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a year abroad in south korea

Seoul Search: Part I

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So I’m back in Daegu after a lengthy Chuseok (Thanksgiving) break. I had a few days off of school so I decided to pay a visit to Seoul, the city destination that everyone knows in Korea.

Seoul is the capital city of Korea, heavily populated with foreigners and English/Engrish signs. Restaurants, shops, theaters, etc. are stacked on top of each other, and what’s there one day is gone the next. The sparkling newness of the storefronts stay for a while and then disappear just as the paint dries. Such is the pace of life here – “Dynamic Korea” as they call it. Directions based on landmarks are most often hit or miss because of the rapid pace of change here, so finding the hostel I was staying at in Hongdae was a little bit of a challenge. Luckily the subways are easy to get a handle on, and although you have to transfer a lot of times, you can get to a very specific location without really having to hike anywhere.

Travelling with someone who had already been to Seoul already was a real stroke of luck, because I got to check out all the cool niche places that have the best craft beer in Korea. From Watermelon Wheat to a honey IPA, sitting outside in a super casual setting and having a few cold ones in the middle of the bustling day was my kind of tourism.

One of my favorite activities in Seoul was going to see the Studio Ghibli and Alphonse Mucha exhibits at the Seoul Arts Center. The art scene is really packing a punch here, as the museum spaces are expansive, gorgeously designed buildings that let in a lot of light and allow many visitors in. One thing that bothered me was the sheer volume of people there – it was amazing to see a culture so in-tune with the progress of art, but this made looking at the art grating on the nerves to say the least. There is a line that snakes through the entirety of the exhibit and people slowly shuffle along the walls viewing work. There is no open art viewing here – everyone snakes around the gallery as a homogeneous unit and view art at a set pace (which is agonizingly slow). Very different from art viewing in New York, which allows for a lot more free movement around the gallery spaces. I found myself deviating from the line and skipping around a bit to avoid spending over 3 hours on one exhibit. On view were several beautiful prints, paintings and lithographs by Alphonse Mucha, one of my favorite artists representing the Art Noveau movement. The pieces were on a larger scale than I had ever imagined; almost life-sized figures adorned with flowers and arabesque-ing locks of hair. There was also a good deal of photography in the gallery that gave a sense of historical context to the work, and the pieces were grouped according to specific phases and themes in Mucha’s career. While I was there I also spent a good amount of time viewing the animation slides of the Studio Ghibli films. It was amazing to see the actual sketches and plans from movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Some more interesting panels were the ones that outlined a sequence of panning, where several sheets of paper were simply taped together and the idea of the scene was hashed out. I’m glad that I got to see the exhibits before they were taken down, and I hope to go back to Seoul again soon to see what new art it has to offer.

Seoul, especially Hongdae and Itaewon, had some really great eats too. I had burritos at a place called Vatos, a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant where we had to be put on a waiting list for two hours (!). Popular amongst expats and Koreans alike, that queso and burrito were heaven sent. The watermelon wheat beer I had was a little too sweet for my liking but I’m glad I tried it nonetheless. Other good eats were a pork spine stew, cooked on a mini stove in front of you, full of veggies and fall off the bone meaty goodness. It was super hot temperature-wise but very filling. For breakfast one day we dipped into a fried rice restaurant and some mozzarella cheese, bacon, and sweet and sour sauce later I contentedly rolled out of there with a food baby and enough energy to carry me through the rest of the day.

The shopping area of Myeongdong is beautiful, modern, and energetic. The clean lines of the Uniqlo and the hipness of H&M pave the way through main roads teeming with fashionable young Koreans, clack-clacking away with their high heels and armfuls of shopping bags. When the lights go on, the neon glow drowns out the night sky and you’re left with a thrilling electric daylight to continue shopping with until you bust a heel.  If I wasn’t so low on money waiting on my first paycheck I would have definitely bought something, but alas, window shopping was all I was fated to do this time around. Myeongdong, I’m coming back for you~~

And lastly, the nightlife was awesome. I wish I wasn’t so tired, but I got to experience the sounds of a pretty rad two man band at an indie-rock inspired bar called FF. I got an autograph and everything when the show was over. Free drinks and a chill atmosphere were aplenty.  We wanted to go clubbing, as several weird/cool venues were around (“Gorilla”??) but by 2am we were way too tired to go on. Definitely need to visit again and scope out some good clubs next time.

The picture above, I believe, captures the vibe of Seoul. The new, slowly encircling the old, until one day (maybe soon) that wave will crash and wipe the old away. If there was a “way of life” for Seoul it would be this: the quest for modernity isn’t for the sake of improvement alone – it’s obsessive. That, and you better watch where you cross the street because the threat of being run over is very real.

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Author: Natasha

26, student of law but still a dreamer. currently living in chicago.

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