Korea, Summer 2010

My plan is to write regularly to describe my experiences in Korea. While I can’t guarantee that it will be full of thrills and adventures, I will do my best to give my impressions as they come. This is my first time to Asia, so I’m sure I will come off as a real beginner, but there you are: that’s what I am.

Week 1

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Arrived in Seoul after an 18 hour journey that started at Logan and a packed flight to Chicago, a hike to O’Hare’s international terminal where, ironically, Korean Air was right next to Aer Lingus! In the vast reaches of the international terminal only Korean Air was doing any business. We thought that we would have that jumbo jet to ourselves: who will be traveling from Chicago to Seoul on Sunday in July when the operative word in the guide books is "sweltering"? Who, indeed: the flight was packed, mostly with Korean families living in America and returning home or returning from American visits. Tom, my teaching partner and buddy, couldn’t sit together, but we managed to secure exit row seats. Tom got the worst of it, though, sitting next to a mother with an infant (turned out the baby was quiet and adorable). I sat next to a college student from Tennessee who was going "to help deliver God’s word" at a missionary camp. 

The stewardesses on the flight were all decked out in satiny blouses and came readily equipped with smiles and bows: the overture to an amazingly gracious and attentive flight in which we were busied by delivery of meals, snacks, fruit juices, and other amenities that helped pass the time of a 14 hour flight that headed north up to Alaska and across the Arctic through Russia, into China, and then, detouring North Korea, to Incheon International. 


Last chance to reconsider and just head back to Ireland.
Our home for the next 14 hours.
 

Before boarding

Week 1

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Incheon International Airport is easily one of the nicest airports I’ve been in: massive but with great amenities like moving sidewalks, all chrome and glass, but with interesting shapes and architectural details. It is spotless, and was remarkably free of people. Maybe it was arriving in mid-afternoon between the flurry of flights in and out. We proceeded through Customs with no bother and short waits, picked up our bags and proceeded into the arrivals area to change money and buy a ticket for the bus into the City Air Terminal, where we were to be met. Everyone we asked directions of was courteous and gracious, even if they didn’t understand fully.

It was an hour ride into the city, passing seaside and rolling hills. I drifted off to sleep several times though I wanted to see as much as possible. At the terminal we collected our bags and proceeded into the arrival area where there was nobody waiting. Before panic mode, I went to the men’s, and on coming out, our guides had arrived: an office manager from Samboh (who spoke little English) and one of our TAs who served as translator. We piled into two taxis to accommodate our bags and headed off to our apartment.

The apartments (Tom is in the one adjacent to mine) are on a side street of mixed businesses and shops. We got into both places, which look like deluxe dorm rooms: a studio apartment with a small kitchen. Windows overlooking an air shaft and the other apartment block, so no view. All is clean and efficient with an air conditioner that can reach Arctic levels. Settling in, our guides suggested that we eat a meal before getting sleep, so they took us to a chicken restaurant that featured an entire chicken served in separate bowls of broth. It was a perfect choice for the weak stomach after the flight.

After eating, we headed back and got some essentials (like toilet paper, milk, and water), and then went to sleep: for me the first real sleep in two days.

Overall, I am struck by the pace of the city: frenetic but friendly and humanized. There’s a kind of Bloomsbury or Village feel to the place where we are living, and I am fascinated by the street life, and look forward to learning more.

Week 1

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After a sleep that could have gone on, Tom and I forced ourselves to get up for our appointment at 11.30 to be taken to have lunch with our teaching colleagues. We sat at a little cafe outside my building and met Mr. Jeong from yesterday but a different TA, Jae, who informed us that the plan had changed to dinner instead of lunch. We were told we could rest until the evening, but we had a number of things that needed attention, particularly the lack of certain items like towels, plates, bowls, etc. Instead we took a cab to Samboh and met with John Kye, Mr. Kim, and Sonja and Michael O’Donnell from Deerfield who are teaching the first session and will be finishing on Thursday. John took us to lunch downstairs in the building: a fabulous meal of Sabu Sabu: beef and seafood cooked at the table in a broth. Wonderful. Afterwards we went by cab with Tae and Tai-hee, the main administrative assistant, to go shopping. We got Tom a bottom sheet for his bed and then went to E-Mart, the Korean version of Wall-Mart for a cart full of items for both apartments: glasses, bowls, plates, cutlery, towels, dishwashing liquid and washing detergent. We cabbed back to the apartments and dropped off all the items, giving us about an hour to rest up before our dinner.

We met Mr. Kang, the owner of Samboh, who was our host at a dinner at a traditional Korean steakhouse. We sat on the floor and had the steak cooked at the table: first a strip steak cut up in small pieces with a host of sauces and vegetable accompaniments, then a marinaded steak in thin strips in a delicious broth. It was a fabulous meal and a lot of fun with our new Samboh and Deerfield colleagues.

After dinner, we were dropped off by Sonja and Michael’s apartment (not far from ours) and we went to the Renaissance Hotel, a fancy 5-star, European style hotel, to have a drink in the lobby before heading home to bed: a great and productive first full day in Seoul.

After a sleep that could have gone on, Tom and I forced ourselves to get up for our appointment at 11.30 to be taken to have lunch with our teaching colleagues. We sat at a little cafe outside my building and met Mr. Jeong from yesterday but a different TA, Jae, who informed us that the plan had changed to dinner instead of lunch. We were told we could rest until the evening, but we had a number of things that needed attention, particularly the lack of certain items like towels, plates, bowls, etc. Instead we took a cab to Samboh and met with John Kye, Mr. Kim, and Sonja and Michael O’Donnell from Deerfield who are teaching the first session and will be finishing on Thursday. John took us to lunch downstairs in the building: a fabulous meal of Sabu Sabu: beef and seafood cooked at the table in a broth. Wonderful. Afterwards we went by cab with Tae and Tai-hee, the main administrative assistant, to go shopping. We got Tom a bottom sheet for his bed and then went to E-Mart, the Korean version of Wall-Mart for a cart full of items for both apartments: glasses, bowls, plates, cutlery, towels, dishwashing liquid and washing detergent. We cabbed back to the apartments and dropped off all the items, giving us about an hour to rest up before our dinner.
We met Mr. Kang, the owner of Samboh, who was our host at a dinner at a traditional Korean steakhouse. We sat on the floor and had the steak cooked at the table: first a strip steak cut up in small pieces with a host of sauces and vegetable accompaniments, then a marinaded steak in thin strips in a delicious broth. It was a fabulous meal and a lot of fun with our new Samboh and Deerfield colleagues.
After dinner, we were dropped off by Sonja and Michael’s apartment (not far from ours) and we went to the Renaissance Hotel, a fancy 5-star, European style hotel, to have a drink in the lobby before heading home to bed: a great and productive first full day in Seoul.

Tom at the cafe

My apartment from one angle.
Apartment from another angle.
 
Street scenes on Teheran-ro near apartment
More streetscenes
Our address
 

Week 1

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Been so busy that I haven’t had time to write. Wednesday and Thursday were sort of a duplication of one another so I will combine. Most of the time was spent getting ready to teach and spending some time in Samboh taking care of various business in anticipation of our starting on Friday. No time for sightseeing yet. Took cabs to and from the office; found a great French bakery (Boulangerie) near the office where we had a late breakfast. On Wednesday night we were so beat that we went to an Italian place near us. Not great but neither of us was feeling very fit stomach-wise. On Thursday we took a cab to a hotel in the swanky area near the river to join our departing colleagues, the McDonnells, in a farewell dinner with Deerfield colleagues who are working for another language school. Went to a place named School Days, for no apparent reason and had shrimp risotto and a local bear (Max), before cabbing back home with the McDonnells who were leaving the next day. 

Week 1

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We started teaching on Friday: four two hour classes each day, Monday-Saturday. It will be an endurance contest in which pacing ourselves and conserving energy will be key. The students are, for the most part, willing and interested. At a break in class, we order our lunch from a take-away, and it is delivered on the dot at 12.30 by a messenger in motorcycle helmet: a full meal of rice and meat or fist and the ever-present kimchi. We finish at 5.30. It’s been raining continuously for the last few days: it’s the rainy season so we should expect either sweltering sun or continual rain. On Friday night, we joined the gym near our apartments and got some needed exercise and relaxation there. I enjoyed the locker room and its hot, warm, and cold pools. On Saturday we were let go early so we had a treat of several hours for a nap and to catch up on email, before swimming at the gym and then walking to Coex, a multi-level mall. On the way home we decided on a Vietnam noodle restaurant, run by a Korean from Hawaii who trotted out the place’s specialties: a grand feast for about $25 in total. Tomorrow, Sunday, is our official day off and we are planning to do our first real sightseeing then.

Week 1

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Sunday is our only day off, and we decided that we would put a ban on discussing our classes and head out each Sunday to explore. For our first sightseeing session we decided to get an overview. So we did the Seoul City Bus Tour: a hop on/hop off circuit of the main tourist sites. In the more than four hours of the tour, we got off to stroll through a Korean folk village, went up into the Seoul Tower for a view of this immense city, and then into the craft area called Insadong, where we loved the street scene and had tea at a traditional Korean teahouse. It was wonderful to actually get out and about and to see all that we need to revisit for a more thorough examination. But I will let the pictures speak for me.
The Korean War Memorial
At the Korean folk village
 
Korean folk village
Up in the Seoul Tower
 
View from the Seoul Tower
Old gate of the city
 
Insadong tea house
Insadong

Week 2

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We have now been in Korea for just over a week, so time for some assessments: 1) It seems like we have been here for months; 2) We have settled in fairly well. It’s still obvious that this is an exotic and different kind of place, but I would think that of all Asian countries this is the easiest to navigate and get adjusted to quickly; 3) Everyone seems genuinely pleased with your business. The taxi drivers are somewhat dour, but the restaurant personnel is amazingly helpful and solicitous. Seeing me struggle with the metal chopsticks, they rush to bring me a fork, with a smile; 4) You need to find the basic eateries that satisfy without straining the sense of taste too much. For the most part, this is an easy cuisine to like: all is fresh with an emphasis on veg, instead of meat. Many meals are cooked for you at your table. Kimchi is certainly an acquired taste, and there’s a reason it has not caught on worldwide: it’s a weird taste. 5) The saving grace of getting around are the taxis. A ride that would be $12 in NYC or Boston is $3 here. It’s about the same money to ride the underground or the bus. Going to work we spend about $3; getting home in traffic during rush-hour, about $4. 6) There’s so much English around that it’s as if this is a adjunct of the U.S., with Dunkin Donuts and 7 11’s everywhere, but it’s also possible to get away from the west as well.

Almost at the halfway point of our first full week. The gym that we joined for about $100 for the month has been a saving grace. It’s clean with great amenities and allows us to unwind and really forget the teaching or coping strategies. So far so good. 

Week 2

Two days of teaching with little to report outside of our routine: meet for breakfast at my apartment around 7. Head out around 7.30 by taxi. It’s before the major rush, so we get to work in just 10 minutes or so (for about $2.50). Then usually a frantic half hour of printing documents and making copies before settling in to our first classes from 8.30 - 10.30. Second class follows immediately until 12.30, when we have an hour for lunch. We have ordered in food to be delivered: full meals of meat, veg, rice, kimchi, sauces, etc. All for about $5. Today we went to the French bakery and bought bread and we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which might not sound much but if you are in the land of kimchi, it tasted like ambrosia to us. I took some photos of our office (Tom working away) and the reception staff at Samboh who are incredibly friendly and nice to us (as you can see from the picture). Made reservation for Sunday trip to the DMZ today at lunch so I’m excited. Should have some good pictures to share.

In the afternoon there are two classes as well: from 1.30 - 3.30 and 3.30 - 5.30. By the end of the day, we are spent and leave the office like a shot (Samboh keeps going, sometimes until 10 or 11 each night!). We taxi home and then usually hit the gym, alternating between the pool and the exercise area. The gym is great: they have tee shirts and gym trunks to use and the main locker room has a great shower room with saunas, hot, cold, and warm baths, and a masseuse on duty (Tom had the massage and said it was the best he ever had: a half body workout for 30 minutes for around $18). Then we go out to dinner at one of the many places right near the apartment. We have gone to a great noodle place in which a dinner of noodles and dumplings and gimbap (Korean sushi) was about $4 each. We have gone two nights in a row to a Korean barbecue place where you cook on a grill at your table. Last night we had duck served that way: a bit fatty but still tasty. They have pork and beef ribs and several other items on the menu: all seem to come with different go-withs, so we will go back. Tonight I’m lobbying to go to the fried chicken joint nearby and see what that’s like. In general, dinners are a festive, family style affair, but not drawn out since they don’t really do starters or deserts. And no tipping anywhere in Korea! That saves your 15% off the top. After dinner, we have frequently stopped at the cafe near my apartment. A pint container of ice cream is around $3.50 and they also serve something called a roti: a sweet bun-like treat that’s hard to describe but tasty: light and refreshing. The last few nights, I have been back in the apartment before nine and in bed by 10, exhausted and trying to get rested to start again the next morning. 

Week 2

Saturday was an easy teaching day since our numbers are small. After teaching two hours until 10.30, I had the next session until 12.30 off. Went to an electronics shop to pick up a second pair of speakers for the computer and printed quizzes and things for next week, the first time we have had to get a jump on things. The afternoon was the same. I taught from 1.30 - 3.30 but then had the rest of the afternoon off to do more prep work.

We decided to see a movie after work and we walked to Coex, the huge mall near our apartment where we bought tickets to see Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio, easily one of the silliest movies I’ve seen in a while. We managed to get seats in the large theatre but 5 minutes into the film we were told that it was assigned seats! We then had to vacate our seats and seek for new ones in the dark (forget finding our actual seats). We finally found two together but missed a bit of the set up for the movie, which may explain why little made sense to me.

Afterwards, we just wanted to get out of the futuristic Coex, and we found a simple little restaurant that served nicely fried fish. All told, it was a great way to finish off our first full week of work.
On the way to the movies: Dunkin Donuts even here
Hyundai Department Store near Coex
 

Week 2

Today marks our first two weeks in Seoul. It’s our day off and I celebrated by sleeping in until about 9.00, a great treat. After showering and changing and a cup of coffee, I headed off to meet Tom for the walk to the Renaissance Hotel where we were to meet our tour at 11.10.

In the lobby of the hotel, our guide (just call me "Joe") arrived and took us to a van, and we headed off to pick up two other passengers: a South African wine dealer named Archie and an Indian man whose name I didn’t get. After picking them both up on the north side of the city we headed north up the so-called Freedom Road that follows the river north to the DMZ.

After about a 50 minute drive along a highway fenced in with barbed wire and sentry points with armed guards, we reached Imgingak Park, an amusement park right on the DMZ where you get your tickets for the bus that takes you into the DMZ. There you could see the Freedom Bridge into the DMZ and the former rail line that used to connect north and south. We looked around and then had some lunch at stalls: chicken on skewers and a corn dog: Korean amusement park food. In the gift shops we bought DMZ tee shirts.

Heading out at 2.00, we went across the Freedom Bridge where a sentry came on board to inspect, then into the DMZ and a first stop at the train station built during a thaw in relations in hopes to open a rail link between Seoul and Penyang, the capital of North Korea. It is a ghost station: no trains but everything set up as if one was expected: there is an immigration hall, ticket booths with signs directing you to the train to Penyang, even a shop to sell traveler’s needs. Very odd.

The next stop was to the famous Doran Observatory where presidents are always photographed peering into North Korea. It’s the best view you get of the North, including the propaganda village they built that has no one living in it. You can just make out the closest North Korean city to the border.

Then we went to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, discovered in the 1970s, dug by the North Koreans to move their troops quickly under the DMZ for a surprise attack on Seoul. It’s a challenge to see: first you walk down about 500 meters then into the tunnel, stooping like Groucho Marx along a narrow shaft for about 300 meters, then you have to walk back up the 500 meters. I was huffing and puffing by the end, drench in sweat, having clanged my head many times against the rock. Thank heaven you were wearing a hardhat. Afterwards, recovering, we watched a short movie in the nearby theatre before boarding our bus. Last stop was the Unification Village, a village allowed to be built in the DMZ. Stopped there at their community center where they sold rice and rice wine and other local products as well as souvenirs. I bought a DMZ mug to bring home.

We then drove back to the amusement park where our van was waiting for the trip back to Seoul. All things considered, I’m glad we went, though I remain disappointed that we couldn’t also do Panmunjeon. But there is no way to do it on Sunday and that’s our only day. Next time.

Left off at Ichewan, the district with the greatest concentration of western bars and restaurants, by the US base, we then took a taxi back to the apartment and dinner.
At the wire of the DMZ near the Freedom Bridge
Tom and Dan in the DMZ
 
The locomotive that ran between North and South and was hit numerous times
Lunch of Korean street food
 
On duty in the ghost DMZ train station
Looking into North Korea
 
North Korea
In between the two halves
 

Week 3

It’s Wednesday night, after three days straight of teaching. On Friday we will reach the midpoint of the teaching schedule and therefore will be on the homeward stretch. Little to report that is new or different. The routine is the same. Up around 6.00 to shower and change and do prep work on the courses. Tom comes over for breakfast around 7.00: cereal, yoghurt, and a banana, then a taxi to school, arriving just about 8.00 am. Since we got a jump on copying quizzes, etc. we haven’t had to scramble to the copy machine or printer: a nice break, so classes at 8.30 do not seem like a panic at the offset. Classes 8.30 - 10.30 and then 10.30 - 12.30. A lunch hour, then classes 1.30 - 3.30 and 3.30 - 5.30. You never saw anyone leave as quickly as we do: no lingering at all: just out to the street and a taxi home, to the gym or a nap before dinner. Usually back in the apartment around 8.30 for work on the class, emails, blog, etc. and in bed to sleep around 10, to start it all over again.

Since I don’t have anything else of interest to report, I thought I would comment on the day’s excitement: our dinner. More specifically, eating in Korea. Overall, what amazes is the number of restaurants in Seoul. In our neighborhood alone, a tiny speck in the immensity of the city, there must be 100 eating places in a three block radius. We have been told that it’s far cheaper to go out than to buy food to cook in and that seems right. We have been averaging about 7,000 - 9,000 wons (about $6 -$8) for dinners. The cuisine is far healthier than in the US: protein portions are smaller and vegetable portions greater. Every meal is accompanied not just by kimchi but with several small bowls of savory items: nuts, tofu, squid, salady concoctions. There are no real starters, no deserts, no coffee or tea to finish, just the cost of the entree and its accompaniments. Tonight we had a beef stew served in a cast iron pot brought to the table, of meat, mushrooms, carrots, and onions, rice and several side dishes. All for 5,000 wons apiece (about $4). Last night I went to dumpling restaurant and had pork dumplings (about a dozen) and a bowl of pork and rice. That came to 6,000 wons (about $5). What’s weird is that there doesn’t seem to be much logic in the prices of the restaurants. We went to another place on our street for fried chicken and got a very small plate of chicken and not much else for 17,000 wons! Sushi places can be cheap (about 5-7,000 wons) or very dear (35,000 wons). The rule of thumb: the more western you go, the more expensive it is. Korean street food is the cheapest of all, but we are really hamstrung there lacking the language and the expertise to know what to eat or how to ask for it (other than by pointing). We have ordered chicken on a stick and a corndog but that’s what we can recognize. The vast majority of items don’t suggest any known food, but the price is right: around 1500 wons a portion (a bit more than a $1). The Korean version of sushi (gimbap) is just okay: it’s an acquired taste, like kimchi. Also, there is no real Korean breakfast food: they eat whatever is leftover, including gimbap, as a taxi driver was doing at 7.45 in the morning. Cereal is a Western thing. And the infinite number of coffee places: Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, etc. are not really morning places. Coffee is really an afternoon and evening thing. Food in the stores is expensive. A small jar of peanut butter is about 6,000 wons (about $5). Milk only lasts about a day before it begins to go. There’s almost no bread anywhere in the stores. Fruits are high. Again, it’s a weird food selection: a store that caters to mostly people who don’t cook. We have never found any garbage bags to dispose our trash.

So far, we have tried shabu shabu, the Korean form of Japanese hot pot, have gone to a Korean steak house, eaten Korean barbecue multiple times, gone to noodle shops, sushi shops, a Korean porridge restaurant: seafood porridge: like eating seafood oatmeal! The seasoning can be hot, but not unbearably. It’s easier on the stomach than I expected, and I haven’t really craved Western food: a steak, pasta, pizza, etc. (Another good example of the weirdness: pizza costs as much as $20 a pie). For sweets, there is an ice cream shoppe right next to my apartment. You can get the equivalent of a pint of ice cream for about 4,000 wons (about $3). They also serve rotis, as kind of sweet bun that is very light and tasty at 2,000 wons. After the first night, I have not given Starbucks (or indeed any coffee shop) my business. At dinner, they always bring a carafe of water. I have tried the beer (Cass) and it’s fine, sort of Budweiser-like. I haven’t tried the Korea poteen yet, though I have seen folks putting down shots of it with their dinner. Overall, we have done very well with our meals: not spending too much money and still being satisfied.

Typical Korean sidedishes (though I have never had this many)

A more typical spread

Week 3

We have nearly reached the midpoint of our teaching, so thought some images of the classroom and some reflections about the teaching experience are called for. For the most part, the students are cheerful and polite (if not enthusiastic). Who blames them? After a long academic year, their break is to do 4 hours three times a day with us reading Antigone, Othello, and The Bluest Eye. In many cases, they are also doing time in other classes such as math, science, history, etc. So, enthusiasm is a rare commodity. There is a complete range as well in language ability and familiarity with demanding literary texts. Add to this a Korean reluctance to challenge authority, to speak up, or ask questions, and you begin to get a sense of our challenge filling 8 hours every day for six days a week!

The Advanced classes are by far easier, and closer to teaching secondary students in the States. The Intermediate classes are really tough: seventh and eighth graders. Othello? Good luck.
Classroom scene
Teaching
Students
Students in class

Week 3

Tonight we were taken out to dinner by the parents of one of our students who is starting at St. Paul’s, Tom’s school. We were picked up in a BMW near-limo and taken to a beautiful Korean restaurant. It was a very high-end Korean barbecue place with its own gardens outside and a waterfall and lagoon. The food was exceptional (as I suspect were the prices). We now realize that there is Korean food and then there is Korean food. The side dishes were more plentiful but more or less the same as we have had before. What made it different was the quality of the meat that was grilled at the table: koba beef or the equivalent. Our hosts, the Lees, were incredibly gracious. She is a concert pianist; he is a plastic surgeon. I was introduced to soju, the Korean style whiskey and Korean rice wine, a milky-like drink that was very tasty. After two kinds of beef, we finished the meal with cold noodles (spicy for me, in a broth for Tom). It was an exceptional evening out that gave us the opportunity to ask many questions about customs and details about Seoul that we had noticed but had no one to help us answer. It was easily the best evening we have had in Seoul, and a tonic to get us through the work week.
The dishes at our dinner
Our hosts, the Lees
 
The restaurant

Week 3

On our day off, since Tom is depleted with a sinus infection, we decided to take it easy. We met for breakfast at the Parish baguette chain restaurant near us and had an egg and bacon wrap, croissant, and sweet rolls. Afterwards we headed back to our apartments to do some grading and rest. At 2.00 I called Tom and he needed a bit more sleep. I headed off to a nearby park where I strolled and toured the tombs of the 15th century King Seongjong and 16th century King Jungjong. The park is a tranquil oasis in the midst of the modern highrises and I thoroughly enjoyed my stroll there. Afterwards we took a taxi across the river to the Korean War Memorial and toured the excellent Korean War displays. It is both extensive and well presented. After staying for about an hour and a half we taxied home and had a quick bite before bed. A good day that allowed us to get caught up with rest and work.
The royal tomb
Sentry at the tomb
 
Korean War Memorial
War memorial
 

Week 4

It’s Wednesday night and we marked the two weeks to go of teaching by having our first non-Korean meal in more than three weeks! We went to the Paris Baguette for a snack after work and then bought sandwiches (what are they?) to take home for dinner. Just felt like staying in for the evening with the familiar: added to sandwiches a bag of chips and a big bottle of Fanta grape, and I am all set for the evening. No kimchi in sight!

This week we realized is the WALL: on Monday it was almost impossible to summon up the energy to make it through the day. It seemed like time had stopped. Tuesday was a little better but still the grind is getting us down. Tuesday night we went out for dinner and had a series of mishaps: couldn’t find a reasonable restaurant with a menu we could read or understand, then went to a formerly reliable place where Tom ordered beef with noodles and there was no beef to be found in it. Trying to send a dish back in a Korean restaurant completely staffed by waitresses who speak no English is an adventure! They brought a replacement, but it was pretty bad: a beef soup that was really uneatable. We left and went to a Japanese restaurant where Tom spent 5,000 wons (about $4) for a bowl of Japanese noodle soup that we got for free with our 7,000 wons lunch that afternoon! It all started to get to us, so we vowed to get out of our neighborhood and routine today or tomorrow. Wednesday’s classes dragged and we were feeling too tired to venture further than Paris Baguette, but the shift to the familiar: bread of all kinds, has been great and restorative. What we need is just a night off with the familiar and nothing unexpected.  
Tay-hee, the anchor of the operation
Three of our Teaching Assistants
 

Week 4

For the second straight Friday night we were taken out to dinner by the Lees, the parents of one of our students. Last week we were taken to a high-end Korean barbecue restaurant where we ate top quality beef grilled at our table. The restaurant tonight was an elegant place that specialized in classic Korean dishes served artistically. Mostly made up of individual screened-off rooms for sitting on the floor in the traditional way, the restaurant also had some rooms with Western-style tables and chairs, which we had. I suspect the Lees requested one assuming it would be our preference. Although we have eaten sitting on the floor, it’s not terribly comfortable if you aren’t used to it and for a long meal of many courses.

We must have had 10-15 different small courses: from pumpkin porridge and artfully arranged salads, to noodle dishes and fish and beef dishes. One of the highpoints was a thin, round wrap to which you added nine ingredients: tiny shredded bits of vegetable, fish and meat. Everything was delicious and a work of art.

Afterwards, we drove across the river into town to see Seoul at night. We stopped in the center to walk along a small river that has been converted into a promenade and wading area. Finally, made it home by midnight, exhausted but feeling really refreshed and gratified by so much courtesy and generosity. Both nights, hosted by the Lees, have been the highpoints of our trip. 
The dish with the nine ingredients
Strolling on the river promenade
 

Week 4

Headed out on our next-to-last Sundays, first by taxi to the metro station where we could travel direct to incheon, the end of the line, about 50 minutes. From there we took a taxi to the ferry that got us on the large West Sea Island that Incheon International Airport is on. From there we took another taxi to another ferry. This one going to Muuida Island, or destination: a tiny island with a reputation for seafood and beaches. We started out walking but found ourselves getting further and further from the beach, up steep hills, in the sweltering heat. We checked the map more carefully and realized that it would take us far too long to reach the beach in that direction and it would better to go to the beach closer to the ferry. So, we reversed directions and headed for the other beach, up an unbelievably steep hill. Exhausted and sweating, we finally arrived at the beach: a resort of sorts for campers and day-trippers with snack bars and restaurants. The water was excellent: just cold enough to be refreshing. We stayed in for a good 45 minutes enjoying every moment. Then we headed back to the ferry. We wanted to stop at a seafood restaurant but they were really expensive (about 45,000 wons for items that we couldn’t decipher since no English or pictures), so we passed. Back on the ferry at 5.00 we asked at the tourist office how best to get back. It turns out that after a 20 minute walk we could catch a bus that went directly to Incheon Station where we needed to go, so we hoofed it. Eventually, we boarded the bus but there were no seats. We were looking at the prospect of standing for the 50 minute ride. Most got off, though, at Incheon Airport. Made is to the station and eventually home after 3 and 1/2 hours! Lots of travel for a 45 minute swim, but we wanted to get out of town and we did!
View from the ferry
The beach on Muuida Island

Week 5

Almost finished with our last full week. Haven’t had much to report since our Sunday excursion. The routine is pretty unexciting: up early, taxi to work, teach until 5.30, taxi to the gym, an hour exercising, then dinner, then bed. Repeat six times!

Anyway, we have reached Friday with just our Saturday class to go before our final Sunday off in Seoul and two final days of classes where the students will be working on their final papers and we will be doing evaluations. We have a free day built in on Wednesday for loose ends, closing up shop at work, and packing.

The plan for Sunday is to meet our head T.A., Jun, for Sunday lunch, tour one of the palaces, and do some shopping at Insadong, the artsy-craftsy area that we visited on our first Sunday.

As much as I am anxious to get home, I have thoroughly enjoyed my Korean experience. The Koreans are generally hospitable, tolerant of our ignorance of language and customs, and accommodating. Seoul is a massive place, not as charming as it is bustling with a high-speed vibe that is infectious. There’s much to see and do here, and it’s been a little frustrating not having the time to do it all. I really would have liked to have the time to travel more outside Seoul, particularly to the more beach areas in the south, but those really need an overnight that we never had.

Will relish our last few days of Korea. Will try to get some new photos up and some further words on our getting ready for our return flight. 

Week 5

Our last Sunday off in Seoul was all about shopping. I met Tom around 9 and we headed out by subway (it’s amazing how we have mastered that beast that seemed so impenetrable just a few weeks ago). He was meeting St. Paul’s parents at the Hyatt for brunch. I headed to the huge open-air market of Namdaemun. It was early and folks were just setting up, and I thoroughly enjoyed strolling the labyrinthian lane ways through shops and stalls selling every conceivable item: clothes, souvenirs, ginsen, luggage, camera. Most was low-end junk but the street scene was great. I bought some inexpensive things to bring home before heading up to a nearby shopping area of Myeong-dong. Here was a completely different animal: sort of like an American mall with no roof but endless American teenager chain stores. Great if you were 14. I kept walking and found my way to two high end department stores: one owned by Samsung, the other the Lotte. Went through the food halls in each: sort of like Harrod’s: every delectable imaginable and each a work of art. The prices were staggering as well: about $11 for a cantelope and more than $25 for a small bottle of maple syrup. The fish was amazing: whole fish selling for nearly $300. Kimchi not to be believed and all the kobe beef your arteries could possible need to clog fully. The service was all white gloved and bows. Since I’m white, I’m deferred to totally. Bought some kimchi to bring home and a couple bottles of wine for folks in the office as a goodbye present. Wine here is insanely expensive. Bottles costing less than $10 at home go for $30-40 here, and the high end vintages are easily in the $100 range. It’s no wonder that you rarely see anyone drinking wine at restaurants here. The Korean wine: rice wine that is a milky white, I’ve tried and enjoy. The soju, Korean whiskey or home brew, is delicious and is about $2 a bottle in restaurants and about $1 a bottle in convenience stores. I would suggest going into the cantelope, maple syrup, wine import business here.

After the Lotte, I walked north up to stream we had visited with the Lees after dinner: a small river turned into a beautiful promenade, shallow enough for kids to splash and tired adults to cool off their aching feet (that’s me). Had a pleasant recovery there before hearing from Tom and Jun, our head TA, who we were to meet to take to dinner as a thank you for all her help. Decided to meet up at the Lotte, so I walked back and waited for them to arrive. When we linked up (thank heavens for cell phones), we walked back to Namdaemun for Tom to shop for presents to bring his kids. By now it was packed and the vibe was not as nice as I experienced earlier: it was too crowded and you felt pushed along rather than seeing what was on offer. So, we got in a cab to head to Insadong and dinner. Today is Korea’s Independence Day (over the Japanese), so crowds were assembled around City Hall for speeches and concerts. They closed off streets and the traffic was backed-up. The driver said it would take a good 20 minutes to get to Insadong so we decided to get out and take the subway. We had to negotiate the under-street-level world to get to the right station and it took a good 40 minutes of walking to get on track. By this time, I had been out and about for 6 plus hours, so I was fading. We finally reached Insadong: a great shopping street of arts and craft shops and artist’s galleries. It reminds you of Greenwich Village. We did some shopping and then found a traditional Korean restaurant for dinner with Jun ordering and explaining what we were eating and how. It was delicious and great to sit. Afterwards, we headed back home by subway after some final checking of stores.

All in all, a great final day off in Seoul and a testament to how we have, if not mastered, can get around the city on our own and in a city of over 10 million link up again! 
Shopping
 

Week 6

So, here we are on the brink of flying home tomorrow. It’s Wednesday, and we have finished our last teaching obligation: handing in evaluations. We have also handed in our cell phones and bits and pieces of items from the apartment that future Book Club teachers may need. This afternoon, after a shopping foray at Coex looking for a toy for Tom’s son, and lunch, I took a two hour nap! The first in a month. Then I got down to packing. Here’s how we got there:

Monday and Tuesday: Our last teaching days were devoted to letting the students revise their final papers. We also took that as an opportunity to revise our work on them: writing evaluations and cleaning up our office to ready it for our departure. Monday we were taken out to lunch by the Samboh staff: a nice time in which we exchanged gifts. After work, I was feeling a cold coming on, so I rested instead of the gym (my last session was on Saturday) and we had a light meal at our nearby noodle place, one of our favorites and easily the best value in town. We had dumplings, noodle and dumpling soup, and an omelet for less than $10 in total. Tuesday was more of Monday for the students and us, and we headed out early, completing our work at Samboh. Tuesday night we had a farewell dinner at our favorite Korean barbecue place and said farewell to the waitresses who have been so nice to us.

So, tonight we are heading out for a final meal in Seoul, meeting up with two of Tom’s former students at St. Paul’s. Hopefully, an early evening before final packing, bed and a 6.00 am departure for the bus to the airport. 
With John Kye who was a major liaison for us at Samboh
Final shot of some of our students
 

Week 6

Sitting in the apartment at 5.40 am having a cup of coffee. All packed and ready to go. Don’t know what the internet situation will be at the airport so will write a quick note. Last night we had dinner with John and Rickie Wang, two students of Tom’s at St. Paul’s. Rickie is a sophomore at Harvard. They took us, coincidentally, to the same restaurant we went to with the Lees on our first night with them. I had mentioned that we should go back on our last night to splurge, and it happened!

Nice meal and time with the Wangs. Then back to apartment to finish packing and get some sleep.

It’s been an amazing adventure. I’ve enjoyed almost every moment. Will try to collect my thoughts on the plane and offer some final reflections later. Until then, there’s the challenge of getting me and the bags to the airport. Got to go. 

Departure

Made it to the airport: no problems. Arrived around 7.30 and cleared check in and security. Then the long search for breakfast. Koreans don’t do breakfast, so options were limited. Wound up in a travel hotel for an expensive buffet, but it did the trick.

Boarding now. Last looks at Korea. 
Airport scene
 

Epilogue

Our flight left about 15 minutes late (at 11.15 am or 10.15 pm EDST). I was home in my bed by 8.30 pm EDST (9.30 am in Seoul), just under 24 hours of traveling.

The flight (Seoul to JFK) was 13 hours, which seems at the outset impossible event to contemplate, but somehow the time passes. Tom re-watched about 9 episodes of The Wire; I did the second season of the BBC version of The Office. The movies on offer in the plan, despite multiple choices, were unwatchable. I did get through City Island, which was sweet Again, Korean Airlines was gracious and hospitable: the stewardess were decked out in their silks and weird scarves and we were served a lunch, a snack, and a dinner, as well as multiple rounds of fruit juices. One diversion, in addition to the skymap that tracked the flight: across Korea, tip of Japan, Sakalin Island, across the International Date Line near the Aleutians, into Alaska, down the Canadian coast to Vancouver, then east through Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Minnesota, across Lake Michigan, Detroit, back in Canada, and across New York, they had a pilot view and belly-view camera. We went from morning in Korea, to darkness in the north, then dawn in the west

Watching Queens below on the belly-view camera, we touched down at Kennedy, cleared customs rapidly, then waited for the bags. The first assault: $5 charge for a cart! I have never encountered such a charge at arrivals. It’s a disgrace, and it set the tone for the JFK portion. The airport is a pit: crowded, poorly staffed, and confusing. We had to re-check the bags after picking them up and clearing customs and the wait was long and tedious. Then we had to get to the Delta terminal by walking outside following the roadway and dodging taxis. The Delta terminal was a hole: a cavernous mess of no signs and long lines with no sense of order. Eventually, we found the long security line to get through a single station. On the other side, we had two options: Burger King or a sit-down sports bar. We chose the later and proceeded to spend more or an only passable lunch than we had spent on any meal in Korea: over $40 for a tired Caesar salad and three silver-dollar-sized "sliders" and two soft drinks. Welcome to New York! We had had a fantasy of having enough time to grab a cab and go to Ben’s deli on Queen’s Blvd for genuine pastrami. No such luck.

The Delta flight to Boston was only 40 minutes. I spent it chatting with a businessman coming back from Malaysia who had left Singapore at 8.00 pm on Wednesday (14 hours before us) and had flown to Frankfurt, then JFK, now to Boston. He was fresher than we were! Logan was the Taj Mahal compared to the squalor of Kennedy, and Debby rolled in a little after 4.00 for the drive to the Cape. Poor Tom had to wait until 7.30 for his flight to Bar Harbor. We went to 99 for the traditional welcome home meal I could barely manage a sandwich as my system was in shutdown mode. In bed at 8.30 for the sleep I had been craving for many hours.

It’s now Saturday, two days after arriving. It’s been weird adjusting to the Cape scene. We have been to the beach and a pond, driven to the mall in Hyannis, had Mexican food Both days around 5.00 pm, my body shut down, still on Korean time and wondering why we didn’t go to sleep. Hopefully, that will pass in a day or two more. 

En route and on the ground

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