There have been times on trips like these when I remember the word “adventure” is actually a rather loaded term. Sometimes, it means more than a rip-roaring good time. Sometimes “adventure” means “what the hell just happened and how can we avoid it in the future?”
I’m going to tell you what just happened, but first you have to hear about the rest of our day. It was fabulous.
On Monday, when we’d visited Gyeongbokgun Palace and the Bukchon Hanok Village, we’d taken the short walk to see the Changdeokgung Palace, to find that it was closed on Mondays. Then yesterday, when we’d made it to the Seoul Tower, we’d planned to stop at the nearby Korean War Memorial, but it was a long day, and I actually forgot. So we decided we’d tick both those things off our list today. Neither is especially close to the other, so it would be a haul.
I was glad we saw Changdeokgun last, after Gyeongbokgun, because it’s the most ornate of the five area palaces and would be hard to top. Like Gyeongbokgun, it was also built by the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1300s, also largely destroyed by Japanese invaders 200 years later, and then rebuilt.
I do think we were having a little palace overload by this point, because the enthusiasm from the boys was far less than it was on Monday. Maybe we have per-week palace limit.
Along with our general admission, we’d bought tickets to a guided tour of the Secret Garden, which is part of the palace grounds (full admission to both the palace and the garden was 8,000 won/adult, 4,000 won/youth. About 24,000 won, or a little over $20 bucks for the four of us). The garden tour was in English, but I missed a good deal of what our guide was saying because I kept getting left behind by the group when I was taking pictures. It’s a sprawling, 78-acre natural area used as a getaway by the royal family, and great for photo ops.
The tour started at 1:30 and lasted for 90 minutes, during which time certain members of our party were remembering we hadn’t stopped for lunch. I agreed to a nearby upscale hamburger place, over authentic Korean if we could just get through the tour without anyone killing anyone else. And it was worth it.
After our late lunch we took a short train ride over to the Korean War Memorial, which is actually a three-story museum, dedicated mostly to the Korean War. We only had about two hours for the visit, which I thought would be plenty based on our history with museums, but I was wrong. I think the boys could have easily spent half a day there.
The way home was a haul, about 90 minutes by train. We toyed with finding dinner we could bring home, but most everyone had some pep left in them, so we decided we’d go out.
We’d had such a good experience at lunch yesterday with the bibimbap – Korea’s signature dish – that we decided we were going to go into the first restaurant in our neighborhood with a display picture of the dish.
In this neighborhood, the restaurant business must be competitive. Most have their employees stand outside and gesture and call out to passers by to come in. It’s kind of hard to look at a sign and try to come to a family agreement, when some guy is telling you (in gestures, remember, no English in our neighborhood) to come in, they have a table and four orders of bibimbap on the way.
This was one of those places (we’ve seen many) that have grills in the table and flus overhead. Even though they purported to have bibimbap, I wished we were with someone who could order in Korean for us, because I’d really like to try Korean barbeque before we’re done here.
Anyway, we were guided to our table and served drinks and I left to find a bathroom, secure in the knowledge that bibimbap was on the way.
Seriously public bathrooms in Korea deserve a blog post of their own sometime. If I ever move out of my own country it’s going to be to a place that has clean, safe, plentiful, free public restrooms like South Korea. They should put that information on ads in travel magazines. Nobody else has the bathroom situation locked in like this place.
I returned to a table full of dishes and Mike and the kids looking stunned. In front of them were bowls of rice, vegetables, RAW beef and a big, RAW egg perched on top. This was not the sizzling, fully cooked skillet dish we had experienced yesterday. This, as it turns out, was yukhoe (prounounced yuk-way) bibimbap, which is a regional dish known as the STEAK TARTARE of Korea (thank you Wikipedia). I emphasize that steak thing because our last big meal debacle on a trip involved steak tartare, and since then Colin has some form of steak PTSD.
I also missed the spectacle that came with the serving of the meal. As it turns out, right at the moment our waiter was serving my family bowls full of salmonella, a couple of girls in Cass Beer shirts waltzed in, spotted frosty bottles of their sponsor beverage on our table and descended upon my family to take photos and leave promotional gear.
“If you get drunk on Cass we bring you presents,” they said as they plopped a liter bottle of beer down in front of my 16 year old son and posed for photos.
So, by the time I got to the table, Jack was giving Mike’s beer back to him, Colin was giving a hollow look to a bowl full of raw meat with a big, raw egg on top and Mike was looking bewildered.
“I don’t know what to tell you what just happened,” he said.
I looked at the food. Raw? That couldn’t be right.
I called the waiter over (we had one of those bell buttons, thank the lord), and gestured at the grill on our table. Were we supposed to cook the stuff ourselves?
“No,” he said, making stirring motions, “shake it, shake it.”
Okay, I got that we get to mix it all together, but when does the cooking happen? I gestured at the grill on the table, and put my bowl on it.
“No, no,” he said, and left. He returned with a stone serving dish with compartments filled with raw eggs, garlic cloves, some sort of corn and vegetable mixture, tofu and chili, and mushrooms. I guess he thought “crazy lady wants something to cook, so I’ll bring her one of these.”
I still didn’t get it. When did the actual cooking of the actual beef happen?
We continued smiling big and gesturing at each other, and the waiter pulled a spoon from a drawer at the end of the table and started mixing Mike’s food for him.
Then he scooped up a big chunk and said “ahhh,” and shoveled it into my husband’s mouth.
Nothing says “yes, this is what you ordered, now eat it,” like a waiter spoon-feeding an able-bodied adult man his own damn meal. We finally got it.
It was actually pretty good, as it turns out. Mike and I ate most of ours and Jack gave it the good, college try. Colin apparently still has the memory of what we now like to call the Steak Tartare Incident fresh in his mind. He picked at his meal and said he wasn’t hungry.
Our waiter hovered over us the whole meal, mime-feeding himself, and nodding and smiling at us. He was really worried, which may or may not have had led to Mike and I finishing most of our dinners. You hate for someone who has hand fed your husband to feel down about his work.
Finally it was over. We paid and butchered our Korean “thank yous.” Our waiter brought us a conciliatory bottle of Pepsi for the walk home, and stood at the door as we left. But he had one more treat for us. Okay maybe two.
In one hand, he held out a jar full of ginormous breath mints. As we each walked by and considered taking a mint, he then – in a move which will forever be remembered as Seoul Silkwood – sprayed each of us with a generous spritz of Febreze on our way out.
So today, on a day when we saw such wonderful, inspiring, somber things and had some of the best hamburgers of our respective lives, there was also this “adventure” thing, where my teenager was the star of a beer commercial, we were probably poisoned, and subsequently fumigated on our way out the door of a restaurant.
Adventure may be overrated, but at least we smell better now.
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