Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Polite people + PETA pleasures = paradise

Holy crap, we didn't think it was possible to be blown away by any place anymore, but Seoul knocked our socks off. From the first moment we arrived in the city by airport bus, freezing cold and lost, a kindly businessman out on a date stopped and asked, in perfect English, whether we needed help finding our way. Call me cynical but the last time a friendly couple offered to "help" it was to charge me to fix a 3-inch spike they themselves put in the tire of my sister's car. Evidently, this guy had nothing up his sleeve because his directions got us to our guesthouse in no time. And this continued to happen every time we paused to gain our bearings, with one gentleman looking so genuinely concerned for us that we started to walk decisively just to alleviate the guilt we felt for worrying him so much. At one point all of Starbucks stopped working to look up directions to Changuimun for us on their mobile devices and a girl volunteered to walk us five minutes down the street (in her apron) to the actual bus station! Unbelievable.
Another old man approached us idling in a park and, upon finding out we were from the States, told us how thankful (pronounced tank-ful) he was for the Americans who came to help South Korea in the 1950s when they were starving. I didn't think anyone liked America anymore!*

Wandering through Insadong back alleys, we came across a number of appealing restaurants and found ourselves trying to match Korean characters on Lonely Planet with the signs in front of us (with little success). Choosing Yetchatjip, a traditional tea house, we ascended rickety wooden steps and slipped off our shoes before seating ourselves on floor mats. The chrysanthemum tea was divine, the double harmony tea more like sweetened motor oil. But the ambience couldn't be beaten: songbirds chirped above our heads and flitted freely from perch to perch in the tea house. We don't know how they kept them from crapping in the teacups but somehow it worked.

Our next stop brought us to Sanchon, a restaurant whose menu is based on food Buddhist monks would eat: a vegetarian's paradise, like much of Seoul. Twenty courses of mostly unidentifiable greens, including traditional kimchi (pickled cabbage), radishes, porridge, soybean stew, wild roots, fried kelp, and something I like to call mushroom twizzlers. All of it may have turned me on to vegetarianism (and simultaneously turned Tia off).

Also, everyone here speaks basic English and many speak well. Those who can only manage a few words, apologize (in English) and make us feel like real asses for not doing a better job of learning their language. It's surprising that few other Americans have discovered this place.

* - to be fair, he said the older generation was thankful but that the younger generation didn't feel the same way.

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