I arrived in Korea late on Friday night, just in time for a nap and the beginning of New York City’s workday. I could barely keep my eyes open so I took a catnap and woke up just in time to power through some work and a couple phone calls. Nearly a day of travel had gotten to me so on my first night in South Korea I crashed to sleep at AMASS Hotel and dreamt of nothing.
Because I’m not one to miss a food opportunity, I set my alarm and peeled my dreary, jet-lagged eyes open in time to make it to AMASS hotel’s free breakfast. The spot is a hipster joint if there ever was one. Industrial with painted-over exposed piping and modern furnishings. The amenities listed ‘Free American Breakfast’ so I went downstairs curious to see what Korean Frosted Flakes might look like. I was delighted and terrified to find that instead the spread included a row of handled wood baskets, a bevy of simmering hot pots, a bread box full of Wonder Bread, a toaster, a row of pitchers with water and orange juice alongside shot glass-sized cups, and a basket of utensils.
Except for the bread and the tiny glasses, I had no idea what to do. I opened the simmering pots one at a time and found something brothy and something white. I grabbed a little of both, spooning them into separate bowls. Then I grabbed one of those brown baskets and headed back to my table. The brown basket included purple rice, something beefy, something that resembled potatoes, a little lettuce, and two bits of kimchi. I’m sure I ate everything all wrong but it was a tasty dinner-for-breakfast situation.
After a quick (and wondrous shower) I wandered out of my hotel and was met almost immediately with rain. The drops were heavy and sparse at first, and then let loose into a steady downpour. People started scurrying about, putting whatever they were holding in their hands over their heads. By this point everyone around me was running, taking cover under awnings in alleys. The rain created a shuffle that’s internationally understood. Part of me wanted to keep strolling. To bask in the joy of letting the rain soak through you on a hot day. Instead I ran with the crowd, letting them pull me under the awning of a coffee shop I couldn’t resist.
I ordered a grande-sized pineapple drink for 4,500 won (about $4.00) and sat down with one of those buzzers they give you at chain restaurants when they want to tell you your table is ready. The people around me were sitting in twos, talking, sipping on iced drinks and watching the rain. Ariana Grande was playing softly over the cafe speakers and people sneaked in through the side entrance to use the cafe bathroom. The only words I could understand were on the radio. The only thing I could read is the front of one girl’s pin-striped five panel hat embroidered on the front with ‘New York.’ Thousands of miles away. Everything is foreign and yet it still feels like home.
When the rain stopped I sucked down the rest of my pineapple drink and ventured out again into the skinny, winding streets of Jongno.
I was doing that “I’m a tourist who doesn’t want to act like a tourist even though I’m whiter than everyone else so I’m just going to walk super fast and pretend like I’m not looking around a lot in awe of everything” move. As someone who is directionally challenged (I consider it one of my major flaws), this is somewhat difficult. My adjustment tactic is to prevent myself from making too many turns.
So when I left the cafe I marked my trail and started walking straight. I ended up in Namsangol Hanok Village. After weaving through some of the traditional housing I wandered back down the hill and made a right turn.
Before long I was lured in by Chungbu Market, a traditional outdoor Korean market known for its dried fish. In all the cities in all the world, I’ve never seen so many fish stacked up on one another. The people who worked the stalls (mostly women) were so accustomed to their jobs. So unimpressed by the wonders around them.
I continued on in as many straight lines as I could muster without missing out on booths selling underpriced grubby designer-looking jeans and Gucci imitation slip ons. Dongdaemun lured me in until I couldn’t resist the temptation of air conditioning any longer.
I dropped into a fashion mall and caught part of the Doosan Bears (baseball team) celebration. There was a guy hosting some kind of throwing contest that I wanted to join but when the language barrier made me nervous I decided to venture into Doota, a ten-floor department store in Doosan Tower.
All said and done I walked close to 13 miles on my first day in Seoul. I arrived just in time for Chuseok (추석 – a Korean holiday). Although this happened completely by accident, the idea that my arrival matched a harvest festival is not at all lost on me.