Robert and Miriam Stern's life changed dramatically in July 1991 when they moved to South Korea for two years. What started out as a change of scenery and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to act as a senior adviser to the Yongsan U.S. Army post in Seoul turned into something greater.
Living in a condominium in Seoul helped the couple, with two grown children, realize they no longer needed their four-bedroom rancher in Randallstown, where they had lived for almost 12 years.
Life in a three-bedroom, high-rise condominium in Korea had many benefits. They didn't have to worry about outdoor maintenance and the cleaning was less extensive.
So when they returned home in 1993, they decided to sell their house and go condominium hunting.
After looking at about a dozen complexes, the Sterns finally fell in love with The Falls, off Old Pimlico Road in Baltimore County. They paid $115,000 and moved in November 1993.
"I did the thing they always tell you not to do," recalls Robert Stern. "After one look at the place, I came into the kitchen and said, 'I could love this place.' Miriam said, 'So could I,' and now we do."
Since moving into the two-bedroom condo with a loft, Miriam Stern has spent an estimated $50,000 on furnishings and remodeling to make it "a comfortable place for us to live." She says her work is now complete, but her husband "thinks she'll probably buy a piece here and there."
Throughout their condo are dozens of reminders of their time in Korea and their sightseeing trips through Asia.
"I like the feeling of the country and I like the feel of the Oriental things we have, so I incorporated them into our house," she said.
The result of her work is both a cozy place to visit and a museum of sorts, chronicling their trip abroad and their recently acquired love of scuba diving.
Pottery, figurines, tapestry, knickknacks and other artwork, many of which returned with them in 1993, fill the couple's living room. Framed on a short wall in the couple's living room is a photograph of hidden gardens in Japan. Mr. Stern posed his wife in a photograph looking across the water as a beautiful bridge draws the eye toward the historic Kyong-Bokkung Palace.
"When we saw it, we knew we wanted to blow it up, to hang it somewhere," she said. "It reminds me of that time."
In the living room, with 12-foot ceilings and a skylight, are several Scan shelves mounted next to each other on a long wall. On top of this storage space are pottery pieces from the Koryo Dynasty with depictions of a Korean wedding scene, an eggshell china bowl and a Korean tapestry of an elephant.
Across the room, above an Oriental screen and on a long shelf covering two walls are more Asian reproductions and other objets d'art. Many of the items were purchased from a special gift shop in Korea, where the wives of American soldiers shop for Asian goods. A wooden washboard and three Korean masks, used in a musical presentation, are among her favorite pieces. Another section of the shelving displays military items and some of his favorite old-time cameras.
In the area separating the living room from the entrance hallway is a 20-gallon fish bowl holding five goldfish. The tall, slender hexagonal bowl, framed like a house with dark-colored bamboo, has been through a great deal.
Walking from their condominium at the top of a large hill down to the military base in Korea each day, the Sterns passed by a store selling aquariums and fish. "One day I decided we needed to have fish," he recalls. The owner didn't speak English and the Sterns didn't speak Korean. Using hand signals and sketches on small sheets of paper, the transaction was completed.
Later that day, the Sterns saw something they hadn't expected.
"Here I am, relaxing, and up the hill, a big hill, on a small motorbike comes the owner carrying the aquarium, the sand, the fish -- everything but the water," Robert Stern said. "It was an amazing sight and something I'll never forget."
They had a constant reminder of the purchase; the owner gave them 12 carp, which kept growing and growing.
"Every few weeks I had to give him back a couple of the fish because they would get too big to move around in the tank," he said.
Robert Stern now is stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Area, where he serves as a business manager for the Chemical and Biological Defense Command. In their bedroom are several dark wood traveler's chests from Korea. They're stackable and have a great deal of storage space in shelves, drawers and behind doors. One of them is stair-stepped, making it useful for showing various items.
The condo's other rooms are more modern looking. The second bedroom is painted pink and filled with dolls and toys and a day bed, used by their three grandchildren when they stay over. The bathrooms are sponge-painted, white on blue and blue on white, with ornamental shells and fish in the guest bathroom, reminders of their love of scuba diving.