Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Buying and Growing Food

My confidence is growing at the market, now that I can understand numbers and even have a reasonably good idea of how much things should cost. I'm still in trouble if they answer with anything other than a number, of course... The other day I tried to buy some shellfish - I have no idea what they're called in English or Korean, but I recognized them as something Gordon likes - and the woman gave some response other than a number to my query "How much is that?" Gordon suspects she was asking if I knew how to cook them. Who knows! In any case, she responded to my blank look by turning back to her task and ignoring me. So, no shellfish!

Generally older women (exclusively women) sell things at the market, not that they've grown themselves, but that they have purchased from bulk produce markets outside the city. Thus, the competition is mainly who can make it look the best... it all comes from the same place! I buy garlic by the bag: it's about impossible to find it still in the skin, but this does save time (though I'm convinced it's not good for the garlic to go about naked!). You have a choice of washed or dirty potatoes and carrots, scallions already cleaned and de-rooted or not, etc... but the garlic is always peeled. There are some seriously weird looking sea creatures around - the one I find the nastiest looking seems to be a hemichordate, but I'm not sure.... (Here's a picture:http://cluster3.biosci.utexas.edu/faculty/cameronc/Images.htm. The second line down, far right, is the best match. I can't imagine eating it!)

The more I learn.... such a sad and complex history - and so fast, above all. The old people here are fascinating (archaic seems a crude word to describe them, but I'm not sure what does) compared to our generation: completely passed by in the last fifty years of change, changes that took hundreds of years in Europe and North America. Having lived through what they have though, they seem to have no sense of embarrassment left - they will do whatever they want! We walked into a convenience-type store and the old woman who runs it was sleeping on the floor behind the counter. The bells on the door woke her; she sat up, hair askew, and took our money - then crawled back under the covers!

Almost all farming is still done by hand, with small tools. The way they bend when they work - squatting, their shoulders between their knees, or bent over, their backs at an impossible angle - makes me wince. Every square inch of semi-level ground between the mountains is utilized, in cases terraced straight up the mountainside (green tea, in rows just a few feet wide, apparently does well on a steep incline). All along the railroad tracks, the land is cultivated... technically on the property of the railroad, but probably tended by someone who lives nearby and happened to notice unused space. Sometimes this can be problematic. We observed that the space in our back yard was clearly a garden yet untended, and asked the landlord if we could use it. He okayed it, and we began the prepare the soil, rejoicing at having dirt under our nails! But just a week later, two older women appeared and declared that it was their garden. They don't live in the building, they never asked permission, but they had claimed it, and that's that.... they told us we could have two rows. So, we'll have a garden a bit smaller than we hoped for, but still plenty - an unexpected pleasure in the city.

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