Wednesday, February 09, 2011

It's Soju Cocktail Hour: The So-milk

Lighter and just a tad sweeter than vodka, rice-based soju lends itself well to mixing. Koreans usually drink soju solo, taking shots of it over a long, social meal. Sometimes, locals drop a soju shot into a glass of beer, creating what they call a so-mek. So for soju; mek for mekju, the Korean word for beer. Shane's drank a couple at the invitation of our school's head honcho. 

I have a weak stomach, not able to take it straight up. This reality, combined with soju's ridiculous inexpensiveness (about $1.00 for a sixteen ounce bottle), has led us to some sweet soju experimentation that we'll share with you in a series of posts. 

Straight from our kitchen, soju cocktail recipe number one:

The So-milk
 soju + Milkis soda

    and        add up to

This cocktail is a great choice for folks who like to drink, but don't like the taste of alcohol, as the soda covers the soju's taste. Simple but deliciosa. Creamy but packing a punch. I could drink this for days, especially sweltering summer days on the beach. Can't wait for those.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Seoul: At the Top of Namsam

Among my collection of most contented moments in Korea are those standing on mountain tops. Not that I have been to that many mountain tops. Still. In Seoul, that mountain is Namsan. In Hangul, san (산) means mountain, nam (남) means south. South Mountain.

This day, Shane and I skip the slippery winter hike and hitch a ride on the cable car. We've heard from another expat friend of ours that this place is touristy and overrated, but we ignore the cynic and rise up to the peak just as the sun is going down. 

It's a spectacular view, touristy or not. Seoul crawls away from us in every direction, so far it boggles my mind thinking about the number of people inside those buildings. 

Up here, there's a beautiful brightly lit, brightly painted gazebo. Juxtaposed just a few yards away, a couple overpriced restaurants, a few stores selling more than the expected souvenirs: skin care products, teddy bears, and random junk I don't really need to buy at the top of a mountain. That's the thing about Korea, always contrasting, always contradicting, always smacking me in the face with its duality. "You are at the top of a mountain, in the middle of a park, with a spectacular view of a huge metropolis. Soak it in. Buy some stuff." I don't. Though I am strangely drawn to the neon, bell shaped Christmas tree display. Shane and I drool over the gourmet looking restaurant, just one row of seats wide, the entire wall a window overlooking southern Seoul.

Shane and I forgo the ride higher up on N Seoul Tower. It would be another 8,000 won each, and the view from where we are is grandiose without going any higher. The sky is overcast, but the air crisp and calm. Lights below us begin to turn the streets into illuminated rivers of traffic.   

A crowd of families, teenage friends, tourists, and couples amble over the planks of the observation decks, laughing and taking photos. I've seen something like this before, in Florence, Italy: every square inch of the decks' planks covered with locks. Bike locks, keychain locks, heavy duty security locks, pink locks, shiny locks, locks covered in messages of all languages. Locks placed here by optimistic lovers, locking down their hope, promising each other they will always be together. Locks with no keys.

We linger, savoring the changing light. In a few moments, we will take one last look, get in line for the cable car, and play little games with the toddler just ahead of us in the queue. We will smirk at the bad covers of pop Christmas songs playing inside the car, and my mind will meander over the thought about how small I am to a city so huge. Seoul is satisfying, but I feel now more than before that Busan is my place, even if it is only one of my places.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Seoul: The Blue House

Uphill then further uphill then just a little further up. Even before Cheongwadae comes into view, armed police stand in their dark parkas stationed every one hundred yards. They've stood there since 1968, the year North Korean infiltrators snuck in and tried to assassinate the South Korean president and ninety nine people died. The guards eye us up and wave us on. We are the only tourists roaming this neighborhood today. I sip my steaming honey citron tea.

Cheongwadae, or the Blue House, sits tucked in right behind Gyeongbukgung Palace in north Seoul. It was built in 1948, just after the end of Japanese rule. Bukhan Mountain towers behind the Blue House, a natural defense barrier and the entrance to a national park.

We are vaguely impressed with the site, but we can't see much, can't get too close, can't even cross the street to stick our noses through the fence for a better view. That makes sense, because like the White House in the U.S, not all visitors are welcome. Pyongyang is only 120 miles away. 

Across the street from the main gate, Shane places his feet on the inlaid brass footprints on the sidewalk that show exactly where the best place to take a photo is. As light snow shades the Blue House's tiled roof to white, we scuttle away under watchful eyes. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Seoul: Testimony by Lights

Shane and I saw this poster while on our trip to Seoul:

If the type is too small for you, this is what it says:

"Night Photo of the East Asian countries at April 12, 2006 taken by satellites. 
This image shows the difference between North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) taken by satellites at night. South Korea is filled with lights, representative of a developed economy; however, North Korea has almost no lights on at night because of severe rationing of electricity and a poor economy. We would like to ask the North Korean government what they have done while the South Korean government has worked to improve the quality of life for its citizens."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Today on my Coffee Sleeve:

        Espresso of Street

              when I walk on the street
                 with my coffee, 
                     I smile.

               I feel so good and happy.
                  Magical thing!
                It's a cup of coffee.

Seoul: Olympic Park

In 1988, sprinter Ben Johnson lost his gold when he tested positive for a performance enhancing drug, Flo-Jo set an Olympic record, and Greg Louganis got the gold despite a nasty hit on the head from the diving board. It happened in Seoul. 

Twenty three years later, on a day that seems the very antithesis of summer, Shane and I survey the remains of those games, Olympic Park. The Rough Guide we often consult on these matters tell us that "there's a general air of decay about the place-- but that's part of its appeal." It's right. As we walk, we don't see many others, being winter and a weekday. The buildings look as though they are trying their hardest not to look like they were designed by a Cold War era architect. 

We continue on through to the sculpture park, exhibiting works by artists from a handful of the countries who competed. The individual monuments strike me as spartan, but the collaborative nature of the sculpture series hints at a more dramatic story. Larger works stand solitary spread over the grounds, smaller works cluster together. Olympic Park also contains a small art museum. It's nice to know that art got some attention at an event that is all about athletics.

At the front of the park, the air becomes energized. The Olympic flame continues to burn on under the colossal World Peace Gate. Flags from each participating nation still wave, including flags that have outlasted the nations themselves, like Zaire, East and West Germany, the Soviet Union, and North and South Yemen. Lots of children, on winter break from public school, ice skate on the rink next to the gate. We admire the grotesque-faced totems lining the wide walkways. 

I shiver and snap a few more pictures and Shane catches some last glimpses of the World Peace Gate. We walk to the subway, away from this serene place that once held such spectacle, toward our next destination.