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.

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 dynasty.)

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 that were 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 was 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, garlic 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 call 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.
Friday, October 28
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 or 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 two hours 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 of German and American styles. Most are new, big and shiny.

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 taste 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. That’s 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 out 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 the 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 Maury Wade Everyone
Saturday, October 29

Saturday 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 Phil 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, October 30
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.

The 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. The streets were sloping, narrow and clogged with kitchens under tents cooking all manner 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. The shoppers, 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 a 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 restaurant 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 final 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 in Atlanta.
Monday, October 31
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 tours.

Views from the Han 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 by 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 The Wind.”

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 the countryside, 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 comprise 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 as 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 present-day 35,000.

We 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. Specialist 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.

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 the 2020s.

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 souvenir junk.

Instead 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, we 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 a familiar-looking 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 of age. We 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 after 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 that he dance with her, bounce, and fly her like an airplane for a good thirty minutes.
Thursday, November 3
The 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 nothing 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 a crummy 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 pointed 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 as 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 pass. 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
Insadong 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 home.

Saturday, November 5
On 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.

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 purpose. 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.

The 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.
Sunday, November 6
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 this 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 were 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 seemed like 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 bags, 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.

The 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 belabor small questions of differences between themselves and their trading partners around the world. Their sentimental hope for reunification with the north is 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 most of 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.

We’re going.