At about 3 am, I woke up in a cold sweat wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. This was after arriving in Seoul yesterday afternoon, finding our apartment (first time in an airbnb), and mustering enough energy to wander around our neighborhood to find some dinner.
The cool thing about airbnb is we were able to find a much less expensive lodging option than any of the area hotels Rotary International had blocked for this annual convention, and locations much closer (as in a difference of an hour commute or more) to the conference center, to boot.
One downside: no concierge. No one to recommend a restaurant where there might be an English speaking waiter to translate the menu. No one to give you a heads up that you’re not in a section of town that caters to tourists, and there won’t be any helpful subtitles in English on directional signage.
The neighborhood we are staying in is close to Ilsan Lake Park, and a couple of universities. It appears to be populated by a young crowd, and our apartment building has a very austere feeling to it. Like a dorm. Maybe all the buildings are like this. Our cab driver from the airport said nearly 70 percent of Seoul’s 14 million live in high-rises (a figure I couldn’t confirm, but there are a bunch of high rises here. I saw ‘em).
We had a few hours before bed, and ventured out to find a cute pedestrian boulevard lined with shops and restaurants. We picked a random place for dinner.
The waiter had limited English. He said they served steaks, and that we could choose from chicken, pork, or asparagus, which was when we determined his accent was better than his vocabulary. And at our request, he brought an assortment of skewers of meat and one set with asparagus wrapped in fried pork, which was when Colin declared asparagus his new favorite kind of steak.
And there was a picture of beer on the menu, so at least we had a sense of what we were ordering there.
This episode lead to me waking at three this morning, wondering how in the heck we were going to get around town when everything was in Korean and I had no idea how to even find our apartment. I got up to do a little research and by the time the rest of the family admitted to being awake (about 5 am), I had figured out how to get to the subway and when to exit to walk to our first attractions of the day.
Seoul subway trains are clean and spacious, thankfully. And the ticket machines have an English language option. Tickets for the whole family were $9,000 Won (about $7.50) one way. Announcements in the train were in English as well as Korean. Aside from our youngest getting stuck on the wrong side of the ticket turnstile once, all went well.
Our first stop was Gyeongbokgung Palace, at which we arrived just before they opened, so we had very few crowds to deal with. We walked by on the way home later in the afternoon and saw dozens of tour busses lined up with people pouring out of them, so were happy we’d arrived early. The site is a sprawling series of ornate buildings and gardens that originally served as the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Built in 1395, the site was largely destroyed by the Japanese in the late 1500s, and then later rebuilt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In my life, I’ve never seen Jack so enthralled by anything. He kept losing us and then reappearing to tell us we had to get somewhere on the grounds right now to see something amazing. Like a part of the palace was going to get up and walk away if we didn’t.
After Gyeongbokgung, I wanted to tour the Bukchon Hanok Village and find a place for lunch. Parts of the village date to the 14th century, with narrow streets lined with restored homes in a traditional Korean architecture. After the wonders of the palace, I think we thought the Village was picturesque, but less awe-inspiring.
We did find a place for lunch in the Village that looked promising. “Promising” basically means there pictures of the actual food, and/or English translations that make it possible for us to order anything besides “steak.” We each picked out something from the menu, and the waitress brought our food, and then proceeded with showing us how to prepare and season it. I felt all of about four years old, but I was good with having someone stir my noodles and pour sauce on them. I wouldn’t have otherwise any idea what to do with all the pastes and powders and sauces they’d deposited on our table.
At points during our journey, I have looked up Korean restaurant etiquette and have figured out a couple of interesting things:
- You’re pretty much expected to share what you order, and some dishes are oversized to accommodate that fact (which may be why our servers looked at us with surprise when we placed our orders – one entre, we thought, for one person. And yes, to-go boxes are our friends).
- Everything comes with a side of kimchi – or it’s served as an appetizer, with a dish of pickled something-or-other (they say it’s radishes, but I thought it had more of a jicama consistency).
- You’re supposed to demand the attention of your waiter by calling her “auntie” or saying “excuse me” in about six different ways that don’t sound at all like Google Translate wants to list phonetically. Some restaurants have a little button at the end of the table you can use to call a server. If I had a little button like this in my house, I would likely kill someone who used it, but I would pay double to use one in a restaurant rather than try to figure out what form of “excuse me” I’m supposed to use.
After visiting the Village, we walked to the Changdeokgung Palace to find that it’s closed on Mondays. I’m not sure if we’ll have time to make it back.
On the way back to the train station we took a detour to visit the Jogye-Sa Order of Korean Buddhism Hall of Worship. I was so glad we did. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. I would have loved to take a picture of the three golden Buddha statues in the temple, but it was not allowed, although we could watch people worship (which seemed kind of rude, but they did leave the windows open).
We came back to the apartment for a brief rest and then reluctantly headed back out to find dinner. Reluctant because I think we all would have gone to bed by 7 pm, and the prospect of flagging down a waiter for a meal we didn’t recognize and needed to have someone fuss over for us felt a little like it would take up too much energy.
Fortunately, we found a place called Chicken Bus and the menu came with great, big pictures. I don’t care if the food was fried and breaded and didn’t seem very Korean at all. The kids suggested it because they served fries, and each table had one of those buttons at the end, so getting the attention of our server was a breeze, English or no.
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