Blast from the not so distant past

This week Tim and I were excited to reconnect with one of our Paris people, a girl we met at the Sorbonne whose parents live in Paris. She also happens to be South Korean, but as irony would have it, her American friends live in Seoul while she lives in the U.S. However, this week she was flown in for a couple of job interviews, and she was thrilled to share her knowledge of Korea and Korean food with us. But before I get to that, I am sharing with you my own discovery- sweet potato latte.

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One of my surprising discoveries in Seoul is the popularity of sweet potatoes, particularly in “latte” form which really means some milk, sugar, and sweet potato on ice- no coffee. It liked it!

Back to meeting our friend. Immediately upon arriving, she asked to meet up for dinner, and we were all too happy to have a native Korean speaker take us out and introduce to the different types of Korean food as well as how it should be eaten, and I don’t mean with chopsticks.

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When we arrived at the designated meeting place, we had to get in line just to get out of the metro. Once we surfaced we saw why. It was a rally for one of the presidential candidates. He’s the one in the blue jacket taking a picture with a supporter.  I thought there would be no one we could spot our friend among all these people. Fortunately Tim is taller than most, so he spotted her just as easily as she spotted two white people.

Our pick that night was at a restaurant that served Shabu Shabu. When I googled it, Wikipedia says it is a Japanese thing, but the Koreans, I am sure, would insist theirs is different/better. In either case, I didn’t have anything like it in Japan so I won’t compare. Well, actually, I’m going go ahead and say it is probably better here. So what is Shabu Shabu (other than fun to say)? It is a hot bowl of broth big enough for everyone at your table. At this restaurant, the broth was kept hot thanks to an induction plaque installed in the center of the table. While the broth gets nice and hot, you go to a sort of buffet where you pick out everything you want to throw in the broth. We picked about 3 different kinds of mushrooms (some of which I’d never eaten before), some sort of thinly sliced squash, bean sprouts, cabbage, and some other veggies that I’m blanking on. We then each got little wooden boxes filled with very thinly sliced beef, some sort of rice wrappers, and a hot bowl of water. We also filled up more plates full of side dishes like kimchi, cold noodles that had a sort of peanut flavor, delicious pieces of fried chicken, and some sort of little fried ball that reminded me of the little fried octopus balls we had in Japan.

We then returned to the table and put our veggies in the broth and let them simmer. Within a few minutes, they were pretty well done, and so we each took a piece of raw meat with our chopsticks, swirled it in the bowl of hot broth and pulled it out once cooked through (this took a matter of seconds). Nyna then showed us how to wet our rice wrappers in the warm water to soften them up, put it on our plate and fill with our pieces of beef and veggies and eat like a little wanton.

We did this repeatedly- we even went back for seconds of meat and veggies. Once we were practically full it was time to get noodles. Nyna led me back up to the buffet to get some dumpling like long noodles which we then cooked in the broth with some of the leftover veggies- delicious! Once we made our way through the noodles, we went back to the buffet to get some cold fried rice and a couple of fresh eggs. She then scooped out most of the broth from the bowl, dumped in the rice, and stirred it around before cracking the egg over it and letting it cook. It was incredible! Nyna explained it was because the broth was infused with all the veggies and beef we’d put in it that gave the rice such a great flavor. By the end, we were so completely stuffed that we barely had room for dessert, all we could manage were some small bites of fruit.

Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood catching up on things, and Nyna and I made plans to go shopping tomorrow for Korean beauty supplies for both of us and an interview outfit for her. That evening, she gave me my first introduction to Korean beauty practices by explaining that all Korean women use these nightly masks that are infused with different ingredients like green tea, tea tree oil, royal jelly honey, argan oil, really the options are endless. She even helped me make my first purchase of masks that night because in Seoul, beauty stores are open late- well some of them! Around 10:30, we parted ways with plans for our friend to meet us tomorrow morning for pancakes and then shopping.

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This isn’t where we ate, I just liked the giant neon lamb.

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When I got home, I used a mask. I totally felt like a serial killer from an 80’s horror film. Tim and I both couldn’t keep from laughing at how ridiculous I looked!

The next morning, I treated us to a round of my sister’s “super delicious pancakes,” before Nyna and I headed out to find her an outfit. We decided to head to Myeondong since that is where a lot of the shopping is. It was funny that my Korean friend was here to show me the ropes to eating and shopping, yet she wasn’t sure she’d ever been to Myeondong. Fortunately, I was there to show her the way. Before we could even start shopping, we encountered a parade of Avenger and other characters making their way around the neighborhood. Shouting, “This is SO snapchat worthy!” Nyna took off trying to get ahead of the parade so that she could get some good shots.

With the momentary excitement behind us, we focused on shopping. We spent the entire day popping in and out of stores, each of us trying out different things. At one point, I made a comment that women’s style here is all about boxy, loose fitting clothing, and while it looked cute on Korean girls, I didn’t think I could pull it off. Taking that as a challenge, Nyna raided the racks to try to dress me “Asian.” This is what happened.

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Before I got dressed, Nyna demonstrated the use of the cloth bags given out in dressing rooms. It is to keep you from getting makeup on the clothes.

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Nyna, “You look SO Asian- it’s adorable! I’m sending this to Tim!” Me, “Uh, what is this shirt? What do I do with all this material?” Sorry, Nyna, I think I will stick to imitating Parisian style.

Still being full from breakfast, we decided our lunch would be some Korean street food. Evidently, everyone has their own blood sausage. In Korean it is cooked and served in a spicy sauce and served with dumpling like noodles made from rice and cooked cabbage. It was really rice, but good! Later, we treated ourselves to a Korean dessert specialty called bingsu, which is shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and then whatever else you decide. Although what I picked isn’t considered a “traditional” bingsu, I couldn’t resist getting ours with in-season strawberries and a little wedge of “cheesecake.” I don’t have to tell you how good it was.

While eating our bingsu, Nyna’s older sister joined us. Nyna had called in the troops to help her make the final decision on her interview outfit. Her sister lives here in Seoul and I also think Nyna’s secret mission was to introduce us so that I had another friend/contact while we are here. Tim and I already think of Nyna like a little sister so actually meeting her older sister was fun, and we seemed to hit it off right away even if it was over teasing Nyna.

Her interview outfit in hand, her sister whisked her off to her hairdresser so that Nyna could get a fresh ‘do before her interview, and I returned home to hide my purchases from Tim, and don’t worry, I didn’t buy the outfit. 😉

To market, to market

This week I decided that I was spending far too much time in doors working on my various projects, and that it was time to shake it up a bit and explore. I decided to walk to nearby Namdaemun Market. I justified this little field trip by the fact that I need a large serving platter. Tim and I had been invited to a BBQ this coming weekend, and I, of course, put down that I was bringing a tarte tatin. Our apartment came with a large, round pan that just happens to be perfect for the apple dish, but I didn’t have anything to serve it on. So, Namdaemun Market it was. I mean if Korea’s largest and oldest (est. in 1414) didn’t have what I needed then I probably won’t find it anywhere.

Walking there I got momentarily turned around, but I knew I wasn’t far off. After practicing the question to myself, I screwed up my nerve to ask a woman in Korean how to get to Namdaemun. However, as soon as I got out the word Namdaemun, she cut to the chase and answered my question before I could have the joy of successfully saying the whole phrase. I’ve learned in Korean that you don’t necessarily need every part of grammar if the context is understood. My Korean teacher says this is because there are so many Koreans living in such close contact with one another, that they feel a lot of things are implied or understood, so you don’t have to go through the formalities of trudging through all the parts of speech when the essential elements will suffice. I think in my case, a white girl saying “Namdaemun” was enough context for the woman.

Entering Namdaemun was quite something- it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, yet it was swarming with people and perhaps the only that that outnumbered the people were the combined number of stores, street shops, and food stands. I wandered up and down the main alleyways marveling at all there was to see and buy before finally stopping to ask how to get to the kitchen area of the market.

Upon entering one of two main stores dedicated to wholesale kitchenware, I was taken aback by the sheer quantity and variations in dishes available. However, I kept my eyes on the task at hand, and tried not to be taken in by everything. Tim is seriously lucky we don’t really need dishes because, oh who am I kidding, I’m still thinking I need some dishes from here! Among all the dishes, though, I wasn’t finding my platter. I did find one, but they wanted too high a price for it so I moved on to the neighboring store. They actually had much of the same, and as I was beginning to despair that I was going to walk out without a platter, I saw a group of dusty old platters piled up near the floor. The men running the stand were eating lunch, but gave me the OK to take a look. I found one I liked, but he wanted $30, which was more than I thought it was worth. So, I told him I would take a different one for $15. He then offered me the original platter for $20, which I agreed to. Evidently he meant that as a package deal, but I quickly made it clear I only wanted the one, and happily he still let me have it for $20.

Happy with myself for successfully bargaining (though questioning whether I could have gotten an even better price), I set off to explore other parts of the market. I happen to stumble in a home goods area that was literally overflowing with every sort of home item you could imagine. I was really enjoying perusing but had no intention of buying until I came across the children’s hanbok’s. I’ve been searching for just such an outfit for my niece, but everything was too expensive. I hadn’t planned to buy today, but the lady, who spoke no English, was nonetheless super helpful and patient as we tried to communicate with one another. Plus, her prices were about half of other places, so I decided to pull the trigger.

The rest of the week, I returned to my normal activities, but not with the utmost concentration. I found myself counting down the days until our BBQ. I wasn’t sure if I was more excited to have an excuse to make a tarte tatin (and chocolate cookies) or if I was excited since it has been about 4 years since we’ve been to a BBQ! Well, if we are being completely truthful, I think it was the tarte tatin.

I’d made one batch of chocolate cookies the day before, and, since the host is a chef, I knew I couldn’t get by with store-bought crust so I made my own flaky crust as well. When Saturday morning rolled around, I was out of bed and in the kitchen getting a second batch of cookies going as well as peeling apples. In uncharacteristic Jessica fashion, I had everything done well ahead of time so that it even had time enough to cool before we left. I nonetheless made us late after I failed to warn Tim that the pie was very full, and he ended up getting caramel all over his shirt and pants. Oops.

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Usually it is the apple side that is interesting to look at, but in this case, I was rather happy with how flaky the crust came out.

At the party, the tarte got a few appreciative comments, but Tim and I were thoroughly annoyed to see that most of the guests didn’t go for the pie but for lame fudge pops that someone brought from the store! On top of that, some of those that did try it, only took an apple slice rather than an actual slice! Come on people! Then, adding insult to injury, the chef refused to try it. He said he didn’t eat dessert of any kind. I insisted saying that I made the crust just for him, but he wouldn’t touch it. This is why foreigners are so irked by Americans. They don’t recognize quality when its literally served to them on a platter because they are blinded by industrialized dessert on a stick! Actually, in the end I was glad it didn’t all get eaten because that meant Tim and I got to eat it for dessert for two more nights. For those of you who have had my tarte, I know you understand this rant, and for those that haven’t, I assure you those fudge pops didn’t have nothin’ on it.

Paris in my Seoul

This week I seemed to have visions of Paris all around me, and I can’t say it was an unwelcome sight. My first bit of nostalgia occurred one morning when I was headed out for a run, and noticed a little mini Louvre pyramid which happened to be on a street corner directly across from a Paris baguette shop. Naturally, I stopped running to take a picture with my co-Parisian transplants.

After my moment of reminiscing, I was back on my run, but again I found myself stopping to take pictures. This time it was the beautiful scenery which caught my eye.

The rest of the week wasn’t particularly interesting save for one especially beautiful sunset one evening.

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As usual, pictures don’t do it justice.

Once the weekend rolled around, I drug Tim outside to explore. On the top of my list this week was the Noryangjin fish market. This wholesale fish market is 1,273,865 square feet, handles about 250-300 tons of sales/trade of marine produce daily, and it isn’t even Korea’s largest seafood market!

Moreover, the “high class” fish market is open 24 hours a day whereas the “general, frozen, and shellfish” markets are only open from 1 or 1:30 am to 10 pm. If you are either a night owl or early bird, you can also attend the 3 am fish auction which happens daily. And perhaps the best part is that you can buy virtually any type of seafood imaginable. How fresh is it? Well unless your are buying it dried, frozen, or already diced up, most all of it is still alive. You can then take you purchases to one of the many restaurants upstairs who, for a small fee, will cook and serve you your seafood on the spot!

As we strolled stall after stall, fish mongers would shout at us what they were offering and beg us to come have a look. They were always disappointed when we said we were just looking. We had to get our bearings first! Once we’d made a lap of the entire place, we headed upstairs to try to figure out how the restaurant thing worked. We weren’t sure if all of the restaurants offered on the spot cooking and whether we had to pick out from a list of what they would cook before buying. It turns out most the restaurants would prepare you food, and there were no rules – just go buy something fresh!

Tim and I headed back downstairs and ended up stopping at a booth where a man spoke enough English to communicate what we wanted to the fish lady. We asked for a crab big enough for two people, about 10-15 large prawns, and two sea urchins. When they rang us up, the man showed us the price. It said 150,000 KWN or $150! I indicated that I thought he punched one too many zeros into his calculator. He assured me the price was correct and explained that the crab alone was $139. Does it poop diamonds or gold?! Why is it so expensive? I didn’t say this, but I was thinking it. The fish lady kindly took the crab (who surely didn’t realize how close he was to the steamer basket) and placed him back in the tank. Instead, we took a smaller $40 crab. Live purchases in hand, we headed back upstairs.

The sea urchins were served raw, and I can’t say it really consisted of anything but a saltwater taste with a slight sweet note on the back. You more or less drank them. It wasn’t gross, but I can’t say I see the point. The shrimp was served to use “BBQ” style, which was just grilled, but sadly they seemed dry and overcooked. Happily, we had side dishes of chili paste, garlic, and lettuce which helped the little shrimps go down just fine. Finally, the entire steamed crab and two large scissors were brought out to us. Too eager to dig in, I forgot to take a picture. I wish I had because as Tim picked up a pair of scissors to snip off a leg, three waitress stopped, craned their necks in our direction, and stared at us in bewilderment. It was clear we had no idea how to de-crab a crab. Finally, one stepped over, hesitated, and then took the scissors from Tim. Within seconds she had cut open the body and managed to then take apart the legs. She started to work the crab meat out from each individual leg, but Tim assured we could take it from there. We did, but not without difficulty. My grip strength was not quite strong enough to cut through the larger pieces, and then can you imagine how much we struggled to dig out the meat with our metal chopsticks? We seriously thought of calling our Korean friend back in the US to coach us through crab and chopsticks. We didn’t though, and eventually we did get through that whole crab.

Seafood craving satisfied, we grabbed a cup of coffee to go, and then headed to see the nearby-ish French district called Seorae Village. About 500 French expats live in this quaint area, and you can even find local signs in Korean and French. We were actually hoping to live here, but it was just too far away from Tim’s work. Today I was really hoping to find a French cheese shop and maybe a wine shop, but no such luck. Instead, we did find some Musée d’Orsay worthy street art.

Once we arrived in the actual village, we were stopped by two Korean students who approached us and hesitantly asked, “Excusez-moi? Je suis étudiant et je dois faire un entretien des français. Pouvez-vous le faire?” Thrilled to be mistaken for a French person, I was happy to answer their questionnaire about the French. I’ll admit my answers were short and a bit cliché, but here’s what I said.

Q: What do the French like to wear?

A: Their style is classic, elegant, high-quality and they love black.

Q: How would you describe the French spirit?

A: They are open minded and they appreciate originality.

Q: What best represents France?

A: Wine, wine, wine (and cheese)!

Q: What are French people like?

A: They can be guarded and reserved, but among friends and family they are rather convivial.

After completing the questionnaire, I was then asked to go through it with the student while his friend filmed. At this point Tim thought he better point out that we weren’t really French because he was anticipating the French teacher seeing the interview and being horrified by the “drôle d’accent”. I did the interview without making any noticeable blunders and the students rewarded us with orange drinks of some sort.

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Coolly “Frenchin’ it up”

From there, we wandered around the village and into the local park set on a hill, and it became clear why this village full of hills is called “Little Montmartre.” It was nice having a bit of Paris in Seoul, now only if I can find the cheese and wine…

The price of drugs and tea

This weekend, Tim and I had one goal in mind: go to the local Dammann Frères tea shop to buy our French tea we’d been missing so badly. You would think in Korea that we would be able to find a good, or perhaps better, substitute, but so far it has been difficult for a couple of reasons. A, we can’t read the labels on the tea boxes in stores; B, they don’t seem to be loose leaf; C, most of them look like green tea whereas we are big black tea drinkers. The commissary was just as bad, the tea selection is quite pathetic.

Resolved to fix our tea situation ASAP, we headed downtown to the one location in Seoul where we could get the good stuff. Of course, we got there about 30 minutes too early, so we took some time to appreciate the lively activity swarming around us: music playing, dancers, a flea market, a movie being filmed, food stands tempting you with fragrant Korean street food, and even a quiet demonstration marking the 3 year anniversary of the ferry tragedy that left 302 passengers (mostly high school students) and crew members dead. It was quite a sobering moment, with pictures of each of the victims hung around the various tents. To this day, there are people (families mostly I imagine) who are demanding to know the full truth about how this tragedy happened.

Following our look around the square, we headed back to Dammann Frères eager to get our tea. We walked in like kids in a candy shop, opening and smelling pot after pot to see what we would buy. We were nearly set with our selections when Tim asked, “Does that say $35 for 100 grams?” Shocked, I double-checked. Sure enough, it did. To put this in context, in Paris we paid $10 for the same amount. Floored, we desperately searched for perhaps another tea that might be cheaper, but all we managed to discover was that the whole place was full of tea at an outrageous mark-up.  How is it this expensive?! I’m pretty sure some drugs don’t cost that much! With heavy hearts we backed away, tea-less.

We found another tea shop nearby, but the tea didn’t seem as good of quality and it was still $18 for 100 grams. Cheaper, but still we didn’t think worth it. When Tim Googled why tea was so expensive here, he learned that Korean tea isn’t considered as high of quality as teas from China, Japan, or India so there is a lot of importing, and consequently, a steep mark-up.

Following the tea fail, we stayed in the area to explore, and came across the Seoul National Museum, a free museum which provides an overview of life in Seoul across the centuries. Be sure to click on pictures for a closer look and captions.

After the museum, we were beyond hungry, and so we wandered our way towards the Insadong district where we treated ourselves to some wonderful Korean dishes and iced coffees to finish them off. Fun fact: in Hangul, a coffee is called a “kopi” because they don’t have the letter ‘f’ in their language.

Following lunch we walked the streets with no destination in particular, and when I saw an Office Depot, we stopped to go in with the hopes that I could find my elusive Korean/English day planner. I didn’t find it, but I did find this gem.

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I don’t know about you all, but I’ve always wished I could find a notebook to fit my “sensuous” personality.

That doesn’t go in there.

Our first full week in Seoul had, as with any new foreign city,  its fill of ups and downs along the learning curve. Perhaps the greatest challenge was figuring out the trash. We’d heard you have to sort your trash from recycling in Seoul, which didn’t seem like it would at all be difficult. It turns out that Seoul takes its trash very seriously. At first I thought it was just a matter of sorting your regular trash from your food waste, which you then put in a trash bag, tie up, and then put in the corresponding trash shoot in the hallway on the floor of our building.

However, having heard from people that they’ve been fined $50 for not tying the bag correctly or sorting their trash correctly, I decided to do a quick Google search on how to tie the bags. Was I in for a shock. About an hour and four different articles later, I’d learned that the Korean government is more than serious about trash, it is insane!

The first thing I learned was that the trash bags I bought at the PX were useless.  In Korea, you can only buy trash bags in your neighborhood. Each bag has the district printed on it, and if you are caught cheating on your neighborhood with someone else’s trash bags, you get fined. This resulted in Tim packing our trash and taking it to work for the first few days because, mysteriously, once you are on the Army base you don’t have to sort your trash. You do, however, have to throw your used toilet paper in there rather than down the toilet. Eww.

Second, I learned there is a special trash bag for general waste and a special one for food waste, and that these bags can be purchased from my neighborhood convenience store.

Third, I learned that you must sort your recycling to a slightly greater degree than I’m used to, but I’ll get into that in a minute.

After reading about where to find trash bags and how to ask for them, I went downstairs to the little 7-11 next to my building. I searched but found no bags out. Piff, it seems I will have to ask. Technology dependent that I am, I just showed the clerk my question in Korean, and she responded by pulling out a stack of general waste bags. She did not, unfortunately, have the food waste bags, and the best she could tell me was to look in the area. Yea, got that, thanks.

I stopped at a second convenience store, but the clerk again did not speak English, and she was having trouble communicating with me even though I this time I decided to use the talking translator on my phone which she could speak into. She just couldn’t seem to figure out when or how to talk into the phone. When she did, the phone translated the following, “Restaurant?” I tried again. She answered, and I got the following, “I live in an apartment above here.” At that point I gave up, thanked her, and left.

My third time I hit it lucky- I found someone who spoke English, and she directed me to a different 7-11 just a bit further down. Again I had to ask the clerk for the bags, which she had, and there was little need for me to rely on Google mis-translate.

Once home, I got back to reading the four articles to figure out what exactly constitutes recyclable, food waste, and general waste. Here is the run down.

Food waste is any raw or cooked food product except bones and seafood shells. Oh, just kidding. Food waste is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, and nut shells. No, no, that’s not quite it either. Food waste is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, nut shells, and pits from stone fruits. Oh wait, we forgot to mention, food waste is is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, nut shells, pits from stone fruits or avocados, or the “paper” peeling from onions and garlic. Got it? Ok, good. Because that isn’t it either. Food waste is is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, nut shells, pits from stone fruits or avocados, the “paper” peeling from onions and garlic, or the seeds and skins from peppers. That’s it, oh, except for another thing. Food waste is is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, nut shells, pits from stone fruits or avocados, the “paper” peeling from onions and garlic, the seeds and skins from peppers, or the organs of the globe fish. What the heck’s a globe fish? It’s this guy:

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It turns out there are many kinds of globe/puffer fish, and they are poisonous. Wikipedia says the majority of the species rank among the most poisonous vertebrates in the world. So, they are deadly if not prepared properly. According to Wikipedia, though, some people eat the meat sashimi style for the “intoxicating, light-headed, and lip-numbing” effects. Eat at your own risk.

I bet you thought we were done with food waste didn’t you? Haha, nope! One last time, food waste is is any raw or cooked food product except bones, seafood shells, egg shells, nut shells, pits from stone fruits or avocados, the “paper” peeling from onions and garlic, the seeds and skins from peppers, the organs of the globe fish, or your tea and coffee grounds. Actually, the coffee grounds wasn’t clear but I figured if they said no tea leaves…

So, now that you have separated out your globe fish organs and all other forbidden foods from the rest of your food waste, you can put that in general waste and focus on your recycling.

These are the basics of recycling. Separate your glass, iron, Styrofoam, plastic shopping bags, paper, boxes, aluminum, and plastic bottles from one another. Oh, and when it comes to plastic in general, that means the shrink wrap from your leftovers, the plastic film from your frozen meal, the plastic wrapper from your candy bar…you get the idea. Same with paper, receipts, milk containers, ice cream containers, egg cartons, paper food wrappers, pretty much anything that once vaguely resembled a tree. Essentially, the rule of thumb is throw nothing in general waste because it probably has a recycling category, unless it is a globe fish.

Ok, so now that you have all that down, and you’ve filled your appropriate bags, how do you throw them out? Well, you wait for the trash gods to turn on the little light next to the magical trash shoots which means your can open the door to throw it away. When these magical lights appear is anyone’s guess. The hours listed are 5am-10am and 5pm-10pm. Mostly this is true, but not always. Weekends? They’re a crap-shoot, and it took several days of the trash sitting by the door before I figured out the timing of those shoots.

When it came for my first time taking recycling out (meaning to floor B-5), I arrived there with about 4 Korean men and women who help maintain the building, and they were chuckling at the white girl gesturing her questions about whether something could really go in one of the recycling bags. I thought surely that some plastics would be a no-go, but no, not here, everything goes!

After all of that trash nonsense, I was really in need of a stress reliever. I decided a run in my new city was the perfect answer, and voila, I found my happy place!

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My new favorite running spot, which I discovered completely at random when I went out for a run one morning. Although I don’t use them that often, I love that I can jump back and forth across the creek with the giant stones interspersed throughout the trail.

Happily, the rest of the week didn’t require so much Googling just to take care of daily household requirements, and I was able to focus on things like the blog and run-sploring. Some of the things I’ve discovered on my runs are: where to buy Philadelphia cream cheese in Seoul, an international wine shop, a mall, and a rather large open air market offering dried seafood, produce, nuts, rice, etc. – which I plan to return here when I feel more confident in my Hangul bargaining skills.

The first day

The 10th of April was our moving in day, and it was full of excitement, stress, and anger.

On the morning we moved in, Tim had to take a written driving test for his license here, then go buy a car, inspect it, register it, and insure it, oh and show his face at work. This left me to haul our last bit of stuff to the apartment before the mover’s arrived. As I didn’t have the keys or fobs to enter the building, I had to wait for someone to come out. Once in, I walked over to the elevators like I owned the place, but the little security guard wanted to know what I thought I was doing. As it turns out, he doesn’t speak English, so he typed it in his phone and then showed me the translation: “I grind my teeth at you,” it said. I tried not to laugh, and then typed in my explanation in my phone and showed him the translation in Korean. Evidently the English to Korean worked better because he seemed to understand and let me pass.

I worked on unpacking until movers arrived. The two of them worked quickly and efficiently while I tried to be available but out of the way. The set up the furniture, minus the sofa and armchairs because they said I should put felt down first. “How attentive and careful they are,” I thought. I signed for the paperwork, and they left. Then the water man came. The water is technically safe to drink, but no one does. The water guy explained he comes on the 10th of every month with two bottles, but if we need more just to call him. “Ok, what do I call you, then?” “Just Water Man,” he replied. Ok, then!

Shortly after he left, another man arrived to hook up our gas dryer, and just like that, we had the apartment up and running!

When Tim came home that evening, he looked at the upturned sofa and noticed something odd so he pushed it back a bit to reveal a 6-inch scratch in our hardwood floors that had not been there this morning! I was horrified and angry. They had placed the sofa so that the scratch was under it, so I wouldn’t see it. Which I didn’t, and then I signed the paperwork saying that they hadn’t damaged anything. Yet, Tim saw just enough of the tail-end to spot it within five minutes. I was mad at the movers but I was really mad at myself.

I spent the better part of the evening fuming over the whole situation. Tim did his best to make me feel better which looked like this: “I’m sorry you’ve got a bad teammate.” I said. “I know,” Tim replied, clueless as to what he just agreed to- this only made me even more upset. Guys, ugh.

Unable to do anything about the scratch tonight, we headed out in search of dinner and in search of something to cheer me up. It came in the form of adorable milk cartons and vistas overlooking Seoul. Yea, as I reread that sentence, it strikes me at how random “adorable milk cartons” must sound, but even after only 10 days here, it didn’t surprise me at all.

 

We’re not in Paris anymore, Monsieur Toto

Now that we are officially in South Korea, it was time to jump back into Army life. Although Tim and I spent the last 3 years living abroad, this felt like our first time living abroad as a military family. The contrast between our first month in France to our first week in South Korea couldn’t have been more apparent. In France, we had to find our own taxi from the airport and our own hotel when we arrived, and it was only after a tip from someone at the Embassy that we found a much better hotel. Upon arriving in South Korea, a bus ushered us from the airport to the Army base in Seoul where we then checked in at the resort-style hotel, which had its own cafés (Starbucks and non-Starbucks), a phone center to buy phones and sim cards, a convenience store, clothing store, luggage store, furniture store, pool, sauna, gym, laundry, bar, a seafood restaurant, Italian restaurant, Mexican restaurant, Subway, Pizza Hut, a deli, a casino, a massage center, a bank, oh and someone playing the piano on the weekends. Um, can we just live here?

In France, the process of finding an apartment was painfully slow. You couldn’t talk to realtors until you had not only a bank account but proof that you had money, which didn’t mean flashing euros in their face, but getting your job to write you an attestation. But how to get a bank account when you didn’t have an address? Resolving this process and finding an apartment took us an entire month. It was only after that, that we got cell phones, cable, and internet (although looking back we could have just gotten tourist-subscription sim cards in the beginning).  Moreover, in France, we were completely on our own as we weren’t there on Army business and the Embassy wanted nothing to do with us. This meant no help with things like housing or visas.

By contrast, within our first ten days of arriving, we were staying in a beautiful hotel, had phones up and running, I had secured a reservation to be bused to the visa office where I would receive help with the application process, had found an apartment on the 7th, moved in and received furniture on the 10th, and bought a car. As far as the apartment search went, it was a little difficult. I think we looked at 14 places, and when you just lived in a virtual dream apartment Paris’ left-bank, it is hard not to have high expectations. I did my best, but it was nearly impossible not to prevent myself from subconsciously comparing everything to our Paris apartment.

From one apartment to the next, we kept ruling them out for various reasons including the following: the building smelled liked smoke and kimchi,  barking dogs, ancient oven, no elevator, master bedroom directly looked over a children’s playground, signs about noise complaints, construction ongoing on two sides of building, no dishwasher or stove, bathroom is a shower-toilet. Here are some of highlights (or low-lights) of the apartments.

It is amazing how blazing fast things can move when you have the resources of the government at your disposal.  Between how easy it has been and our access to American goods on post, it almost doesn’t feel like we are living in a foreign country…ALMOST.

So what apartment did we actually move into? Well, none of those as you probably figured- we’ll save that for the next post.

Tim’s “Pokemon”

This isn’t a post about a day or trip. It is just a collection of Tim’s Pokemon. While I was collecting temple stamps, he was taking pictures of each this round, decorative tiles found capping the ends of temple roofs. From what I could gather from my clumsy Google search, the designs all have a different meaning/purpose- to ward off evil for instance. Beyond that, I can’t really tell you much. They are neat though, so have a look.

Wheel of Fortune

The two weeks went by quickly and slowly at the same time. It seems like a lifetime ago that we arrived in Tokyo (for the second time), and yet it was already time to return to Seoul. Our morning started around 6:30 am with the semi-firm leave time of 7:50 from our hotel. From there, we planned to hop the train to the airport. As it turned out, to my own surprise, I was ready and we were walking out the door by 7:45. We dropped off the key to check-out and walked out to see a shuttle bus waiting. He was getting ready to leave when he us, so he hopped out and loaded our bags explaining the shuttle was complimentary. Score! So, we arrived at the airport before our original train was supposed to even leave. This gave us time to eat breakfast at McDonald’s before searching for where to check-in. As we were diligently watching the screen to see what counter to go to, a woman approached us asking us to take a brief survey. Like most people, we weren’t really interested, but she was nice and assured us it would be short. The city of Osaka wanted to know more about tourists’ spending habits while in Osaka as well as total money spent in Japan. The whole thing took about 3 minutes (if that), and to our utter surprise, she rewarded us with $30 worth of vouchers we could use at the airport shops and restaurants *luxury brands excluded*. We couldn’t believe someone just paid us that much for such a short survey. But at the time we couldn’t really focus too much on it because we were trying still to find our check-in counter. Two friendly Japanese girls at the information desk told us the airline we were looking for “didn’t exist” at this airport. “What? How can that be?!” Resisting the urge to panic or believe that I’d been sold fake tickets online, we went to another counter. The two girls told us more or less the same thing, but they said that there were two airlines flying out at the same time as marked on our tickets so maybe it was one of them. They pointed us in the right direction, and sure enough, when we showed the women at the ticket counter the flight number she said that it was “totally wrong.” However, they did have our names in the system, so we did indeed, have a flight!

With a sigh of relief, we headed to security which was teeming with people- way more than I see at American airports, and yet we got through the line much faster than I feel American TSA would have done it in. On the other side, we revisited the vouchers we’d received. Unsure we’d be able to really use them anywhere and still disbelieving that the city would pay each person $30 to take the survey, we wandered in search of a store. The first girl I asked said she didn’t recognize the vouchers, but the second girl I asked happened to be standing next to the manager. She didn’t recognize them either, but asked us to wait. Sure enough, within 30 seconds we got the go-ahead to go crazy (my words). We walked out having paid $15 for $45 worth of stuff. Not bad. When I started to comment on the amazing luck we were having (leaving ahead of schedule, free shuttle, McDonald’s breakfast, earning $30), Tim cut me off. He didn’t want me to say it out loud for fear I would reverse the juju.

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A real, and perhaps most famous, Pokemon: Pikachu which Tim told me translates to “Lightning Mouse.” How cute is that?

Our flight took off on time and our bags were there when we arrived and customs was a breeze so all seemed to be going well. We checked in with the local military liaison who provides a bus from the airport to the Army base. Unfortunately, it would be two hours until the next bus. No biggie, this gave us time to eat lunch and blog.

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Bimbimbap- The bowl of scrambled eggs (which also had rice and beef) is classic Korean street food. While the bowl of soup on the right was something spicy Tim ordered, I don’t remember the name. Anyways, I discovered I love bimbimbap. It was better than anything I had in Japan!

By 4pm we were on the bus and by 5:15pm we’d pulled up to our new “homtel.” The next obstacle was getting from our location to the downtown apartment where we’d stored our bags two weeks earlier. We took the metro which required purchasing tickets that bizarrely didn’t have our correct destination and making a metro change only to find we’d exited at the wrong station, and walking about 30 minutes more than necessary. It seemed like the juju might be reversing after all.

The owner of the apartment was out, which was too bad as we were hoping he could call us a jumbo cab (as we have no phone service or wifi and don’t speak Korean). So instead, we asked the little night security guard about a taxi. In his broken English and our non-existent Korean we conveyed where we needed to go. He called us a cab, told us it would be there in five minutes, and then waited outside with us. The cab showed up, Tim said to me, “There’s no way all our luggage will fit,” and the Korean driver had the same exchange with the security guard. He even showed Tim the trunk to prove there was no room. As the driver pulled away the guard made little squabbling noises of discontent while he called another cab. “Seven minutes.” he told us. Sure enough, seven minutes later, a new driver showed up, rolled down his window, slowed down, took one look at the baggage, and without a word, drove off.  The guard was trying, unsuccessfully, a third time to call a cab when Tim and I decided just to drag the bags back via metro. The guard made more squabbling noises but conceded. Grateful for his efforts, Tim tried to tip him to which he jumped back about two feet and crossed his arms making an X saying, “No, no, no, no!” When Tim advanced him the money, he jumped back further. I asked Tim to stop torturing the poor guy and so we thanked him with only our broken Korean and left.

As we reached the end of the street, a jumbo taxi came by. That was it! Our luck was here to save us again! As it turned out, though, luck must have had another fare already because the cab driver indicated he wasn’t stopping. Finally resigned to our fate, we then started the 1.5-hour trek from downtown Seoul back to our hotel. This really should have only taken probably 45 minutes, but since we were dragging five bags between the two of us the whole task of getting into a metro station, to the right platform and then changing lines not once but twice was made exponentially more difficult. Fortunately, there were elevators and escalators we could use within the metro stations but these often involved walking even further out of our way. On top of it all, we discovered the layout of the Seoul metro stations isn’t the most logical nor well marked. Nonetheless, we finally made it to the metro station near the base only to discover we weren’t entirely sure how to get to the main gate from there. We followed Tim’s best guess and after hiking uphill and then down for about 10 minutes we figured out we had gone the wrong direction. Fighting the urge to get discouraged, we turned around and made the 10-minute hike back uphill. Finally, at 9:30 at night we arrived back at our room. It turns out though that all of the hotel restaurants were closed leaving us only with the little convenience store where we bought some microwaveable pizza and beer. As it turns it out, you are supposed to have a ration card to be allowed to buy anything, which we didn’t know at the time. Fortunately, no one asked us for it. So, looking back, it seems the wheel of fortune finally spun back in our favor in the end. If only that wheel would have spun lucky before making the 1.5 hour duffel bag drag.

Glico!

Today was to be our last full day in Japan, and this morning I savored sleeping in. There was no way I was sitting through another hour-long fire-ceremony at 5:30 in the morning. Sorry, Mr. Monk, once was enough. Instead, we got up just in time to go to breakfast where Tim made small talk with two Americans and an Englishman traveling together (one lived in Japan teaching English and the other two lived in Russia doing the same). Meanwhile I listened and mostly focused on reanimating myself with hot tea and breakfast. In true daughter of Leah Prewett-fashion, while attempting to feed myself by picking up my piece of breakfast fish, I managed to drop it in my tea. I guess I should have been fully rather than mostly focusing on that breakfast.

Happily, I managed to make it through the rest of breakfast without any other fiascos. We wished the other travelers bonne route and headed out to explore the temple grounds. It was a pretty quick visit, and within about 20 minutes we were headed out to our bus stop with the receipt and another temple stamp in hand.

Our destination today was Osaka, Japan’s “second city.” Tokyo is known as the capital, and Kyoto might be the cultural capital, but Osaka is where all the action happens. According to the handy guidebook, Osaka is really Japan’s center of commerce, but in addition, the Osakans are notorious for how much they love to eat and drink. Our first stop was the Dontonbori district to see the famous Glico man. Who is the Glico man? Well, up until a couple of days ago, we didn’t know either. But thanks to an amusing round of pantomimes from a young Japanese man putting his arms in a Y and standing on one leg while saying “Glico, Glico,” we knew we had to figure out what the heck he was going on about. It turns out the Glico man is a famous advertisement for the Glico candy company. The 108 foot neon sign (actually LED now) first appeared over 70 years ago, and has gained a sort of cult following. What we didn’t anticipate that getting to this particular sign involved traversing the Japanese equivalent to Time’s Square which means that you have all the bright flashing lights and streets overflowing with Asians tourists but also the sights and smells of any kind of Japanese street food you could want.

From there, we headed towards the famous “flea market” area which was really just more street food vendors, all sorts of exotic seafood like Japanese tiger fish, sea urchins, and baby squid, and a few tourist shops and bric-a-brac stores sprinkled throughout. And, oh yea, wall to wall people.

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Sooo many people!

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Those reddish brown things on stick are cooked octopus, and the shells just below them are giant sea snails.

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Needless to say we didn’t stay in that area long. Although I would have loved to try some of the local street food and fresh seafood, I was feeling rather tired and I knew Tim hated this sort of chaos, so we got out of there as soon as humanly possible. Our wanderings eventually led us to a decent looking restaurant where they were serving a dish we had not yet sampled, okonomiyaki. I’d seen it served on the street and it basically looked like a hash of egg and shredded vegetables lightly battered and fried together in a giant disc (sort of like a potato cake but bigger and no potatoes). We were nonetheless surprised to be seated at our table and facing a griddle in the middle of us. We both looked at each other wondering what we were expected to do. With some trepidation, we ordered, and then watched the locals around us for cues on how much cooking we might actually have to do.

As it turns out, very little. The dish is served to you already prepared. When the waitress came to our table, she slid our two orders onto our hot griddle, theatrically squirted some mayonnaise-like sauce on mine (she did this by hitting the target from about two feet away), and then we let them sizzle a little before diving in.

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Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake, and the name translates to “how you like” or “what you like” because there are so many ingredient combinations you can do. I don’t remember what Tim got, but mine was a mix of shrimp, scallops, and octopus.

Following lunch we tromped around various areas of Osaka including the cooking district where all local chefs (professional or otherwise) go to buy their wares. We were pretty impressed; it gave Paris a run for its money. We also visited the local castle and enjoyed the sunshine while we people watched. Oh, and of course, we found a couple of temples along the way. Today would be my last chance on the trip to collect stamps, so I made good: picking up 3 in Osaka and 4 counting the one from our temple lodging this morning.

After quite a bit of walking, we ended back in the same area we started only this time making a slight detour to walk through the “little America” district. This district was home to several second-hand shops selling American-style clothing and shops pumping American rap and selling sneakers and more “hip hop style” clothing, and that was about it for little America. With that, we felt our afternoon in Osaka was done and decided to head back to the station where we stored our luggage. Getting there involved us traversing an underground mall with about every kind of store you could imagine. We saw places selling beautiful chocolates and pastries to rival anything you can find in France, to trending clothing shops, to traditional Japanese restaurants, to places selling dried soft-shell turtles that were about as big as your face. What you do with them I have no idea, but they were all neatly packaged in clear plastic sealed bags and on prominent display so that dried soft-shell turtle consumer would not have to waste any time looking for that special turtle. As much as I wanted to take a picture,  I didn’t. I felt it would be too touristy.

There was also a… kimono and yukata shop! Tim has heard me say about 10 times on this trip that I’d given up looking for one. Everything was too expensive, I didn’t like the pattern, or I didn’t like the material, or all three. But, Tim nonetheless shooed me into every shop that looked like it might sell kimonos and yukatas on the off chance I found “the one,” thus ending his torture of the kimono hunt. This particular shop was run by two elderly Japanese women, and they had a huge variety of men’s and women’s kimonos for very reasonable prices. I find one that I really like, it was dark blue with off white and gold flowers sewn along the bottom and on alternating sides of the sleeves. It was $100, which was much cheaper than many others I looked at, but once again, I was disappointed with how it looked on me.  Perhaps it is because I’m white and no matter what kimono I pick, I will still just be a white girl in a kimono. However, Tim and I agreed that part of the reason it didn’t look great was because it was so long, and so when they wrapped it around me, it was very bunched up at the waist. That is kind of the point with the kimono I suppose, although we don’t know why since they use an obi (a very wide sash) to cover that up. The obi doesn’t seem very practical for wearing around the house, and I didn’t like the wad of material showing so I just decided not to get a kimono. What I decided on instead was a yukata. A yukata is the summertime kimono and it styled much the same way except it is made of cotton. So, while it isn’t as beautiful as a silk or brocade kimono, it is cheaper (this one was $39), and the cotton makes it easier to fold around me. Plus, the pattern I picked was the same from top to bottom so I wouldn’t have to worry about changing the appearance of the robe if I had a couple of inches taken off the bottom. To Tim’s relief, after two weeks of searching, I finally found my “kimono” in the form of the yukata on the very last day of our trip. Purchase in hand, we headed for our luggage and to the train station, and I immediately started second-guessing my purchase. But Tim told me for $40 to stop worrying about it, so I did.

That evening we arrived at our airport hotel, and set out to look for dinner. I was determined to have some Kobe beef on my last night in Japan, but as luck would have it, there were no such restaurants in our area serving it. In fact, most everything seemed rather mediocre, which has kind of been my whole Japanese food experience (with the exception of a couple of dishes). So, after a fruitless search, I suggested we just buy some Cup O’Noodles (which is actually just “Cup Noodle” here in Japan). Tim was dubious, “How are we going to make them?” “With our hot water boiler in our room.” I replied. This wasn’t enough, “Can you read the instructions? Do you even know how to make them?” he pressed. “No, I can’t read the instructions, but you pour hot water over your noodles in a cup. How hard can it be?” Still not totally convinced, Tim scoured the convenience store for other options before finally settling on the inevitable. Then as soon as we bought them he was complaining that we should have just done take out somewhere because now we would have to “wait” for dinner to be made. Somehow that whole five minutes of noodles to soak up water would be too much to bear. Anyways to no surprise of anyone reading this who has ever eaten instant ramen, dinner was successful “made” and Tim didn’t die of hunger while waiting. Not a stupendous close to the trip, but then again, that gives me a reason to come back.