Seoul, Day One
Self-indulgent travel, rather than political snark, today. Proceed at your own risk.
The less that is said about a 13-hour airplane trip with a ten-year-old, seven-year-old, and four-year-old the better. Thank God for movies on iPads and iPhones and for high-capacity battery backups and for all the rest of the techno-boy trappings of my life.
We're staying at the Somerset Palace, made up of quite nice (and priced accordingly) suites on the edge of Insadong. The kids, naturally, were up before 5 a.m., full of beans and eager to do something, anything, other than stay quietly in the rooms. You can't let the TV baby-sit them — it's part furiously-narrated soccer, part cartoons in Korean, and part dorsal-nudity soap operas.
Feeling almost human again after showers, we took them to the breakfast buffet. The kids were thrilled at being able to eat fried rice and noodles at breakfast. I found that the coffee machine made unacceptably small lattes, but after four or five off them I felt better. The hotel has a small kid playroom — basically a padded ball-pit with badly soundproofed walls that make every shriek reverberate like an angry command hallucination — and I threw them in there until we were ready for our morning expedition.
We're literally two blocks from Insadong, a charming art-and-shopping-and-restaurants district, the heart of which has twisty alleys and passageways blocked off to cars. The main drag — also closed to cars on Sunday — is pretty touristy, but there some gems hidden amongst the junk, and the back alleys have some good restaurants and art shops.
We were out early, and the shops open late on Sunday, so we walked all the way down the main street to Tapgol Park, one of the important sites of the Korean Independence movement. Here, in an attempt to find an entrance that was open, we encountered our first bit of authentic, non-touristy local color — a small homeless encampment between the park and the dark alleys to the south. The men lying against the park's wall were uniformly elderly (unlike American homeless) and surrounded by an impressive array of Soju bottles. They and their bindles appeared cleaner and more orderly than your average Echo Park hipster.
Inside the park, the kids ran and jumped to burn more energy, looked indifferently at the ten-story pagoda behind glass, and posed a lot.
We had occasion to discuss the difference between totalitarianism and Buddhism:
. . . and we discussed the Japanese occupation as we looked at the remarkably grim bas-reliefs of revolutionary martyrs.
We were mostly alone, aside from perhaps a half-dozen old men walking slowly through the park. One, sent from central casting for a reserved and revered ancestor, plodded slowly past us, hands clasped behind his back, hat set conservatively, immaculately if unfashionably dressed. Suddenly, there was a grating jangle from his jacket, and he whipped out a cell phone and began to jabber as earnestly as any teen.
From the seriousness of revolution we returned to Insadong's main drag and the frivolity of commerce. We bought seaweed snacks to tide us through the week, and personalized stamps for the kids with their English and Korean names (or, in Elaina's case, her Chinese name dubiously translated, hopefully not into something patently offensive). The kids delighted at the wide array of street vendors, though I could not interest them in hot silkworm pupae. They were enthralled, though, with the street vendors' honey string candy. The vendor takes a block of frozen honey, drills a hole into it, rolls it in cornstarch and powdered sugar, and begins to stretch it out into a loop, double it, re-stretch it, and re-double it, until he has thousands of hair-fine strands of honey. This he uses to wrap brown sugar and almonds or peanuts, creating a very tasty (if messy) treat. As with many street vendors, half of the point is the showmanship — and these guys had a good patter, uttering increasingly profane shouts of mock-amazement as the strands doubled and redoubled into the thousands.
We proceeded slowly back to the hotel. Evan and Abby amused themselves with philosophy:
ABBY: Evan, you're cold.
EVAN: No, I'm not.
ABBY: Yes you are. I see goosebumps on your arm.
EVAN: I'm not cold. That's just my body.
ABBY: YOU ARE YOUR BODY.
EVAN. No. No I am not.
Observing Evan — ten a couple of weeks ago — I recognize the power of karma. Here I am on a trip to a distant land with a ten-year-old. Every ten feet he's asking when we're going back to the hotel. The sight of an arcade or game store sends him into a frenzy of hand-grabbing and jumping and whining. He could eat a side of beef and be asking fifteen minutes later when lunch will be. He's in his own world, wandering around the sidewalk like a stoned prophet, lurching into the paths of elderly women and delivery boys on bicycles, making lunges and thrusts at enemies only he can see. His gripe/minute rate is Olympic quality. And it hit me — he's me, and I'm my dad, and this is my fate, as surely as it is the fate of tamed horndogs with daughters to wait up nervously on Saturday nights. Now I'm the one barking "stop that" and "for God's sake, we ate half an hour ago" and "there's more to life than video games" and the rest, and Evan's the one rolling his eyes and sighing theatrically, and my father is back home up on his mountain, laughing his ass off.
Some of us napped. Afterwards, we took taxis to one of the many palaces of Seoul, but discovered that the guide books had misprinted the time of the English-speaking tour, and we were too late. We tried walking to the next nearest shrine — the place is lousy with them — to discover that the entrance was on the far side of the compound and we couldn't figure out how to get there. No matter — there was another palace within walking distance, and we set off there. Unhyeongung is not the most magnificent or fascinating palace, but it had wide-open spaces for the kids to cavort, and it was a good, gentle introduction to the foot-wearying business of hardcore sightseeing.
We trudged the rest of the way back to Insadong to find the Korean barbecue place the concierge had recommended. We found it — a rather small hole-in-the-wall with no signs in English and no English-speaking staff, with rough wooden benches. It was fabulous. I had a refreshingly large bottle of beer, and Katrina and her parents shared raspberry wine. We split a seafood and green onion pancake, and grilled flavorful beef and pork ribs over incandescent coals in a pail in the center of the table. The banchan was good, if not as elaborate or varied as at some places we've been, but the beef and pork were as tasty and tender as any Korean barbecue I've ever had. The kids loved it.
We returned to the hotel, where my mother-in-law, invoking familiar grandmother's prerogative, matter-of-factly vetoed my decision that the kids could not have ice cream.
We put the kids to bed, hoping they were exhausted enough to sleep to a reasonable hour in the morning. (No dice. The girls were making a pillow fort by the window by 4:15.) I did my best to stay up and blog, or at least read, but was drowsing by 8:30.
Day Two: A city tour to follow.
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