Wednesday December 25
The air was a crisp 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas morning. I woke up around 10 am to call my grandmother who always hosts the best shindig around on Christmas eve. After my family chat, Laura and I headed to my favorite brunch place in all of Seoul- Flying Pan. This Euro-American fusion restaurant has a quaint, schmoozy atmosphere right in the heart of Korean Wall-street. French music softly murmured in the background as we gazed upon the ice rink festivities taking place just beyond the glass in front of us. The food was scrumptious, the chai tea aromatic, and the company, superb. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start this holiday away from home. We took our time enjoying the ambiance and latte as we discussed the bests and worsts of 2013.
While in the Gangnam (Wall-street) area, we decided to go to a popular sticker photo shop, which had a line out the door. Sticker photos are photo booth pictures with the all alluring option of crazy, fun, unique editing additions. Christmas is a couple’s holiday in Korea, so many swooning lovers awaited the chance to get their holiday snap shots, along with a couple friend pairs like Laura and me.
No one at the store spoke English and I couldn’t read the signs explaining the process. Apparently there is a two step method to this madness: 1) People go into the initial booth to have photos taken. 2) People move to the second booth to edit, decorate, purchase, and print photos. Laura and I were just waiting, people watching, and planning to imitate what everyone else did. The line was getting long, and per usual, I was getting a bit impatient after about 30 minutes of waiting with almost no progression in the line. I saw a booth open up and thought… let’s be awful, typical, selfish American foreigners and cut in line.
When we entered the booth, we stared at a screen of color and cuteness explosion. I couldn’t read any of the directions so we just kept pressing buttons while getting ready for our photo op. We were hot in our winter gear and wanted to look our best, so we disrobed in the booth, Laura all the way down to her tank top. I was applying makeup and the both of us were curious about where the camera was. Every time we pressed a wrong button, an error bell would ring. People around us were getting shifty and probably curious as to why there were so many blunder beeps coming from our direction.
All of a sudden, the curtain was torridly torn back to reveal two horrified Korean teenage girls looking at us like we were either mean or stupid.
“My pictures!!!?!?” one girl exclaimed on the verge of tears.
Laura and I all too quickly realized that we had ‘cut in line’ to the second step of the process… the editing booth, of someone else’s pictures! Frantically, we tried to appologize. We attempted again and again to make the screen return to the beginning, but alas we had embarrassingly caused permanent damage.
Finally, I just yelled, “Grab your stuff. Run!”
We darted out of the store, through the impatient crowd, and into the frigid air to escape the shame of our Christmas misdeed. We couldn’t help giggling as we redressed ourselves in a store about a block away. After our trauma, we spent a few hours shopping and then rested at a coffee shop until we met up with Chris, John, Jesse, and Ellie for dinner at Chez Maak, one of my favorite trendy hip spots for makgeoli and pa jung (savory potato pancakes). Chris also surprised us with a pumpkin pie!
We rushed away from dinner so that we could make it to our movie- The Hobbit. Our tickets were pre-ordered, printed, and we were ready with popcorn in hand. Or at least that is what we all thought. The minor dilemma occurred when Chris mishandled the box and scattered popcorn everywhere.
The major dilemma came at the realization that our tickets were for an hour before I thought. We had accidentally come right in the middle of the movie. The movie clerks refused to refund our tickets, or even to set them for another time. I asked to speak to a manager to no avail. So much for holiday spirit?! I think this was our karma for destroying those innocent girls’ photos. Finally, John coughed up the extra money so that we could all go to a later showing. Meanwhile, we had already purchased our popcorn and drinks, so we sat in the lobby eating. Womp Womp (sound of disappointment).
There was an hour and a half to kill before the next showing, so we headed to the Rainbow lounge to smoke hookah. Hookah is flavored tobacco. The environment was trippy to say the least.
The movie was great, but poor Jesse fell asleep! We wound up leaving the theatre at 2:30 am, caught a cab, and headed home for peaceful slumber. Overall, not a bad Christmas away from home, but I can assure you that it still did not feel like Christmas.
Thursday December 26
As Laura walked the 5-minute commute to my apartment from her hotel, she was doused with a sheet of icy rain. She looked like a desperate wet cat by the time she reached my door. This was our first bought of bad weather during our entire trip thus far so I couldn’t complain, but we did have to do some emergency rescheduling with the crew. Instead of spending the whole day outside as planned, Laura and I camped out in my room, ordered pizza and watched Sex & the City while I tried to make sense of the chaos that had become my dwelling. Later in the afternoon, Laura and I met up with Jesse and Ellie at the Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae. The cuteness gets me every time. I just love this place! The food is terrible though- think croque-monsieur with pre-packaged mystery pork meat and American plastic cheese slices. Don’t get the food- only the delightful deserts and coffee.
After the warming latte, Laura and I headed to the Trick Eye Museum and to the seasonal Ice Museum attached. The reason I love the Trick Eye Museum so much is that it changes the optical illusions every 6 months or so, so one can go back many times, depending on how long one visits or lives in Seoul, to have more fun clicking wacky images!
Friday December 27
Our last day in Seoul together was a frosty one. Although the sun shown bright, the brusque air cut uncovered extremities like a knife with harsh winds. This was not our ideal weather, but we made do. Unfortunately, but hilariously, the theme of our last day was ‘underwhelming experiences.’ The weather was the first indicator of this. The second was our trip to the Namsangol Hanok Village for their ice carving festival. When one thinks festival, usually one imagines crowds of people, bustling activities, a variety of street food, and an air of grandness. Upon arrival, we discovered that the ice sculptures took up only a tiny space the size of a gas station convenience store. The place was nearly deserted and the ice sculpture area was roped off so there was no interaction with the art allowed. Womp Womp.
The highlight of the day was enjoying some Kalguksu lunch in Myeongdong! So delicious and the best kimchi around!
The next item on the agenda was Namsan Tower, the tallest point in all of Seoul. First we had to hike up a daunting hill in the bitter cold and then take a charming cable car up the rest of the distance. The views were as spectacular as they get in Seoul. I was admittedly a little disappointed by the lack of clarity due to smog, but honestly, there would never have been a perfect day because of the constant pollution harming Seoul, coming directly from China. Womp Womp.
Namsan Tower has a famous tradition where couples, friends, and companions of any kind, bolt their love up on the tower figuratively and literally. Laura and I decided not to do it, mostly because we didn’t want to spend the money on the equipment. I intend to return with my lover bear Chris before he leaves in March to leave our lasting lock of love. My dream is to return 10 years later to find our rusty trusty lock still there dangling amidst all the other shared moments of affection.
We were all lucky enough to witness a traditional performance while there.
Our intention for the evening was to witness a Christmas Lights festival in the far Eastern suburbs of the city. Worried that we may exact the same fate as our previous ‘festival’ of the day combined with our blatant unwillingness to bare the brunt of the weather (even to shop!!), we altered our plans. Instead, we returned down the mountain and passed a couple hours chatting and downloading kitty emoticons at a local coffee shop awaiting performance time. We also snacked on some spiral potatoes! Yummy- my favorite!
There are a dozen or so longstanding performances in Seoul that are popular with tourists and locals alike. My mother, Chris, Carly and I had attended Nanta when my mom visited in May. The show was a fusion of cooking, dancing, and traditional drumming. It had been a spectacular performance, one in which Chris was even invited on stage to perform in! Because I had already been to Nanta, Laura and I were deciding between a traditional Korean performance, Miso, and a show entitled Ballerina Falls in Love with a B-Boy. We opted for the later only because I had heard rave reviews from two of my friends at work. This was by far the worst decision of the day.
The ‘dance’ or ‘play’ was performed by a rag tag crew of adolescents on a tiny stage in a back alley theatre. The talent was slim to nil, despite obvious athleticism. Most of the performers seemed to lack any real ability to move or sense the rhythm of the music, appearing to flail their arms about to distract from their motionless cacophony of body cores and legs. The break dancing techniques were all ones completely over seen on youtube, and the ballerinas (not featured in the pics) appeared to be wearing their grandmother’s clothes.
The entire show was a hysterical horror. What made it even funnier is that we were the only Americans amongst a cadre of Japanese high schoolers who were enthralled with the muscular boys on stage. They literally flooded the stage after the finale. Each scene was uncreative, poorly acted, and performed with a shamefully embarrassing amount of braggadocios pride. I am 100% sure that my 20+ nieces and nephews (half of whom I have never even met) could have put on a better show. Womp Womp.
Despite a disappointing end to a day filled with lackluster events, the company was terrific. John, Jesse, and Ellie are fantastic friends. The true disappointment came from my expectations not aligning with the outcomes and my subconscious preparation for saying ‘goodbye,’ which I was dreading like none other.
I can’t speak for Laura, but I think she had a marvelous vacation. I appreciated all of her observations while here. She liked the ease and efficiency of public transportation, the endless array of foods, events and activities to do in the big city, and she liked the mix of the ancient history with modernity. She did not appreciate the high amount of drinking in the culture, especially the drunken, horny, entitled business men. She also hated the second class citizenship of women. She felt that while kind and intelligent, many Koreans seemed to lack individual expression and creativity.
In the large expanse of the city, Laura commented on how safe she felt and expressed concern over the future of America after witnessing the advanced level of my students, mind you, while operating in their second language. Many of my 13 year old students are discussing college level topics in English Tuesday and Thursday at academy, while advancing rapidly through their Calculus material on Fridays. Laura said she felt that her travels through Seoul had a sound track. She noticed the bells, bings, bongs, gongs, rings, tings, and songs of all of the city noises- from the elevator voice to the song of the approaching Subway, the doorbell to the restaurant service bell, and the clicking crosswalk to the beeping motion sensors.
Overall, the 3 weeks spent with my best friend cultivated memories and trust with and in one another that will last a lifetime. I feel so truly blessed not only to have a friend who is willing to invest so much time and money to come visit me, but also one who is an amazing travel companion- open to try any new activity or food, can balance the exhibits with outdoors, and is compassionately understanding. Three countries down together (Aruba, Vietnam, & Korea)! How many more to come? Only time will tell.
Saturday December 28
On Saturday morning, I walked Laura to her bus stop around 6 am. I knew that once I said goodbye, I would be terribly depressed and lonely, but also relieved to be able to take a hand full of sleeping pills and carelessly collapse into my long lost bed. I only had two days to recuperate before the onset of a horrendous month-long winter schedule at my work. I think this little girl below was only half as exhausted as I was! The whole experience was well worth it. I ended the week in a deep slumber accompanied by sweet dreams of us prancing around the world together to other mysteriously exotic lands.