Look: traveling with children is just different. First of all, if you've got children to travel with, you've got substantially less energy, both because you've reached a certain age and because the kids sap what's left right out of you. Second, you can't do hardcore marathon sightseeing. Or, at least, you can't do it an enjoy it. The kids will melt down and instead of looking at the tapestries or the mountains or the palaces or whatever cultural thing you're planning on doing, you'll be mediating squabbles and drying tears and plugging your ears to stop the whining.
The key is to stop feeling guilty that you aren't putting in 12 hard hours of sightseeing every day. You might get six. Live with it. Learn to love using the kids as an excuse to lounge around the rest of the time.
This is especially true as a trip wears on, and the novelty wears off, and the kids start getting less enthused about walking places and looking at things, and the adults get more tired of being confined in a relatively small foreign country with them. By the morning of day five, the kids (who had plenty of sleep) were grumpy and out-of-sorts. Evan was manic and emotionally labile. Think Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. Abby was flinty and proud and utterly unwilling to put up with anyone's shit whatsoever. Think Clint Eastwood, circa Sudden Impact. Elaina was extraordinarily whiny and clingy and generally insufferable. Think Mark Hamill for the first 3/4 of Star Wars. And the adults — well, let's just say that the go-team-go esprit de corps erodes, and sooner or later there is a certain amount of bickering. Think Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter.
The combination was dangerous.
And oh, by the way — it was raining. Hard.
There were only so many things we could do. No one wanted to walk to tourist attractions in the rain, and then stand about in the rain outside of them. (Seoul's many palaces have iron rings high in the eaves, and other sets on the plaza; servants used these to string up ropes to hold overhangs to keep royalty dry. Not any more.) A museum? With the kids in this frame of mind? Don't be ridiculous. Unless it's the Lorazepam museum and it's free sample day, we're not that dumb.
So: of to the COEX Mall.
All right, all right. It's not as bad as you think. They have a pretty cool aquarium there, which was the main attraction. It's supposed to be the best aquarium in Korea. The kids were very entertained. But, like so many other things here, it was . . . different.
First of all, Korean aquatic displays are governed by a rather kitschy sensibility.
"At least we're not the fish swimming in a Coke machine; that's just degrading."
Many fish were displayed in sinks, traffic lights, phone booths, and other odd containers, with badly-translated clever captions along the lines of 'It's fish! And they're in the sink!" Many other fish and reptiles and insects were in terrariums with ceramic figurines, sort of the Korean equivalent of the little treasure chest and diver at the bottom of your five-year-old's goldfish bowl. The kids were, of course, uncritically delighted.
Another oddity: when I go to an aquarium, I expect fish, mammals that everyone thinks of as practically fish, and maybe if they go wild some amphibians. I don't expect a bunny rabbit.
A vicious streak a mile wide.
Yes, that's a bunny incorporated into an aquatic display. I was quite frankly concerned that the bunny was the recently-introduced main course for some aquatic creature I had not yet spied. But no, it was just chillin' in there. Soon afterward, we encountered hedgehogs and prairie dogs. Because why not?
Yes, we're a pile of prairie dogs. But you go back to looking at the flounder; I'm sure they're cute too.
Finally: like Lotte World, the safety measures were rather rudimentary. Many tanks and terrariums and cage-like things had open tops. In America, the tanks would quickly be filled with horrible, dangerous, dirty, fish-killing things. In Korea, everyone seems to obey the signs, which imply that any fish, no matter how benign-looking — yes, even Nemo — is a potential killer, so keep your hands to yourself. This is harmonious with our general child-rearing strategy, so we approved.
Those grouper are stone killers, man.
Eventually, the kids started to melt down. Can you blame them? They had to ride in a taxi and look at fish for like forty-five minutes. So we found the exit. Elaina had time to commune with a playful penguin:
Where's my fish, you heartless child? DAMN YOU TO HELL FOR TEASING ME.
And then we braved COEX mall to find lunch. What I can say about it? it's a mall. It's big. It's loud. It's crowded. The food smells are different, and you can't read most of the signs, but otherwise I could be on the way to The Gap. After consultation, we ate at T.G.I. Friday's. Yes, I know that's even worse than eating at Outback. Don't you judge me.
After lunch we found a bookstore reputed to have a great English-language section. On the way to the bookstore, my son Evan discovered his connection to Korea — his "I belong amongst these people" moment — his epiphany of homecoming.
He found a glitzy, beautiful Nintendo promotional pavilion that let you — encouraged you — to play Mario Kart on the Wii. For free. While your parents shopped. I thought he was going to cry tears of joy.
He promptly took first in three kart races and retired, satisfied that he had shown these marketers-for-a-Japanese-company-in-Korea what's what about American video game mastery.
Another cab trip through awful Seoul traffic in the rain, another early night, another informal dinner of leftovers and travel food.
Tomorrow: look, how many palaces do you people have?