And just like that, it was my last day of teaching. Time to say to say goodbye to my Tuesday, Thursday students. Time to welcome and train the new teacher replacing me. Time to say so long to my co-workers and get the hell out of that place. But first, morning fun.
Actually, first, leaving preparations. I woke up early and headed to Gangnam station to cancel both of my bank accounts and my cell phone service. I shouldn’t have gotten the two year plan. The cancellation fee was huge, but I didn’t want to be one of those asshole Americans who just leaves the country without a word; one of those asshole Americans who made it more difficult to get cell phone plans these days; one of those asshole Americans who tarnish the reputation of us all. I guess that was worth $400.
With those errands run, all I had to do was finish my last day of work and I would be officially ready to leave the country. I still had a few hours, though, so Laura-Eve came to meet me at Gangnam station, and from there I took her to one of my favorite places in Seoul: Bongunsa. Bongunsa is a huge temple in the middle of Gangnam, just across the street from COEX Mall. When it was built, it was in the countryside, far removed from the bustle of the city. Not anymore. Even though it’s surrounded by city, it is an incredibly peaceful place.
Like those darkened alleys, Bongunsa is another place for silence. Almost immediately upon entering, as the noise of the traffic faded in the background, we stopped talking. No need. We just walked in silence through the huge temple complex. We found our way to one of the smaller temples, and were called in by the chanting of monks. Inside, a service was taking place. We removed our shoes, grabbed our mats, set them on the floor, and I showed her how to bow. She already knew most of it. We bowed, we sat, and we listened. My mat was in front of hers, and after a long time listening, I looked back at her and saw that she was completely engrossed in the surroundings, intensely focused on the monks, yet incredibly relaxed. I’m sure I had the same look on my face. I turned back around, crossed my legs, sat up straight, cupped my hands in my lap, closed my eyes, and began to meditate to the sound of chanting. About 20 minutes later, I opened my eyes and looked behind me. Laura-Eve, eyes closed, was in the middle of meditation as well. We stayed there for a while.
After meditating, we did some more walking and not talking. We arrived at the huge statue of Buddha and walked to it’s base, from where I had seen and captured “Seoul, in a Picture“. I lit an incense stick and placed it in sand, and we left as quietly as we had come.
Back in Gangnam, we sat down for our second huge plate of chicken in two days. This time, jjimdak (steamed chicken and vegetables in soy sauce). Delicious.
After lunch I headed to my last day of work and Laura-Eve did some shopping in Gangnam and Myeongdong. The teacher replacing me had just arrived, so for the whole day I was teaching and training and saying goodbye to students and cleaning out my desk and making sure I was getting paid as much as I should be, which was more trouble than it should have been, but I got it all squared away. It was a stressful and tiring day, on top of the sheer exhaustion that had been building for the past week and the past year.
But I did it. I finished my last class, I finished my last day, I finished my contract. Holy shit, I did it. Time to celebrate. Time to relax.
It was Laura-Eve’s idea to spend our last night in Korea relaxing, as many Koreans do, at a jjimjilbang (overnight sauna). What a great idea. We met back at my apartment and then went to the jjimjilbang in Garden 5, which is shiny and brand new. It was much nicer than my first jjimjilbang, but a bit less Korean.
It was a longass walk to the place because Garden 5 is huge, but when we finally found it, we went our separate ways into separate locker rooms and saunas, and put on our jjimjilbang clothes. I spent the next hour soaking in a hot tub and taking a long, much needed shower, washing off the stress that had been building for the whole year like layers of dirt on my skin. It was incredibly soothing.
After the sauna, we laid down on mats in the common area and fell asleep (sort of) to the sounds of a Beyonce documentary on TV. Laura-Eve adjourned to the sleeping room in the women’s sauna, but I stayed where I was for the heated floors.
At 4:30am I “woke up” from not actually sleeping, took another longass shower, and we headed out to catch the darkness before sunrise. I wanted one last walk on the Han River in the dark. One last view of Seoul at night. One last walk across one last bridge. One last sunrise. I got all, even if it was in the freezing cold.
After the walk, we hopped on the subway and headed back to Gyeongdong Market to stock up on goodies to bring back to the US. We were hungry, though, so before the market we stopped in a little kimbap kitchen and got some incredible chamchi kimchi dolsotbibimbap (vegetables, tuna, and an egg over rice in a cast iron bowl).
We entered the market the back way, and since we wanted to buy some more tea, we started looking for our tea guy from last time. The market is huge and one big maze, and since almost every vendor sells the same thing, it all looks the same, so this would be no easy task. But, I am awesome. I said to Laura-Eve, “$20 says I know exactly where he is.” Five minutes and no wrong turns later, we were buying more berries from our tea guy. I bought omija and gujicha, and Laura-Eve got some gujicha as well. We also bought some jujubes to make daechucha (jujube tea) which is delightful. After tea, we went looking for gochujang and found it easily, each making off with a big jar of the stuff.
Around 11am we headed back to Jeongja to put our souvenirs and other final items into our bags. At 1pm we headed out the door, my life in five bags, and made for the airport shuttle.
When we were planning this trip I arranged for our flights to leave Korea at almost the exact same time: mine at 5:50pm, Laura-Eve’s at 6:10pm. We arrived at the airport two and a half hours early. I got in line to check in with American Airlines, her with United. Before my line started moving, Laura-Eve had checked in and come back to tell me that her flight was overbooked and that she might get bumped. Considering her luck with flying, we were both almost positive that would happen. But it didn’t! Instead, I was the one who’s name rang out through the airport to report to the desk at the gate.
Checked in, through security, and waiting at the same gate (our gates were two apart), I figured I was about to be informed that I was getting bumped. And I was right. I got bumped… up… to business class. Sweet! I said a long goodbye to my sister before getting on the plane. Destination: home.
For the next thirteen hours I was a king. A three course meal. Seats that fold down, flat. Bose noise-canceling headphones as “headsets”. Hot towels (which I only knew how to use from seeing them in movies). Champagne within two minutes of sitting down. Being called “Mr. Engel”. Flirting with the 50 year old stewardess (who was trying to get me drunk by refilling my wine without me asking for it). Conversing with the Korean girl next to me. Watching “Midnight in Paris”. It was spectacular.
And then I landed in Dallas, Texas, USA. And then I got on another airplane. And then I watched Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then I landed in Richmond, Virginia, USA. And then I found my family. And then I got my bags. And then we drove home to my moms. And then I met her new dog. And then I drove home to my dads. And then I went to sleep. It was as sound a sleep as can be had.
In the morning I woke up in my own bed, put on my own bathrobe, made a bagel with cream cheese and lox, and turned on my big TV just in time to watch Notre Dame vs. Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. I was finally home.