12 Unexpected (but cool) things about Seoul

1. I didn’t expect people to make a fuss about The Intrepid Traveler and myself. I mean people are constantly coming up to us – asking if we need directions, if we know where we are going, asking where we are from. We finally figured out that the issue is that we’re alone. No tour group. I gather that ladies of a certain age (ok – over 65) – just don’t wander the streets of Seoul alone. It’s not that we’re in danger – it’s amazement that we are the kinda folks that would do that.


2. I didn’t expect there to be so few ‘North American’s’. In the Namu – our adorable hostel, there are no other North Americans. There is one guy from Edinburgh, (you are not allowed to call him English) – all the other folks are Asian or Indonesian. Interesting eh? We were waiting for a light in the Financial District – Downtown Seoul, and standing in a crowd of 30 to 40 people. Only one other person was Caucasian, and I didn’t ask where he came from.

3. I didn’t expect all the help. We went to a Korean BBQ restaurant – and they literally fed us. They spoke no English, we speak no Korean – so they gave up trying to explain how to cook the food – and did it all for us. That and wait on all the other tables. They even had to demonstrate how to take the leaves they gave us and wrap the cooked meat in them – my favorite – Mint leaves I think. And the BBQ sauce was yummy. Actually – the meal was Delicious – and would have been 5 stars if I hadn’t felt a bit like a 5 year old learning to eat!


4. I didn’t expect everyone to be busy. In most of the other countries we’ve visited – there are always groups of people, generally male, just hanging around. Playing board games, smoking cigarettes, lounging here or there. But not in Seoul. Everyone – from 2 years old to 81 (we asked – he told us) is busy, busy, busy.

5. I didn’t expect all the food stalls. I think I should have – in Bangkok – that was one of the things I most remember. But here they take it to an entirely different level. We have seen Fish counters – with ice chests full of fresh fish – set up on the shopping street around the corner. The gal doesn’t lack for customers either. Trucks drive along playing songs and selling food – right off the truck. We saw a chain of street stalls – vendors wearing identical uniforms (beige jackets – cute hats) and pushing carts with bottles of yogurt and milk. And there is the cooked food. In many cases – they actually cook to order while you wait. Fried dough, sauteed fish, I saw one cart that had deep firers with fish on skewers. You ordered a skewer – he dunked it into the firer for you. Now that’s cooked to order. We even spotted a lady with a machine for making creme filled Doughnuts while you waited. I even saw an ‘Expresso’ Van, a Coffee House on wheels.

6. Speaking of coffee – I totally didn’t expect all the coffee houses. Reviews from a year or so ago mentioned the challenge of getting coffee in the morning – while not any more. There is at least one coffee shop a block – a smattering of Dunkin Doughnuts and Starbucks (we export the best, eh?), but mostly clearly Korean owned and operated. Signs that say ‘Best Standing Coffee’, ‘Coffee by Stand and Drip’, ‘Coffee and Bean’ speak to local control and sign making. And they are expensive – signs outside announce prices in the 2500 to 4000 Won ($2.50 to $4.00) range – pricey even by our standards.

7. I am intrigued by the gender roles. In our guest house – the cleaner is the male host – he washed the dishes and vacuumed the floors. The guides at the museums are all women, the waitresses all female, the cooks all male. I don’t know if I’m drawing a conclusion based on insufficient observation or not – but it does appear that while everyone is super busy – there are assumed roles.

8. Did you know that Koreans take off their shoes when they walk into a house, a restaurant, etc.? All the traditional places, including our guest house, provided a space for you to put your shoes before you enter the house. I’m really glad I brought my Slippers. And I went out and bought seriously cute socks to put on if I don’t feel like carrying my slippers.


9. All (99.5% at least) of the women wear long sleeves. Now it’s fairly cool in May here – 70 degrees during the day – but the school girls are all wearing long sleeve shirts – and short short short skirts. So it’s not the weather. Even walking around downtown, we never saw a woman’s elbows. Beautiful suits, drappy skirts with uneven hemlines, plenty of short skirts with or without tights underneath – super nice fashion – but always long sleeves.

10. I didn’t expect all the English in the Museums – and the audio tours have been fantastic. All the museums and Palaces we’ve toured so far have English signs on many of the displays – and they all offered an audio tour – sometimes free. These were excellent. And they clearly post the times of English tours. We’ve taken 2 – once was just us – another was with about 20 other people – from a tour group of course. But not a ‘North American’ tour group – They were clearly Asian. So the languages here seem to be Korean – and English. I have seen signs in Chinese and Japanese – it’s easy to tell which are Korean – but always there is English.

11. The cars are amazing – not just the number of them for a city with tiny roads and NO parking – but the size. The two biggest brands are not surprisingly Hundai and Kia – but there are BMW – 7 series no less – and SUV’s. I mean there is no parking. None. People put cars everywhere – if there are rules – I couldn’t figure them out – it’s amazing. Very few bikes, not many motorcycles – just cars and buses everywhere.

12. The metro system is wonderful. It’s modern – there are elevators at every station – there are signs in English – the exits are numbered – and put on the maps – so it’s easy to figure out where you will be when you take exit 5 for example. Just Outstanding. Montreal – take a lesson. Interestingly – there is a wall of glass doors between you and the metro cars. When the metro arrives – the doors on the train line up with the doors on the station – and they both open. It’s rather like the subways in the airports. I know there is talk of doing something similar in Montreal – and frankly – I think it’s a good idea.

Ok – that’s enough cool stuff for one Post. Tomorrow I’ll continue with more cool things I’ve discovered about South Korea.

Signing off – The Soup lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Yes – I am staring at you

Confession time – we are a one car family, and I’m not the one with the car. That means I’m often on the bus/metro going to and fro. Which I love. It gives me time to think – and right now – it is giving me time to ‘blog’.

I love watching people – and yes, sometimes I stare. So when you spot someone kinda watching you – ever wonder what they are thinking?

If it’s me – I’m wondering if you like the music you are listening to thru those ever-present headphones, I wonder if your blue nail polish goes with that purple scarf. I wonder what is in your shopping bag – and if it came from the store that it says it did. I wonder how you can lift that big purse or heavy-looking back-pack. I consider your earphones – why are you still wearing earphones that look like ear mufflers when those ear buds give better sound? Must you have a bluetooth in your ear so you look like a cyborg? Or do you want to look like a cyborg – so you wear one? Are you really reading that newspaper – or just looking at the pictures and checking out the headlines? Are you ‘rocking’ your outfit, or did you just throw on anything this morning? Are your shoes/boots unlaced for a reason? Maybe your shoes don’t fit – or maybe it’s a fashion statement. If it’s a fashion statement – what does it say? I’m so cool that if my shoes fall off, it’s not a problem?

I wonder about %’s – What % of the people I see have ear-phones plugged in? (lots) What % are overweight (not so much here in Montreal). What % are young, What % are old, What % are male, What % are female. And why are there so many young people traveling – shouldn’t they be in school? CEJEP or University?

Sometimes I’m just wondering when you last combed your hair. In Montreal, in winter, seeing someones hair is a bit of a treat – we tend to the hat/hood/cover-up motif. So today, with the sun out – most people are letting their hair show – and it’s kinda nice.

And sometimes I’m thinking about the bus – how does the driver always know where to go and where to stop. I was once on a bus that got lost – it was so weird. The passengers were trying to tell the driver he had taken a wrong turn – and to his credit – he owned up to the fact that it was his first time on our route. He really was lost. But I have other questions about the bus – does the driver care if he’s on time? Does he care that I always say thank you and have a good day when I get off? Does she think about the fact that it’s really unusual to have a woman bus driver. Does she sometimes worry for her safety – at night, alone, on the bus, way out in the suburbs? Or is downtown more scary? What would he/she do if there was a fight on the bus? Would it make a difference if it was a he or a she?

So – next time you spot someone staring at you on the bus or in the metro – Smile. If it’s me – I’ll smile back. Promise.