Variations on a Theme

by afatpurplefig


I find it difficult, when travelling, to make decisions about what to do, and the same debates come up time and time again: tourist vs local, and familiar vs as-yet-unseen. On the one hand, there are things that one should probably see in a new city, such as temples and palaces and cultural centres, and there are also places and sights that have already been experienced, and therefore don’t really need to be revisited.

With those arguments in mind, we left home with good intentions. Our Discover Seoul Passes (55 attractions over 48 hours, including four palaces, the Kimchi Museum, hanbok hire and Seoul Zoo & Sky Lift) had been singing their you-paid-for-us-don’t-waste-us song since we arrived, and there wasn’t any reason not to take in a few of the included attractions.

We began at the Bukchon Hanok Village, where visitors are encouraged to rent a traditional hanbok to wear whilst walking through the streets.

I’m sorry, but no. Mary and I are not the hanbok-hiring type. And before anyone starts with ‘where’s your spirit of fun?’, don’t forget we are in the land of the small-boned, so this experience would probably include the ignominy of waiting while they trekked into the back room in order to hunt down the bigger sizes and, I imagine, looking like a just-touched-down parachutist with each and every step thereafter.

We walked a few of the steep lanes. We saw the hanoks, and a craft centre, and a group of school children (wearing bright colours! they must progress to black over time).

Then we went rogue.

And headed straight back to the market we had visited with Q, Gwangjang, to eat dumplings and soondae (blood sausage with sweet sticky rice) and tteokbokki (hotter and fatter and better than the last), and more bindaetteok:

Then, using the screenshots of map pins we had saved on our last visit, we wound our way back through the maze (and I mean a literal maze, where every stall looks like the last, and you could walk in circles for weeks) of fabric sellers into the vintage clothing market, to see if we could find Mary a coat. After we had been poking around for a bit, a smartly-dressed guy came and whisked us over to his stall, amidst a flurry of broken-English questions and outlandish compliments.

‘What do you need?’
‘Is this your sister?’
‘Are you twenty and four?’
‘What colour of coat?’

Then he sat me down on a chair, swathed Mary in a gorgeous, long, black, cashmere coat, and proceeded to style her, turning up the cuffs and shifting it around her shoulders. When she asked him how much it was in Korean, his face lit up in utter delight, and he cheered and high-fived her.

Were we buying something from him? Yes. Was it all part of his sales pitch? Probably. Did it matter? Not one bit. We would have paid him double.


After a quick rest at home, we decided to get back on track, by heading to another of our Discover Seoul attractions, the Jeongdong Theatre, to see a traditional Korean folk performance (1 down, 54 to go?). And, much as I’d like to continue with the ‘we went rogue’ theme, we missed this one by being late. That’s what happens when you combine overconfidence with a missed train and a fudged exit (0 down, 55 to go).

I was disappointed. We sat and went through the Discover Seoul attractions list, only to decide that what we really wanted to do was see the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, which was free anyway, and most definitely not on the list.

On the way there, we decided to never again take a main street in preference to an alleyway, which led to us finding this dried fish market, and seeing this dapper gent, whose matching checked suit and jaunty stride aren’t nearly done justice by my secret photo:

Dongdaemun Design Plaza was breathtaking:

We walked around it in wonder, as the sun set, heads skyward the whole time, in complete awe. Except when we looked down to see these pianos, dotted in unexpected places around the area:

Then we went walking again, looking for Dongdaemun Market, and instead finding things we weren’t looking for.

Look at this contrast between the old and the new:


And look at Mary, in her new (old), favourite coat, winding her way through the alleyways:


Soon, we were hungry, which brought us, once again, to the dilemma of what to eat. It’s as though the very thing that brings the communities of Seoul together is the one that most effectively closes some visitors out. I say some, because the past week has revealed Mary and I as a couple of control freaks that not only want to choose the perfect meal at the perfect place, but for us to acquit ourselves perfectly there also, which is outrageously unrealistic in an unfamiliar land. And, dare I say, matters to nobody but us.

We compromised. We went back to Myeongdong, but, rather than going the easy, street-food route, we decided to eat in. Which is how we ended up here:


…with samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup), bibimbap in a stone pot, korean pancake…and, you guessed it, beer!

As Mary pointed to the pictures on the recipe card and said, ‘This one, and this one’, our server repeated, ‘thees wahn, an thees wahn…’ as she marked them on our card. We relaxed when we realised, yet again, that nobody was paying the slightest speck of attention to us. Self-consciousness here is pretty much just arrogance wearing a different coat.

It has, without a doubt, been tough here, but I almost feel a little guilty saying that, and it makes me want to follow it up with, ‘it just takes some time! you just need to try a little harder!’.  I do know that after a few days, it seemed as though we would spend all our time breaking new ground, only to leave without getting a chance walk around on it for a bit.

I think that’s why today was so important. Because it gave us a chance to try some new things, amidst those we had met before. Which, in turn, gave us a whole slew of tiny triumphs; we knew to give the plates to the food stall lady so she could add up our bill! we knew exactly how to get to Euljiro 3-ga! we found and used the ATM!  we knew not to take the free cosmetic samples from Nature Republic, in return for a ‘quick visit’ inside! we found the secret drawer on the side of the table that hides the chopsticks!

And we had a terrific day. We even coped when we came across this sign on our favourite waffle house:

Good night from us and from our sore feet, and from my favourite Hongdae busker so far: