Saturday, September 01, 2012

Korea Trip: Thursday

I'm not going to describe everything we did on our trip because it would be the equivalent of making you watch one of those old-school vacation photo slide shows, one narrated slowly in a monotone voice.  But I'll try to cover the major highlights. Also, RR has an overview of our trip with plenty of pictures over on her blog.

On Thursday (Korea time), we went to Insadong in the morning.

Here's (I think) the street our hotel was on, heading toward Insadong.

Almost as soon as we set foot on the street, we got stopped by a very nervous-looking group of college students who wanted to interview us for some English class assignment.  They were sweet and clearly relieved at our willingness to participate. They were adorable, and their questions were easy.  I think MJ was worried we'd be irritated, but honestly, who hasn't had a mortifying, terrifying assignment in school?  Who hasn't had to interview someone or ask a favor of a stranger and been nervous at the prospect? Why wouldn't we want to make it easy for them?  Maybe if we lived there and got stopped every time we left our home, but as a mere tourist, it was no big deal.

After that, we headed toward the shopping. Technically, we were heading toward coffee, but we walked past stores on the way to coffee, so we shopped.  Insadong has a lot of stores selling traditional Korean artsy type things (paper crafts, silk bags, etc.).  Some are clearly cashing in on the tourist trade with cookie-cutter items, while other stores have really neat stuff that's unique and clearly personal to the artist.  We spent a lot of money right out the gate, regretted it almost immediately, and then, out of a fear of future regret, swung too far the other way and bought nothing for days.  That's pretty much how we shop regardless of where we are.  We have only two shopping modes most of the time: (1) go in every store, buying nothing but looking at everything, with the intention of looking at other stores and then deciding what to buy, only we wind up buying nothing because we're too lazy to backtrack, or (2) buy something in every store we go in until we're out of money. Neither makes for a good shopping strategy.

We started out in shopping mode (2) and then, after the first store (at which we bought some hairpins, and RR bought an amethyst necklace that was beautiful and which she regretted buying almost immediately), we switched to (1). After that, we were careful to do more window shopping than actual in-the-store shopping because sometimes that's the only way to avoid impulse shopping--you just don't go in.  Since we were on the street, RR had lots of opportunities to take pictures of the road.  That's what happens when you travel with a city planner--you get lots of pictures of roadways and awnings and things like that because she's always looking for ideas.  And Korea, like older, Eastern U.S. cities and pretty much every country in Europe, has much better ideas about how roads are supposed to work than us here in Sprawlsville, USA. 

By the way, if you didn't know that the idea that roads should be designed primarily, if not exclusively, for cars is an idea generated and promoted by the car industry, an idea that we buy into hook, line, and sinker, to the detriment of pretty much everyone, you should read Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic

Oh, speaking of design flaws, the hotel toilet was very much on the low-flow side. Is that a Korea thing or a hotel thing? Our family has had our share of hotel rooms with non-functioning toilets, but I don't know if it's all hotels or just our dumb luck. We have learned over the years that before we unpack, before we take off our shoes, before we turn on the television, before we do anything, as soon as we walk into a hotel room, we head straight for the bathroom and flush the toilet to see if it works. It doesn't matter the quality of the hotel, we've had problems at pretty much all levels. This toilet technically worked, but it seemed so reluctant to do its one job that we were worried for the entire trip that it was one flush away from giving up.

Anyway, let's get back to our Thursday activities.

After parting ways with many a won, we made our way over to Ssamziegil.  It's a small four-story shopping center in Insadong where you can find more artsy, trendy, young stuff. 

Obviously, this is not my video.  It's this guy's.

There we were able to have coffee--finally! I took a chance on having an iced mocha. I felt like I had a slight allergic reaction to it, but it was good, and I was desperate for coffee, so I just drank it. No regrets. This was supposedly a book coffee shop [I think it was called Between Pages (갈피)], and it did have some books and lots of magazines. The magazines were all in Korean, naturally, so we couldn't read much. But I flipped through the Korean GQ, a magazine I like to look at in any language. I used to have to read it for my job years ago, and old habits die hard.  Despite the slight reaction, we still went back and got another one the next week.  You know, just to verify that it wasn't safe for me. It's not.

We then tried to find a shop in the center that MJ had bought some cute notebooks at a year or so before. We never found it. We think it is no longer with us.

It was lunch time by then, and we were hungry, so we dropped in at Sanchon for lunch.  I'd never been to a restaurant selling temple food before.  And I'd never been to a traditional-style Korean restaurant before, one where you sit on cushions on the floor at your table. We couldn't have most of the food, but we could have was delicious and pretty, too. The hobak juk was some of the best I've ever had, definitely less sugary sweet than what I usually find.  Really, really good.  If you've never had it, describing as "winter squash soup" doesn't really do it justice, because that sounds pretty bland. But it's actually delicious.  And Sanchon's was top-notch. If you have food allergies, have $30 per person to spare on lunch, and can speak Korean, you should go if you're in Seoul, but call ahead to tell them what you're allergic to. We were told that if we'd called ahead, they could have made the food by leaving out what we couldn't have.  Oh, well. Live and learn.

We ate way too much--especially MJ, who tried to eat as much of the food that we were served but that RR and I couldn't have. I'm not sure whether she felt bad for leaving food on the table or because we were paying for it but no one was eating it, but she definitely ate more than she wanted to.  She seemed uncomfortable. I was jealous.

We then headed out to Myeongdong to do more shopping.  
This video was filmed by Hyunwoo Sun, who is awesome and makes me feel like I do nothing with my life.

Just like in the video, it was super crowded, like Times Square crowded.  We went in a few stores but, burned by regret from our morning impulse shopping, didn't buy anything.  Ok, we didn't buy any clothes or makeup or accessories, but we did buy food.  Specifically, bbopki (basically, cooked sugar) and roasted chestnuts.

Both were yummy. I also bought a cell phone charm at a store that was blasting Fergi's "London Bridges." For what it's worth, if you hear it in a foreign country, it's still a stupid song that makes no damn sense.

I'm pretty sure it was that night that we saw this nail place:
We don't know what "actually technic" means, and we're not sure that we'd brag about being a "wannabe," international or otherwise.  But we did kinda want to get our nails done there out of curiosity.

While we were out, we got stopped by another group of students.  They asked us what we liked best about Korea, why we were visiting, what our favorite Korean musical group or singer was, and who our favorite Korean actors were.   When we told the names of two talented and, let's be honest, attractive male actors, they said we had good taste. Yes. Yes, we do. I don't think the questions were the best questions for tourists because not every tourist will know much about Korean pop culture. Maybe they are assuming that the people they stop and interview live in Korea? I don't know. It was fine for us because we knew just enough pop culture to answer their questions. But I would have felt bad if I'd had to say that I didn't know any Korean musical groups or actors or that I didn't know enough about Korea to say what I liked best about it. That would have made me feel very awkward, like I'd accidentally insulted the students.

We were stopped by the students while attempting to locate a Starbucks so we could tell her fiance to meet us there.  As is typical with the three of us, we knew that we'd passed one, but we couldn't remember where, so we circled for what felt like forever before finding one, though not the one we'd originally passed.  And then there was a slight delay in meeting up with her fiance because he went to a different Starbucks in the area.  Probably the one that we passed in the first place.  By the way, they don't have drip coffee or plain ol' tea at Starbucks in Korea. RR and I didn't know what to order because we were so taken aback. It was like that scene in Grosspointe Blank where John Cusack's character finds out that his childhood home had been torn down and a convenience store built in its place, and he just can't process it, so he starts asking the poor store clerk all kinds of questions trying to get at the root of how this could have happened. "How long have you worked here? Where do you live? Where does your manager live? And how long have you worked here?" We were that guy. We didn't ask the baristas where they lived. I just mean that we didn't know what to do. I guess it was naive of me, but I really did expect that all Starbucks the world over would serve drip coffee or plain tea. It's a chain store!  I finally just ordered an americano because that's what I always do when I don't know what to do in a coffee shop.

We finally met up with MJ's fiance, who was nervous about meeting us because he hadn't spoken English in awhile, but he did very well and was perfectly charming.   We then headed to a nearby department store to go to one of the several restaurants they had.  Real restaurants with actual food--we're not talking about Sbarro's or Subway here.  Department stores in Korea are not like department stores in the U.S--they are far, far better.  Some even have grocery stores in them.  They're more like a small version of a mall here (or like Harrod's in London).  I'm not saying I want what they have in Korea exactly--I like that at our malls, they have more than one department store right there.  I just wish that the department stores at our malls were like what they have there. Or maybe we could just have multiple department stores as stand-alone stores but right next to each other.

While at the restaurant (sushi!!), fiance expressed his worry about how we were going to survive once they left on their honeymoon and we were left in Seoul ALL ALONE.  It was very sweet, but considering that both MJ and Fiance had moved to the U.S. to go to school while speaking only limited English, I felt like they should give us enough credit to be able to not die in Seoul due to not speaking Korean.  But then I thought that maybe they were remembering how nervous they were going to a strange country and not speaking much of the language, and they just didn't want us to have to go through that.

We pointed out that tourists go to Korea all the time without speaking the language, and they're fine.  And Westerners go to Korea to teach English and live there for a year, sometimes more, often without bothering to learn much or any Korean, and they also don't die or starve.  Fiance said, "Yeah . . ." in that tone that implies a follow-up, "but it's different." I think MJ must have been telling him stories of our tendency to get lost.  He strongly urged us to join up with a tour group after the wedding.  We don't so much care for tours.  A tour of a museum collection? Great.  A guided tour of a city that takes up your whole day and dictates where you'll go and how much time you'll spend there? Not so much.  Spoiler alert: we didn't join a tour, and we didn't die.  We did get lost, though. Repeatedly and persistently. We walked a lot.  Probably why my coworker told me upon my return, "You're the only person I know who goes on vacation and loses weight."  When you can't eat any of the food at your vacation destination, and you have to ration the food you brought with you because it has to last the whole trip, and you are forced by your lack of any sense of direction combined with your refusal to ask for help to spend most of your awake time walking around, you don't pack on the pounds.

I would like to clarify that it isn't a sense of pride that keeps me from asking for directions, or at least I'm not embarrassed by getting lost.  For me, getting lost is like tripping while walking: if you've done it as much as I have, it loses the embarrassment factor. But I usually don't understand the directions people give me and then getting lost after someone has taken the time to give me directions makes me feel like I've let that person down.  And asking for directions feels like taking the easy way out, like I'm refusing to try and figure it out on my own.  This is why RR and I always pack good walking shoes when we take trips together. Plus, there's always the fear that you'll ask the one person in that city who likes to send tourists in the wrong direction just for kicks.

After dinner, MJ and Fiance insisted on taking us back to our hotel, and then RR and I vegged out for the rest of the night, reading and watching television, trying to figure out what the actors were saying without subtitles. AND THEN we realized that on Sunday, we'd get to watch one of our favorite Korean variety shows (actually the only Korean variety show we watch or even know anything about), and for the first and possibly only time in our lives, we could watch it as it was airing.  We'd have to watch it without subtitles, but it's not a show that you really need subtitles to enjoy. 

All in all, a good day, and a good start to our trip.   

Edited on 9/3 to fix a typo because "better" and "batter" are not the same thing.


flask said...

getting lost is good for you.

i try to do it on purpose every so often, but i think if you do it on purpose, it's not really getting lost.

Michelle said...

Ah yes. Korea and me go well together, especially when it comes to shopping! Meongdong is always crowded whenever I go and sometimes can be shoulder-bumping tight. But I love the experience all the more. Love your video clips!

Laureen Sii said...

That was a very nice of yours. I enjoy reading your post. I so love Korea, really. I never been there but I really want to go. It is good to have a Korea Tour Package when going there so that we will not get lost.

JLR said...

flask: I agree! Well, I agree that getting lost is good for the brain. But I can get good and lost even when I do it on purpose. :)

Michelle: Thanks for stopping by my blog! You're right about Myeongdong, I've only been twice, but even in pictures it's always crowded. I like seeing crowds for people-watching purposes, but I am too impatient to enjoy it for long seeing as how crowds slow everything down.

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