After a 12-hour plane ride over the Pacific Ocean, we arrived early yesterday evening in Seoul, South Korea. We're here to attend Al's cousin Peter's wedding (I got to know him this fall, as he did the reading at our wedding), and to see some of Al's relatives.
I believe it's still Thursday in San Francisco, but here it's almost 8am on Friday. I'd planned to write about our arrival last night before going to bed, but we had a late dinner with an aunt and uncle, and afterwards I was so tired I couldn't think straight. So far we seem to have escaped jet lag, however, due to our evening arrival; as it turns out, when we were tired was bedtime anyway. I suspect going back will be much worse, as we arrive at 10am.
Anyway, most of the people on our flight yesterday were going on to Bombay, so there were only about twenty of us going through immigration, baggage claim, and customs. It was a remarkably quiet and smooth process. Al's aunt and uncle met us at the customs exit, where they welcomed us warmly and congratulated us on our wedding. We then went to the SKTelecom booth to rent a cell phone, so we could coordinate arrangements with Peter and all the relatives more easily.
Aunt, who speaks English fairly well (and Korean fluently, obviously), helped Al get the phone, while Uncle (who speaks little English) and I stood by and watched. I tried to make conversation by telling him all the Korean words I knew, and a small "Who's on First?" scene ensued when I pointed to Al and said "nam-pyun." Uncle replied, "anae". Me: "No, I'm the anae. Al is my nam-pyun." He pointed to himself and said, "nam-pyun." I realized he thought I'd been pointing at Aunt when I'd said "nam-pyun", so I tried to clarify that I was pointing at Al. Eventually we got it worked out (I think). Yes, I am a wife, and Uncle is a husband, and Aunt is a wife, and Al is a husband. Phew!
We got the phone, brought our bags out to the car, and then made the 90-minute drive from the airport to the Chosun Hotel. There was what looked like a crazed goat hanging from the windshield on the passenger side, and I wanted to ask Aunt, "what's the deal with the goat?", but I wasn't sure my overly-idiomatic English would be understood. Later, as the thing rotated with the movement of the car, I noticed a cottonball-like tail on the backside of it, and figured that it must be a bunny, not a goat. I also found out that it was their son's car, so they probably wouldn't have known what the deal with the bunny/goat was anyway.
As we arrived in the city, Aunt pointed out various interesting sights, including the World Cup soccer stadium (very impressive) and the Han River. Al pointed out a Benningans; less than a block later was a TGI Friday's, and around the corner was an Outback Steakhouse. We knew from reading about it that western culture and chain restaurants were proliferating around the world, but somehow I was not prepared for a Bennigan's, a Friday's, and an Outback here in Seoul. A Planet Hollywood (as there was in Barcelona) or a McDonald's would probably have been less of a shock.
Next we passed a university district; apparently there are several schools in one area, including Ewah University, the women's college that Al's mom graduated from. Al then pointed out a shop window and said, "look at the dresses." I looked, and said, "oh, wedding gowns!" And then there was another window of wedding gowns. And another. And another. I said, "wow, I guess this is the wedding dress district." Al said, "Well, Ewah University." My heart sank. Have we made no strides?
We arrived at the Chosun Hotel about 10 minutes later... only to find that we had a reservation at the Chosun Hotel in Pusan, about 8 hours from here. After a moment of panic and much finagling in both English and Korean, we finally got to the bottom line: we needed a room *here*, not in Pusan. I'm not sure what rate I signed up for, but I eventually just got out my credit card, filled in the registration slip, and got a key. Our room is a regular one, but it's awesome: a total Vern room. And it has high-speed internet access. Woo hoo!
I couldn't wait to write about all the things we were doing today, but I didn't have a chance to get on the computer between activities. The little slip of paper in my pocket on which I was jotting down keywords to jog my memory rapidly filled up, and now if I try to write about everything in a detailed narrative, I'll have a novel. I'm too tired to write a novel, so here are the bullet points:
Slippery — The first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the car last night at the hotel was how slippery it was. After walking around a bit this morning, I've discovered that it wasn't just something on my shoe or the hotel driveway: there's a film of greasy city goo on everything, and it's easy to lose your footing.
Face Masks — I saw several people this morning wearing cloth facemasks that hook over the ears; Al speculated that perhaps they had colds, and I thought maybe they didn't want to breathe the air unfiltered. Al's cousin Sung Won told us we were both right. It's sort of like putting a scarf over your mouth when the air is cold.
Anthem Time — We stepped into the Lotte Department store to the sound of a booming anthem-like tune; the zillions of salespeople, most dressed alike (we weren't sure what the distinction was between the girls dressed in gray suits and those wearing chic outfits), stood at attention at their stations and bowed as we walked by. I felt like we'd been mistaken for royalty. We were a bit uncomfortable and wondered if we were doing something wrong, but there were several Koreans who were happily shopping away all around us. They seemingly took no notice of the spectacle, so we assumed we were OK.
One other word about Lotte and its numerous salespeople: I've learned that in Korea, if you touch anything, a salesperson or the shopkeeper will shoot to your side and ask you your size or straighten the thing you just touched. It's a little disconcerting for a determined browser like me.
Starbucks 3, Tully's 1 — I wasn't *too* surprised to see a Starbucks here (we saw three, actually), but I *was* surprised to see a Tully's. The ambassador's wife later told us, when we met her at the rehearsal dinner, that she cut the ribbon at the opening of the largest Starbucks in town (and I think the second largest in the world). That was the first one we'd seen: it's in an old bank building, and is four stories.
Delicious Lunch with Grandmother — Al's cousin Sung Won drove us around and showed us the city today, and he took us to the Hanil Chemical Company to meet with Al's grandmother and her son. (I think she's actually Al's dad's mother's best friend, but she has filled the role of grandmother in the family since Al was born.) Grandmother is 81 and still comes into the office, although I don't think she bears the title of CEO any longer. I was amazed at how tiny she was, but she was incredibly warm and sweet. She and Sung-jin took us to lunch at a Japanese restaurant, and the food was fabulous. Mashaseyo!
Kimchi Museum — After lunch we stopped into the COEX Mall under the Korea World Trade Center, where we saw an arrow on a directional sign pointing right for the "Kimchi Field Museum". "Is that a museum for kimchi?" asked Al. Sung Won didn't know, so we follwed the signs to see. It was indeed a museum for kimchi, so we paid the 3000 Won entry fee and had a look around. It was very informative and cute. I took a bunch of photos for my niece, who is doing a report on Korea for her second grade class in February.
Fancy Korean Rehearsal Dinner -> Firetrap Bar — The rehearsal dinner was at 7:30pm, and it was at perhaps the nicest Korean restaurant in Seoul: Sam-chung Got (sp?). The food was delicious (and edible, thanks to Savannah, who informed the waiters that I didn't eat meat). It was neat to have a traditional Korean meal while here, and I finally got my vegetarian pimimbap. :) From there we went back to the Embassy compound so people could change into casual clothes (Al and I just stayed in our rehearsal dinner duds), and then we walked to a bar in Insadong.
We entered through a shack door in a back alley, and had to duck to avoid hitting our heads on the uneven cardboard ceiling. Surprisingly, several people (including a few people in our party) were smoking; I say surprisingly, since this place would obviously go up in flames if a mere errant spark hit the ceiling. The waiters arrived with what looked like oversized metal dog dishes filled with an unfiltered rice wine; in each of these dog dishes floated a plastic cereal bowl. More cereal bowls were handed out to each of us, and plates of salted fish were placed in the middle of each table.
The wine looked like rice milk; it tasted like spoiled rice milk. Kinda OK on first sip, but the aftertaste was pretty icky. Most at our table used this as an incentive to take another sip. I had a few sips, then a couple sips of beer to wash the taste out, and then I stopped drinking. Likewise for Al.
That's about it for Friday's; it's now about 2 in the morning (Saturday!), so we're going to bed.
Today was Peter and Katelyn's wedding day. I was expecting little light in the church, so I brought some 3200 speed film in addition to the two rolls of 400 I had in my purse. As it turned out, the church was very light indeed. Another guest said that that had been her experience with churches in general in Korea: they're much brighter than their American counterparts. Anyway, I might have gotten a couple good snaps of everyone coming down the aisle, but I was too far away from both the front and the back of the church to get any good ones of the ceremony or of the bridal party gathering in the back. Should have brought the zoom.
The wedding reception was held at Ambassador Hubbard's residence, which was practically across the street from the church. It's a beautiful place with a rich history, and obviously well laid-out for holding large receptions. They had two buffet tables of traditional Korean foods, sushi, canapés, and fruit, and an amazingly light cream and fruit wedding cake.
I didn't think Katelyn could have looked more beautiful than she did in her wedding gown... and then I saw her in the traditional wedding han bok. She and Peter changed after the cake-cutting to participate in a traditional Korean ceremony in which the bride meets?and bows to?members of the groom's family. Peter looked pretty neat in the reddish brown top and black pants, and especially the hat that looked like Mickey Mouse ears, but really, Katelyn stole the show.
After the wedding reception we all went back to our respective hotels/embassy compounds to change into casual clothes, and then we took cabs up to the Hyatt Hotel to go ice skating. Oh, how I wish I'd packed my hockey skates! It was very difficult to account for the toe pick and the lack of edges on the rental figure skates. Hockey stops were out of the question, as were sharp turns around the cones. Al had tried one at speed, caught the toe pick, and landed on his knee; for some reason, I wanted to see if I could do the same thing and escape his fate, but of course I wiped out, too. Both of us have one black knee apiece now. Virtually the entire wedding party was there, and we all had great fun despite the injuries.
Next we all took cabs down to Itaewon, where we ate snacks at alley stalls and then took over a salsa bar. It was fun to dance and drink margaritas and beer and hang out. I couldn't believe Peter and Katelyn were still on their feet after such a long day—and they were still at the bar when we left at midnight! We're back in the room now and desperate for sleep; I keep dozing off as I write this, so I'm going to bed.
If they don't turn the heat down around here, I'm going to go mad! I was promised cold weather in Seoul, and so far I've been overheated many more times than I've been shivering. Last night was the true exception, when my shoulders ached from hunching them against the chill, but almost every other moment I've been here, I've been hot.
Today may be my hottest day yet; it's probably in the upper 40s out right now (as opposed to the mid-twenties that Seoul experienced in the days before we arrived), but indoors, it's in the mid-eighties. We have our room thermostat set to 59°, but it feels warmer than that, and in the corridors and lobbies it's stifling. I had a mid-weight turtleneck sweater, stockings, and a skirt on, and I could barely breathe. The stockings are now gone and I'm down to a thin t-shirt. Whew!
I was going to walk around outside and then come back for a swim, but I don't think I can take the pool area, which is hotter than the halls. I'm also a little weary of trying to make myself understood, and of jostling for elbow room. I walked to Naemdemun Market (quickly shedding my coat on the way), which is like a permanent street fair. Lots of stalls with socks, sweaters, pants, and shoes; several with handbags, backpacks, baskets, boxes, and utensils; and a few with snacks (several had something that looked like boiled bugs, but they might have been a nut that I'm not familiar with).
I didn't buy anything because the phrase Al gave me at breakfast for "how much?" didn't stick in my head, and I wouldn't have understood a reply in Korean anyway. I didn't take any photos because there really wasn't any room to get out my camera and stand still without offending someone or getting jostled. (I didn't realize that 12m people lived in Seoul until Sung Won mentioned it on Friday; that would explain the lack of personal space.) I'd also have to say that it's difficult to pick out specific things to photograph, since everything's so crammed together, and many buildings are the same color as the sky (gray).
Nevertheless, it was good to get out on the streets for a little bit; we've had very little time to just walk around, and what little we've done has involved returning the way we came so we didn't get lost. I like having enough time to allow for getting lost—that's part of the fun, and you get to see different things if you go in a loop than if you go straight there and back.
Tonight we had dinner with Al's two uncles and one aunt, their spouses, their children, and one grandchild (Ming-ki, who was an amazingly cute 4 year-old). It was a really fun dinner, during which Uncle Dae Hyung told us about the family history and Al's aunt's husband told us stories about his time in the KATUSA, where he worked with munitions and explosives. Meanwhile, I worked on gaining Ming-ki's trust without being able to communicate with him in Korean; it took longer than it would have if we spoke the same language, but eventually I got him. :)
We had a Chinese buffet for dinner, and after the (really wonderful) buffet brunch we had this morning with Peter, Katelyn, and several of the wedding party and guests, we were stuffed. Up until today Al & I had managed to eat well but fairly light, but the two buffets did us in. Bleah. Yum, but bleah nonetheless.
We had intended to hook up with Peter et. al. for more wedding weekend-related activities after dinner, but we were tired and overfull and didn't feel like interacting anymore. As it turned out, there were no messages for us telling us where everyone would be, so we had no apologies to make. As tired as we were, however, we felt like we needed to have a little exercise before we hit the sack. We decided to go down to the swimming pool.
With the sun down, the room was a bit cooler, and the water a bit cooler than the air temperature. We swam a few laps and then sat in the warm tub for a while (the hot tub was too hot) and talked about our impressions of the visit. It's always nice to have an interesting, animated discussion with your husband when there are no distractions, such as TV or a computer, around.
When we got back to the room, Al announced that he kinda felt like going for a walk. I said I'd go with him, so I put a hat on over my wet head, grabbed my digital camera and the room key, and we headed out. We walked over to the palace next to City Hall, using several underground shopping areas and a subway station to traverse the large traffic circle in front of the Seoul Plaza Hotel, and then up the street that the palace was on. We crossed it via another subway station (the larger streets don't have crosswalks), and then cut over to a parallel street and made our way back.
We found another (huge) Starbucks behind City Hall, but it had closed at 10pm. Maybe we'll go over and see if they can make Decaf Soy Lattes in the morning. We searched a couple 7-11s in vain for postcards, and then we walked back to the hotel. "You have just experienced the joy of the loop," I said to Al. He busted out laughing. "Why is that so funny?" I asked. He said he didn't know, it just was. He supposed that he found it amusing that I was so enamored of "the loop." I replied that the joy comes from seeing something different each moment, rather than the same things twice, and there is a small triumph to be had in figuring out a route without having to backtrack, without having to follow breadcrumbs. "I can see that," said Al. It's the joy of the loop.
We're leaving for the airport in about 90 minutes. I was saying to Al last night that I'm torn between wanting to go home, where it's easier to communicate and the streets aren't as greasy, and wanting to stay here to continue my education in the customs and language of Koreans. I think that that's an indication that the length of this, my first visit, was just right. Next time maybe we'll stay longer.
Peter and Maggie (Katelyn) called early this morning to say that they wanted to drop off a gift with us, and though the call woke us, we weren't sad. We'd wanted to get up early so we could walk around some more. We finally made it out at around 8:30am and headed for the Starbucks; we weren't surprised when they said they didn't have soy milk, but we were positively floored when they said they had no decaf. I couldn't stop repeating it has we walked away: No decaf? No decaf?!? Are you serious? I guess it was a sign that we weren't supposed to be wasting time at Starbucks in Seoul.
Since we were out already and we hadn't gotten to see inside the palace (Deoksugung) near City Hall last night, we walked over there to see if it was open. It wasn't; the opening time is 9am, but it's closed all day on Mondays. :( I started to turn for the subway entrance that we'd come out of when Al said, "don't you want to do a loop?" :)
We stopped in an LG25 for batteries, and Al clarified about why he'd laughed about "the joy of the loop" last night: He likes it that I give names to things like that. "It's like when you say, 'WHEEEEE!' when you're crossing four lanes of traffic at once and then declare, 'that's the sound for crossing four lanes of traffic' or when you looked at the service guide in the Korean Air inflight magazine and announced, 'ooh, in hour four we get presents!'" [The symbol for duty-free sales was a gift box, but I kept referring to it as "Presents!"] Makes me feel loved to know that he finds my quirks amusing.