Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ra ra, ra ramen in Hongdae. Cupcakes, too.

When the weather is as prohibitive as it has been, what with the temperature being somewhere between "oh god I can't feel my face" and "call the police", it's hard to imagine taking a walk in any of Seoul's fashionable districts without risking death by exposure. Me, I'm from California, where temperature rarely drops below comfort level, and when it does everyone begins to sin indoors rather than out.

Friday, I was screaming on the inside every second I was exposed. I believe I became another gender at one point when a gust found its way up my pant leg. There is no forgiving nature for what it did to me that day.

Though as is often the case, the food made up for it. We traveled to Hongdae, braving the cold, to get our hands on some ramen. In Los Angeles, I was a frequent customer of the many ramen shops in Little Tokyo, most notably Daikokuya. I have missed that experience in Seoul, where ramen seems hard to come by.

Taking the advice from several bloggers, we chose to try Hakatabunkko (ํ•˜์นดํƒ€์ฝ”), a very small restaurant with a bar and about four small tables situated in an alley near the Far East Broadcasting company. At first we were a bit confused about the location. It's tucked quietly away down this alley that looks like it was reserved for gang violence, with graffiti on the walls and that "you're going to get stabbed" vibe. Maybe its Los Angeles rubbing off on me more than I'd like it to. But, without being stabbed, we found it, two white drapes hanging from the doorway with words written in Japanese decorating them.

One couple was ahead of us, and so we were asked to stand behind a sandwich board in front of a tiny cupcake restaurant called Sweetpea. More on that soon. Not two minutes later, we had a table and were ready to order. We both ordered the kontotsu ramen, a style of ramen in which the broth is conceived by mating savory pork fat with everything that's right with the world. This is to say that the broth is heavy, but not obstructing; when you lift the thin, wisp-like noodles you can feel their weight on your tongue and not feel as though your tongue is coated in wax.

All of the flavors mingled together like the melting pot America was supposed to have been. On our table was a garlic press and a small pot filled with whole cloves of garlic. I pressed one in to my soup while my friend Dan pressed about ten. Also on the table were pickled ginger, spicy kimchi, and sesame seeds in a grinder.

As far as ramen goes, I have had better in Los Angeles. But in Seoul? Not as of yet.

After dinner, we were enthralled by a cupcake cafe next door called Sweetpea because of their display of tiny cupcakes. Being the two manly men that we are, we decided to head in and order these dainty pastries. The cafe has two sizes of cupcake to choose from, large (3,800 won) and small (900 each). I chose dark chocolate and strawberry, while Dan picked green tea and peanut butter.

We took a seat at a pale green table with pin-up cushions on the seats and stared awkwardly at each other. Dan noted that this was the type of place you would take a girl, and I giggled and told him to stop it. Our cupcakes came on a small plate, and in between taking pictures and being in awe of how cute the place was, I realized that the cake itself had been made recently as I watched the adorable baker mix up another batch of batter and that the frosting had been made to order. I appreciate the craft of the cupcake, and though some might call them a 'fad', it's a damn cute fad and I'm not afraid to say that. I'm all man (recognize).

Having given up my masculinity, I will say that the cake itself was a bit dry but crisp, an interesting combination and one I've never had in a cupcake. The frosting was sweet but not overly, the cocoa in my mini chocolate balanced with the chocolate cake, and the strawberry was fresh and nostalgic.

It's a good thing these two are next to each other. After a large bowl of ramen, it's nice to have something sweet to follow up that garlicky goodness. Even if you are left as manly as a four year old.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travelling without moving (through a coffee convention).

The 8th Annual International Cafe Show 2009 and Fancy Food Fest

November 29th, 2009: 12:03 PM
Text message sent from my phone:
I think I can see space time.

I arrived at the COEX mall in Gangnam with mild expectations. I knew that there would be a festival. I assumed that there would be a 'fancy' food festival, as was described here, but I had no clue what that meant. Are we talking gastronomy or Fancy Feast? The website is unclear. I did know that it was a mere 5k to enter, and for that price I'd have thought the latter. I saw no pictures of cats. I assumed there would be cats. There turned out to be cat turds. More on that later.

As I stepped in to Hall C, I could feel the caffeine in the air. This was a concentrated mix of baristas, roasters, salesmen, chocolatiers, bakers, and tea-gurus. Most were masters in some way or another. Green, unroasted coffee beans sat in trays on tables, brewing equipment of all shape and size screamed at my wallet, and my fingers began to twitch, sensing the oncoming coffee high. There is nothing like the sweet scent of roasting coffee. It's one of my favorite things about Seoul. Everywhere I go, that scent changes the unfamiliar in to the familiar. It's like grandma pulling cookies out of the oven, only in this case grandma is the oven. It takes the drama out of danger and leaves only a question of how, rather than why, which is something everyone can cope with while having a nice cup of coffee.

I hadn't really prepared for this. I didn't know that there was going to be such a thing. For the first half hour, I meandered through the aisles, unable to cope with the dizzying array of coffee everything. One of the first things that caught my eye was the infamous Kopi Luwak coffee, in all it's original, unseparated glory (Kopi Luwak coffee is created when a Kopi Luwak -- a small cat-like mammal -- ingests the coffee bean and then excretes it for the local people to collect and sell to coffee enthusiasts for $50 a loaf). I knew that this convention meant serious business when they were proudly displaying feces at the front door.

There was pour over to the left of me, french press to the right of me, and Dutch Process in front of me. I was surrounded; there was nothing left to do but to get high. Really high. On caffeine. I was handed a small cup full of my first sample of the day, a Papua New Guinea variety that was bright and full of citrus. Later, after my fiftieth free sample and my third free cappucino, I would distinguish each varietal only by the amount of stars I saw in the cup after finishing it. People bumping in to me were no longer touching a physical me, but the very idea of me, while reality around us altered and forced strange impossibilities possible.

Cafe Chiola, a self-described "Coffee/Academy/Consulting/Interior/Roasting" company out of Suwon, made the biggest impression and had the most stars in their cup that I remember counting. Their booth was more a hidden forest lodge, tucked away in a magical grotto where deer mingle with men and women ate jujubes freely. The interior smelled of pine and fresh coffee, something reminiscent of all that's right with the world. I expected to look out the window and see ancient trees, but instead I saw young Korean women ogling the barista, Yeo Dae Sung, the master craftsman who meticulously measured the temperature of the water before pouring it slowly, almost erotically(?), in to the just-ground beans. As they bubbled up, a foam not unlike that of the sea crept up through the 'soil' and seeded the air with the earthen aroma.

After allowing two pots to fill a quarter full, he mixed the two and poured a small amount in to individual paper cups. Then, after adding water to make miniature Americanos, he handed them out. My Korean is shoddy at best, limited to only "Yes," "No," and "I don't speak Korean." As luck would have it, Sung could speak English. I asked what beans he was using, and he told me four different kinds: Kenya, Gutamala, and two others I can't remember. Why? Because I didn't bring a notebook. Won't that teach me? I wrote it in nebula on my retina anyhow, but forgot when I started to come down.

Without a second thought, the crew of the Cafe Chiola booth provided countless visitors with the perfect Americano and a show that rivals any Zen meditation. Watching a master at work, in any field, is a priveledge; watching someone coax every flavor imaginable out of what once was a simple bean is a work of art. Later, passing the booth again, the line to enter was at least fifty people deep.

There was also the 7th Annual Barista Championship, a competition I'm sure that I would have enjoyed more had I understood what was being said. I could tell, however, that the drinks being made weren't simple and that each pull of espresso was being done perfectly, four at a time for four different judges who sat monolithic like those on the original Iron Chef. At one point, a contestant mixed what appeared to be milk, espresso, orange peel, and various spices in to a small sauce pan and steeped it, only to make a whipped cream out of it and top a martini glass full of what appeared to be mousse and espresso. Nebula note #40 (maybe lost in translation): add orange peel to milk, cream the hell out of it. Still not sure what that means.

Later, after nearly choking on whatever cup of coffee I had, I bought a sample of a Guatemala roast from a young start up company called Como Esta, Inc., who hadn't opened a store yet but has plans to do so, hopefully in Seoul. Their single origin brew was the liveliest I tried and distinct from the rest in it's excitement. A unique taste, one of the crew of men and women behind the counter who could speak English as if he were born in the States (possibly) told me that the sample I had was a unique blend made solely for them. Keep an eye open for them, wherever they may be in the future.

Coffee in Korea is expensive. One hundred and fifty grams (about a quarter pound) will set you back about $10 - $15 dollars. The fifty gram sample I bought from Como Esta, Inc was 2k won (about $1.80). It's very rare to drink so much and spend so little. My 5k at the door got me a few hours worth of watching the masters do their job as I drank my way through booth after booth, only stopping to check if my fingers were still attached to me or if they had entered singularity.

Coffee wasn't the only food craft on display. Sugar sculptors and bakers were also on hand, displaying an incredible array of cakes, cookies, and images from the pages of Lovecraft. I was floored by a large sugar sculpture replete with bats and Cthulhu-like images, as well as a piece done solely in chocolate that brought back nightmares from my childhood. The dichotomy of sweet and sour has never been so clear (I would eat the whole damn thing). Whenever I would get lost staring at the inhuman monster playing the chocolate flute, I would catch a drift of dark chocolate and come gliding back down to Earth.

For being such a gathering on a scale that it was, I was surprised to have not heard about it on a blog or in the newspaper. I found out through a mutual friend, who went the previous day with a load of people. Had I not gone, I would have regretted it. This was a turning point in my view on coffee; I have never seen it, or known it to be, so beautiful in it's ritual. I have also never been so wired in my entire life. After leaving, I floated through the halls of COEX and found myself eating a hamburger that I had no recollection of buying. It was a good hamburger. But the most memorable part of the day was learning that my passion for coffee is shared by countries world-wide; that it isn't just America that will spend time and effort on making the perfect cup. Sure, there's a language barrier, but coffee as a language is universal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Literal scrap iron chef.

Alton Brown had an episode of Good Eats a while back in which he was challenged by a geriatric cook in a junk yard to produce food using only what they could muster out of the heaps and heaps of refuse at their, uh, disposal. It was a great premise, to challenge a creative mind to force a culinary master piece out of a muffler and a used diaper. Actually, I'm not certain he used a diaper, but if he had it truly would have been a stroke of genius.

I'm the true Scrap Iron Chef. Alton was surrounded by a crew that assured he had what he needed in a pinch. I'm surrounded by Koreans who can't speak a word of English and who probably want me to die because of my mini surround sound system. My utensils are few: a plastic spatula, a metal whisk, and a cutting board shaped like a fish. My only heating source other than the microwave is a grime encrusted, off yellow hot plate that has probably seen the beginning and ending of the Cold War. When I first moved in, I was told that I "probably shouldn't use it because it's dangerous." I suppose he thought I could survive off of sandwiches and cereal.

Not to mention the language barrier in the super market. Coming here, I had no idea what to expect or, for that matter, what I could possibly make. I had Bulgogi once a long time ago, and even tried Korean BBQ out a month or so before coming out, but that's as far as my knowledge took me. It has been a journey of patience and persistence over these last three months that I've made any headway in to this once mysterious cuisine, but I like to think that I've come a long way from when I began.

I've made a few soups and a couple of dishes that have turned out well enough. Once again, my utensils are adequate at best, and my pans are miracle workers considering the environment. Imagine if Kobe Bryant had to dunk in the coldest nebula of outer space every night and you might understand. His very molecular structure would be ripped apart. My pans keep my person together. I also want you to understand that if I can do it, you can do it. It's incredibly simple. Most of these recipes I've made through tasting similar products at restaurants and guessing.

This is a re-introduction to this blog, because I've kind of lost my way writing. It started as a chronicling of my life in Seoul, and is now transforming in to a food blog. I think most of my life revolves around food and I'm alright with that.

Take tonight for instance. I've discovered that from November to March is prime oyster season in Korea, and it's apparent from the oyster samples I've come across in the markets. Yes, samples. I was weary at first to try an oyster that was just sitting there. It looked like it had an hour long reservation in the bathroom written all over it. But after eating it, whatever happened next was forgiven. It truly was an incredible oyster. And so I bought a sleeve of them, or whatever it's called. It was a friggen plastic bag with about twenty inside for around 2,000 Won ($1.75).

What I made tonight is called Gul Jeon. Jeon is something fried, like a pancake or a tempura dish. Korean pancakes aren't anything like what Americans call pancakes. They're more akin to the Chinese style chive pancake that you might have come across in a restaurant. They're crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, kind of like Kurt Russell.

Gul Jeon (Korean oyster pancakes)

Ingredients: About 20 oysters, 3 TBS flour, 1 egg, 3 TBS chives or onion greens, 1 finely diced red pepper, salt, pepper, olive oil.

- Drain the oysters and then pat them dry. Add the flour to a plastic bag and then add the oysters. Give it a shake until all of them are coated. Preheat the skillet.

- Finely chop the chives/onion greens and the red pepper. I made a mitstake by slicing the red pepper, and let me tell you, taking a bite out with two or three of them together was like Montezuma's Revenge. Or will be.

- Beat the egg with the salt and pepper, and then add the oysters and vegetables. It's going to look like cat vomit. There's no getting around that.

- Add a little olive oil to the pan and then spoon oysters individually in to the skillet. Fry until brown on both sides.

I served these to myself alongside cod that I poached in butter and cucumbers marinated in brown rice vinegar. I also had some vinegar on the side to dip the pancakes in. Who says you can't eat fancy off of fifty cent plates? Who gives a damn? I'm living on the edge, two opposites attracted and compressed in a 15x15 box in the middle of Seoul. I'm going to add some class to this place one plate at a time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jesus Omurice, a loach! Get in the car!

In the future, when I speak about going to church, I will have to address it from the point of view of a person who has been to a Korean Presbyterian church. When asked if I've been Baptized (my family is Baptist), I'll say, "no, but I did watch a chorus of bow-tie laden women sing Jesus Loves the Little Children in Korean.'" It will be my way of saying that I've been absent from the pew for a number of years without having to say that I gave up the faith; it'll just be understood.

Of course I couldn't understand a word they said, whispered or screamed. I did understand when a man told me that he loved me having just met me, but I was later told that he meant "through Jesus." So then why did he grab my ass? I speak as if this church was any different from an American church, but the opposite is true. The only real difference was the language, and despite that, I understood when the preacher read John 3:16. It reminded me of sausage biscuits and Windex; these were the smells of the school bus that took me to church every Sunday when my dad herded us through the door.

I'm not an atheist, but I'm not a believer, either. When I think of heaven and hell, the sun and Jupiter, Omicron Persei 8 and our vast Milky Way, I think: What the hell do we know? and I leave it at that.

Church service was followed up by a traditional meal of Loach Stew, which reminded me again of my childhood, when my family would all squat on the floor and eat powdered fish off of small tables, surrounded by kimchi. Loaches are apparantly fish, but, though my friend's English is excellent, his accent some times makes an 'l' sound like an 'r', and thus I thought I was going to be punished; that somehow they knew that I was lying when they asked me to stand if I was a believer and I did.

The stew, like most jjigae (Korean soup or stew), tasted at first like soybean paste, which disappointed me; a lot of the stew tastes like soybean paste, which is fine, but kind of monotonous. But, after the second or third spoonful, I was thrilled with these new flavors, those of powdered fish and whatever else. I couldn't tell you. I do know that it looked like a bowl of dissolved toilet paper. A delicious bowl of dissolved toilet paper, it was. I turned to my friend when he asked if I was enjoying it and said, "I'm getting jjigae with it." In my home country, this would have at least received a groan or two.

After the soup, we were given a Korean style pancake made of spinach and loach. I wasn't as happy with it as I was the stew, but by that time I could feel my belt tightening and the kimchi coming up on me.

Later, after a healthy dose of The X-Files back at the loft (if I call it something grandiose it makes me feel better), me and my Korean friend caught District 9 at the fanciest movie theater I have ever had the pleasure of viewing a movie in. First, it was 10 stories off the ground. Second, it is decorated as if it were Halloween 365 days a year. And third, the bathroom stall had wall paper designed to make it look like the inside of a shoe store.

This theater, in the Podo Mall in Silim, was fascinating. You must take a number to buy your tickets. Kind of like a pharmacy. Or a cattle slaughterhouse. Then you select seats from a digital display and hope that they're good. Afterward, you wait in a lobby until a sign tells you that you can begin seating, kind of like an airport lounge. Or a cattle slaughterhouse. The ushers were incredibly polite, using runway hand signals to steer us into our seats, where we would deploy the breaks and hope to god we don't burst in to flames.

It's really funny seeing the Korean translation of the South African pronunciation of "fuck." Fook man. Fook!

And then: omurice. A mound of rice canopied by a thin omelete, usually surrounded by something else, like a pork cutlet or several dismembered fingers. I had mine with seafood curry tomato sauce. For five thousand won (about $4.50), I had a meal comparable to any I've had at a fancier Korean establishment. Take pride in your culinary extravagance for so little, Korea, it's truly a gift.

As I sit on my springy bed digesting thirty different sea creatures and rice, I cough consistently and wonder if I'll ever get over my cold. Short answer: yes, long answer: no, with a maybe. Jesus.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A watery grave. A delicious watery grave.

I walked out of my elementary school three weeks ago thinking of how exhausted I had become since arriving in Korea. The sun wasn't at its brightest, but it was still abrasive -- like watching a flickering bulb, it was in need of an impenetrable cover (or a hammer to the surface). The abrasion on my sunglasses refracted the light in such a way that I thought I was looking through a kaleidoscope. To put it in to simpler terms: I had a migraine, and it was not going away. The dirt lot that, in America we would call "abandoned property" but in Korea is called a playground, kicked with all its might at my nostrils and drove my sinus problems in to overdrive.

But my misery was soon relinquished, when I hopped in to an SUV on my way to an "octopus" restaurant. I honestly wish that I could say that I have pictures -- but I don't. I forgot my camera. I am a dunderhead. However, I'll attempt to describe to the best of my abilities the unexpected experience I had just two doors away from my own home.

We sat at a small table, just the four of us, and I relaxed. In this country I don't have to worry about the choices on the menu, because, save for a few choice words in English "DISCOUNT" or "BATHROOM", I couldn't read it if I tried. Lucky for me, my hosts for the night were fluent Koreans who knew just what to order -- and I know they told me the name of everything (Jukbumi? Chorlaoni? I can't even guess), but I'll need to have them write it down as if I had a puzzle in my mind and their hands held the key to cracking it. Or, a better analogy, I am the invisible plank and only their writing can toss the sand needed to see it. Get it?!

Our waitress brought out a tray littered with greens of many a shade of green, atop of which lay various vegetables -- green onions, squash and mushrooms, alongside a heaping amount of red chili paste and what looked like three tiny octopus clamoring for the sweet release of death. Technically they were already dead, I just really wanted to say "the sweet release of death." With a turn of the knob, the fire under the plate came to life, which made the liquid in the pan boil, which in turn made the greens wilt and the entire pot look like one lump of food.

At this point I thought to myself, "For what we're paying, there doesn't seem to be a lot of octopus." Funny how simple statements are answered. A moment later, a woman carrying a bucket and a pair of tongs appeared, looking ready to surprise and intimidate. She spoke Korean to my host and then from out of the bucket rose a Lovecraftian horror. Actually, it was a typical octopus, writhing and grabbing a hold of anything it could get its sticky little suckers on in fear of death, though I think it knew what was coming. These sea-creatures are rather adept at knowing when death is around the corner.

Without hesitation, the waitress shoved the octopus in to the boiling heap and then used the tongs to cover the kind-hearted cephalopod with greens. This heaving mass of whatever the herbs were looked like the living dead trying to break through the frost covered ground of a cemetery in a Romero flick. This night was just full of death. Delicious, tasty death. A moment later, the movement stopped, and out came the scissors, with which the waitress snipped off every tentacle in to bite sized pieces.

I was served pieces of octopus, vegetables, and herbs along side rice and kimchi. The churning in my stomach, which had been the product of watching a living creature snuff it and then become the victim of brutal mass amputation, subsided and I realized that either in front of me or not, this octopus would have ate it some how before I ate him. Poor fellow, making the ultimate sacrifice to later wallow in a sewer. This is the circle of life.

I noticed a large piece of octopus lying in the broth, two of them actually, and I began to worry. This was the head, in which were organs and beaks and killer brains, all of which I had never eaten from an octopus before, and all of which I knew would soon be offered to me as if doing so would insure bountiful crops for the next year. Surely, once again not a moment later, I was offered the head -- "It's good for the man," they said, which I believe is the same as saying "Here, you eat this" because they say it every time they want me to eat something that I wouldn't consider part of a balanced diet back in the States. But I took it so as not to be a hypocrite (when I complain about Westerners not eating the food they're offered), and I ate it. To my surprise, it tasted like beef liver, and I like liver. Same consistency (save for the skin, which was slightly chewy) and nutty flavor. Of course, the only difference is that afterward I had an erection for a week.

This occurred two weeks ago, maybe, but I've been lagging behind updating this blog recently and I blame swine flu for that. I don't have swine flu, but I know that it's easy to place the blame on it and therefore I will. There are no picture to accompany my previous story, and so I shall share pictures of the Jeonju Sori Festival I attended one week ago today.

In a way, you can say that I'm a traveler, but in another more honest way, you can say that I'm a follower. That is, I'm not the one in charge of planning a lot of the things I do. The interesting things. Boramae Park was of my own accord, but eating octopus? That was all my co-teacher. Going to Jeonju? Courtesy of my recruiter. And I seem to like it this way -- I know nothing about the country or the customs for the most part, and so I want to experience it through the eyes and in the footsteps of those in the know.

On Saturday morning I took a bus, along with thirty others, to Jeonju, which is in Jeollabuk-do, some three hours away from Seoul to the South. Once leaving Seoul, you realize just how much of the country you're missing -- the rolling hills, the beautiful green, and the clear air. Even on the bus I could appreciate seeing the tombs lining the streets, equivalent to statues of immortal men, at least this is my impression of them.

I'm not sure if I want to talk about everything I did. Could get boring. Instead, I think I'll provide pictures and let them do the talking (they are all on Facebook. If you have my Facebook, you can see them, if not ask). Just note that I stayed in a traditional Korean village, I ate bibimbap (mixed rice), and I strolled through the night, breathing deeply and meditating on life in general. It's a good place to think, next to multi-colored fountains and gentle water wheels.

Next time I do something interesting, I'll write about it immediately. Promise.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Arrow and the Song

(Note: Every picture can be clicked to reveal its full size)

I think it's been hard for me to adjust solely (seoul-ly) based on the fact that I don't live in the best area. My apartment is crowded and small, the alley just outside my window varies in smells throughout the day and night, and the entrance isn't pretty, what with garbage piled high and old men leering as I come and go. Resisting assimilation has been easy when you dread coming home.
But today I think I may have made peace; I may have found something that can help me to ignore the faults of my 'Castle' and to appreciate the world outside this fortresses' walls. This is a place called Boramae Park, and it is a mere walk down the street and a left passed the curry house.
I've found myself wandering a lot lately, but at the end of my walks I often find that I have neither found anything to have merited the walk or something, anything to make me want to make the walk back. It's a deep feeling in my gut that I cannot explain other than to say that I'm sitting on my bed/chair/office/entertainment center while typing this. It's a mutual feeling of distaste we have for each other, this room and me. But, walking in Boramae Park, I found my mind clearing and my thoughts turning from displeasure to relaxation -- a first in several weeks.

I knew I had found something special when, as I walked passed street vendors and anonymous office buildings, I began to sense the man-made, flattened earth disappearing, and even melding at times with nature. I passed a parking lot that was cement, I swore, only to see that it was green and gray together -- a fertile mix of pavement and growing grass. In many parts of the world this would seem unkempt, lazy even. But here it was an amlgamation of man's wills.

Then, much to my dismay, I began to hear music -- something I had feared would happen, because you see, I have been losing my mind recently. I noticed small speakers attached to light posts, and my fears melted away. They were playing soothing music at the entrance to this park.

They -- and I mean the designers -- obviously understand the frustration and anxiety associated with living in Seoul. But it's something I've come to expect, this mix of autonomous dialogue with architecture intermingled with sheer artistic merit and serenity. You find secret gardens in the strangest, dullest of places. If it weren't for these I fear the entire city would go insane.

Several hundred people walked in the park, and yet I never once felt crowded. Old men played what amounted to the Korean version of horseshoes, young mothers pushed their children in strollers along the path, and businessmen of all ages walked the road from one end of the park to the other, no doubt on their way home, but they too were sharing with me the release that Boramae provided. A small aircraft exhibit caught my eye and I noticed that, despite their almost by today's standards archaic appearance and technological sterility, they appeared as if they had sprouted out of the ground and belonged there. Perhaps the monoliths that are office buildings and hotels in the distance helped to persuade me that they were every part as much of nature as the grass itself.

I strolled under a canopy lined with ripening melons hanging like heavy balloons, and looped around a patch of tall, water-logged grass. A man played the saxaphone under a gazebo, and there was no collection plate anywhere nearby. Everyone here was here to let go; to feel the burden of Seoul lift from their shoulders, if only for an hour or two on this night. Maybe they'll be back tomorrow, but surely they'll return when the world is crushing down on them. I may make this my weekly habit.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Let's begin.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
- T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Don't get me wrong. I think of this city, Seoul, not as a vast catacomb but an enourmous tree, ever-growing, ever moving in the wind, with roots that traverse mountain and river and the small forest creatures that use them as a means of transportation. It's beautiful, in its own right; ugly at times, crude at the bend and raw at others -- when you can see sewage traveling three feet below you through open grates, you know you're in the heart of the beast.

It has been two weeks, though technically one, since I've been in this apartment, living in what they call a 'castle' and I call a glorified dorm room. The living conditions are... tenuous, to say the least. The glow-in-the-dark stickers that cover the ceiling and walls are the only stars I've seen since arriving. The only hint of there being anything but Seoul in this universe is the full moon that hangs over the river some times, framed by the square exit of the metro.

Once again, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I'm merely writing facts as if I were reporting this to the AP wire or swearing before a court of law. From what I've seen of Seoul, it is unlike every city and like every city -- it is dirty, it is crowded, and it is busy. But it's also productive, alive, and able. The people here are proud, the students are eager, and the feeling is mutual. What else is there but to enjoy the positive aspects and ignore the negative?

As for coping -- the best remedy comes in the form of a friend, or two, or more. Having friends whom one can relate to has brought with it the benefit of being understood and not speaking slowly and clearly; whatever dialect you speak with you are able to use freely. When drifting feels like the only option, it's nice to be grounded by a good friend and a hamburger.

Speaking of burgers... let's talk about it. Hamburger meat in Seoul might as well be called gold. Finding beef that isn't 8,000 ($6.46) won or more for half a pound is like finding the end of the rainbow. Chicken is rampant and cheap, but you can't make a good burger with chicken (don't try to argue with me). So yesterday, on one of those "anchor days" with friends, I discovered Kraze Burgers -- and it was good.

This was the branch at the COEX mall, off of the Samseung exit on line 2. I ordered take-out, which, according to the waitress came with a drink but it seemed as though I was charged for it. No big deal. The KB Original was my burger of choice -- a small burger, by American standards, but I'd be damned if I said that it didn't make me feel better about the gratuitous amounts of kimchi I've digested.

One distinct difference between this burger and its American counterpart is the pickles. I've never had a burger in America with 'bread & butter' style pickles, but there's a first time for everything, and needless to say it worked. The hamburger was crumbly rather than stiff, which I found interesting. By the time I was finished, no more than 5 minutes later, I was thoroughly satisfied. This is the meal I need at least once a week in the beginning; maybe longer periods can pass as time goes by. But for my fix, for those times when one's stomach feels more akin to a washing machine than a food processing plant, Kraze Burger saves the day.

Since this is my first post in this blog, I wanted to give an impression of where I'm coming from, or what kind of lens I'm looking through. This is a blog of happiness and desperation; of sadness and joy. I'm not a down-to-earth traveler; I'm here for the experience, both good and bad. No lies, no secrets. Honesty is the key.