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[HanCinema's Korea Diaries] Coffee in the Cold.

2013/01/12

I would only be out in the bitter cold for the briefest of moments, less if I got my act together and lady luck somehow found me. A few late night Skype calls to my friends and family back home had pushed my supply of coffee, milk and sugar to their sad, and strangely synchronised, demise. I needed to be up for at least an hour longer to catch my mom online, but it was late, and I knew I would'nt see the next five minutes without some form of boast, kick or cup.

Despite my best efforts my landlord had not yet fixed the failing sealant that line the only window in my office tel. The window had been seeping air since the Summer, when a rainy gust of wind almost sent it flying off to terrorise the pedestrians four levels below, on a Sunday of all days. During that time the breeze was a welcome intruder that kept the cool circulated and conditioned air honest. The rest of the summer was an absolute pleasure, but soon I would come despise my elusive, and probably warm and cozy, landlord.

I had to stay up, but that required coffee (of, at this stage, an unknown quantity and quality), sugar (probably that slightly sticky brown sugar the owner of the "FamilyMart" downstairs always makes me switch too, as if offended by my choice of the neon-white variety) and, naturally, fat-free milk. I had none of these at present, and the thought of having to finally break into my boss's Chuseok tea-set put me off. Perhaps that was because I knew that it only contained seven, apparently different, types of green tea. Tea would not suffice; even if was a the type of tea that has secretly been getting its customers buzzed off of its unpublicised levels of caffeine of quite some time. I wanted creamy (but I'd settle for milky), rich (strong and in abundance would serve) and there was to be no compromise on its tooth-decaying potential.

When asked about Korea and its coldness I have often found myself punting the benefits of long johns and thermal underwear. "Lifesavers" I think I found myself saying recently to a friend who will soon be visiting, but the fact is they are just your first line of defence against the bitter bite of Korea's long winters. Along with good warm underwear, which I had now wiggled into, and "comfy" pants for good measure and decency, I decided to bypass almost everything between my thermal underwear and my jacket, in theory allowing me to quickly return to the warmth and love my heated palace possessed.

In thinking about my route, I decided that the forth floor would not be particularly cold, unless that small window right outside my door was open. And come to think of it that was highly possible as my neighbours on either side of me insisted on using it as the communal smoking station, official or not. On one occasion I had managed to interrupt a rather lively game of rock, scissor, paper; and me opening my door caused one angry participant to dispute the legality of the round. He ended up having to down a beer, I gave up when they all starting just drinking out there, and I left my apartment to take the 30-minute train into Seoul, to drink of course.

This time I was interested in alcohol, just the sweet coffee goodness Korea implanted in my when I arrived. Me not drinking was a good thing, because, after the hallway I would have to make a decision. I could take the risk on the elevator (where I may or may not have to wait a while as the single shaft jumped around between the buildings fifteen plus floors), or, and at this stage the less likely of these two options, I could take the stairs. I was only on the forth floor, but whenever I had taken the stairs previously (up or down) I felt tricked as each 'floor' contained four shorter flights of stairs. They are devilishly clever, for stairs that is, but breathtakingly exhausting, and wickedly unsatisfying.

Whether by stairs or by lift I would inevitability find myself on the ground floor; the sides of which are lined by a number of small, independently own, stores of an amazing variety. In my building alone I can order buckets of chicken dripping sticky spicy stuff and peanuts (plus a free Coke), have a sit-down meal of any of the fish doing laps in the blue tanks out front, get my PC repaired (or at least 'looked at'), buy a bargain apartment direct (if I could find a Korean citizen to sign for me), open a cell phone contract (again, Korean friend needed), have a drink (Korean friend appreciated), or, get some coffee, sugar and milk (alone).

The hallway downstairs is also where I was most likely to first encounter another human being on my quest to remain conscience for my mother. Although the quality of which, the humans not my consciences, given the hour, would most resemble be the type you would think twice about taking home to mom and dad, or even your blind, deaf and dumb grandmother. While lubricated businessmen and vertically challenged woman aren't particularly uncommon wherever the streets 'never sleep', it soon occurred to me (after only about a month into my lease) that my ground floor was riddled with them more nights than I would have voted for. Hopefully, tonight's late night missions would be smooth sailing though, meaning that the halls would be clear, quiet, with only the soft pitter-patter of my slippers to disturb the cold dead stillness.

The reason I hoped this part of the journey would be a breeze was because of what was to come. Of all the parts that made-up my quest the epic it was, this was the section I was fearing, or least maddeningly wishing it wasn't there. Why couldn't these new Family Mart owners open that inside door that allow people to enter the store from the inside? The previous owners had done that. But now instead of walking in the back door and being greeted by a that old man's soft and wrinkling face, I had to brace myself against the night's bitterness and then have to endure the spotty and depressed new teenage boy that held down the fort after hours. On occasion I had been pleasantly surprised to find a cute 20-something girl behind the counter, but her presences seemed to be too patchy to rely on, let alone get excited over or plan for. Instead I was probably going to have the cold attack any and all exposed skin, and then have to use my wind-dried and croaky Korean to the late-shift zombie who probably wished he was, in fact, dead.

After that I would return the way I came, that is out the store and quickly back into my dreary building and phone home. I would be moving quickly, skipping even, because I knew that I would soon be enjoying a hot cup of milky, strong, and sweet caffeinated goodness. I might even defy gravity and take the 32 flights of stairs to my place on the forth floor; I may even celebrate with a smoke and a beer at the window/bar outside my door.

Like a bobsleighed that closes his eyes before a race to picture the track he is to take, so I planned my route and, to the best of my ability, all the environmental forces I was most likely to encounter.

It was now or never. I stood off the warm wooden panels and into my slippers that were laid in the small, slightly lower, entrance. I had other choices besides slippers, but the soft plush of their interior was irresistible late at night and it was only to be a short trip. I was wearing my puffy green jacket, thick white socks, Woolworth's thermal underwear from neck to toe, and my favourite slippers; I was now ready to go downstairs. I gripped the hand tightly and put my ear to door as I pushed it open, listening as I went to hear if the smokers had assembled.

The rest of the trip was a blur. The lack of smokers, a perfectly timed elevator, and an uninhabited corridor led me to believe that the world was on my side. My suspicions that my slightly above average karma was playing off were dashed when I place an un-gloved hand on the buildings main door handle. I had managed to whiz past the corridor, descended to the ground floor without issues; I had flown across the ground floor and was now facing the very really chill that was permeating through the glass in front of me. My hand didn't respond. It was as if it knew what was coming, as if it knew the numbing power of the Korea's coldness in the dead of winter.

I squeezed the handle tighter and forced it, and my other limbs, to remember who was running this rig. I turned the bar and as soon as I put my weight on it the giant glass door crack opened. The first crack whistled in a frosty slap in the face that hurt more than refreshed. I thought about pushing it closed, but pushed harder and burst through into the street instead.

The old man I bumped with my dramatic door efforts almost lost his feet as I strode out into the night. But luckily his blood alcohol levels managed to re-balance his legs on the misty sidewalk. The nipping air dance between my thermals and my jacket, mocking the space between my layers that I, out of convenience, left foolishly unplugged. That apparent wardrobe malfunction might have been my biggest mistake in planning this little excursion, when my left slipper suddenly flicked away from me. The corresponding knee locked-up with it and I knew I wouldn't be able to take control. I was falling, slowly but surely, I was falling through the unsympathetic night air.

As I watched my world change polarity I contemplated the old man who might have, in fact, had the right idea with his drinking prior to taking to the streets of Korea. I mean he made it out alive, but my chances of success where looking progressively unlikely without a counteracting force, such as that found in beer, soju or any other beverage with an age restriction.  

The ground was cold, wet, and all around me. I couldn't feel the bruise forming on my hip though, that would only say hello the next day when I would standing in front of twenty screaming children. The water that was pooling in both my eyes might have frozen over if I hadn't managed to blink a few times in quick succession. In my blurry and tear-soaked vision I saw a beautiful round face standing above me. I instinctually raised an arm in the hope of some assistance, and that is exactly what the attractive, yet awkwardly clammy, figure offered.

Its strength was surprising but not unwelcomed. With one sharp movement I was back on my feet and starring into the face of, not the cute student who sometimes works at the Family Mart, but the rosy teenager thick with the smell of Korea's finest tobacco. I snatched my hand back quicker than I had intended, but still remember to thank him with a brief and painful nod of the head. He held the door to the store open for me but we ended up awkwardly crossing the threshold together.

The unforgiving florissant lights screamed at my eyes and it took a while for my pupils to adjust to this magical and boldly illuminated world of packaged kimbab and rice wraps. I kept my head down, half embarrassed and red-faced, as I bee-lined to the where the coffee should've been, then to the sugar, and finally the cold fridge for some milk. I was devastated when, after making all the right stops around the store, I was only able to come up with milk (that was on the very cusp of its sell-by date), white sugar (not the caramelised brown grains I had been forced to eventually prefer) , and no, I repeat, no instant coffee to speak of.

I forced myself to remain calm, and while I was doing this I relasied that I had already done three laps around the tiny store and still come to the same conclusion I had reach when entered. I was thinking on my feet now and made my way back to the refrigerated section. It was a miserable sight of day-old rice wraps, beaten-up yogurt bottles, a few green bananas (individually wrapped), one microwave hamburger, two vitamin C drinks, a carton of aloe juice, tow other questionable milk bottles and an entire shelf of the saddest looking ice coffee that I knew contained less caffeine than my morning toast.

I gathered myself asked and calmly asked my teenage pal where the rest of the coffee was; he smiled and pointed to the refrigerator. I smiled back but with less of the amusement and humour he had showed. "Tomorrow, tomorrow" he splattered when he saw the face hiding behind my smile. Realising that my dream of a hot cup of coffee was under threat I was forced to now compromise on my mission, but I had a plan.

I sat in front of my computer rigidly with two cups in either hand. One held a hot cup of 100% organic green tea with chucky milk and snow-white sugar, and the other was an icy 'Americano'. I was never good at compromises, and even I will admit that these two drinks are probably best enjoyed separately; however their combined compounds got me through the night just fine. My Skype started chiming away and soon I was chatting to my mom back home, telling her how everything over here was going exactly according to plan.

 

 - C.J Wheeler (chriscjw@gmail.com)

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