Evening in Garosugil – Monreve Cafe 까페 몽레브

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  Yesterday I made the trip down to Gangnam area of Seoul. I don’t often visit Gangnam due to a few reasons. For one: it’s far, about 40-45 minutes by subway. Secondly, I consider myself more of a “north-of-the-river” kind of guy. The han river (hangang) divides Seoul into halves. The north side is known for history, being the location of the old city center. Most of Seoul’s rich history lies north of the river, whereas the south side of the river is more representative of modern Korea. Gangnam area, particularly, screams modernity. Compared to some of the grit and old time feel of Jongno or Seodaemun area, Gangnam is sleek, clean and flashy. This is where people go for fashion, international food, clubs, top notch english private schools and plastic surgery. It’s also home to many of Seoul’s large company headquarters. Gangnam’s where the money is.

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    As I’m more often found hiking a mountain or exploring a temple, it’s unlikely to find me shopping for clothes in Garosugil or hitting the clubs in Apgujeong. Despite this, I’m not simply an outdoors guy. If I was, I’d probably avoid living in Seoul. I admire the sense of fashion people have here, albeit obsessive at times (and not without related problems, another post), and I appreciate the slick, modern side of Korea. So my trip to Garusogil, in Gangnam area, was refreshing.

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   Garusogil’s an area of gangnam well known for shopping and cafes. It can be a romantic spot to stroll with your girlfriend, or a place to reinvent your wardrobe. Fashion and “class” are it’s major assets. While walking around, I saw a younger man, ghostly in appearance posing for a photo shoot. His face was whitened to the point that (in my opinion) looked deathly. Yet, this is the media-encouraged appearance standard in Korea. The whiter the skin the prettier, so girls will actually make efforts to make up their skin to appear particularly white. I continued walking and turned another corner to see another photo shoot, and along the way I passed 2 plastic surgery clinics, one with a long line inside leading up to the desk. So, this is Garosugil. You come here to expand your wardrobe, share a coffee with a friend, eat some international food or baked goods at a bakery or maybe even get a nose job at the nearby plastic surgery clinic. The area is a slight nod to Europe, as a number of the cafes architecture shows French/British inspiration, yet there’s also something awkward and unpredictable to the style. I was talking later that evening with my friend Mao, and he mentioned they don’t have regulations in Korea to prevent areas from looking like a jumbled mess of random styles. So, that’s a bit what you get.

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                                                         (Courtyard, outdoor seating in the rain)

   After strolling around I chose to sit down and get some coffee as a way to kill some time before meeting my friend. I found a small cafe/restaurant in the area and ordered an Americano. The cafe overlooked the street, so I spent two hours studying over coffee, watching passerbys outside the window. The coffee was very good and the establishment itself had an comfortable environment, wood panel and stone walls, with pictures of famous korean and international people illustrated in cartoon style. To get to the cafe I had to go up a flight of stairs on the side of the building, which leads up to a large open window overlooking the courtyard below. White christmas lights were strewn about as well as a somewhat awkward lit up reindeer. I took a few shots on my way out, but I still have a lot to learn about night time photography, so they came out a bit dark and with an overcast orange glow. The cafe, however, was a great find and a piece of quiet in the Garosugil streets. The name is Cafe Monreve (까페 몽레브).

Address:

       Cafe Monreve/까페 몽레브

       강남구 신사동 546-8번지 2층

       546-8 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul Korea

Dynamic Seoul

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Jongno Night Life District

  Seoul’s a very dynamic city. It doesn’t take long to pick up on that. The history and culture of Korea is both rich and tragic. The past century in Korean history is one of pain and suffering, but also, incredible social upheaval and change. I’m not writing this post as a history lesson, nor do I feel qualified to do so, so I won’t take this thought much further…Yet, the point is: Korea is still a politcally and socially very active and dynamic place. Culturally it’s in a period of great change, where the old and new worlds are in constant interaction. Living in Seoul, it’s not hard to experience these different worlds, within any general area of the city.

   I live in Sinchon, a college area of the city and home to three of Korea’s most famous university’s (Yonsei, Ehwha and Sogang). This area is also, as to be expected, well known for it’s night life. Walk a few minutes from my house and you’ll enter massive streets full of neon lights, large tv screens looming over the busy intersection and hoards of young fashionable people walking by. Yet, walk a minute in the opposite direction and you’ll find a small residential neighborhood that seems to resemble 1960’s Korea more than it’s 21st century counterpart. The streets in this neighborhood (Nogosandong) are small and windy, dotted with potted plants lining the walls. Older woman can often be found in this area watering plants or chopping vegetables outside, and you can catch glimpses into miniature living spaces families are living in. Everytime I walk through here, I feel miles away from the modern Korea down the hill.

I’m describing my small pocket of the city, but to me, the whole city feels this way. Around any corner, you can step into a world that feels far removed from the one you just occupied. Seoul is dynamic, and very full of life. My past Friday out was a reminder of this.

After school Friday I met up with my girlfriend for dinner in the Jongno are of Seoul, the old city center. Nearby is Gwanghwamun Square which sits in front of Korea’s most famous palace Gyeongbukgong. This area is also the site of many tourist photo shoots as well as large scale and small scale protests.

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Samgyeospal in Jongno

     My girlfriend and I were meeting for some Korean barbecue. We’d both gone without Samgyeopsal (thick pork belly, the Korean equivalent of bacon) for a long time and were craving some together. We sat down, talked and drank soju (sweet potato vodka) over meat and an hour later left to walk around. You Jeong wanted to get a new dress for an upcoming trip to Malaysia, so we walked together towards the store and unexpectedly encountered a large protest in the Gwanghwamun area. There were what I’d describe as batallions of police lined up on the side walks, and at least a hundred police buses parked along the street. I’ve seen protests in Seoul, but I’ve never been in the midst of one this size. Since the ferry sinking disaster in April, there’s been a lot of vocal public outcry against the government for their handling of the situation. This protest was about that, as evidenced by the yellow flags, the color chosen to represent the lives of those lost on the ferry. We walked towards the action to get a closer look and people were waving arms, yelling, rocking large flags back and forth and pumping fists. The police were quickly organizing, moving to and fro. The energy was almost too much for me. It was pulsating and wild and we were just standing in the middle of it watching. Meanwhile people were passing the street on their phones, dressed up with shopping bags in hand. For some, this was a night to make a statement, for others it was a night on the town. For my girlfriend and I it was a night on the town with a small detour through a protest.

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Protest near Gwanghwamun

    We both decided it’d be best to leave the scence and fine some peace elsewhere, so we continued on to find a dress. A few minutes later we passed by Cheonggyecheon stream. Cheonggyecheon is a stream once covered by a large scale road, now a residential park and getaway from the city hustle (my friend Jakob wrote a great post about the project to recover Cheonggyecheon at http://www.jakobschenker.com/all/2013/9/1/korea-stream) . It’s only about 20-30 feet under the street, yet from alongside the river you can feel a quiet and peace you can’t along the Jongno sidewalks. I was struck by the juxtaposition of the quiet calm of Cheonggyecheon and the intensity of Gwanghwamun. In this politcally and culturally rich area, this juxtaposition of extremes is far from uncommon. Yet, to me, the quiet was a relief. Friday night was one night of many in a series of beautiful sunsets, and the effect created a rich red glow along the surface of the river near one of the main underpasses. Looking down the stream towards Gwangjang market, the river had a light green, turquoise glow complimented by the many lush trees and plants flanking the running water.

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Cheonggyecheon Stream

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Women sitting by Cheonggyecheon

    After annoying my girlfriend by lagging behind taking photos, I agreed to putting my camera away for a few minutes and just walk. We made our way from there to Myeongdong, one of Seoul’s main shopping meccas, and among one of the favorites for chinese and japanese tourists. That night, as we walked the streets You Jeong said “I don’t think I’m in Korea anymore” looking around at the many foreign faces. She asked “Are you okay being here? You don’t like Myeongdong right?” The truth is, I do like Myeongdong, just in small doses and preferably at night. I find it a lot of fun during the night with all the neon lights and street vendors. Yet, it’s still a lot for me. I’ve never been great with massive crowds and excessive stimulation and that’s what Myeongdong’s all about. Nonetheless I can find it interesting and energizing when in the right frame of mind.

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Myeongdong at night

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Street Vendor in Myeongdong

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Street food, lots of grilled seafood (octopus, squid, fish, etc.)

    I’d agreed to tag along that night while You Jeong shopped. It was my gift to her and I promised to be patient. She could tell, however, that I was tired, so offered to get beer and fries afterwards. We wound up at beer and fry joint above the streets of Myeongdong. We were speaking only in Korean all night, so our conversation was more basic than usual but we both had fun. The night certainly provided many things to talk about and was a reminder for me that the city I call home can be very turbulent and wild yet always full of life and energy. I enjoy these things about Seoul.

Ramyeon, Gimbap and Kimchi Dinner!

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Why put tasty pictures to waste? Took a few shots from dinner the other night at Sindorim station. You Jeong and I had some Ramyeon (“Ramen”) Gimbap and Kimchi, classic Korean snack foods.

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MMMM. Spicy ramen noodles with eggs and onions.

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Surprisingly fresh Kimchi for a metro station restaurant. Despite eating a lot of food here I’m still pretty naive about judging Korean food, but You Jeong was telling me that this Kimchi has the characteristics of being fresh. Not a lot of sour flavor, not very shriveled up with a thick coating of Gochujang (pepper paste). Had a bit too strong of a fish flavor, imo, but nonetheless enjoyed it.

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And, cheese Gimbap…also known as a korean sandwich, as it usually comes in one long roll. Similar to sushi, but with a little less organized appearance…food is a great way to understand differences between japanese and korean culture by the way…Korean food tends to be abrasive, loud, disorganized but really delious (imo) while japanese cuisine is tamer and softer in flavor and usually nicely presented….At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of Korean food, but now I can’t get enough of it. Also, if you’re wondering, that is American cheese.

뚝배기의 예술 (Ddukbaegi Yesul)

 

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뚝배기 예술 (Ddukbaegi Yesul) is a 20 second walk from my apartment. It’s a small, colorful restaurant specializing in Ddukbaegi dishes. Ddukbaegi is a korean word for a glazed, earthenware pot, used to serve soups and stews. Yesul means art. And I can testify to the food here really being art. It might not be the highest quality ingredients, but it’s absolutely tasty. It’s cheap as well, which doesn’t hurt. Hence the reasons I come by so often. Most importantly, however, is the atmosphere. I feel comfortable here. American baseball is often shown on the tv, the walls are painted a light yellow with illustrations of birds, and the staff are wonderful. I’m now always greeted with smiles and often leave with a handshake from the boss. Recently, I’m even given extra dishes, today watermelon as a post meal refresher in this summer heat.

As much as I like adventure, I also crave familiarity, and I’m a regular at a few restaurants around my apartment. It’s nice now a days because I’ve become familiar with enough people in my area that I’ve developed a sense of community in my pocket of this large metropolis. I’m carving out a sense of home for myself here. Language being one of the most important factors in this.

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Today at lunch, the middle aged woman who usually waits on me invited conversation by asking about my friend. She asked, “is she your girlfriend?” In korean culture many still disbelieve in the possibility of maintaining platonic relationships with the opposite sex, so I had to explain she’s just my friend and my girlfriend’s korean. I promised to invite my girlfriend next time. Rather than stopping here, she began asking more questions, and to my surprise I was able to follow her. She asked how long I will stay in korea, what I’m studying, how I met my girlfriend, when I’ll marry….koreans have no trouble asking very straight forward and direct questions upon first meeting. I had fun with this though, telling her I need time to think but marriage is a possibility in the future. I was able to stretch my language a bit, but it all felt pretty comfortable to me, another pleasant surprise.

After talking, i returned to my dish and speaking with my friend. I had a big bowl of yukgaejang (육개장) to work on. 육개장 is a spicy beef soup with onions and peppers. It’s one of my favorite korean dishes. Here they put a nice twist on it, adding sweet potato noodles with a side of make-it-yourself bibimbap and a plethora of banchan (side dishes). My friend and I fished our meal, paid and the staff said a friendly goodbye. Today I left feeling closer to the woman, having been able to take my language a step further by really engaging in conversation, beyond simple niceties.

For any future visitors, I’ll take you here.

A fifth hike with Kyeong Han: Bukhansan

IMGP1520     Two weeks ago, I went for a day hike, one of 5 hikes I’ve done every other Sunday with Kyeong Han. If you’re unaware, Kyeong Han is an older friend of mine I met a few weeks back. He’s 56, I’m 25. We’re from very different worlds, but it’s always an interesting outing. Since I first arrived in Korea, I’ve wanted to hike Bukhansan, Seoul’s largest and most famous peak. For really no other reason than laziness, I hadn’t hiked the mountain until this hike. To my disappointment, our hike was less of a hike and more of a walking course, as we didn’t reach the peak. I looked up at the jagged ridges and asked Kyeong Han in Korean “거기에 갈까요?” (shall we go there?), he responded quickly in broken english “No. Danger, too much danger”. The hike, still, was interesting.

IMGP1513   We met up early in the morning around Anguk station, near the city center, and went by bus to a small burrough of the city – a trailhead providing a few of many ways up. At the base of the trail were vendors selling a variety of hiking supplies, from hats to walking sticks to hiking shoes. More alarming were police and multiple ambulances. We found out shortly after that a search for a missing body was in progress. 4 or 5 days earlier a woman died on the mountain after falling off a ledge. Kyeong Han’s warning of the danger did, afterall, have some validity.

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The way up was nothing so unusual, we passed many crowds of korean ajumas and ajooshi’s (middle aged men and women) in large groups, brightly colored hiking pants and jackets, always hiking with some real energy. We stopped along the way to hydrate and eat some sliced melon prepared by Kyeong Han’s wife. During the walk we practiced our english and korean and learned a little more about each other’s lives. I discovered that Kyeong Han has 6 siblings and is the youngest of them all amongst other things. The hike didn’t get really interesting until we reached the point of descent.

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   As I mentioned earlier, I anticipated we’d be hiking to the peak of Bukhansan. Towards the top it becomes rather rugged terrain, with grip holds and ropes to ascend the rock face. I’m afraid of heights, but this was the experience I was hoping for that Sunday. To my surprise Kyeong Han suggested (or rather, proclaimed) we head down. I hadn’t realized he had another plan in mind to introduce me to a small, famous mountainside restaurant.

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   We turned off the path to a small house, with a small porch, full of many potted plants and flowers. It resembled a home more than a restaurant, very casual yet with tables and chairs and jars of fermented foods stacked on top of each other. We were directed to a seat by a large Korean man and Kyeong Han began to tell me about the place. He told me that this spot serves the finest Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) in the country, a particular brand called 부산금전산 (Mountain Forest Makgeolli). He enthusiastically told me this brand was a personal favorite of Park Chung Hee, Korea’s “President” but in reality military dictator, from the early 60’s to the late 70’s. Kyeong Han, who prefers the title 삼촌 (uncle), is very conservative as are many from his generation, and speaks highly and proudly of Park Chung Hee often. I learned later from my girlfriend that his hometown 안동 (Andong), famous for it’s preserved traditional korean character, is also one of the more conservatively minded areas of the country. I personally, from what I know, don’t think very positively of Park Chung Hee…yet for the sake of the relationship and lack of common language I nod my head and smile slightly. He also told me that the food at the restaurant is the best in Seoul and that the owners live and work at the house and are originally from Busan, Korea’s second largest city, a port city in the southwest of the country.

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   The makgeolli was as delicious as he suggested it would be. We were served makgeolli traditional style in a metal kettle, and it kept flowing. Despite his insistence he’s a lightweight, the spirits were high and we shared 2 or 3 bottles together along with kim chi/seafood korean pancake(김치해물 전), fresh kimchi (김치), tofu with gochu/pepper sauce and a nicely marinated salad. The pajeon (korean pancake, made from wheat/rice flour and kimchi/vegetables/seafood) was delicious, and also true to Kyeong Han’s word, one of the tastiest pancakes I’ve yet had in Korea.

As always, hiking together, we gather a lot of curiosity…an older korean man and a younger foreign man. Our meal was no exception, as the owner and his wife took an interest in us. I was curious too as haven’t met many Busan people. My girlfriend’s family, mother and father, are both originally from Busan/Busan area…Since we started dating and my life in Korea began I’ve heard many things about the people from this region, most memorably a conversation I had with an older Korean man on a plane ride from Tokyo to Seoul. We began talking and the conversation went in the direction of Busan. He told me the people there are very tough, the toughest people in Korea. I asked why and he responded “During the beginning of the japanese colonization, the Japanese army had to enter Korea through Busan. The first point of entry was through that region, so the first people to fend the japanese forces off were those from Busan. For this reason, they are the toughest in the country” The man fit this image to me, generalization though it is. He was large in stature, a loud voice and a very strong direct way of communicating. Him and Kyeong Han hit it off and talked enthusiastically over Makgeolli. I was asked many questions about my time here, my intentions, my goals and did my best using my broken Korean and developing ear. By the end of the meal, he offered Kyeong Han a free bottle as a gift but Kyeong Han vehemently turned down his offer.

In a light headed, tired stupor we left the hillside restaurant to go on our own ways. The end to another interesting day exploring with my new friend.

Hiking with Kim Kyeong Han

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A few weeks ago I met Kim Kyeong Han, an older korean man, during a hike up Bugaksan mountain. I was hiking solo as I often do and so was he. We ended up walking past each other a few times, eventually acknowledging our pace was comparable. We began chatting and what followed was a 2 hour hike together followed by 2 bottles of makgeolli and plates of korean pancakes. To this day we’ve remained in touch and go hiking together every Sunday every other week.

I never thought I’d befriend someone twice my age, but it’s been refreshing and a great way to improve my comfort with the language. Despite our language gap, it works, and Kyeong Han is clearly eager to improve his english…nonetheless he’s said in broken english many times “let’s take our time with learning, no rush”. Kyeong Han has taught me a lot already and i consider him somewhat of a teacher for me. Recently I told him in korean that these days I’m pretty tired from a lot of studying. He said, in english “Health..1…study..2”, holding one finger then two in the air to demonstrate his point. I nodded, “right”.

Kyeong Han clearly understands the need for health. I’m half his age and breathing harder each time we hike together. He tells me to hurry up if he feels our break is too long. Honestly, the guys got better endurance than me and typically leads the way.

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Last weekend we chose to hike Bugaksan again, the mountain directly behind Korea’s most famous palace gyeongbukgung and the president’s house (the blue house). The mountain was closed to hiking for many years but reopened to the public in 2006. The seoul fortress, a long wall that stretches across many mountains and hills in seoul, was closed for security purposes. Since the wall is built along the ridge, the mountain was off limits as well.

Along the way up, you reach a checkpoint where you need either a foreigners identification card or a passport to continue. Later on, towards the top is an 200 year old pine tree with painted dots indicating where the tree had been shot. The story goes that on January 21st, 1968, the tree received 15 shots during a standoff between north korean and south korean forces. 30 soldiers from north korea were making an overnight attempt to attack the blue house and assassinate the president when they were caught. I took a picture of the tree intending to pass by but kim Kyeong han insisted it was a photo opportunity. I felt awkward, not knowing whether a serious expression or smile is more appropriate. I felt even more so when he suggested we both pose next to the tree for a photo, but nonetheless, it’s not everyday you meet a tree with such a history.

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The view from the top was gorgeous. The skies been pretty clear lately, a refreshing change from the frequent smog, and it provided a clear view of Seoul’s most famous mountain, Bukhansan. The way down followed the fortress wall and was a steep decline for about 30 minutes. Many groups of older korean hikers were coming up this path…Kyeong Han gave me one look and said “bad trail”. Brutal to hike up, sure, but incredible views on the way down

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We ended up at the base near the trailhead to inwangsan, a shaman’s mountain to the east of gyeongbukgung. From there Kyeong Han took me for Chueotang, a soup made from mudfish and known for its health benefits. I told my girlfriend what we were eating and she said “oh I hate that! That’s ajooshi food (middle aged man food)” Nonetheless, it’s considered to promote beauty by creating glowing skin, a bit counterintuitive at first seeing that mudfish are known for being dirty and burying themselves under mud in the wild.

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The soup was dark brown and not particularly inviting but i liked the smell and it came with a generous offering of banchan (side dishes) including fresh kimchi and twigim (fried veggies/seafood). We ordered a bottle of beer to split and began to eat. The soup was actually fantastic, in my opinion. I can’t quite recall the flavor, but it had a nice taste, especially with a few added dashes of pepper. We ate and talked and Kyeong Han told me a bit more about his daughter whose working for a major, but controversial paper, and the expectations he has for her. I got some insight into my girlfriends life and other girls here from what he said. His daughter is 30 and still living at home. Despite her independence in her work and working a professional job she’s still expected to be home every night around midnight. Staying out for longer would be questioned. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for these expectations to be me maintained even for a woman that age, but still surprised me.

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I’m hoping to be able to talk more in the future with Kyeong Han, to get a better  grasp on the culture and his generations way of thinking. After all, he’s around the same age as my girlfriends parents…and when dating in korea, you’re dating a woman and her family. The family is always in the picture, despite location, but often in korea they play a very active role in your relationship. I’m hoping to learn more about the older generations experience so as to learn more about my girlfriends parents and to therefore navigate this new relationshop dynamic in a smart way.