Thursday, September 3, 2009

Palaces/pork products

So this past weekend, I went to Seoul by myself. Perhaps you are confused--"Didn't she write not too long ago about single living and the odd habits it inspires?", you might be asking. Well, in my defense, I would argue that going out on your own is different than staying in on your own.

Let me be hokey and reference Sex and the City. Like Carrie Bradshaw and her one-on-one dates with New York City, I kind of feel an obligation to take a city like Seoul in on my own sometimes. Going into Seoul on my own means I can follow my own agenda, however vague it might be. I can linger where I want to linger, and speed-walk past the things I'm eager to avoid. I can eat where I want to eat, dally in front of windows, sift through sale bins outside of shops. If I am tired, I can go home. And if I want to stay, I can stay.

So what was my agenda this time around, solely in Seoul? Well, for one, I wanted to do something dorky and touristy. Something that could potential bore anyone I would take along with me. In Ali Fenlon's last letter that she sent me, she said something that struck me: that she's never really bored. Ever. Because, you see, I'm the same way. Being around people who complain about being bored all of the time makes me anxious like nothing else.

But getting off of that tangent, I decided to make the 11:30 tour of Changdeokgung Palace, the largest and reputably most opulent of Seoul's five remaining ancient palaces. Only guided tours are allowed into the palace grounds--the site is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's really old: it was built in 1405 during the Joseon Dynasty. It was destroyed in 1592 by the Japanese and reconstructed in 1608. Its buildings are noted for achieving a unique harmony with the surrounding natural landscape, unlike most other palaces in East Asia. And yes, I knew all of that history off of the top of my head without looking at any kind of website/brochure that I picked up whilest on my tour, which is now sitting next to my computer. Wink.

So to get into Seoul, I take a bus to the subway station in Uijeongbu. This is my bus.

Then I get on the subway. I love the subway. On my last subway ride, a little boy sat next to me and asked me every question that he knew in English: What's your name? (Madeline) Where are you going? (Donddaemun Market) How are you? (I am fine) How old are you? (I am 23) Where are you from? (I'm from America). He then pressed a single, sweaty Mento into my palm, smiled at me, and bolted after his mother who was watching, bemused, at the other end of the car.

(Interesting fact: my co-worker Alex tells me Korean subway stations are littered with mirrors for suicide prevention. I guess lonely, depressed Koreans are less likely to jump in front of trains if they are forced to constantly evaluate their aesthetic value ?)

Then it was palace time. At first, I was a little underwhelmed--it looked like other Old Korean Buildings I've seen. Tiled roofs, low ceilings, painted wood eves. Which are beautiful, don't get me wrong--Ive just seen this stuff A LOT in the short time I've been here.

But then we got to the "Secret Garden"--the place where Korean royalty used to go to unwind. To read books. To study.

It was so(to use a tired adjective)zen. Completely gorgeous.

My other vague mission that I had for my day in Seoul was to order something mysterious on a stick for lunch. In Korean. I headed to Dondaemun market. I chickened out probably five or six times before approaching one woman's cart. I pointed and said, "Ego juseyo." Meaning, "This, please." And she laughed at me. So I literally ran away, much like the terrified child I encountered earlier on the subway.

After regaining my nerve, I approached another (more benevolent-looking) woman selling something that looked like blood sausage on a stick with tteok ppohk kee (rice cakes).

It was delicious, despite my "skeptical" face. I think it tasted better because I obtained it on my own. Pork on a stick as a metaphor for emancipation? Perhaps a bit of a stretch for an ex-vegetarian...

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