Palace & Tower – Seoul, South Korea – Day 8

The morning of our last full day here dawns much like the other days have, though our morning calm is slightly shorter than usual; we have a palace to visit.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, to be specific. It is a fascinating place with its countless tile-roofed buildings, its wide sandy courtyards, and its neglected green gardens. There is a large pavilion on a small lake where they once held banquets. There is a throneroom with a wide, red and gold chair and an elaborate, dragon-emblazoned ceiling with many multicolored beams. There are hundreds of small, closed-door rooms that open onto the courtyards. There are guards in traditional dress by one gate, and a changing of the guard ceremony with marching and drums. But what there seems to be most of is people. Tourists. I wish they wouldn’t be there. I wish I could wander this palace by myself, or at least nearly so. This chattering, gaping, selfie-taking horde takes away the haunting mystery an ancient palace should hold.

We eat lunch in another back-alley restaurant in Insadong and then make our way home through a light rain. The men run down the street and bring back pie and coffee, and we have a relaxed afternoon, watching the rain clear away.

I am not very good at being a tourist because I do not want to be a tourist. Even when I like what I’m seeing, even when Seoul Tower is very pretty and I’m glad to see it up close, it irritates me to be one of this stomping, staring mass of people. But the tower is one of those things I’m glad I did just so I can say that I did, and I have fun being both romantic and cynical about the Locks of Love, and it does look cool. I wouldn’t do it again simply because it is too touristy and fixed. None of it makes me feel I am touching the real Seoul the way wandering the city streets does. Still I got a couple nice pictures out of it, and a fun walk while munching Bugles and drinking Chilsung Cider, and on the way back I have a good time conversing with Brady and Olivia. I regret nothing. Except that it is our last night. 

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Fish & Fish – Seoul, South Korea – Day 7

I am awakened by my heart stopping. Or so it feels. In fact it is nothing more than a startle caused by the TV turning on with loud volume, sounding like a man bursting into shout in the next room. I must lie still for several minutes to slow my pounding heart. 

On this morning Trennis’s have their court date, so Carson and I have the apartment to ourselves. He uses it to sleep in; I clean up and do dishes and relax in front of my view. 

Down our favorite alley there is a little steak restaurant. Carson and I sit at a brilliant yellow table decorated with a pitcher filled with dried flowers, and we share an exquisite ember-cooked filet mignon with fries and a salad. This meal sounds very American, but in the sauce on the steak and the dressing on the salad there are some distinct flavors of Korea. I am not really sure what the place intends to be; there are no side dishes and we eat with forks, but the menu is all in Korean and so is the name of the restaurant.

Noryangjin Fish Market is the stuff of legend. At least according to YouTube. Apparently even if you go nowhere else in Seoul you should go to the fish market, and having gone somewhere else in Seoul already, we now take a subway ride across the Han River and enter this Seafood Shangri-La. My first impression of this fish market is that it is quite marketlike and very fishy, and by that I meant there is a lot of fish around. Fish dead on ice, fish alive in water, fish halfway in between on butchering boards. Crabs and lobsters stacked on top of each other in tanks. So many tiny octopuses in one large bowl that it is nothing more than a squirming tangle of ribbed tentacles. Shellfish in heaps next to the tanks. Black sea urchins like spiky balls of night sky. Shrimp laid out on trays like fat, crunchy gray worms. Flat, broad mantas with odd, dead faces. And others, so many others, some of which I don’t even recognize. Despite all this, the place doesn’t smell half as bad as I feared. Sure, it’s fish, but it’s all very fresh. The sounds of voices and of water falling from tank to tank blends into a dull roar in my ears, and the wet concrete tugs at the soles of my shoes. Eventually the slow, apathetic way they move, like creatures in a nightmare, makes me a little sick. I’m relieved when the men choose their seafood so we can go upstairs to a restaurant where they will cook it for us. Shrimp, crab, lobster, sea urchins, live octopus, at least one kind of shellfish, and possibly several other things are on the menu for us tonight, but I end up eating very little besides several shrimp; after swallowing an extremely strong slice of garlic, I am left feeling sick and with no desire to put anything else in my mouth. 

Along the edge of the river there is a park. We reach it shortly before sunset and immediately sit on stone steps to watch a magic show. It’s a fun show, but the magician has great stage presence and that is what makes it really worth watching. Further into the park the spaces beneath the trees, too much walked on for much grass to grow, are filled with people on blankets. Some are eating, some are just hanging out, one young man has a guitar. A little further over, no less than three songs are being sung into microphones, all only a little distance from each other. There are people riding rental bikes and scooters up and down the paths, people walking, people posing with the large I SEOUL YOU letters. Many of them are young people, some still in their school uniforms. As night falls, lights come on the city above us and the view across the water is lovely.

Adoption & Alleys – Seoul, South Korea – Day 6

Today after our morning calm, we stroll up to Hapjeong. We eat lunch in a little fish restaurant at the end of a row of little restaurants in an underground alley in the Mecenatpolis Mall. Carson gets a whole grilled mackerel and a simmered mackerel kimchi soup, and despite the intimidation involved in eating something that is watching you, it is one of the best meals we’ve had. Among the side dishes here they serve us miso soup, and you know you’re in a strange land when miso soup tastes like comfort food. 

Brady and Olivia have a meeting with their foster families, so we spend an hour and a half in a small meeting room with them. Carson and I spend most of that time playing with one of the little girls Olivia’s foster parents currently have, a darling little thing, eighteen months old, in pink ruffles and tulle with a pink ribbon in her straight black hair. She’s not much for smiles or chatter, but she lets me hold her and she bows to Carson when he gives her a chip, and we fall a little bit in love.

It’s clear both families still love Brady and Olivia; having seen her only a few days past, Olivia’s are less emotional this time, but Brady’s Omma sits clutching her phone with tears in her eyes. Among all the chatter and pictures and asking the children if they remember this and that, I think there is a moment when their real mother wants to remind them all that these are her babies now and it may not be in their best interests to tear them open with memories of things lost, but she does not. She remains gracious and is only rather tired once it is over. But I think most touching of all is the boy who was Brady’s brother. He’s fourteen years old now, tall and thin and quiet. They’re eight years apart and, brothers of the age they were when they parted not being usually inclined to have many deep conversations, it is rather difficult for them to reconnect in a room full of people and little time. Mostly he just looks from his phone to Brady and back again, sitting a little hunched up, occasionally asking a quiet question to someone sitting close. When the time comes to go the foster brothers hug, the tall one folding up his lanky frame to squeeze the small one tightly. And I think that adoption, like every other great and powerful thing we humans do, has its layers of heartache as well as joy. 

There’s a little alley close to Sangsu Station that looks as though it leads to a restaurant and nothing else, but if you walk down it, you find yourself in a glorious maze of streets closely lined with more restaurants, coffee shops, and small boutiques. Some of the streets are sloping, most are narrow, and all hold more pedestrians than cars. This is where we wandered on our double date, and this is where we eat tonight, next to an open window in a place called Little Papa Pho. I find the pho pretty enjoyable, and Carson finds the pad thai pretty deadly. It makes his throat swell, but after a little panic he survives. Then he takes another bite to make sure it was the pad thai that caused it.

Frozen Greek yoghurt tastes better than I would have guessed, and nitro cold-brew coffee tastes worse, despite how cool it looks. We sit on the patio outside a gelati shop for a long while, because there is perfection in the air. The temperature is balmy to the point of being neutral, and around us lights grow brighter as night falls and the sky turns to black velvet. No stars are there in the city. Music slips around us, everything from Disney to ABBA to Rihanna to something Korean, depending where you listen to, and there is an edge of cigarette smoke in the air of the evening street. Across the way there is a second-story coffee shop all in white with green plants and a friendly lady barista, and a little further down there are people sitting in an open-windowed Korean barbecue restaurant, grilling in the centers of their tables. The proprietor of the gelati shop asks me if I am a traveler.

We walk home slowly, pausing often to look and linger and photograph. It’s a beautiful night, a beautiful city. We’re going to miss this. 

Moons & Meats – Seoul, South Korea – Day 5

20170511_230529It’s a bright new world, with a bright new Moon president. Or so I hear. South Korea had presidential elections yesterday, and by using Google Translate on a newspaper headline I gather that the man who won is named Moon. Regardless of this, I have as serene a morning as usual. Carson has a phone call and Trennis, Ruby, and Olivia go out for groceries, so the boys and I chill in the living room with Moana and my travel journal.

We all head out in time for lunch in a restaurant that is traditional as none of the others have yet been in that we remove our shoes at the door and then sit on the floor around low tables with the charcoal grills in the centers. Have you ever eaten a bit of rice, a bit of grilled pork, green onion salad, garlic, and ssamjang sauce, all wrapped up in a leaf of lettuce? I recommend you try it. It is one of the better things you can put in your mouth.

After lunch Trennis’s have their second meeting with their little Andrea, and again we get to witness. The energy in the meeting room is entirely different today; just as happy but less emotional, less pressure. Andrea herself is an adorable child, who scarcely ever stays still for two minutes together. Her black hair dances and under her black skirt her little legs dance too, as she giggles and runs away and back again. But she already calls Trennis and Ruby Appa and Omma, and there are moments when she stops, when her hand lies quietly against her daddy’s shirt as he holds her, when she looks with eyes that see instead of eyes that run away.

Later, Trennis’ parents take the kids back to their apartment, and Trennis and Ruby, Carson and I go out for the evening. Past Sangsu Station we enter one alley and then spend many minutes wandering through many more. It is fascinating, a world of tiny boutiques and little restaurants and coffee shops crowding next to the narrow streets, with strangers that pass, walking as though they know where they are going, as though this is ordinary life.

We have much debate and indecision about where we should eat, and after some time of walking we start going in circles, growing ever hungrier without knowing precisely what we want. Then to our surprise, we end up at a Texas barbecue joint. But that turns out to be an interesting experience, rather like seeing yourself from someone else’s perspective, and the food certainly does not disappoint. It is rather better than any barbecue I’ve had in the States, though it does not quite taste like Texas: here and there a little Korean tang slips in, and I wonder if this is how these people would feel about our Asian restaurants in America.

20170511_230955Afterwards, we go in search of a coffee shop we saw earlier, and once we’ve walked in another circle we realize that it was kind of across the street from the BBQ restaurant all the time. It’s a sweet place, with a wide-open pink window and dried flowers hanging from the ceiling and a row of white teapots on top of a full bookshelf. We sip coffee and eat thick slices of chocolate cake and talk, and there is some perfection there.

On the way back to the apartment, Carson and I stop at our little artisan coffee shop for more fresh-roasted coffee. I’m starting to fall a little bit in love with this place, with its crowded bookshelf walls and its elaborate cold-brew coffee system and its sweet lady proprietor. Tonight she gifts Carson a cup of coffee to drink while we walk home.

Back at the apartment, we go on up to the roof where we can see so much beauty I can scarcely take it in. I feel I must capture it, hold on to it, and yet I cannot. My camera is too feeble and my words are not brilliant enough, but I try both ways. Picture, if you can, a thousand city lights, sparkling in the buildings, glittering in the night river; arched bridges faintly silhouetted against the shining dark waters; glowing golden streets curving away; and above it all, a gleaming white Flower Moon. It is all so lovely, so perfect, that it hurts me20170511_230409

Namdaemun & Chill – Seoul, South Korea – Day 4

So far, I consistently wake up an hour later every morning: today it’s nearly seven o’clock when I open my eyes. There is coffee to greet me and another relaxed morning to enjoy. After all, we are in the Land of the Morning Calm and we may as well act like it.

We take a bus to Namdaemun Market and it’s a fun ride, fun to effortlessly see new bits of Seoul. Namdaemun itself is street after street after street after indoor street of stalls and shops overflowing with clothing and shoes and jewelry and umbrellas and bags and souvenirs and food…which is what really brought us here.

Carson buys shrimp dumplings which are good, and kimbap which is decent, and blood sausage which I cannot stomach at all. We lunch in a back-alley hole-in-the-wall restaurant that gives a whole new level of meaning to those adjectives. The alley is so narrow that even Koreans couldn’t drive cars through it, and it is filled with Ajummas cooking away. We have to squeeze past them to enter the restaurant. The food itself, bibimbap and grilled fish, tastes quite good.

But that’s the thing about Korean food; it demands to be tasted. It’s all so packed with flavor. It is confrontational, and in this moment I am not in the mood to be confronted. I do not need another sense assaulted. There are too many people in the market, too many scents in the air, too many voices pushing into my ears. My soul feels crowded. Carson buys me a strawberry shake of some sort and a slice of watermelon, and in their gentle taste I find a little solace. 

After a long wait, we take the bus back home again. There’s a bit of a traffic jam in front of Namdaemun and unfortunately for the introvert, the bus is packed as well. But then it’s raining by the time we reach the apartment and Carson, Trennis, Ruby, Olivia, and I wander down the street to the convenience store for some tasty things to put into our mouths. Back to the apartment, and we relax. A little too much. Naps are taken.

Around nine o’clock, Carson drags me from my bed and the apartment, and we walk the rain-shining streets to Gusto Tacos. Trennis and Ruby join us there and though we all enjoy the tacos, there is enough sleepiness among us that combined it could create one totally asleep person. We don’t hang around long after we’re done eating. The streets are quieter tonight and our beds are calling our names. 

Seoul Streets & Soul Sisters – Seoul, South Korea – Day 3

Day three, and we have another relaxed morning, leaving the apartment only in time to grab lunch before Trennis’s appointment: their very first meeting with Andrea, the little girl they are adopting. We go with them to the Holt offices but due to a lack of elevator space, we don’t actually get to witness that first meeting. The writer in me is disappointed, but I accept it might be best this way. They’re already together, along with the foster mother and the social worker, when we enter the meeting room, so we hang back and enjoy the privilege of watching them connect with each other. She is a little shy and they are cautious and gentle, but there is so much love and suppressed emotion. They’ve been waiting for this for so long. When Trennis gets out a ball, Andrea unfreezes enough to throw it with him, and then to run and giggle. And when his baby girl runs towards him, his smile and the way his hands reach for her and the look in his eyes…it is enough to bring tears to mine. 

They have an hour visit but we leave soon. They invited us to come see her, but they need time together without a captive audience too.

In a brand-new mall off a sunken courtyard, we find a bookstore. On the surface it’s a lot like an American bookstore and we spend some minutes there. Of course I can’t read a word inside the books, but just being there, breathing it in, touching the pages…it brings peace to my soul. Books are my magic.

Before leaving, I buy an adorable little memory book and Carson buys a Korean recipe book which he cannot read. But it has pictures and he has Google Translate, and he can make it work.

Then we meet up with the others again and it’s a bit of a walk back to the apartment but we walk it nonetheless, with many pauses. Sometimes we stop so that someone may buy something, sometimes just to look at and into the shops, and sometimes to admire the insanity that is Seoul driving. The cars and trucks and things that go are one thing; though they drive with mad speed, change lanes through sheer willpower rather than waiting for a break in the traffic, only pay attention to the white lines when it doesn’t inconvenience them, and don’t stop until they are almost against the vehicle in front of them, they still seen to follow basic traffic laws. But the motorbikes, man. They own the road, and the sidewalks as well. They will drive between two lanes of cars, and in front of them, and across two lanes of traffic going the other way to get to the sidewalk, and wherever else they so desire. And yet, with all this madness, I have seen neither sign nor rumor of an accident anywhere in Seoul. 

Eventually Brady and I grow tired of the others’ lagging pace and we strike off ahead. He’s a true Korean in the way he walks, with no concern of running into anyone or anyone running into him because it never happens. They always move at some point. And he’s a little bit ‘my’ boy still; we’re comfortable as we walk. At the last crosswalk we stop and wait for the others to catch up, and then Carson and I go for a little stroll down the street past our apartment building. We run across two more coffee shops and in one of them Carson buys an iced cold-brew coffee. It tastes slightly like dark chocolate to me, and I think it is delicious. Not for nothing does Seoul have 18,000 coffee shops. 

Later that evening I see a downside to this, when Carson and I go out in search of a decent way to make coffee to replace the instant coffee sticks at the apartment. It seems the people of Seoul don’t feel the need to brew their own coffee with so many shops at hand. And among 18,000, I am sure there must be one coffee shop that opens before 9:30am, but I have yet to see any proof. This may not be a problem when you’re a native in the Land of the Morning Calm, but when you’re crazy Americans who wake up with the dawn’s early light and instantly think coffee coffee….it’s a bit of a problem, yeah. We find beans easily enough; quite a few of the little artisan shops roast their own. But then the search is on, and after walking some blocks in every direction from Sangsu Station, we think ourselves lucky to find some coffee filters. Carson supposes he can make something work with them. But truthfully, we’re not in a huge rush to get home anyway.  

It is the first time I’ve been out in the streets after dark without being too exhausted to dance. And tonight I feel it: there is an energy and a life in the night streets of Seoul that doesn’t touch them in the daylight. There is glittering lights and thrumming music, young men with bowl haircuts and no-break pants, and girls with brilliant lips and every kind of heel known to woman.

One girl with slanting eyes and a floral dress stands against a wall, the inevitable phone in her hand. Behind her, a taxi stops and another girl leaps out. With arms spread, she swoops up into the face of the first girl, causing her to shriek. As the first girl laughingly scolds her friend with words I cannot understand, I am reminded again that under all our differences, they are still my sisters. 

Castle & Coffee – Seoul, South Korea – Day 2

The second morning, I manage to sleep until 6 o’clock and I feel better for it. Light already lies over Seoul when I drink my coffee and the view is still magnificent. 

This morning when we get off the subway we are still some distance from our destination, Bukchon Village, but we enjoy walking the streets. At a hole in the wall we pause to buy grilled chicken skewers to stay our stomachs until lunchtime. We enter Bukchon Village gradually, and the streets become steeper and narrower, closely lined with small ancient houses. Most of them are private residences, but from the outside at least they look just like you’d expect old Asian homes to look: stone and brick walls, rows of tiny many-paned windows, and curving tile roofs. At the top of one particularly long street we stop to look back, out across the city to Seoul Tower on an opposite hill. By the time we’ve walked all the way back down, we are tired and choose to take a bus towards our barbecue lunch.

When you eat Korean barbecue, the meat gets grilled in the center of your table. As with every Korean meal, there is water in darling cups and up to a dozen side dishes scattered over the table, all full of flavor, most a little mysterious. This is where the foodies in our group shine. I try everything once, and then proceed to eat the things I enjoy. And there’s actually quite a lot of them. 

We spend a lot of day two wandering the endless, and endlessly fascinating, Seoul streets. You never know what your eyes will behold next in this city. On one street we find a solid black Lamborghini, parked for so long that people have written in the dust on it; on another stands a narrow, gothic-cathedral-looking edifice complete with a soaring clock tower, which turns out to be the Castle Praha Hongdae; and on a third appears a large, square white building, smooth with nothing on it but doors and the words GENTLE MONSTER.

One thing you can count on your eyes beholding: coffee shops. The first coffee shop in South Korea opened in 1902; today there are well over 18,000 in Seoul alone. That comes out to a coffee shop on nearly every street, ranging from Starbucks to tiny artisan shops with delightful names. We pause in front of one called Coffee Me Up to inhale the scent, and when Trennis sees that they roast their own beans he cannot resist entering. He is quickly followed by certain other coffee lovers, and when we finally continue on our way there are several coffees among us. Korean coffee is rich and strong but smooth on my tongue, and I find myself loving it.

It’s a little bit delightful when I suddenly recognize the streets and know where I am. We’re almost ‘home’.

In the early evening we take an hour-long subway ride to meet Olivia’s former foster parents and some of their family at a Chinese restaurant. Olivia’s Omma and Appa are an elderly Korean couple but even now they have two tiny girls in their care. They are so excited to see Olivia they can scarcely contain it, especially Omma, who has a paper where she has written down things like the names of Olivia’s best friend and cousin so she can ask Olivia how they are doing. It’s sweet and a little sad to see how much they love her still. After eating, we go to a nearby coffee shop with a play area where they used to take Olivia, and we drink more Korean coffee and watch the little girls play. When the time comes to go, Olivia wants to take the little girls home with us.

My day begins and ends with the view from our window: breathtaking in the morning, but magical at night.