The hostel I’m staying in has eggs, toast and coffee for breakfast. It’s all self service with a small kitchen area. When I get up, there are a group of Japanese tourists at the table. They kindly point out where everything is for me. They seem to assume that as an American I have never set foot in a kitchen and can’t identify instant coffee or tea. The toaster is on a light setting and when it doesn’t brown the bread in one session (? Is there a word for this?) I put it back in for a second go round. One of the older Japanese women sees this and takes it as evidence that I’m completely retarded and takes it upon herself to help me. She stops the toaster, pulls the bread out and hands me butter. I’m somewhat baffled, but decide it’s not worth attempting to argue. I decide that eggs are out of the question and pick up a waffle (with honey and some cream, awesome) from a vendor on my way out.
I’m staying right by the Geyoung-yeoung palace complex, so I head over to check it out. I arrive just as they’re switching between night and day guard shifts. The palace isn’t inhabited, so the whole process is just for show. They have announcers describing everything in Korean, English and Japanese. It’s a very choreographed and colorful affair. It’s a pretty striking contrast to buses full of cops with riot gear that they use nowadays. I think they should have kept the hats.
The day is rainy. I get an umbrella, but don’t wander far. I go to a museum. I go to lunch. I order some stir fried octopus and am asked if I like hot food. I do not, so I order the mild dish. It is not mild. It is horrible. I am starving, but eating the food is painful. You don’t actually taste anything b/c your lips are burning. And your tongue. And throat. I eat about half the plate at which point the hunger pains are less than the mouth-burning pains. I leave and stop in a nearby dunkin donuts where I am confident I can find palatable food. I get a chick donut. Dunkin Donuts is much classier in Seoul than Boston.
Later, back at the hostel. I’m on my computer when a Japanese lady (it’s a holiday in Japan, so there are Japanese tourists everywhere) staying at the hostel comes in. With the hostel manager acting as translator, she tells me there is a parade starting soon and invites me to join her. Sounds like a plan. I head towards the center of town w/ Yuko.
Apparently it’s the first day of the High Seoul Festival. There’s a parade and an elaborate stage area. The parade route, however, is not blocked off. There are just masses of people wandering around the street. Some are in costumes. Many have posters and flags. There are also armies of police everywhere.
Finally, the parade starts. But since the routes not blocked off, they just have people in the front that kind of push they’re way through the crowd. Protestors scream and wave posters at the parade participants. I wonder if the cops will recognize that I am not involved if/when a riot breaks out.
After the parade arrives at the stage area, performers come out and sing and dance. At any break in the music, protestors (making up at least half the crowd) chant and yell. Yuko clearly doesn’t like the protestors and police presence. She indicates that she’s ready to go and, since the novelty of Koreans in pink costumes singing and dancing has worn off, I’m fine with this. We go to a nearby restaurant and have bland soup. This time w/ beef and rice. Korean food is seriously disappointing.
Yuko heads back to the hostel and I decide to see what Seoul has to offer on a Saturday night. Having no knowledge or guide about Seoul, I’d been planning on going to the cool little theater district that I’d discovered earlier. It’s getting late though and rather than deal with making sure I don’t miss the subway, I decide to stay close by.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot going on in this neighborhood. The places that have ‘Hof’ signs (I think Hof just means alcohol, but I’m not 100%) are just restaurants without bars and I don’t really want to sit alone at a table. I end up just going into a nondescript place a block from the hostel. It’s on the 2nd floor and in the stairwell I run into a pair of Korean kids who tell me they go to the University of Michigan. They also ask if I work there. They’re kinda drunk.
I’m sitting alone at a table when the 2 from the stairwell come into the restaurant place and sit down w/ 2 other Korean guys. They invite me to join them. Turns out they all met at the University of Michigan, but are back to serve their 2 years in the military. They seem genuinely excited to have a foreigner to speak English with (all four are fluent) and I’m glad to have company.
They’re curious about what I think of Korea and how it stacks up against Japan. They’re adamant that I should ignore stereotypes of Koreans (I explain that in Missouri there aren’t Korean stereotypes b/c we don’t recognize such fine distinctions amongst Asians) and insist that Koreans are very friendly. After a while they say they’re moving to another place nearby and invite me along. We lose the two from the stairwell, Alex and Tony, at this point (Actually Tony’s been out of commission pretty much the whole time. Though when I asked his name, he perked up long enough to say “Tony, like Tony Montana or Tony the Tiger”. )
So, this leaves Sunny, Young and I to head to the next place. It’s another little restaurant down an alley. We order some food and small bottle some sweet liquor. We take shots and eat the first decent Korean food (excepting the waffles) I’ve had. I learn a bit about why all the police are around. By 2AM or so, the restaurant is packed. Apparently, it stays open all night and people just eat and drink till dawn. Around 3 we decide to call it a night and I head back to the hostel.
The next day I do a lot of wandering, trying to see more of Seoul. It seems much more spread out than Tokyo. I found a sweet Korean market and if it weren’t for my limited luggage capacity I definitely would’ve been buying some socks w/ Korean celebrities on them. Come June, they will be mine.