Wandering Seoul


A few weekends ago, I embarked on my first, out-of-Seoul trip within Korea (and I’ve only been here 3 years!!!). It took some research and planning, but thanks to the efforts of a food-tour company called Ong’o here in Seoul, and my trusty TA I was able to identify a destination and arrange a weekend getaway.

The place I chose was Boseong (보정 as it’s spelt in Hanguel I think) a place I first read about on the Ong’o website as one of their remote destinations. Green-tea fields, green-tea snacks and most-intriguingly, green-tea infused hot baths sounded interesting so after a few false starts and missed opportunities, I finally was able to make it over an early April weekend.

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I couldn’t have timed it better… it was serene and clean – a nice change from the concrete-and Chinese-blowover generated pollution that has besieged Seoul this year. Boseong being well south of here (it’s due south all the way at the end of the peninsula/island actually) spring came earlier here than in Seoul (which also seems to have had an earlier-than usual spring). So even though it was only early April all the blossoms were in full bloom with nary a leaf to be seen on the fruit trees, although as the pictures show the hills were alive with the growth of green tea. Here’s my favorite flowery moment, from a walk in the woods although this tree was outside said woods:

Boseong blossoms

녹차 (Green tea) was very much in evidence wherever one went. Not only to drink and in fields atop hillsides etc. but also everywhere else. Most of us are familiar with Green tea ice-cream I think (and here I had it softy-style for a lunch-time snack), but also green tea-infused salt, noodles, toothpaste, a variety of beauty products, candy, jellies, and even cooking oil, By the end of the trip I’d purchased a fair number of things to take back with me… the foodie in me could not resist the salt and noodles naturally, and I also got some of the oil (edible variety) and a jar of massage cream, which my massage-therapist has already used on me once (It felt good on my post-Bali sunburnt skin but that’s another story). What was surprising was the lack of more green-tea based food items in the region. Given that pickling in Korea is such a big deal, I was sure I was going to sea some sort of Kimchi featuring 녹차 but nope! Not a whiff of the stuff except in drinks. Since I’ve actually eaten green tea  before – in a fermented form in a special salad at Burmese restaurants (will post recipe in food blog by and by) – I was quite surprised to not find it in the fermentation capital of the world. The food in the region was quite yummy despite the absence of 녹차 except in it’s liquid form. Here’s a picture of just the Ban chan (반찬 – Korean side dishes) at my first meal in Boseong (All this just for me!)

Boseong banchan

My hand-down favorite were some clams in their shells, though lots of other things were good too. As I found out later this region is generally well-known for its 반찬.

I stayed at two different places while there (1 night each) and should mention them both. The first place was named predictably enough.. the Nokcha Resort, and is probably the more beautiful of the two places. See for yourself at their website. Lovely cabins and individual rooms, and beautiful wooden furniture.  Walking from my room to their reception/convenience store area gave me the feeling of an Indian dak-bungalow. The downside was it’s remoteness from any eating places, and their own less-than meagre supplies for a real meal. They have barbeque facilities, which I heard other guests make use of, but I just got a package of spicy Korean soup and made do in my room. Days seem longer here and I basked in the setting sun and enjoyed green tea and used the internet.. they didn’t have their own connection (something unusual in Korea) but my iPhone’s hotspot worked beautifully and I was able to get my work done in beautiful surroundings. A place to revisit with friends and food supplies!

This resort seems to be attached to a national-park like facility where one can hike (or simply walk) amid green tea plantations (see pics above) and get in a bamboo-forest and yew forests as well. I wandered around for an hour or so having left my bags at a store down at the base (Koreans in my experience are very honest in matters of possessions) where, upon my return I purchased some goodies – salt etc – and had my ice-cream before heading down to the beach town for my green-tea hot bath experience…

Before I get to details of that however, I should get in a few words about my second hotel, Golmangtae. I’ve reviewed that rather more extensively in tripadvisor (will post link when it goes live) and so will only say that it was the more interesting of the two places to stay. More individual character for sure.

The experiential highlight of the trip was my visit to the green tea jimjilbang (찜질방 – Korean spa/bath house). Now I’d heard about the bath-houses when I’d first arrived in Korea 3 years ago, but had only recently had my first (and until Boseong, only) visit to one. But the Seoul place I’d visited was a low-key local place and certainly not the elaborate experience that was the Yulpo Haesu Nokchatang. A multi-storey (5, 6.. or thereabouts) building, where I paid 6,000 KRW at the ground floor to enter the facilities. I left my bags (all except my handbag and purse) at the reception and made my way to the 2nd floor. Even one visit had more or less prepared me. I stripped down to nothing and after putting my purse and clothes in the locker, entered the steamy rooms for my green tea sauna experience. There must have been about 5 pool of varying sizes, temperatures and colors of water. The different colors were due to the different amounts of tea in the water. By far the most popular (read populated) one was a large tub with 1.5 sides against huge windows overlooking the sea with a dark greeny-brown water with bubbles (jacuzzi style) emanating from the center. Women sat in clusters some sipping tea or just chatting. For the most part I was left to my own devices. A surreptitious lick of my lips after one dunking told me that basically I was braising my self in a tea-infused brine. Another equally large pool with lighter-colored water had fewer people in it at any give time. Much fewer people and I learned why after a brief dip. That tub was way way hotter. Other pools which may or or may not have had tea were cooler. Besides the showers there were also the troughs where women sat scrubbing each others backs. One friendly old lady who had attempted to strike up a conversation with me while in the pool offered by gesture to scrub me but I smiled and declined preferring to continue soaking.Besides, in one corner of this area were the tables for the professional scrubs and massages by the lacy bra-&-panty clad ajumahs. Well, I went for the whole nine yards and was scrubbed and pinched within an inch of my life by two women mind you (that might have been because they were curious as hell about this non-Korean non-white anomaly in their midst) and finally treated to some warm oil massage before being dispatched to the showers. No in-door photography obviously but here’s a couple of photos of the place itself and of the view that I had from my briny window, though of course this one was taken from the parking lot  just before I boarded my taxi and headed back to Boseong’s green, leafy bosom.

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~Bye now, until my next post~

 croptop

Where do you consider home to be?” It’s a question I’ve been asked it often enough (not really surprising considering) and the most recent occasion set off a bout of introspection, which in turn, predictably enough has led me to these pages…

So where is home really? The glib answer I suppose, is “wherever I happen to be,” though that’s not always true. In fact, as I told Kelly when he asked, home for me is tied to people more than it is to places, though the latter naturally have their place (!) in the equation. For instance, if I think about it, I’ve always referred to visiting my parents as “going home,” regardless of where they are, Chandigarh until the mid 90’s and since then, Bangalore most of the time, but also Hawaii several times (including this summer if I make it). And when I lived in Heidelberg, going to see Sanja in Bern also felt like going home, even though the former is objectively speaking the lovelier of the two!

But even the answer “people” doesn’t quite cover it. Going to see Sanja last year in Murten for example was lovely but the ‘home’ feeling gelled only after we’d driven to Bern and visited some old haunts. So while both place and people play a role, ultimately I think, home for me is a state of mind.

Come to think of it, I’ve actually used that precise description before. In an interview of sorts three summers ago in Vienna (another ‘home’ I shall be revisiting in less than a week actually). Can’t think why it didn’t come back to me immediately when the question came, but there it is. Home as a state of mind rather than a matter of location is where it’s at for me.

When I first got here in February, Cairo was definitely home in my head. As recently as a few weeks ago, when Dad flicked on an international news channel and I heard the commentator’s voice, speaking in the heavy Egyptian accent, I sighed sentimentally, “the sounds of home.”  Which gave my Mom a chuckle. Funnily enough, I had known from the get go that there was a finite-ness to my stint in Cairo, that it would never be a permanent home. I went for the 3 year-post doc to begin with, and stayed for 3-1/2, feeling miserable (as regular visitors to this blog learned at their peril perhaps)  about having been forced to do so. Professionally, I think I was ready to leave Cairo midway through my second year… but on a personal front, it was entirely different. That sense of ‘belonging’ in a community, came early and never left even if the particulars of whom I belonged with changed a bit from year to year. In that case, no contest! it was the people side of the scale, hands down that won the day in setting my state of mind. Elissa, Salima, Peter, Belle, Michel & Louise, Steve & Helen, Hoath, Duncan, Yasir and Suf, Maria, the list goes on and on… But I’ve loved people before, just taken them with me after a fashion to my new home. So it really shocked me that leaving Cairo hurt as much as it did for as long.

Part of the reason was of course the intensity of everything my last days there.. sharing in the revolution experience in different ways with different people… made leaving a wrench! So much of a wrench in fact that I was quite determinedly unhappy when I first got here, despite being sure that the food was better here (and everyone who anything about me knows how important that is!), and that the landscape (once winter was done with anyhow) would be green in the way I like, and not the dusty crumbling veneer that seems to coat all things in Cairo (even some of the people) and get me depressed sort of. But arriving here, sick with the ‘flu and hacking dry cough, to sub-zero (in degrees Celsius at any rate) temperatures and being relegated to teach a distant campus did not bode well for my state of mind any time soon.

Even without that additional isolation, the international faculty size is smaller here,  wa-a-ay smaller and I was part of an incoming “cohort” of 2! Compare this to Cairo where there is an average of 60 incoming folks every year. So there we had our initial community walking in, whether or not we stayed with them. Here in Seoul, people went out of their way to be nice upon my arrival but it wasn’t the same. Or I wouldn’t let it be. At least not at first. I missed my kitchen, my mealtimes, and my friends. I was the sole non-Korean female. I’d have imaginary conversations with Salima, Peter & Duncan (and when I could catch them on skype, the real articles and Belle and Helen as well) as I disconsolately wandered in my apartment (albeit with toasty toes tho thanks to the floor warming of feature in Korea that I’ve loved from the get go). So used I had become in Egypt to cooking for hordes and having left-overs that lasted no more than a few days that I gave myself a bad attack of food poisoning, having left a stew for too long in the fridge and eating it without realizing it had turned. [Lesson: spicy leftovers and anosmia do not mix. When in doubt, chuck/bin or otherwise dispose of food items].

But gradually, inevitably, things change. And bad things like good, come to an end. My first term is nearly over (hard to believe but it’s true) and I am achieving a sense of equilibrium. I cannot mark the exact turning point, though a previous blog post links it to the start of school as the beginning of the process. Springtime was beautiful and a hike in the local area with Jon and Kelly was oh-so-restorative to my spirit. Then there are the cafes. Seoul has cafes for every mood, and there’s at least one near my apartment, where I’m recognized as a r’glar. (Am discovering many more to go camp out at with papers and reads thanks to Jesse). The bumping into folks in the foyer and spontaneous gatherings for meals. Being invited to play hookie from the daily grind to share a long, Parisian-style birthday lunch (complete with lots of wine and great foie gras) All of which have contributed greatly to a growing sense that here too there is a belonging. (I still have my imaginary conversations but they are fewer and farther between, though the real ones still continue, I’m glad to say on skype etc.)  Now that summer is upon us, Jon and I have taken to appropriating the central gazebo in the complex in the evenings, sipping wine and chewing the fat with friends… Jesse, Paul, Kelly, Hwa Yeon… whoever can join us really. I’m off in a week for about 2 months, and while I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to that (who couldn’t when Vienna beckons with the full force of her charms?) there is a part of me that is also looking forward to returning. Insidiously, without my quite realizing it, for now anyway, Seoul has become home.

Have to admit it! Yesterday was the first day since my arrival here that I’ve felt the restoration of some sense of balance in my life since leaving Cairo. In a truly nerdy fashion it took the first day of school and the meeting of my new students to get the ball really rolling on the process.  This is not to say that my new colleagues have been anything but incredibly helpful and very friendly, but I guess I’ve been on a determinedly miserable and melancholy mindset… missing my Cairene life fiercely and going to bed having imaginary, one-sided conversations in my head with my friends there (and some real ones too thanks to Skype). Then there have been the pangs of anxiety about adjusting to various aspects of life and bureaucracy in Korea.

All told I was on slump in terms of mood, but the first impression I got from students here is that the move was certainly career-wise, so to speak. Students, at least at the outset seem engaged, even pleased to be taking these courses (History of Science [yeah finally!] and a writing tutorial and many in the latter seemed genuinely enthused about the theme. This time it is about voyages and discovery (not food), chosen because it to resonate with my recent past.

The course itself more akin to the freshman writing classes I taught at Eau Claire than to the research writing experience at AUC, but I seem to have a better handle on it, having taught the upper level course, and also learned some do-s and don’t-s in teaching writing. I do have a common book project, which I plan to integrate in with other exercises. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, seemed ideal encompassing as it does both a trip of the length and breadth of USA, and personal journey as well. He also does well on the descriptive front. The book exposes the kids to a world class writer but is short enough to be manageable. Another piece I’m thrilled to be using a newsletter article on travel narratives called “A sense of place,” by Richard Hoath. (In true British style, he said he was “chuffed” about my using it!). I daresay my enthusiasm will wane as the semester progresses and things get chaotic as they’re bound to and oh yes, the 40 km commute (from new campus) entailing a bus from there at 7:40 and hence leaving home around 7 twice a week at least, will get old real fast. But those are par for the course, and in that respect at least I ought to feel right at home!