After we arrived in Seoul, Mom and I tried to order dinner last night at a small restaurant in Insedong: the kind where some people (the locals) sit on the floor. We took a seat at a table around 5pm, exhausted and ready for bed, but knowing we should have dinner first. The plan was to have soup: spicy chi-gae with tofu for Mom, seaweed soup with mandu (dumplings for me). But we never got that far. Our waiter didn’t speak English, and rather than keeping it simple, we asked a bunch of questions, pointed at various things on the menu, and made the universal motion for “NO!” to indicate we didn’t want caffeine when discussing tea, at which point he walked away. We thought we had ordered. Twenty minutes and two bathroom trips with failed attempts to flush the complicated Korean toilet (so may buttons!) later, we still didn’t have our soup. We were both getting tired, but neither of us wanted to be the awkward/pushy/American one to ask whether or not our food was coming. Eventually, I caved, feeling bad for Mom after I scolded her for asking too many questions and because when she tried to ask him, he just threw his arms up in an X, as in, “I don’t speak English.”
“Next time we should just point!” I said, then called the man over. “Soup?” I asked, feeling dumb and desperate. “We want soup?” Mom chirped in with “We want the chi-gae and the man-du.” The man’s face lit up with understanding. Oh. He went over and punched our order in to the computer. Dammit. Twenty minutes later, we got our soup (which was totally delicious) and paid the bill (Mom used her minimal Korean—Yogiwa!”) and left feeling shamed.
We went to bed at 8pm in our comfy shared hanok bed and woke up around 4am. “Are you up?” I heard Mom whisper, and I said “Yes.” I imagined getting up early to go watch sunrise but fell back asleep and woke again at 6:30. I heard Mom telling Lee, “Peko-Payo!” (I’m hungry!) We had breakfast with Lee, our Airbnb host, of toast, jam, coffee, kimbap, and fried egg. Mom and Lee compared notes on the linguistics of some bamboo looking thing in the kimbap, and I asked questions about Kyung-Ju, Halmeoni’s province.
Then we set out to walk around. I got to lead first and walked us through Insedong and toward the mountain. We passed a bunch of closed stores and a government building/temple that we thought Hadabajji might have worked at because the sign said that high level government advisors worked there back in the day, and then toward a park. On the way we stopped at a Buddhist temple that smelled of relaxing incense and meditated there for a few minutes, but Mom figured out they were having a funeral so we left so as not to be in the way. There was a pretty white cat that Melissa would have loved. Mom took a picture.
We didn’t know how to say “Park” in Korean which is funny because Park is basically every other Korean person’s last name, but eventually we kept following the green and walking uphill and eventually we found Sam-Cheong park and took a really beautiful walk in trees. It felt like a forest and was very steep. All we had for water was the tiny bottle Mom took from the airplane, and while I was excited to be hiking in nature, I was also worried about getting dehydrated as it was getting warm and the walk was steep. But we saw cute little pinecones and chipmunks and heard birds chirping and lots of Korean people were out so we carried forward. It said that we were heading toward Bukhansan mountain but when we asked a family in our broken Korean, Bukhansan peak kakawayo? (Is Bukhansan peak very far?) They answered “yes,” and when we modeled walking there with our fingers they laughed and the girl said “It’s impossible.” We walked up many flights of stairs until we discovered a sign for “Lookout point” 400m and decided to make that our end point. It took us past the Seoul city wall to a beautiful lookout that gave me vertigo, even though it wasn’t a steep drop-off or anything. You could sort of see the whole city except it was so foggy. One of those funny travel things: you never picture the fog, or the bad weather.
We rested up there, took some photos, and then walked down in search of cold drinks. Mom wanted me to pick the cafe but there were so many in the area below the park that I couldn’t choose one, yet I knew she was thirsty. So was I. We ended up at some health tea cafe with a sliding door that would murder you if you didn’t get through quick enough. We took forever ordering, again asking a million questions and the girl at the counter using Google Translate to help us, and eventually settled on a mango yogurt smoothie thing and a red-bean mochi. We cancelled some crazy five grain snow ice thing because we eventually figured it out it was $10. Mom went to the bathroom trying to use a wrong code, with some crazy slide-up panel lock, and was too stubborn to re-check the code until I did it for her and then told her. She said she understood how Clara feels, or any little kid, when they can’t do something simple. I laughed and judged her but later after we ate our scrumptious mochi and yogurt parfait thing (“tastes like yogurt and whipped cream mixed together!’ Mom said), I didn’t lock the door right and a Korean girl walked in on me peeing and instagramming. So there you go.
We left to go to Mom’s choice: a traditional Korean music performance, toward Cheongdukdonk palace (no idea if that’s right, the names here are so long and sortof sound the same as bad as that sounds… we can’t remember a word long enough to look it up on google maps). We walked through this cute fashion district and I bought a long-ish beige linen spring coat: wide sleeve, very trendy. Forty ish bucks, and Mom kept saying it made me look liek a model except for my dork sandals, but they didn’t have the cute black foam high heels big enough for my feet. “40 is our largest size!” AKA, “Get out of here, big-ass American girl!” Oh well. Almost bought a bucket hat too, feeling like getting the whole ensemble, but we needed to get to the show.
We passed a million yummy looking restaurants that smelled like heaven with dumplings and rice bowls and fried things but Mom was laughing since we’d just eaten the yogurt and I didn’t wanna make us late for the show. We got some directions from “Information” helpers wearing red outfits, and saw so many people wearing the traditional Hanbok dresses. Including entire schools of children. We made it to the show, which was in a little courtyard cafe across from the palace. It was so beautiful! It was a trio of young men, and the main guy played all different drums and sang his heart out. He sounded wild, like a fierce mountain man. His voice was wavery, but piercing and ancient. It seemed to come straight from his soul—crying and screeching. I loved it. His accompaniments played the hurdy-gurdy and the flute. They did some Irish songs and had the audience clap along. We were the only Americans in the mix, or so it seemed.
When we left to go get lunch, things went a little downhill because I was hungry and cranky, and needed to pee, but couldn’t remember where any of the appetizing restaurants were. Mom claimed she wasn’t hungry, and dragged her feet, thinking the restaurants were in a different direction than the ones I remembered. Either way, we got lost and walked all over retracing our steps but only coffee shops and expensive modern restaurants. All I wanted was kalbi but we got desperate and tired and ended up in this depressing udnergorund place that didn’t even smell like food. The bulgogi was grey, and they didn’t have kalbi, just kalbi patties. Disgusting. No thanks. I got bibimpab which was so-so edible, but I was just so disappointed after seeing all those yummy foods and not being able to find any when we were ready to eat. I did some immature whining and complained to mom that she shouldn’t stop me from eating when I’m hungry, and she did a pretty good job of not getting defensive and staying compassionate. At least we filled up, though I still wanted meat because I wouldn’t touch the bulgogi. We paid and left, and I felt guilty because I didn’t need to have such a stinky attitude. I wish that wasn’t something that was so hard for me: being cool when I’m hungry.
We came back to our hanok and took a nap: I kept thinking I should work or book an Airbnb for tomorrow or something, but it felt so good to be horizontal after all that walking and anyway, I told myself, I should enjoy the chance to lie down and relax next to my mom on this trip which is half-vacation, after all. We rested/slept for about two hours and now here I am writing. I got up afraid that if I slept more, I’d be groggy and gross and jet-lagged for dinner and wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. Ellie’s friend Wan-Je is taking us out for dinner, possibly at some bark restaurant she liked where they served bark and trees. My family is so weird. Mom personally requested it because Ellie said it was delicious and healthy.
Mom and I are talking about Grandma a lot this trip and remembering her. We notice all the things that are similar to how she is (clean, fastidious, direct/outspoken) and we also think every other person looks like Uncle Steve.
Things I want to remember about Grandma:
How she drank a little glass of dark, flat malt beer with her lunch toward the end. To whet her appetite.
The way she stood over her stove making beefaroni, with broccoli or some other vegetable on the side.
The way she would interrupt conversations that were staying too surface-level by asking blunt questions starting with, “In other words…” i.e. “In other words, are you going to get married before I die, or not?”
How much she loved cheese doodles.
Her purple/magenta vest.