Sunday, July 31, 2011

Did I mention it had been raining here?


Flooding at Gangnam subway station, about 20 minutes away from us.

When I last posted, I was once again whining about commenting on the fact that the next few days were predicted to be very rainy in Seoul, and I shared my plans for spending the time indoors creating some order and organization at chez Asia Vu.  Four days later, I'm pleased to say that our boxes of extraneous household goods have been bundled off to the charity shop, and I've managed to create a certain amount of order.  However, while we were comfortably holed up in our safe and cozy apartment, the city of Seoul was experiencing record amounts of torrential rainfall (15.5 inches/39.4 cm in 24 hours.)  Rivers and streams overflowed, streets and subway stations were submerged, cars were floating away, and traffic in many parts of the city came to a standstill.  Mudslides in Seoul and in outlying provinces resulted in loss of life, and there are still people unaccounted for.

River overflowing onto the highway.

 If you are interested, more photos and links can be found here at the Seoul Searching blog, which - for those of you who are interested more in reading hard facts about Seoul and less in navel-gazing from me - also provides some nice links, reviews, and general information about Seoul.

According to those in the know, this is the heaviest rain and the worst flooding Seoul has seen in the last 100 years, which (I like to think) justifies at least some of my whining. Since the boys and I sensibly stayed inside and therefore out of the maelstrom, our participation was limited to looking at the traffic nightmare from the windows of our apartment and a canceled subway expedition to Sadang (which turned out to be underwater and therefore a poor choice for shopping.)  Mr. Logical, however, was not quite as lucky, and had the alarming experience of having to rescue his car from the parking lot at work as it was overtaken by flood waters.   He was able to reach the car just before the water started seeping into the interior.  At least, at the time he thought that he had reached the car just before the water seeped in, but - as has been made patently obvious in the past few days - he was not quite in time to prevent at least a portion of the Han River from entering the vehicle and soaking into the carpet.  Needless to say, we've been riding about mostly with the windows down lately, trying to dissipate the 'Asian River Funk' that assaults one's nose immediately upon opening the door.

However, we are all so delighted to have a car again, that no one is really complaining about the smell.  After weeks of trudging through the city in every imaginable weather condition, wrestling with umbrellas in high winds, sloshing through puddles, or arriving at restaurants drenched in perspiration, even an odiferous vehicle seems like a godsend, and no one's complaining.

In fact, I am so grateful to have a car right now, I am almost able to relax and chat quite naturally even as Mr. Logical takes (what to me seem like) enormous risks to life and limb navigating through the city. Because - as anyone who has ever driven in Asia knows - driving here is not like driving anywhere else in the world.  And the sooner that you accept this and dispense with all of your preconcieved notions about safety and conventionally accepted driving etiquette, the more quickly you will adjust to the reality that is driving in Seoul

Since most of my readers are sophisticated and well-traveled, I know you will all be sagely nodding your heads and murmuring, "Of course, of course.  Driving in Seoul....madness."  And of course, we were warned well in advance.  In fact, one of the most frequent comments I got when mentioning that we were moving to Seoul was, "I hear the driving's crazy over there."  Now, having grown up in Asia, Mr. Logical and I were not unaware of the differences between Western and Eastern driving habits.  However, being aware of and actually participating in, are two very different things, as we have been learning in the past month or two.  Keep in mind that - as yet - I have still not taken the plunge of actually driving myself.  No, sitting in the passenger seat frozen in terror has been more than enough for me, but - as you have all figured out by now - Mr. Logical is far more intrepid than most of us, and has taken to driving here like a duck to water.  However, during this time, we have both learned a few facts about driving in Seoul that were not mentioned in any of the official information that was provided to us by the local driving authority, and it is these useful tidbits that I now pass along to you:

  • Forget what you have previously learned about where cars (and trucks and motorcycles and scooters) can go.  In  urban and suburban America, we tend to be very old-fashioned and somewhat unimaginative about where we drive our vehicles.  For the most part, we drive them on prepared surfaces, such as streets, driveways, and parking lots.  In suburbia, you will, of course, find people parked in dirt lots or grassy fields, especially when softball and/or carnivals are involved.  However, Seoul drivers are not such slaves to convention, which calls for somewhat more caution on the part of the average pedestrian.  As a rule, you should not be surprised if you are walking along, minding your own business and find that you need to move out of the way for a car that has just driven up onto the sidewalk next to you, whether it is planning to park there or simply passing through.  The same goes for having a motorcycle nudge past you as you are  window-shopping.  Furthermore, you should in no way indicate that you find this behavior unusual by yelling, gesticulating, or jumping out of the way, which would simply alert everyone to the fact that you are new in town.  
  • Understand that lane markings (those painted lines, dashes, and other meaningless symbols) on the streets are more of a general guideline than an actual hard-and-fast rule.  Seoul drivers have an almost uncanny sense of the exact size of their vehicles, and can accurately judge - within millimeters - precisely where their cars will fit.  Whether or not there is a lane indicated in that space is not important.  If you are in one lane and the car next to you is in another lane, and there is space in between two of you that another car can fit in, it will.  This allows, for example, four lanes of cars to fit in the space designated for only two lanes.  Continuing with this space-saving theme, you will find motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters darting in and out of all these de facto lanes of traffic using any available space, including the sidewalk, as mentioned in my first point.
  • Given that the lanes themselves are subject to change at any time, moving between these lanes is not accomplished in the same straightforward way as it is in other countries.  Instead, moving from place to place in heavy traffic is accomplished by pointing your car in the direction you would like to proceed, and slowly - but resolutely - 'oozing' into your intended location. It is best that you do not make eye contact with other drivers while performing this maneuver.  This is also useful for right turns on red.
  • The bus will always win.  If you are in the way of a bus, move.  If a bus wants to be where you are, it will be there, whether or not this is accomplished with your cooperation. 
  • Like the lane markings, most traffic rules should not be taken too seriously.  If, for example, you expect all cars to stop at a red light and wait until the light turns green to proceed, you will be sorely disappointed.  However, if you have no expectations whatsoever that this will happen, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rainy Days in Seoul

After a week or more of reprieve from the monsoon rains, they have returned, and with a vengeance.  The forecast for the next few days is:

Fortunately, we've had mostly-clear days in the last week or so and been able to get out and do quite a bit before the rain returned.   Sons #1 and  #2 and I even squeezed in one last outing today before the rain started.  We did a little shopping, had lunch, and enjoyed a nice walk, arriving home literally seconds before the skies opened up. Now, with a few days of rain to look forward to, I have no excuse for ignoring the piles I have creatively pushed into the corner and will have to come up with some sort of solution (I'm open to suggestions, any of you organizing types out there.  And yes, I've already thought of draping one of the blankets over a box of towels and calling it an end table.) Tomorrow I plan to spend the morning packing up boxes for donation and then working on organizing and creating order among the remaining detritus (as much as that is possible in an apartment this size.)  I'll be glad to say goodbye to my dirty littlc secret the boxes that look like this:

Just some of my ridiculous number of many excess towels and blankets.

And I hope to find somewhere to hide store these:

Instruments for the rarely-played "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" which cannot possibly be  gotten rid of.

And, of course, these:

The infamous turkey pate servers (badly in need of some Tarn-X)

Then, once I've created a little more order, I plan to follow Son #2's example:

Who knows.  I might even have to break into the bottom drawer of the kimchi fridge.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ask MsCaroline

 Here at the Asia Vu household, we've unpacked most of the boxes, figured out where to put the furniture, and - most importantly - connected the Xbox to the big TV.  And now, in the calm that comes after the storm, we turn once again to questions asked by you, our loyal readers.  That's right, it's time for everyone's favorite question-and-answer fest, during which I, MsCaroline, answer your questions about parenting, homemaking, etiquette, and expatriate life in Seoul.

Question:  I have just discovered that I have inadvertently packed 58 towels  to bring to my new home in Seoul.  Should I write an amusing blog post about this hilarious misunderstanding? 
Answer:  Most inadvisable.  While MsCaroline -as a seasoned traveler, free spirit, and occasional overpacker - has deep sympathy for your plight, it is highly unlikely that normal, healthy readers will share her compassion.  This may lead to uncomfortable confrontations in which Loved Ones plead with you to get help for what both you and I understand is a simple mistake that could be made by anyone.  In light of this, it is recommended that you pack up your excess towels, abandon them in a dumpster in the dark of night, and never speak to anyone of this again.

Question:  My dinner companions have ordered a meal that includes baby octopi.  I have been presented with several individual tentacles, which are freaking me out.  Do I really have to eat them?  While MsCaroline herself is a seasoned conneisseur of many international cuisines,* she can certainly understand the consternation of a typical Western traveler on being confronted with a small bowl of stir-fried tentacles and the expectant gaze of one's dinner companions.  In these cases, however, one must be aware that one's street cred is on the line, and there is no option but to consume at least some of the tentacles in question.  MsCaroline recommends eating them quickly and washing them down with generous quantities of beer.

Question:  I would like to use the Seoul subway system to travel around the city and do some sightseeing.  However, since I do not speak Korean and get very sleepy while riding on mass transport, I am afraid that I will a) miss my train or b) fall asleep and fail to get off at my stop.  Should I confine my traveling to taxis during my stay here?
Have no fear, timid traveler! Let MsCaroline put all your fears to rest!  The Seoul subway system, in addition to being well-marked in English (and often Chinese and Japanese), provides excellent notification service for both the weary traveler waiting in the station as well as the weary traveler shoehorned into a packed subway car and waiting to exit.  The arrival of the train in the station is announced both in the station as well as in the car by exuberant fanfare-style melodies which alert the passenger and also provide a pleasant musical interlude, very similar in composition and style to the melodies which are played by both your washing machine and your dryer. You will also find - even if you are so lucky as to get a seat - that the combination of repetitive jingles and the crush of the crowd will effectively prevent any desire or ability you might have to fall asleep, so you can travel via subway in complete confidence. Besides, as I have mentioned before, traveling in a taxi does not necessarily guarantee that you will arrive at your intended location.

Question:  My 14-year-old son has chosen to grill cow intestines (which he believes to be chicken) at the self -serve Korean buffet.  Should I stop him from from eating them or just keep quiet?  It is just this kind of helicopter parenting that has led to moral decline and social decay in the West.  If your son has chosen cow intestines to grill and eat for his lunch, by all means, do not hold him back as he stretches his wings and scales new heights.  Keep your peace and simply be available to hand him a paper napkin when he realizes, at first bite, that he has made a terrible mistake and insists that swallowing said intestine would lead to disaster.  In addition, under no circumstances whatsoever should his older brother be aware that this situation has occurred until after the cow intestine in question has been duly disposed of.  Do not ask me how I know this.

Question:  Hey! Is that guy selling t-shirts with English phrases on them? Yes, indeed.  They say, 'Boston, Massachubetts.'

*Mostly pizza, kung pao chicken, and pad thai

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hoarders: Buried in Seoul

This is not our apartment, but it feels like it.

"Culture and possessions, there is the bourgeoisie for you." - Thomas Mann

I know that you, my readers, will be relieved to hear that, after weeks of incessant whining eager anticipation, I finally have gotten exactly what I have been asking for:  the opportunity to challenge all the laws of physics.  By this, I of course mean that our furniture finally arrived and Mr. Logical and I have been busy trying to find places to put all of the stuff we packed to send to Seoul 6 weeks ago when we were back in our house in Texas and clearly delusional.

Now of course, Mr. Logical and the children are perfectly happy.  The boys, because they now have desks and chairs (it takes so little to make a child happy, doesn't it?)  Mr. Logical is happy because he now has not one, but TWO bicycles and all the tools he needs (plus extras in case of extenuating circumstances) to dismantle and re-mantle both of them two or three times a day, should he so desire.  

My astute readers will note that, while I pointed out that Mr. L and the children were happy, I did not include myself in that number.  And this is why:  I am in  the midst of a crisis. A crisis of my own making.

Those of you who were reading my blog back when we received our air freight may recall my consternation when, upon opening the boxes, I realized that they had clearly been packed by an imposter, because it was unthinkable that I could have been in my right mind while blithely choosing NOT to pack pillows, silverware, or trash cans.  During the dark and troubled weeks that followed, I comforted myself with the thought that the rest of our belongings would soon arrive, and that once again, order would reign.  Of course, I was mistaken. There is no possible way that order will ever reign here.  Ever.  We might as well just resign ourselves to two years of living like the people in that "Hoarders" show: sleeping in nests of fast-food wrappers and traveling on little paths through our musty warren full of outdated issues of People magazine, McDonald's Happy Meal toys, shoes belonging to deceased relatives, and  mummified cats.  

Of course, I am exaggerating.  We do not have a cat.

But we do have an inordinate amount of stuff, and as far as I can tell, during those last feverish days in Texas,  the conversations between me and Mr. L must have sounded like this:

Me:  Darling, what do you think? Should we bring the 4-foot didgeridoo that Son #2 made for his Australia project in 5th grade? It's such a conversation piece.
Mr.  L:  Sure, why not? We can lean it against the wall.

....and this:

Mr. Logical:  Hey, honey, what say we go ahead and bring the china cabinet and all the best china, even though we don't have a dining room in the new apartment?
Me:  Oh, absolutely! We can put the didgeridoo on top of it!

All right, the conversations weren't really that extreme (we stored both the china and the cabinet,) but I think I'm making my point, which is that we were both clearly certifiable when making packing decisions. The upshot of the matter is this:  we have an apartment full of things that:  1) we will probably never use and 2) are unlikely to need in the next 2 years.  The question is, why? Or, more accurately, what the hell were we thinking?

 I also have to admit that, while 50% of my dismay comes from wondering where in God's Green Earth we will ever put these items, the other 50% comes from wondering what exactly the choices I made reveal about the precarious state of my sanity.  I offer as evidence the following:

-43* bath towels.  That's right, 43. I counted.  For a family of four.  Now, I am all in favor of  being prepared, especially if you:  a) are a practicing midwife or b) have a lot of company, but neither of those descriptions apply to me at the moment.  So why did I bring 43 towels to Seoul?  We don't even have a linen closet.
16 blankets. This does not include the duvets already on everyone's beds.  Yes, I know Seoul gets cold in the winter and we've been in the Southwest for a long time, but it looks like I was expecting  to winter in the High Sierras in a log cabin with nothing but the livestock for warmth.
-all (yes, all) of the fake instruments that connect to the "Rock Band" video game.  My children do not play this game any more.
-a set of pate' knives with handles shaped like little turkeys, nestled in a green velvet-covered box.  First of all, we rarely if ever, eat pate', and, if we do, no one we know would have a problem with serving themselves pate' with a butter knife.  Now, I grant you, there is nothing in the world to prevent us from using them to serve Brie or spinach dip (we're rebels that way), but again, a butter knife would do.  Besides, to my mind,  the turkey on the handle really limits the season of use.  So we have pate' knives for pate' we don't serve  (but if we do, we can only serve it in November or December.)
-shish-ke-bab skewers;  20 of them, stainless steel, approximately 18" long.  We do not have a grill. 
-8 skillets.  Why 8? I use 2- maybe 3 at most - regularly.  Why didn't I put the other 5 in storage? And while I was at it, why did I bring a dutch oven (which I have used only 6 times in 20 years of marriage) and a deep-fry turkey thermometer? And two stock pots? What was I expecting? A chili cook-off?
-A pair of buffet lamps that stood on our dining room sideboard.  We did not bring the sideboard.
-8 coffee cups with matching saucers that are part of a china set that I no longer own.  These are the kinds of genteel cups you have coffee in after dinner when you've had people over, not normal robust mugs that hold normal amounts of coffee.  Needless to say, most of our friends would rather finish off the wine after dinner anyway, so we haven't used these things in years.  In fact, I don't even know where the packers found them.  On the other hand, our renters emailed us to let us know that all of our wine glasses  had been left behind on the top cabinet shelf in the kitchen.  There's some irony for you.
-a derelict CPU from Son #1's previous computer system that is of questionable vintage and/or function and has no monitor.  It has become an end table.

You'll notice that I have refrained from throwing Mr. Logical under the bus mentioning Mr. Logical's penchant for packing and storing large amounts of outdoor/extreme sports gear.  This is because I have learned, after 20 years of mostly-harmonious wedded bliss, that it is best not to expose your spouse's little fetishes idiosyncrasies in a public setting, but rather, practice forbearance.  So of course, I did not include on my list his ice-climbing boots (complete with crampons:  try fitting those on a closet shelf without hurting yourself), the 40-foot climbing rope, the cross-country skis, the three pairs of cycling cleats (must have the extra pair for mountain biking) the squash and racquetball racquets, and the full set of golf clubs.  The main reason I did not mention these items (besides the obvious desire for marital harmony) is because, unlike my 43 towels, 16 blankets and the shish-ke-bab skewers, Mr. Logical's sporting equipment  may actually get used.  However, storing it all has been challenging, to say the least.

But you can't fault the man for wanting to be prepared.

Of course, once the dust settled, I did what any right-thinking woman would do:  I started making piles to take to Goodwill.  I am probably the first (and only) woman in history to move hundreds of pounds of belongings to the other side of the world, only to immediately pack them up and get rid of them.

On the bright side, however, the problem of the pillows has been solved.  Did I mention that I packed 14?

*As of this afternoon, the count is up to 58, due to Son #1 having just now gotten around to unpacking a dresser and discovering yet another towel cache.  In my defense, at least half of them were hand towels.  That is all.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mr. Logical Muddles Again

(Note:  As I may have mentioned constantly, obsessively and exhaustively once or twice, we have been living more or less out of suitcases for five weeks.  Those of my readers who are tired of my whining will be happy to know that the furniture arrives today.  While we are otherwise occupied trying to work a miracle shoehorn the contents of our Texas house into our Korean apartment, I thought my readers might enjoy this mostly unedited - yet heartfelt - tribute to one of our favorite adult beverages.)

Those of you who know Mr. Logical personally know that he is a man of diverse interests.  In addition to his well-documented passion for cycling, he also rock climbs, brews his own beer, and can play a mean game of squash. He also can make seriously good mojitos.  However, up until a few days ago, it looked as though he would not be able to utilize this unique skill here in the Land of the Morning Calm - a state of affairs that was deeply troubling for both of us.

A mojito, for the uninitiated, is a traditional Cuban drink, made from mostly rum rum, mint leaves, lime juice, sugar or simple syrup, and club soda, best served in a tall glass.  The key to a good mojito is 'muddling' (a technical term which means 'smooshing') - the mint with a special instrument- called a 'muddling stick' - before adding the other ingredients and pouring into glasses.  A typical  muddling stick is about the length of a spatula or whisk and looks somewhat like a miniature cudgel - although it is, unfortunately, too small to be used for actual cudgeling - with one rounded end for muddling.  This releases the mint's aroma and is part of what makes the mojito such a good drink for hot weather, or whenever you just feel like drinking rum.

If you do not have a muddler, you can use the handle of a fork or a spatula or (if you are desperate) a plastic action figure  to accomplish your muddling.  However, using a muddling stick will  guarantee that everyone will be impressed with your facility with a specialized piece of equipment.  It will also give your guests ample opportunity to make (what they imagine to be) original and witty double entendres that relate in various ways to the words 'stick' and 'muddle.'  This will keep everyone entertained, which is important, because mojitos do not get made quickly.   Once the mojito is ready, it should be drunk with a straw, because if you try to drink it without a straw, you are likely to have lime segments and wet mint slide down the glass into your face when you tilt your glass. (This may happen anyway at some point in the evening, but you should start out with a straw.) Mojitos are also not recommended for first or second dates, due to the unfortunate tendency of smaller pieces of mint to get sucked into the straw and end up in your teeth.  Of course, if the date is going badly, you have nothing to lose, and the rum will cheer you up.

Despite the fact that mojitos require extra work and specialized equipment, they are worth it, because they taste delicious and effectively disguise the fact that you're drinking a lot more rum than you are used to.  They also leave your breath minty fresh, regardless of how many you drink, which is not something that can be said about beer.

The most important ingredient -after, of course, the rum - in any mojito is fresh mint.  If you are used to buying your mint at the grocery store in little bunches, you will need to buy a lot of it if you are planning to serve more than one or two mojitos. ( Parsley and cilantro, while much easier to find, are poor replacements.  Trust me on this.)  So, yes, mint is a key ingredient.  In fact, while I did not grow any other edible plants when we lived in Texas, I did cultivate an enormous pot of mint on the back deck.  I gave it water, and it in turn, gave us mojitos.  It was a symbiotic relationship.

Naturally, in the excitement of moving to Seoul, neither of us gave any thought to the question of the mint.  But now that we have furniture, we'll want to be entertaining again, and at some point, we'll probably make mojitos. Obviously, the giant pot of mint from Texas did not make the journey with us, so we'll need an alternative.  And, while Korean street vendors seem to purvey every other possible fruit, vegetable, and herb, finding mint has been something of a challenge.  We have searched high and low, but mint has proved to be flora non grata here in Seoul.  Besides, even if we could actually locate the mint, finding a place to cultivate it in our tiny yardless, balcony-less apartment would be a feat in itself.

Yes, these last few weeks have been shadowed by the mocking spectre of the elusive mint plant.  We simply couldn't understand it.  How could such a forward-thinking, sophisticated society lack something as basic as mint? And, more importantly, how bad would mojitos made with dried mint leaves or,  -worse - spearmint extract taste? It was a dark time for us, as we slouched miserably each evening in our camp chairs, staring moodily out the window at the rainclouds wreathing Namsan Tower and contemplating Life Without Mojitos.

And then, when it seemed all hope was lost, just last week we happened across two little unassuming pots of mint - glorious mint! - tucked into the back of the display of houseplants on the pavement outside the commissary.  These little pots  lifted our hearts, brightened our day, and put the spring back into our steps.  We bought them immediately, took them home, and installed them as residents on the sunny ledge in my laundry closet room, where I gloat over them daily with a Gollum-like gleam in my eye.  Despite the fact that I no longer have a backyard -or even a balcony - I am right back in business as the mint-tender in the family and  it looks like Mr. Logical will soon be muddling again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cabin Fever: In Which We Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace. In the Rain.

So, flushed with success and accolades (well, my aunt told me she liked it) from my first tentative venture into travel blogging after our visit to the museum on Tuesday,  I was ready to take on another challenge.  Therefore, when B and her visiting daughter, 'J', suggested a visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace here in Seoul, I jumped at the opportunity.  Never mind that the weather report had predicted virtually 100% chance of rain for the entire week;  we'd been in Seoul for a month;  it had been raining for most of that month, and, by God, a little rain was not going to stop us.  Besides, I reasoned, how many people would really want to go visit a palace on a rainy day? Since I loathe crowds, I even eagerly hoped we might have a chance (in perpetually-crowded Seoul) to actually see some of the palace with fewer than 7 or 8 thousand other people.  On top of that, I also reasoned that, rain or no rain, we would be inside the palace for most of the time anyway, so a little rain would be no problem.   Thus it was that, armed with our umbrellas and cameras, we headed out into the morning drizzle to the subway, bound for Gyeongbokgung Palace.

When we emerged from the subway 45 minutes later, we found a crowd of people huddled at the exit who were all grimly observing what had, during the course of our journey, become a torrential downpour, clearly hoping that it would cease - or at least slow down - which, of course, it did not.  Once it became clear that there was no respite in sight, we intrepidly popped open our umbrellas and marched out into the downpour and toward our fate.

Now, I was going to provide my readers with a virtual tour - you know, a  descriptive running commentary accompanied by stunning photography (admittedly, 98% of them taken by Son #1, who is very talented - and, equally importantly - has a much nicer camera than I do.)  My plan was to take my readers from place to place in the palace 'with' me, feeling as though they were on the tour with me.  However, that was not to be, mostly due to this:

Also, this:

And this:

Yes, gentle reader, it rained, poured, stormed, gushed, and cascaded.  It did so ceaselessly, mercilessly, and torrentially, soaking our shoes, our clothes, and even our umbrellas to the extent that, as J pointed out, "It's raining in my umbrella."  Ultimately, it drove us to abandon the tour and agree that, since we live here, we could always return in more clement weather.  Our main concern was that B's visiting daughter J might be disappointed, but fortunately, J has seen more of Korea during her 2-week visit than most people see in their entire stay here, and was in complete agreement with this plan, providing she got the requisite photo taken with one of the historical re-enactors posted at the Grand Entrance Stairway, which was duly accomplished:

So, when it came right down to it, we saw several parts of the palace, palace grounds, and the Entry Gateway, which were all exactly what you would have expected and/or wanted to see as a tourist in Korea, although by no means did we see the entire complex.  We shared this experience with hundreds - maybe thousands - of other people, sloshing through courtyards, up stairs, through passageways, and around the charmingly tranquil - if somewhat rain-swollen - lake complete with its own pagoda, all while the rain continued to do its thing.  So, while I can't really provide you with a step-by-step virtual tour, what I can do is share with you with what we learned about going to a Korean Palace in the rain.

  • Weather doesn't affect attendance   Rain - torrential or otherwise - does not seem to in any way affect the number of people who do anything in Korea, unless it somehow causes more of them to do it. Crowds are to be expected anywhere you go in Seoul, and no exceptions are made for rainy days.  In fact, rainy days feel even more crowded, as one is required to navigate not only the usual crowds, but also their umbrellas as well, which occupy even more space.  

  •  Korean palaces are laid out differently than palaces in Western Europe.  I know all my readers will be nodding their heads and murmuring, "Why yes, of course, everyone knows that" but clearly I was absent on the day we covered 'Layout of the Typical Eastern Dynastic Palace' in World History 101.  Therefore,  while I was aware it wouldn't exactly be Versailles, what I was expecting was a tour of an actual palace building with actual rooms (Throne room, Royal Chambers, Royal Reception Hall, Scullery, Ballroom, you get the idea), after which we'd troop out to the grounds for a tour of the gardens and the various outbuildings ( the dairy, the blacksmith, the gazebo, and the gamekeeper's cottage, ending up in the stables, which had been turned into the Gift Shop.)  But no.  As it turns out, 'Palace' in this case really means something along the lines of 'Palace Compound.'  Kind of like Royal Summer Camp, where you would do your eating in one building, and your entertaining in another building, and your receiving of foreign dignitaries in another building, and your royal Arts and Crafts in yet another building, ending up your busy day bunking down in yet another building.  Anyway, the point is, once we got there, the fact that it was still pouring rain was, in fact, fairly significant, because we were standing or walking in it for the majority of the tour - at least the part of the tour that we stayed for.
Across the main courtyard towards the main building.
  • A free guided tour in English is available.  Results will vary.    We started off as part of an intimate group of about 35 optimistic English speakers, following our perky guide, who was armed with raincoat, umbrella, rain boots, and a portable microphone that may or may not have had a working amplifier.  The purpose of this was for her to be able to use an ordinary speaking voice to communicate historic and cultural facts to our largish group in English.  However, this was unsuccessful, due to a combination of  noise distortion  and the fact that it was never clearly established (to my satisfaction, at least) that she was, indeed, speaking English.  I'm sure quite a bit of this stemmed from the fact that her speaker/mike apparatus was of questionable quality.  Whatever the reason, it was extremely difficult to understand what was being said. All of us in the group eventually developed a technique by which we would listen to what she said, and then, working as a collective, piece together the fragments each of us had understood to derive meaning.  With this technique, we managed to learn that the Rooster is a symbol of fertility, and that the golden entwined dragons on the roof of the Main Palace Building were symbols of power.  After the third or fourth building, most of us, exhausted from the strain of comprehension, as well as being soaked, wandered off on our own.  
Our group, gathered around our guide (in pale green raincoat.)   
  •  Most of your looking will be done from the doorway:  At least for the part of the tour that we stayed for, no one actually entered the buildings.  Viewing of the interior of the buildings took place from the doorways, which were roped off.  Following our intrepid (and still inexplicably dry) leader, our group would mount the stairs and pause at an overhang where a lucky few would gratefully put down their umbrellas for a moment and enjoy being out of the weather while the rest huddled miserably in the runoff from the Imperial Gutters while trying to a) stay dry and b) hear the guide. Once established on the stairs, our guide would speak quickly, authoritatively, and unintelligibly, and then step away from the doorway as we all surged forward to get a chance to peek into the dim interior of whatever-it-was, after which she would pop open her umbrella, stride briskly down the stairs and back into the downpour across the courtyard to the next doorway.
  • There are two museums located right by the palace.  Both of these are beautiful, informative, and, most importantly, dry.  We finally ended up in the National Palace Museum of Korea, which housed some incredible artifacts - including clothing, jewelry, and various records kept by the palace scribes - and gave us  a peek into the daily lives of the King and his court. (While the artifacts were fascinating, honestly compels me to admit that, at that point, I would have found anything fascinating as long as it was housed in a dry building.)

School groups drying off in the lobby of the National Palace Museum.
  • Choose your footwear carefully.  Since the Palace buildings are laid out on what was originally a 180-acre parcel of land, you're doing a lot of walking, not to mention - as I have already pointed out - you're traveling between buildings.  And when you are walking along numerous cobblestone paths, up streaming staircases, and trudging through small bodies of water, it is most helpful to be wearing something waterproof - or, at the very least, not absorbent.  Almost as soon as we left the subway station, Son #1 announced, "TOMS were a bad choice."  As it turned out, both of my offspring had made impressively poor footwear choices, given the conditions, and, for the rest of our visit, the two of them squelched along in their soggy canvas shoes;  their lone comfort was that they both looked very stylish, if damp, and I suppose that's worth something.  I will also say, neither of them complained a bit, which I appreciated.  (For those of you wondering about my own footwear selection,  I had practically chosen my faithful Keens and therefore was not bothered by the puddles, although - for the record  - I was not in the least bit stylish.)
Son #1 in rain, by the Pagoda Lake.  (Note sodden TOMs)
  • They are incredibly beautiful.  The Korean palaces were carefully situated and laid out with painstaking attention to the principles of Feng Shui, and this extended to the palace's location in relationship to its natural surroundings;  so the views were astounding, even in the rain.  In fact, it's possible they were actually better in the rain.

  • You do not have to understand the tour, see all the buildings, be dry, or have much elbow room in order to enjoy a visit to  Gyeongbokgung Palace.  In fact, all of us agreed that our little foray was far more entertaining than it would have been on a bright and sunny day.  I'm sure we laughed far more than we would have done ordinarily, and we saw the palace in a completely different way than most people do.  It certainly makes for a more interesting blog post, and that - in my book at least - makes all the difference.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cabin Fever: In Which We Visit the National Museum of Korea

(It has been crudely pointed out mentioned that at least some of my readers may be interested in hearing a bit about Seoul and its sights, instead of just looking at photographs of my appliances and listening to me whine about how I have no furniture.  Therefore, despite that fact that I have never claimed to be a) a travel writer or b) a competent photographer, I am providing this description of a brief family outing the boys and I took a few days ago.  Let it be clear that I am far better at whining than I am at describing museums and points of interest, but in an attempt to keep everyone happy, here goes:)

So, after several days of being stuck inside in the rain, we got a brief dry spell Tuesday afternoon and the boys and I decided to make a quick trip to the National Museum of Korea.  Ordinarily, I would never head out to a museum at 2.30 in the afternoon for a 'quick trip,' but since a)  the museum is literally down the street from us (we walked there in about 10 minutes) and b) admission is free, I figured it couldn't hurt to take a short trip down to look around and come back later to spend more time if we wanted to.  (Not to mention that I felt I was starting to get that wide-eyed, demented facial expression that Jack Nicholson wore for most of The Shining,  and that I was beginning to notice a twitch in my right eyelid.)  

Although the museum is smack in the middle of Seoul and just a few hundred yards away from the street, it's been cleverly set in its landscape at the top of  a hill, and even features this charming pagoda on a man-made lake.  It is just slightly surreal to look at this pastoral scene and then realize that it's set right in the middle of a bunch of high-rises.

A lengthy  flight of stairs leads you up through the grounds to the museum proper, which is essentially composed of two enormous buildings connected by a large covered  area that includes bleacher-style stairs leading up to a view of Namsan Tower and which seemed to be a popular hangout for students.

You can't tell because so many students were sitting on it when we arrived, but the bleacher steps (yes, that is a painting on steps) have been cleverly painted to advertise the traveling exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I managed to take this on the way out, just as they were shooing everyone off  to do something to the display. ( I know, it's crazy, right? Steps!)

 The building to the left (which we did not go into) houses traveling exhibits, a theater, and a children's museum.   The building to the right houses all the permanent exhibits, which display Korean artifacts from paleolithic times through the modern day. The museum itself is an enormous, imposing (one review actually said 'pompous') modern structure:  lots of glass, light, and interesting geometric lines throughout.  Son #1 spent a lot of time photographing the architecture.

Since it really was just an exploratory trip, we opted out of purchasing an English audio tour headset and decided to wander around to get the lay of the land. Most of the displays had a helpful title in English ("The Beginning of Agriculture") and then a lengthy and informative description in Korean, which meant that we moved pretty quickly past each one.  We popped in and out of some of the displays, starting with Early Man (arrowheads, pottery fragments) and ending up in the Era of Cool Weapons ( daggers and arrowheads and spears), and that was just one side of the first level. At that point, we came out into the main corridor and decided to get some better photos of a 14th-century marble pagoda, which had been a Buddhist Shrine in what is now North Korea.

While we were doing this, we were approached by a gentleman who  turned out to be one of a group of  English-speaking docents who are stationed throughout the museum and whose specialty happened to be the section with the Buddhist relics and statues.  He ended up giving the 3 of us a private tour, explaining the various influences on Korean Buddhism over the years and weaving an enormous amount of world history into the whole presentation.  He spoke wonderful English and was very well informed on his subject.

He ended up our tour by showing us the 5 great Buddha statues and explaining what their various hand gestures (mudras) symbolized (ie, healing, enlightenment, wisdom, etc.)  My favorite was the Teaching Buddha, who was displaying the vajra mudra,(mudra of knowledge, aka 'wisdom-fist'.) ( I was tempted to ask if there was a mudra of furniture (aka, the 'sofa-fist') but I was fairly sure there wouldn't be, or - worse yet - I would be directed to the 'patience mudra.'  So I kept quiet.)

By the time our presentation was over, we had easily spent 2 hours in the museum and really just scratched the surface.  An afternoon well spent, and all three of us agreed that we'd be back, preferably on a day when it's not raining, just finished raining, or (as in this case) getting ready to rain again.

Really, Mom? Another picture? Really?

(If you're planning to visit Seoul, the National Museum can be reached by taking Line 4 to Ichon Station, Exit 2.  As you come out of the exit, the museum will be straight ahead on your left.  Admission is free for the permanent exhibits;  the traveling exhibits charge a fee.  Admission to the present exhibit, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, costs 10,000 KRW.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking on the Bright Side

Ordinarily, you would see Namsan Tower on top of the mountain behind those buildings, but the mist has obscured everything.

So, this is the view out of our living room window, and - if the weather report is to be believed - it will continue to be for at least the next week, and - possibly - most of the summer.  For those of you reading from London or Oregon or Seattle who are rolling your eyes and scoffing at my reaction to a little unceasing rain, please remember that, where I came from, rain was an actual event.  It was hoped for, prayed for, talked about, celebrated, and discussed extensively in every possible location, from school events to cocktail parties to FaceBook.

All of that has changed now, and, coupled with the fact that we do not yet have our car (which is still merrily bobbing along in the Pacific as we speak,) the rain has led to some adjustments on our part, by which I mean, the boys and I aren't going out much.  Of course, Mr. Logical has to go to work every day, which - traveling as he does, by subway and bus - I gather is no picnic.  In fact, I use the 'taxi indicator' to calculate the weather for the day:  if Mr. Logical takes a cab instead of the subway, you know the rain's really coming down.

Keep in mind that Seoulites hardly seem to even notice the rain.  They just continue about their business - carrying umbrellas, of course - apparently taking no more notice of the driving rain, flooded streets and overflowing sewers than I normally did of  Texas Longhorn T-shirts, taquerias, and road-kill armadillos.  I guess it's just part of their cultural construct.

Oh, we still go out, but we are more selective about when and where, and it's not nearly as often.

Of course, staying in has not been a picnic either, because, as you all may recall, we still do not have our furniture and are therefore all very crabby, especially Mr. Logical and I, who have been sharing an air mattress designed for camping and which is clearly not intended for long-term use by individuals who are in their 40s.

However, as the veteran of a number of major moves, the one thing I have learned is that Attitude Makes All The Difference.  So, instead of sinking into a puddle of self-pity or diving into the bottom drawer of my kimchi fridge, I have decided to turn things around and instead focus on all of the positives that one can derive from living for weeks in an apartment with virtually no furniture and/or most of your personal belongings.  So, without further ado, I give you:

My Top Ten List of Reasons that it's Great to Have Almost No Furniture or Household Effects:

10.No dusting.  Need I say more?
9.  Easy to vacuum.  No need to shift heavy furniture around or bend to get under things.  And you can easily move the partially-deflated air mattress the children have been using as a 'couch' with a swift kick (not while they're on it, obviously.)
8.  No need to make excuses for the state of things when people come in.  You're living like a hobo.  What do they expect?
7.  Gives you a chance to reflect on what you truly need to live comfortably and your ongoing attempts to simplify (to be honest, I have not been thinking that in the least, but it seems like something I really should be thinking, so I'll put it in and maybe I will start thinking that way.)
6.  Things are easier to find.  No more digging through dark dresser drawers to find your clothes.  They are all within easy reach in a convenient (if unstable) pile on the lone two shelves in your closet.
5.  Excellent acoustics.  No furniture or carpeting makes for excellent echoes and powerful reverb.  Every whisper becomes a shout; no more straining those vocal cords!
4. Paperwork is kept to a minimum.  Lack of desk/ printer/ file cabinets/office supplies means you can continue to put off all that pesky bill-paying and record-keeping with a clear conscience.
3. More Free Time.  No belongings to dust, clean, or put away means you have more free time to take in the sights of your fabulous new city - once, of course, you get better at getting around in the rain without getting yourself drenched within seconds of leaving the building.
2. A Deeper Awareness of How Fortunate You Are.  Children now have new and greater appreciation for such mundane items as desks, chairs, and mattresses, which can be used as powerful leverage in future.

And now, the #1 Reason it's Great to Have Almost No Furniture or Household Effects:

You Become More Resourceful:  Lack of everyday items you are used to having at your disposal, such as, say, a common language, or lamps, or kitchen implements (like your whisks and cheese grater dammit),  causes you to plumb the depths of your creativity and think in new and different ways, realizing that you can handle just about any situation successfully.

So there you have it.  There really are plenty of positives about this whole no-furniture situation.  I've cheered myself up so much that I think we'll brave the weather and head to the National Museum of Korea.  Perfect for a rainy day.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Kimchi Fridge

Today various members of my family are enjoying their Saturday out shopping and wandering the bustling (and sunny, it just figures) streets of Seoul.  I, however, am not, due to a mystery injury, which I am referring to by the clinical term, 'sore foot.'  I have no idea what's really wrong, but am guessing that I strained or sprained something yesterday when Son #2 and I hiked 3 or 4 miles (4.6-6.4 km) around Seoul, doing errands.  This may or may not have been my own fault for wearing my favorite Keen thongs, which, apparently do not provide quite as much support as I'd thought they did, even though I have successfully worn them before on long-ish treks without a problem.  So, the right foot is sore and achy and not lending itself to much more than being put up and iced or hobbling around the apartment today, which leaves me ample time for self-pity discussion of one of my new household appliances that a few readers have asked about:  the kimchi fridge.

To start with, it's helpful for everyone to know what kimchi is:  according to Wikipedia, it " is a traditional fermented Korean dish, made of vegetables with varied seasonings. Kimchi may also refer to unfermented vegetable dishes.[1][2][3] There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi, made with a main vegetable ingredient such as napa cabbageradishgreen onions or cucumber.[4] Kimchi is the most common banchan, or side dish, in Korean cuisine

Until I moved to Korea,( despite six years of my childhood spent in Asia and a father who enjoyed eating it,) my sole experience with kimchi was buying jars of it when Mr. Logical got a hankering for a taste of his childhood (also spent in Asia.)  The kind I bought was always the same, and was pretty much the only type readily available in the U.S.:  pickled cabbage in a jar, usually of a vivid orange hue.

Even when we ate in Korean restaurants, it wasn't clear to me that most of those little dishes they were bringing out fell under the umbrella term of 'kimchi.'  So I was a bit surprised to discover that there were literally hundreds of types of kimchi, (which I translate in my own mind as 'pickled stuff,' even though it's fermented, not pickled.)  As far as I can tell, if you can ferment it, it can be kimchi.  At traditional Korean restaurants, the first thing the waitress does is bring anywhere between four and ten small bowls and plates of various kimchi, which everyone nibbles at both as an appetizer before the meal as well as a complement to the meal itself. We're not always clear on what it is we're eating, but most of the time we just go ahead and eat it, although occasionally we'll indulge in a little game of 'whaddaya think this is?'  

Anyway, the point is, there are numerous types of kimchi to be found in the typical Korean household, and now that I understand just how many types of kimchi there are, the fact that my apartment came furnished with a 'kimchi fridge' makes lots more sense.  Of course, when we first moved in and I saw the thing, all I could think was, 'Just how much pickled cabbage do you need?'

View of the kimchi fridge as seen when standing on top of the washing machine, just in case you're wondering how small that room is..

And I was even more puzzled when I opened it up and discovered that, instead of just being a big empty chest (which is sort of what it looks like), it is actually subdivided into several compartments, including a pull-out drawer that even comes with its own thoughtfully provided scoop. 


 Furthermore, two of these compartments were full of big Tupperware containers that had clearly been made specifically to fit precisely within the alloted space and to store a whole lot of different kinds of something.  When I opened up my kimchi fridge for the first time, I found no fewer than 5 large Tupperware containers, all of them (presumably) waiting to be filled with MsCaroline's homemade kimchi.

Now, some of you may be asking, 'But why a fridge devoted solely to the storage of kimchi? Why not just put it in the refrigerator in its Tupperware, along with the leftovers and the grape jelly?' 

I will tell you why.

First of all, it is clear from the size of these containers that the amount of kimchi used by a typical family is far more than can be stored in your average fridge if you're still planning to have room for milk and butter and that grape jelly.  Secondly,(and this is just my opinion, but it is based on personal experience) if you have ever smelled kimchi, you will understand why- delicious as most of it is - segregating it from the other food is a practical move.  You will also understand why the fridge itself lives out in the utility cubicle (although I don't really get why it's so close to the washing machine, which seems like a self-defeating action) and also why it has a built in deodorizer.

 Needless to say, it was understood from the get-go that I wouldn't be using the appliance to store large amounts of kimchi, no matter how enthusiastically I eat it at the restaurants.  So, what do you do with a kimchi fridge?  At the moment, the blender lives on top of it (of course we packed our blender in our air freight.  How else do you make margaritas?) as does any other random thing I can't find space for in the kitchen. Since I have two other refrigerators (don't ask), I don't need it to keep anything cold, so it's purely a storage spot.  I'm sure that, once our household goods get here, I'll have all kinds of desperate uses for it, but for the moment, it's doing a nice job of holding my reusable shopping bags and Mr. Logical's insulated water bottles for cycling.

And of course, the big bottom drawer has really been put to the best use of all:

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ask MsCaroline

It has been almost exactly one week since we left the hotel and moved into our apartment here in Seoul, and life is beginning to fall into a rhythm of sorts: a jerky, unpredictable rhythm, but a rhythm nonetheless.  We're not really 'doing' anything, except trying to get acclimated to our new surroundings and - in my case - figure out the appliances and fantasize about my furniture, which should be here sometime before the end of the month.  However, my mind is like a steel trap, and, with each new experience, I'm filing away new and useful information which I am delighted to share here with you.  Should any of my readers move to Seoul in the future, I would like to think that I've done my part for humankind by providing answers to some of your burning questions regarding parenting, homemaking, etiquette, and general daily life for the modern western woman adjusting to life in an Asian metropolis:

Question:  I'm just going around the corner and the sun is shining.  Do I need to take my umbrella? 
Answer:  Yes. Summer is 'Monsoon Season' in Korea. ( 'Monsoon' is Korean for, "These shoes were a huge mistake.")  This means that the weather is mostly rain, although there may be brief periods of non-rain that will lull you into thinking that the rain is over.  Do not be fooled by this.   You should always take your umbrella with you, under all circumstances, even if there is not a cloud in the sky.  This will be especially important to remember if you have moved from the American Southwest and have not seen bona fide rain since late 2010.  In fact, you should go out and buy several umbrellas for your family right away because you will constantly forget about them and leave them all over Seoul in cabs and restaurants.

Question:  I hear a lovely melody playing.  Is that the radio? 
Answer:  No.  That is your washing machine, or, possibly, your dishwasher.  Do not expect your appliances to let you know they're finished working with the typical lackluster 'Beep-Beep' or 'Buzzzzz' of an American appliance.  All your appliances, when finished with their tasks, will burst into an ebullient tune of at least 30 measures, including a melody and a refrain.  The exception to this rule is your oven, which will emit a quiet, anemic 'peep' when it's preheated, and then, for reasons that are not clear,  immediately turn itself off.  When you finally start wondering if the oven's preheated, you will discover that it is off and have to preheat all over again.  This will happen repeatedly until you finally pull up a milk crate and perch on it by the oven, watching it like a hawk and waiting for it to beep so you can cram your food in there before it capriciously turns itself off again.

Question:  I need to buy some live mussels.  Will I be able to find them in the mini-grocery store downstairs in my apartment building?  
Answer:  Why, yes, of course.  You will find live mussels in the tiny convenience store in your building, along with shrimp-flavored cheese puffs, diapers for your baby, milk, bean sprouts, wholemeal flour, crystallized ginger, and Rich Tea biscuits.  You will not, however, be able to find any Parmesan cheese.

Question:  I need to get to the Shilla Hotel.  If I hop into a cab and say, 'Shilla Hotel,' will the driver take me straight to the Shilla Hotel?
Answer:  Most certainly not.  The driver will smile broadly, say, "Namsan Tower" and begin driving.   You will say 'Shilla Hotel' again, and he will say, "Namsan Tower" again.  You will repeat this exchange several more times, with mounting frustration. Just as you resign yourself to seeing the Namsan Tower against your will, your driver will abruptly make a u-turn in the middle of 6 lanes of traffic, drive you up a hill, through the back of  a partially deserted industrial parking lot, and deposit you at the Shilla Hotel.  If you are prepared for this, and are aware in advance that you will, eventually, end up at the Shilla Hotel, the whole experience will be far less terrifying.

Question:  The seafood salad I have been served includes a mollusk (or possibly,crustacean) that is orange, membranous, and approximately the size of a Vienna sausage.  It also has a tail that is twice its length.  Should I eat it?
Answer:  It is your adventurous spirit that has brought you here to Asia, where you and your family will make treasured memories together, sharing a variety of new experiences and cuisines.  Not eating something just because you don't know what it is is close-minded and provincial.  However, many of us live by deeply held personal credos, and it so happens that one of mine is, "Do not eat anything you cannot identify that has a two-inch long membranous tail attached to it."  If, however, that is not one of your personal credos then, by all means, you should certainly eat it.

Question:  In Korea, how many tables must an establishment have in it in order to call itself a 'restaurant?'
Answer:  One, or maybe two.  But they do not have to be very big.

Question:  It is ten o'clock in the morning and my teenage sons are not up yet.  Should I wake them?
Answer:  Under no circumstances should you wake them.  If you do, they will eat all your food, dirty all your dishes, make a mess of your kitchen, play loud music, and then ask for money so they can go get pho for lunch, which you will gladly give them just to get them out of the apartment.  You will end up with a dirty kitchen and no money.  Let them sleep and go have another cup of coffee.