My clumsy luggage slowed my movements. A stitch gnawed at my side as I hauled and trudged up stair after stair. If anyone in the silent building was sleeping, then they weren’t anymore.
My luggage was just half the problem; my polar-neck, three jerseys, jacket and coat, scarf and three pairs of leggings under my pants slowed me down even further.
I saw my breath cloud in front of my face as I huffed and puffed past the third floor landing. My apartment was on the next floor, the fifth floor – technically the fourth floor, but since the number 4 is considered unlucky to many Koreans, it’s simply erased from existence in many buildings and lifts.
Four more stairs…three…huff…two…puff…one…
And finally, there it was – room 501. I pushed in my new passcode and swung the door open to see my new, naked apartment. I couldn’t tell if it was colder inside or outside in the echoing hallway.
I abandoned my luggage and looked around: the apartment wasn’t completely empty, but almost. There was no bed; instead two thin duvets were folded and placed where a bed should have stood, there were no cupboards, no microwave, no kettle, not even a mirror. I shuffled over to the heating system. The screen said the inside temperature was ten degrees. This is actually normal for this time of the year in Korea, but the unfortunate thing about returning to South Africa for six months is you acclimatise. Now, I was back in Korea, at the tail end of February, the coldest month here (and the hottest month in South Africa), and my body was in shock as if it was experiencing Korean winter for the very first time.
My frozen finger jabbed at the power button of the heating. Nothing happened.
It worked when my co-teacher showed me how to use it earlier, so maybe I didn’t push the button hard enough. I pushed it again. Not a beep, not a flicker of lights, nothing. I jabbed at it in a frenzied panic, but of course, nothing happened. Did I forget to do something? Some other important main switch I needed to press? I cast my mind back to when she was showing me around the apartment and telling me important details; details about the washing machine, TV, stove, even the previous tenant:
Co-teacher: It was a little difficult to convince the landlord to let you stay in this building.
Co-teacher: The last tenant didn’t clean at all. When the landlord cleaned out the apartment, he said it looked like he had never swept, dusted or washed the floors ever.
Me: Ah, was this a foreigner?
Co-teacher: Yes, he was Indian.
If she told me anything special about the heating system, I couldn’t remember it, and with no phone yet, contacting her was out.
I needed to act fast. It was 5pm and two thin duvets and no heating were not going to help me when the temperature dropped in the evening. I needed a heater.
I wrapped myself up again and exited. I walked to the nearest Top Mart, which was thankfully about 50 steps away from the building. I bowed my head away from the cold as I walked, but the air still sliced at my face. My fingers and toes were numb under the double pair of gloves and socks, so when I entered the heavily heated Top Mart a minute later, it felt like angels were blowing their sweet breath on my face.
I walked straight to the electronics aisle. My eyes zipped back and forth, but I couldn’t spot any heaters. I grew panicky. I spotted a Top Mart lady shelving some products just down the aisle, humming happily as she went along. I stopped her mid-hum.
“Excuse me, do you have any heaters?” I asked in Korean. Please don’t say ‘eobseo-yo’…
My heart fell. How can they not have heaters at this time of the year?!
I exited Top Mart and hailed a taxi.
“Home Plus, please,” I told the taxi driver. Home Plus is the Korean Pick ’n Pay, and they would definitely stock heaters and electric blankets.
When the taxi stopped right outside Home Plus, I jumped out and hurried inside. I weaved my way through the throngs of people, past a Dunkin Donuts…Baskin Robbins…make up shops…clothing shops…shoe
shops…more shoes…more clothes…a hot dog place…an escalator. I jumped on. It was one of those escalators with no stairs – perfect for big trollies of groceries – this must lead to Home Plus.
I rushed past the man standing at the entrance of Home Plus, bowing to every single customer entering, and searched for the electronics aisle.
Kettles, microwaves, gas stoves, blenders, televisions, radios, washing machines – everything except heaters.
“Can I help you?” came a voice from behind me.
“Yes, I’m looking for a heater?”
“Ah, I’m afraid we don’t stock them anymore because the weather is getting warmer”.
“In fact, you will not find many stores selling heaters or electric blankets because winter is ending.” She checked her watch and continued, “maybe you would’ve found a heater in the Samsung or LG store, but they will be closed now.”
I settled for picking out the warmest-looking blanket (which was still quite thin), paid and hoped for the best.
It was 10pm when I got back home. I checked the temperature gauge on the screen of the dormant heating system: five degrees.
I was meeting my co-teacher early the following day; I needed to sleep.
I tried in vain to construct the most comfortable bed I could with my new blanket and the two other flimsy duvets probably left behind by the last tenant.
I then unzipped my luggage, shoved my hair dryer aside and raided the bag for every warm item it contained. I added another pair of leggings to my legs. I added another two pairs of socks to my feet. I had brought two pairs of pyjamas with me. I put on both. I put my coat back on. I kept my double pair of gloves on and lastly, pulled my beanie over my head.
And what was that…peeping through the remnants of clothing…?
A hot pack.
I yanked it out with furious excitement. For a few seconds I merely stared at it, clutched in my hands, like I had just discovered a bar of gold hidden among my clothes. I cursed loudly; I could have bought ten hot packs at Home Plus and filled my makeshift bed with them, if I had only thought of it. I groaned and chucked the single hot pack on the ‘bed’. And then I switched off the light.
But it was as if I was sleeping with no bedding and I had all the windows open. The cold crawled through my covers and layers of clothing, and gnawed at my body. My teeth chattered. Every now and then I felt a draught creep in from somewhere, sending a jolt down my spine. I pulled the covers right over my entire body so that I was completely hidden and curled myself into the tightest ball. I blew on my gloved fingers and I rubbed my feet together, but nothing helped. The only relief I felt came from that little hot pack, which I moved to different parts of my body every few minutes. But hot packs run out of heat.
I checked the time on my laptop: 2:30am. I had been tossing and turning for almost five hours. The hot pack had long turned cold and I was now just thinking of home. It was about 7:30pm back in South Africa. My family were probably watching the weather and complaining about how hot it was going to be the following day.
How hot it was going to be…
And then it came to me.
The hair dryer!
I jumped out of bed as if I had been stung by a wasp and grabbed the hair dryer from where I had shoved it aside earlier when I emptied my suitcase. I plugged it in and switched it on.
It took a few moments for my body to feel it, but when that layer of numbness was thawed, it was like I was sat in front of a roaring fire.
I placed the hair dryer under the duvet and kept it on for the remainder of the night.
When I woke up, it was 8:23am and the hair dryer was still going, though it sounded a little more strained than it did a few hours ago. I thanked it silently and switched it off.
I saw my co-teacher smiling at me through the windscreen of her car as she pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building.
“SAM, hi!” She closed her car door. “So, how was the first night in your new apartment?”