Leaving the nest

6 Jan

After being in Paju City living and working at the English Village for the past few weeks, it was about time to leave the nest. Nothing dramatic, mind you, but a little outing. It was my first trip to Seoul. It was rooted in a practical matter – shopping. With the freezing cold temperatures outside, I was glad to get out, but for just a little bit. With my long down coat, three pairs of socks, gloves and scarf… I was ready to go!

I joined my friend Chris, one of the American staff here at the English Village. He and his wife have lived and worked in South Korea for the past three years. As they eat a strict gluten free diet, they are perfect guides and companions for my adventures in healthy eating in South Korea. With his wife’s nudging I was invited to join Chris on one of his regular shopping excursions. We stood outside the grounds of the English Village and waited for bus 2200, the bus that travels to Seoul practically non-stop about every 15 minutes. The journey takes about 45 minutes.

We traveled on the cold bus across the frozen land. About half way through the journey I was asked by the bus driver to be quiet. It was a simple gesture. The bus had stopped and when she walked by me she looked at me, put her finger to her lips, and made a “shhh” sound. Okay… was I talking too loud? Chris assured me that it was in part because we were foreigners but that also in general it is considered rude to talk loudly on public transportation. Koreans in general have much quieter speaking voices then Americans. In class we are always encouraging Korean students to speak up so we can hear them. My traveling companion Chris has a more soft-spoken voice. And me, well I had flashbacks to my 7th grade teacher letting me know in the middle of class that my voice carried…as well as my inability to whisper to my sister or my mother when I was a child in church on Sundays. Chris let me know that his wife had the same problem. Loud voice – good for teaching – I guess not so good for South Korean public transportation. I did my best to lower the volume and the journey continued.

In no time at all we were in Seoul. The bus stops at a subway station stop and we made our way down stairs the underground transportation system. Chris hooked me up with a “T-money” card, an electronic card when loaded with a little money is a fast and easy way to pay for the subway and other public transportation.

Chris was a good steward of the subway system giving me little tips for when I might negotiate the system on my own. The subway system in South Korea is quite well planned and seemed almost more scientific in its organization then the European systems I had become more comfortable with. We traveled about 7 stops away and then we arrived at our destination. What was on the shopping list for today? Baking goods. As Chris and his wife eat gluten free, they did a little research and found an area where local bakers go to buy gluten-free flours and specialty items as well as baking materials and goods. We wove through little streets lined with outdoor shops until we arrived at our destination.

I was impressed that Chris and his wife had found this area on their own. Just past rows of shops selling carpet, yarn and other unimaginable materials was a cluster of shops with a variety of fresh baking related products. I had come along in part out of curiosity and thinking perhaps I would find something that I wanted/needed for myself as I am still building my little “kitchen” in my small studio-like apartment on the English Village campus. My cooking tools are currently a dependable two ‘burner” hotplate and a crockpot. Our little apartments don’t have ovens as is typical in smaller South Korean apartments. So while baking is not currently on the agenda for me, I thought it couldn’t hurt to check things out.

We arrived at Chris’ favorite little shop filled with fresh flours, sweeteners, nuts, sprinkles, you name it. I found I eagerly dug in like a child happy to purchase more items to feed my budding little home. I bought some almond flour… for… who knows what, fresh coconut, raw pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and oats. They also had some spices so I bought some bay leaves and cloves. And they had a few random canned products, more “american style”, including tomato paste and black olives. I had not seen either of these products in Korean grocery stores so I snatched those up too! I was happy with my little purchase. We made our way through a few other shops in the area then headed back out to the main street.

I found this neighborhood, a maze of tiny shops and my first impression of Seoul, to be… beautiful. Not beautiful in any way that is particularly lavish or breath-taking. But beautiful mostly in its utter sense of foreignness to me. Just amazing.

We walked across the street and took a stroll through a local indoor market. We found dozens of little stands busily preparing food. Most of the food looked similar – something that looked like a potato pancake, and other items that looked egg based with some vegetables and meats. The Korean women knew just enough words of English to invite us to have a seat at their stand. We wove around a bit and settled into a small little informal restaurant/stand.

Chris and I stayed for a quick bite, sharing a large bowl of soul with eggs, dumplings, noodles and green onions. We also shared the potato like pancakes filled with seafood. After lunch we made our way back to the subway station. Seoul was beautiful but… it is just too cold for me to linger. In no time at all we were on the bus, this one heated, and soon on the interstate returning to Paju City and English Village.

On the ride back I noticed rows upon rows of similar looking high-rise buildings that ran for it seemed perhaps miles. What is that? I asked. Chris said they were high-rise apartment buildings. In truth the scene kind of gave me the creeps… like something from a futuristic science fiction movie or something. But Chris shared that something like 45% of the country’s population lives in Seoul and the surrounding areas. Many people!

On the ride back we listened to two Korean girls giggling uncontrollably about something…bahavior that seems typical for Korean little girls. One of the girls turned around and took a good look at me. I am told it is not unusual for Korean children to stop and stare at Foreigners (yep, that’s me! I’m a foreigner!) as it is not all that usual to see non-Koreans in Korea (although more common in the Seoul area…)

And now I am back safe and sound in my mostly warm apartment. The cold is leaking through the windows and underneath the door but I do my best to stay warm. It is the weekend but the halls of my apartment building and streets of the English Village and calm and quiet. I cooked a nice dinner for myself on my hot plate.  It feels good to be warm and settled in for the evening.

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