Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Autumn in Seoul - Take Four

An argyle sweater vest is always correct for a brisk autumn walk.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while may recall that, our first September in Seoul, I wrote this slightly homesick-and-wistful post about missing the signs of autumn back in the US:  pumpkins, changing leaves, hayrides, scarecrows, and (if millions of Americans are to be believed) the annual return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte (MsC=not a fan, but she recognizes it as a harbinger of the season.)

While it wasn't a particularly outstanding post (looking back, MsC thinks it was a bit self-pitying,) I do, nonetheless, have to give my 2011 self kudos for making one true and accurate observation, which was:

 I imagine that, after a few years in Seoul, I will see (things) and get a slightly nostalgic 'it's almost fall' feeling because I'll connect (them with the season).  But this first year, I don't have any cultural connections, so I don't have any sense of being part of the culture or the sense of anticipation.  And that, of course, is the heart of the matter and part of belonging in a culture:  knowing what is coming and being able to anticipate it because you've seen it before and done it before.  Remembering, along with everyone else, the joys of the season, and looking forward to all it holds. 

As it turns out, I was right. 

This is my 4th autumn in Seoul, and I know what to expect and anticipate now.  Along with the rest of the city, I breathed a sigh of relief as the brutally hot and humid nights cooled off and we all started sleeping with our windows open again.  I noted with pleasure the familiar sight of the beautifully packaged gift sets of Spam and cooking oil as they appeared in the shops, the lovingly wrapped gift sets of enormous and flawless Korean apples and pears - all ready to be given to family and friends during the Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) festival.  

As September has given way to October, there have been more signs, such as:

The annual falling of the Gingko berries.  If you are not familiar with the gingko tree, it is a sturdy, columnar tree that thrives in Seoul's climate and is widely used as a planting here in the city.  Its dense leaves provide excellent shade in the summer, and its deciduous nature means that it doesn't block the winter sunshine when it is needed the most.  The only real drawback of the Gingko tree is that it drops bazillions a copious number of berries (or whatever its fruit is called) in the autumn, and these berries - when crushed underfoot - don't smell exactly terrific. In fact, they smell pretty bad.  The street sweepers try to keep up with them, but it's a losing battle.  Everywhere you go, you'll find sidewalks everywhere littered with Gingko berries - both whole, crushed, and decomposing (as you can imagine, the decomposing variety are most popular with the dog.)  

Gingko berries everywhere

The truth is, I've gotten so used to them, I really don't notice their smell anymore.  The only time they bother me is when I'm walking down a steep hill.  If you step on a crushed Gingko berry the wrong way, it can be as treacherous as a banana peel.  

The arrival of the cafe' blanket:  Seoul is a city full of cafes, and people sit outdoors whenever possible, for as long as possible (until the winter just gets too brutal.)  To help extend the season, cafe' owners supply blankets for their patrons, usually hung over the backs of the chairs.  Once you see the blankets come out, you know cooler weather is on the way.  

The Fruits of The Harvest:  While we in the USA typically expect pumpkins, apples, and corn on the cob to feature in fall displays, there are a couple different players in Korea - for example, the persimmon.  Let me just come right out and say that persimmons were not a large part of my diet in the US, except when they showed up in a mixture of dried fruit.  Here in Seoul, though, there are persimmon trees everywhere, and, because they grow so well in this climate, one sees persimmons for sale at fabulous prices displayed in all the local markets.  

I was not aware that we actually had a persimmon tree in the garden behind our own building until I began spending a lot more time in it after we got the dog.  I kept wondering what the squashy, decomposing orange fruits were that she kept trying to roll in.  Here's the culprit, uphill from us.

As in the US, the apple harvest is a big part of autumn.  The fruit and vegetable truck guy who makes the rounds of our neighborhood(complete with terrifying loudspeaker that sounds like he is warning everyone about a North Korean invasion, but it's really just an announcement along the lines of, "Get your ripe fruit and veg right here at my truck!")  had had loads of delicious apples available lately - another reminder that fall is here.

And of course, chestnuts:

Restaurants gear up for colder weather:  As I mentioned, there are a lot of street cafes in Seoul, and many restaurants provide some (or all) of their seating outdoors.  Since space is at a premium and no one wants to lose customers all winter long, the restaurateurs of Seoul have figured out how to keep their customers warm and comfortable even after the snow starts to fall and blankets are no longer enough:  plastic tents.  It's another sure sign of the season when cafes, porches, and other outdoor seating areas begin to appear tented in clear plastic.  As the weather cools, space heaters will appear, and Seoulites will continue to enjoy their favorite foods (technically) out-of-doors.

Squash vines abound:  Although you probably don't think 'pumpkins' when you think of Korean food, the truth is, squash and zucchini, and their near relations, the cucumber (and don't get me started on how delicious a properly pickled Korean cucumber can be) abound here.  Korean cuisine includes a number of delicious pumpkin soups as well as all sorts of dishes made with squash and pumpkin.  At this time of year, you are likely to run across any number of squash vines - either planted on purpose in one of the community gardens, or (and this is one of the neatest things) tucked away on top of - or next to - a building.  

See those blossoms? They're going to be squash.  Or melons.  Or cucumbers.

One of my favorite incarnations of both pumpkin and zucchini (courgette) squash here in Korea is in the form of jeon,  a sort of pancake-type fritter made with any number of meats or vegetables.  The jeon is lightly battered and then fried in oil, then served, steaming hot, ideally along with the traditional makgeoli, a fermented rice wine.  When eaten on the street in a plastic tent next to a restaurant on a chilly October evening, you have the ultimate Seoul autumnal experience.
Freshly-cooked jeon, ready to be enjoyed

...ideally, with magkeoli (served from the brown pot and drunk out of tin bowls)

....eaten streetside, and served up with flair (thanks, T!)

I've probably been extra- sensitive to the signs of fall this year, because, in all likelihood, it will be my last one in Seoul.  As MrL's contract ends this summer and #2 finishes high school, there is every reason to assume that we won't be in Seoul this time next year - whether we find ourselves just moving to another city in Korea, or somewhere else altogether.  It's anybody's guess where we'll land, but with this knowledge in the back of my mind, I'm taking the time to pay attention and drink in every detail.  

And there's every chance that, wherever I am this time next year, I'll be missing autumn in Seoul.