The Great Wall

I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves – the Great Wall was one of the highlights of our visit to Beijing. We highly recommend doing a hike with Beijing Hikers, my sister's friend Zach often leads the hikes and he's a great guide. You can experience the Great Wall away from the tourist hordes, meet other people, and see for yourself why it's called the Great Wall!

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Giving Milan a second chance

Why so quiet on the blog, you ask? We're in Italy! I always forget about how different the pace of life is here, and we felt it as soon as we got off of the plane. Italy hadn't even been on our itinerary, but a series of coincidences led us back. Back in March we met Francesco, an Italian who was visiting Pun Pun in Thailand at the same time we were. We chatted over all of our meals and found we had a lot of ideals and interests in common, and eventually he said, “You need to come and visit me, see our family farm and cook with my mom!” We thought about it for a couple of weeks. By the time we needed to plan the next leg of the trip we knew we wanted to mostly skip sights for a bit (I felt like if I saw another temple/wat/church/castle/fort/whatever I was going to curl up into a fetal position) and just focus on visiting people, talking to them about their projects, and eating. Italy actually seemed perfect because we've visited the so-called “major tourist draws” already so we didn't feel like we were going to miss out. So we emailed him and said, ok, when should we come? We didn't want to pass up a chance to visit Francesco and see his farm. We thought we'd also drop in and visit Peter, a baker that Wayne used to work with who had been living in Milan for about a year and a half. So here we were, back in Italy.

We had a few days on our own before meeting up with Francesco and we weren't exactly sure where we needed to be. I hadn't really explored the northern part of Italy much while I lived in Florence ten years ago; I think I was too much in love with Tuscany at the time to even give the north the time of day. The impression of Milan the one time I did visit was that it was a big city, grey and grimy, not someplace I'd want to visit again. But we didn't want to stray far and we were flying into Milan so we decided to give it a second chance, just wander around and get a sense of its character.

And it was a totally different experience. This time Milan seemed like such a vibrant city, people were out on the streets walking and biking and having animated conversations. The center of town is so easily walkable and there's an abundance of public transportation options, from the metro to the tram to the bus. And even for a city that has a reputation for being the most uptight, Milan seemed so laid back to us. Almost every bar worth its salt had aperitivi (snacks laid out buffet style eaten with wine between 6 and 8 pm), so tables full of people spilled out onto the sidewalks everywhere we went. Don't get me wrong, Milan is not some backwater place – I've never seen so many Porsches before and everyone is so dressed up – but it just had a more laid back pace than any city we'd been in the past month or so.

We serendipitously found a local saturday market close to our hotel and admired the mountains of fresh produce from all over Italy. People jostled each other for the vendors' attention and a shot at the best produce. We followed their lead and picked up some salame, prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, cherries and peaches for a picnic. We headed over to a park, grabbed a bottle of wine on the way and commandeered a bench. It couldn't have been more perfect, each thing we ate was like the Platonic ideal of that thing. Mamma mia! Literally I thought I had never really eaten a white peach before until that moment, and the salame was intensely meaty and delicious. The quality of food here always amazes me, and also that it's so affordable compared to what you would pay in the States. The people and dog watching was quite excellent too, we were quite fascinated by the lengthy conversations that Italians would have with the Senegalese street vendors that constantly bother people with random trinkets.

Our schedule ended up working out quite well with Peter's so we had a chance to stay with him for a few days and had a fabulous time eating and talking. He's been in Milan for about a year and a half so we got the scoop on some good places to go. We made a day trip to the beach at Finale Ligure and ate at a local pescheria (fish restaurant) – I had an unusual dish of anchovies in a green parsley sauce with argula and apples topped with some kind of caramel sauce. We waited patiently in line together at Luini for some panzerroti, basically a small calzone that uses a slightly different dough and that's fried. We also checked out Peck, a sort of high end gastronomic grocery store (think Citarella's but a hundred times more formal, fancy and expansive). We definitely got the sense that the Milanese are just as seriously obsessed and particular about their food as anywhere else in Italy. And of course we were thrilled that we got a chance to make dinner at Peter's house, we've been missing the kitchen so much. Well, to be honest it was mostly Wayne because I had an apertivo of Aperol and something else and was sort of out of commission (whatever! It was delicious and why don't Americans drink cocktails like that more often??), but either way we jumped at a chance to cook a meal at home.

I think Milan, for me, was so different for a number of reasons. Perhaps the city itself has changed in the past ten years. I know for sure that the Duomo had been scrubbed clean – it's glowingly pink now, whereas it was grimy gray the last time I saw it. Of course contextually everything just seemed so convenient and easy after Beijing, I can speak the language and know the basics of how things work (or don't work). Knowing someone who lives in Milan who could give us advice made a big difference in how we interacted with the city too. And what about age? What I look for and appreciate in a city is probably a bit different than what I was looking for ten years ago, now having been to so many other places. All in all our time in Milan couldn't have been more enjoyable and we were more than ready to jump into the Italian pace of life.

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Beijing Is Not Our Best Friend

What can I say about Beijing? Honestly, I'm finding it hard to say something nice about it at the moment. It's HUGE and that's an understatement. The city is on such a monumental, grand scale that it made me feel like I was the most insignificant speck. Every day we were there we walked for hours and we felt like we had gotten nowhere. Blocks of government buildings have been built to intimidate and impress, not to be useful and inviting. Everything's spread out and the city map we had made the distances seem deceivingly short. The traffic (that we've mentioned previously) is horrendous and frustrating and practically unavoidable. There's a neverending tide of people in every conceivable means of transport and on foot. Every major intersection here makes Shibuya seem like child's play because it's literally a free-for-all.

Everywhere we went we were unbelievably frustrated. Take for instance our visit to the Forbidden City. Thinking we'd be clever and to save some time, we decided to take the bus. We got to the end of the line and realized we were at the southern end of Tiananmen Square, not the northern end. All we wanted was to cross the giant ten lane boulevard, either to walk up Tiananmen Square (about 880 meters on one side) or to take a different bus back. We walked around the bus area for literally ten minutes and we could not find any way to cross the boulevard. So we gave up and took the subway (it only had an exit on the northern side of the boulevard if you paid), which took another half an hour to just get to the stop closest to the Forbidden City and was still another twenty minute walk (I am not joking) just to the entrance of the damned place.

By then we were already running out of steam and we were getting run over by hordes of tourists. To us it just seemed like the Forbidden City was a bunch of wide open, weedy open spaces with no places to sit and imposing imperial style buildings in various states of disrepair. Maybe it should be renamed the “Forbidding City”. After walking for another half an hour we finally found some benches in the shade to nap on, and we decided it wasn't worth hanging around so we left to get some food. I had a bunch of restaurant listings and I vaguely knew the street where it was located so we hopped back on the subway. Lo and behold, the restaurant was on the top floor of a crappy mall and of course you had to take eight levels of escalators. Not only did we get stuck behind a family trying to haul a wheelchair up the escalators, we then discovered the restaurant was gone! (Did I mention that this was one giant CCF?)

We took another bus back to the neighborhood where the hostel was and tried to find a place to eat. Finally deciding on one, we sat down and tried to order. You'd think it would have been easy enough, the menu had pictures and all we had to do was point. Of course, the waitress insisted on thinking that I spoke Chinese and kept blabbing on even though I was like “I DON'T SPEAK CHINESE JUST STOP OK??!!” I threw my hands up in despair, we finally got our food, we drank beer. Before we were halfway done they shut off half the lights in the restaurant. We resigned ourselves to the fact that visiting the Forbidden City was a big fail and collapsed back at the hostel.

Almost every day in Beijing had been a comedy (or horror, from our point of view) of errors like that. Every time we felt just confident enough with the buses we would get totally screwed. We took a bus to visit a farm on the outskirts of the city, but of course we accidentally took an express bus (not that there were any signs or indicators there was a difference) that completely bypassed the neighborhood altogether and we had to flag down a cab on a desolate highway. Even getting back to the airport was a nightmare, the bus we took when we first arrived didn't pick up in the same location and didn't even drop off at the terminal we needed to be at. That was another twenty minute shuttle bus ride from where we got off! Luckily we left FIVE hours early for the airport, it ended up being just enough time.  When we've given up on public transportation in exasperation, empty cabs would pass us by, eject us because we weren't going in the direction that the cabbie wanted to go in, or would drop us blocks from the location we wanted to be at because they didn't feel like it. Wayne and I have gotten used to looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and saying “CCF!”

I could go on with the examples (oh wait did I mention the chunks of raw chicken in my curry noodles?) but I think you get the idea. We've had low level annoyances and difficulties in other parts of China on this trip but we've more than managed. We've been able to say, that's not a big deal, we can work through it and brush it off. But for some reason in Beijing it was happening so often that we had a hard time putting a smile on our faces again. I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone could live here long term, it seems like you develop coping mechanisms to the point where you just don't notice anything anymore. Of course we've had some good experiences – hiking the Great Wall, sharing meals with old and new friends, visiting the Green Cow Farm – but this time the bad has outweighed the good. We were not sad at all about leaving Beijing, we were totally ready to say “Zai jian zhong guo!” and “Ciao Italia!” instead.

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Bathing is not a luxury

Now that I've gotten my frustrations with traffic out, let's talk about something more soothing: onsens! We mentioned them briefly before but I think that onsens deserve their own post. An onsen refers to a natural hot spring that's been harnessed for a bathing facility or a bathing facility in general. And in my opinion if you haven't been to an onsen and say you've been to Japan, you haven't really been to Japan. 

Bathing is a big part of traditional Japanese culture. It's something you do at the end of the day, a ritual as a way to relax and to chat with your friends and family.They also view it as good for your health, as it makes you sweat and the water has various minerals in it – sometimes it can smell a bit sulfur-ish. It's also a big draw for domestic Japanese tourists and towns have built their economy around their hot springs. Usually the baths are divided by gender, although you can still occasionally find mixed gender onsens in a few places. It's quite lovely to see people of all ages (yes even wrinkly grandmas!) just hanging out together. If you're walking around town, you can identify an onsen by a symbol that looks like a semi circle with three vertical waves emanating from the top of it – sort of steam-bathy looking.

The etiquette is relatively straightforward; you enter a changing area, which sometimes has lockers, and you undress (yes you are completely naked – everyone else is too!). You then find the area to rinse off with water before you get into the bath. You can use shampoo and soap (which some places provide) beforehand or after the bath, but definitely not in it. Once you've rinsed off, you can jump into the bath and relax.  Think of it like a giant jacuzzi; it can be rather hot, I found myself slowly easing myself into the bath a few times. Apparently there are signs warning you not to bathe alone in case you pass out from the heat. One more thing – bring your own towels, as they don't usually provide them and I'm not sure if you can even rent them.

Some onsens have rotemburos, which are outdoor baths. They can be quite spectacular, like the one we visited in Ibusuki. Basically we were sitting in the bath and could see the entire bay and giant rock formations. Giant clouds were scudding across the sky and light rain was falling which was quite refreshing! Some people even have onsens/rotemburos in their homes, Yoshi (whom we stayed with in Kagoshima) has a one person sized rotemburo on his outdoor deck that looks out across a valley all the way to Sakurajima, the volcano. Every night we each had a scalding bath with an incredible view. So we totally recommend seeking out an onsen with a rotemburo. 

We even tried out a super rare hot sand onsen in Ibusuki. We laid down in a depression in the sand and covered the bottom half of our faces with a towel, and someone came along and shoveled a bunch of sand on us until everything was covered except for our heads. We laid there for about fifteen minutes, meanwhile we felt like we were being roasted alive because there was all this heat emanating from the sand. I felt pretty claustrophobic most of the time, I could feel my pulse going from my toes all the way up. I'm glad I tried it but probably wouldn't do it again.
Of course the best thing about onsens that it's so affordable to go. You'd think it would be expensive, but it's not. We paid around 3000 yen ( around $3 US) each for access to the onsen in Ibusuki. For me, it was definitely a different way of thinking about and experiencing bathing, as I've always seen it as such a utilitarian act. I'm of the "8 minute shower for cleaning purposes only" school and I've always hated baths. It hasn't completely changed my mind, but I like the idea of a ritual that the community participates in together and that it's a relaxing thing to do.
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Epic Traffic

You can’t talk about China without talking about the traffic. We’ve
only been in Beijing for a few days and already we’ve been in multiple
traffic jams of epic proportions, where nobody moves for an hour and
everybody is just honking. Yesterday we were stuck on a bus for forty
minutes at a single intersection, we moved no more than a hundred
feet. And it’s not like we could have gotten off and walked, we were
miles from our destination because everything in this city is so
spread out.

Our acupuncturist friends have dubbed situations like this as “CCF”
(China Cluster Fuck), and there’s really no other way to describe it.
Wayne’s already written about how terrible and crazy the drivers are
here, and it’s been true everywhere we went. But the problems in
Beijing are magnified because of the sheer number of vehicles on the
road (apparently the statistic is that 1,000 new cars hit the road
EVERY DAY in this city) and the fact that no one follows any traffic
rules. For instance, we’re not really sure what the cause was of the
traffic jam we were stuck in yesterday. But a bunch of drivers got
impatient because traffic wasn’t moving, so they pulled into the lanes
of oncoming traffic. Which of course blocked everything up even worse
for far longer. A couple of drivers even drove up onto the sidewalk
and started honking at the pedestrians to get out of the way!

It’s not like you can avoid the traffic on the subway either. There
are just so many people crammed into the cars that you can barely
breathe or even get off at your stop. Even with all the new subway
lines, it doesn’t seem to fulfill people’s need for getting around the
city. Most expats that we’ve talked to swear by their bicycles, and
that the only way to get anywhere remotely on time is to ride.

Unfortunately it seems like people here feel like they “need” cars,
and it’s understandable given the distances between things and the
uncomfortable ride on public transport. But unleashing huge numbers of
new (bad) drivers onto the road with no apparent plans for traffic
calming just seems like the craziest, ass-backwards thing to do. I
feel like there had been an opportunity to do something totally
innovative with urban planning and transportation given that ten years
ago the city was mostly filled with bicycles and that there weren’t
any legacy systems that had to be dealt with. But instead it seems
like it’s a headlong rush into crappy car culture that’s just going to
get worse and worse. It makes me appreciate New York so much more –
and the next time there’s a twenty minute delay on the subway, I am
going to thank my lucky stars that I’m not stuck on a bus in a two
hour traffic jam in Beijing.

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Japan Practicalities

A quick list of practicalities if you’re planning on visiting Japan:

Money. Use cash, surprisingly a lot of places don’t take credit cards.
Getting cash is difficult too, though! You can’t just walk into a bank
and use their ATMs, as they are usually only set up for domestic
transactions. Two reliable places that you can get cash from are the
post office and 7-11, they always have international options for
withdrawing money.

Japan Rail Pass. If you are planning on going anywhere outside of the
Tokyo/Kyoto orbit, you have to get a JR pass. It’s expensive and
burned a hole in our pockets but buying the tickets a la carte would
have burned an even greater hole. The other advantage is that you just
flash the pass at the station worker and you breeze right through, no
need to deal with the ticket machine. And they give you a handy
schedule for all the shinkansens in English. You can use the JR pass
on some of the local lines in Tokyo, like the Yamanote line, which
gets you to many places in the city. If you plan to just explore one
area, there are also region-specific passes that are a bit cheaper.

Train reservations. We found no need to make seat reservations for
seats on the train. Of course we were traveling at non-peak hours on
non-holidays, so that may have had something to do with it.

Cell phones. Unless you’re calling friends, we were able to get by
without a cell phone. If you do need one, it’s easy to rent one from
the major airports when you arrive rather than paying ridiculous
roaming fees.

Tourist Information Centers. Use them to help book accommodations for
you and pick up free maps, brochures and info about events. Usually
they’re in the main train station of each city, but the one in Tokyo
is a bit hard to find (it’s near Yurakucho station in an office
building on the 10th floor). We picked up a particularly good brochure
called “Kyoto and vicinity Walking Guide”, put out by the Japan
National Tourism Organization, that we used to explore Kyoto.

Maps. Make use of maps on the streets. Every city we went to had a map
of the local area outside of subway stations and even bus stops with
labels of places of interest, shops, banks, etc. And usually in both
English and Japanese. Even better is that the map is oriented towards
the way that you’re facing. However in Tokyo we had no idea how to
find places with a specific address, even with a map, because streets
apparently are not named!

Cabs. We didn’t really use them, as they were too expensive. The bus
and rail lines are extremely good and easy to use so it really wasn’t
a problem.

Water. Tap water is ok to drink! Yay!

Vegetables. So, surprisingly to us, the Japanese don’t eat many
vegetables and fruit is very expensive. So if you need a healthy dose
of veggies, I suggest you bring powdered supplements or whatnot,
because just seaweed wasn’t cutting it for my system.

Hairdryers. Every single place we stayed at had a hairdryer, so no
need to bring your own.

Language. We had very few difficulties with not speaking any Japanese.
For anyone we encountered who didn’t speak English, hand signals and
gesturing worked out quite well as people are patient and will try to
understand as best as possible.

Hotels. Our favorite hotel was Hotel Monterey La Soeur in Tokyo, in
the Ginza neighborhood. It was the most expensive place we stayed at,
but was really nice in a great location, especially for the price we
paid.

Internet. For us, internet was kind of a pain to come by, as it seems
like you can only get a wifi connection if you subscribe and it’s all
in Japanese. However, we found some free/open connections that we
stole bandwitdth from at a cafe, and occasionally we had wifi or an
ethernet port at a hostel or hotel, but it’s not ubiquitous.
Especially if you’re staying at a ryokan-style place. We didn’t
venture into any of those 24-hour internet cafe/gaming places because
we already have a computer, so I can’t speak for that experience.
Sometimes the tourist information centers have a computer you can use
but they make you pay for it.

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All the Tea in China

What is an experience in China without tea? We arrived back in Beijing and we tagged along with some American acupuncturists to visit a tea shop and we learned more about tea in one afternoon than I think we've known in our entire lives. The shop is owned by a family that grows, harvests and packages their own oolong leaves in Fujian province, but they also carry other types of teas like green tea and pu'er. They were the most gracious people and we sampled more than ten teas for four hours! It very much had the feel of a wine tasting without the getting-drunk part. Here's a bit of what we learned.

First off, there are many varieties of tea that come from different plants, and within that different grades. By tasting them side by side, we really got a sense of the different flavors and mouthfeels. You have to follow different brewing times and methods depending on the type of tea. In general, you do not soak the leaves for very long, and you drain the steeped water into a separate glass teapot. One brew/pour of the leaves is called a pao, and how many paos you can get out of a batch of leaves is dependent upon the quality of the tea. You also need the right equipment – those giant English teapots will not do, you need much smaller ceramic teapots or containers to do the initial brewing and small glass teapots to hold the brewed tea. If you do acquire one of the small ceramic pots, you must keep it soaked on a regular basis to keep the pot in good condition, and it gets better with age and usage. 

All tea (except pu'erh) should be stored in airtight containers in the freezer to preserve freshness, and this should keep the tea for about two years. Check the date of harvest to make sure you're buying the freshest tea possible!

Oolong
Oolong tea is a relatively light tasting tea, somewhere in between black tea and green tea. Generally it comes from Fujian province or Taiwan. We tried four varieties of oolong, Golden Guanyin, two grades of Iron Guanyin (roasted over heat), and one baked oolong. The high quality Iron Guanyin was hands down our favorite, as it had a nice balance of fragrance and smoothness. It's also the tea that the tea shop family prefers to drink in their home. Golden Guanyin had a strong fragrant aroma and was more astringent, but apparently smokers and other people who have no tastebuds prefer that one. The baked oolong is preferred mostly by old people as it has less caffeine. Oolong is harvested twice a year, once in May and once in October. The May harvest is considered more fragrant while the October harvest is smoother and more highly valued.
Brewing temp: Boiling water

Brewing method: Use the ceramic cup with a lid, it's about the size and shape of a regular cup. Use about 3 tablespoons of leaves or so. DO NOT drink the first pao, you must rinse the leaves first. Wait about 40 seconds after the first pao before you do the next pao, and make sure all the water has been drained out after each pao. On the second and subsequent paos, wait a few seconds and then pour the brewed tea out into the glass teapot and serve. You can get about 8 paos out of good quality Oolong. Also, you can keep the cap on the ceramic container at an angle.

Green Tea (Dragonswell)
The higher quality dragonswell tea comes from up in the mountains, as the air quality is better. The first harvest of the year on Ching Ming (around April 5th) produces the best and most expensive tea, and as the season goes on the price and quality gets cheaper. We definitely preferred the higher quality mountain tea as it was less astringent. Green tea is considered to have cooling properties, so too much can damage your stomach. It's good to drink in the summer, and you can do a cold steep in spring water overnight in the fridge.
Brewing temp: 70 degrees celsius (boil water and set aside for a few minutes before pouring over the leaves)
Brewing method: Use an open container, like a tall glass, as covering the tea leaves will cook them and change the flavor. So don't cover it! You don't need to rinse the leaves the first time either. Steep for a minute or two and drain. 

Jasmine tea is considered a rather common and cheap tea, as any kind of tea leaf can be used to make it and it's processed, thus not as pure. It doesn't really come in grades, rather just in strength – strong or mild. The tea leaves are sent to Guanxi for the fermentation process because the tea leaves have to be mixed with the jasmine flowers at the flowers' peak freshness and those flowers from Guanxi are held as the most fragrant in all of China. The tea leaves and flowers are smothered together and then baked to remove the fluid. The jasmine tea actually came off as too flowery after trying the oolong. It was almost bubble gum like in flavor and aroma after tasting the oolongs.
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use about two grams of leaves in a small ceramic teapot. It's a short steep,similar to oolong, but it's a bit more forgiving. make sure you cover it when you're steeping. You can probably get about six paos out of one batch of leaves.
This is a dark, fermented tea that gets better with age unlike the previous teas – it's like the Barolo of the tea world, with less risk. The tea leaves come from Yunnan province, the one we purchased was from the Xishuangbanna area in southern Yunnan. It has a strong, yet smooth flavor and can be the most expensive – the older the tea, the more expensive it gets. To save money, you can buy a raw pu'erh and save it for a few years (at least three). It comes in two varieties, raw and cooked, and it's sun dried so this gives pu'erh a particular flavor. It absorbs odors, so make sure you don't store it in the kitchen. Anywhere else will do, literally a corner of your living room is alright. It's a great tea to serve to guests, because it lasts for many paos (15 times for raw, 25 times for cooked) so you can drink it all day and not change the leaves. Pu'erh is also good for your health as it reputedly lowers cholesterol, and it's excellent for old people to drink and to drink in the winter, as it's considered to have warming properties. 
Brewing temp: boiling water
Brewing method: Use a small ceramic teapot and do two rinses before you start drinking. In the first two rinses, make sure the chunks of tea leaves are broken up so that the water steeps evenly. Also, do not pour the tea out from very high. Do NOT cover the teapot when you steep, and it's a quick steep like oolong (a few seconds). Only use the cover to pour the tea out into the clear glass teapot, make sure you drain all the water and uncover the ceramic pot after you're done pouring. 

The name of the tea shop is Lin Xiu Ji, it's located in the tea street. (they picked us up in a van so I really have no idea how to get there.) Their cell number is 1339 197 8916, but no one who answers the phone really speaks English. You can also email them at LinYuanYuanguhuJY@yahoo.com.cn, the person who checks that email address speaks some English.

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Children’s Day

There is a lovely holiday in South Korea called Children’s Day. Sort
of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but for kids. And everyone gets
the day off. We happened to be in Seoul on Children’s Day so Bremelin
arranged a field trip with her advanced English students to meet us
and to take us around the city to practice their English.

We took the train out to Brem’s neighborhood to meet the kids at the
station, bright and early. We had no idea what to expect – what are
Korean middle schoolers like?? They gathered around us, introduced
themselves in English, giggled a bit, and generally acted shy and
bashful. They constantly checked their cellphones for messages. We
shouted, “No Korean! Only English!” but of course after about ten
minutes they lapsed. We got on the train, and I was trying to think of
a million questions to get some conversations started. “What do you
like to do in your free time with your friends? Do you play sports?
Where do you go on vacation? Is there a place you would like to visit
one day? Where do you recommend to visit in Korea? What do you like to
eat?” They wanted to know about our travels, what we had done, where
we liked best, what we had already seen in Seoul. Their English was
quite good, if I spoke a little more slowly they got the gist of what
I was saying, but they tended to not ask many questions. Perhaps from
shyness, but also perhaps a bit cultural, as asking questions of an
elder is out of the ordinary.

We walked all over the city. They loved window shopping in Insadong,
and bought all kinds of sweets that I thought were going to make them
go on a crazy sugar high. It was funny, one of the girls bought some
candy that were considered retro, and I was like, oh these were
popular candies when I was a kid! Like swizzle sticks and bubble tape.
They people-watched. We watched them people-watching. We slurped down
cold noodles in a creamy sesame based sauce, I barely finished half my
bowl but most of them demolished their portions before I was even
done. They told us a bit about their daily lives – they study a lot,
they don’t have much time for sports. They enjoy being with their
families. We wandered over to the rebuilt river, did some more
people-watching. We asked them about their dreams when they grew up, a
few of them want to be diplomats, a boy wants to be a teacher, another
girl wants to be a car designer. So interesting to hear about their
ideas of what the future holds for them.

We constantly scanned the group and counted to eight, “one, two,
three, four, five…ok where did those three girls wander off to?”
Brem did an expert job at corralling them every time we needed to get
them on and off the subway, and I just tried to keep up. I was
paranoid one of them was going to be left behind. And I forgot how
slow it is to move with a group! “Teacher, can I buy something at the
convenience store?” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, I have to use the
bathroom!” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, can we buy something at
this store?” Stop for ten minutes. It was amusing more than anything,
I barely got an inkling of what it must’ve been like to chaperone my
high school class to the Met.

I couldn’t help but compare them to American teenagers. Most of my
interactions with teenagers these days doesn’t extend much beyond
seeing gaggles of them on the subway and streets in New York and (very
occasionally) the malls of New Jersey. New York teenagers often seem
to be loud, brash, independent, sometimes aggressively sexual. They
don’t like listening to rules and try to break them more often than
not. They feel like they’re on display and they often take over the
whole space. In contrast, the teenagers we were with seemed so
innocent, demure, sweet. They liked to joke around but didn’t shout,
it was more a lot of giggling. They seemed so respectful of us, and I
was surprised. I guess I’m just so used to the “question authority”
stance that urban American teenagers seem to take with adults. The one
similarity, and perhaps seems to be even more endemic to Korean
teenagers, is that their faces seem to be glued to their
cellphone/TV/video game screens more often than not. I was stunned at
how many people (not just our group) zone out to their little devices
everywhere in Seoul.

We took the group to the highest building in Seoul and got a
far-reaching view of this city of twenty one million people. I
couldn’t believe how big it is, neighborhoods blanket the hills and
mountains for miles in every direction. The kids flitted from window
to window, taking cellphone pics and videos, video calling their
parents to say hi from the top of the building, and downing more
candy. By now, we were all exhausted, so we hopped back on the subway
back out to the suburbs to drop them off. We arrived at the station,
waved good bye to them and they dissolved into the crowd. The day made
me realize how little time I spend with people who aren’t around my
age, especially teenagers, and how refreshing it was to get a glimpse
into their lives. As a designer I kept thinking to myself that to
really put yourself into other people’s shoes, you have to meet them
face-to-face, in person and have a conversation with them. It makes
such a big difference, you make less assumptions about them and
discover what it is they really need.

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Comfort in Seoul

Backtracking a bit, we can't forget to talk about Seoul. In our original itinerary, we weren't even going to hit Seoul. But once our friend Bremelin got wind of our travel plans, she insisted that we come visit. We were so glad that we had someone who knew the city and people well because it colored our experience so much, as the social aspect is so important to Korean food. When you go out, you're with a group of your coworkers or friends, or else you're with your whole family. It's about eating together and enjoying life. So we counted ourselves lucky that we were able to share our meals in Seoul with so many different people – I don't think our perception of Seoul would have been the same had it just been me and Wayne.

Of course the first thing we did was hit a BBQ joint with Bremelin. If you've never been for Korean BBQ, here's the deal: you sit around a table that has a grill in the center. Ideally the place you've chosen uses real charcoal and not that gas shit. They drop the charcoal into the center and drop a huge vacuum tube over it to suck up the smoke. You order some cuts of meat (usually pork; beef is available but is rather expensive), and they bring it out raw and you stick it onto the grill. While you're waiting, they bring out little plates of pickles and other salty nibbly things. As it's cooking, you cut up the meat with scissors and dish it out. You roll the meat into a piece of lettuce or sesame leaf, some salty bean paste, raw garlic, and super hot peppers. Stuff it in your mouth, repeat. It was delicious. We've gone for Korean BBQ numerous times in NY, but it didn't compare to what we had in Seoul. The pork just tasted so rich and fatty, and the charcoal just gave it that smoky flavor that you can't get from gas. And of course downing soju with a friend completed the experience.

Believe it or not, Korean food is not all about meat. (My waistline would tend to disagree though.) Kihwa, a friend of Bremelin's, took us to a place called Sanchon in the Insadong district. It specializes in vegetarian temple cooking, and has a very refined, beautiful and traditional atmosphere. There's a set menu for both lunch and dinner but there's not much difference, apparently there is a show at night. It's some of the most beautiful food that we've encountered on this trip; each dish had its own set of flavors, textures and colors. Together it was a perfectly composed meal that would  beat the pants off of all the vegetarian places and rate with any top restaurant in New York.

Knowing that we love food, Bremelin got in touch with Daniel Gray, a blogger who specializes in Korean food and runs culinary tours around Seoul. We hit up a traditional market and  poked around some stalls. The lady with the huge of amounts of pickled vegetables was quite sweet and offered us a million samples. We ogled all the different street foods, from pajeon (scallion pancakes) to soup with lots of offal. Many of the customers come here because they get nostalgic about the food they used to eat when they were young; the crowd tended to be older. We finally settled on trying soondae (Korean blood sausage) and something similar to head cheese. It definitely tastes much better than it smells. We also got our first taste of makgeolli, a rice-based alcoholic beverage that has a milky, smooth texture and has a low enough alcohol level that I can drink more than one glass.

Fortunately for us Dan invited some of his friends along, because Korean food is very much about socializing and drinking! We got acquainted over some more Korean BBQ and soju/beer/Coke shots (I had ONE thank you very much), and then made our way over to a bar. We ordered some green makgeolli (green from mulberry leaves), fresh tofu and kimchi. Fresh tofu and kimchi is the best bar food ever, and makgeolli is my new favorite alcoholic beverage. We ended the night with more soju and a rich seafood soup in one of the informal restaurants that sets up on the street. I definitely recommend a tour with Dan because you'll get to try all kinds of food at great places that you'd never be able to find on your own.

We didn't get sick of Korean food, but we also had some excellent Western style food while we were in Seoul. Bremelin's friend, Kihwa, owns a lovely multistory cafe in downtown Seoul called T42 that specializes in tea. Each floor has its own character, and the tea is very high quality. We happily found ourselves in the cafe numerous times, sipping tea and enjoying scones, cookies and other yummy baked goods. I think the most rich item was the Honey Loaf, basically a third of a pullman loaf topped with butter, cream, honey and a scoop of vanilla ice cream served warm. It was like french toast meets bread pudding times five servings. To top it off, we ate the Honey Loaf while we attended a beautiful concert on the top floor of the cafe because Kihwa's also a talented and accomplished harpist! We also had the chance to have some pizza at Kihwa's friend's place called Blacksmith Pizza. He made all the furniture and interior fittings himself (he's a blacksmith), and it has a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. We devoured the pizza, which was thin-crust italian style. It's been months since we've eaten any pizza and we haven't really craved it, but that day we were so glad to eat something familiar in such a friendly place. 

For me, Korean food is about comfort and familiarity. Kihwa and her friend took us to one of the most famous places in Seoul for samgyetang (a soup/stew made from a whole chicken stuffed with rice stuffing and ginseng). It was like pure essence of chicken, it made me think of cozy sweaters and fireplaces and a warm kitchen in winter. Brem took us to a lovely little place in her neighborhood (owned by a Mr. Kim) for bibimbap, pork belly and Korean pancakes. Everything was delicious, but I loved the atmosphere the most. It seemed like people from just down the block took their family out for dinner, and all the kids and grandparents were there sharing the meal and relaxing. For the week we were in Seoul, we found that we had a home away from home.

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