Tonight my attention turns from Korea to Sweden and Swedish culture.  My wife’s coworker invited us to join them today for a St. Lucia’s Day celebration at the Seoul Club sponsored by the Swedish Women’s Education Association (SWEA).  We had a great time, met some nice Swedes, and came away with a few prizes.  You can’t beat that.

What is Luciadagen (Swedish), or St. Lucia’s Day?  Here is a synopsis of Luciadagen by Bill Petro, another blogger:

In Sweden, December 13 is Luciadagen, or St. Lucia’s Day.  It is the beginning of their holiday season.  St. Lucia was a young woman who lived in first century Rome.  She was a Christian who would not give up her faith to marry an unbeliever.  She was tortured and killed by order of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.Stories of her courage were brought to Sweden by missionaries where she became known as the Lucia Bride [Lussi or Lussibruden].  Old people said the Lucia Bride would go out early in the morning to bring food and drink to the poor.  She wore white robes and a crown of light.The story is acted out in Swedish homes with the oldest daughter playing the Lucia Bride.  Early in the morning on December 13, she brings her parents a tray of sweet saffron buns [

Lussekattor] and some coffee.  She wears a white gown and a crown of greens, often made of holly.  Her sisters and brothers dress in white and follow her.  The girls carry lit candles and the boys wear tall, pointed caps and are called “star boys.”St. Lucia is also honored in Sicily, where she was born.  Christians there gather to celebrate her day with bonfires and torchlight parades…a fitting celebration since Lucia means “light.”

I should also add a few other interesting tidbits about the holiday, which is celebrated by both Swedes and Norwegians.  To many Scandinavians, St. Lucia’s Day serves as the advent of the winter holiday season.  In Swedish lore, St. Lucia symbolizes winter and rivals Santa Claus (Jultomte) in stature.  I find it intriguing that although St. Lucia was actually from Sicily, she is honored in Scandinavia as well as in Sicily.  Reputedly executed by Emperor Diocletian on December 13, A.D. 303, her final resting place is in the Church of Santa Lucia in Venice, Italy.  Although some claim that St. Lucia visited Sweden, this is highly unlikely unless her potential suitor was of Viking origin.  I believe that Scandinavia, with its emphasis on egalitarianism, embraced the celebration in order to honor the role of women in Swedish society.  The fact that it became a Swedish national holiday in the 1920’s underscores this assumption.

It is also interesting to note that girls no longer wear lit candles during the holiday because of a few Michael Jackson-esque accidents in which head and hair frequently burned.  Apparently, nowadays crowns of candles are battery powered.

We had a great time tonight at the St. Lucia’s Day celebration.  The event started with a narrative about the holiday.  I’m glad that the language spoken was English, not Swedish.  Then, a procession led by a girl adorned with acrown of battery-powered candles representing St. Lucia marched to the front of the room.  They sang a medley of beautiful holiday songs in Swedish.  When the performance ended, we enjoyed glögg, lussekatten and other pastries, and European coffee. The children joined Santa Claus for a photo op, and I took my son up to stand next to Santa. Unfortunately, he was too scared to sit on Santa’s lap. The evening ended with a raffle. It went on for over an hour. We walked away with a pearl necklace and a gift pack of crispy bread and three kinds of herring. My wife will thoroughly enjoy both gifts. The evening put us all in a festive spirit. I posted some photos of the event as well as a photo of Seoul Tower lit up for the holidays. Enjoy!

From the “Things the Make You Go…Hmm” Department: Surely I’m not the only person who finds it ironic that someone named Bush won the Heisman Trophy (Reggie Bush, USC), beating out a player from Texas (Vince Young, University of Texas). Then again, sports and politics make strange bedfellows.

Managing frustrations with overseas finances

I didn’t really know what to write about tonight until I tried to do some investing for our community association and ran into yet another roadblock.  Last May I pitched a proposal to our Board asking for permission invest some funds into high-yield, low-risk municipal bonds.  It took me three months to win Board approval because of concerns about how best to manage the funds.  Then I spent another month setting up the investment account.  After I became Board chair in September, our general manager sent in the forms to change account ownership for our bank accounts over to me and to our treasurer.  In October, I found out that the account change request was lost in the mail.  In November, I spent hours working with this U.S.-based bank to change over the account owner, open a certificate of deposit for some of the funds, and wire funds from the bank to the investment account.  Today the funds finally posted to the investment account, and I was anxious to invest the money and be done with this project.  I just found out tonight over the phone that the brokerage needs our association’s tax identification number and froze the account until they receive it.  We’re a not-for-profit entity, but we still need to provide our tax number.  I couldn’t give it to them over the phone.  I have to fax a form to them, and then I have to wait another 24 hours until they unlock the account so I can invest the money and finish once and for all.  That is, unless I discover yet another roadblock along the way.  You never know.
If you live overseas and manage your finances and investments abroad, you inevitably face immense frustrations.  For example, if you own and rent a home in the U.S. while living overseas, insurance companies will not exclusively insure rental properties.  We had to purchase renter’s insurance for our personal affects first and then obtain property insure for our properties.  When we set up our brokerage accounts, we needed to provide a U.S.-based address even though we don’t have a physical address in the U.S.  Banks, brokerages, and other institutions invariably require signatures on a wide range of documents, and they only occasionally do they allow faxes.  You can’t send any official requests by E-mail.  Most official business must be done by snail mail, which can be severely impeded depending on where you live overseas.  Many documents require notarials, so you have to go through the additional exercise of having to notarize documents overseas through public notaries who may not speak English.  That’s easy enough to do in Korea, a modern country, but it can be extremely difficult if you live in a remote location.  Time difference is also a major source of frustration.  Currently, we live 14 hours from the East Coast of the United States.  I typically have to wait until at least 10 p.m. to do any business with U.S. institutions.  Between snail mail, which may never reach its intended recipient, and international calling, managing your finances remotely overseas can be a major pain. 
In the case of our community association, this frustration is magnified because the account owners change frequently whenever Board membership changes.  If signatures are required, you have to obtain them before the Board member leaves (I found out I have to catch two previous members before they leave in December and get their signatures on some account owner change forms).  If someone had told me it would take six months to do this investment project, I might have declined to tackle it.  Knowing now that it can take months to complete business transactions overseas and that I would need to gather obscure pieces of data, such as the birthdate of the person who opened the account many years ago, I might have spared myself the frustration.  Now that I’ve been through the frustration and I’m close to finishing, I’m going get this project done as soon as possible. 
In short, thank goodness for the Internet.  The Internet has made finances so much easier to manage overseas, mitigating the frustrations brought on by dealing with financial institutions from abroad.  Automatic electronic direct deposit and bill pay is your best friend when you live overseas.  I think I would go crazy if I had to manage our finances over the phone and by mail.

Korean Folk Village, part II

Tonight I finish my narrative of our trip last Sunday to the Korean Folk Village.

In the early afternoon on Sunday, after wandering through replicas of old Jeju Island farms, we ventured over to an open area where a Korean acrobat on a high wire performed a delicate balancing act.  He did a fabulous job defying gravity, bouncing up and down on the rope, sitting on it, straddling it, and balancing himself on top.  He balanced himself grasping only a handkerchief in one hand and a large white fan in the other.  He used the fan to control his balance, waving it slowly, then feverishly to bring his body back into equilibrium.  Dressed in a white, parachute-like costume, he wore a black Korean-style hat reminiscent of a Korean sage.  He gave a wonderful performance.

20 minutes later we meandered over to the village Manor House, where we witnessed a Korean traditional wedding.  The condensed ceremony that took place in the main courtyard highlighted the most intriguing aspects of a Korean wedding.  As the ceremony began, the groom took his place to the east of the wedding altar and faced west, sitting with his legs crossed awaiting his bride.  Symbolic foods lay atop the altar, waiting to be parceled to the bride and groom during the ceremony.  An old sage to the north of the altar faced south and read the vows from an aged wedding book.  A few minutes into the ceremony he called for the bride to come.  She left the Manor House and descended its steps, entering the courtyard with two female assistants.  They escorted her to the west of the altar and helped her kneel on both knees so that she faced east towards her future husband.  As the sage chanted the wedding vows, assistants offered food and drink to the betrothed couple.  I recall that they ate chestnuts, a symbol of the yangban, or Korean aristocracy, and other Korean delicacies.  The bride’s arms were crossed and positioned over her face so that the groom could not see her until the ceremony ended.  Prompted by the sage, the groom and bride stood and bowed to each other.  Dressed in hanbok, Korean traditional dress, they made a handsome couple.  The sage pronounced them married, and the ceremony ended as quickly as it started.  I’m positive that I inadvertantly obscured some vital details about the ceremony, and the ceremony I watched was but a taste of true Korean traditional weddings.  I am by no means an expert on Korean weddings.  Having seen American, Chinese, Japanese, and Austrian weddings, I enjoyed seeing yet another cultural manifestation of an age-old ceremony.  I do not know how authentic it was or whether I recorded it accurately.

After the wedding ceremony, my family wandered to the modern portion of the folk village south of the river.  It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the folk village, filled with amusements and modern architecture and sculpture.  We entered the children’s park and took our son on several rides.  He first rode a roving mechanical dog.  He is a bit apprehensive about getting close to animals, but he had no qualms climbing aboard this “dog” and letting it take him around the children’s park for a couple of minutes.  When we were in Gyeongju last June, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to join me on a four-wheeler.  He was too scared, and I rode alone.  This slow-moving “dog” was just the thing he needed to have some mobile fun.  Afterwards, mommy took him on a carrousel for his first carrousel ride, and daddy took him on the children’s train that circled the children’s park.  He had a great time.  He had so much fun that he didn’t nap all day long, and once we finished and went home he was out like a light.  I was so fatigued that I wanted to do the same, but I had to wait until we returned home.