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.