Part 2 – The Return To Italy
After I met the short guy who smoked on my first trip to Italy in 2008 (you can read about that here), I returned home to the States feeling nothing special toward him.
Italy was fun for six days and although I did find the young man attractive, trying to get to know someone on the opposite side of the globe wasn’t really an option.
I said goodbye to Italy, bid farewell to my Spanish family and returned home to the States. Traveling is great and all, but I really needed to focus on finding myself a job and earning some real money.
Find A Job
Once I was back in the States, I needed a job. The au pair opportunity wasn’t a prosperous one financially, so I needed to earn some real money to pay my bills.
Luckily, after inquiring with my former employer at the local utility company, I got my old position back as a meter reader.
I returned to six or seven hours of walking a day, reading electric and gas meters throughout the city as I escaped from dogs and trudged through some of the largest snowdrifts that our area had seen in years.
I was even on the front page of a section of the local newspaper as I tried to read a gas meter that was encased in frozen snow, trapped between a house and a parked truck.
The winter was definately a harsh one.
Read or Teach
I earned pretty good money as a meter reader, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I dedicated my University studies to Spanish, French and ESL, my goal being to teach English to non-native speakers, but the more time I spent reading meters the less I was using the teaching skills I’d paid thousands for.
So, with student loan debt hanging over me and the desire to see more of the world, I began thinking about other opportunities.
I knew quite a few ESL teachers and world travelers, and one day someone told me I could easily find a teaching job in South Korea at a private language school. It would be easy and quick money! Why not?
The opportunity sounded interesting.
The teacher I knew was already there working on a U.S. Air Base for the Department of Defense, and put me in contact with someone who could connect me with a language school.
My memories of this phase aren’t crisp. All I know is that I didn’t research my opportunity very well and jumped into it wholeheartedly without worrying about the harsh realities that I may face once there.
Selling My Soul to Seoul
After an easy phone interview and a ton of emails (mostly on my behalf as I sent them question after question), I landed myself a job at a language institute in the heart of Seoul, South Korea: the Gangnam district.
You may recognize this name from a rather popular song by PSY: Gangnam Style
I signed a one-year contract, bought myself some teaching manuals, said my goodbyes and hopped on a plane.
I remember when I arrived that no one was there to meet me, so I was quite nervous. I walked around the airport looking for signs of my name on a poster, but to no avail.
Luckily, I had struck up a conversation with a young Korean guy on the plane who was headed home to visit his family, and he helped me make a few phone calls.
I was so grateful to him. His parents hadn’t seen him in three years and they were overjoyed to hug their son again, yet he sacrificed a bit of his time to make sure that I found the people from the school (I believe they were held up in traffic). He introduced me to kimbap and bibimbap on the airplane…
Little flashes of these memories come back to me as I sit and write, so don’t feel like I’m getting sidetracked. All of these things led me to where I am today, so I think it’s important to mention them.
Once I was connected with my new fellow teachers, they took me into the city and dropped me off at a hotel. The apartment I would be staying in was being vacated by the teacher I was replacing, and wasn’t quite ready for me.
I was nervous, to say the least. Once I got into the hotel and hauled up all my bags, I took a good look around.
I remember that the bathroom had no shower, because the shower was the bathroom. There was a drain in the middle where all the water went and a shower hose hanging nearby, but no curtain nor box. So I guess the bathroom and I shower all together? Interesting…
As I investigated further, I noticed that the lights changed to various colors and the TV had some very questionable programs on. When I found the condoms in the nightstand drawer it dawned on me…
I was in a love motel!
Of all of the motels that they could have placed me in, they had to choose one that was designed for quick and easy escapes for married business men to hook up with the latest squeeze.
Ugh… All I remember thinking is, “I hope the locals around here dont think that I am somebody’s latest squeeze!”
Teaching, Traveling, Socializing and Skype
Finally, I got settled into my new apartment, leaving the creepy love motel behind, and classes began.
I had a split schedule that required me to get up early, catch the subway to Gangnam, teach all morning, head home on the subway for a few hours, and then return for evening classes.
This rigorous schedule was the first thing that started to wear me down, but I just brushed it off and told myself that this is what it was supposed to be like that and I would get used to it.
To distract myself, I went out with my students, met other teachers and a few air force folk, and traveled around a bit to see what South Korea was all about.
At this point in my story, I should probably mention that I had begun conversing with Francesco (the short Italian guy who smoked) on Facebook before I moved to Korea. We stayed in touch since I met him the previous year, but he sent me little messages here and there and we continued writing to each other.
One day, while I was still in the States, I sent him some peanut butter cookies and a motorcycle magazine in the mail, since he often talked about his love of motorcycles. As we all know, the way to a man’s heart is quite often through his stomach, so I knew that some home made peanut butter cookies certainly wouldn’t do any harm!
He still has the magazine. It’s on our living room magazine rack.
While I was in Korea, I realized that the time difference between Francesco and I made it easy for me to catch him, so when I had some down time, I lugged my heavy laptop down the hill from my apartment and walked anywhere from 30-45 minutes to one of the thousands of coffee joints sprinkled throughout Seoul in search of free internet. I needed a strong signal, and sometimes the coffee shops I tried had weak signals. I kept switching coffee shops until I found the right one.
We began to speak regularly and at some point, I sent him a postcard of a temple I’d seen. He merrily announced its arrival by snapping a quick picture of himself holding it.
He even sent me (very expensive) text messages from his phone while he was sailing around Croatia during his summer vacation; not something you to for just any old person.
You’d think that by being in Korea I would focus more on learning the Korean language.
I wanted to learn Italian! The more I spoke with Francesco, the more intrigued I was, so I bought myself an Italian book and started teaching myself his language.
As time moved on, we continued talking and my teaching schedule began to wear on me.
One day I received an e-mail from home to let me know that my grandfather had passed away.
I was devastated.
He was such an important part of my childhood and we had a very special bond, so the news hit me like a freight train. This was one of the things that made me feel so homesick and helpless, because I couldn’t be there with my family for something so important to me, and this feeling of helplessness wasn’t something that I could handle well at that point in my life.
Another problem I faced was an unhealthy diet. I ate familiar, unhealthy foods from coffee shop chains, tried spicy Korean food that didn’t really agree with me, and I drank a lot of beer and soju. My digestive system was screaming for help.
I was overwhelmed by the teaching demands and the school was always asking me to take on more work and more projects.
I was homesick, sad, eating poorly and felt chained to a contract that I didn’t want to be a part of any longer, and this all added up to disaster.
Francesco was definitely a friendly (and handsome) outlet for me. He was always there to listen and make me smile, and after months of seeing one another on a computer screen, a thought came to me one day.
Why don’t I try to visit him?
I thought the request would be simple enough. We had a long weekend coming up at the school and I thought that I could prolong it a few days if I arranged it with the school.
Boy was I wrong.
The director of the school was a short, petite Korean woman with dark hair. To me she seemed to be very proud of her high-ranking position as director, but not at all concerned with the quality of the learning environment nor the magic that is teaching.
My request to “go to my friend’s wedding in Italy” (this was a cover story to make my case sound important, because I simply wanted to visit Francesco and didn’t really know anyone getting married) was not just denied, it was squished, spat upon and then flushed down the toilet into the depths of the Korean sewer.
I really can’t recall the specific details of the conversation, but I do remember the part where she told me that the school was more important than my friend, so, no, I could not have any extra days off. She laughed at me, as if my request was a silly and stupid.
From here, the downward spiral began.
I was so livid at the way that the director had treated me, and with everything else that I had dealt with emotionally, physically and professionally, that the director’s response was the straw that broke this camel’s back.
Maybe as an employee who had only been there for a few months, I shouldn’t have asked for a few days off. Maybe I should have waited?
What can I say. Some days I’m shy, and other days I’ve got balls.
On that particular day in my life, I had the balls to ask the new boss for some days off, and rather than a simple, “No, we won’t be able to arrange that,” I received an insulting “There’s no way in hell you’ll go,” and was literally laughed out of her office.
That was it.
I knew that I couldn’t stay in Korea any longer but didn’t know how to get out of my contract. If I left early, I would have to pay for my plane ticket and didn’t want to get hit with the expense. So somehow my weird, stressed and saddened brain decided that I would need to get myself fired.
Yep, tick them off so that they fire you. At the time, I really don’t know how or why I arrived at that conclusion, but I went with the flow and decided that was the solution.
Crazy, I know.
I had already told the school that I would not be fullfilling my contract for one year. The opportunity just wasn’t what I expected, but thank you anyways.
Calling in sick in Korea really wasn’t an option. You came to work even if you were on your death bed, so when I called in one day and said I wasn’t coming, they weren’t too happy about it.
I actually did go to a doctor that day, a kind of psychologist who was an expat himself. I thought that maybe if I discussed my thoughts and problems with him that he’d help me reach a different conclusion.
Nope. It didn’t help.
After calling the school and telling them I wouldn’t be there, I hopped on the subway and went into work anyways.
I guess if you’re trying to get yourself fired, then this is the way to do it!
After morning classes were done the director called me into her office and said that she was firing me.
“Ok,” I said.
She said that typically they would ask that I re-pay them for the plane ticket to Korea, but for some reason they decided that I would just pay half of the ticket. She even offered to help place me in a new school and suggested that I may have been better off teaching children.
I politely declined and told her I already had plans to head home.
I purchased a ticket back to the States and would return to my family…
Throughout the whole ordeal, I had kept both Francesco and Letizia (the friend who introduced me to Francesco), posted on the whole disastrous mess.
I remember Letizia helping me with the political aspect of things, telling me to make sure I read my contract to see if the school was complying with it or not.
Before I parted Korea, I was invited to stay with a wonderful, generous woman who I had met a short time before. She had arrived in Korea recently to teach on the US base and offered me a spare room in her apartment.
To that woman: if you are reading this, I want you to know how forever grateful I will be for everything you did for me. You welcomed me into your home without batting an eyelid, and your generosity has remained imprinted on my brain to this day.
I look forward to the day when I can repay your kindness.
And… I didn’t realize it at the time I stayed with you, but your cute little dog was my introduction to wire haired dachshunds, and today (as you’ve seen) I have my own little bearded sausage at home. It was a sign of things to come, I suppose 🙂
I had failed at teaching English in Korea, I was emotionally a mess and had gained a few pounds from the horrible diet that I followed. Surely going home was the answer to my problems?
I had my ticket and everything was set to go…but there was still Francesco.
After all of the crazy decisions that I’d made in the past year, I figured that one more crazy decision wasn’t going to ruin me.
At the last minute, I changed my ticket.
A one-way ticket to the States changed to a one-way ticket to Italy…where I would stay with Francesco and his family on a three-month tourist VISA.
Want more? You will find Part 3 here!