The North Seoul Tower – Itaewon Day 3

If you look over the stores and restaurants in Itaewon, you can see one of Seoul’s most iconic structures, the North Seoul Tower. It stands on one of the mountains that surrounds the city and looks over the action from all of its neighborhoods. During the four years I have lived here, I have seen this needle guarding the city, and I have always talked about eventually making it up there one day. I waited until yesterday to finally make that dream become a reality, and I discovered that after all of the palaces and the Buddhist temples, and tall buildings I have been to while out here, that this is, by far, the most touristy thing that I have visited in Seoul.

Getting to the tower is not that difficult. You just take subway to the Myeongdong Station, and get out through exit three. Find the Pacific Hotel, and take the road to the right of it up the hill, and you will eventually find the mountain that the tower is on. There are two ways up the mountain, you can take the stairs up or you can take a cable car. I took the cable car, and I would recommend taking the stairs.

I went to the tower yesterday because I thought that a lot of Koreans would be at home preparing for the Lunar New Year holiday so it would not be that busy, and this might have been the case. It was still really busy though, except not with Koreans. Apparently when people from South-East Asia celebrate this holiday, they decide to go the touristy thing in Seoul. February is not the best time to be in Seoul. It is really cold, and there are no leaves on the trees. Yet they were all here anyways. We stood in line for twenty minutes to buy tickets to stand in another line for forty minutes to get on a cable car that was way overpacked with people to take a ride up a hill to see the views from up top. It would have taken fifteen to twenty minutes just to take the stairs up to the top, and the exercise would have been worth it.

Once up there, the views were really worth it. The North Seoul Tower sits in the perfect spot to walk around and see all the different nooks and crannies of the city. There are also a lot of fun things to do that highlight the Korean culture, from looking at old structures from the Joseon Dynasty to a lot of booths that teach people how to play the traditional games from tuho to yunnori. There were plenty of things to keep me occupied up there.

Of course, it is also a big tourist destination, so there are a lot of companies that wish to take advantage of this fact. There are plenty of restaurants to eat at, and a couple of bars as well. There are numerous statues of Korea’s favorite cartoon characters so they can take pictures of them with their children. And of course there is a whole wall dedicated to love locks. This tradition that started in Paris has found its way all around the world. Young lovers will buy a lock and attach it to this wall then throw away the key. The idea is that the lock represents their love, and by throwing away the key then their love will always be eternal. It is a romantic idea, but it loses its power when their is a vending machine selling locks, and everybody believes that they have to do it. The idea starts to drift over to that love of capitalism idea instead.

Despite it obvious tourist appeal, visiting the North Seoul Tower was worth the adventure, and I am glad that I took the time to go out and do it while I am still living out here.

How is This Not a Thing – Itaewon Day 2

One of the things I have learned while living in Seoul is that South Korean look at the world differently than pretty much any other culture I have experienced. For example, right now, it is very popular with the youth of Korea to wear clothes that depict the death of the beloved Sesame Street characters. I don’t know if they even know what Sesame Street is, but they really want to see all of their characters dead. In a way, it is disturbing, but I think that they think it is endearing.

Not all of the things that they enjoy are as creepy. They are definitely a coffee culture, even though this is not traditionally what they were. There are numerous cafes out there, most of them, the typical cafes you would find in any other place in the world, including the over-saturation of Starbucks, but they have specialty cafes as well. There are board game cafes where you can go and play any of the games that they have on the shelf. They also have ones that allow you to play with legos, or rest in a fake indoor garden. These are all popular, but the most popular of them involve animals.

There are cafes where you can hang out with dogs, or cats, or even goats, but the one that I went to yesterday let you hang out with meerkats, Meerkat Friends. It is not in Itaewon, but it is only a fifteen minute subway ride over to the Hongdae neighborhood. It is the perfect way to spend a wet and rainy afternoon, and it is a thing that is typically Korean. It costs 12,000 won to enter the cafe, and they serve a variety of drinks there even though nobody really buys any of them. You then get the opportunity to sit in a pen with a herd of meerkats that crawl all over you, and nestle close so they can get in a quick nap. They let you stay in there for ten minutes at a time, but then there are other animals roaming around the cafe that allow you to play with them as well. They had a couple of cats, a couple of foxes, and a couple of raccoons. It was a fun experience, and we quickly lost track of time as we played with the animals.

If you do come out here and want to visit one of these cafes, I recommend that you do your research on the places first. There are a lot of cafes that house animals, but not all of them are kind to the animals that they have. Meerkat Friends does a great job of caring for their animals, and it is almost as if they twenty pets that they get to play with every day. If I wasn’t a teacher, this is the kind of place that I would look to work at because it would be fun to go to everyday. It was fun to go to just for one day, and it is a place that everyone should seek out if they ever find themselves in Seoul.

Escaping the Grind – Itaewon Day 1

I know it is going to sound like I am the laziest person on Earth when I title my post “Escaping the Grind” three weeks after just having a long Winter Break. How much of a grind could I have been through in that short of a time? It is true that the semester has just started, and we have just gotten into the work that we need to do, but a very important holiday, Lunar New Year, has come to Korea, and the school has given me a five day weekend. Of course, I will take advantage of it, and go to downtown Seoul and see some of the sights. I am also an English teacher, so I never get to completely away from the grind. I have brought a stack of papers with me that I need to grade, and there is some lesson planning I need to do, but I do get a little extra time to enjoy life a bit.

I am not the only one getting away from the grind either. Everybody in Seoul has travelled to the smaller towns and quiet corners of the city to celebrate the holiday. Lunar New Year is a huge family holiday in South Korea, and people will travel to the locations where the head of their families reside. That location is never inside the city itself. In fact, Seoul clears out quite a bit, making it the perfect time to go downtown and see some of the sights. One of my favorite places in town has always been the neighborhood of Itaewon, and I have made this my little destination for the next couple of days.

Itaewon is probably the most international location in Seoul. It is close to Yongsin Military Base, and because of this, many of the soldiers and people who work there come to this spot to unwind and have a good time. There is a plethora of restaurants that range from Italian and Mexican, to Middle Eastern and Thai cuisine. There are lots of shops selling sports gear from the States, a variety of vinyl records and English books. It is also close to the Korean War Museum, Bukchon Cultural Village, and the Seoul Tower. It is the perfect central location to see a lot of Seoul and still have a lot of fun.

I didn’t get into this part of town until later in the afternoon, so I did not have a lot of time to explore, so I went to my favorite place right away, Vatos Tacos. This fusion restaurant takes the parts of Korean food I enjoy and blends them with Mexican to make one of the best meals you can get in Seoul. There are a few locations in town, but Itaewon has the first location. Usually I go down to this location and even at 5:30 in the afternoon, I have to wait a good thirty minutes before I am able to get a table, but because of the holiday, I was able to walk right in and find a spot at the bar. There was a steady stream of people who came and went throughout the time that I was there, but it still never filled up the way that it usually does.

Even the roads were quiet. Usually the sidewalks would be packed with people, and the roads jammed with cars and taxis. It is the perfect time to come and visit this place, and get the most out of the experience. I am excited for the days to come that will allow me to try some of the other food that it offered, and see a couple of the sights. It will be a nice break from the daily grind because Itaewon is also experiencing a break from its usual grind. Lunar New Year offers a lot of advantages to this part of the world, and I am glad that I am here to experience them.

Until Next Time – The Holidays Day 21

For most people, the New Year starts at midnight on January First when the ball drops and everybody cheers. And even though, during most December 31sts, I participate in this ritual, it is not until that trek back home and getting settled into the routine of school when I start to feel that the New Year has begun. Until that moment, I am still on vacation, trying to grab some fun while the opportunity is still available. All of the rules of vacation apply. Working out is unnecessary because vacationing is hard work. Food is always fat free, so I can eat whatever I want without having a guilty conscience. Staying up late and being merry is the whole reason I am on vacation in the first place, so I should never look to my responsibilities, hoping that they will be taken care of. That is the whole reason I have a job in the first place. How can I take on those resolutions that is tradition on the first day of the year when my mind is still thinking about these important vacation ideals?

So when I made my way to the airport on Thursday to make that long flight back to Seoul, I had a little more time to contemplate where I was in life and where I wanted it to be heading this year. Yes, I know that this is a little bit later than everybody else, but I have already stated my reasons. It was also time to say goodbye to Colorado once again. This is always a bittersweet departure. For anybody who travels a lot, they know that it becomes tiresome to always be living out of a suitcase and jumping around from place to place. There is always the urge to find the comfort of your own place and the ease of living that is there. When I got into that plane, I longed for the comfort of the groove I have carved away in the mattress of my own bed, and the spot on my couch that had felt the pain of my absence. I wasn’t looking forward to the fourteen plus hours of travel I would have to endure to get me there, but those thoughts made the journey a little less painful.

These lures of comfort are also tinged with the bitterness of leaving something wonderful behind. I know that it has been almost four years since I last called Colorado my home, and I have seen a lot of the world since then, changing my perspective of how I look at it. But this is the place that helped shape me into who I am today, and every time I go back, I can’t help to feel that influence. The dusty plains, and rocky mountains will always call out to me, and I always hate the moment that I have to say goodbye to them. The one consolation that I can take with me as I sit in that cramped airplane seat, scrolling through the Hollywood movies that I missed in my absence is that though I may be away, Colorado will always endure. And I look forward to the next time that I come back and say hello. So, until next time, fare thee well Colorado. And to all the friends and family that I leave behind, I look forward to catching up when our paths cross again some day.

You Can’t Go Back to the Green – The Holidays Day 20

When people think of Billy Joel, the song “Piano Man” usually pops into their mind, but a song that I think is often overlooked is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”. It is an epic song that follows the course of a couple as they fall in love during their teenage years, and eventually break up. One of my favorite lines from the song has always been, “Then the king and the queen went back to the green/ But you can never go back there again.” It is a thought that has really stuck with me the last couple of days as I have travelled around Denver. The city has some of those familiar landmarks that I remember from growing up, but there has been such an influx of people to the state lately that I am having a hard time finding things that used to be there, but are no longer there. New buildings, new developments, and new businesses are taking the place of open space and run down shopping centers all of the time, and it is no longer the Denver that I once remembered.

This was painfully evident when I went down to Auraria Campus in the heart of downtown to pick up some paperwork from my old university. The campus actually houses three different colleges, and mine used to share buildings with a lot of the older schools. But I had not been back to the campus since 2006 when I graduated, and Metro State University has grown quite a bit since then. There were many new buildings on the campus that belong solely to this university. Many new parking lots also dotted the campus, and the age of the student there had obviously lowered. What was once a commuter college had turned into a legitimate institution with a completely different vibe. The old campus I once knew was long gone, and would never be back again.

This is the way of life too. We experience things, and because of that we get a new perspective of the world. We may wish to go back to that innocent view that we once held, but we can never go back to that old way of looking at the world because our new view will always taint the old one. A city does the same thing. It grows and shapes itself into the needs of its citizens at that time. When you live there, you hardly notice the changes taking place, but if you ever leave and come back, it feels like you have come back to a completely new city. Sometimes that change is shiny and new, but other times, it is just the city showing its age as it slowly goes into decline. The point is that I can never come back to the green again. My time at the place has come to an end, and I can come back to visit from time to time, but it is somebody else’s place to call home and change into the vision that they have the place. It happens to us many times in our lives; we just need to recognize when that time has come and be wise enough to move on. And most importantly don’t get mad when the place we left behind has changed into something new. Remember the time you had there with fondness, and enjoy the new vision to come.

Catching Up – The Holidays Day 18

Back in the days when I used to work in the restaurant industry, I had a love-hate relationship with the holidays. The Christmas music that was piped in over the speakers used to get on my nerves, but it helped to bring in the crowds. And there were a lot of crowds. It was the time of the year where I made a lot of money because I always had packed sections, and people were a little loose with their wallets. I enjoyed making all of that money, but the crowds that were brought in were what we referred to as high school reunions, people who had not seen each other for a long time, and would sit at a table after they had eaten to sip on some water, and catch up. They would take up a table from a waiter who needed the money and sometimes cause us to have to wait around until after they left so we could clean the table and go home. Yes, I got a tip out of these people, but the annoyance was not always worth the change, and we would argue amongst the wait staff about who would take the table or not.

You see in the United States, a table is a waiter’s most important tool, and waiters who can turn and burn through tables are the ones who end up making the best living because they sell the most. So when a group comes in and takes up this valuable real estate, it costs a waiter money. I am not saying that it is right, but that is the system that America has come up and maybe if restaurants started to pay their waiters a decent wage, it wouldn’t require the customer to come up with their salary. We could learn something by the way other countries do it because I generally find myself more relaxed when I eat at other establishments around the world.

I do have to confess that after all of those years of despising the high school reunion tables, that I have started to act in the same manner. Over the last couple of days, I have been able to catch up with some old friends by getting together for lunch. I became one of those people that wanted a refill on my ice tea so we could talk about all the things we have done since we last saw each other. Yes, I was kind, and left a nice tip, but I was one of those people who would not leave the table quickly after I finished my meal. I want to apologize to those waiters whose table I would not give up. But it was great that you gave me the opportunity to catch up with these people.

It is the one thing that keeps me coming back, my friends and family. I love exploring the world, and I love the adventures and experiences I get to go through by having the lifestyle that I have created for myself. But I need to come back home so I can get together with these people and catch up. Yes, I do love the mountains of Colorado and miss them from time to time, and yes, I do wish that I had a grocery store that I could go to that would stock its shelves with a variety of food that I feel comfortable with, but these are things that I can do without. There is always a new landscape that I can admire when I travel, and I might not enjoy the flavors as much but that is part of the adventure because I sometimes find things that I enjoy more. And even though I do meet exciting new people on the road, and forge new friendships, it is these old friendships that have become significant to me. These are the people who have been through a lot with me, and I wish to continue to share my life experiences with them. So thank you to those waiters who have put up with me over the last few days. I appreciate it. It is the best holiday gift that you could have given me, the experience of catching up.

Games are Important – The Holidays Day 16

Last night I gathered around the dining room table with my parents, and My sister’s family to play a game of Codenames. It is one of the newer games that has helped bring about the resurgence of the popularity of board games, and I can see why because it is a smart game that with endless possibilities that will never let the game get old. It would almost impossible with all of the way the cards can be laid out that you would never experience the same type of mental connections that make this game interesting in all of the amounts of times that you get together to play the game. Its gameplay is also unique, and I have never experienced another game like it. Getting together with my family on a Friday night to play a board game might sound like a boring way to spend the start of a weekend, but I tend to disagree, and I think it is part of the reason why board games are becoming big business again.

These games are important. First of all, they are a social event. This is something that you cannot get from television or video games as well as you can from a board game. Television used to be a social event with people gathering around to experience the same story at the same time, but people still remained quiet so as not to disturb the action on the screen and didn’t really interact with each other. In recent years, it has gotten even worse. People rarely watch television in real time. Instead, they grab their tablet or phone, find a quiet corner of their house and experience the show on their own. The same can be said for video games. Yes, there are a couple of games like Madden, Smash Brothers, and Mario Kart that lend themselves to people getting together to play, and they have even set up on-line communities that allow people to interact over headsets, but the speed of the game takes over and the opportunity to talk gets taken away, and people become more interested in their reaction times rather than talking to each other.

Board games like Codenames are actually designed for people to interact with each other. There is enough downtime during the game to allow people to talk about their days and what is going on in their lives, and when the action is going on there is collaboration that is happening that once again forces people to interact with each other. It might not be as slick as a video game or cost as much to produce as a television show, but for some reason, this interaction with other people ends up more satisfying then getting together around a screen. I feel that after I play a game that I have made a stronger connection with the people I played with rather than when I sit down and watch something on the screen.

As a teacher, I also think that board games are important. On Fridays in my Creative Writing class, we always play a game of some kind such as Gloom, Balderdash, Magnetic Poetry, Exquisite Corpse, or Line-by-line Story. My students love these days the best and not just because it allows for some downtime in their hectic schedules, but because they get something out of the experience as well. The games are designed to spark creativity, and help my students with their writing whether it is with their voice, word play, or putting together a tighter plot. They are learning while having fun. In fact, I believe that when you are having fun is when real learning is taking place. This is when true engagement is taking place. This is part of the reason that I always try to make my classroom a fun place to be.

Codenames is a great example of how a game can be fun and at the same time a learning tool. It requires that the Spy Master makes connections to various words spread out on the table, and communicate that connection with the use of only one word. It requires that people start to see the connections in words. It also forces players to see that words can have multiple meanings. There is a lot going on in this game through some mental challenges. And it wasn’t like we were all sitting at the table staring at the matrix we created with intense concentration. We were laughing, talking, and having a good time.

This is why games are important. I am happy for this resurgence of games, and I am amazed at the different ways that people have come up with to challenge us while still being entertaining. It is the reason why when I have the opportunity to play a game, I always take it up.