Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seoul is to Korea as ... ______ is to ______

... Moscow is to Russia.
... Boise is to Idaho.

After eleven months in Korea, I finally made it to Seoul. It's not really Korea. People speak English. There's a huge variety of foreign food, not just the regular pasta and waffles. And the number of foreigners is astounding.

Before visiting, I was skeptical. I knew it would be a huge city, with lots of people, and whenever I thought of this in comparison to the lovely, closer option of Busan, I ALWAYS opted for the beach. So, when I finally made it to Seoul, I was pleasantly surprised.

Ulsan, marked in the white circle, is where I am located. Busan (the blue circle) is the second largest city in South Korea and boasts a few lovely beaches. Seoul (the yellow star) is "really" far away.

I had low expectations for Seoul. I thought of a crowded, overpopulated mess of people. I lived in Moscow for nearly two years. I knew what a city was like. But as with all things in life, you do not really know it until you try it.

One of the best discoveries in Seoul, was a design museum / cafe combination in Hongdae. While it can be a bit tricky to find the first time, it is well worth the journey. aA Cafe is a simple, modernist style building full of custom furniture and designed like an old warehouse, brewery, or art school. The large windows let in as much light as possible, and the feeling of the exterior and interior made me think of Frank Lloyd Wright's work and a smattering of other modernist architecture and interior design that I was briefly exposed to at University.

Sitting in aA Cafe

Unlike (or the same as) similar places in America, I do not think this place was EVER anything other than what it is now, but that does not lessen it's charm or character. The ambiance is created by lofty ceilings, huge hanging lights, brick walls, and mismatch furniture. The knowledge that there is a museum directly underneath the cafe, which houses a variety of "antiques" and modern creations, and the assumption that there is a studio above the cafe where people create beautiful, yet simple, furniture contribute to the illusion that Korea, full of it's nearly formulaic glitter and cuteness, has been left far behind.

Part of the museum ... no sitting here.

Rivaling the discovery of aA Cafe, away from the noise and chaos of the city, the Han River provides a calm that cannot be found in the overcrowded shopping districts. The old river stretches off into the distance and allows for windsurfers, jet skiers, and sail boaters to enjoy a lovely Sunday afternoon. A paved path runs along the river and connects the various districts of Seoul in a non commercial space. Young and old, families, couples, and a variety of others utilize this path. As I walked along the river near Itaewon toward the 63 Building, enjoying my solitude and the peace and quiet, a realization dawned. Unlike Ulsan's Taewha River path, the path along the Han lacks speakers. There is NO K-Pop blaring. There is NO classical music. There is absolutely NO manufactured, constant sound, and the effect is refreshing. In the stretches of path away from bridges, the main sounds that could be heard were the river, crickets, and cars and trains in the distance.

Before arriving in Seoul, my expectations were low if not nonexistent. I knew it would be a city. I knew it would be different from Ulsan because there would be a variety of foreign food, though I had no idea the extent of that variety - Itaewon boasts everything from Mexican to Thai to French to Arabic and more. I knew at times I would feel claustrophobic because of the shear number of people, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy it. A lovely cosmopolitan change from the more conservative and isolated areas of Korea, Seoul has character, and I would highly recommend it, in small doses, for anyone living in Korea.

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