Well, I realized it’s been quite some time since I posted Chapter 1, so here’s Chapter 2. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to critique!
END of CHAPTER 1:
So at the end of the week I packed a few bags, my fishing pole, a selection of books. I locked the front door of the house, put the keys in the mailbox, got in the car and drove away. It was time to get going.
Chapter 2: Certifiable
But first I needed money. That meant moving to Florida and taking a job waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant. Six months later, I’d amassed enough cash to get me to San Francisco, where I’d enrolled in a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification course so that I could teach English abroad. That was my plan. Learn some teaching techniques, get a shiny diploma, and go back to Florence to instruct dewy-eyed Italian girls in the finer points of the present progressive.
Now the folks you find on a TEFL course are a bit of a mixed bag, but they tend to fall into a few general categories.
There were the ones more or less like myself – twenty-somethings in need of certification so that they could land a job in Buenos Aires or Hong Kong or Singapore and have an income to finance their travels. The actual teaching, to be honest, was merely a means to an end, a way to fund what we viewed essentially as an extended vacation with a bit of classroom time on the side. We were young, typically open, optimistic, even idealistic. Most of us had had a taste of travel and wanted more.
Then there were the life-changers. The middle-aged divorcees who were looking to find a new path, the empty-nesters who had spent their entire adult lives raising kids, the retirees who had toiled for decades in insurance or data entry but always dreamed of a different life in some exotic locale. They tended to take the course more seriously than the rest of us, were focussed and determined as the corpulent crowd at a fat farm.
And then you had the runners. There is a seamy underbelly to the world of teaching English abroad, and the runners inhabit that world. These are the people who need to get out – and stay out – of the country, and teaching English is one of the fastest and easiest ways to accomplish that. A deadbeat dad who’s 2 years behind on child support; the unlucky gambler who owes the wrong people money; the petty thief or paedophile who finds that things are getting a bit too hot back home. They’re men, mostly, in their thirties or forties, the kind who’ve come to the conclusion that living in a Bangkok hovel and banging Thai hookers is a pretty attractive life choice.
A classic example. Let’s call him Dan. Dan was a tall, thin, forty-ish guy on our program, and he gave everyone who met him a serious case of the willies. Dan was evasive about his reasons for being on the course, but he gave the impression that his desire to teach in a foreign country had nothing to do with a love of travel. The guy was clearly running from something – or someone – and with Dan it was easy to let the imagination run to some extremely shady scenarios.
So the course is over, and I’ve landed a job in Korea. Why Korea you ask? Weren’t you headed back to Italy? Yes, yes I was, but you see, there was this girl. I’ll get to that later. So I’ve accepted a position with the English Program in Korea (EPIK), and the day has come to board a plane for Seoul. A large group of us is checking in at San Francisco airport when a man lurches to the counter. He’s stumbling and mumbling and clearly dead drunk. His cheap blue suit and white shirt are smeared with mud and drying vomit. He’s bleeding from a gash on his forehead. He reeks like a porta-potty after a week-long music festival. It is, of course, Dan. As our flustered handler from the Korean consulate approaches him, Dan falls flat on the floor.
At this point one might be inclined to think that our consulate man would look at the filthy, foul-smelling man lying prostrate at his feet and reconsider his suitability to teach Korean middle school students. Not so. Instead, our consulate guy tries to convince the Korean Air officials to let him on the plane. He goes so far as to suggest that I personally take charge of Dan, clean him up, babysit him for the 12-hour flight. I politely tell him that there’s no chance in Hell I’m even getting near the guy, and Dan is ultimately sent home to sober up a bit, maybe have a shower, put on a fresh shirt.
Three days later, Dan shows up at the university where a thousand or so English teachers are having our orientation. His very first night there he hires a taxi to take him to a strip joint in a nearby city, wait for him outside, then bring him back. When he’s returned late at night and asked to pay the $150 fare, Dan tells the driver that the EPIK program will cover the expense. The next day, Dan’s gone. He’s gotten a free flight to Korea and disappeared into the back streets of Seoul. Dan’s story, unfortunately, is not that unusual in the world of teaching English abroad.
So who’s the girl? Among the hundred or so students taking the course at that time was this lovely young Asian-American woman named Susan. We started dating, and in the intense emotional atmosphere that the compressed time frame of these types of programs generates, things progressed rather swiftly. We went to bars together, ate out together, went hiking together, had sex in the hotel kitchen, the hotel lounge, the stairwell, bathroom, roof. And then there was Napa.
One Saturday toward the end of the course, Susan picked me up at my grubby hostel on Ellis St. in her little silver VW Golf, and we took Highway 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Napa Valley. A stop at Caymus Vineyards, to taste their excellent Conundrum white. A tasting at Cakebread Cellars, highlighted by their excellent chardonnay, then a last stop at the Francis Ford Coppola Estate. Now mind you, this was back in 1995, before Napa had been thoroughly, ruthlessly monetized and Disneyfied. (The last time we were at the Rutherford Hill winery we sat outside at free picnic tables enjoying our wine – they now charge you $75 for that privilege.) These days the Coppola winery features a kitschy film memorabilia museum, an upscale restaurant, and a 3,600 square-foot swimming pool, but back then it was housed in the old Inglenook Estate, a vine-covered 19th-century chateau with lovely grounds overlooking the valley.
After our tasting we wandered, tottering slightly, out to the paths that wound through the olive groves. We stopped at an old stone fountain, where Susan slipped off her shoes and dangled her feet in the cool water. I rambled off to take some photos, and when I turned around there she was, standing on the edge of the fountain in a pale yellow sundress, gazing out across the valley to the mountains of the Vaca Range. She’s gorgeous, I thought. Completely incredible in every way, I thought. Oh shit, I thought. I’m in love with this woman.
This was going to require some reevaluation. How could I be in love? And how could I be in love after only a few weeks? It was damned inconvenient, I must say. I was planning to return to Italy. She had a job lined up in Korea. A long-distance relationship simply would not work. Should I look for a job in Korea? But I knew that just being in the same country wouldn’t be in any way satisfying. Thing was, she was signed up with the EPIK program and had no idea where she’d be posted. Korea? I knew nothing about Korea. Everything I knew about Korea had been gleaned from the sitcom M*A*S*H. Which had been filmed at a ranch in the mountains outside of Malibu, California.
There was one other slight consideration. Did she love me? What if I suggested I go to Korea with her and she looked at me as though I were completely deranged. Well, Matt, you know, it’s been fun, but…
Shit, shit, shit. There was only one thing to do. Get some more wine. So we stopped at a local shop and picked up supplies – some crusty bread, cheese, olives, and a bottle of – I still remember this – 1994 Carmenet Cabernet Sauvignon Dynamite, and drove up into the hills. We found a vineyard which overlooked a wooded valley, a small fold in the crumpled napkin of the Mayacama Mountains. The fury of the Napa sun had subsided, and long shadows crept across our picnic blanket. I nibbled at the food but drank heartily of the wine, trying to work up the courage to just lay myself out there.
I wish I could remember exactly what I said, but a blind white terror (and a considerable amount of Cabernet Sauvignon) had laid siege to my brain. Somehow I conveyed to her the fact that I was very much in love with her. I think I may have said something to the effect of “I love you.” To my intense relief Susan indicated that she reciprocated the sentiment. It was, she tells me, the first time she’d ever said I love you to anyone outside of her immediate family. With the fact of our mutual affection firmly established, we started making plans. First thing Monday we would go to the Korean consulate and get me signed up for the EPIK program. Italy would have to wait.