Streets of Seoul
Clearing customs just after the train from Incheon Airport to downtown Seoul closes, we approach the Uber kiosk where a woman with a map of Seoul is waiting to get us a ride. En route to the kiosk, my dad verbally assaults his forty-seventh freelance cab driver since joining me in Asia. My mom does not look amused by this skirmish with an enemy only he can see, one whom he described as “not being human.” Admittedly, I also struggle to empathize with pushy salesmen-types--or pushy anybody-types for that matter. Freeing us from the evils of war, the lady at the desk pages one of the millions of Mr. Kims on the peninsula to come to our aid and take us to our hotel. He is charming, affable, and knowledgeable in English and Seoul sightseeing. He tells me all about the weekly protests that are going to be held near our hotel in the morning against their current president. I make a mental note to check them out.
Incheon Airport sits on an island forty-five minutes west of Seoul, where the air smells like salt and the late summer’s night takes me back to every cool late August night back home. There is no more humidity, at least not now, and I feel I could walk the distance to the hotel just to have some time to breathe in home. As we talk with our driver, I realize the climate isn’t the only American part about South Korea. People are open and chatty, charismatic and apparently very democratic. The fact that our driver finds it important to notify us of protests means there is action and disagreement in this part of the world. Something to sink my teeth into looms ahead, I just know it.
Ascent and Dissent
A large diversion obstructs our getting to the protests on time, however. The 2019 Friendship Festival, an event coordinated by the embassies of various nations in Seoul, occupies the green outside city hall, and I quickly lose my parents as I enter a giant yurt, sampling honey from Kyrgyzstan and chatting with the diplomats from that country about what a good time I had there. This is my Disneyland, most accurately my Epcot, but so much less kitschy. I am in love. A couple of hours later, I have to track down my parents who looked for a shady oasis somewhere in the Middle East.
In the evening we finish our day with a seemingly endless meal of Korean barbecue, kimchi, and various side salads and mixed vegetable dishes. Watching our chef chopping and cutting up our various meats and mushrooms fills us with a primal hunger as we gaze into the fire. We are full to the point of explosion by the end of the evening, having only ordered two plates worth of pork but received over a dozen small plates of vegetables. When we get the final bill, we end up paying hardly 14 USD per person and swear we have to do this again before we leave Korea.
Palaces and Politics
A new day means new opportunities to see the various historical sights of Seoul, including several palaces. After traveling much of South, Southeast, and East Asia, I must admit that my opinion of palaces is starting to sink down to my opinion of museums, but today we are a family (less my dear brother who we wish could have joined us) so that means I have to suck it up. In truth, I do have a good time in Changdeokgung where a vast complex of mostly reconstructed buildings takes us back several hundred years. If I am being honest, my appreciation of tourist sights is indirectly correlated to the number of people who are visiting while I am there. I am a selfish traveler. If I wasn’t you’d see me in Paris eating croissants and foie gras right now, or else in Rome finally sharing a slice of pizza with the Pope.
But alas, I hate to be among other tourists for an extended period of time and find it endlessly exhausting. So maybe that’s why I can’t stand museums or incredibly popular historic sights for long. Perhaps my increasingly acute (and decreasingly cute) introversion has made museums and the like harder and more exhausting, but I do still enjoy social events of a certain type. The friendship festival yesterday was incredibly fascinating, and I had at least twenty conversations in six languages, but whenever I am in a pretty place with pretty people taking pretty Instagram photos, I start to feel like running off into the forest and starting a new life, that is to say a life even newer than this vagabond thing I have carved out for myself.
After the palace, we walk northwest to see the “Blue House,” or the current residence of the President of South Korea. To say the house is heavily guarded is an understatement. For half a dozen blocks in each direction men and women in dark shades stand on corners with eyes most likely scanning the horizon for anything suspicious. Or they are all sleeping. Like I said their shades are dark so who knows. When we come to the front of the Blue House, tourists are milling about and snapping pictures from a small circle on the pavement that says “photo point.” The guards are still scanning, but more aggressively, as if something could go down at any moment.
We walk immediately south into the grand Jongno-Gu Park and start snapping photos of more palaces, libraries, and coronation rooms when the sound of a helicopter whirs behind the tree line. In a minute, two black helicopters are up above us and hurtling somewhere else. Perhaps the President is on the move, or maybe the Uber Eats driver’s car broke down and he’s just getting a ride back home. Needless to say these Hollywood-like hills are shrouded in their own mysteries. The park has enough hidden patios, palaces and moats to hold our interest for an hour until the twice-daily changing of the guard ceremony begins at 2 pm. When we arrive five minutes before, though, the soldiers and ensigns are already on the move, and my dad and I both accidentally walk in the middle of the ceremony, oblivious to the fact it has even started. In the afternoon we stop by another group of protesters with signs imploring Donald Trump to “go back home with the U.S. army.” I desperately wanted a statement, or a conversation, about Koreans’ feelings about the formidable American military presence in South Korea, but no one seemed interested in talking with me, or at least able to talk with me given the language barrier.
Cooking Korean (And: My Parents Refuse to Join Me in a Cat House)
My mother, who quite frankly understands me in ways that she doesn’t understand my father, signs all three of us up for a Korean cooking lesson. I am ecstatic; my dad is less so. Regardless he puts on a brave face and commits better than any generally disinterested husband could be asked to. Besides, in the end there will be food. It cannot be that bad.
We start with a seafood pancake, which is more like an omelette with scallions and squid though Koreans apparently refuse to eat such an obviously breakfast-y food in the morning. Instead, it is more common as a bar snack, even though I can’t see why anyone would stuff their faces with eggs and squid while doing shots. When we finish, it is terrific and certainly something I would make at home if I could just find a good “squid guy.”
In the evening we sup on gimbap, a Korean seaweed and rice roll not dissimilar to sushi wherein the center is stuffed with various fillings from vegetables and fish to Spam and eggs. Spam has been a popular ingredient in everyday South Korean food since the Korean war, when the American military introduced the vaguely meat-like substance to the peninsula in C-rations and it caught on amongst the locals. One of the most popular Korean dishes today is “army stew” which looks like the vomit of a child who only eats hot dogs, beans, and cheese. It is one of my greatest regrets that I never get to try such a brilliantly binational dish on my trip to Korea. But, this only gives me another reason to come back.
To pair with our gimbap, we order three beers which end up being much larger than we expect, but the salty Spam and shrimp rolls make drinking the whole bottle easy, and since my parents can’t finish theirs I help. This is a problem; I am not proud of what happens next.
I generally think that I am a person with a strong sense of both self and self-control. It takes more than a few drinks for me to do something my sober self would consider foolish, and so there is no excuse for my actions except perhaps for the human need for a warm body to hold, and for the comfort that body provides. After I am given a flyer for a nearby second-story location, I immediately say goodbye to my parents and abandon them in the middle of Seoul to satisfy an urge I’ve had since starting out on the road.
I walk up a flight of stairs, take off my shoes, and enter a door labeled “Cat Cafe.”
Perhaps the most wholesome, non-exploitative nightlife development in recent years has been that of the Cat Cafe. In short, those who live in no-pet apartments, have parents who won’t buy them a fine feline, or young couples who want to test the waters of commitment without taking on any real responsibility come to these bright rooms to gain access to sometimes dozens of cats. You can pet them, feed them, or just stare at the overwhelming adorability of countless cats playing, sleeping, and snuggling. I gain access for about ten dollars and buy a soda at the coffee stand, which is more than one probably should pay, but the flyer states that this place has over 50 cats, and I feel that is something I have to see. I spend all night there, only leaving a hair before closing time at 2 am and walk the half-mile to our hotel. My parents are both long asleep when I arrive.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.