Thursday, August 15, 2013

coccygeal decompression

Par où commencer? Where do I begin?

Over the past few days, I've been too busy and/or too tired to write a proper chronicle of my trip prep and trans-Pacific voyage. Having had a more or less decent night's sleep, I'll try to take on that task in this blog post, but I ask your forgiveness if I gloss over certain details in my attempt to craft a coherent narrative.

Monday, August 12, was move-out day. Like the previous days, this was a sweaty one. I once again took God-knows-how-many trips upstairs and downstairs to load my car with the rest of my possessions; somewhere along the way, I stuffed a box into the car's front passenger seat and ended up popping off my central rear-view mirror. The mirror didn't appear to have been broken; it had simply snapped out of its mounting. Easy fix.

While I packed, I also cleaned like a madman: I vacuumed the rug, hose-vacuumed my hair-encrusted baseboard, cleaned out my toilet, scrubbed down my bathtub, scrubbed my kitchen counters, and dusted all vents, window sills, and blinds. It was a lot of work, but it paid off: later in the afternoon, around 3PM, the two maintenance guys, Bob and Gabe, took my keys and did their damage assessment. To my amazement, they gave my apartment a clean bill of health. I hadn't expected that: I had, to be frank, expected to be screwed out of my damage deposit, but it appears I'll be getting a full refund. Imagine that. Another point in Shenandoah Commons's favor. It truly had been a pleasant three years; it's nice that my time there ended on such good terms.

I had originally hoped to be out of my apartment before noon. The harsh reality, though, was that I wasn't done until after 4PM. My final act was to visit the rental office to settle affairs; office lady T was her usual efficient, cheerful self, and she congratulated me on my move to Korea, expressing both admiration and envy. "I wish I were the type of person who could just move to a foreign country," T sighed. I asked about my refund; she said I'd be receiving two checks: the first would be for the damage deposit, and it would arrive within two weeks; the second would be for the unused portion of my August rent, which I had paid in full at the beginning of the month. That check, T said, would arrive within 45 days. Both checks would be forwarded to my brother David in Alexandria.

As I drove my overstuffed car (once again, I had no field of view to my right) to CubeSmart self-storage in Warrenton, I suddenly realized I had left a whole mess of meat in the freezer: four pounds of pork sirloin, a pound of bacon, and 1.5 pounds of sausage. That was all supposed to go to David, but I guess it now belongs to my former apartment's new resident. I got to CubeSmart, and saw a huge pickup truck parked in front of the structure containing my storage unit. The truck belonged to a middle-aged couple that had just moved: the man and woman were pulling items out of storage while I was stuffing items in. My own space, which had started off fairly roomy, was now approaching capacity; somehow, I used my Tetris skills to figure out how best to arrange and rearrange the various boxes into a configuration that allowed me to stuff in two vertical lamps, a vacuum cleaner, and the remaining containers of my sundries. Again sticky, stinky, and sweaty, I texted my buddy Mike and and told him I'd be late in arriving at his place: the next phase of my final day in the US was to drop my car off at Mike's and get picked up by David.

I was dead tired, and could feel myself getting ready to fall asleep at the wheel. On my way down Route 17 toward Fredericksburg, I stopped at a gas station and picked up two large Mountain Dews in an effort to perk myself back up. The Dews helped, and I made it to Mike's without incident. I had brought along a huge duffel full of camping equipment for Mike's eight-year-old son, and I had been hoping to see the kid's reaction once he realized he'd hit the jackpot: a Big Agnes pup tent, a Kevin-sized sleeping bag, first-aid kits, trekking poles, foam sleeping pads, a Nalgene water bottle, and so on. Alas, it turned out that Mike's son was away at the time, and as I sat in Mike's living room, I could feel myself once again getting sleepier and sleepier. While I blearily waited for David to come pick me up, I busied myself by filling out some DMV forms that had arrived at Mike's place (I'd done my DMV change-of-address about two weeks previously).

Eventually, David and Patricia showed up. This was Patricia's first time meeting Mike's family (except, of course, for Mike's son); I barely looked up from my forms to greet them, but that didn't matter: David and Patricia were both whisked away to take a quick house tour. Eventually, everyone returned to the living room, and I texted Sean to let him know we'd be a bit late for that evening's appointment at Maggiano's, one of my favorite Italian chains.

I said my goodbyes to Mike and family, and David, Patricia, and I climbed into David's SUV and drove north to Tysons Corner. We met Sean in the parking lot and walked together to Maggiano's. Patricia expressed her delight at seeing all three of us guys together in the same place; these days, given my and my brothers' different schedules and lifestyles, such harmonic convergences are rare, and Patricia strikes me as someone who's always hungry for a strong sense of family. It was good to see her happy.

After our main meal, Patricia decided to grab David's phone and take a picture of us three brothers:

It only belatedly occurred to me that this might be the last time, in years, that I would find myself together with David and Sean. David has said that he and Patricia might try to make it over to Korea next year; we'll see. Sean, who's focused on moving back to the Boston area, has remained mum as to his travel plans.

Dinner at Maggiano's was from the Classic Family menu, a specialty that Maggiano's prepares for parties of four or more. We got the Maggiano's salad, stuffed mushrooms, and calamari as our appetizers. Patricia had fish for her main course; David got spaghetti with one planet-sized meatball, and Sean got a pepper-crusted steak with broccoli. As for me, I had an entrée called "Mom's lasagne," which proved to be too huge for me to down in one sitting. Sean, who normally avoids carbs (and is thin because of that avoidance) helped me finish it. Dessert was crème brûlée and cheesecake; the latter was remarkably soft and silky and redolent of strawberries—much better than your typically thick, heavy cheesecake.

Stuffed, we waddled out of the restaurant, and I said goodbye to Sean. David, Patricia, and I drove back to David's place. We had begun dinner a bit after 9PM; by the time we got back, it was around 11PM, and my night still wasn't over. Needing sleep, craving sleep, I nevertheless couldn't afford to sleep: I had to repack my bags in such a way as to protect my computers: both my Big Mac and my MacBook Air laptop would be stuffed into check-in bags. Luckily, David had a nifty suitcase scale to help me figure out weight distribution; he also gamely provided me with a tall pitcher of ice water so I could puzzle out the baggage at my leisure. David himself went to bed not long after; he knew he'd have to wake up at 3AM or so. I set my own cell-phone alarm for 3:20AM, unsure as to whether I would get any sleep.

The process of packing when you're tired and suffering the effects of a full stomach is a languid, glacial one. You have no energy and almost no mental focus; every simple movement becomes as complicated as solving a four-by-four-by-four Rubik's Cube; the air becomes as thick and unyielding as syrup. I was cross-eyed with exhaustion, and at several points I was tempted just to say "Fuck it" and let the bags pack themselves. Somehow, perhaps through sheer stubbornness, I persisted, and eventually the bags were repacked to my satisfaction. Unfortunately, the baggage scale told me that there were certain items that I simply wouldn't be able to take: those turned out to be my precious books. I boxed those up and left a note for David: "Mail these to me in late September." I left David another box as well, one labeled "Kev's Immortal Soul." In this box could be found important documents like my certificate of live birth (1974 copies; I was born in 1969), a signature stamp for signing checks in my name, several books of checks, a box of envelopes, and other paperwork that I thought might be good for David to keep close at hand and readily accessible.

By the time I finished my bags, it was 2:50AM. I crawled into the guest-room bed and tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn't come. I was in that weird state where I knew I needed sleep, but just couldn't go under. In the end, by the time my alarm sounded, I think I had slept for perhaps three minutes. I got up, showered, and dressed; David appeared, bleary and unshaven, and we lugged my bags to the door. Patricia also appeared at the top of the stairs, beautiful in her dishevelment, and wished me a good trip.

David and I drove out to Dulles Airport, talking desultorily about this and that, not really having that much to say to each other, given our fatigue and the time of day. I apologized to David for making him wake up when he had a full day of meetings ahead of him at the office; I have no clue whether he got through those meetings fully awake.

We reached the drop-off area for United Airlines departures, and David helped me take my bags out. We hugged; I cadged $100 in cash off him to pay for my second bag (it's bullshit that we now have to pay for that second bag), then I heaved myself inside. International check-in wasn't where I thought it was; it was around the other side of the bank of counters that faces the airport's entrance. The line to check in was already somewhat long, and when it was my turn, I discovered that the $100 fee for the second bag could not be paid in cash. I whipped out my PNC debit/credit card and paid with that instead. My bags were large enough that they couldn't be checked in at the counter: I was told I needed to lug them over to the TSA screening section. I abandoned my bags there, then headed off to security. David had described the new path that one walks through Dulles to get to one's gate, and sure enough, I got an eyeful of interesting architecture on my way downstairs. Security turned out not to be that much of a hassle; I had to remove my shoes and belt, of course, and I stood inside that plastic cylinder that takes a 360-degree picture of your assandballs. I was glad I hadn't packed my laptop as carry-on; that would have added an annoying extra step to the process.

Once through security, I got onto the tram that would take me to my terminal and gate. Gone, for the most part, are the mobile lounges of old; as a kid, I used to love those behemoths. I got to the gate, and it wasn't long before we all began to board the flight to San Francisco.

The first leg of my flight to Korea was a bit over five hours long, and it hurt my ass—specifically, my ass-bone, a.k.a. the coccyx. The highlight of this trip was the prissy guy in my row, two seats away from me, who kept making unreasonable demands of the flight attendants. Specifically, he wanted them to fill up his water bottle, something the attendants were barred, by regulation, from doing. When one flight attendant refused, the man asked another flight attendant to perform the task. She, too, refused. All of the ladies serving us became annoyed by this passenger; because I was seated so far back in the plane, I could hear them aft, carping about this guy's poor manners.

I had a one-hour layover between flights, but by the time we arrived in San Francisco (it never occurred to me, at the time, that this was the same airport at which the Asiana disaster had happened), I had to use my entire layover time just to get across the airport to my connecting flight. No trams this time: this was all about walking hard. By the time I reached the gate for my flight to Incheon, boarding had begun long before. When I got to the jetway, several staffers were bickering about the boarding process. Once I was past the bickering staffers and on the plane, I got an earful from an exasperated flight attendant trying to resolve a seating dispute caused by Koreans who had, on their own recognizance, decided simply to rearrange themselves so as to be able to sit together, regardless of what other passengers' tickets might have said. I've seen this sort of selfish, inconsiderate behavior before; it seems to be par for the course whenever I fly on a plane full of East Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans.

I was in the very last row—an aisle bulkhead seat. I always try to select an aisle seat whenever I fly; gone, gone are the days when I used to love sitting by the window to watch the world whoosh by. These days, I'm more concerned about easy access to the lavatory, and I don't like shoving my way past a row full of fellow passengers to get there. The price I pay, though, is that I have to retract my knees and elbows every time the flight attendants swoop by with their food and drink carts.

The flight to Seoul-Incheon was remarkably comfortable if we don't include my continued ass pain. I tried, late in the flight, to alleviate the pain by standing for the better part of an hour, but at first, the decompression of my coccyx only resulted in more pain. Eventually, the ache lessened, and I sat back down again.

I spent most of that flight with my contact lenses out. The natural random motion of my hands over those several hours made my fingertips gritty and salty, which caused some pain in my left eye when I attempted to put my contacts back in right before landing. I ended up putting in only the right-hand lens. Because I had done the one-eye-goes-commando thing before, I knew what to expect, and my brain easily compensated for the visual distortion.

We landed early, as I mentioned before. Still, it took longer than usual to walk to passport control because we must have pulled in at the ass-end of the airport. I didn't mind the extra walking; it was a relief just to stand up. With only one contact lens on, I went through passport control, sought out a restroom, took a healthy dump, collected my bags, blogged a post, got my bus ticket for East Daegu... and then things went to hell.

I was supposed to contact "Frank" (not his real name), the Korean gentleman who was to pick me up from the East Daegu bus station. I had been told to call Frank before I got on the bus so that he'd have some idea as to when to appear at the bus station. I took out my Korean cell phone, which I had kept with me in the States, popped the battery back in, and tried texting Frank. No dice.


I tried texting my buddy Tom, in case it was specifically a Frank-related problem. Again, no dice. Because the phone was an SK Telecom device, I took it over to a nearby SK Telecom desk and asked the staffer what was wrong. He wasn't sure, but he correctly deduced that I had taken the phone out of the country with me (not a hard deduction, really; we were at an airport). He told me I'd need to check at a larger office in whatever city I was going to. I took my phone back, disappointed, and attempted to make a phone call with it. That cleared things up a bit: a voice message in English explained that my phone had run out of credit and needed to be recharged with credit within 90 days of the outage. This pissed me off: when I left Korea in May, I had deliberately taken out my phone's battery to prevent it from automatically accessing the roaming function. I had thought that that would be enough to prevent money (about W20,000 credit) from leaking out. Apparently, I was wrong: the mere passage of time was enough to drain the phone of credit.

So I had little choice but to email Ms. K, my contact at CUD, about my situation. I whipped out my laptop again and wrote to Ms. K, asking her to contact Frank and tell him I would be arriving at the East Daegu bus terminal at 9PM. A sinking feeling told me that Ms. K wouldn't bother to check her email. I got on the bus, at which point I gratefully fell asleep for a few hours. I woke up a few minutes before our 9PM arrival, noting the superficial sameness between nighttime Daegu and nighttime Seoul. I got off the bus, collected my heavy bags... and no Frank. I asked some staffers whether the terminal had Wi-Fi; they said yes. I asked them where I could find a public pay phone; they pointed vaguely toward one end of the terminal. I checked email to see whether Ms. K had acknowledged my message; she hadn't. I looked for the pay phone and couldn't find it, but I saw an old man by himself in a small office, so I knocked, barged in, and asked whether I could use his phone. He nodded, too tired to care, and I called Frank's number. Busy, of course. I left a message for him, then went back out and waited.

Frank, a small, slightly doughy Korean man with glasses, finally arrived around 10:15PM. The first words out of his mouth were, "You were supposed to call me from the airport!" I told him I knew that, but that my phone didn't work, so I had emailed Ms. K to tell him about my arrival. At a guess, she never saw my message, despite my having sent it during office hours. Frank and I drove to my new digs; he gave me a running narration of our department's flow chart, perhaps to give me some insight into the local pecking order. He also told me about his family; he's got many relatives in the US, and he even studied in the US himself for a time, including some time spent in the DC-Metro area. While Frank was talking, I found myself mentally grumbling that, if he had thought the matter through logically, he could have simply waited at the terminal from 8PM to 9PM for me to arrive—none of this 10:15PM bullshit. But Frank didn't strike me as being the brightest bulb in the box.

We got to my building, which is one "studio building" among many in the neighborhood that abuts the university campus. Spanking new, Frank assured me; I was one of the new building's very first residents. We lugged my bags to my third-floor room (Frank told me I'd be doing a lot of exercise, like it or not: our department's office is on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator). Frank gave me some orientation-related information in parting, and I was left in silence to ponder my digs.

They're small.

After living in a palatially large apartment building for three years, this studio feels like a giant letdown. I'm glad I didn't try to bring my vast library of books: I'd have had nowhere to put them all. The place obviously wasn't designed with scholars in mind. On the plus side, the monthly rent is absolutely minuscule, so I'll be saving $700/month on rent alone.

The floor, and every other horizontal surface, proved to be covered in dust. I had no rags on hand, so I soaked some underwear and scrubbed everything down, turning my underwear a very unpleasant gray. I figured out how to set up my laptop; without a "down" transformer, I can't set up my Big Mac, but my laptop comes with a charger that has its own built-in transformer; I had thought ahead and bought a 220-volt adapter, so my computing needs are, for the moment, satisfied. I did notice, though, that Internet here is frightfully slow, which is a surprise, considering that Korea is known for blazing Internet connections.

After midnight, I took a stroll outside to the local convenience store, where I bought some food and supplies. I also took a shower, but was unable to get any hot water. I'm not sure whether my gas lines are working: the kitchen gas range seems to work just fine, but if that's true, then I should also be getting hot water, because the water is gas-heated. What's up with that? I may have to ask my building's landlord about the hot-water situation.

The air conditioning worked just fine, thank Cthulhu. I had a comfortable night's sleep on a mattress with no sheets or blankets—just me in my sweatpants and coat liner. I turned my carry-on satchel into a pillow by stuffing it with shirts; it'll serve as my pillow for the next two weeks. In a sense, I really am starting over from Square One. For now, I consider this the step backward before I start moving back up in the world. In a few short months, things will have radically improved.

That brings us to today. I woke up around noon, did some laundry, ate some cereal (no spoon!), and have been typing up this blog post for the past few hours. I'm going to go hunt down some ramyeon, some eggs, some bowls, some plates, and some silverware. My building's stairwell has a hot- and cold-water dispenser, so ramyeon is the cheapest food to get. I also need to finish unpacking and organizing my possessions. At some point, today or tomorrow, I plan to explore the walking route to campus; I'm not far from the campus's rear gate (hu-mun), and I've been told that the walk to my building is no more than ten minutes long. Of course, Koreans have been known to give wildly inaccurate time estimates; I've heard plenty of over-optimistic projections about how long a given walk might take: a supposed ten-minute walk can, in reality, take twenty-five minutes.

Lots to see. In fact, exploration probably best defines my existence, at least for the next several months. I know nothing about this part of Korea, so as I did in Switzerland, I plan to explore as much as I can on foot. My first staff orientation, for my department only, won't be until the 21st. Today is the 15th, so I've got plenty of free time. Might as well use it productively, right?



John McCrarey said...

And the adventure begins!

Looking forward to reading all about it. Since I'm stuck in the USA for the foreseeable future I'll be getting my Korean fix vicariously through your blog.

Good luck!

John McCrarey said...

It was good to re-read this. I also took a few minutes to read up on coccyx pain. I guess I need to find one of those special pillows next time I fly. The pain was some of the worst I've experienced.