Or: The first half of the trip that cemented my love
28/12/2013 - 05/01/2014 0 °C
As most of you probably know, I came back from my second trip to Korea about a week ago. It wasn't a huge trip (I only visited Seoul, and only for 19 days at that) but it did so much more good than I'd ever expected, and it strengthened my resolve to really try to build a life there.
I wish I could blog 'like I used to' - with dozens of pictures and pages upon pages of text, but I'm afraid the years have made me lazy, so instead of chronicling my entire trip, I'll tell you about some personal highlights, and show you only the more interesting of the pictures I've made. I did keep a miniscule diary though, so I'll try to at least follow that.
Check out this same post on my personal blog for some embedded links and larger pictures.
To begin at the beginning though, some interesting things actually happened before I even arrived in Korea - wearing my Hongik University jacket and carrying my giant and slightly less giant suitcase on the station at Venlo, waiting for my train to Düsseldorf (yup, flying from Germany was about €150 cheaper than flying from my own country, so I had to get on a 30 minute plane trip from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam before I could go to Seoul. Talk about your 'ecological footprint'), some Asian looking guy actually stopped me and asked if this was the right train to go to München Gladbach. I assured him it was, and found out he only talked to me because of the Hongik patch on my arm. We spent the rest of the train trip talking about Korea and each other, which made the trip a lot less boring than it would've been if I had to sit next to the smelly drunk that was sitting two seats over. Then, when I finally got on the plane to Seoul in Amsterdam, I sat next to some majorly uninterested Koreans, but it turned out not all the seats were taken so the stewardess told me I could sit at another place with more leg room. Of course I immediately took her up on the offer, and I was surprised to learn that the seat came with an especially talkative neighbour - again! It was cool to talk to some Koreans before actually arriving already, and this guy made the whole 12 hours of traveling feel a lot shorter too. Of course I still felt and looked like shit when I finally arrived at the best airport in the world, but that didn't matter since I was going to meet my girlfriend for the first time in almost a year.
Obviously my mind was racing and my heart was pounding while I was waiting for Gahui to arrive, but when she finally did it was like I had only been gone for a week. While our last meeting in Europe was nothing short of extremely embarrassing, this time it felt as natural as getting back on a bike after weeks of not using it. Okay, so that comparison sounds a little disrespectful, but you know what I mean.
The first thing we did, of course, was going home, showering, and getting some food inside of me. I got seriously confused on the plane ride there - having had some weird European lunch by the time it was about 4AM in the Netherlands - so I could really use some non-airplane-food. Gahui was so nice as to cook for me, which was of course THE BEST.
I probably shouldn't say this, but I was kind of surprised by Gahui's level of cooking. She cooked for me once in Europe, and what she made (Bulgogi, if I remember correctly) wasn't exactly something to get excited about.. So imagine my surprise when she whipped out several 5 star dishes over the course of the 3 weeks I was there! Apparently Dutch ingredients really aren't sufficient when it comes to making Korean food, because back in her own country her cooking is definitely something to reckon with!
The second day was a little interesting.. I'd found out that the monthly Comic World in SETEC (that I've written about in my Seoul Travel Tips post) would have its last day today, and I wouldn't be able to visit next month's, so we ended up visiting a nerd Valhalla on the very first full day I was in the country. Gahui wasn't overjoyed, of course, but she mostly let me do my thing and I think she even enjoyed the many costumed guests. She even bought a small cute bookmark for herself, while I (as expected?) loaded a little bit more into my backpack.
I ended up buying a super charming art book about cats, whose artists were friendly enough to sign it for me on the inside. I also bought two League Of Legends bookmarks, because even though I don't play or even like LoL, I love this chick's design and she was pretty much the only character I could even recognize out of all the obscure anime personas there. Of course there was also a lot of fanart of popular anime, but I have to admit I don't really follow much of it anymore, and the anime that I do like is usually not popular enough to get lots of fanart, so in that sense it was quite easy not to buy too much. I also got the cutest little card holder with The Amazing Spider-Man on it, that I affixed inside my wallet so I could put my T-Money card into it (the card you use to pay on the subway).
Anyway, as for the convention itself, of course all the marvelous costumes were the most interesting, and here's some more pictures!
[Every single one of these is a guy. Can you believe those legs!?]
[Yes, that is an Optimus Prime cosplay. Yes, that is awesome.]
[Don't ask. I don't have any answers for you.]
[This guy is such a badass]
Day Three and Four
After that, New Year was already on the doorstep. I purposely came at the end of December because for Gahui it's important to 'get things into order' at the start of the new year, so part of the reason I came was to have a serious talk about our plans for the future. I won't be sharing those with you of course though, so instead I'll tell you about the other thing we did before midnight on the 31st, which was visiting the restaurant where Gahui worked part-time. It was a small place on Hongdae street, with only 4 tables and a pretty small kitchen. It had a very friendly atmosphere though, and more importantly: the food was AMAZING. Gahui's boss had studied cooking in Japan, and had opened a Japanese restaurant in Seoul. The Kimchi Tonkassu I had there the first time was so great that I ended up coming back twice - something I generally didn't want to do because of the limited amount of meals I could have during my short stay. The owner was super friendly, and it was fun to see the place where my girlfriend worked. I offered her boss some cups from Holland (you know the ones, with tulips and windmills) and they are now proudly displayed next to culturally much more interesting trinkets from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba and France.
New Years itself though..man...I almost don't want to talk about it. Actually, I'll be happy if I don't get reminded of it ever again after I finish typing this.
Well, perhaps it wasn't that bad, but it was easily the worst New Years ever. Of course this was mostly due to my own and Gahui's lack of organizational skills though; we had neglected to book tickets to an event a few weeks or even days in advance (because I was still thinking there were obviously going to be massive firework parties everywhere since this is Asia and all) so all the tickets now cost over €50 and many venues were sold out. Believing the rumors from two years ago, when everyone in my hostel was talking about the 'awesome New Years parties' and 'massive firework shows', we set out asking basically everyone we could find for something to do, but all sources came up dry.
Turns out Korea isn't China, and they don't give a rats ass about the 'solar New Year'. There's no one out on the streets partying, so all the partying my hostelmates must've done would've been in clubs or something I suppose, and the only public event is the Ringing of the Bosingak, which we already visited two years ago and weren't all too impressed with. Instead, we decided to go into a bar, maybe watch a countdown on TV, and have some beers. Now, in the Netherlands, New Years is kind of a family/friends thing - everyone gets together at a party, goes outside together to shoot off overpriced fireworks, get drunk, shoot off some more fireworks using increasingly unsafe methods, go by the neighbours to show them that you totally do think about them at least once a year and end up spending more time on the toilet than in your bed that night. In Korea, it seems, it's just business as usual. When we got to the bar (we couldn't even find one with a TV), there were some people happily chatting, and the beer they served wasn't too bad..but when the last ten seconds before midnight arrived, and I started counting down..by myself..loudly..no one even joined in, and I almost felt stupid shouting 'Happy Newyear!' since no one seemed to even care. So...yeah..next year I think we'll just book something...ANYTHING.
[I did manage to bring some Glühwein and Oliebollen with me from the Netherlands though, so it wasn't a complete loss]
On the first day of the new year, we slept like pigs. The past days, we both had to wake up around 7 every morning because Gahui had to go to work, and although I always crept back into bed it just wasn't the same as a nice 8 hour continuous rest, so we were both grateful for the day off this shitty New Year had brought. Sleeping for a long time was kind of encouraged by Gahui's home by the way, since it was built so close to other buildings that the large windows didn't even need any blinds to not let any sunlight in. I guess that's one of the perks (?) of living in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, huh? Other than that by the way her home was really wonderful. It had exactly the kind of atmosphere that fit Gahui's personality, and it was cute and tidy. While other people's rooms often feel like something you can't disturb or you feel out of place in, I felt totally at ease here and felt like this was as much my place as it was hers. ... Except with more cleaning.
Anyway, after getting up lazily and probably not having a proper breakfast (we kept being too lazy to make decent morning chow, so we usually ended up having a big lunch outside instead) we set off to Kyobo Bookstore to get some books for me to study Korean with. I've tried several books so far, but all of them have either been moving too fast or starting off with useless stuff, so I wanted to be able to compare publications and find out for myself the ones I'd like to use. In the end, I ended up with the Kyobo published "Fun! Fun! Korean!", which not only has a stupid title but was also one of the most expensive books in the collection. But I liked it, goddamnit. I also picked up an extra work book from Talk to me in Korean.com (I was going to get the Fun! Fun! Workbook!, but it was ridiculously overpriced too) and a book full of cool Korean proverbs, many of which are about dogs and/or killing people. Later we managed to find a workbook that kids use to practice writing their 한글 - something that I need desperately because I always get in trouble when I need to write 3 or 4 characters in one syllable but didn't expect it. Unfortunately, there were only two books to choose from: a pink one with cute cupcakes on it, and a blue one with FUCKING DOLPHINS. Now, I actually kinda hate Dolphins. Not the actual creatures, but I hate to have them on things. Why? I don't know. Probably some sort of trauma from my grade school days where everyone and everything had a goddamn dolphin on it. I ended up picking the dolphins anyway though because the cover was just so darn inspiring and positive.
"Hey! Enjoy free time with us.
Are you ready to go?
Yes, let's enjoy~
I' am very happy to see you.
Let's play together, my friend!"
If that doesn't make you want to study, nothing will.
Of the next day, I only have one picture, but I look kinda cool in it so I'm gonna post it anyway.
We visited Times Square (not the real one, the Chinese rip-off one) in search for some good deals on clothing for Gahui, but couldn't find more than a pair of socks. The thing I remember best from that afternoon was some hilarious kid that was 'hiding' in the clothing racks. I was browsing the men's wear, knowing full well that I'd never be able to squeeze myself into those tiny Korean baby sizes, when I suddenly saw two tiny little baby shoes sticking out of the rack. When I rustled the clothes a little, the shoes started giggling, so I suddenly yanked them aside and said '안녕!' in my most child friendly voice. I guess reading it like this you'd think the kid would've had a heart attack but actually he started laughing and running around weirdly, which was fun to see. I don't know what it is about Korean kids, but they're just so much cuter and more fun than white kids. Maybe because Korea doesn't have as many creepy old dudes touching and killing kids, their parents didn't tell them to treat strangers like shit for every day of their lives? Either way, I don't think even teaching will make me dislike these kids.
Anyway, after hanging around in Times Square for a while, we went to the upper floor to watch Ender's Game (yes, that was of course the real reason we went all the way to Yeongdeungpo) in delicious 4D. From my last visit, I knew that 4D could even make an Underworld movie enjoyable, so I had high hopes for the movie to at least be cool. As you can read in my review though, everything but the 4D effects disappointed, and even those couldn't really save the movie because it wasn't in 3D in the first place so it felt a little bit awkward. I was glad that I could drag Gahui to see it though, and even happier when it turned out she actually enjoyed it. I'd told her about Ender's Game before and recommended her to read it since it's not very Sci-Fi'y. I'd expected the movie to turn her off from it since it's definitely very Sci-fi, but it actually made her interested in reading the book - especially after I told her in detail everything that sucked about the movie and was way, way better in the books. Unfortunately I couldn't get her to actually pick the book up while I was there though, so I have a sinking feeling that we might never be able to talk about the story of Andrew Wiggin together..
Oh yeah, so here's that picture in Times Square in which I look kinda cool:
[To be fair though, most men would look kinda cool when they're this close to a giant beer]
I remember that the day didn't really pick up after the movie, since we couldn't decide where we wanted to eat, searched for a place for hours, couldn't find anything we liked enough, and ended up eating a burger and fries in Lotteria...such is life on the road.
And on the Seventh Day, the Lord created Richard's special strain of Korean Cold, and he saw that it was Good.
A trip to Korea without catching a serious, probably mutated, cold is like a trip to Japan without buying pornography, so of course I ended up with another one of my trademarked Korean Colds. It hit at the end of day six and continued until about a week after I came home, but luckily the worst was on this one day. Gahui had to work all day, so I didn't bother her with my sickness, and I had the whole apartment to myself to steam the shit out of it and make the air as humid as a 찜질방. The whole day I did nothing but follow internet tips and tricks about how to get rid of colds - steaming, taking vitamin C by the truckload, drinking supposedly medicinal Korean tea, drinking even more tea, taking hot showers and drinking pretty much all of Gahui's special honey lemon tea. In the evening, when she came home, Gahui helped me by creating some insanely spicy kimchi jim which is also supposed to scare the cold out of you. And it had better, because the next few days were the days where we'd meet our friends from the IWO project, Chanok and Norma. I'd been looking forward to meeting them a lot, and cruel fate had decided that these next two days were actually the last days either of them would be in Seoul for the foreseeable future, so I had to man up and quite literally suck it up.
The next day, I was surprisingly feeling a whole lot better. I'm not one of those people who immediately starts believing in internet tips just because they worked once, but I felt like I probably did well in locking myself up all day in a boiling hot apartment, drinking about two buckets of tea. Feeling not-all-that-bad was a good thing, because it meant I could go meet my Mexican señorita Norma in a good mood. Unfortunately, Gahui had to work so she couldn't come with us, but she'd be free the next day to have lunch and hang out.
I met Norma during my volunteer project for IWO in 2011, and she's one of the people I had the best 'click' with. The others were Martina, Daniel, Chanok and, obviously, Gahui. I still miss those guys a lot, and I remember the hilarious times we had together fondly, so I'm glad we could meet even if it was only for a while. Norma studies in Daejeon nowadays, which is a pretty hefty bus ride away from Seoul, so it had been a while since she'd seen the myriad of stores here. Being a bigger kpop addict than most, we spent most of our day running around finding local stores that sold anything from CD's to DVD's, calendars, posters, mugs, t-shirts and anything else imaginable. I pointed her and her friend who came with us to my favorite money wasting store (the Bookoff in Sinchon) and was happy to see she ended up buying so many CD's that she left a giant hole in the ₩2200 section.
[Hey, at the price of €1,80 per CD, who can blame her?]
After splurging there (I picked up a single ₩2200 Japanese CD and praised myself for my restraint) we went to the restaurant where Gahui was working for another probably amazing lunch which I unfortunately couldn't taste at all, and made our way to Myeondong for even more kpop shopping.
It was pretty interesting to see how she and her friends knew exactly how to hit the places they wanted to visit as if they had their own internal GPS, and how wonderful it must be to be a female kpop fan in Seoul. While SNSD was at the height of their popularity in their homeland when I last visited, I quickly noticed no one really cares much about them anymore, with IU and T-Ara receiving much more attention than before. The real deal this time though were the guy groups like TVXQ, Super Junior and especially EXO. If I was an EXO fan, I would've gone crazy. There was so much EXO stuff on sale I wouldn't be surprised if you could get an EXO advent calendar. There was still some SNSD stuff to be found, but it felt more like an after thought for tourists than something Koreans really cared about.
[Being in Myeondong totally feels like being in a movie. The buildings are so tall, there's so many people and everyone's screaming at you to come in..maybe for Americans it's like a daily occurrence but for someone from Europe it's pretty amazing.]
[We also paid our close friend 스테파니 황 a visit]
Before I went home to have dinner with Gahui, we even visit the café that a member of TVXQ (or was it JYJ? Ex-member of TVXQ? I can't do this well..) had opened in Myeondong, called J Holic. It was a nice and, surprisingly, affordable place, and I had the best tea I ever had there, so it was definitely not a waste.
The next day I'd meet Norma again, and Chanok would also join us, so I went home with a happy feeling.
Unfortunately, that happy feeling was short lived, as me and Gahui fell into kind of a fight the next morning when we woke up. I don't really remember what it was about, but we almost decided not to even go. Instead, we just arrived late like we usually do and kiiiiind of ruined the atmosphere for everyone. Sorry guys. Chanok and Norma were probably expecting to hear the happy stories about our days together so far like I've told them here, but unfortunately all that came out of us that afternoon were uncomfortable silences and forced jokes. I felt kinda bad, and I'm sure Gahui did too, since this was our last chance to see Chanok and Norma, and we had really wanted to enjoy the day.
We still did, of course, but just..slightly less, I guess.
We met in City Hall, I think, and passed the fancy gate there where guards in traditional clothing and fake beards are ridiculed by tourists taking pictures with them because, like their British colleagues, they're not allowed to move or say a thing, even when someone is pretending to hug them in front of a camera.
We had a delicious lunch that I unfortunately couldn't enjoy again because I still couldn't taste anything, and went over to a café to get out of the cold. It was good to catch up with Chanok, who has big plans of doing volunteer work in France for more than 6 months and is studying French by herself much like I'm trying to study Korean, and talk some more to Norma about her studies in Korea and what to expect should I be so lucky as to get the scholarship I'm applying for next month.
After Norma left though, things got a little awkward since me and Gahui were still on bad terms and Chanok was just sitting there in the middle trying to deal with the awkward silences. Once again, sorry Chanok, it was not your fault! We talked for a while longer until Chanok had to go home too to pack her bags to move to her home town the next day.
On the way back, me and Gahui obviously had something to deal with, but since I don't remember exactly what it was I also can't explain well how what we did next solved it.
We walked into a random art gallery that we ran into while looking for the subway, and inside was an exhibition called 'My Dear Pear', by 조정욱. The paintings there, about...cute pears... each had thought provoking titles or emotional stories attached to them, and reading those I think both of us realized we shouldn't be fighting when we could only see eachother for such a short while. Gahui almost teared up as she translated some of the stories for me, and by the time we made it halfway through the exhibit there was nothing left of the foul mood we had been in before. The pears were just too damn cute.
[I can't believe this Pear head looks so much less like an "I'm gonna beat you up" Pear on this girl than it does on me...]
My report of my days in Seoul will continue in the next post because I don't want to make the page take like a million hours to load, so I'll put a link to that here.