For those of you who have never heard of Itaewon (me, for example, before I got here), I shall elaborate. Think of Chinatowns in North America—then hit the reverse button. Seriously. Itaewon is filled with so many Americans, American businesses and fluent English speakers that you’d swear you were back home.
But first, an accidental adventure.
Somehow we ended up on the wrong subway, and got all turned around, and we de-trained at City Hall to try and get our bearings. We walked up the stairs, stepped outside and THERE WERE POLICE EVERYWHERE. IN RIOT GEAR. My reaction was quite eloquent and thought out. Something along the lines of “HOLY SHIT.”
When we realized we could hear nothing resembling shots or screams, we ventured forth, following the long lines of officers who were just standing in formation, and we were wondering just what the hell was going on—and also how the hell we were going to get a taxi. We spotted an information booth and popped in to ask both of our questions, only with less profanity sprinkled on top.
Remember the Occupy Movement? Wellp, this was Occupy Seoul, as well as protests about the re-signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the USA.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the FTA to the best of my understanding. There are a number of US soldiers stationed here in Korea, due to the Korean War never officially ending—there was only a cease-fire agreement, no peace treaty. Anyway, these US soldiers can pretty much do whatever they like here and get away with it because of terms written into this agreement. The Korean people are understandably upset about the agreement as it stands, especially since there have been some rapes (as well as vandalism, theft, and noise) in the areas near the bases, and the guys who did it get to walk. Recently, there was a particularly brutal rape (soldier followed a 16 year old home, broke in, and basically tortured her), and he actually is going to face consequences for it, which is huge.
Anyway, the FTA was one of the things being protested, the re-signing of it. Someone even had a poster of Obama petting the Korean president like he was a well-behaved dog. We totally should have taken a picture. We totally did not.
We did get a cab though. There was a cab stand not too far from the site of the protests, where cabs line up to wait for a fare, or people line up to wait for a cab. This day it was the latter, but we did not have long to wait, and we were soon on our way to Itaewon!
The intersections in Korea are, in a word, terrifying. This part of downtown Seoul made the intersection at Yonge and Front look like a back country road. A dirt one. With cows beside it. For most of the drive, we were craning our necks to peer up through the windows so we could look at everything—looking every inch the tourist the entire way.
The thing about Toronto is that the surrounding natural wonders are pretty much obscured by the all the bridges, roads, and buildings. Parks have to be actively sought out, and I constantly forget that one of the Great Lakes is right there. But in Seoul: mountains. Everywhere. It was almost like a pattern—skyscraper, hotel, mountain, skyscraper, apartment block, mountain. I suspect that my glasses were all that kept my eyes from bursting free from my skull at the wonder of it all. I suspect I have used this line in the past. I also suspect you’ll hear it again. …Uh, read it? I guess? Meh.
The dialogue in the car was mostly this: “Oh my god.” “Wow.” “You guys, look!” “Man, I love this place!” “I’m getting hungry. Are we there yet?” “That’s it! Back to Winnipeg!”
…we’re odd. You love it.
Itaewon. We had the driver let us out by the subway station so we’d know where to go to catch a ride back to Seoul, and then we decided we’d better find the restaurant* we were meeting our friends at later on. After doing so with surprising ease (we did get lost earlier, remember), we decided to check out the outdoor shops and vendors since it wasn’t too cold out. There was a lot of really cool (and inexpensive) stuff to buy, since Itaewon really caters to the US presence and the people who are just passing through. One thing they seem to sell a lot of is athletic jerseys.
*(if you ever find yourself in Itaewon and in need of food devoid of rice—and nutritional value—I highly recommend Richard Copycat’s All American Diner)
Now, ever since the Women’s World Cup soccer tourney last summer, in which the team I was rooting for actually won it all (this never happens to me), I’ve gotten it into my head that I’m meant to be a soccer fan, and as such, I needed me a jersey. A team Korea jersey, to be precise. Sooo, I dragged T & D around looking for a sporting goods shop wherein I could obtain one. Amazingly, I was successful in my quest. Shortly after, D found mittens that look like big plush tiger paws (which the kids have since spent ages admiring and being jealous of)—and then T spotted THE BOOKSTORE. AN ENGLISH BOOKSTORE. It was on the other side of the very busy street so we had to restrain ourselves and wait to cross at a light, despite my willingness to re-enact Frogger in order to get there faster.
As one who has spent many moons in many bookstores as both a customer and employee, you’d think the magic would be gone. This is just not so. It was a really neat store—filled with both new and used stuff—and it had a good-sized section devoted to the study of Korean culture, modern and historical. Lots of stuff about the war too. And the North, surprisingly enough. Also, I seem to have this unwritten rule for myself that says when I am in a bookstore (not as an employee), I need to buy something. At the time, my Kobo was loaded with titles, and many of the books I was looking at were titles I already own (but they are still so far awaaay). What I needed was a guide to learning Korean. Even now, months later, my Korean still sucks. Hell, the other day I accidentally dropped the Korean f-bomb when I was trying to tell the kids my age in Korean. Turns out that part of the word for ‘twenty eight’ (ee ship p’al) sounds a lot like ‘shibal’—a not very nice word. The kids laughed themselves stupid at me and then told me what was so funny. Then I also laughed myself stupid. They approve of my foolishness.
So I started perusing the learning a new language section at the store. Surprisingly, there were more guides to Chinese and Japanese and a couple for Hindi. I actually had to dig around a bit to unearth a workbook to aid me in my quest to become fluent in Korean—cuz I totally expect that to happen any day now—and lo, I found what I sought.
A funny detail about the book I found, which I only picked up on due to my time spent in the Canadian publishing world (as well as the fact that I am a giant dork)—it’s published by McGraw Hill Ryerson, and they are located right near my hometown, yet here I am all the way in Korea, buying their stuff.
…Like I said, I’m probably the only person on the planet who thinks this fact is even remotely cool.
Eventually, with our backpacks a bit heavier and our wallets a lot lighter (books are still expensive here)—we went off to meet our friends.
Dinner was great fun—I’ve since returned to Richard Copycat’s like three times since then, due to the awesome awesome (unhealthy) food—and there was the meeting of new people which is something I love to pieces. A definite perk of living here.
Eventually though, we needed to head back to Seoul station and grab a train back to Pyeongtaek. We were a bit paranoid since we didn’t know the train schedule and we didn’t want to get stranded overnight in the city. We made it back and got some tickets, but unfortunately it was standing room only and we had two hours to kill before boarding time. As a fun bonus, the waiting area was completely packed, so we went and sat on the stairs by the platforms and read our respective digital devices. I had to stand up every now and then since the concrete steps were, in a word, freezing, thereby making my posterior a titch numb. You’re welcome.
The standing area of the train was only a bit warmer than sitting in the great outdoors of Seoul station, and I was lucky enough to find a spot that allowed me to sit down for the ride, but it wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of comfort. My legs may or may not have lost a bit (a lot) of feeling, and my toes were doing remarkable impressions of an ice cube. It was uncanny, really. Plus, there was a young couple being affectionate right next to me, and the guy needed a lesson in how much body spray was too much. Needless to say, I was super shivery and kinda grumpy by the time we got back to Pyeongtaek, and of course, for the first time ever, the cab stand was empty. Plus, the sky decided it was a good night to dump freezing cold slush down on our faces.
So while the day in Seoul was awesome, the return was not exactly triumphant. And for some reason, I was crazy wired. I don’t know if it was the excitement or the canned coffee that D introduced me to, but it was 8AM the next day by the time I got off to sleep.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was to be the start of my battle with insomnia, and that was only the icing on the cake at the beginning of my delightful winter.