26 October - 6 November 2005
Wednesday-Thursday, October 26-27
We came to Korea because of the opportunity to join up with a family
of cousins stationed south of Seoul: Kirsten and Phil Marquis and their daughters
Mathea and Sofia.
Friday, October 28
Day One was long but surprisingly easy with its 14-hour flight on Korean Air.
Coach in this Boeing 777 was better than other airlines in both space and service.
We rested well enough on the plane. (We jumped a day going over, got it back
on the return.)
When Kirsten and Phil picked us up they took us right to their favorite neighborhood
restaurant close to their first home in Seoul in a neighborhood called Seocho-dong.
(The "dong" ending, we are told, sort of means "neighborhood.")
We turned off a major expressway, onto a main thoroughfare and immediately onto
undulating, narrow streets covered with cars—parked or moving—along
with scooters, trucks and cycles vying for space. Like the old European towns
this intimate setting, barely adapted for 21st-century use, shows just how old
Seoul is. (Modern Seoul was founded in 1394 by the first of Korea’s Yi
Little turquoise plastic stools sat around tables that were set up outside
with holes in their centers to accommodate the pot of gas-fired hot coals
placed in front of us, then lit. While our hosts and the waitress exchanged
minimal words of instruction, food started to appear and our little table
overflowing in seconds: a plate of small chunks of raw beef, plates of red-leaf
lettuce dressed with chili paste, soup, shredded green onion, garlic cloves,
hot peppers, onions, chili paste and sea salt for dipping, Pepsi, Hite beer,
and Soju (a vodka-tasting clear drink). Kirsten started grilling the meat,
and onions on the grid placed over the hot coals by the waitress, and we ate
at a fast pace. The food was the best single indigenous meal we’ve had
in our travels because it matched so well the stuff we like at home. Good
by our hosts.
The restaurant, which resembled a Dairy Queen with limited seating and signs
with only Korean (no English), filled up with primarily businessman types. It
was explained that, except for shopping areas, this is the profile of most public
places: one table of two girls possibly hoping to meet an eligible man and a
bunch of men sitting together all over the place. During the meal one fellow
asked the waiter to come and turn our meat for us. It was a friendly but unnecessary
gesture as he dropped a couple of chunks of beef into the fire.
In the dark, on the drive home to Kirsten and Phil’s home in Bundang we
saw the many bridges that connect this small (only one million people!) southern
suburb and Seoul, most of them unique and lit in handsome ways. Their home is
a townhouse in a new village called “JOY” for “Jesus-Only-You,”
a condo community built as a Christian enclave by Koreans close by the large
Calvary Church. We met Mathea and Sofia along with their Philippina nanny named
Jalena —wife of a service man—who lives in with the family Monday
through Friday. We visited with them for a while and crashed in the lovely room
provided to us by the Marquises.
Having slept during the hours that would have been Thursday daytime
back home, we arose for a trip into the Army base at Yong-san with Phil, nanny
and the kids in the family 2005 Volvo SUV and had the full experience of traffic
in Seoul, a city of eleven million surrounded by other cities with a million
more each for a total metropolitan population topping seventeen million. Every
major road and most streets were clogged four to eight lanes across. We used
to go perhaps thirty miles. The cars are of all sizes, most made in Korea,
but a few European and American models. Many of the Korean makes resemble knock-offs
and American styles. Most are new, big and shiny.
Saturday, October 29
After a lengthy wait for the Army to certify that the nanny and the girls were
properly educated on how to evacuate from this country in case of emergency
(attack by North Korea?), we took the nanny to the bus station and ate at the
Dragon Inn on the base which is the first point of contact for many a soldier
when they arrive here. (When they come “draggin’ in?”) Completely
American in presentation, the food was nonetheless exceptionally clean in
and construction. After some time on the playground for two-year-old Mathea,
we made our slow way back home. But first we picked up yet another cousin.
right: Marisa and Kirsten have another cousin who passes through Korea from
time to time. Maury Smith (son of Marisa’s mother’s older sister)
flies for Fed-Ex and happened to be in town.
The building style of Seoul resembles all of the aggressive urban construction
of our big cities who tear down old buildings readily and invest in taller,
more modern structures. The number of massive, tall residential buildings are
like those seen more in Europe built after World War Two to give fair housing
on the socialist model. Small places, government regulated, clean. When one
considers that all the resources of South Korea’s 47 million people are
at least filtered in and out of its capital, it is no wonder that the energy
for expansion is so great.
For dinner, Kirsten and Phil treated us to dinner at their favorite restaurant
in their own neighborhood. This time, instead of eating outside, we spread
on pillows on the hardwood floors of a screened-off room with a long table.
(Wade was wishing for the turquoise plastic stools!) Again there were cooking
holes in the table—only nicer—and we were again besieged by multiple
elements of a fabulous meal, this time with pork. We passed the babies around
as Kirsten and Phil handled cooking duties, and we had a fine family meal in
this little room thousands of miles from our homes. Kirsten took Mathea out
early for a walk and some tri-cycling and Marisa soon followed carrying Sofia.
And there we were, the three guys, in the cliché setting where women
and children are sent home early. We took full advantage of the time and the
availability of good libation until Maury had to take a cab back to his hotel.
He was to pilot a flight to Hong Kong the next day and needed to have twelve
hours “from bottle to throttle.” A friend or relative of the restaurant
owners was happy to furnish himself and his car to be the personal cab for
American at the very reasonable cost of $25.00. Phil and Wade then went back
to sit on the back porch and discuss the meaning of life—with two kids,
in Korea and in the military.
|"The Corner" Restaurant
Sunday, October 30
morning took us on the fabulous subways of Seoul. They’re
clean, well laid out with easy directions utilizing big, fast trains. Much
preferable to us compared with surface travel on these busy six-day weeks
of Korean commerce. (The kids go to school six days as well.) Phil and Mathea
joined us for a walking tour of the Insadong district, known for its traditional
arts and crafts, calligraphy supply shops, and Buddhist shopping area. The
variety of ceramics, cloth, furniture, trinkets and leather is impressive
and the streets are as inviting as any we saw in Central Europe or London
or Paris. Food purveyors were everywhere along the streetsides with all kinds
of smells wafting. We glanced with special distaste at the pots of brown
or ashy-black small worm things. They looked like bugs to us at first, but
calmly said no, they were definitely worms: silkworm larvae, to be specific.
There was good, appetizing stuff on sticks as well.
As we walked along we were stopped numerous times by excited groups of Koreans,
from school age to dotage, who wanted to stare at Mathea, tickle her cheek,
have their picture taken beside her with their cell phone camera. The little
two-year-old of Scandinavian descent with the authentic Norwegian name of
her great-great grandma, has all the dainty, fair features of skin, eyes and
hair that these folks never see. Mathea was gracious in nearly every instance,
posing, asking in Korean to shake a child’s hand and waving bye-bye
to crowds of uniformed school children.
After a nap for Mathea in an office building food court we got on the subway
to join Kirsten and Sofia who drove into town for a trip to the Seoul Tower
with us. Like many large cities around the globe, Seoul has a formidable observation
tower: theirs is on a peak near what had been the southernmost gate of the
old city, overlooking the whole of the environs. We rode the sky lift up to
the base of the tower which was closed for renovation, but saw impressive
vistas still. We walked around and looked over the battlements at the sprawling,
modern city. This time, both Mathea and Sofia were showered with curious attention:
pictures were taken, popcorn was shared with other toddlers, older people
held the babies, and asked in broken English about their names and ages.
|Views from Namsan near the Seoul Tower
We then got caught in late Saturday evening traffic (no surprise!) as we rode
to an Outback Steakhouse near the Marquis’s home. The place was packed
with a forty-minute wait, so we took seats—all six of us—at the
bar. It was typical suburban steakhouse fare like at home… except for
the side of kimchi that we were served.
Sunday morning brought brunch on the base where we had eaten on Friday:
made-to-order waffles, bacon, eggs, all manner of smoked fish, fresh fruit juices.
Then we strolled around the Itaewon shopping district situated beside the Yong-san
base, thus catering to more Western tourists. Korean ceramics and clothing abounded
there, not unlike at Insadong the day before. The suit tailors walk up and ask
in English if you want to get measured. There are knock-offs galore—damn
fine ones—and Marisa wound up with a “Burberry” bag. Once
the sale was made, the store owner carefully attached the Burberry label from
her drawer of designer brands! This time, on the advice of Kirsten, we entered
a reputable ceramic shop and bought some souvenirs for ourselves and Christmas
presents for others. Phil and Kirsten succumbed further down the street and
came home with a pair of live lovebirds.
Monday, October 31
Marquises then left us to explore further and return home by subway. We had
a cup of coffee in a shop on the street, then got on the subway and went
a few stops over to an even wilder shopping district: Namdaemun.
streets were sloping, narrow and clogged with kitchens under tents cooking
of land-and-sea food in a 9'x 9' space.
The smells were often strange
to us and not always in a good way, and the worms were sizzling again.
nearly all Korean, stop at bins that are stuck into their paths and filled
with bargains. A man typically climbs up, shouts and claps his hands to gather
crowd, then makes deals, drops prices and gathers cash. The nudging pedestrians,
smoke, noise, stacks of merchandise and pushy guys on motor bikes make this
a rousing sample of Asian commerce less influenced by western custom. Wow.
We thought about stopping for dinner there, but simply didn’t know enough
about the area to pick wisely. Returning to Itaewon, we landed at a German
as the sun went down. Sitting in a set of cushioned love seats, we ate Bratwurst
and sauerkraut, washing it down with German red wine and draft beer. It was
a relaxing time and worth the time to rest. Finishing up, we walked further
down the street to the next subway stop and rode for 30-40 minutes to our
destination: the Imae stop on the Bundang line. It was colder now, so we wrapped
up in our scarves and gloves to make a quick walk back to the house. The girls
were relaxed and happy while Kirsten and Phil prepared for a very early Monday
morning at the K-16 air base nearby. We made plans for the next day and fell
asleep by 10:00pm, not remembering to remind ourselves that it’s 9:00am
Monday—Halloween—passed without a single reference to
the made-up scary stuff for this day back home. Marisa and Wade took the subway
to Jamsil for a boat trip along the wide and shallow Han River on the brisk
autumn day. The haze of pollution interfered with visibility across great distances,
but the overall impression on our empty boat was controlled by the blue sky
and rushing water around us. We moved between two riverbanks, under multiple
bridges, on the way to Yeouido, the “Manhattan of Korea,” where
US troops are not allowed since the demonstrations for reunification and against
U.S. military presence associated with the nuclear arms talks with North Korea.
We shared the huge boat with one family of three on this slow day for river
We decided to board the subway again for a walk around the “Beverly Hills”
of Korea: Apkujong-dong. We hit the street after one transfer and four stops
and, almost immediately, started seeing the storefronts of Gucci, Ferragamo
and Prada. Stopping into the Galleria, we found what seemed a very upscale,
Western-style department store. Yet each department was small and attended
a saleswoman Marisa found over-attentive. This crossover of cultural and commercial
styles was off-putting. We ate quiche and kebob in a swanky food court (the
Gourmet Emporium) with the sound of “My Own True Love” playing
on the PA. That’s right––the theme from “Gone With
We strolled the streets some more and stopped for Korean lemon tea at a fashionable
hotel cafe: the PopGreen. Catching our breath quickly, we headed for home via
subway. Phil had been marinating steaks overnight, so he and Kirsten loaded
us up with meat, potatoes and corn-on-the-cob. The girls entertained and we
all hit the sack early.
Tuesday, November 1
Early rising on Tuesday made the drive into Seoul much quicker than
any other trip so far. Kirsten had made reservations for the three of us with
the USO tour of the DMZ—De-Militarized Zone—the area mutually guarded
by the UN and North Korea since the truce of 1953. In town by 6:30am, we buy
some breakfast snacks at a corner store. Marisa gets something she assumes is
smoked, dried fish (and it is).
We loaded onto a brand new tour bus at 7:30am with a Korean guide who spoke
decent English, a necessity for his usual crowd comprised of some 75% American
citizens (the others from other English-speaking countries). The ride north
from Seoul took eighty minutes to the first stop inside the JSA—Joint
Security Area. We were admonished along the way, in between descriptions of
that this is not a theme park: it is an active military zone where numerous
deadly incidents have occurred in spite of the detente assumed by the truce.
No gesturing at the NPK—the North Korean army—and no wandering
about without our U.S. Army M.P.
After Specialist Husky’s “slide brief,” a version of which
we would hear at each subsequent stop throughout the tour, we rode a bus to
the reunification hall opened in 2000 by South Korea for the purpose of allowing
families truncated by the war to set up reunions. But no such reunions have
happened because North Korea won’t play along. They fear defection by
their citizens. The next guide was an early twenties man with a solid, Army-instilled
knowledge of the history of the area. Specialist Dotson, as he introduced himself,
had been in South Korea for just three months and would return next year to
Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Kirsten told us that the service members assigned to
this northernmost post (Camp Bonifas––named for the soldier killed
in one of the cross border incidents) are hand-picked for this duty. They
about forty members of the nearly 600 personnel on post; the rest are ROK (Republic
of Korea) soldiers. At one time, most of Camp Bonifas was U.S. Army, but
we continue to redeploy our soldiers to other areas of the globe, the ROK Army
takes over more and more of the burden to defend their own country. In another
few years, the U.S. Army will reduce itself to 17,000 soldiers, down from the
stood a few dozen feet from the North Korean border before entering one of the
turquoise buildings where “General-level” armistice talks continue
to this day. A row of microphones on the central table marks the boundary between
the two countries and we took pictures of each other and the ROK Army soldiers
as we crossed––stepped–– over the border and back again.
Dotson told of a recent incident as some sort of talks took place between President
Bush and the South Korean premier somewhere else: while the talks were going
on, two North Korean soldiers entered this building, walked up to a shelf where
several countries’ flags were displayed, and wiped their boots with the
American flag. Now, all of these small flags are displayed behind a glass frame.
Much of these seems to be silly posturing at times––like the displays
the Indian and Pakistani soldiers put on at their border crossings––but
we were told repeatedly of incidents where soldiers on both sides were killed
in the past fifty years at this location. Somehow, these incidents don’t
seem to register for us non-military types back in the U.S.
From an observation post high on a hill we are shown the “Propaganda
Village” a mile or so north. Called “Peace Village” or Kichong-dong
by the North Koreans, it is empty except for a few custodial staff. From there,
until November 2004, PRK broadcast propaganda through three-story loud speakers
set up in the mostly fake village. South Korea had set up a huge 100m-high
celebratory flagpole after the 1988 Olympics; it was matched immediately by
a 160m pole on the North. You get the idea.
There is also a village on the south portion of the DMZ called Taesong-dong,
occupied by either original inhabitants or direct descendants of the villagers
who were living there when the Armistice was signed in 1953. Just over two hundred
people live there under the following rules: no taxes to pay, no military service
required, and only oldest males may inherit property. The younger males and
all females except those married to eldest sons must leave at the age of twenty-one.
The eldest sons are free to go elsewhere to get a wife. Seems that these folks
would be big fans of the DMZ, huh?
We stopped for lunch at what resembled a truck stop with an elementary school
cafeteria inside. Having placed an earlier order for beef (bulgogi) instead
of the vegetarian rice bowl, we ate, seated with our other “classmates”
from the bus.
Now to Tunnel Number Three. In 1974, the first of four substantial tunnels built
by the North was discovered by the South. The fourth was found in the early
1990s and the search for more continues. The North Korean dictator got the idea
from the Viet Cong and got busy. After our third audio-visual presentation of
the day, we were invited to descend the 300m on a steep slope down to a sample
portion. The dynamited, jagged sides of the mostly round tunnel showed how much
manpower was required to do this job. We wore hard hats and banged into the
low ceilings for 350m, then turned around where the tunnel was sealed off from
the North. The steep climb certainly got the heart going. There was a group
of diminutive Koreans in their sixties, we guessed, who went down and up with
ease. We guess that their relatives in the North must have been the guys who
dug these tubes intended for an invasion of the South.
Wade had a conversation on the bus with the Mack truck dealer from Denver who
has in recent years turned the business over to his daughter. The talk reflected
the limited knowledge that the two men shared, but the conversation––and
a subsequent one between the Mack man and Kirsten––reflected the
hopeful though detached admiration we feel toward the Koreans of both sides
and their plight of unwanted separation. The tour guide spoke eloquently of
the mixed emotions felt by South Koreans regarding reunification. No one knows
when the desired reunion will take place or what the result will be; they only
know that this sad, unnatural separation should end. At multiple stops that
day, the phrase “world’s last divided country” was used. On
our way back we were taken to a brand new train station to stop for a special
visa passport stamp. Cool.
Another meal at the local Korean “table d’hote” restaurant
near home with all the Marquises. We watched from our seats on the floor by
the table as Mathea cavorted with some Korean kids of or near her age.
Wednesday, November 2
Wednesday found us on the subway again, headed for an easy day on
the Seoul City Bus Tour. Like most large cities, this is a standard get-off-as-many-times-and-where-you-please
tour bus. Only 10K won ($10) for each ticket and we have our choice of the Palace
Tour and the Downtown Tour. We got to the originating stop at the Gwanghwamun
Gate exactly at 11:00am when a bus was leaving. A little disoriented by our
necessarily-quick departure, we got off at Stop #2 just a few hundred meters
away near the Deoksugung Palace to get a cup of coffee and plan our day. Dunkin’
Donuts doesn’t disappoint.
Thursday, November 3
Because an English tour of this palace wouldn’t begin for another two
hours, we hopped back on the Palace Tour route. We passed by sections of the
old city walls, where the stones and mortar are laid in a traditional diamond
pattern at points. In other places, the perfectly square stones are laid in
an offset pattern, much like American bond brickwork. We rode the fast-moving
bus through new-to-us neighborhoods, then past old favorites like Insadong.
Part of the ride drove past the Blue House. Like the U.S. White House, this
is the home of the South Korean premier, named for the thousands of hand-made
blue tiles on the roof. Finally, we chose to get off at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Built 500 years ago, it was the main palace during the Joseon (or Chosun) Dynasty
that ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910 when the Japanese occupied the country. Comprised
of 330 buildings when Japan invaded, they promptly burned, destroyed, or moved
300 of those buildings. The South Korean government has been rebuilding since
the 1960s and intends to recreate the entire palace complex by some time in
Again, the next English tour of the Palace wouldn’t begin for more than
an hour, so we explored the grounds on our own, taking the requisite pictures
with granite-faced, traditionally-dressed palace guards. Groups of Korean children
lunched with their teachers: all dressed in uniforms with identical jackets
and backpacks. We took a few pictures, skipped the tour and got back on the
bus for the Downtown Tour.
We'd brought our own lunch snacks, so we munched before the next bus arrived,
rode through familiar sites near Yong-san and Itaewon, then got off at the Namsangol
Traditional Korean Village. Just north of Namsan Park and the Seoul Tower, this
is a recreated small village that displays the architecture and garden styles
of old Korea. It contains five restored traditional houses decorated with authentic
furniture and decorations from various periods. The area itself was originally
called Cheonghak-dong or “The Area of Fairies and Blue Cranes.”
There were some traditional artisans in residence and a souvenir shop that displayed
some of their wares. How sad--none of the good stuff was for sale, just general
of getting back on the bus, we walked toward the Cheonggyecheon Stream that
we had seen earlier in the day.
There were walking paths on either side of the stream and we were eager to take
a leisurely stroll there. The Gwangtong Bridge is the historic linchpin of this
site. The ancient structure was originally located about 150 meters upstream
and had been buried under the road to Namdaemun in 1910. Finally uncovered after
95 years, pieces of it remain and are visible in some sections of the re-created
bridge. This entire area only opened to the public in early October, but already
there are tour groups and classes of Korean children on both sides. There are
multiple places to cross the shallow stream, stepping on well-placed flat rocks.
We reach the end of the line at Cheonggye Plaza, near the originating stop
of the Seoul City Tour Bus. How convenient! With nothing urgent to explore,
decided to re-visit Itaewon, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything
the first time around. It’s also an easy place to have a mid-afternoon
break. The American-style tourist bar thing sounded relaxing so we went for
place: the Nashville Theme Bar and Grill. Entering the second-floor establishment,
we read the posted, cautionary signs for 8th Army personnel under 21 years
pulled up to a tall table looking out over the street and relaxed with a couple
of $5 martinis, watching the crowds outside the window for a while.
We returned to the streets, bargaining for Wade’s leather portfolio and
Marisa’s fake Fendi shawl. Good deals, both. Quality? Who knows? They’re
worth what we paid.
A light dinner at the close-by Outback Steakhouse. (Not the one from the other
night.) The salad vegetables here in Korea are the freshest of anywhere we’ve
traveled––foreign franchises notwithstanding––so
this was an easy call. We dawdled and finally got back on the subway shortly
6:00pm.We walked into the Marquis home around 8:00pm and stayed up for a couple
of hours playing with Mathea, who had finally warmed to Wade and insisted
he dance with her, bounce, and fly her like an airplane for a good thirty minutes.
next day was again sunny with temperatures in the glorious mid-60s. When would
our weather luck run out? We took our time leaving the house as Mathea
was as charming as the night before. Finally, we headed out for Dongdaemun
– home to over 30K market stalls. Not exactly sure what it was we needed
to purchase, but Marisa felt that somehow one must ensure that
is missed… just in case.
We stopped for an okay lunch on the top floor of the Migliore Department
Store. Actually, it was more like we were accosted and forced to sit at
little table and pick something off the laminated picture menu with not a
word of English on it. We were too hungry to keep looking around, so we
to the beef and took what they brought. Not good. A strange, carnival-like
atmosphere pervaded this food court, with each section serving pretty much
the same food, but each proprietor (or his/her staff) literally yelling at
you to come sit down in their area. We hurried through our mediocre bulgogi.
This ten-story, modern building calls itself a department store, and it does
have escalators, elevators and plate glass windows looking outside. But
we took a cursory look around, we saw that this, too, was a glorified flea
market with individual stalls and proprietors hawking merchandise as you
Nothing bad or rude, just not a department store as we know them.
Down to the street where we passed another department store affectionately
known as Doota. Again, more like flea markets in the U.S. Small market places
are on each floor, selling the same thing over and over again at differing
prices, one is supposed to assume. It all started to look like junk now, so
we made a perfunctory run down a few more streets and stalls along the banks
of the stream.
We decided to take it easy for the afternoon and return to “Beverly
Hills” to plop down at the Starbucks that is near the subway entrance.
Although they didn’t have decaf or half-and-half, we were content sitting
at the window counter with two coffees, a piece of cheesecake, and the International
Herald Tribune. This paper, published by the New York Times, has both a Paris
and a Hong Kong edition. We’ve always picked up a copy when traveling
in Europe and were interested to see how Asia-centric this Hong Kong edition
is as compared to the one we’re used to. Makes sense, obviously.
Marisa remembered passing by a Tea Museum Cafe on this street the other
day, read more about it in the guidebook, and decided to return. Wade took
a seat at the Fusion Star brew pub a few blocks away while Marisa purchased
some pretty expensive Korean green tea to take back to Atlanta.
We returned home by 5:00pm to rest up before heading out to a restaurant that
Phil and Kirsten have driven by and always wanted to visit. We met up with
Chad (an Army pal of theirs) near the Yatap station. The restaurant turned
out to be, indeed, a terrific place. Set up with the same center-table grills,
it offers benches and an adjustable exhaust canopy over each grill. With the
sweet sauce on the pork, the smoke was plentiful and the exhaust apparatus
necessary. There were dozens of families chowing down, an indoor playground
and a fast, fast pace. Wade observed a family at the next table––husband,
wife and teenage son––having a family quarrel. Wade found the
tone and facial expression of the man to be condescending and mean, all in
front of the son. We had heard and read of the patriarchal privilege in Korean
families, a special status that extends even to young boys over young girls.
This was a negative cultural impression. We ordered several helpings of pork
and marinated ribs to cook at the table.
After finishing up, Kirsten and Marisa headed to Kim’s Club (ah, yes,
the Korean version of Sam's Club; how could one miss this?) for some discount
shopping, while the guys decide to have “dessert” at a German pub
down the street. As the men looked around for the place Chad remembered but
couldn’t find, they walked up to an elevator down to the subway as a way
to cross under the street. As they stepped near, a pair of Korean men in suits
stepped in. “This for old people,” one of them said. And Chad looked
at Wade as if to rest his case that the requirement was met. The Korean gatekeeper
smiled and gestured to the Americans to go ahead, but we demurred. This was
a good cultural impression, and it showed just a peek at the impatience some
South Koreans must have for young G.I.'s.
Friday, November 4
called us back on Friday and we made the late morning trip back on the subway,
immediately stopping at the Crown Bakery for coffee and another of those hot
dogs inside of pastry for Wade. It had been six days since we strolled around
the district with Phil and Mathea, and we noticed how upscale the street trade
was this time, compared to some of the tougher, more colorful shopping areas
we’d seen in the meantime. We took our time in multiple shops and found
many worthy items, buying a couple.
We had noted a foot massage sign on our last trip and Wade walked up to the
second floor where directed and disappeared for over an hour. He got a foot
massage, all right, and the rub included lots of useful pain and some measure
of relief for all the subway transfers of a week. (Those transfers involve
a lot of steps in between escalators most of the time.)
We had tea at a second floor tearoom as well, and decided to go to the big,
underground, U.S.-style mall called COEX a few stops away. We arrived about
4:00pm and watched the crowd gather over the next two hours over fajitas at
TGI Friday’s, a Hite beer in the food court and coffee at Starbucks and
a green tea latte (no kidding!) at a Korean tea chain store.
The people who came were of the age and means that we expect for our upscale
malls at home. The mall itself is one story below ground and massive, largely
occupied with the same kinds of one-owner stalls we had seen everywhere else,
whether on the street or in a thing called “department store.”
It was easy to sit and read the International Herald-Tribune imagining
that we were in Anytown, USA. There are so few European-descent faces that
one forgets to notice differences among us.
In that paper there were stories that day of western citizens in a town hall
meeting with Seoul officials, expressing concerns and lodging complaints.
It is amusing to contemplate the permanent nature of the outsider and the
insider status across the world.
We took our last subway ride of the trip back to Imae station and climbed
the gentle slope of the street to JOY Village and joined the Marquises in
a plain, family Friday night. They have Armed Forces Network TV which offers
a mix of news outlets––CNN, FOX, NBC––along with entertainment
programming from networks. The commercials are replaced by fully produced
info spots from the military: how to spot sexual harassment, how to avoid
getting fat, how to let your army buddy on the night shift get a good day’s
sleep, how to manage your money, how to be sensitive to your spouse.
Kirsten and Phil also have a Vonage phone service that assigns a U.S. area code
and allows cheap calls to the States. This is, of course, not a military thing
but a commercial internet thing that people all over the world are using more
and more. Still, the ease of use and the three-cents-a-minute cost was a revelation.
Add high-speed internet service, and we felt closer to home than on any of our
European trips. Even the time difference can work for you. Being fourteen hours
ahead means that you can make a 9:00pm call and get a person at 7:00am back
Saturday, November 5
Saturday morning we all loaded into the Volvo and drove twenty-five miles to
the shopping district of Osan, right outside the gate of the U.S.A.F. base there.
Marisa learned that Kirsten was right––the shopping there was perfect.The
main shopping area was not filled up when we arrived at 11:30, so all the buying
was done and a lunch of Popeye’s fried chicken was consumed by 1:30. Sunday, November 6
We saw more American faces than we had in any area since our arrival, and we
felt, as a result, slightly more conspicuous. We could now understand more completely
why an American military presence could be a wearing thing for the locals, in
spite of the soldiers’ and their families’ good manners and useful
The whole thing has to be emasculating and annoying to everyone but
those who make so much money off of direct expenditures by the U.S. Government
and all the indirect spending of military salaries.
roads were clogged again as we went home, but we got to ride in the fast lane
because of the seven-passenger capacity of the Volvo. Another delightful
meal at the neighborhood barbecue joint and our visit was nearly done. We told
the babies goodbye, knowing that they’ll be very different people the
next time we get to see them, even if it’s only a year from now.
We rose on Sunday in the dark, ready to go to the airport, and the
first raindrops we’d seen were pecking the windows of the condo. What
a break. All those mild weather days of 60s and 70s had made us able to disregard
the pollution and walk, walk, walk all over another great city. Incheon airport
seemed further away this time, even though the traffic was sparse. Surely
was because we had nothing but a long plane ride to look forward to.
And it was a long flight because we bumped across the Sea of Japan, and seemed
to be strapped in for more than half of the fourteen hours in the air. We
fortunate that a friendly, small Korean lady took the third seat of our row
and shared her gum and nodded her head and smiled all the time, since we didn’t
share a language. We didn’t share a language with the older Korean
couple behind us, either, but we heard everything they shouted for what
hours at a time. When we arrived in Atlanta, the two of them put on quite a
show at baggage claim, shouting and running around the carousel for their
being called down by security guards for their agitated behavior.
But there we were, having gotten back those fourteen hours we gave up on the
trip over and oblivious to the impending crash that jet lag would bring in the
afternoon. We tried to outwit our bodies by staying awake and forcing an Atlanta
clock on ourselves. But even two days later we experienced sudden meltdowns
at what seemed odd times.
Korea surprised us and gently introduced us to the Far East. This was, naturally,
due in large part to the generosity of our hosts, Kirsten and Phil Marquis.
The haven they gave us and the experience they could share with us meant that
we were rested and confident about the good things we could do and see. And
their generally favorable sense of Korea and its people rubbed off on us from
the time of their first invitation to make the trip over.
western feel of the place was comforting also, and it made the forays into
more local customs and places less daunting. We saw a country too busy to
small questions of differences between themselves and their trading partners
around the world. Their sentimental hope for reunification with the north
moving, and one wishes along with them that this healing can happen sooner
than later. They are certainly astute enough to blame the real culprits––the
Kim despots of NPK––but they have reason to see dependence on
U.S. military strength as an impediment to progress at the same time that
them appreciate its current necessity. They are split in more ways than one,
but they’ll be good friends for us to have as long as we can keep them.
As we look back, the neighborhood restaurant was the scene of our clearest impression
of how Koreans are. The owners have made friends with the Marquises and the
babies, and the smiles and personal attention demonstrate a warmth that endures.
We took some of that enduring warmth with us when we left Seoul. Back home in
Atlanta Wade showed our pictures to our Korean dry-cleaner lady. When he asked
where the best Korean eatery in Atlanta is located, she gave him a page from
her Korean newspaper with no English except the address on Buford Highway. “That’s
the one,” she said.