Friday, October 22, 2010

Korea - More Impressions

Korea – More Impressions September 4, 2010

The river, which runs from south to north just across the street from my highrise is an endless source of delight to me. There are two parallel paths, one for bike riders, walkers, roller bladers, joggers, and so on, while the other one is reserved for walkers. It isn’t unusual to see as many as 15 bike riders who seem to belong to a bike group flying by in single file formation. The bike riders, for the most part have fancy, upscale bikes and the riders are dressed in gear that would make Nike proud.

People are friendly and I have had conversations with a number of people, either on the walking paths, or on the grassy areas in-between the paths. It is almost as if one can meet anyone there! I met a young man from Canada who admired Ruby. He told me that he also has a dachshund here with him. We shared a number of stories about the (lack of) adjustment of our dogs. It is always comforting to talk to another dachshund owner, rather than an owner of any other type of dog since dachshunds have their own set of (disconcerting and annoying) traits. It made me feel so much better just to know that I am not the only one going through the steep curve of adjustment that these dogs have. Pee-peeing deliberately in inappropriate spots, barking, baying and howling are a few of the difficulties. I have also lost a nice black top, my favorite raincoat, and two pair of house slippers to the rampages that Ruby has been on. Another man that I met had been admiring Ruby from afar and eventually struck up a conversation with me a few days later. He wanted me to translate Korean recipes for him into English for a cookbook that he is writing. He had lived in Harlem for a number of years while going to graduate school. Of course that would be a violation of my contract, although I’m not sure why, so I was happy that I didn’t run into him again! Most recently I met a man, ostensibly because Ruby is so cute, that was a retired Army officer. He started to walk along with me. His English was somewhat stilted but he was able to converse. As we walked along he told me a number of things about his family. Eventually he told me that his wife played golf everyday, and that he was interested in falling in love”! I told him that Ruby was enough to keep me busy!

A couple of times I saw a woman close-by to my apartment on my walks. Yesterday we smiled and nodded (fake bow) and she said ‘hi’ to me, in a soft shy voice. She’s about my age and it was interesting to see that our acquaintance is growing!

What I must say is that the Korean people that I have met are mostly very nice, thoughtful, helpful and humorous. Speaking of humorous, it reminds me of another incident involving two Korean men. My friend, Bridget, who arrived at almost the same time I did into Seoul, and I were coming back from shopping. We had so many bags that Bridget got stuck in the turnstile in the subway station. Two rather elderly men, one carrying a cane, came to her rescue, took her bags and showed her how to climb under the turnstile since her subway card had already locked her out. Amidst much laughter we finally got through, but the fitter of the two men wanted to help Bridget carry her bags….I must add that Bridget is significantly younger than I am, has a petite figure and is blonde. Being blonde is a real attraction here! So we toddled along after them with the rest of our groceries. We saw an exit sign and pointed to it, but the men were very definite that we should follow them another way. They were chuckling and giggling and as we were following them down the narrow hallway we started to wonder where they were taking us. As we began to be a bit worried we quickly conversed and both of us thought that there was some chance that they were taking us to the toilets, or who knows where. It was either loose the bags and ditch our guides, or take our chances! I guess that was a lesson for us in being overly suspicious…not a good trait. These two sweet old men were leading us to the elevator. They were chuckling with laughter because they were so pleased with themselves for helping us! Amidst much laughter and many thank yous we headed off into different directions towards home.

Another interesting thing about the walking paths is that at one point there is a sort of wading pond. It is very pretty, lined with stones in some places. The design is hard to describe, but perhaps it is like an octopus. It provides narrow, shallow places for the children to play. Curiously it is only filled on some weekends. There are lifeguards that organize the chairs, and generally watch over the area. Many small children bedecked in floats of bright shapes and colors bob around with eager and anxious parents guiding them or encouraging them in the pool. The most interesting part of the whole experience though is that many families come for the day or the afternoon and bring their tents, lawn chairs, coolers, blankets, sun hats and so on with them. For some reason I have noticed that not too many people wear sunglasses here. Anyway, it is so comical to see the tiny swimming area almost swallowed up by the plethora of the many colored tents! I feel a bit envious as I watch the families eating yummy looking treats that mother has prepared.

Another thing that I love about the river is the sound of the outdoors…birds, water splashing and gurgling , the wind rustling through the trees and tall grasses, some kind of cicada while really create a cacophony of vibrating noise. I’ve seen what I believe to be a number of egrets, magpies, sparrows, ducks; and many fish that look like carp while are large and brownish. Today I decided to start photographing the wild flowers that I see at the edge of the walking path. So many! Most of them are tiny blossomed, but range from bright blue to sunset pink, and include yellow and orange flowers as well. Today I saw what resembles a cabbage moth, but in more abundance are a smallish very pretty orange butterfly spotted in dark brown or black dots. There are many of them and it is so pleasant to watch them dancing from flower to flower.

On the other side of the river is a rather large local neighborhood, which is far more interesting than the high rise area that I live in. Cars are parked in a jumble all over the streets and sidewalks, buildings of different shapes and sizes sit side by side, some having a persimmon tree out front. People dress very conservatively. Some of the younger women wear sports clothes, but for the most part the colors are subtle. Jeans aren’t seen very often in this area. One day when I was walking over there with Ruby I noticed that a woman very close in age to me was walking down the street in a very nice floral suit. I was wearing Nike sportswear – walking gear. It was funny in a way because what I thought of was how out of place I looked here, and how out of place she would have looked in the US. A few of the young people dress in an upscale stylish manner, but in this area it is less common. What I like is seeing the local people shopping, eating, visiting, children playing. It is a far better place to shop for local produce than on this side of the river. Produce is very expensive here…think about it! A place where one buys lettuce leaves individually! For the most part, fruits and vegetables are at least double in price. I had a bad cold, a sore throat, and was extremely overheated one day as the humidity has been so high. There was no way that I could resist the cool ripe halves of watermelons displayed at the market. That half melon cost me almost $12.00. I didn’t forget its price but I did enjoy every bit of it in the next few days. A squash similar to a pale zucchini is about $1.50, carrots are about $1 each. Needless to say, I don’t throw out any spoiled produce, like at home. It is purchased and eaten carefully.

There are a number of intriguing local restaurants over on the other side of the river as well. They mostly look like family style places, many of them have the low tables to sit at and some have an elaborate network of pipes from the ceiling to each table, I believe it is to cook some of the food at one’s own table. At the small places there is a curious thing. Little cups, about the size of a small Dixie cup that appear to be stainless steel are stored in sterilizers. One helps oneself to the cup and gets their own cold water from a dispenser next to the cup sterilizer. At each table is a small stainless steel lid that is parallel to the table, and if one lifts the lid you will find that the bottom of the dish is recessed into the table top and that is where one finds the same steel chopsticks and soup type spoons. The paper napkins are tiny, and very thin. When I remove at least three in order to cover my lap, upon reaching down to use one realize that due to their thinness and lightness they have ended up all over the floor. I guess the best solution that I have heard to date is to bring one’s own napkin along.

I have been to the city twice. Without sounding disloyal, there are some attractive spots, but in general Seoul seems to have a large sprawl of undistinguishable apartment buildings and neighborhoods. It is very popular to have large banners or advertising signs plastering the front of building after building. It tends to add rather a junky air to the style. The hillsides and mountains are thick with trees and are quite impressive to look at. I am looking forward to autumn so that I can tell how many of the trees are deciduous, and how many are evergreen.

Some of the food I have eaten in restaurants has been delicious and very cheap. It seems to be an odd contrast with the fact that food in the grocery stores and neighborhood markets is quite expensive. I have only had only one horrid, and overpriced meal, which was in a known tourist area. Still it might vie for being one of the all-time worst meals that I’ve ever had in a restaurant. The sashimi was still frozen (!)…odd for something that should be fresh. The tempura had come from something akin to a COSTCO box, and the rice was $10 a bowl…I guess I should have asked! Well, that is another part of traveling that luckily rarely happens. There is a lot of fresh seafood here, and I am also quite fond of the handmade noodles that I have found only two blocks away.

Another curious thing is the take-out industry. I believe that every restaurant is equipped with elaborate bags and sealing mechanisms for one to take their food home in, as well as a number of large Styrofoam containers meant only for one use – to deliver take-out in. Young men zoom up and down the pedestrian lanes, make u-turns against the lights in the street, and park their motorcycles in the entryway of the apartment buildings as they are delivering food like mad in the evening hours. What most surprised me is that MacDonalds has their own motorcycle delivery men! I have enjoyed the convenience of take-out a number of times, but have yet to figure out phone order/delivery. The language complication makes that far more difficult.

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