Tag Archives: Travel

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Two years in Seoul

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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

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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

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Interesting couple at Cafe Alver

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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

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

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The Girl With The Strawberry Tote Bag

A walk around the neighbourhood

A year and a half back when we moved to Seoul and found an apartment in the Gangnam area, my first instinct was to explore the neighbourhood.

Every day after finishing work, not knowing where to head exactly, I picked a random road and kept walking on it until my legs hurt while taking everything in. And if something caught my eye I  stopped and took a few minutes to examine it, like the vending machine for flower bouquets I once stumbled upon by the roadside. crayon5

A standalone booth with multiple glass panels displaying a collection of flower bouquets  was something I had never seen before! Or the mobile tarot card reader conducting business from a lurid pink truck. I still remember being amused by the life-size Statue of Liberty replica outside Gangnam station’s exit 11, looking as much out of place as the mom-and-pop kimbap (korean sushi roll) stall beside it, both dwarfed by shiny hi-rises, plush hotels, designer boutiques, clothing retailers, cosmetic surgery clinics and cafes!

It took me a walk or two to realize how ubiquitous cafes are in Korea! They seemed to be everywhere, hidden in basements, inside shopping malls, museums, subway stations, on rooftops, under office buildings, along narrow alleys, and on bridges even. An article published in Korean Herald in March 2017 says Korea has the world’s fourth largest number of Starbucks coffee stores in relation to its population. crayon2

In the evenings, I found people gathering in front of food trucks lined in the back alleys selling barbecued meat on skewers, corndogs, teokbokki (rice cakes in hot and spicy red pepper sauce) and Odeng (fish cake on skewers served with hot broth) or making a beeline for the numerous Dak-galbi (spicy stir fried chicken), Korean barbecue and fried chicken joints.

In hindsight, not having a destination is sight was exactly what I needed to process my surroundings. I let curiosity fill the blank slate I arrived with to my neighbourhood with new impressions. Having lived in Seoul for a while now, I may not see everything with a fresh pair of eyes as I once did, but I still go on my walks, without a destination in mind and with a sketchbook in hand.

Because you never know what lies at the next corner.crayon3

Like the wondrous sight of streets covered with golden gingko leaves after a light shower. See the first sketch. On my recent walks from November to early December until it became too chilly to spend time outdoors, I observed my neighbourhood transitioning from fall to winter. Having lived on a tropical island for the last seven years and stuck with the same weather, the novelty of changing seasons isn’t going to wear off anytime soon.

And I find myself attuned to everything that enunciates this seasonal transition. From a guy furiously sweeping dry leaves off the sidewalk along Teheran-ro which is one of Seoul’s busiest roads to someone browsing winter jackets at ‘Vin Prime, the Vintage select shop’, I have them captured in the pages of my sketchbook. With the sudden drop in temperatures the mannequins at the shop windows of Gangnam’s local boutiques had changed their look too. In the drawing below, I sketched this girl checking out a bright red coat freshly displayed at Dalfactory and probably trying to find a reason to come back for it later! I know I would.crayon4

The last sketch is also of a scene observed on Teheran-ro which is lined with giant trees that were hurrying up and shedding their giant yellow leaves. What caught my eye was the caption on this guy’s sweatshirt. He was waiting for the traffic light to turn green and I was standing right behind him wondering if the hoodie looked like a shark’s jaw.

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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.

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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.

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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!

No prizes for guessing

The first day of August came with an emergency alert on our phones warning us about the heatwave tormenting the Korean peninsula. I couldn’t be sure but that’s my best guess. Clearly, temperatures have soared to 40 degrees C, our apartment feels like a furnace, there are hardly any people on the road during afternoons and my perfectly healthy succulent bought few months ago from the fantastic cactus greenhouse in Ilsan Lake Park shrivelled up and died. A few hours spent outdoors with a friend visiting from overseas gave me a heatstroke, so what else could the warning be about? That’s how I narrowed it down.

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Latest heatwave alert received on my phone while I was enjoying a cup of tea at a cafe in Seoul

Over an year in Seoul and I’m still getting used to these text alerts from the government which when received makes the phone vibrate in one long stretch and are always in Korean which I cannot read. Only few month back, as a new arrival in this country, especially during the time when nuclear tensions were flaring between North Korea and the U.S, these alerts if any, would scare the bejesus out of me. They still do and on most occasions not only am I jumping out of my skin trying to calm an angry, bleating hand phone, I’m clueless about what it has to say and desperate to find out!

Couple of articles on the subject have led me to believe that these warnings are mostly about extreme weather conditions, air pollution, fires and other possible dangers. So, instead of panicking about everything that could go wrong, these days I am able to make one plausible assumption about the cause of these mystifying alerts. And that is strangely comforting. 

 

 

 

Polka-dotted brolly and a wiseass tote bag

I am forever in awe of the things I see when I am out sketching.

They are not momentous, life altering events or rare, one of a kind objects. In fact, they couldn’t be more humdrum and yet I am hooked in the deepest and most profound way. Every minute spent observing life and documenting it in my sketchbook feels more honest, real, fulfilling and joyful than any other job I have held and drawn paycheques from. And I often ask myself why that is?

And each time I find myself thumbing through my drawings in search for answers.

These sketches are from my latest sketchbook. All 24 pages filled with drawings of people in different cafes and eateries in Seoul. The sketchbook starts roughly at the time when the city was emerging from the throes of winter. The sun felt warm on our faces, the breeze wasn’t bone chilling and there were leaves on brown spindly branches. We were reaching for lighter coats and winter boots were being stowed away.

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When I saw this girl in my first drawing, wearing a baby pink flowy shirt with her sweater casually thrown over her shoulders, drinking a matching pink drink I felt spring tiptoeing into our lives. And it was. The next couple of weeks were spent hiking, reading books in al fresco cafes and chasing cherry blossoms around Seoul.

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Fresh, new, colourful could describe everything – the weather, our clothes, food (strawberries were in) as well as our soaring moods! The two women in the drawing above wearing whacky, bright coloured jackets epitomized the ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ nature of the season.

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See the guy in the red glasses enjoying his meal in the drawing below? I noticed him from the end of the room and eventually drew him because in a world of distractions, it was interesting to see someone so deeply engaged in just the one thing. He used his hands to pick up the food, admired it and then put it in his mouth very gently. With eyes closed he relished each bite as if to taste the ingredients and appreciate the workings of the recipe. To me, it looked like the food was nourishing his soul as much as his body.

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After the hubbub of Spring, it rained incessantly for days. The skies were grey and everything felt wet, cold and damp. I went out for a cup of hot tea to shake off the gloom and what do I find in the cafe? The brightest polka dotted umbrella resting against a chair occupied by a guy wearing a cap so red that it could stop the traffic. He had ripped jeans on and a t-shirt with a plunging neckline that revealed a tattoo very similar to a paramecium I had once drawn in my Biology notebook.

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This drawing above is also my favourite in this series because here I was looking sloppy, moping around because the sun wasn’t out and my laundry wouldn’t dry whereas this guy was dressed fashionably enough to walk the ramp, rains be damned. And in veritable defiance he was carrying the most happy looking umbrella that screamed ‘in your face, crappy weather’ in bold letters. If something is unacceptable, there can be really creative ways to push back! That evening not only did I feel avenged, I returned home with a better attitude.

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The next drawing is of a bunch of elderlies licking on pink ice-creams. What you don’t see in the picture is how excited they were to see each other when they met at the cafe and how impatient they were for their treats to arrive after placing the order! I drew their droopy posture and wrinkled faces, but what I couldn’t capture and only witnessed was their child-like abandon at rejoicing something so basic and timeless – friendship and $1 ice-creams on sticks.

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My neighbourhood in Gangnam is a shopping mecca, the reason why cafes in this locality receive a lot of customers with shopping bags in tow. Sometimes to entertain myself when I’m drawing them I try to guess the contents of the shopping bags based on the label. It’s a fun game!

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And occasionally educational because that’s how I came to know about ‘8 Seconds’ (see the drawing above) which is Samsung’s high street brand. Did you know Samsung, the South Korean multinational conglomerate that most of us associate with phones and electronics has an established presence in the fashion industry? In fact Samsung launched ‘8 Seconds’ to compete with the growing local presence of global fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo.

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On one such day while playing the scintillating game of ‘guess what’s in the bag’ as if to challenge my speculative prowess walked in a girl with a canary yellow tote bag that said, “How to be Popular”. See the drawing above.  After finishing her food and drink I watched her walk out of the cafe with the bag held tightly under her arm.

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She didn’t leave a clue about the bag’s contents. But she left me the story – of a wise-ass tote bag sighting in Gangnam! And that I realized is what keeps me hooked and makes me come back for more. The story if you pare it down is an interesting visual which I capture in a sketch and my response to that visual stimulation which I narrate to you in words. And it’s addictive because collecting stories like these on a daily basis makes me feel like I am participating in my own life.

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Like I’m in the field, playing the game and not cheering from the sidelines. Like every day could have something to wonder about.

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Isn’t that something? This sketch above on the last page of this sketchbook is of a woman I saw the other day, probably a teacher marking an answer sheet while talking on the phone. Judging from the red marks it didn’t look good for the student.