For the longest time, I’ve heard, read and seen people talk about the superiority of European products over American ones. Plenty of online forums are filled with American moms claiming how much better the French formulas are or the German baby foods are. And I believe many European countries do a great job with their baby foods. But does this mean they are superior to ours? The answer is simply no. I have got news for you mommas out here in the US. I hate to burst your bubble and deter you from hoarding European baby products.
On my recent trip to Europe, I understood that American products are of great quality and they are on par if not better. Even how businesses welcome parents is simply better here. And I must say I, like many others have taken the US for granted. Everything from the cruel acts of genetically modified produce to the washing of eggs protective outer layer in the name of disinfecting has generally given me an impression that our European neighbors are doing it better. But the reality is that they have their own set of quirks. For instance, can you believe they don’t consume fresh milk? It’s a lot of ultra processed stuff that will happily sit on your counter and doesn’t need refriegeration. I will tell you however that their cheeses are way better. We must up our game on that front and go beyond our Americans and pepper jacks.
The US is one of the best destinations in the world for parents with their little ones. Right from how we are treated in public arenas such as restaurants, shopping centers to how even the diapers are is simply of another level. There isn’t a place I would think twice to visit in America. I can blindly pack up my bag and babies bag and start off on a classic American road trip and not worry about whether the stroller would go through. I wouldn’t worry even if I were to take the local train as the train are aligned so well to the platform I wouldn’t have to lift my stroller. Or worry if I can find kid friendly vegetarian friendly options at restaurants. While Europe does have great food all over, there were times we were in restaurants that didn’t have anything vegetarian besides their bread and water.
Having grown up in India, changing my baby anywhere isn’t that big a deal. However, the convenience of having a changing table in just about every restaurant or department store or gas station makes our lives easier. I have had to change my baby in peak winter on bare bathroom floors with no heating or cleanliness more times than I have had access to changing tables in Europe. This is also not to say that the next time you visit, you should travel with your trusty American products. Europe has equally good options and in some cases, better products that are worth trying on your trip. Millions of babies are after all raised on them. I’m just arguing that American moms seeking European products in the US seems like a case of the grass being green on the other side when it is just as green over here.
Packing for a toddler can be challenging. And packing for a toddler for more than a month and for winter is a harder one to tackle. To make our lives easier, K and I had decided to skip taking suitcases and strollers and instead have brought Osprey Farpoint backpacks to navigate the many stairs in railway stations and to handle the large amounts of walking we would do across UK and Europe.
The key is to get packing cubes to compress what you have. And to use those straps in bags and suitcases to compress everything even more.
For those interested, here is a packing list of things we took for our toddler for our winter vacation to Europe.
2 thermal tops
2 pairs of jeans
5 pairs thick wool socks
2 days supply of diapers and wipes
2 pair gloves
2 pairs beanies
2 layered fleece and insulated jacket
1 thick fleece waterproof jacket
Mustela Cold cream and moisturizer (since my daughter has sensitive skin, I didn’t want to play around with other brand moisturizers)
Mustela Hydra Stick to get those dry patches before heading out.
Baby scissors for nails
One bowl with spoon
1 big and 1 small sippy cup
3 board books
2 sets of flash cards (ABCs and First words)
Aquadoodle (This is amazing for kids that love to scribble and doodle. It is mess free and keeps them engaged for hours)
Fizz wizz tablets
Thermometer (you never know when they will come in handy)
In addition, we also carried a basic set of medicines for our child as instructed by her pediatrician. We did purchase a few things on arrival.
Formula (since our room does not come equipped with a fridge or a microwave, whole milk is not really an option while we’re in the room) – HIPP
Baby wash body and hair – Childs farm for eczema and dry skin – This is excellent even if your child does not have eczema or dry skin . It keeps their skin from going dry in the winter.
Baby diapers and wipes – There are lots of brands. If nothing works, there is always Pampers/Huggies.
Porridge – Creamy porridge from cows gate
Baby food – HIPP or Ellas kitchen
The good thing about European countries for people traveling from the US is the sizes of items you buy here. Even the full size toiletries can be very travel friendly. London is very baby friendly. It is possible to find restaurants that will provide high chairs. There are tons of stores like Boots, Sainsbury, Tesco where you can purchase diapers, baby food, baby toiletries. It is definitely not a walk in the park to take strollers around London as some footpaths can be bumpy and loading the stroller on and off the crowded trains is one more thing to worry about. And I hear it only gets worse in Europe. We have our Ergobaby carrier with excellent lumbar support. So if you’re planning for 5-6 hr outside time and don’t mind carrying the baby for maybe 2-3 hours a day, the carrier would be a better option. But if you’re planning to be out all day, invest in a lightweight stroller.
Fizz wizz tablets are little pellets. You take 2 oz warm water in your sippy cup. Rinse your sippy cup nipple using your fingers. Drop one fizz wizz tablet and close the sippy cup. Shake vigorously for 2 mins. This cleans your sippy cup so well. This is a must for people who can’t deal with bottle brushes on the go.
It is possible as you see to pack light. Toddlers don’t need a ton of things to keep them entertained. Especially in a place like London where there is a bus going down the road every 5 mins. I just place her by the window and she is happy saying “butch” for hours on end. Drawing/doodling is another great way to keep them busy. Join them and they will stay occupied even more. Toddlers love the outside. Just make sure to carry insulated jackets for toddlers with layers beneath. This will keep them nice and toasty. And that is all you want for them to absolutely enjoy the outdoors. A nice snug beanie goes without saying. The insulated jackets may be expensive but save you the trouble of wearing bulky layers. If you’re someone who absolutely dreads lugging around heavy suitcases in stations and airports up and down flights of stairs, packing light is definitely the way to go. It makes travel seem a lot more fun and stress-free.
There is something that happens when you travel. You are stunned with things that happen out of the blue and take you off guard. That surprises me every single time we travel. A few days ago we started on our big journey to UK and Europe. Aadya and I fell sick a week before making it difficult for me to pack our bags. K was busy with work winding up what he could before we left. But then a day before we left when we were supposed to pack, he fell sick. This put the entire task of packing bags plus getting things sorted in our place on me. Just like that, my adventures began. It was indeed time to travel with the rush of things getting done frantically. How these things happen the way they do is beyond me!
On 8th Dec, we took off on BA to London Heathrow. The British are very hospitable people. Can’t say much about the customer service at British Airways though. They not only managed to mess up our reservation but were quite rude and creepy. One customer rep insisted on performing a blessing for our daughter when we called quite stressed out about our seating arrangements. After all, this is our first trip abroad with our toddler. Blessings are always welcome but it was just so frustrating when you are trying to get to some information to plan and the way this person goes “Ms. Divya, I just said I bless your daughter wholeheartedly. Did you not hear me?”. I was very creeped out then because of the tone. The day prior when we called to sort our seating and meal preferences, the representative out of the blue asked us what our nationality was. I have no idea what our nationality has to do with our reservations.
The onward flight to London was very smooth. The new Boeing was just as they call it – dreamy. A good thing about having babies is choosing that front row seat. It gives you the best leg room in economy. Aadya did great on the flight. She was entertained by air hostesses and fellow passengers. She entertained them in return with her air kisses and cute baby head tilts. The 11 hour journey was a breeze. London greeted us with cozy weather. On landing, the first thing we did like any sane person with jet lag would do – get some coffee. We hit up the very famous London coffee chain – Costa. We both had 2 flat whites and shared a ‘toastie’. Why America will not make anything beyond plain grilled cheese I will never know! Toasties are just amazing savory quick eats. You just can’t go wrong with it. It’s also unbelievably easy to make. The toastie we had was a Mushroom Emmental Cheese toastie. I still can’t believe we’re here. It feels surreal. Yet this is happening. We checked into our hotel which is very close to Trafalgar Square. So far London has been nothing but welcoming. Now onto our adventures here in UK and more!
That’s right. Last night’s dinner was quite interesting. We were suggested by the front desk to go to a restaurant called “Seoga and Cook” in Dongtan’s downtown. It was one of those modern, crisp and clean looking, American-ish restaurants. I ordered a Fanta Grape while K had some German beer. He also ordered some fries that came dusted with paprika, garlic powder and parmesan. The fries were served in different shapes. There was matchstick fries, regular fries and wedges. K had ordered Four Cheese Pizza and I went for a new dish called “Eggtata”. For some reason, K was doing an exaggerated Indian accent while saying the word “Eggtata” and it sounded so hilarious!
Eggtata is a skillet comprising of Frittata (kind of like a crustless egg quiche or a super duper fluffy omelet), some pilaf in the center (so the frittata beneath the pilaf gets pretty much flattened out like an omelet) and a fried egg on top drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It’s finished up like a regular frittata in the oven. I had a “kimchi pilaf eggtata” which had kimchi pilaf in the center. Kimchi pilaf tasted a lot like spicy fried rice made with pilaf rice. I was so not ready for this dish to be honest. Just the idea of all that eggy action for dinner seemed a bit much and I was not sure how a frittata would combine with kimchi to make one fabulous dish.
So when our main dishes arrived, the waitress walks up to us and offers us some pickle in a small cup. Pickled veggies for what? I assumed since I was eating my kimchi pilaf, they gave pickle to go with the Eggtata. I called the waitress using a handy device called the waiter button. Why does the rest of the world not have it? It is a small button that can be used to call the waitress. So you don’t have to raise your hand or repeat “excuse me” like a million times before you get the waitress’s attention. Just press the button and boom! there’s your waitress.
The waitress told me we had to eat the pickle with the pizza. Our jaws dropped on hearing that. We had never heard of this combination. I had read earlier that Korean pizzas can be quite different from the rest of the world. Sure enough, we did find some really surprising combinations on the menu last night. For example, there was one with sweet potato and blueberry. I could not fathom most of what I had seen in my imagination. But pickle with pizza was a whole other deal. When the waitress went back to her work, K point blank refused to try pickle with pizza. Being quite the explorer, I was curious and had a bite of the pizza with the pickle. It’s interesting…. It’s interesting but I don’t think I can do it again.
Then came my Eggtata. I was so weirded out to see so much eggy action going on. Fried egg on top of a dozen eggs? I was so skeptical. I cut up a chunk of eggtata and served it up on my plate. The first bite into it was …. deeelicious! You cannot look at eggtata in the same way as frittata. If you do, you would probably be skeptical as I was until that first bite when you change your mind and you go, now that’s something new and something truly amazing! It was super delicious. The eggs or the frittata part wasn’t flooded with italian herbs which is what I think made the frittata pair well with the kimchi pilaf. On the whole, I was satisfied. I obviously could not finish even 1/4th of what was served.
As K and I were almost getting done with dinner, I noticed a small cup of something that looked like oil. I called the waitress who told me Koreans usually dip pizza in some honey. Again, the jaw drop happened. I could not believe what I was hearing. Koreans have truly made pizza their own. It’s not the italian or the american italian style you would have eaten at so many places. It’s different and it’s quite the experience.
So my question is: Would you like some pickle and honey with your pizza?
Last night K told me it was going to rain today and that I had to take precautions if I was going to venture out alone. I had planned to visit Myeong-dong (playing Cyndi Lauper’s “Oh Girls just want to have fu-uhn… Whoaaa Girls they wanna have fun.” over and over in my mind). Myeong-dong is an area in Seoul that sells clothes,accessories and all sorts of swanky Korean beauty products. Oh and their cute $1 socks.
I was worried in the back of my mind on traveling alone to Myeong-dong. If it was an English speaking country, these worries would never cross my mind. But to travel alone in a place where boards/signs are in another language, the people speak only their mother tongue and the public transportation system has a smartphone app that is all in Korean can be quite the challenge. All of this makes it essential to carefully plan and execute. And when K told me it was going to rain, I started to have second thoughts and decided to stay in half-heartedly.
We crossed the road to Starbucks this morning after finding out last night that they open everyday at 6:30 AM. I could not have been more thrilled about going to Starbucks for our morning breakfast. I had a bagel with cream cheese and K had a blueberry bagel with cream cheese. Both of us had tall lattes along with our bagels. As I was sipping into my coffee, the thought of not going was bothering me. And the game of “Should I should I not?” began. I think it was the coffee that gave me that push that I needed to say “rain or shine I’m going shopping!”.
We got back to our room. I packed essentials like my charger, passport, took some currency to buy bus tickets. I waved to K who was leaving as well and started my walk to the bus stop. I was waiting in line (Koreans wait in a single line at bus stops) for the M4108 bus to take me to Seoul (if you’re going to be staying in Dongtan, this would be the fastest option to get to Seoul besides a taxi). After a 10 min wait, a bus came along and before all of us could board the bus, the driver shut the door and took off. I saw the number 0 sign off in the front window and realized it was a count as to how many seats were vacant on that bus. After another 20 mins, another m4108 came along and so my day to Seoul began.
I boarded the bus and took my seat next to a young Korean guy about K’s age. The guy at the front desk had given me some really confusing directions on where to get off and since I wasn’t in the frame of mind to wait for some angel to come save me after I get off the bus, I decided to strike up a conversation with the decent young man next to me. And the conversation went as follows:
Me: “Hi there. So…um…” (I look at his puzzled face and pointed at my map to show that I’m going to Myeong-dong) “Kookmin Bank ye?”
Man (in a distinguishable American Asian accent): So where exactly do you want to go?
Me: Oh (dumbstruck and happy as hell) you speak English? (yay in my mind)
Man: smiles and responds “yes. I used to live in Phoenix Arizona. What about you? Where are you from?”
Me: I’m originally from India (like my face doesn’t say it all!) and I live in California… more specifically San Francisco.
Man: So is this your first time in Korea?
Me: Yes. You know… it’s hard to move around without knowing Korean here. I try to get as many directions as I can and still the unfamiliarity with the location gets me everytime.
Man: Ah.. yes. I remember the first time I went to NYC. Back then, I could barely speak English and I was lost in NY of all the places in the world!
Me: Oh that is so strange. Think of all the bulgogi places they have (bulgogi is a korean bbq dish) and it can still be difficult huh… So… I’m trying to go to Myeong-dong for some shopping. But I need to get to the tourist information office first before I proceed.
Man: May I have a look at your map, please?
Me: Sure (and waits for a helpful gesture)
Man: You need to get down a few stops before that one. I am getting down 2 stops before you need to get down. And when I get down, I can give you directions to go.
Me: Oh thank you so much (a little relieved and yet worried if I can follow the directions perfectly without getting lost)
I start to panic for no apparent reason and shot all sorts of questions at this man. “When would be the right time to press the stop button?” “So is this a fork I see here on the map?” “Which way should I go from here?” “Are you sure there are no other stops in between?” By this time, man lets out a sigh.
Man: You know what… I will walk you to the tourist information office.
I was stunned at this man’s offer to not just give me directions but to walk as far as my tourist office which was a few stops after his just to make sure I reached there without getting lost. I was obviously not going to inconvenience someone headed to work to go out of the way to help me.
M: Oh that’s alright. I am sure I can manage if you just told me how to go.
Man: Oh it’s no problem. My classes aren’t starting until after lunch. So I can take you to the tourist office.
Me: Umm. Thanks. Are you sure? I hope it’s not getting in the way of your schedule.
After that moment of panic settled down and when my stop came, the two of us disembarked the vehicle and started the walk to the tourist office. I came to know that he was a psychology professor at a university in Korea on our way to the tourist office. I thanked the professor for being a blessing in disguise when he walked me to my destination. He wished me a good rest of the trip and headed back to his stop.
From there, I went into the tourist office, chatted quickly with the woman behind the counter, got my maps and headed out the door. I crossed the road and saw a sign at a telecom shop that said that they provided 5G LTE connections. I was shocked beyond words to see the first sign of 5G and paused to click a picture there. Right beside the shop was a small alley. And a colorful board called out to me. A coffee shop. I decided to fuel up before continuing along the day trip.
I walked inside the quaint little cafe upstairs with a view of the streets below. I placed my order for a cappucino and headed to the restroom. Lo and behold, what I saw was a high tech toilet in a public restroom. I repeat, PUBLIC. Although I was mildly disappointed that it was all in Korean, I was happy on seeing a high tech toilet in a public restroom.
After my cuppa, I started to walk the streets of Myeong-dong. So what you will see is a lot of American name brands and popular Korean brand stores lining up narrow streets to make up a cluster of shopping streets in the area of Myeong-dong. I found an extremely interesting Korean beauty tool – the Korean earpick. It’s a decorative little metal object that looks a lot like the spoon except the scoop is tiny enough to comfortably scrape out wax from your ears. I also shopped a few other things – socks, souvenirs, artwork after taking a good stroll around the shops.
By this time, I came to a 4-way intersection of narrow roads and decided to take a right turn as there were no more shops and I figured this might be the end of the shopping district. As I walked down the road, I saw many policemen standing in front of a building. And soon enough I was informed that it was a police academy that I was standing in front of after asking one of the policemen. I was unable to find this police academy on the map. I called out to the same policeman to help me find the way. He said “left. straight”. I said “thanks” and started my walk. I did the left turn and then went straight on when I came to a popular intersection where I made a right turn. Once I did, I was able to confirm that this street came up in one of the pictures I had seen online when I was reading up about Myeong-dong.
After spending a few mins strolling the last and final street of Myeong-dong, I pondered on what to do for lunch. So another quick stop back at the tourist office told me that Insadong was close. I started my walk and a few minutes into it, I came to a road that had medians. I looked behind me and found an entrance to the subway. I decided to go down and get out the other way. What I was expecting to find was a dingy subway with drunken men and a few talented unheard of musicians making their living. Instead I saw a whole shopping world underground. The subway was filled with tons of little shops with goodies like cellphone accesories, cosmetics, handbags, coffee shops and what not.
And just like that, I got out the other way much like the way wizards apparate and made my way straight down the road like the woman at the counter had instructed me to. The walk was very interesting. I saw farmers markets, a tv reporter reporting something, the Cheonggyecheon stream and Gwanghwamun square (statues of Admiral Yi Sin Sin and King Sejong). The walk seemed to take forever. And I was starting to see buildings that weren’t even on the map. I came across an art museum, the national museum of history and then the police museum. It was at that point that I felt like something was wrong. I then looked closely at the map only to realise that while I was so entranced by the subway, I had ended up at the totally wrong exit and came out at another place past Jeong-dong – a place that was never meant to be in today’s agenda.
I began to trudge my way back down the same road and reached my destination after a solid 30 mins. I quickly picked up a tourist map from the information center and went to a restaurant. And like always, I was served some spectacular soupy stew. And this time they threw in some vegetable pancake on the house. I thanked them after the heart-warming lunch they gave me and made my way back to the information center as it had started to rain and plus it was already past 4. I had no umbrella on me and I wasn’t going to make myself miserable by getting drenched in the rain. The information center told me to take the subway to Seoul station and then take the bus from there like always. I thanked them and made my way to the subway. On the way I noticed a street vendor selling umbrellas. I picked one up hurriedly and made a dash for my train. A lovely young lady on the train informed me that she will inform me when my stop has arrived when she saw me buried into the tourist map.
Once back at the hotel, I relaxed for a while before heading out to dubu house for dinner. I asked for the same cheese soondubu. It was mucho delicious. And now for some seoulful sleep to get me ready for another adventurous day in Korea!
For those of you who already know what Jimjilbang is, I am still undecided and wondering if it is not as creepy as it sounds. If you do not, well then, read on to find out.
I have a new favourite coffee place here in S.Korea. What already?! Yes, that’s right. Bad coffee provided by my hotel has pushed me desperately to find the perfect cup of caffeine to ingest into my body. Thank you very much!
I don’t know if it’s just me or do all tourists feel like they can’t get good coffee here in South Korea?
Right across the street from our hotel is a coffee place called “Coffeesmith”. They are indeed smiths who know their craft to the very end. So it was super surprising when the coffee I got yesterday was very good. And it’s even more surprising that they serve their coffees (I’m talking about the smallest size here) in gigantic cups like in the TV show “Friends”.
After some good coffee this morning at Coffeesmith, K and I walked back to our hotel’s cafe to have some expensive breakfast. Why? Apparently, breakfast is not really the “ingest all the grease and carbs you can find” kind of deal here in Korea. It’s usually a humble bowl of soup and there are not too many restaurants especially where I am at to get some cold cereal or eggs! K left for work after scrambling in how much ever he could eat and I finished a plate loaded with half a veggie omelet, some potatoes, a humble cup of vegetable congee (a rice gruel common to many Asian countries including India), some fine German style muesli and a regular sized cup of cappucino. Ok do not judge me. It was an expensive buffet!
After that athletic breakfast, I decided to get some laundry done as we had only packed enough clothing to last 4-5 days. I worked for a bit and made use of Korea’s uberfast internet to watch a bunch of Youtube videos on what to do and not to do in Korea while the washer and dryer did their heavenly work that God sent them to do here on Earth.
*Interesting fact: It is considered highly rude to talk loudly or hush all the way in buses or the subway in Korea.
A few days before we left for Korea, K was telling me how beauty regimes are very popular in Korea and how many Koreans to this day flock to get one particular treatment in a place called “Jimjilbang”. Jimjilbang is nothing but a public bathhouse where you get your body scrubbed off dead skin cells using an abrasive cloth. You can either do this yourself with all the materials they provide you or get yourself an ajumma, a woman who performs the service of scrubbing you down. It seems quite normal… except everyone is soaking in a variety of pools inside the Jimjilbang butt naked. Obviously, being an Asian country, it wasn’t surprising for me to hear that they have separate bathing areas for both men and women. While to an outsider who isn’t particularly accustomed to this cultural regime can find it utterly disturbing and strange, it is a weekly ritual for most Korean men, women and children to this day.
As I read up more about it, I understand that it is more of a “fear of the unknown” that crowds me when going to the Jimjilbang is maybe like going to the salon to get your legs waxed to many Korean women. As I’m so confused on my what my thoughts are about this weird Korean cultural thing, I asked myself why not do this myself in my hotel room and make today a spa sort of day to take care of all that jet lag. So after doing my laundry, I had a quick chat with the guy at the front desk who helps me with restaurants. He asked me to try a restaurant right opposite the hotel after I told him I wanted to try Rabboki, another Korean comfort food. I took a short walk to Homeplus (soon becoming my favoritest* store) to get in on some of the Korean beauty trends.
*favoritest – not a word in the English dictionary 🙂
Firstly, if you ever speak to any Korean or anyone who has visited/lived in Korea a while, they will tell you how obsessed Korea is with beauty regimes. Secondly, they will also tell you just how popular mask sheets are in Korea. I have seen face masks come in tubes or in packets where you squeeze the goo out and apply them on your face and wait until the end of one tv episode before you wipe it off. But this was the first time I saw mask sheets which are wipes cut out to fit your face with holes to see, breathe and chomp down a bag of chips.
I got myself the tea tree mask sheet and a pack of the scrub towels they use in the bathhouses (also known as the “italy towel”). The best part is tons of free stuff. I thought India was obsessed with free goodies and the “buy one get one frees”. Korea takes the cake. They gave me so many cool mask sheets, body wash and body lotion samples. I was feeling pampered already.
On the walk back to my hotel, I stopped at the restaurant right opposite my hotel that sells “gimbap/kimbap” which is a korean sushi roll stuffed with steaming sticky rice, veggies like carrots and pickled radishes, sliced omelet strips and meat. A fellow blogger this morning told me that Rabboki, pronounced labboki, is another spicy korean dish and that most places that sold gimbap would sell Rabboki. This definitely had to go on my list of foods to try in Korea. Rabboki is basically a thick soupy stew made by boiling ramen noodles, veggies, rice cakes, strips of fish cakes (which you can swap with omelet strips or tofu if you are vegan or vegetarian) along with gochujang paste (a korean red pepper paste) and topped with a hard boiled egg to soak in all the spiciness. It was delicious and I can imagine why rabboki is another food popular among college kids. It’s easy and quick to make. Rabboki tastes like ramen noodles cooked with veggies in a spicy marinara sauce mixed in with soy sauce. It sounds gross but makes you wonder why you never thought of this before.
Another astounding find in my exploration of delicious Korean foods is the cheese soondubu jigae last night for dinner. It is processed cheese mixed in with the traditional kimchi soondubu at the very end of the cooking process. I don’t know why Korea hasn’t gotten on the fancy/real cheese wagon yet but processed cheese is all you get in Korea. Plus it doesn’t taste as gross as it sounds. The processed cheese gives the soondubu a very unique flavor. Yet another weird combination that goes completely wrong in my mind but so right in my mouth.
So after all that delicious goodness, I got back to my hotel and relaxed for a while with the mask sheet on. I don’t know if it’s the mask sheet but something about beauty regimes calms me down completely and sweeps me off to another world. It felt so good doing all this after so many years. After that quick ritual and using the scrub towel in the bath, I was thoroughly relaxed and my muscles had loosened up enough to let me drown in the calm
While I was down at the laundry room earlier this morning, one of the things I did was download a book on how to speak korean for beginners. I am so fascinated by the language and the familiarity of the sounds with my own mother tongue. The language is nearly not as intimidating as the script itself. In fact, I am finding it easier by the day to communicate with the shop help, waiters and cashiers at restaurants and supermarkets. I spent the afternoon picking up a few essential korean phrases to help during my trip here.
*Question: Has anyone ever been to Rolling Pin bakery in Korea? These guys have some ginormous looking breads I’ve ever seen.
Now onto some humble dinner (which is a chunk of bread because it is too late to get dinner and I’m so stuffed from all that heavy breakfast and lunch) and a nice cup of hot tea to give a calming finale to my spa day.
I haven’t written in this blog in a long time. It just shows how much fun I’m having as I write this on day 2 of my 10 day trip in Korea. You’re probably wondering why I am blogging instead of being out there and doing stuff. It’s because I had to work for a bit in the morning and I am so bad at remembering names that I decided instead of spending an hour captioning all my photos, I would write a blog as a way to jotting down names of places I visited.
I am not going to get into all the details of the whole flight from SF to Seoul. In a nutshell, it was pretty good. Airline food was awful as always. The best thing about the flight was the hospitality of the airline staff. It is actually nice to see such fantastic hospitality especially in Economy class which I haven’t seen in recent times (both domestic and international).
We landed on March 14. Immigration and baggage claim was a breeze. We took a taxi and I would just like to say not all drivers/taxi drivers are rash in South Korea. It was just the one we took to our hotel in Dongtan.
Dongtan is a relatively newer city in S. Korea. Dongtan has cleaner, broader roads with expensive skyrise apartments and is close to many workplaces specifically Samsung, LG and the like. Though it is not flooded with clothing stores and shopping malls like in Seoul, the cleanliness, utilities, facilities like a shopping mall, restaurants (including American fast foods like MacD’s, DD’s and even Popeyes) and just the newer feel makes up for the lack of hustle and bustle of Seoul if you’re into that kind of thing.
We reached our hotel at around 6:30 and decided to take a stroll near our hotel which was conveniently located near many shops, restaurants, cafes etc. After a while, we decided to get some food and head back to the hotel for a good night’s rest. Luckily K’s colleague and the guy at the hotel’s front desk wrote down “I am vegetarian. I do not eat meat, fish and eggs”. Rumor goes that many Koreans think of fish as vegetarian. Not sure if that is true, but we decided to get that written down anyway.
We had made up our minds to have a traditional korean meal like the Soondubu Jigae – Korea’s ultimate comfort food on our first night here. Unfortunately, it was becoming apparent that most restaurants (including American joints, italian) did not have the faintest clue of what was vegetarian. Our hunger levels were rising and both of us were bordering on cranky. We had to get something soon to alleviate all that frustration from not finding anything. We ended up at a small bbq place with dozens of feet meat of some sort on display. And took a chance anyway by showing the restaurant owner the piece of paper to explain our dietary needs. She let out a big sigh, spoke something in Korean (don’t know what she said but she definitely looked friendly), gestured us to follow her out of the restaurant when we desperately told her “We would like some soondubu”. She pointed us to go down the road and said we would find Soondubu in actions.
As horrible stories go, we certainly did not find any soondubu place. We made our way brooding over our disappointment when I struck upon a sign that said “healthy food”. And told K “Healthy in any part of the world has to include veggies. I’m going in”. So we went in, showed the paper just like we did at the other restaurant expecting another gesture out the door. The friendliest looking woman gestured us toward the table, brought out a menu and it could not have gotten better than this. It was a restaurant that specialized in dubus or the korean hot soup. We explained to her that we were vegetarians and the owners were kind enough to get us a potato pancake and some steaming hot soondubu with veggies to the table. Man were we in heaven! The woman who helped throughout our dinner even went to the extent of showing us how to eat soondubu the right way! We could not have been happier. We left a tip even though it is considered unnecessary in Korea, thanked them profusely and made our way back to our hotel with smiles on our faces. As I write this blog post, I cannot help but think about going back for some hot dubu for lunch.
The next morning, we got an early start to Seoul. After taking directions on what bus to catch to Seoul, we walked to our stop, took a 40 min bus ride to Seoul. It can’t get more adventurous when everything works against your plan. The bus driver for some reason on entering Seoul decided to stop the bus and eject us all out after encountering heavy traffic into the city. He said all of this in Korean and we obviously knew something was happening as everyone had a panicky look plastered to their faces. K immediately asked a woman near us who replied in broken english “bus no go”. We got down and decided to ask the bus driver himself on what was the best option to get to Seoul station from wherever we were (Now I know it was near Namsan Park which is not too far). Suddenly the woman we spoke to called out to us like “Oi” and gestured in hand signals to come with her. Her elderly mother was saying something in Korean and I think she was trying to explain that we were looking for directions to Seoul. We crossed a very busy main intersection and when we came onto the sidewalk, the conversation went as follows:
Lady: “where you go”
We: “Gyeongbokgung Palace” in the most precise Korean accent we could muster.
Lady: “ok take bus”
Me: “Taxi ok?”
Lady: “Yes. Wait” Called out an empty taxi passing by after like a couple of minutes. Explained to the cab driver that we had to go to Gyeongbokgung Palace.
We: in proficient korean replied “Kamsamnida” which means “thank you”.
Lady’s Mother: shakes hands with us saying “Kamsamnida”.
We bid goodbye to them and got on our cab to the palace of the Joseon dynasty.
Our ticket to tour the palace cost us about $3. There are free tour guides who explain what’s what in English ( you may end up with a guide who could speak excellent english or one who may explain in short phrases). We skipped the tour guide and instead got ourselves a guidebook which cost us 50 cents more. The book explains all that we would want to know about the palace. It is definitely worth a visit if you are traveling to Korea.
After spending about an hour there, we headed to the National Museum of Korea which looks a LOT like the Chihuly Museum in Seattle if you have ever been up there. The Museum is worth the visit if you’re into the history of places, culture and that sort of thing. I absolutely loved it. There are cool chinese zodiac statues in front of the building. K and I clicked pictures near our respective zodiacs – his being a dog (woof!) and mine of a tiger (chuff!).
We then headed to our next palace – Changdeokgung which is a good 20- 25 min walk from Gyeongbokgung Palace. In a nutshell, King Taejong renamed the new palace that was built as a result of fire damage at the Gyeongbokgung Palace after killing his half brothers. There is a lot of history in both these places. On our way to Changdeokgung Palace, we stopped at a tourist information booth to ask them to suggest a good restaurant in the area after our visit to Changdeokgung Palace. They marked us a spot on the map where there are supposed to be some good restaurants. It was past our lunch time. So we decided to make a quick stop at a small cafe to get some coffee and some snack. We ended up eating a nice baked good called “Honey Bread” which is a big chunky loaf of bread that has been especially soaked in the center with honey. This was served with whipped cream and roasted sliced almonds on top. Ooh la la! So delicious. We made our way to Changdeokgung Palace after this quick snack. Our visit to Changdeokgung Palace was overall just as the good as the former Gyeongbokgung Palace.
We headed to the spot which the tourist info guide had pointed us to only to find the restaurants in those streets were all closed because it was a Sunday. Walking in frustation while being extremely hungry was starting to become a pattern for the two of us. On our hunger-frustration walk, we ended up at another tourist info office only to find the same tourist info guide sitting there. We told her what happened and she asked us to check out the tourist info office in a shopping area called Insadong as we were headed there next after lunch. This was a quick 10 min walk from there. The tourist info office at Insadong pointed us to all the good vegetarian restaurants in the area. I remembered reading up about a restaurant in the area that served Buddhist temple food called “Sanchon”. This restaurant was part of the list. Glad that it was, we walked down the busy shopping street of Insadong to our restaurant. Sanchon is just the perfect place to have a calm eating experience amidst all that hustle and bustle of Seoul. The interiors are so connected with nature. it just transports you to a state of calm and quiet. We had a full course of Korean temple food. Let me just say that I haven’t had half the dishes on my platter.
After a satiating lunch at Insadong, we did some quick shopping and went back to our tourist office to get directions back to Dongtan as we had no clue where the Seoul station was. We were asked to take a cab to our stop and then take our bus from bus stop number 9, one of the many bus stops on a very busy road. When we went there, we could not find number 9. We were able to see bus stops until number 7. The rest remain a mystery to this day. We asked a young college kid how to head back to Dongtan. Again, the girl spoke no english but understood what we were trying to say. And told us that our bus would come at bus stop no.6. After thanking her, we turned to look at our bus stop when we saw our bus standing there. We made a dash to it, boarded safely and reached our destination in 30-40 mins. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at HomePlus a.k.a Korea’s Walmart to pick up some lotion and other things.
We were so stuffed from our afternoon meal that we decided to grab some bread and jam from a nearby supermarket for the night. As I hit the bed last night, my feet were in pain from all that walking. I could barely move. My nose was so numb from being exposed to that cold weather. But all I could think of was how perfect my day was despite the language barrier. I have felt like I’m visiting a foreign land for the very first time in my life because places like Korea and India are where your communication/survival skills are put to the test. Everything from the food to the people is so different. If you’re accustomed to the broad spaces of the West, you might not enjoy your time here in Korea. Having come from a place that is quite crowded myself, I was able to appreciate just how kind the people in Korea are even though you get pushed and shoved in busy streets – something common in over-populated countries. The warmth of Korean hospitality makes you forget the cold siberian winds. If you are able to look past the crowd, you will find yourself cozying up to a stone bowl of steaming hot soondubu jigae!