06 May 2008
home is where the kimchi is
After flying over Canada, Russia, and the Pacific Ocean we finally heard the words that we'd waited over twelve hours to hear, "Welcome to Seoul." And then there was the small matter of setting our watches. "It's 6:00pm in Seoul. We've crossed the international dateline so it's now Wednesday." So while our hearts and minds (and watches) still said Tuesday, our plane had instead landed squarely in Wednesday.
So we did it; we flew into the future and are here to report that it ain't half bad. In fact from where we sit it's looking pretty good. Seoul is an incredible city - one of the ten largest in the world - and I think we're going to fit right in. I use the phrase "fit right in" rather loosely here, of course. Seeing as we neither resemble the folks who fill this city nor speak their language it might be a little difficult to fit right in. But we sure like the food.
Eating in Seoul is an absolutely fantastic experience although I couldn't tell you exactly what we've been eating. There's a lot of rice; that much is clear. There are also piles of pickled vegetables, sizzling meats, lettuce leaves, and octopus - and that was just our first lunch here. Being unable to read the menu either renders you more adventurous or starving and we've decided to embrace the adventure.
The food here can be spicy and sharp but also homey and comforting. It's ok to slurp at the table and I'm happy to report that you get to use a spoon for your rice. The metal chopsticks are for everything else and we're getting used to the fact that they tend to get a much more slippery grip on things than the wooden variety do. You get a fork and knife if you order any sort of deep-fried meat slab (talk to Stefano about that) and tumblers filled with water seem to come standard with every meal. Another standard is kimchi, the pickled and spicy cabbage that we've been hearing about since the day we knew we were coming to Seoul. The good news is we like it.
Eating street food appears to be as popular as eating inside and by the few items we've already sampled I can see why. Street food is plentiful, cheap, and incredibly good. We've had thick pancakes filled with a layer of molten brown sugar and also cubed pieces of nougat dusted with rice flour. On the savory side we've seen sizzling sticks of meat and steaming pots of stewed bugs. There are sweet potato fries and snails and blood sausages. And all cheap, cheap, cheap.
Seoul and Milan are surprisingly similar and might as well be long-lost cousins with their shared interests in coffee and fashion. Seoul's streets point to a real obsession with coffee - you can't walk ten feet without running into an American chain (Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks) or an Italian-themed café. And while I'm sorry to break the hearts of my dear Italian amici I must admit that some of these coffee places can make a mean cappuccino.
And fashion... these people definitely know how to dress. No one's walking around in sweatpants and the only fashion "dont's" seem to result from an overabundance of fashion "do." For example, older men here like to take a nice suit with a pattern, and wear it with a nice shirt that also happens to be patterned. Unfortunately the shirt's pattern is wildly different from the suit's pattern and while either would be nice on its own you put the two together and bam! you're unintentionally stopping traffic.
Another unique fashion whim of the Korean male is the wearing of a purse. At first it looks as if the guy might be dutifully carrying the purse of a lady friend but no, said lady friend has her own purse under control. These guys are wearing their own purses and while I have no clue what they're putting in them, they manage to rock the look. Italian males, take note.
The city is also ringed by mountains and hills and there are several in the middle of town. It's great to look up from big city Seoul streets and see green peaks rising in the near distance. We've heard that you can take the Seoul subway straight to hiking trails and be on the mountain in less than an hour. (That's assuming you can figure out the subway system.)
It won't be easy living in a country where we can't speak the language let alone read the alphabet, but we're here to stay. Happily, we already know how to say hello and thank you and with only five days in country, we're feeling pretty good about our progress. The real question is how many days will it take Stefano to buy a purse?