Category Archives: Seoul Sketches

The Elevator story

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A few months back the most adorable incident happened in the elevator of our apartment building. It was Children’s day in Korea, a public holiday, so a lot of kids were out enjoying the day. We saw a few at the bus stop licking ice creams. Some were walking into restaurants with their parents. Parks were teeming with toddlers chasing each another as their slightly older siblings threw frisbees and rode bicycles and scooters. Evening saw these frisky moppets return home in their mom’s arms or on their dad’s shoulders, happy but tired faced, tightly hugging giant soft toys and balloons.

It was nice seeing the neighbourhood peppered with little humans in place of adults in suits and ties marching in and out of offices.

We spent the day outside too on a long walk by a lake. Later, we got some food packed for dinner and headed home. As we were going up to our apartment, we saw this boy, about 4 or 5 years old enter the elevator with his family.

He may not have seen many foreigners in his life, because as soon as he laid eyes on us, he was transfixed. There was no stealing furtive glances out of the corner of the eye for this little guy; he caught us in the most innocent, full-on face to face, mouth agape, utterly bewitched kind of stare! The look of wonderment lasted from level 1 until level 12 which made his mom very uncomfortable. Just before leaving, she bent down and asked him to say hello to us. Once out of his trance our starer became very shy. He did wish us eventually, spurred on by his dad, mom and sister who chimed in with a nice long – Annyeonghaseyo.

I sketched the scene as soon as I got home.

Orange on my desk

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With the onset of this pandemic, we’ve all had to make adjustments to our lives some of which I still feel like I’m coming to terms with. For example, spending inordinate amounts of time at home for days on end. Being in my own company isn’t foreign to me. I work from home and I enjoy it a lot but you still miss the social contact like meeting friends or in my case, meeting friends and going out with them to sketch especially in crowded places. Countless pages of my sketchbooks have been joyously filled with drawings of people at cafes, restaurants, parks, and subways.

But with strict social distancing measures in place back in February, when Korea saw an alarming spike in COVID cases (highest after China), stepping out of the house for anything other than buying masks or groceries was out of the question. By next month many offices were letting employees work from home. My husband and I weren’t just sharing a workspace, it dawned on me that we were going to be spending entire work weeks with each other.

The thing with an unprecedented situation is, however hard it rocks your boat, you look around, take a stock of your situation and say – ‘well, it could’ve been worse”. It took a while for us to learn and eventually adjust to each other’s schedules. And have a bit of fun in the process, at least one of us did. A month or two into the lockdown, I noticed an orange appearing on my work desk, every day.

Desk drawing low res

My husband couldn’t help notice that I forget to eat my fruits during the day. Instead of reminding me to eat one, he started placing a random fruit at different sections of the house where I hang out to check if my behaviour alters and discovered that only by keeping it here on this desk does the fruit get consumed. Indeed a lot of oranges were consumed this way!

I made this sketch on the day I found out that I was the subject of his social experiment. If anything has come of this besides a good chuckle, it is that I now eat my fruits without needing a stimulus. Not too bad!

Of all the changes that we are making in our lives right now, I hope this one sticks.

Draw your mess

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Am I the only person who hasn’t put away their warm clothes yet? We’re halfway through August and now I am thinking how far can fall/winter be anyway? I may need that trench coat or the down jacket sooner than later. All that effort put in sorting, folding, stacking, and arranging would go to waste. This here is the train of thought that got my wardrobe looking like above.

I have been meaning to organize it for a while now but every month I end up carrying forward this task to the following month. Spending longer hours at home during this ongoing pandemic hasn’t exactly increased my productivity at housework. If at all, I’ve been slacking off.

It ain’t a pretty sight, I admit. Finding a somewhat coordinated outfit in this closet requires equal amounts of luck and patience. Meanwhile, belts have gone missing. Socks are hiding themselves in corners and crevices. Scarves have never become more elusive.  A wardrobe as cluttered and disheveled as this should stick in one’s craw but if you’re an artist, this scene can also get you all excited! And you find yourself picking up a sketchbook, some colour pencils, and drawing the mess instead of tidying it up. Well, there’s always tomorrow.

 

Longest monsoon

South Korea has been pummelled by torrential rains since late June and from what I’m reading – it isn’t over yet! Today marks the 53rd day of the monsoon season. The skies have been ominously grey forever. Humidity is so high that everything feels sticky all the time, even the apartment floor.

Compared to the inland regions that are experiencing floods and landslides, I’d say we’re lucky to be getting on with our lives with the least amount of disruption in this part of Seoul. If the pandemic has us wearing masks on a daily basis, the incessant rains that don’t seem to have an expiration date have us carrying umbrellas wherever we go, so much so that it feels like a part of our attire. Or an extended limb.

coffee bean in rain

I sketched this cafe scene on my way back from an appointment. We were a few days into the monsoon, a time when one could still trust the weather app and if it said no rains for a few hours, you believed it and didn’t carry the umbrella. It rained a lot and I had to take shelter here for a while. Luckily I had my sketchbook and a hot cup of tea on the side.

smoker with Umbrella

In the following weeks when the rains ceased to stop, we became inured to the wet weather and acted like this tattoed guy, probably a chef or a kitchen staff who I saw coming out from the back of a restaurant into the alley for a quick smoke. Even for a break as short as this, he couldn’t risk leaving without his most trusted accessory dangling from his arm!

Grandma in EBT

A few days back I was eating churros at Express Bus Terminal when I spotted this interesting character approach the table opposite me. She may have been in her late 60s and was wearing a bright green chequered shirt over a white tee paired with grey tights and classic slip-ons. Placed at a slightly jaunty angle on her head was a straw hat with a flower attached to it. The thing that caught my eye though was her yellow umbrella which gave this ensemble a cheery look!

Before settling down she got herself a cup of coffee. Then she kicked off her shoes, plonked the rest of her stuff on the floor, and put her feet up on the chair. An electric hand fan appeared out of one pocket and a piece of paper from the other which she held in her hand and studied for a long time.

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This year’s protracted rainy season has elevated the humble umbrella from a functional object to a fashion accessory. Instead of moping about the miserable weather, people are having fun carrying umbrellas in varying designs, colors, and fabric, sometimes matching them with their outfits! I saw some interesting ones on subway line 9. As you can see, everyone was keeping up with the times with their masks, color-coordinated umbrellas, and mindless phone-scrolling.

 

The Arrival of Melons

There are two fruits that announce the arrival of summer in Korea – Watermelons and Korean melons.

Now, watermelons I am familiar with. Back in India, in the little industrial town I grew up in, summers were terribly hot and dry. After we came back from school looking like two boiled lobsters our mom put out chilled watermelon slices before me and my sister to eat and cool down with. We’d put our feet up on the couch and gorge on fresh, crunchy slices until streams of pink juices ran across our hands and dripped from the elbow into our bowls.

emart watermelon

On a recent trip to E-mart I was greeted by these melon cousins piled up next to the entrance

While plump ripe watermelons harken back to fond childhood memories, I am yet to make an acquaintance of the bright yellow, slightly oblong Chamoe, also known as Korean Melon. It is eaten fresh and I am told that it tastes like a less sweet cantaloupe with a sight cucumber flavour. When pickled it can be enjoyed as a savoury side dish which I would love to try as well!

 

 

 

 

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

Gangnam backstreet

As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

CB in gangnam

One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

Sale at Olive Young

Olive Young is a popular beauty and health store based in South Korea that I had never heard of until I started living here.

There are at least five decent-sized Olive Young stores ( in addition to countless cosmetics shops) within walking distance from my apartment in Gangnam and at any time I visit one of them to buy a tube of suncream or some moisturizer I need to jostle for space because they are always crowded.

Also, the diverse range of cosmetics and skincare products displayed on the shelves can be mindboggling but not for the Korean customer who I see flitting from shelf to shelf confidently scooping up rejuvenating snail masks, eye creams loaded with collagen extracts and acne patches. I envy how well informed Koreans are about skincare products!

In recent years, K-beauty products, especially skincare has risen in popularity. Articles and blog posts waxing lyrical about the ’10-step Korean skincare routine’ or the ’13 best Korean Face masks’ keep popping up on my newsfeed. When my overseas friends visit Seoul, trips to Olive Young stores are imperative. I wanted to know why. If something exciting is brewing in my own backyard shouldn’t I be curious?

OlivenYoung

People loading up on beauty products during a sale at a Olive Young outlet in Gangnam

So I dug a little deep and found that the global cosmetic industry makes a ton of money. In the next 3 to 4 years, it is expected to grow to 379 billion dollars! If you break down this number into product categories (cosmetics, perfumes & colognes, skincare, hair care, , and others), you find that it is skincare that’s driving most of the growth. By 2024, the global skincare products market size alone is expected to reach 196 billion dollars!

What makes skincare so popular? Industry analysts point towards increased awareness in wellness which in today’s day and age translates to clean eating, fitness and the natural, no make-up look. The wellness trend is driving consumers to take better care of their skin. And this ‘skin first, make-up second’ philosophy that has been gaining momentum across the world is believed to have originated in South Korea where skincare is part of the culture.

Not just that, the sizeable skincare and cosmetic industry of South Korea is highly competitive. In order to stand out brands constantly invest in research and development to create new, better quality, and competitively priced products which earn them an edge in the global market.

In a CNBC interview, I heard Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam – a site that curates and sells Korean beauty products – explain how K-beauty created a skincare wave. “They opened the door to innovations, allowed indie brands to come to the forefront of a lot of these skin care trends, they also widened the appetite for new products and categories and they’ve been a big part of the education around skincare.

She also believes that “influencers and social media were key for K-beauty to takeoff”. The skincare boom owes a lot to social media. Skincare gurus and make up artists have huge fan followings on Youtube and Instagram where they share their daily skincare routines and explain why they prefer certain products and how those products impact their skin. As a result, consumers are discovering new products and learning about ingredients that go into these products.

Today South Korea is not just an exporter of beauty products but also a huge manufacturing base for American and European brands. As the country continues to grow as the latest beauty innovation and creation hub, I certainly have a better understanding of why my neighbourhood Olive Young stores are always buzzing with activity. I visited one recently during a big promotion and managed to buy four items I didn’t need! The sketch is from that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello again!

I have been away from the blog for a long time, so long that it makes coming back a little difficult. For the past few days and weeks, I have been mulling over what I could say to make my return feel less jarring.

For a while I toyed with the idea of making a comic which would in succinct panels illustrate why I was away. Or maybe a chronological account of what I was up to all this while would best demystify my unexplained absence. But I realized to produce anything of quality befitting the dramatic re-entry I was imagining in my head would take time.

And the last thing I want is to spend more time away from blogging. I have missed telling stories. And I have missed hearing from those who read my stories. If not for that one reader who in her comment on my Instagram page nudged me to start writing again, I would still be standing at the threshold, hesitating.

For the lack of a clever way of expounding my year-long absence from blogging, I will state the facts as plainly as possible.

Last year, in the month of May, I suffered a shoulder injury which took a physical and psychological toll on my body. What started as a nagging pain in my left shoulder that I thought would disappear on its own in few days only got intense and agonizing with time. The following weeks were spent undergoing physical therapy, taking muscle relaxants and pain medications and receiving half a dozen injections but they brought little relief.

The doctor advised me to rest my shoulder and back completely. My deteriorating condition made it difficult for me to sit upright for long. Very soon I was unable to write, draw, cook, clean or simply hold a book up to read. It required Herculean effort to lift a bottle of water to drink. I couldn’t tie my hair or dry myself with a towel after taking a shower. The pain remained unabated. My left arm hung limply from the shoulder and the medication caused such drowsiness and nausea that I spent days in bed, sleeping or in the toilet, throwing up.

self portrait covid

Eventually I got referred to a shoulder surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in Seoul. MRI revealed frayed shoulder tendons and a rare congenital condition (found in a small population) that had caused the inflammation, and hence the pain.

The treatment? More medication, continued physical therapy, and plenty of rest.

I was told that in the next six months to a year (possibly more) I should regain some of the strength and flexibility back in my shoulder. “Really, that long?”, I remember asking my doctor incredulously. For me, coming to terms with this long recovery period was most challenging. It meant depending on others for simple tasks; it meant not being able to do things I loved doing; it meant being in pain for longer than I had expected. Other than a flu here and a sore throat there which took most a week to heal, I had been blessed with good health. The complacency that comes with that sort of thing is a deterrent to you ability in handling stress and ambiguity. Lesson learnt.

The biceps is one of the most exercised muscles in the body, my doctor had explained in halting English. He backed that up by picking up the pen lying on his desk. “There, I just used my biceps”, he said. That’s why healing is slow. So slow, I realized, that it takes a long time to sense any sort of improvement.

But it’s there. It’s happenning. I know because I opened a jar of olives today and it didn’t hurt.

It took me a year to be able to do that. I have still a long way to go in terms of recovery and I don’t know if wishing to get back the shoulder I had is unrealistic but in the process of dealing with this crisis, I have made few good changes and adjustments in my life. And if they stick, why, I should still have gained a lot!

For now, I am happy to be back here with the renewed desire to share my stories again and drawings, of course. The above sketch is a current self portrait of a first time mask-wearer with improved shoulder strength.

 

 

 

 

An Afternoon at Alver

Last Monday was Children’s day in Korea and therefore a holiday. We had finished most of our chores over the weekend, and so with the whole afternoon to spare I and my husband decided to walk over to our favourite cafe.

Besides the massive floor to ceiling windows which let a ton of natural light in, I love Cafe Alver’s excessively long wooden tables which can easily accommodate twenty people at a time. When I’m sketching that’s where I like to park myself. There is plenty of room for all my art materials and my crayons don’t keep rolling off the table.

Alver GOT Board game

There is another set of people who seem to enjoy the extra elbow space even more than I do – board game players! Over the last two years of our stay in Korea, I have watched some epic board games with elaborate themes and mechanics being played here on these very tables of Cafe Alver.

That afternoon there was an intense ‘Game of Thrones’ board game in progress. It looked like only two people could play at a time so the third friend was always standing by the side, making remarks, thumping the table at times, and generally cheering on. It was all very loud, we didn’t understand a word they said but it was great fun to watch. And sketch, of course!

Viewing Cherry Blossoms

There is no sight more wondrous for me than that of an endless path leading under a canopy of pink cherry blossom flowers. I feel lucky to be living in a place where I have access to views like that every spring! So do the locals and tourists who visit Seoul during this period to marvel at the piercing beauty of these flowers and celebrate their transient nature.

The build-up

It all begins with the media reports of cherry blossom forecast dates. And since the blossoms last no more than two weeks everyone wants to make the most of this period. The city starts preparing for it by organising cherry blossom festivals at parks and alongside lakes where there are food trucks, art and cultural performances, competitions, musical concerts and exhibits even. Cherry blossom themed drinks appear on cafe menus and tour companies offer great deals on blossom-viewing trips.

Gangnam scene

Riding the wave of anticipation I was made my own list of places I wanted to visit this year when the time arrived. The sketch above is of a bright sunny day in my neighbourhood in Gangnam when spring had barely set its foot.  It was early April and the trees along the road were waving their naked and spindly arms in the breeze. But not for long.

The Precursor 

One Sunday afternoon we decided to take advantage of the relatively warmer weather and walk 4 km from our apartment to Bongeunsa Temple to see one of the tallest (28 meters) stone statues of Buddha in the country. It’s a sight to behold, both the statue and the sprawling temple grounds, part of which was decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. The sound of chanting filled the air and our hearts with an all pervading calm.

Bonguensa CB

The spell of tranquility however was short-lived and we were quickly drawn out of it by murmurs of excitement rising from a crowd gathering by this lone tree (in the sketch above), not far from the statue. Against a muted backdrop of rust and olive green vegetation, the bright pink flowers of this single blooming cherry tree stood out in stark contrast. Countless hands with cameras and selfie sticks wanted to grab a piece of spring’s early bird offer! Some people climbed nearby rocks to get a better angle for their shots.

I inched as far back from the scene as I could to enjoy this comical sight unfolding in its entirety. It was not until another week or so before the thousands of cherry blossom trees in the rest of Seoul burst into flowers.

The spectacle

CB 1

Spring had dressed Seoul Forest in its most breathtaking regalia. This massive park located on the bank of Han river was the topmost location on my cherry blossom viewing list this year. Few hundred meters from the entrance gate was a field bathed in sunshine and fringed by dense pink flowers delicately hanging from the branches of cherry trees.

Beneath the trees were couples pick-nicking on blankets and nibbling on goodies out of wicker baskets and families playing cards and listening to music. There were kids running about with wild abandon and trusted friends bending over backwards (and in all sorts of ways) for each other to help take that perfect Insta-worthy shot.

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Wondering if the park offered more scenic spots like these I decided to follow a film crew with actors and filming equipments walking with urgency in a certain direction. We climbed a flight of stairs, passed by few convenience stores and a pond with turtles before arriving at a brown unpaved path that as far as my eyes could see was lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees!

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I took my time in walking all the way till the end of the path, soaking in the scenery as much as I could. The bridge you see in the distance in my drawing above turned out to be the best spot to be cheek to cheek with the flowers provided you could get to them past the million selfie sticks!

The retreat

Last weekend while sipping tea at the alfresco cafe in my neighbourhood I noticed the cherry trees along the sidewalk shedding petals. Tiny green leaves were filling up empty spaces left behind on the branches. The atmosphere that was taut with excitement only a few days back at the sight of these blossoms was replaced with a poignant reminder of the passing of time.

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Coffeesmith

Around me people seemed to have already moved on and were going about their businesses – walking their dogs, returning home with groceries and sipping coffee while browsing the Internet on their phones.

Until next spring arrives with the promise of fresh blossoms, I take comfort in the fact that I have to only turn back the pages of my sketchbook to relive the memories I just made.