, they use the leftover broth from the cooking pot that has been soaking up all the meat and veggie goodness during your meal and add rice to make a tasty porridge. Good luck saving enough room to eat more than a few bites of the porridge.

    Here's where to find great Shabu Shabu in Seoul: 일품당 (Ilpumdang), located 서울시 종로구 당주동 16-1 (세종문화회관 뒷 편: Behind Sejong Art Center)


  • #5 Pork and Kimche soup with noodles: 김치찌개 (Kimchi Jigae) and steamed egg roll: 계란말이 (Gaeran Mali). Before I tried this, I was skeptical of putting kimche in soup because I thought the strong flavor would overpower everything else in the bowl. However, it was really delicious and not at all what I expected.

    You can find it here: 광화문집 (Gwanghwa Moon Jib) located 서울시 종로구 당주동 43 (광화문 역 8번 출구 GS 25 옆 골목 안쪽 오른쪽 첫번째 집: Gwanghwa Moon Station (Line #5) Exit 8, go to Alley next to GS 25(Convenience Store) and it's the first restaurant on right)

  • #6 Chinese Dim Sum. Dim Sum, known as "morning tea" in China, is China's version of brunch and one of my favorite meals. The best global chain for Chinese dim sum has to be Din Tai Fung (딘타이펑) located 서울시 중구 명동2가 104번지 (across from Lotte Department Store) .

    You can find this restaurant chain in major cities all over the world, and it's always a good choice. I would highly recommend the dumplings -- for two people try an order of Dumplings 01 and 11, along with your choice of soup.

    Here's the American website as a reference: http://www.dintaifungusa.com/.


  • #7 Grilled Beef (갈비). Koreans are known for grilled beef, and although I wouldn't rate it nearly as high as the steamed beef ribs, they are definitely worth a taste. The seasoning they use on their seasoned beef 양념갈비 (Yangnyum Galbi) is a little too sweet for my taste, so next time I would probably go for the unseasoned beef 갈비 (Galbi) instead. As with other traditional Korean dishes, this one comes with lots of side dishes and sauces that should be wrapped up together with the beef, in lettuce or other green leaves.

    The best way to end a meal of grilled beef in the summer is with a bowl of cold noodles 냉면 (Naeng Myun).

    Here are some great places to go for grilled beef:
    형제갈비 (HyungJae Galbi) located 서울시 서대문구 창천동 31-35 (연세대 정문과 신촌역 중간쯤 위치: Near Yonsei University & Shinchon Station)

    참숯골 (Chamsoot Gol) located 서울시 중구 무교동 19 체육회관 빌딩 (서울 파이낸스 센터 뒷편: Behind Seoul Finance Center)

  • #8 Traditional Korean Set Menus. There are plenty of traditional Korean restaurants, where you can order set menus that come with a variety of dishes to share, for a minimum of two people. You just pick a menu and the food starts flowing without having to give it anther thought.

    One great place to try: 석파랑 (Seokparang) located 서울시 종로구 홍지동 125 (상명대 앞 삼거리: Near SangMyung University).


  • #9 Kimche. No trip to Korea is complete without sampling the Kimche. It ranges from set-you-on-fire spicy, to more mild, tangy, sour, or sweet varieties. The mildest is water kimche, which is slightly sour and served like a soup. The most common is spicy pickled cabbage or radish in chili sauce, served as a side dish to almost everything.

    In 5 weeks, without even trying, I sampled 10.5 different varieties of kimche. With guidance from my Korean friends, I only counted the Chinese kimche as 1/2, since it wasn't "real" Korean kimche.

    Where to find it: everywhere. You won't have to worry about finding kimche, it will find you.


  • #10 Noodles, Noodles, Everywhere. One of my favorite things about eating in Asia is the seemingly endless variety of noodles. Everywhere you go, you can find options for Udon (my favorite), Ramen, or Buckwheat Soba noodles, with or without soup, with any combination of meat, vegetables and/or seafood, served hot or cold, spicy or mild.

    Beware, sometimes your bowl of noodle soup will be at a full boil when it arrives at your table. In this case, it's best to use an extra bowl to scoop out a little soup to let it cool before you try it.


Special thanks to my colleague, Jihyun Park, for guiding me on my culinary adventures through Seoul.

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06 July 2008

Where's Tami?

Final day in KoreaA few weeks ago, Chris met up with me in Seoul. The plan was for him to relax for a few days and adjust to the new time zone while I finished my work project, and then we would spend some time exploring Seoul and Beijing together before returning to the US. However, a few hours after Chris arrived, I received word of a tragedy in my family that changed everything. Chris was in Korea for less than 24 hours before getting back on a plane for the long journey home...

I will be at home for two more weeks before returning to work. I'll try to post a few more pictures and stories from Korea soon.

To learn more about what has happened and how I've been spending my time at home, you can visit http://halefarms.blogspot.com/.

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08 June 2008

The Company of Finns

At the end of a very long day and a very long week, I got back to my hotel completely exhausted. I went down to the hotel lounge expecting to grab a quick bite to eat before collapsing into a long-anticipated night of sleeping. Much to my surprise, the hotel lounge was teeming with Finns who had come to Seoul to celebrate the new Finnair route between Helsinki and Seoul...

While I was sitting at the bar having dinner, I met a couple of French journalists who were in Seoul to report the Finnair story. I got the idea that I could crash the Finnair party and spend some quality time with Westerners for the first time in 4 weeks.

All it took was a brief self-introduction and I was welcomed warmly into the Finnair celebration. After what seemed like only a few minutes basking in the positive energy of these delightful strangers, I looked at my watch and realized it was 1am.

I woke up on Friday morning (Korean Memorial Day) dreading the work I had to get done during the holiday weekend, and feeling so exhausted I could barely pull myself out of bed. I was thankful to have had such a nice [albeit temporary] distraction from life in Asia and to sip from the energy of such a lovely group of people.

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07 June 2008

Lots of Angry Koreans

Police monitoring protest marchesSince I've been in Seoul, there have been an endless series of protests in and around City Hall, which is about 500ft (150m) from my hotel. Since all of the songs, chants, and signs were in Korean, I couldn't always tell what they were so angry about. As it turns out, the wrath of hundreds of thousands of Koreans has been unleashed on the city because they are afraid of getting mad cow disease from American beef...

Anti-FTA ProtestAs the rallies, candelight vigils, and downtown marches have gotten progressively bigger and louder, it has become more difficult to find a taxi driver willing to take me to my hotel. Sometimes, I have to get out and walk the last 4-5 blocks to my hotel because protest marches have completely blocked major downtown streets.

Protests at City HallAfter realizing that every protest was an anti-FTA protest, I started asking my Korean colleagues why people were so upset about the free trade agreement with the US. The initial response is always something related to the fear of mad cow disease that comes from accepting beef imports from older American cows. They firmly believe that their government has put the Korean people at serious risk by lifting the cattle age restrictions.

Protests at City HallThen, a deeper discussion reveals that even if the agreement were amended to block imports of meat from older cows, the protests would probably still continue. More important than what's actually in the agreement is how the government reached the City Hall, the morning afteragreement---without the permission of the people. The FTA is just one of a series of unpopular policies the new government has tried to pass in its first 100 days in office.

The word on the street is that the Korean people won't be happy until the president issues a sincere apology, fires the majority of his staff, and then reverses several unpopular policies including the unrestricted American beef imports.

Police monitoring protest marchesHowever, the announcements that: 1) the Blue House Chief of Staff and all members of the senior secretariat members will resign; 2) the Korean government will ask Washington to block exports of older cows; and 3) the importers themselves have vowed to self-regulate cattle age even if no formal restriction is imposed, have not had even the slightest calming effect on the masses.

I'm starting to think they're having too much fun to quit protesting now.

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25 May 2008

Advantages of Being Foreign & Female

Korean kids enjoying life on the weekend, before they enter the working worldUntil recently, it was hard for me to imagine working longer hours and having less personal time than when I worked for a Chinese company in China. After spending two weeks working for a Korean company in Seoul, I now realize China was just a warm-up...

Chinese people are subject to constant, intense pressure to put work ahead of family, and to sacrifice their personal interests and pleasures to satisfy demanding bosses. The minimum 10-hour workday is generally expected to extend into the evening and weekends, leaving little time for other pursuits.

Rare Koreans who actually have time for a hobbyNow, if you were to increase the probability of getting an assignment late on Friday that is due on Sunday, reduce the average night's sleep down to 3-5 hours, and assume nearly everyone is starting each day with a massive hangover, that would bring you closer to understanding what it's like to work in South Korea.

Fortunately, I have three advantages here, which will ensure my survival in the coming weeks. The first advantage is being a foreigner. People do not hold me to the same standards as they would a fellow Korean. I suppose I could consider it discriminatory for them to assume I cannot work as long or hard as one of their own. I prefer to accept it as a gift.

People on my team who don't mind getting weekends offThe second advantage is my position. I outrank nearly everyone on the team and can pretty much call the shots. If I say the people who work for me need to go home at 9pm or take the weekend off, some people may think I'm crazy, but they are unlikely to take any steps to stop the madness as long as we're getting the work done.

Finally, I benefit from a double-standard that applies to women in Korea. Whereas men are expected to work long hours and then go out and drink heavily with their colleagues and clients until the early morning, women actually get to choose whether to go drinking or go home. And when they do go out with the boys, they get to decide how much to drink.

Since there are several high-ranking women on this consulting project, there will be less mandatory drinking than might otherwise be expected, so I can count on my team to be less hung-over and more productive during office hours.

Kids playing in the fountain in front of city hall, just across from my hotelWhen people ask me whether Korea is easier than China, it's a tough question to answer. I'm in a better frame of mind to accept the hardships of working in Asia after having been conditioned in China, and Seoul is a much more modern city than Shenzhen which makes it easier to get my basic needs met.

Regardless of which country ends up being marginally easier, both are much more difficult than they should be. Each time I work in Asia, I gain a deeper appreciation for the unique cultures, delicious food, and amazing people who live and work here. However, I also become more determined not to come back.

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12 May 2008

Next Stop: Land of the Morning Calm

It's 1:00am in St. Louis and I've just finished packing. Since I have to catch an international flight at 6am this morning, I decided to stay up all night and get a jump start on adjusting to the new time zone...

After nearly five months in the US, I'm headed back to Asia to spend five weeks working in Seoul, South Korea. I've never been to Korea, and two weeks ago I knew almost nothing about it. Since then, I've managed to read a couple of books on Korean culture and business etiquette, and I spent a few hours yesterday learning to read Korean script. It was surprisingly logical, much easier to learn than Japanese or Chinese writing systems which require excruciating amounts of rote memorization.

I've loaded my ipod with lessons from the Teach Yourself Korean series, so let's see how much I can absorb on the plane ride to Seoul. I get the feeling that, once I get there, the work will be too demanding to leave any room for language studies.

Reading about Korean culture and history has been fascinating. They apparently endured hundreds of years of the most extreme form of Confucianism in Asia, which enforced a strict code of ethics and behavior to ensure group harmony at all costs. That's when it got the nickname "Land of the Morning Calm"-- at a time when people weren't allowed to express emotions in public without serious penalties.

In a single generation, South Korea has transformed into a major global economic power and one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, with some of the highest levels of civil and political rights in the world.

Of course, I've also been learning what I can about Korean food, and I'm looking forward to tasting at least a dozen different varieties of Kimchi in the next few weeks.

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09 March 2008

New Butcher in Town

The Vine GroceryEver since I came home from China, I have been on a quest for fresh meat. In China, I got used to eating fresh local animals, and I took for granted the fact that these delicious creatures hadn't been mass produced and processed and stored in the freezer for months before they finally made their way to my plate...

I imagined the bliss I might experience if I could combine my husband's distinctive cooking abilities and the comforts of home with the extreme freshness of ingredients I had only seen in the developing world.

It didn't take long to completely eliminate the meats in my local supermarket chain from consideration. Now that I knew better, I couldn't stomach the over-processed, chemically and hormonally altered monstrosities they labeled as beef, pork, and chicken. I would rather become a vegetarian.

I knew it was possible to get good tasting beef locally, because we had bought a delicious 1/2 cow from a cattle farmer in Southern Missouri last summer. However, it takes a lot of planning (and a large freezer) to buy your beef by the cow rather than by the pound.

It tends to be more expensive to buy fresh, natural, local foods. So, as I set out on my quest, I decided I would pay whatever it cost to get good meat. If it was too expensive, I would just eat it less often. I started shopping more at Whole Foods, which was a step above my local mega-supermarket. Unfortunately, the high-priced meats were only marginally better tasting, and I had to drive 30 minutes to get there.

I was excited to hear about a new grocery store in my neighborhood, called Local Harvest, which carries natural meats from Missouri farmers. However, I was shocked to pay $15 for a frozen chicken! Even at those prices, the chicken was nothing special.

Now for the happy ending to the story. A small Mediterranean grocery store has just opened up less than a block from my house. They carry Missouri-raised beef, lamb, and chicken that is natural, fresh, and delicious. The lamb has a lovely flavor without any gaminess, and the chickens are the most delicious chickens I've tasted in this country in more than 5 years! As an added bonus, the prices are comparable, and sometimes even lower than what you would pay for the barely edible equivalent at a major grocery chain.

Although there are always some pre-packaged meats in the cooler (all labeled "meat" because they haven't figured out how to use the label feature on their new meat scale), Ali the butcher is happy to pull out a leg of lamb or side of beef and cut anything you want.

The Vine Mediterranean Grocery (314.776.0991) is located at 3171 South Grand in St. Louis, directly across from Jay's International grocery store. They have locally-raised beef, lamb, chicken, and goat, as well as prepared foods and sandwiches, and high-quality imported olives.

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12 January 2008

Good to be Home

My Niece, KamiAfter nearly 4 months out of the country, I arrived home just in time for Christmas. As much as I enjoy traveling to new countries, tasting new foods, and experiencing new cultures, there's nothing that makes me happier than finally coming home...

My travel companionI even had Chris to keep me company on the long flight home, since he had met me in Australia. I have to say, everything from flight delays and long layovers, to filing lost luggage claims after being awake for nearly 24 hours, is significantly more tolerable when you're traveling with someone you love.

Me, searching for arrowheadsWe spent Christmas day at my parents' farm in Farmington, Missouri. It was nice to spend time with the family after so many months away. After lunch, a few of us went searching for old Indian arrowheads in a nearby farmer's field that had recently been plowed for the first time in 100 years. My brother and sister had found more than 50 arrowheads and 300+ pieces of arrowhead in recent weeks. I found nothing.

My dad & brother, searching for arrowheadsSince I had taken two weeks off in Australia, I had a little work to do between Christmas and New Year. It was only a few short days, working from home, spending my lunch breaks with Chris (his photo studio is only a few blocks away). I even convinced him to play hookey with me one afternoon so we could catch the matinee show at the cinema.

A few days later we celebrated Christmas a second time, this time with my in-laws, and then spent New Year's Eve with some good friends we hadn't seen in a while. By the time the new year began, I had completely recovered from the intense work and travel schedule of 2007. I'm now refreshed, re-energized and ready to take on the world in 2008.

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05 January 2008

Taste of the Australian Bush

Old ADI SiteAfter more than 10 days in Australia, I was disappointed that we hadn't seen any kangaroos in the wild. I was determined to find one but was quickly running out of time and out of ideas...

I reached out to one of the Aussies I had met in Beijing, the mayor of a Shire Grey Kangaroonear Sydney, to see if he had any ideas. As it happens, he knew the mayor of a town called Penrith, where there were almost 4000 acres of former defense land practically overrun with kangaroos. He made a few calls and got Chris and me a private tour.

Red KangarooIn Australia, millions of fast-breeding kangaroos are culled each year, just to keep the population under control. However, there was a huge uproar from the local community at the thought of harming a single kangaroo in the protected bushland of the old ADI site.

Joey in the BushIn the end, the development company that bought the land agreed to an expensive sterilization and maintenance program which would allow the kangaroos to live out their natural lives. Since then, there have been seasons so dry that the the land couldn't support all the kangaroos and the company had to initiate supplemental feeding programs.

EmuIt was a rare treat to get access to this beautiful bushland. In the 30 minutes we spent driving around, we saw at least 30-40 Red and Grey kangaroos and joeys, and 4 emus. It's a shame the community is trying to block public access to the big portion of land that will be turned over to the state as a nature reserve.

EmuI should admit that my experience in the old ADI bushland wasn't my first taste of wild kangaroos. The night before, Chris and I had dined on kangaroo and emu at an unconventional restaurant in Melbourne specializing in The perfect dessertgourmet bush tucker. It turned out to be a great restaurant with too many interesting dishes to try in one meal.

KangarooAlthough kangaroo was on the menu all over Australia, the Tjanabi restaurant in Melbourne was the only one we found that knew how to cook it carefully enough to avoid drying out the extremely lean meat.

Even when cooked properly, kangaroo has too strong of a wild game flavor for me, a bit like venison. I preferred the emu.

Coat of Arms of AustraliaThose of you heartbroken at the thought of eating Skippy, or appalled that Chris and I could eat our way through the Australian Coat of Arms, will be happy to know that I don't plan to make it a habit.
Of all the lovable and cuddly creatures that found their way to my plate in 2007, Rudolph is the only one I still crave.

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01 January 2008

Visiting Melbourne

MelbourneAlthough it rained quite a bit while we were in Melbourne, most days it was sunny long enough for us to take an afternoon stroll through a flower garden or park, or sit outside for lunch...

MelbourneThere were also a number of museums and galleries around town, most of which were free. We really enjoyed the NGV art museum.

Most of all, we loved the food in Melbourne. Unlike in Sydney, where we had to do a lot of research and go out of our way to find any decent food, great food seemed to be everywhere in Melbourne.

One afternoon, we happened upon a lovely street full of interesting little European-style cafes, with outdoor seating under a canopy. The next day for lunch, we found a small Greek restaurant that served freshly prepared dishes that were as unusual as they were delicious.

MelbourneOne evening for dinner, based on a recommendation from a colleague, we tried an unexpectedly good Italian place. The dining room was small, and it looked like it hadn't been redecorated in at least 50 years. There were no menus, only a chalkboard on the wall with a list of dishes in Italian, with no descriptions or prices. However, the food was amazing...and cheap!

Click here for more pictures of Melbourne.


---Here are a few of our favorite restaurants in Australia---

MELBOURNE

Greek Restaurant in MelbournePure South. Interesting natural ingredients, sourced from Tasmania. Unbelievably fresh oysters and perfectly cooked fish.

Waiters Restaurant. Unexpectedly great, cheap food.

Tsindos Greek Restaurant. Delicious food, interesting menu.

For a light lunch, try one of the many cafes on Degraves Street near the Flinders train station.

SYDNEY
Shiki Japanese Restaurant. Excellent fresh sushi.

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