“Girls,” I said, “We are living well!”
“You say that every time we eat,” my friends pointed out.
Well, it’s true. We may not be rolling in cash, but we certainly are living well, primarily because of the good food, from ice cream to noodles, which we can enjoy in quantity, on the cheap…but in Seoul, only before 11 PM.
Seoul’s the capital of a prosperous country. It’s a city of ten million people, with ten million more living within the outlying suburbs...where almost everything closes down at 11 pm. The streets are almost deserted after that, like the hundreds of thousands of cars have simply evaporated. Saturday night, before midnight, we caught the very last train out of downtown, and at some of the stations where we paused, the managers were already switching off the lights. What other major city turns into a pumpkin when the clock strikes twelve? Outside, only a few convenience stores were open, and neon lights indicated the odd norabang (karaoke bar) down a stairway; all other businesses were dark and many had steel doors rolled down over their windows. Past closing time, larger restaurants still had a handful of customers, but these were lingering at tables cluttered with empty plates and bowls, and short green and tall brown glass bottles. At smaller establishments, the proprietors had either sat down chatting with their remaining regulars, or were cleaning up the last vestiges of the day’s work, clearly ready to rest. And most restaurants don’t open for breakfast--some coffee and pastry shops do open at seven or eight, but most wait until 10 or 11. This is long after the average person is up and at work or school. Presumably, most people have a proper breakfast at home? Are the opening hours the function of most restaurants being family run (some time is needed for sleep!)?
At any rate, Seoul needs a Waffle House, or several of them scattered around town. Not only is there nothing breakfasty available in the wee hours, there are oddly few Western restaurants to be found outside Itaewon, a strange international enclave not far from the American base in the city. This past weekend, Itaewon was packed with a peculiar accumulation of assorted foreigners, from tall pale Scandinavians striding gracefully along the crowded sidewalks to dark African men talking in French, and one man clad in a white dashiki and red and white checked headcloth who clearly hailed from somewhere in the Middle East.
I like being the only foreigner around. It appeals to my vanity without showing me the physically deplorable company in which I actually exist. Seeing other Westerners robs me of the illusion that I am interesting, reminds me of my age, dumpy shape, vocal quirks, and lack of fashion sense. I can pretend that I am exotic and adventurous when I'm apart from my kind, but I am rapidly brought back to reality when I encounter other peculiar looking folks and realize how bizarre we non-natives really are.
The Itaewon area was crowded with clothing stores and restaurants of all descriptions, from fur to tennis shoes, juice bars to halal shashliki. Street booths sold sunglasses, tshirts with silly slogans, assorted plastic dustcatchers, and baseball caps. Based on the number of New York logo items I saw on adults and children, a full tenth of Seoulites must be Yankees fans. I parted with a good deal of coin at Lush, a natural cosmetics store which my cousin loves. Part of the motivation for the purchases was simply the pleasant experience of getting personal service in trying out the fascinating ointments and unguents in the store. Lush is lush. And lushly priced. I got some soap, body conditioner, and two tiny pots of face mask. I’ve never spent so much on personal care products.
Provided the governments of the world don't regulate it out of existence, I may hereafter lodge on all my travels with Airbnb. From last Wednesday until Sunday evening [May 3-7] I stayed with two fellow teachers at an apartment we'd arranged through the site. The place was sparkling clean, comfortable, and actually better equipped than the flat I call my home. And per person for five nights it cost less than $125. It was three blocks from a metro station, and close to many coffee shops, several good Asian restaurants, and an Emart. A stream that eventually flowed into the Han River ran about a block away; a bike path and a rubber-paved walking path paralleled the watercourse. Thousands of people were out on the paths Wednesday evening, walking tiny dogs, exercising, riding bikes, and even whizzing along on unicycle hoverboards, texting as they went (how do you get up on those things? I thought people who rode bicycles without holding the handgrips were marvels of balance…). June did voice a complaint about the pungent sewer aroma trapped under the bridges that crossed the stream, but I only caught a whiff here and there.
There are some perfectly romantic places in Seoul. On a clear night, the 31 Han River bridges glitter over the wide water, and I completely understand why couples want to stroll by the riverside, or sit looking at the lights and sharing a companionable beer. There are ferry rides. And there’s the Namsan Tower cable car, which we rode Saturday evening. We took a taxi to the bottom, driving past an election rally where a packed crowd of people was listening to a candidate and fervently waving tiny Korean flags. The wait for the cable car wasn’t long, and there was a huge poster of Lee Min Ho advertising a casino on which to feast our eyes. At the summit, on the lower observation deck, an enterprising vendor was selling love locks that could be inscribed with pledges of devotion and attached to the railing. There were lots of couples at the tower, but it wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it had been at Chuseok last year. We were hungry after riding the cable car back down, and Penny—who had humorously threatened us, “I’m going rogue!”—asked a small group of Korean American college students if they knew of a place that was still open at that hour. A place other than McDonalds. “MacDonalds is awesome,” one of the guys said. Whereupon I decided they could not be relied upon to distinguish decent cuisine. Penny and I shared a Nutella crepe from a street cart, June and I each got schneeballen (a chocolate-drizzled pastry that we crushed with a wooden mallet) in the metro station, and we ended up ordering delivery chicken when we returned to the apartment.
Thursday, Penny and I went to the DMZ. It was a clear day, so we could stare through the 500 KRW per minute binoculars into the ROK’s northern neighbor, seeing its bare hills and barren settlements, from the uninhabited concrete village near the border to the abandoned manufacturing complex which the South had built and (until last year) where more than 50,000 North Koreans had been employed until the latest “provocation” on the part of Kim Jung Un had sent the 800 South Koreans who served as managerial staff, and presumably their equipment, packing back to less dangerous environs. Our tour guide told us that the DPRK workers themselves had been paid in food—all hard currency went to the regime. We were subjected to a short, silly, Hollywood trailer-narrated propaganda film (Really, is that needful? With beautiful kdrama production values, it was of the WWII-era newsreel genre, which took its toll on believability, no matter how credible its claims) in the museum where we didn’t have time given to read the captions. We did get to see some neat things, in addition to our brief glimpse of the DPRK itself. We went down into the “Third Infiltration Tunnel,” where the granite walls dripped moisture, and little bits of moss had begun to grow from the warm of human breath. I was grateful for my yellow hard hat, as I cracked it several times on the scaffolding running some parts of the tunnel. And I was grateful that I was in decent shape, because hiking back up the steeply inclined access shaft was a workout.
Besides the paid binoculars, there were souvenir shops at the tunnel and at the overlook point. They sold North Korean brandy at hefty prices, and chocolate-covered soybeans—the 36 gram packet (folks, that’s about an ounce) I bought as my memento (and also because I wanted to sample that peculiar delicacy known as a chocolate covered soybean…they weren’t bad) set me back 3000 KRW. And there were Jen-Yu-Wine 5” long pieces of rusty DMZ barbed wire, mounted on cheap plaques, which could be yours for 30,000 KRW a pop. There were tons of tour buses there. It’s like the ROK said, “Fine, North Korea, you want to be idiot commies? We’ll capitalize the hell out of the DMZ.” They are certainly making bank off the separation marker. The tour reminded me why I hate group tours—there is no time to really soak in anything, and the guide doesn’t have time to answer questions. We had originally paid to go to the JSA, where (in the shared conference room) you can technically stand in enemy territory, but the UN had shut it down that morning. The tour company refunded the money for that part of the tour, which was nice, as it was the more expensive part. The downside of the tour was that it finished in an expensive part of Seoul with us all being funneled like cattle through an absurdly overpriced amethyst factory showroom (ten key markup), and we all would have preferred a decent restaurant, as we’d been without food for five hours by that point.
Friday morning, Penny had in mind to go to the mural village, an older neighborhood in Seoul where the alley walls are colorfully frescoed with whimsical designs. It was thronged with teenaged Korean girls in old dark blue sailor style school uniforms and cherry colored lipstick. There was a cat cafe with no cats, only numerous tiny paintings patrons had done of their favorite felines. There were two long flights of stairs, one of which had had a bright mosaic of koi on the risers, and the other had had a design of sunflowers. These were pictured on postcards that could be purchased. But both mosaics had been painted over (!) in the last year, without explanation, the proprietress of one small shop told us. We noted that the drab grey paint had been scuffed in some places, letting small glimpses of color peek through. Why would you take a beautiful asset, and obliterate it? Is this an indirect attempt on the part of the neighbors to rid their irregular and sharply inclined streets of the multitude of chattering, selfie-snapping tourists?
We hiked up the associated oreum by the old city wall to look at the view. Penny and June amused themselves by spinning around on the adult playground equipment halfway up. At the top of the hill, we interrupted two young guys from Nepal who were taking glamour shots of each other to take our own.
Walking back near Seoul University Hospital to an area with restaurants, we passed multiple examples of interesting public art (and a huge poster advertising the musical version of that kdrama favorite Boys over Flowers). The most odd, perhaps, were three giant replicas of piles of poop that were covered with tiny mosaic tiles. June was disgusted, but I insisted she take a picture of me standing next to them. (There’s a science book on display at the hagwon where I work that’s wholly dedicated to the subject of excrement. I need to post a picture of it.) Then we went and had a great meal of bibimbap. June had a rice shrimp concoction that she reported “was kind of like shrimp and grits.” Then we found a store selling ridiculously cute socks. I bought 10 pairs for a total of 10,000 KRW.
Saturday was exceptional in that I encountered my first stereotypically gay Korean as well as my first punk Korean—talk about going against the flow in a straight and straight-laced society! I wonder how they can cope. I spent the afternoon on a free student-led tour around Gyeongbokgung Palace with part of the Australian cast of a traveling addition of the musical Cats. Penny and June didn’t stay with the group and we lost each other for an hour or so, eventually reuniting by chance (and without panic on anybody’s part) at an exhibit. Throughout the grounds, hanboks threaded gold glimmered in the sunshine and tossed in the wind, along with the girls’ beribboned black ponytails. The lovely colors contrasted with the sand and dusty stones underfoot and danced with the green leaves on the trees.
I had never been so happy to see asphalt as I was when we were leaving Gyeongbokgung. Inside the grounds, choking whirlwinds of sand spun up across the unpaved courtyards and across the walkways. I ended up clutching a Kleenex across my nose and mouth to breathe. I wished I had a facemask, as hundreds of other people were wearing, but I am not in the habit of carrying one. Probably 75% of the people on the street were wearing masks because of the airborne dust; I guess they keep them in their pockets just in case.
Going back to the metro, past election trucks emblazoned with the face and ballot number of their respective presidential candidates, we found a publication fair outside the Seoul arts academy, with little tables tucked underneath white umbrellas and green ginkgo trees. Here there was no dust, and it was lovely and cool. June and I met a children’s book illustrator who signed his books for us. I bought several handpainted cat planet pins (the curled cat the planet, its tail the ring) for my friends whose lives revolve around their felines. Then, after Penny texted us, “I’m going to go rogue”—we’d been shopping long enough!—we went to Itaewon.
“I swear, I don’t know why the internet is moving so slowly!” I complained on the subway.
Maybe your dad is gumming it up." June remarked mildly.
“It's a ghost!” I responded, not immediately catching her allusion to one of my favorite pseudo-expletives.
We ate Mexican in Itaewon. At the table next to ours, a pair of road shouldered ROK army guys in their fatigues shared a margarita. And at another, a skinny white fellow downed an entire liter of Caribbean blue alcohol over lunch.
Visiting the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace on Sunday redeemed me from my palace fatigue. After Gyeongbokgung, and its many buildings and layers (including the reconstructed smaller palace where Empress Myeongseong had been assassinated by Japanese forces), I had begun to feel the same about Korean palaces as about European cathedrals: all were tiresomely beautiful, constructed along a single guiding pattern, with only an occasional element to distinguish them from their relatives. Each featured multicolored multilevel eves over a throne room backed by an obligatory painted screen representing sun, moon, mountains, trees, and water as a visual map of the hermeneutical foundations for the Joseon regime. (I was fascinated to note that the throne room at Changdeokgung had been fitted by its last imperial owner with huge electrically-powered chandeliers, whose ancient yellow silk shades were rotten from age and exposure to the elements—the managers had replaced the matching curtains around the room, but not the chandelier shades). I hated to yawn at the splendor, but simplicity seemed so much more appealing. The Secret Garden was a beautiful oasis in downtown Seoul. It was quiet in the forest. The two-story library was the most imposing structure, and it was dotted with little cabins and gazebos where the royals could retreat. The largest pond had coalesced out of smaller pools and now coincidentally formed a simple map of the Korean Peninsula, unified in a murky puddle rimmed with granite stones. The living space was of simple stucco, white paper and grey-brown wood, and shaded by trees. There were a large number of Russians on the tour with which we initially roamed the garden, which deprived June and me of our “secret language” which had stood us in good stead on other occasions.
On the last train of Saturday night out of downtown on Line 6, a poster on the metro featured a smiling ROK soldier with teeth so perfect he looked like a toothpaste ad. In the seats, a drunk couple leaned asleep on each other's shoulders, their heads lolling, a lollipop stick in the woman's mouth, the man's dark face soft and sloppy, his bottom lip protruding like a baby's. The decades dramatically degrade the youthful beauty of Korean men. There are many handsome fellows of twenty, and few indeed of 40. The soju and cigarettes really do take a toll. But then there is the occasional guy that is naturally ageless—Al, a fellow in my adult class, looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. We were recently doing a lesson on families, and he mentioned that he has a son and a daughter.
“Oh, do they live with your ex-wife?” I asked.
He looked at me oddly. “No, she lives in Seoul. My son is in the army. My daughter is 24. I’m fifty,” he said, grinning at my shock.
“Do you have any grandchildren?!” I sputtered.
“No,” he said.
“Not yet,” I responded. “You’re going to be the world’s youngest-looking grandpa.”
We got to Gimpo Airport early Sunday afternoon so that Penny could do some shopping. The Lotte Mall was stuffed with couples and families. Small children rode small scooters with flashing wheels. There were lots of dads holding kids, cuddling kids, feeding kids, pushing strollers, and carrying babies in chest pouches (their little legs waved with abandon or hung limp in slumber). Lotte Mall is a mall done right in terms of appealing to upper middle class members of a homogenous society. An entire wing of the upper floor was fitted out with a professional and fun child care facility. There were good restaurants--mostly Korean (there was one burger place, one Italian, and a TGI Friday's, and one restaurant labeled in English as Chinese), and lots of beautiful stores with beautiful (and pricey, to my second-sale oriented eye) things to buy.
In the airport, a quartet of black-clad young men cradling submachine guns strolled through the terminal. Maybe this is normal. I think June was mildly freaked, but I don’t think she’s used to being around as much weaponry as I am. I love flying in Korea. The security lines are so efficient. Boarding and seating on the planes is swift and painless. The only downside of the whole Seoul trip was the bus journey back across Jeju once we landed. The smell of rancid alcohol suffused the sickeningly warm atmosphere. Thank God, the stinking drunk got off once we were halfway over the island, but the aroma still slightly remained. A constant stream of preternaturally perky female voices announced approaching stops in Korean and English, Chinese and Japanese as the bus made one gut-churning turn after another. If there was a bump in the road, it was dutifully run over. If there was a turn, it was taken at speed. The vehicle shuttered and rattled, vibrated and shook. I managed to get the window open a bit, and stuck my nose close to the cool night air. The Koreans seemed entirely unperturbed by the jerk and sway, calmly texting or sitting mute. Perhaps kimchi has deep anti-nausea properties. I need more dramamine.