Before I started flying, I knew next to nothing about Korea. I knew there were two of them, and I kind of knew why, and everything else I knew I gleaned either from Margaret Cho’s stand up or from reruns of M*A*S*H. I arrived in Seoul for the first time with few expectations, vowing only not to be taken in by the senior flight attendants who were trying to get me to make an ass of myself by walking into this back-alley restaurant and asking to be served something called Beep ‘n’ Bop, as if I don’t recognize a made-up food item when I hear one. (Why don’t you order it, if it so exists? P.S. – It does, and it’s do-it-yourself delicious, once you get the hang of flat chopsticks.) I was immediately sold on Seoul, and it endures as one of my favorite layover cities (albeit one that I no longer see).
In A Model Romance, Bridger and Kai’s very different experiences in Korea eventually and unexpectedly bring them together in San Francisco. To celebrate Seoul, and the upcoming release (Sunday, March 10th) of the story it helped inspire me to write, today’s Special Edition City Code Snapshot will feature five of my favorite things about Seoul.
5. The Hotel. I’ll spare you the rhapsodic waxing — my love of centrally-located hotels with gorgeous bathrooms is well-documented, on this blog and elsewhere. It’s just that the one in Seoul is really good. It’s a great location, the bathroom is really gorgeous. There’s live jazz, a mall, and a whole dang train station attached to it, for Pete’s sake. We love the hotel.
4. The Weather. This could actually also fall into the Least Favorite category, but it’s certainly among the Most Interesting. I’ve been to Africa, and to Minneapolis in January, and Seoul lives on as the the hottest and the coldest place I’ve ever been. On my first summertime Seoul layover, I left the room with my rain coat on. Where I come from, we call moisture in the air that you can see and touch “rain,” but here, I discovered, it’s sometimes just so fucking humid in the summer that you have to actually slog through hot, wet air. Plus, if you’re a dope, then you have to lug your rain coat around all day. My memories of little old ladies slipping and sliding into piles at the bottom of every hill in town on my first winter layover are no doubt greatly exaggerated, but let’s suffice it to say, when Korea does cold, it does not mess around.
3. The Shopping. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, and I never had occasion to commission one of Seoul’s many skilled tailors, but Itaewon and South Gate Market were always good for a bargain, a laugh, and ridiculously inexpensive and handsome eyeglasses. Once a seasoned Seoul flyer turned me on to her optical place in Itaewon, I never wasted another US dollar on eye wear. There was at first, of course, the usual process of trying different frames while half-blind, which makes every eye wear purchase a bit of a shot in the dark, but this guy never missed. Even when, at the beginning, I would try on pair after pair, I always eventually opted for the very first frame that he’d recommended, and I’d receive so may compliments on my triumphant return to San Francisco that I quit even browsing past his first suggestion. Around the corner, Mister Name On Hat is a Seoul institution who makes his living sewing whatever you ask him to sew onto the front of a hat or, in his lucrative side business as Mister Name on Luggage Tag, on, yes, a luggage tag — I get at least one comment a day from a passenger on my Mister Stewardess one. Once you know it, you can pick his work out from across any crowded airport in the world. Been to Korea, eh?
2. The Food. I know, you saw it coming. How can you love a place that doesn’t have great food? (Does this guy ever go anywhere where he doesn’t love the dang food?) Americans out in the world being what we are, not all of my favorite food memories of Seoul are of Korean food. Korean barbecue is fun if you’re out with a group, and back-alley bibimbap did, indeed, become a perennial fave, but one of my most triumphant food moments in Seoul was stumbling upon the Popeye’s chicken buried deep below the train station. I often breakfasted at Mister Donut, Japanese-style food courts are abundant, and what’s not to like about a city with a restaurant that has sweet potato croquettes on the menu on every corner?
1. When the Weather, the Shopping, and the Food Collide. My favorite Seoul memory is also one of my favorite food memories to date. We were shopping at South Gate (which gets points for being one of the few markets in Asia that has jeans that fit me, even if the guy did charge extra for their immensity) on the hottest day I am pretty sure I will ever live to see. The smarter crew members (and Koreans, for that matter) stayed indoors next to air conditioners, fans, and ice makers, but we were out, less because we had any particular shopping needs than because really, who could ever imagine it would be this hot? We were practically in tears, running as fast as the swampy atmosphere would allow back to our hotel, when, out of nowhere, as if summoned by the collective will of every sad, hot person on the street, there appeared a woman pulling a wagon spilling over with watermelons. She pulled up, I swear, in the middle of the street, and she was swarmed — people appeared from every doorway, from every shop, from across town, literally throwing money at her, begging for relief. She worked her knife into a propeller blur and just started flinging wedges of watermelon into the crowd, somehow keeping track of who ate how many and collecting money with her one hand almost faster than she was chopping with the other. We threw a wad of money at her and dove into the melee, snatching pieces of watermelon from out of the sky, and I have not yet lived to taste anything sweeter, more refreshing, or more amazingly awesome. As much as I love my Popeye’s and my donuts, the very best thing — you know, food — that I have ever put into my mouth was, yes, a piece of fruit. I’m as surprised as you are.
I’m still not sure I “know” a whole lot about Korea. I never really got to know any Korean people; I never visited a Korean home. Embraced as a long-lost son, Kai learns a lot more about Korea than I ever did, and the thing Bridger loves most about it turns out to be, well, Kai. But I always loved going there, and I loved writing about it, and I love Bridger and Kai. Next Sunday, March 10th, with the help of JMS Books, I’ll introduce you, and I hope you’ll love them, too!