Seoul!

Annyeonghaseyo!

So once again, there has been a significant time lapse since my last post, but I’ve mostly just been hanging around the midwest anyway. I moved back from Spain almost two years ago, then immediately started a job as a research analyst at Scott AFB! Having a job has been a fulfilling adventure in itself, but alas I still yearned to get back out in the world. It just so happens that my good friend Bomi planned to celebrate her marriage in her hometown, so that was a perfect excuse to travel to South Korea! I’ve never been in this part of the world, and so far it’s been amazing! There’s always a little angst that accompanies traveling alone internationally, but it’s not so bad.

My flight from Toronto was a mere 13.5 hours, and went without issue. I love flying at night, but as it turned out we followed the sun all the way across the world so it never did get dark. Oh well. The airport in Seoul wasn’t particularly large, but it was definitely bustling. Either way, it was pretty easy to follow the herd through immigration and customs, and my bag was waiting for me at baggage claim, which is always a relief. I exchanged some money and broke down and rented a wifi “egg” so I’ll have internet wherever I go. It was more than I had planned to spend, but as much as I enjoy being frugal, the ability to navigate and communicate has been well worth it. Anyway, after I got all of that squared away, I set off to purchase my (much cheaper) bus ticket to Gangnam.

Bomi and I had planned to meet in Busan two days later, so in the meantime I got in contact with Helena!! Helena was the first friend I made in Spain, and she’s the one who introduced me to Nola (our other companion). Helena was only there for a semester, but we traveled to Milan, Venice, Morroco, and Amsterdam together, and I’ve found that traveling abroad with someone tends to be a pretty great bonding experience. She met me at the bus stop near her apartment, and it was so amazing to get to see her again. We later called Nola and mused how we hadn’t spoken all that often but pretty much picked up right where we left off. Except now we’re old, so much of our conversations revolved around working, investing, and some of the legislative and economic differences between our respective countries.

I also got to meet her family! She lives with her parents and two sisters – one older, one younger. I’d met her older sister when she came to visit in Madrid, and I can’t believe I actually got to see her again! Her family was soo accommodating. For instance, her mom had some sort of crab dish for dinner, but ate several hours earlier for fear that it would make the house smell. That didn’t stop her from laying out a huge spread for us later though. Helena’s dad came home from work right around 8, and we immediately sat down to a meal of rice, bulgolgi, and some noodle-ish dish that was really good. I also sampled some kimchee and seaweed, but those weren’t my favorite. Her parents didn’t speak much English, but they were impressed with my chopstick skills! See, back at home everyone makes fun of me for using chopsticks on any non Asain food, so I was rather excited to be somewhere that it’s not only socially acceptable, but expected.

After dinner Helena and I set out for Itaewon, a  neighborhood known for its nightlife. We walked around a popular street then settled in for a drink on the patio of a quite restaurant – more proof that we are indeed getting old. It was interesting to observe the atmosphere because it just reminded me so much of Madrid. It’s hard to explain, but just the sights and sounds and smells took me back. Since I’ve been back in the States I’ve visited New York, Chicago, and some smaller cities, but they just feel…different. I’m not sure what it is, but Helena agreed. Actually, when Bomi came to visit me in Madrid she kept saying how it reminded her so much of Korea. Her conclusion was not that Europe  and Korea were that similar, but that the US is just so different from everywhere else. Anyway, it was great to sit and catch up and reminisce. We returned to her place pretty early because I had officially pushed my circadian rhythm to its limit, but it worked out because I woke up feeling pretty refreshed the next morning.

For breakfast her mom made some rice with potatoes and salad. I’ve never had salad for breakfast, but I suppose there’s a first for everything. Helena is studying for her CPA exam, which entails a weekly class, so we had to part ways soon after. It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye, but she, Nola, and I planned to meet in Hawaii next summer or so because it’s kind of in the middle of New York, St. Louis, and Seoul, so there’s that.

She walked me to the metro, then I set out to find my hostel in Insadong, another neighborhood. It was supposed to be a straight shot, but I think I got off a couple stops too early, so I ended up having to walk for quite a while. I didn’t mind because it was a great way to experience the city, but I’m glad I packed relatively light because dragging my suitcase along the cobblestone sidewalk was somewhat cumbersome. I was also relieved that I had invested in wifi, so I made it there with relative ease. The man at reception didn’t feel too strongly about his English, but he was extremely nice and soo helpful while I was trying to sort out my train ticket for the next day. I was staying in a four person  dorm, but there was only one person there when I entered. Her name escapes me, but she was from Russia and she was really nice. I later met the other two. One was Korean (I think) and didn’t speak much Enlish but was courteous nonetheless. The fourth girl appeared to be Korean, but she conversed with the girl in Russian as opposed to the other girl on Korean, so I’m not sure.

I took a moment to get my bearings, then set off for the Royal Palace. I actually walked straight there without getting lost! It was incredible to be somewhere so old. Though as it turns out, it was almost completely destroyed by their war with Japan, so it’s been largely rebuilt within the last few decades. I meandered aimlessless in and out of the different halls, then strolled around the Royal Gardens for a while. I eventually came to the Korean Folk Museum, which had free admission! It was really interesting getting a glimpse at the country’s history and how it has evolved into the culture it is today.

I left the museum in search for a traditional village, but stumbled upon the Nation Museum of Modern Art in the meantime and couldn’t resist. The sign said that people under 24 were free, so being 24, I wasn’t sure if I qualified, but the lady looked at my ID and gave me a free ticket! I know modern art is notorious for being somewhat, well different, and it was fascinating. The first exhibit was from this artist that had taken all the flags from every nation and broken them down into like their original strings, and wove them all together. The commonalities in color schemes were meant to call into question all the perceived differences between countries. There was another exhibit that had a bunch of fingers pointing towards the middle of the room, but upon further review I think it was supposed to be two sides pointing fingers at each other. There was an exhibit on the Futurist movement, which was a video. I stopped to check it out and when I did there was a dark screen with a familiar voice giving a speech in English that ended with “and we are going to make. America. great again!!” I tried to get a read on the room out of curiosity, but literally no one seemed to show any reaction. The video went on to an animated segment of a robot in a decayed city, and there were several minutes of the robot dancing with a whale swimming around its head. It was so bizzare that when it ended I had to stay to see the first half that I’d missed to try and get some context. It didn’t help. The whole thing was in English, and part of it was set in NYC, so I guess it was American made, but I didn’t really get it.

I wandered into another exhibit that was even stranger. So it was an animated video featuring a classic German hymn that depicted some Thai death ceremony only with mice instead of people. In front of the screen a bunch of “dead mice” were layed out with what looked like mirrors as headstones. It was absolutely one of the most bizzare things I’ve ever seen, but it was fascinating. One piece had a quote from the artist saying “to explain it is to exploit it” because there’s often not a single interpretation of art, and that sort of became my mantra throughout the entire museum. The next room was a much less ambiguous video that detailed some of the current issues of Korean Chineese people in regards to immigration and their identities. I definitely learned a lot. One of the last exhibits was about food and how even “traditional” dishes tend to be products of other countries. There was a video of a focus group where a man was adamantly arguing that curry comes from India…

I left the museum in deep thought then meandered the streets for a while longer. I’m not sure if I actually made it to that village or not, but I was feeling pretty drained so I started back to my hostel. I hung out for a bit, then went out in search of food. I knoow it seems ridiculous but I couldn’t read most menu items displayed on the street, and I was really in the mood for something familiar, so I went to an Indian restaurant. I figured I have plenty more time for Korean food, and sometimes ethnic foods are different in different countries. I had Indian in Madrid and London and they were nothing alike. This place was pretty on par with what I usually eat in the US though and it was thoroughly satisfying. After dinner I went back to wandering the road near my hostel and just sort of taking in the environemt. It was pretty crowded, and again, really reminded me of Europe.

Despite trying to go to bed somewhat early, I didn’t sleep very well because I was afraid of missing my alarm. I finally gave up about an our before I was supposed to leave and just layed in my bunk to watch the sky gradually get lighter and brighter. I packed up my stuff as quietly as possible so as not to wake the others, then set off for the train. I had to walk to the metro, then take a train  to the station, and I was again grateful that I had decided to splurge on wifi. I made it with relative ease and before long boarded a train to Busan, which is where I currently sit. I’m excited to meet up with Bomi this afternoon – I was a little nervous about being alone in Seoul, but of course, I was just fine and actually enjoyed exploring on my own for a bit!

So far the people here have been pretty great. For the most part they really seem not to notice me, but have been very polite and courteous in the few interactions I’ve had. I think Busan is going to be different than Seoul and I can’t wait to experience it!

Until next time!