Saturday July 7, 2012 – Little Korea, but much bigger

I have many, many things left to say about Russia, but since this is my first day in Korea, I’m sharing some quick first impressions.

I’m in Mapu-go, a neighbourhood in western Seoul. I don’t think that should be west Seoul, because Seoul is so massive that it has regions rather than districts. Or at least I think so. It turns out my hosts live in a community district, where activists live. So there are many community-run businesses: coffee shops, restaurants, farmers’ markets. We go to one for lunch, and I have the best bibimbap I’ve ever had. Mind you, I had the best one I ever had at the airport yesterday, so this may be a trend. After seeing me eat that, all the sides, soup and even rice off the plate of his five year old son (which, in my defence, was offered to me first), my host, An, tells me that Korean grandmothers would love me, as I eat everything. I can’t help it; after 5 weeks of tasteless, oily, frequently meaty Russian food, my tastebuds are in heaven. In Yekaterinburg, M. and I watched the Going for an English sketch – it could be Russian as well.

What’s painted on the wall above my bed. It reads “Vintage style: I remember the taste of the vintage world from ’70 through to ’79.” I have no idea what was vintage in the 1970s (by definition, not 1970s style), but it’s a great Korenglish adaptation, and I like the mish-mash of buildings:

I get a haircut; the language barrier doesn’t get in the way, and it’s short, styled up, with buzzed sides. $13, and I look pretty good.

I’m getting the impression that people are politer to me because I’m white e.g. I go for coffee and the waiter brings me out a free cookie, which he doesn’t do for other guests. Staff people try out the one or two English words they know. I get shy glances from 20-somethings and occasional stares from children. Understanding what’s going on is surprisingly easy; in Russia, the signs looked like they should be English but weren’t, so I struggled to read them, but here it looks so different that I don’t even try. But the basics of shopping are the same everywhere (in a fully commoditized, marketized society, which we are). So when I find a massive covered market, it’s easy to point and gesture. The market occupies two long covered stretches of road, more like a mall except it’s open at both ends, with an intoxicating blend of spices, vegetables and fruit scents wafting up. Yes, I used the horrible travel cliche “intoxicating blend”, but it was momentarily overwhelming for a few moments – I think I’m still jetlagged.

I should, however, stress that the smells are subtle and everything is neatly arranged. Even the 12 different kinds of side dishes, set out in buckets, at a few stalls are kept separate. I will take pictures soon, but everything is clean. To cross the street, you use a crosswalk with a green walk-man, painted arrows telling you to pass on the right, and a recorded woman’s voice telling you to cross. After the constant dirt, mud, broken pavement and gravel of Russia, this is very welcome.

Look what I found in the cafe this morning!

Unfortunately I won’t understand anything unless they’re talking about tofu soup, but I’ll try to go.

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