I must say, my adventure has not had the easiest of beginnings. Immediately after I got here, I threw my back out in a fairly major way. Probably a combination of accumulated stress from getting ready to leave, carrying luggage while traveling, being crammed into various planes, trains and automobiles, and sleeping on air mattresses. Whatever it was, “Joan”—the nickname I gave a long time ago to that area of my lower back that levels me every once in a while—made an appearance and hobbled me, but good. Then, I woke up the third day I was here with a rabid case of that which attacks those of us with lady parts when our body pH gets thrown out of whack. Lovely. And, because of my bad back, I couldn’t even bend properly to apply the medicine I was eventually able to get by doing the most embarrassing mime show ever to a group of blinking, non-comprehending, non-English speaking, male pharmacists. (Or maybe they did understand, and they were just too amused by the graphic charades performance to let on?) Then, a couple days later, I fell on my ass running down a hill after my hostess’ kids, and sprained my wrist. And finally (dear God, I hope it’s finally!), one of my toenails spontaneously fell off last week, presumably from all the walking I’ve been doing, but who knows? Maybe it’s stray radiation floating over from Japan. So, yeah, Seoul kinda gave me a one-two-three punch, right off the bat. But, I survived it, in part, because I was lucky enough to land in the lap of luxury. Not only does the place I’m staying have a Korean sauna (I guess, here, it’s just a sauna) IN THE BUILDING, but the home of my wonderful hostess, Jung Eun, is gloriously beautiful and comfy, and has the bathtub of my dreams, in which I soaked for at least an hour almost every night. Ahhh…all is right with the world again after a good soak in the bathtub, no?
Another thing this household has, which apparently is commonplace here in Korea, is a dedicated kimchi refrigerator, out on the terrace, so the smell doesn’t bother anybody or pervade the other food. This, I think, is brilliant. Kimchi is, as everybody knows, an inextricable part of any Korean meal. It’s on the table as a side dish—or “banchan”–and it’s often an ingredient in the main dish. There are as many kinds of kimchi in Korea as there are types of potato salad in the west. The classic is with Korean cabbage (like Napa cabbage) and chili paste, garlic, fish sauce, and other spices and aromatics. But there is white, vinegary kimchi, radish kimchi, watery kimchi with pickled peppers, and so many others. The word “kimchi” is a derivative of the original Chinese words for “salted, soaked vegetables,” so it doesn’t necessarily refer to just one thing. And over the years, it has come to be a kind of umbrella word for a whole class of fermented vegetable condiments. But they all have one thing in common: they are fermented, i.e., the more delicious they are, the stinkier they are. So, they get their own home outside.
Seoul is a dazzling city. Much of it was built, or rebuilt, in the last 30 to 50 years, as the city was pretty much destroyed in the war in the early 1950s. So, it’s very modern, especially the city districts south of the Han River, such as Gangnam, of “Gangnam Style” fame. The historic part of the city lies north of the river, and includes all five of the royal palaces, the old Seoul prison, ancient city gates and remnants of the old city wall, and culture-rich neighborhoods like Insadong and Namdaemun.
The subway system is immense and fantastically easy to navigate, as evidenced by the fact that, on my first venture out in it, I was utterly and completely stoned out of my gourd on Mexican muscle relaxants due to my back spasm, and I still managed to get where I intended to go, without getting lost or arrested. Now, that’s saying something. Whether you’re lost or not, though, if you look like a non-threatening foreigner, like I clearly do, just appearing confused by the place will prompt any Korean grandma who speaks five words of English to come and grab you by the elbow and lead you, like it or not, where she thinks you need to go.
This has happened to me more than once, and I just decided to go with it. Those Korean grannies are great in the subway; they will shoo the teenagers off the seats for you, and prattle away cheerfully at you in Korean, as though you know what they’re saying, the whole way to your destination (or the destination of their choosing for you). My ample bosom seems to fascinate them, as they frequently gesticulate about it in ways that indicate they find it either most impressive or terrifying. I can’t tell which. Either way, I have decided to find this comical, and not get all self-conscious about it. Although, the day after the first time it happened, I had a nightmare that I had forgotten to pack any bras, and woke up in a panic that I wasn’t going to be able to find any in my size here.
Ampleness, in general, seems to be a subject dealt with pretty bluntly here. Koreans call a spade a spade when it comes to heft, and there doesn’t seem to be any sense that it’s a delicate subject. If the Spanx fit, you gotta wear ‘em, right?
For example, one day, I saw this advertisement on the video screens that are everywhere on the subway, in the trains and on the platforms. It’s all in Korean, so I didn’t understand the words, but the video showed this computer-animated, corpulent alien baby sinking it’s tentacle-like appendages into the shapely extremities of a young Korean woman who was trying to jump rope. I watched in horror as she tried in vain to wrench the globular creature off of her, only for it to hold on for dear life, its tethers stretching like taffy as she pulled. Then, there’s a brief shot of her on the phone, and the next thing you see is the cutely horrible blob being dragged off, crying, by two faceless men to what looked like an asylum. That’s when I realized…it was an ad for a liposuction clinic!
The ghastly alien baby was a representation of stubborn arm and thigh fat! I double-checked this with my friends Yvette and Jung Eun, and they confirmed it, saying the ad was a mistake, because now you feel sorry for the fat, which is the opposite of what a liposuction clinic should be going for. They’re right…I sort of did feel sorry for the anthropomorphized fat as it got hauled off. He looks so sad….
Since we’re on the subject of excess, thanks to an introduction from a friend back home, I got to experience something I would never have gotten the chance to do in a hundred years otherwise: the room salon. Room salons are a place where people—mostly men—go to drink and party in private, with professional party pals who drink with you, keep you company, and generally ensure that the atmosphere is lively and pleasant. The establishment is like a hive of small, private, plushly appointed rooms, each with its own men’s restroom (ladies have to go out to the facilities in the hall, as most of the customers are men, so the rooms are appointed for men). Once you get situated, the manager brings in a lineup of about a dozen gorgeous, glamorous girls, and you pick the ones you want to hang out with, or, if you don’t like any of them, you ask for another lineup. You can get a lineup of pretty boys, too, if you want male company. We got a couple of each. It was all very Bunny Ranch, although, I felt so badly toward all the ones we didn’t pick, I wanted to run after them and apologize, and explain that it was nothing personal, and they were all very attractive. That part was a bit awkward. I asked discreetly if the girls and guys working there were, in fact, “working girls and guys,” but was told, not all of them. Apparently, you can determine the ones who are by asking if they care to go for a “second round” after the party. That’s the secret code word.
Anyway, once the selection is made, the booze starts a-flowin’ and the platters of fruits and nuts and candies arrive, and every time you turn around one of the girls or guys is stuffing a grape in your mouth or topping off your drink with $500 a bottle whisky, and before you know it, you’re belting out off-key Kelly Clarkson tunes to a live electric guitar accompaniment while everyone dances around you like you were some kind of pagan fire goddess…or so I’m told. I really don’t remember that clearly. (By the way, thanks Yvette, for arranging that, I had the time of my life! I think….)