Seoul 2009

Mandi and Geoff go to Korea – June 3rd to 15th, 2009

What a wonderful trip this was!

Late on Thursday, June 4th, Geoff and I arrived in Seoul. We were extremely jet lagged but luckily the bus dropped us off right around the corner from our ‘serviced hotel’ which was in the heart of busy and popular downtown district, kind of ‘hip’ I think, and conveniently located near a primary subway station. Serviced hotel means that it was a bit more like a small apartment and had a mini kitchenette. It was a pretty decent spot and well priced, though the sink leaked and kept flooding the bathroom floor. Otherwise we were quite satisfied with our little home for the 11 days we were there. In any case, that first night we exhausted and jet lagged and we went straight to sleep, completely dead to the world until morning.

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Friday we were up early and we went to visit two adjoining parks and palace grounds, Jongmyo and Changgyeonggung. It was a nice introduction to Korea; a very pretty park with traditional palace buildings, though not the most beautiful that we would see during our visit. We were quite hot and tired by the time lunch rolled around and we picked a little restaurant at random to try for lunch. We took off our shoes and seated ourselves at a low table on the floor hoping that the menu would have some pictures which I’d heard was common in Seoul – but no such luck. Being tired from our long flight the previous day, I was a bit frazzled when the waitress came over and I had no idea what to make of the menu so I pointed at something at random and asked for 2 of whatever it was I was pointing at. I like to do that sometimes, it appeals to my sense of adventure, but it figures that I ordered a RAW bimbimbap for each of us! Raw beef in sesame oil with vegetables and a raw egg cracked on top! Poor Geoff! Our first meal – initiation by fire! To be honest, it was kind of tasty once the shock wore off a bit, but still very strange and kind of disturbing right down to the last bite. We didn’t do much else that day, we were just too exhausted, so we headed back and fell asleep extremely early.

Saturday morning we went to Insadong which is a nice though touristy around some quaint, old fashioned and very narrow streets. These are now filled with many restaurants, and there are also many shops and galleries along the main street in that district. We were stopped by some high school students who asked politely if they could survey us with some questions for their English class assignment. The boys were particularly sweet and gave Geoff a bag of kimchi to thank him. Very cute. Then we found a cute restaurant, determined to eat something cooked rather than raw. This place had photos and we chose something a little more Western-friendly; a beef dish with all of the common side dishes and very tasty. Nice that it was cooked. 🙂 Then we continued walking and came across fun demonstration which is common in Insadong; some young boys making traditional honey treats where they take a solid block of 2-week fermented honey and, through an ancient method, they stretch and multiply the honey into thousands of thin strands of honey. Thousands of honey threads then rolled and wrapped with crushed nuts in the middle. Very tasty!

We continued to walk in search of one of the nearby markets that were recommended in our book. We came across some sort of a presentation that was taking place in a square. It seemed to be in honour of the military in some way and included some dancers in traditional white dresses. It was interesting to see it but we couldn’t really figure out what was going on. It was also extremely hot and sunny and they gave out these cardboard hats for all of the seniors to wear to shade themselves. I thought that was very neat and thoughtful that they provided those hats for everyone; it seems to be quite in sync with the culture there.

The Dongdaemum market was recommended but on the way we found a much more interesting market that I really liked. There were stands selling various types of merchandise, from bedding to hardware and tools, all along the sides of the aisles and down the middle there were food stands selling things like giant fried Korean ‘potato latkes’, dumplings, soups, and seafood. It was really fun to walk around and have a look at the variety and if I go back to Korea I’d like to go back and eat something there. As it was, we were too stuffed from lunch to try anything but I enjoyed just browsing around just as much. After that nice market, the Dongdaemum market which is very touristy and commercial was rather a disappointment when we found it. The other market was much more interesting.

Sunday was my first teaching day. Not swing though – Rock n’ Roll! I was a bit nervous about this beforehand since this isn’t exactly my specialty, but it ended up being a wonderful experience. I started by teaching a private lesson to our two hosts – Midori and Jeich. What nice people they are! The lessons were taught with the help of a translator since Midori has limited knowledge of English but we really got into the swing (or should I say ‘rock’) of things. It had been years since I really danced any Boogie Woogie but that’s what they wanted to learn and it all came back to me quite well. Then we went for lunch followed by the 3 group Rock n’ Roll lessons that we were teaching that day. My dear old friend Zhenya (from Moscow, now living in Beijing) arrived while I was teaching the first lesson and we didn’t have a chance to warm up together beforehand but the 3 workshops went very well that afternoon. We had a really nice translator – it was my first time teaching with full translation taking place since in the past when I taught in foreign countries usually people had some prior knowledge of Lindy Hop lingo. The enthusiasm of the Rock n’ Roll dancers was a little bit overwhelming, but in a good way. I have to say that they really treated us like celebrities, and the girls were simply CRAZY for Zhenya. Between and after the classes they all wanted to have their photos taken with us, but particularly with him. I guess that they liked me too though; the classes were pretty ‘on’ and I was especially pleased with how well my solo routine went. I taught a really fun routine to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and it was really entertaining, sweaty and well received.

I was quite tired by the end of the workshops but there was still more to come. We went for traditional Korean chicken and ginseng soup, then had a short rest at a tea place before heading to the Rock n’ Roll party where they really treated us as guests of honour. Holy kimchi, they really treated us like stars! Everyone cheered when we came in and they gave us the royal treatment with seats up at the front and snacks spread out in front of us (which we were too full to eat) as well as personalized towels for Zhenya and I. Geoff got some great video footage of this night. They had a Korean Elvis kind of guy do a sort of crooner karaoke thing first (amazing) followed by a Korean Beatles-type band afterward. Wow. This was really fun to see. The dancers performed various acts for us and then Zhenya and I were asked to dance for them. Considering that we hadn’t social danced together for a year and a half, that the floor was covered in treacherously slippery powder, the relentless strobe light and the fact that we were dancing to a fast cover of “Hound dog” rather than something for Lindy Hop, I think it went pretty well. Haha. The night was a very funny whirlwind. After many more photos we headed home in a taxi, completely exhausted.

Monday – We picked the wrong day to walk around the City Hall area because many things are closed on Mondays. There are a couple of palaces around there but they weren’t open. We did walk have a nice walk anyway though, and then we headed up to follow a different route that my book recommended. I was a little bit frustrated with our Lonely Planet book at this point because we came across a site that was obviously very significant but we couldn’t figure out what site it was. It turns out that it was the Gyeongbokgung palace. Once I got over my frustration with the book, we had a nice walk around there though I was pretty tired. They say in our book that this is the grandest of the palaces, but I would definitely say that Changgyeonggung (where we went a few days later on Thursday) was much more beautiful and impressive. Still, it was very nice.

Up the narrow street through that trendy area, we went to a restaurant that was recommended for serving a good traditional Korean banquet style meal. Boy, that was a lot of food! They brought out a series of little dishes to try which was very fun and exciting and we were very full by the end… except then when they cleared it all away and they brought us a full second course with as big of a spread as the first round! We had thought that all of those little dishes WERE all of the courses, but it was only part one of two. Part two was a bit intense for Geoff because it included a fully intact friend fish for each of us and he’s really not much of a seafood goer. That meal was finished with the most delicious cinnamon tea, one of the tastiest beverages I’ve ever had. We were stuffed, but it was very nice

Then we continued our walk and passed by the Chicken Museum! Unfortunately it was closed. The walk took us through an area of traditional aristocratic type houses which were really quaint and lovely, and it was at the top of a big hill so the view looking out over the roofers below was really nice. We were pretty tired by the time we got back home that night.

Tuesday morning we went to Itaewon to find a tailor that was recommended in order for Geoff to have a suit made. Dynasty Tailor is run by a man named Bruce who speaks English very well and he does terrific work. He took such good care of Geoff. Geoff ended up having both a ‘Clark Gabel’ style suit made as well as matching pin stripe vest and trousers to wear for dancing. I also got some dress pants made for work. Then we went to another shop and Geoff ordered two dress shirts to be made. Fantastic prices.

That afternoon I did another Boogie Woogie private lesson with Midory and Jeich which was even more successful than the first one since they’d gotten the basics under their belts and I’d had more time to get into the Boogie Woogie/Rock n’ Roll spirit. They were wonderful students, and Boogie Woogie really suited them. We were really on a roll by the end of that 90 minute session.

After we were done, Geoff and I had a bit of time to kill so we decided to go to a little market that was marked on the Seoul metro line. It wasn’t one of the primary markets, just a little one which I thought would be a nice look at more ‘normal’ (ie. not touristy) Korean culture since it was more of a neighbourhood market. I really love to walk around markets and it was great at first. I was so happy, checking out all of the neat sea food, vegetables, kimchi stands, etc. It was all going really well and I was enjoying myself thoroughly until suddenly I caught site of what looked like a truly grotesque monster type creature in one of the refrigerator coolers. Horrified, I took a second look and realized that it was one of the worst possible things we could have stumbled upon – a fully skinned but otherwise intact BBQ’d dog! How absolutely horrifying! Why on Earth I made Geoff look instead of shielding him from the site, I’m so sorry for that. There were about 4 such refrigerators in a row which we hurried by and then ran out of that area as quickly as we could. Though I’d heard that they ate dog there, it was really not something I wanted to see. We were so grossed out and upset. That is one adventure that I could have done without. I’m very open minded, but not on that one. In our effort to get out of the market we got really lost. We were just so thrown off guard and we got all mixed up.

Well, things picked up that evening. Midori had invited us to see her band play for the shooting of a new television program. It turns out that she’s somewhat of a celebrity. Her and another girl are ‘concept’ members of a very famous indie band in Korea. The show was being filmed at the KBS studios and we went backstage first to greet Midori who was done up identically to the other girl with matching hairdos, red sunglasses, yellow dresses, and absolutely blank expressions on their faces. That’s the ‘concept’ – what fun! The girls come out during the show, never speaking and never smiling, but their mere appearance on stage is very amusing because of the ‘look’ (my compliments to their stylist) and then they break out into some dance moves, still with blank expressions. The audience recognizes these two instantly because this concept that they’ve established has become very well known. Really fun stuff. It was a great experience to see them on stage. Midori’s band was accompanied by a couple of other very well known bands on the program; one was kind of a punk band and the other was this guy who is kind of the like the Neil Young or Elvis Costello of Korea. Very cool.

Wednesday – Early that day we went to the fish market to look at all the unusual fish, octopus, etc. Then we went to check out the Namdaemum market which was interesting though we ended up walking around in circles a bit. Somehow we didn’t get to see the Namdaemum Gate which is ‘National Treasure No.1″ (they number all their national treasures) but I think that’s ok. Then back to Itaewon for Geoff to have his suit fitted. Afterward, we went to see a show that sounded like a lot of fun – and it was! It’s called Nanta. It’s set in a kitchen and includes very high energy drumming, juggling, comedy, some martial arts, some circus. It was really fun, and the drumming with knives was pretty impressive and dangerous. The show has been runng for something like 10 years. A little bit silly but very entertaining.

I read about a restaurant which served a traditional Korean vegetarian Bhuddist banquet and the idea really appealed to me. I invited Lisa (from Montreal, currently living there) and Zhenya along for dinner. It was a very nice evening, though quite different from what I’d expected. The food was nothing at all like Chinese vegetarian Bhuddist food. Maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me but it a did a little. Still fun and enjoyable. There was a little traditional dance show then. First one woman came on, then a second woman, and I think each of the two performed about 3 dances each time in different costumes. These included fan dances, and a dance with very long draping sleeves that are about twice as long as a woman’s arms, and some drumming. Maybe because it was just one performer at a time and it was a small space and they were very close to us, but the performances were a little bit intense. I enjoyed the traditional Korean dance that we saw the next day more, but this was still neat and got us warmed up. All in all it was a very nice night, spent in really wonderful company.

On Thursday we had a very busy day. We started back in Insadong to see the Bhuddist Temple, Jogyesa, which we’d missed before. It was sunny and quite clear and Geoff had a wonderful time taking photographs. It was a great start to the day. Then we went to a little tea room that specializes in fruit teas (Geoff had pear and I had plum) and there are little birds that fly around while you drink your tea. It was very pleasant. I think it would be fun to run a place like that.

Then we headed to the most beautiful palace grounds of any that we saw during the trip; Changdeokgung is a World Hertage site. It’s really stunning how the buildings integrate with the nature of that area. Particularly after passing the main buildings near the front of the grounds, it slopes down into quite a vast forested ‘park’ and once you get down below there is a beautiful spot where some of the palace buildings are nestled in a corner with a pond full of lily pads and lotus flowers all set in the middle of a picturesque landscape. Just gorgeous! I can’t wait for Geoff’s photos or this. Then we were lucky enough to be in time for an outdoor performance which included traditional Korean music, dance and a sort of ‘opera’ and it really impressed me! I’m telling you, there was one duet with a woman playing a flute and a man on a drum an d it was very groovy and jazzy! And the Korean opera performer was simply fantastic! I’m telling you, it was really very funky! I was amazed, I just loved it.

On to the Namsangol Hanok village where five differing aristocratic stone, wood and tile houses from the Joseon era have been moved from different parts of Seoul. Here, we were able to catch yet another free performance, we certainly were lucky on this trip. We came in part way through and missed the demonstration of a traditional Korean wedding but there were more girls dancing with fans, in pink this time and very pretty, and then some really neat male dancers and drummers who were very acrobatic. They wear a kind of streamer attached to their hat which their able to swing around to make swooping circles while they dance and kick and twirl around while still drumming. They would have done Gene Kelly proud.

We went for dinner and we had what’s called ‘Military’ or ‘Army’ stew. Back when there were so many American soldiers positioned around Seoul, there were many items like spam, hotdogs, and canned beans available on the black market and now it’s become a pretty popular meal. The restaurant we were at sort of specialized in it. They mix it all up in a stew with hot sauce and ramen noodles. Bizarre but amusing to eath.

Friday Zhenya and I met up with Jeich and Midori again, this time for a joint private lesson. It was great to teach this lesson with Zhenya. He had really great advice to offer and I loved being able to share both the leader and follower perspective with them. After the lesson, Zhenya and I practiced the ’email choreography’ that he and I had been planning together via email and video from China to Canada the past few weeks. It was weird to finally put it all together! Neat since Zhenya’s jazz is very masculine and different from mine. I think we complimented each other nicely. It wasn’t perfect choreography, but pretty darn good all things considered. That night we met up at the dance and actually that was the first Lindy Hop night of the whole trip for me. It was a nice group of dancers there. At first when Zhenya and I were warming up with some social dancing together I followed extremely badly – I just don’t get to dance with leaders like Zhenya often enough and I was definitely rusty. By the time we did our performance we were nicely warmed up and it went really quite well. After the performance they wanted to have a jam for Zhenya and I. Well they picked quite a fast song and it was over 9 minutes long! Zhenya danced with all of the girls and was able to control the moves that he did in order to conserve energy, but the guys were pretty relentless with me. Finally one guy did some balboa to give me a break but it was a true demonstration of my aerobic abilities. The hostess that night was a real sweetheart and her boyfriend was our host on Sunday.

Even though I was pooped after the dance, there was a really neat looking Korean BBQ restaurant on the corner and we hadn’t had a chance to have BBQ yet so we ended up eating a late dinner. It was really too late to eat and (we’d been eating so much over the trip) but it was a pretty fun meal. Korean BBQ is just… well fun!

Saturday Geoff and I had separate plans – very feminine vs. very masculine. After we picked up the finished items from the tailor (Geoff is so handsome in his suit!) we split up to do our own thing. He went to take a couple of Taekwando lessons which took place outdoors in front of a small palace – very cool. I went to check out a Korean bath house. What a great experience! They didn’t speak much English so we had a hard time getting things figured out for me, but finally I settled on a package that included a 120 minute full body treatment (massage and facial) and then I was also free to use the baths, saunas, etc. They gave me a t-shirt and shorts and I made my way to the floor where I determined that my massage was supposed to be. A nice little woman stripped me down and put me through the most torturous wonderful and intense full body massage of my life. What excruciating pain and relaxing results! It was pretty darn intense in my shoulder blades (particularly my injured right rotator where a lot of tension had built up in compensation of my injury) and the legs were almost just so deep and painful. She also gave me a wonderful facial and I was really glowing afterward. At first when I was done the massage I was very concerned though because my calves were so sore, I could hardly walk! And I had a full day of workshops to teach the next day! However, the hot baths fixed that. Phew!

I don’t want to get too graphic, but it was a bit confusing figuring out the bath hall. The thing is that I’m really blind as a bat these days, and I don’t like to keep my contacts in for high heat situations because my eyes get dry and it feels like the contacts will melt onto my eyeballs. Yeah gross, but that’s what it felt like when I tried wearing contact lenses in a Russian banya once. Not something I want to ever repeat. So anyway, I went to the door to the bath area wearing nothing but my glasses, but of course once through the door they steamed up completely. So I couldn’t really figure out what the process and order of the baths was. I kept looking over the glasses and squinting, and then wiping off my glasses and trying to look through before they steamed up again so that I’d know what I was supposed to do in there. Meanwhile, white as I am compared to everyone there, I had a lot of people staring at me. And for those of you who are familiar with a certain marking that I have, my presence there seemed to be causing quite a stir. Finally I figured out how things were set up and I settled into one of the baths which the thermometer said was at 41 degrees, very comfy. There were woman of all ages there, from young girls swimming in the cooler pool, splashing around and playing, to grandmothers. It was a really nice cultural experience to be there. I like that they all get together and share that healthy bathing experience. Some of them would take turns at a scrubbing area and they’d give each other down a rub down. There were also showers around the perimeter, two saunas, and various pools ranging from very hot to iced cold.

I got really hot and finally couldn’t soak any longer so I decided to shower, put my shorts and t-shirt back on and go and explore the different areas. There was an area back upstairs (this place was 5 floors) which was for both men and women. There was a little restful waterfall and you could lie on mats with blocks for your head to rest. There was also very hot ‘charcoal’ rooms like saunas which you could go into wearing the shorts and t-shirt, and also a cold room. I went to the cold room to cool off since my head was so hot.

After the bath house experience, I headed back home, partially very relaxed and paritally very tender from the intense massage, to meet up with Geoff again and go to our farewell dinner with Midori, Jeich and some of the Rock n’ Roll gang. It was at Midori’s brother’s place, Josep. He and his wife have a lovely appartment and they really spoiled us with a beautiful Korean feast. What a nice and memorable evening. These people are just so kind and generous. We brought some chocolates for them as well as some maple candies, and I’d given Jeich and Midori some maple judge as well to thank them for all their hospitality. The girls had obviously worked very hard to prepare everything and it was all lovely and delicious. Geoff gave Jeich a Canada t-shirt to thank him for helping to arrange his taekwando. Dinner was wonderful, and we drank some very tasty roseberry wine, and just had an all around nice time. We didn’t leave until very late, getting home after 3am, and then I had workshops to teach the next day.

Sunday was workshops for the Lindy Hoppers all day. The thing is that they weren’t actually partnered classes, despite the fact that this was my big opportunity to teach with one of my favourite leaders in the world. First we did some solo Charleston, then some Charleston styling and a lesson on how to write your own choreography. This first two hours was for the more advanced dancers. Then I had two workshops that were just for girls and I taught jazz repertoire first and then a very fast Charleston routine. These classes were so much fun! Then Zhenya and the boys came and joined in for a class all together which was focusing on syncopation and rhythm variations. This was the only part that had any partnered Lindy Hop – we taught some variations and then put the partners together to have them try them in their swingouts. This is a pretty common class concept but I’m not sure if they’d done much of that before and it was very well received. Then I and the girls were done and Zhenya had two more classes with the boys.

Geoff and I went for a last dinner with our Lindy Hop translator who was a lovely hostess. We went for Korean BBQ again since it was a favourite with us and had a very nice, exhausted meal together. Finally we said our goodbyes to everyone and headed home to catch our flights in the morning. What a nice trip it all was!

***Some general observations about Seoul/Korea:

Parasols! I LOVE how sun smart this culture is. Many woman carry parasols and there are some very nice ones available and it’s just so healthy and intelligent. I am re-popularizing the parasol, people! It just makes sense! It’s so normal there, and that’s the way it should be. Carry the shade around with you, how smart is that?

The chopsticks are metal in Korea, not wood or plastic. Soup is eaten with a long spoon. Each meal is served with several small dishes on the side which always includes at least one kind of kimchi. Kimchi really varies in flavour and intensity. I discovered that I quite like some types of kimchi, but I’m not too crazy about others. I also really like some of the Korean sauces and I intend to seek them out in Toronto. All of the various side dishes that come with all Korean meals are very exciting and the table really fills up quickly. Meals are also served with kitchen scissors (since there are no knives) which are used to cut up anything that isn’t already bite sized such as noodles or large pieces of meat. This definitely helps the chopstick using process and is quite practical.

I thought it was a bit odd that there could be so many street vendors all lined up, several in a row, but that they were all absolutely identical. Each one served the exact same thing. A variety of tempura, some other fried items on sticks, and some sort of fat pasta in a red sauce, etc. These stands looked completely interchangeable and I wondered how one vendor got any edge over the next. There was also kimbab (Korean sushi) available which is a convenient snack on the go.

The Seoul metro is fantastic. It goes everywhere, is inexpensive, and really very efficient. Very crowded though, even at some odd times of the day. On Sunday evening it was as packed as rush hour! Very strange.

My only other experience with Asia is Beijing. Seoul is definitely much cleaner than Beijing was. It also feels like an extremely safe city. As I’d expected though, some of the washrooms left something to be desired!!!! Speaking of toilets, though, they really did seem to range from either was awful squatting ‘Turkish’ toilets to quite a fancy, high tech toilet that include several buttons that do inexplicable things. Geoff has a funny story about this but it’s his to tell. I recommend that you ask him about it directly. 🙂 I was afraid to touch any of the buttons to see what they did but that kind of toilet was definitely much preferred to the Turkish toilets.

I really have to thank Nayoung for arranging all of this for us. It was an incredible experience. Gamsa hamnida!!!!

Mandi

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