The phrase short but sweet was made for times like these. This weekend Eliz and I KTX’d it up to Seoul to meet my Dad, the first person we’ve seen from the Other Side in six months. It was, in some ways, as if those six months had never happened – perhaps this can be attributed to us being father/son and not mother/daughter – but time was precious like I’ve never experienced, putting pressure on us to have a good time. We did.
Having dropped our bags at CATS motel in Jongno at 11ish on the Friday night, there was time for a short wander to a Hof for food and beer. Whilst awaiting our order we taught Dad how to greet and give thanks in Korean, and when it arrived he cheerily said hello, not thank you, to our waitress. One dish, 통마늘닭모래집, had been selected at random and based on the fact we could identify ‘garlic’ and ‘chicken’ in the name. It turned out to be chewy, gristly, almost inedible bits of rubbery animal, which my phone translated as ‘amniotic fluid’. We’re still not sure what we ate but if anyone knows what it is, we’d like to know!
We arose early (sort of) on Saturday to fit in a full schedule of activity, starting with a walk to Insadong, a pretty artsy traditional street flanked by tea shops, galleries and souvenir stands selling trinkets and memorabilia. We didn’t want to spend 7,500 won on hot drinks so we spent some time in a knife museum instead – people can be very creative with their weaponry, it turns out – and after buying some tea, incense and shot glasses we came upon a musical performance glorifying World Ginseng (herby root used in cooking) Day. We were given free tasters of ginseng water, ginseng in hot sauce, ginseng in vinegar and then a shot of ginseng soju, presumably to evidence the natural health benefits that ginseng can provide, all the while being captured by rapid machine-gun-like cameras in various poses: touching glasses with other members of the community; shoving laden toothpicks into our mouths; in between and behind giant jars of golden liquid. I wonder what It wasn’t the last time we’d be photographed that morning either, as just before lunch a group of schoolgirls approached me fo a picture with an offer of a lollipop and a postcard. I wasn’t going to turn that down.
Lunch was simple, standard Korean fare: bibimbap and kimchi jjigae. We then went to Myeongdong to watch Nanta – a non-verbal performance of high-intensity drumming on and with things you find in the kitchen. It was a lot funnier than I’d expected it to be and the humour seem quite untypically Korean compared to what I’ve experienced, and the music was pretty good too. Next on the itinerary was Seoul Tower, an observatory from which you have panoramic views of an area that over 20,000,000 people call home. We’d heard it was better to go up after sunset, when the city’s impressive size is best demonstrated by its night-time luminescence, but we decided to ascend in the afternoon anyway. There was a ridiculously long queue for the cable-car that takes crowds up to the bottom of the tower lift, so we decided to walk up instead – a 30 or 40 minute affair well worth the effort for the views you get on the way up and the sense of achievement and feeling of deservedness you get from your can of lager at the top. Before we got into the lift we had a look round a weirdly couply observation deck, where literally tens of thousands of love-messaged padlocks had been secured to on another, and where benches were angled so that those sitting on them couldn’t help but fall into each others laps. There didn’t seem to be anywhere selling these locks up there though – definitely a gap in the market.
In the lift a slightly dizzy-making video on the ceiling simulated a journey all the way up into space, and while we didn’t go that high, we certainly got good views. It was interesting to be able to see how big Seoul really is from up there set against a backdrop of mountains – every usable patch of land has something built on to it, and industry snaked through valleys – and you can roughly identify the purposes of different areas as they were either entirely built up with skyscapers or not at all – there was no middle ground. We decided to wait for sundown and the gradual lighting up of the city, which was beautiful, but it did mean a longer queue for the lift on the way down. One highlight was going to the toilet, as the urinals were positioned on the edge of the observatory such that you could look out through a glass wall as you went about your business.
We met a friend, Breanna, in Gongdeok for my Dad’s first tastes of Korean BBQ and soju. He enjoyed both. We took an unncessary stroll around Hongdae, the university area, where students converged together in mile-long club queues, before deciding it wasn’t quite that kind of night and transferring to Itaewon, the foreigner district, where we indulged in beer, shisha, hummus and religious debate for a couple of hours. By now it was approaching 2am, and the next few hazy hours were spent drinking in different bars until the closed, conversations getting increasingly ridiculous, picking up new friends as we went. There was still time for a kebab, which I suppose counted as breakfast as it wasn’t far off sunrise, before I was annoyed by our inability to find our way home and we stumbled into (hard) beds at almost 6 in the morning.
Needless to say, there was little energy or motivation to do anything too worthwhile the next morning before Dad left at 12, aside from trying to fit dozens of pairs of M&S socks and kilos of Cadburys chocolate from Mum into my bag. Despite all the great experiences I’m having here, they, and the weekend, remain a poignant reminder of what it is I’m missing about home.