Tag Archives: expatlife

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!

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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.

CB 4

CB 5

CB 3

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!

CB 2

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.

CB at Coffeesmith.jpg

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.

My Neighbour’s trash

I have never seen my next door neighbour.

But interestingly, almost on a daily basis we see stacks of delivery cartons and trash left outside their apartment door. This is true for other apartments in the building as well.

The trash, however doesn’t contain kitchen wastes! There are separate waste disposal units for that in the basement. Most of the time what one comes across lying haphazardly on the floor outside apartment doors are these empty cardboard boxes that their deliveries came in.

Ever since we moved here, I have been curious about the constant ebb and flow of delivery guys in our building at all times of the day, everyday, pushing hand trolleys stacked with cardboard boxes that they keep unloading at every floor. So what are people buying all the time? And why?

neighbour's trash

Turns out, South Korea is home to the fastest internet on the planet. Nearly 100% of households here have internet connection. Combine that with excellent service from Korea Post and you will see why this country has such rapidly growing e-commerce market, which is currently 7th largest in the world and 3rd largest in the Asia-Pacific region.

From golfball to a toilet seat cover, you can buy almost anything on the internet (Gmarket and Coupang are two very popular online shopping websites in Korea) and have it delivered to your doorstep inside those ubiquitous brown cardboard boxes I always see outside our neighbour’s door.

Once in a while discarded household items like a TV, a hoover, giant ceramic vases – things too big for a trash can but small enough to not block the hallway make an appearance. They are of course disposed off by the cleaning staff in a day or two.

Of all the trash I have seen outside apartment B1302’s door, this lot has got to be the most intriguing, hence the drawing! That tall structure I recently learnt from a pet owner is a ‘cat tree’ for a pet cat to play, exercise, relax and sleep on.

I may not know my neighbour from Adam but at least now I know he/she has a cat.

Too cold for ice-creams?

 

Not in Seoul! For the last two winters in Korea I have been processing images of people consuming cold beverages and frozen desserts in their down jackets and mittens with absolute wide-eyed wonder.

I am the kind that associates frigid temperatures with drinking hot cocoa or tea with fingers wrapped around the cup for extra warmth. So imagine my befuddlement at finding Seoulites sipping coffee with chunks of ice in them all through winter.

One night in Jamsil station not too long ago, I saw this dad buying soft serves for his kids at Lotteria –  a fast food chain. We were waiting for our order and in those 15 minutes until our food arrived we saw soft serves flying off Lotteria’s shelves and landing in the hands of pimply teenagers, kids and elderly couples, practically everyone except us.

Lotteria Jamsil

Now, I may not be fully convinced about eating an ice cream at the height of winter yet but the more I see people doing it around me, easier it is getting for me to wrap my head around something which I thought was outlandish!

Isn’t it interesting how travel constantly stretches our perspectives and makes it easier for us to acknowledge and even adapt if we so desire to norms, values, beliefs, behaviours, attitudes that are far different from ours?

Rick Steves in his book, Travel As a Political Act says “Travel challenges truth that we were raised thinking self-evident and God-given. Leaving home we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room”.

This sketch will remind me of many such truths that are different from mine and how I can always choose to coexist with them.

White Day

 

I made a fascinating observation the other day on my walk around the neighbourhood.

Every convenience store on either side of the road had built an outdoor makeshift facility with a table and few wooden racks for peddling love-themed goodies in bulk. Candies, chocolates, flowers, cards and soft toys were being sold as individual pieces or collectively in baskets wrapped in cellophane and ribbons.

Seoul streets seemed to be plastered with packaged love and I wanted to know why?

White Day

Turns out that today, March 14 is celebrated as White Day in South Korea and in few other countries such as Japan and Taiwan. In these countries, while Valentine’s day tradition (which is a give-and-receive event for couples in the West) requires women to offer chocolates to men, the reverse occurs on White Day! Men are expected to return the favour by plying women with candies and gifts.

On my way home from the walk I peeked inside Artbox – a popular stationary shop in Seoul. The place was an explosion of red and pink hearts printed on all kinds of merchandise imaginable. Across the room I saw two strangers shopping for greetings cards and of all the choices available, they reached for the exact same ‘I love You’ card which was awkward for them but I got a big chuckle out of it!

And a sketch to immortalize the moment. I just hope it isn’t intended for the same person!

 

 

Two years in Seoul

Ilove seoul.jpg

To mark the occasion of our two year stay in Seoul today, I wanted to share this drawing of a guy I once spotted inside Gangnam subway station probably returning from a trip, lugging his suitcase up the stairs towards the exit gate.

What caught my eye as he passed by me was not his very conspicuous cherry red Rimowa suitcase but the large ‘I love Seoul’ sticker pasted on it which got me thinking about my own relationship with this city. Would I ever consider making such a declaration?

To be honest, I’m not there yet. After a rocky start and a reasonable number of ‘oh wow’ and ‘aw snap’ moments we, this city and I have eased into a steady pace. Found our rhythm. And a certain fondness for one another. Like every relationship, this one’s a work in progress. And if experience has taught me anything it is to not make snap judgements and to never compare especially on occasions when things don’t work out (very hard to execute as it’s all I wanted to do in my first year here).

You have to take it slow, keep an open mind and have patience. I’ll keep enjoying this ride while I’m on it and who knows, maybe somewhere along the way I may reach for that same sticker!

Winter sketching

Seoul winters are long and cold. And as much as I love the cold, I don’t especially cherish the fact that it puts an end to my outdoor sketching routine. By November temperatures fall to single digits, winter coats are out, room heaters are on, signalling my retreat to the warmth of cafes along with my art supplies.

Friends who live in similar climes have suggested wearing fingerless gloves. Pictures on social media showing artists sitting in snow covered landscapes in their winter gear doing oil paintings makes you wonder if you’re trying hard enough?

Last winter I did try. And quickly realized in barely one sitting how ill-equipped my body is to pursue something like this. In a matter of minutes, my fingers became numb and refused to move across the page. My nose was running, lips froze and the ears started hurting. It was over.

A year later, the older and wiser me heads straight to the warmest spot inside any cafe and parks herself there. These sketches are from those visits. Each sketch tells a different story but one thing common across all sketches is the pile of winter coats you see about the cafe drinkers. They’re either hung at the back of the chairs or piled on top of the table or on empty seats. I find the floppy sleeves sticking out of their crumpled masses really funny!

crayon alver

These women were talking loudly about something very funny. I was amused just looking at them laugh so hard. As I don’t speak Korean, every overheard conversations feels like a missed opportunity!

crayon startbucks

The Christmas trees were out early December and a lilting voice from the speakers urged Santa baby to hurry down the chimney every single night.

craypn starbucks

This hygiene-conscious couple had a big bottle of hand sanitiser with them which they took turns to take to the washroom each time one had to go. I never know what i’m going to see next!

PBsanta

During Christmas, the Paris Baguette next to our house had Santa cut outs all over the store and had installed an excellent Christmas tree which made the hideous looking Christmas tree in our building lobby look even more drab.

Alver cafe1

On weekends Alver cafe is packed to the gills. You can always see a bunch of people standing nonchalantly waiting for other people to finish their coffee and leave. As long as they have a phone, waiting doesn’t seem to be a problem!

dino kid

Vrooom Vrooooom…pow..pow..pow..vroommm..whooosh- we were treated to an intense Dinosaur flight with sound effects by this little guy. There was head butting, arm wrestling and a lot of pushing and shoving. It was by far the cutest thing I came across in a cafe!

starbucks patrons

Underneath the powder blue coat this lady was dressed like a character from Great Gatsby. Only partially, though. Top half- Sequin top, vintage looking chandelier necklace with matching bracelet and earrings. Bottom half – distressed denims

alver cafe 2

The crowd at Cafe Alver

Christina day out

After spending an afternoon with my friend Christina exploring the insanely busy Dongdaemun Shopping Complex we stopped by a nearby cafe with big windows and sketched. This was the view from my side of the table. I love how Christina has no qualms about me sketching her! She always says yes when I ask for permission and is never bothered by the outcome

Alver cafe

Interesting couple at Cafe Alver

Alver 3

Alver 2

The guy seated in front of me was reading, listening to music, eating and drinking all at the same time. Meanwhile someone in the corner started applying makeup as soon as her companion left the table to go to the washroom

Alver 1

When the food arrives the food paparazzi goes click, click click!!!

Starbucks sketch

The Girl With The Strawberry Tote Bag

Sketches and stories from India

Ever since we moved abroad which was a decade back, we have been visiting India once a year to spend time with our parents and to catch up with relatives and friends. Only this time I decided to carry a sketchbook with me to document my time there.

This series of sketches is a result of that little side project amidst all the meetings, greetings, feasting and frolicking that happened while we were there over the holidays.

Meet the parents

My parents live their retired life in a two storied house in Kolkata, a metropolitan city in eastern India. My dad spends most of his time reading at his desk and is surrounded by a large and ever increasing pile of books. From time to time, he would holler for a cup of tea and would drink it sitting at his desk. In order to spend time with my dad I sit on his bed next to the desk and read or listen to music. This is where I sketched him as well. He doesn’t move much which is perfect.

baba at desk

Since my dad is tied to his desk, my mom is in charge of running the house. She buys groceries, milk and fish, supervises the cook and the cleaner, waters the plants, pays the cable guy and calls the electrician, plumber or the doctor when something or someone needs fixing. Spending time with her has always been easy. She’s likes to talk, listen and laugh at silly things.

When I was home, every morning she would flip through the Bengali newspaper and narrate news articles to me that caught her attention. One day it was about a couple that jumped together from a ferry into the river Ganges and the next day it was about a policeman who slapped a women because she pulled his jacket.

mom at dining table.jpg

Bengalis love their fish

I have often been snubbed by my cousins who grew up in Kolkata for not fancying fish as much as they do. Nevertheless, when I visit my parents at least one meal of the day has to have a fish dish. Everyday before lunch the fish gets washed, liberally coated with turmeric and salt, fried in mustard oil, put in a gravy and served hot with white rice. It’s interesting is how easily and seamlessly I fall into this rhythm when I visit home and fall out of it when I leave.

Here’s a sketch of the cook working her magic on the catch of the day.

fish in the sink

On the Road Again (and again..)

Much of my time on this trip to Kolkata was spent on the road, inside cabs, taking my elderly parents around to visit doctors, getting medical tests done and at pharmacies buying medicines for them. Sketching would often help me relieve the stress and anxiety that accompanies this sort of thing.

I’d use the cab window to frame the passing scene and when something struck a chord, I sketched it. This scene was my view from under Maa flyover, at Park Circus Seven Point Crossing. Everybody seemed to be in a great hurry to go somewhere. Engines were roaring, cars and bikes were honking and hawkers were peddling candies to those stuck at the traffic signal. What caught my eye at this busy junction was the pristine white dome and the minaret seen in the distance against a pale blue sky, creating a juxtaposition of chaos and calm.

biker kolkata

Sketching on the road wasn’t limited to subjects outside the car window necessarily! If you’ve travelled in a cab in India, chances are you have encountered at least a handful of Indian gods and goddesses. My Uber driver had the entire dashboard of his car turned into a shrine which I had to draw. Besides several framed pictures of goddess Kali, you see lord Hanuman hanging low from the rear view mirror carrying the Gandhamadana mountain, as told in the Ramayana!

Hanging from another thread is a copper kalash (vessel) charm complete with a miniature green coconut and few plastic mango leaves stuffed inside and decorated with the auspicious red swastika. Don’t miss the ‘Jay Maa Kali’ (hail mother Kali) written on the windscreen and Kolkata’s iconic yellow ambassador taxi seen right ahead.

uber driver kol

Morning epiphany

One of the joys of my India visit this year has been in the ability to use Colgate toothpaste every morning. We don’t find Colgate in Korea, so coming home once a year to a familiar taste felt like a treat and a reminder that you really can’t take anything for granted. The Dettol hand wash  is also a standard fixture inside Indian toilets.

colgate

Switching roles

My dad taught me how to play scrabble when I was ten to help me expand my vocabulary. It took me four years to beat him. He was more happy about it than I was!

It’s interesting how as parents grow older you switch roles with them. Few years back I taught him how to play online scrabble. Since then we’ve been playing everyday, sitting thousands of miles apart. Even when we go without talking for days, I know he’s okay because he’s making his moves! And occasionally when he wins I’m the one beaming with pride! This sketch is of my dad playing scrabble with me on his tablet and trying to hide his tiles so I can’t see them.

baba at scrabble

Mom and the stray (cat)

Or the stray and the patron saint of all strays in my parents’ neighbourhood. My mom starts her day by feeding crows in the morning that caw on the electric poles in front of our house. Sometimes during the day a brown mutt climbs on top of our garage where he’s given biscuits and milk and lastly this fluffy mottled brown cat that makes the most soulful meowing sound is at times allowed into the house to say hi in person and given fish, bones and belly rubs.

But mom doesn’t stop at feeding them. She names them, talks to them, disciplines them(the brown mutt was recently chided for pairing up with a really ugly black mongrel with no prospects), gets anxious when they don’t visit ( fluffy cat who didn’t make an appearance during Christmas and new year was probably feasting elsewhere) and worries about them when she travels.

I don’t know if there are more on my Mom’s roster for strays but know this much that as long as she’s around no one’s turned away hungry or without love. I get the sentiment. To assuage other concerns I bought her a bigger bottle of hand sanitiser!

mom and cat.jpg

An old acquaintance

This flower lady has been delivering flowers to my parents for as long as I can remember. Besides meeting my parents’ daily flower needs, she’s delivered flowers for all the big events in the house- my wedding, my sister’s wedding, our grandparents’ birth and death anniversaries and my nephew’s rice ceremony when he turned one. She’s a one woman show, exceptionally hardworking, efficient and persuasive. Except a few strands of white hair, she looked exactly the same. That day she was selling marigolds, hibiscus and tuberoses to my mom and saying how glad she was to see me.

flower seller

Vrroom Vrooom

My sister aligns her holidays with mine, so we can be together at least once a year even for a few days. This is also when I get to see my nephew who is 3 years old now and loves cars, actually anything that has wheels. Whether sleeping, awake, in the tub or on the pot, some sort of vehicle can always be found clutched between his fingers!

The other day I caught him playing in the balcony with a toy set of construction trucks, all lined up neatly in a row. A lot of active excavation, shovelling, loading and dumping was happening with appropriate sound effects on a flat marble surface! The nonchalant crow perched on the balcony railing wasn’t actually there. I added it to keep the little guy company.

ishaan cars.jpg

One smelly affair

The fish market in my parent’s neighbourhood is the loudest and the most crowded. Aggressive fishmongers sitting on their haunches holler names of fish and their prices to the passerby. Thrusting a fish in your direction they’ll say, “look, how red the gills are and how clear its eyes are”, guaranteeing its freshness. Sometimes a recipe is narrated on the spot!

If you take the bait, they will immediately weigh the fish on their hand balance, bit of friendly haggling over the price occurs, and after scaling and gutting, they’ll cut the fish into pieces using a long curved blade attached to a wooden base (and held down by foot) called boti and put it into your bag, moving on to the next customer, pronto, repeating everything you just heard.

fish market kol.jpg

The mobile bazaar

The last sketch in this series is of the narrow lane right outside my parents’ house that sees a bevy of activity from dawn till dusk. In a span of one hour, I saw a guy selling bedsheets, a cobbler yelling if someone needed to fix their shoes, a garbage collector, a musical instruments repairer, a fishmonger and a vegetable seller who brings his cart right outside the door of my parents’ house every day for my mom to check if she needs something. He had green peas, radishes and chubby looking aubergines that day.

vegetable hawker

Three weeks can vanish in the blink of an eye. Though we click pictures of all the special moments during our stay with the family, there are innumerable feelings, sensations, thoughts and revelations that we have from time to time, no less stimulating than others, which slip through the cracks and fade away with time.

These sketches were an attempt at catch them one at a time and deposit them into the memory bank only to be relished later. Until next time, Kolkata!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch dates

Once every month, I and my husband go on a lunch date. We just pick a date and show up at the same place, for the same thing.

In Singapore, it used to be for what I believed unequivocally to be the best dumplings in the city-state. Old Hong Kong Kitchen’s xialongbao could make your taste buds swoon in in ecstasy. And now having moved to Seoul the tradition continues at The Pig In The Garden.

crayon 2

Salad lunch at Pig In The Garden drawn using crayons

But with salads instead – big bowls of crunchy greens coated in a light and punchy vinaigrette, topped with tender proteins, plump fruits, berries, nicely roasted nuts and the sweetest and juiciest red tomatoes. Portion sizes are substantial and the food quality is consistently top notch.

We enjoy our meals at a table by the window over a nice chat and then head to Yeouido Park across the road for a stroll before getting back to work. This we repeat every month. Because wherever we may live, and how many new and exciting experiences we may collect on a regular basis, there will always be comfort in familiarity. Perhaps, our lunch dates are a nod to that.

 

 

Following the herd

I have spent two summers in Seoul and one of the most common sights during this time of the year besides every other person eating bingsu or licking ice creams while holding a portable fan in front of his/her face is every other person wearing linen.

Be it linen shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, trousers, culottes, jumpsuits, jackets or business suits, in Seoul’s unbearably hot and humid months of July and August, linen garments in every form seem to gain significant space in the Korean wardrobe.

The clothing retailers on Gangnam-daero, in the stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station have their store fronts decorated with mannequins dressed in linen, paired with sunnies, straw hats, rattan handbags and open toe sandals. Inside the stores are sections dedicated to all kinds of linen garments ready to be snapped up.

What is it about linen that makes this fabric a classy summer staple? I wanted to know.

gouache 8

Trying on some linen pants at Uniqlo, Seoul

And so I did a little digging and found that linen is made from the fibres of flax plant which are strong, durable and absorbent and dries quicker than cotton making linen garments feel exceptionally cool and fresh.

And the fact that it has been around for thousands of years – in ancient times linen used in wrapping Egyptian mummies served as a symbol of light, purity and wealth and were found in a state of perfect preservation – only reveals how timeless this natural fabric is. Linen also is lint-free, has high natural lustre, resists dirt and stain and becomes softer with every wash. I got my answer, so there was only one thing left to do.

The sketch above is of me trying on some linen pants at Uniqlo. I bought a few and they are every bit as comfortable as I had expected them to be. This summer I am following the herd but in style!