Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Our Weekend in Seoul

This Labor Day Weekend T.J. was on call at the hospital in Seoul but we decided to take our chances and book a hotel room for all of us to stay up there for a couple nights. We found a suite at the Aloft hotel in the Myeongdong area of the city, which we picked mostly because of it's location and partly because they had on-site parking! Booking a hotel in a city you're still verrry unfamiliar with is a bit of a gamble but this one paid off. It was the perfect home base for us to get out an explore, close to a metro, plus smack dab in the middle of innumerable shops, late night street markets and more restaurants than you could eat at in a lifetime.

We decided to get a later start with the hopes that Tommy would nap in the car and be rested by the time we arrived at our hotel, ready to go once we got checked in.  Needless to say that never works and Tommy didn't nap plus he managed to spill (on purpose) his entire water bottle all over himself so he arrived at the hotel shirtless and not exactly rested. Still, we dropped our bags and then headed out to see Namsan Seoul Tower which was a convenient walk from our hotel. 
We took the inclined elevator up to the cable car and bought our tickets however just before we were about to get in the queue for the cable car, T.J. got a call and after a little back and forth we headed back down the elevator and then he headed to work leaving Tommy and I to figure out a plan B. I'll admit that initially I didn't handle the change in plans all that well as I was pregnant and hormonal disappointed and slightly overwhelmed being dropped off in the middle of Seoul on my own. But we rallied and cheered ourselves up with mandu, several yummy things on sticks, and of course a 32cm ice cream cone!
 T.J. had to work for a bit longer in the morning so Tommy and I decided to try our luck again at Seoul Tower and this time we succeeded! Going first thing in the morning also meant that it was much less crowded when we arrived and we were able to get right on the cable car. At the top we were greeted with panoramic views of the city plus a rainbow of colorful love locks lining every available surface.
 I decided not to purchase the lift tickets to take us further to the top of tower and just let Tommy run around the base which had plenty to see plus several cafes where I treated us to a churro before we headed back down. We headed back towards our hotel and picked up lunch to go from Paris Baguette to take back to T.J. Tommy went down for a nap and mom and dad crashed too. Once we were all rested we dithered for a bit on what to do with the rest of the day before deciding to trek over to Gyeongbokung Palace. This had my initial plan for earlier in the day as I wanted us to be able to see the changing of the guard (which takes place at 10am and 2pm) but going later in the afternoon still sounded like a fun idea!

We found the metro, not the one we thought we were getting on at but still in the right direction, and after buying a new T-money (metro card) for myself since I'd left mine back in the hotel, and a quick line transfer, we came above ground at the palace. Unfortunately our little delays and misreading the details online meant we arrived 10 minutes after the last entrance (it changed on September 1, the day we visited, from 5:30pm to 5:00pm).  I had to just laugh and shrug my shoulders at this point since it was very in keeping with the theme of the weekend. We wandered around for a little bit at the main entrance gate and then hopped back on the metro in search of dinner, as yummy food seems to always compensate for the best laid plans.
 We successfully found our destination, Gangnam Myeonok,  tucked down a side street and up on the 5th floor, and were shown to a table right away.  We ordered galbi jjim (the small size is enough for 2 people to share) and dumplings. Soup and kimchi arrived first followed by our steaming bowl of fall-off-the-bone braised short ribs and we happily tucked in.
After dinner we wandered around the bustling Myeongdong roads which fill up with even more people and vendors the later it gets. It's such a fun scene and I definitely need to go back and do some shopping!  We grabbed more ice cream and a yummy hotteok (korean donut thing filled with some sort of brown sugar type goodness) and Tommy charmed every little girl he passed.
The next day we were determined to see Gyeongbokgung Palace! We grabbed a quick (but delicious) breakfast at an adorable cafe. That is one of my favorite things about South Korea so far- the sheer number of delicious and unique cafes with different styles, themes, creative and beautiful desserts and drinks! They may turn me into a "coffee drinker" yet! 
Filled up on pastry, we hustled to the metro, this time knowing exactly what we needed to do. Of course that didn't stop me from accidentally getting on the metro as the doors were closing leaving T.J. and Tommy waiting on the platform for the next train. Oops. We reconnected at our destination and arrived at the perfect time to see the changing of the guard which takes place twice a day at 10am and 2pm inside the Ganghwamun gate. We bought entrance tickets (only ₩3,000 each) and got a good spot to watch. 
The palace is MASSIVE which was sort of unexpected since it's smack dab in the middle of this bustling mega city. It's surrounded by modern towers but in the distance you can also see beautiful soaring mountains.  We seriously underestimated how much time we'd need to properly take in all the palace grounds. I definitely plan to go back and set aside more time to explore and also try to hop on one of the free English tours. Even in our quick breeze through, it was impressive to take in. 
I've realized that I made a small mistake when planning this little weekend and forgot to check my expectations before we headed out. I had this picture perfect plan in my head of what we'd try to do each day- a list of 1-2 big things to check off each day, plus some recommendations for restaurants to check out and foods to not miss. Of course, I should know by now, married to someone with an unpredictable job, with a two year, navigating a foreign city, not to get too attached to any plans.... I just need to let the weekends unfold as they need to and enjoy every sweet moment wrapped up in the unexpected ones. Plans or no plans it was a fun weekend exploring more of this city that I'm quickly falling in love with!

**If you want to see more of our weekend in Seoul check out my youtube video here!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Gakwonsa Temple

On Friday we decided to break out of our bubble and drive further than the distance from our apartment to the army base. Driving in South Korea so far has been exactly like I was warned told it would be. Let's just use the word "interesting" and leave it at that. But even though the public transportation system is excellent sometimes, especially with a toddler, having your own car and being on your own timetable is easier than figuring out buses, trains, and taxis. We plugged in our destination to Waze and headed out onto the open road feeling pretty confident we could manage a short 30 minute ride. Well that 30 minutes turned into about an hour with three unexpected trips through tolls and several u-turns but we finally reached Gakwonsa Temple.
This buddhist temple is tucked into the green hills outside Cheonan and was such a pretty escape. We pulled up to a nearly empty parking lot and took in our first look at the stunning temple grounds. Gakwonsa is an active temple which means it's not simply a tourist destination but the actual home of monks and a place of worship, and meditation for buddhist practitioners. It also means that it is open early to visitors (4am-6pm are the hours I could find online), which we appreciated because so far we've noticed that many places in South Korea tend to open later in the day and we prefer to get up and go so we can get back before nap time.
This temple was enshrined in 1977 to pray for the reunification of South and North Korea. We know little to none about Buddhism so we hesitantly approached the first structure, not wanting to disturb anyone or be disrespectful of their sacred space. Of course, with Tommy, quiet respect is not exactly a concept he understands and he's definitely not temple ready. Visitors are welcome to enter the temples as long as they remove their shoes. In the main temple you could see two large golden Buddhas that were stunning and would have been interesting to see closer up but we satisfied ourselves with peering in from a distance instead since there were people gathered to meditate, chant and pray, not just snoop around and snap photos.
We then climbed up another set of stairs and the trees opened up to reveal a large space centered around a huge bronze buddha. It used to be the largest in South Korea and, though it is now the third largest, it's still striking. Tommy pointed and exclaimed "big people!!" when he saw the statue before quickly running on to see the colorful paper lanterns strung up around the base.

All of the signs and descriptions at the temple were in hangul but with a little help from google translate, it is my understanding that the buddha's open palms displayed in this statue symbolize that all are are welcome here and his long ear lobes are meant to show that he is listening to to the world. 
Had it been less muggy and had there been less mosquitos we might have explored some of the wooded trails that lead higher into the hills. We decided instead to add this to our list of places to return to when family visits in the fall and the leaves are changing, or in the spring when the flowers are blossoming. I've also heard it's especially beautiful all done up for buddha's birthday sometime in May. While we probably need to read up on the history of buddhism to better understand all the symbolism and practices we noticed, I consider our first experience at a buddhist temple a peaceful morning away from the hustle and bustle. 

**Check out my youtube video from our morning at Gakwonsa temple here

Saturday, August 3, 2019

First Trip to Seoul and the Gwangjang Market

I think maybe I had gotten a bit too comfortable in my life back in the States because when T.J. said "let's go up to Seoul tomorrow," I was daunted.  I'd like to blame it all on Tommy and say all my hesitations were because we have a toddler along for the ride but... honestly I think somewhere in my growing up I've lost a bit of the adventurous spirit that I'd found and cultivated back in high school, my first experience living overseas as an expat. All the unknowns, the unfamiliar transportation system, the language barrier, the crowds, I was nervous.

We've been in South Korea a little over a week but we haven't had much time to venture off the Army base. Still we decided not to be too ambitious with our plans. We picked just one thing off our extensive Seoul bucket list to attempt on our first foray into the city.  The night before we booked our train tickets online, we loaded won on to our shiny new metro cards, and we planned out our route. It required a quick taxi ride to the train station, a 45 minute ride to Yongsan station, transferring to the metro and going a further 6 stops to Jongno 5(o)-ga, the closest station to Gwangjang Market.
Gwangjang Market is one of the oldest traditional markets in Seoul and is known for its countless  vendors exclaiming for you to buy their kimchi or grab a seat at their stall for a bite to eat- and that's just the food vendors- we didn't even venture upstairs to see all the silk and textile stalls or where they can make custom Hanbok. It's like the Pikes Place market on steroids x 1000000. And did I mention it was also ten million degrees...?? Literally on the train ride up we got one of those iPhone "emergency alert" notices. Of course ours showed up in hangul characters but a quick screen shot uploaded to Google translate declared it was an extreme heat advisory.  I thought maybe we'd be those dumb tourists going to this crowded, un-airconditioned market in the dead heat of summer when the locals know to stay away but it was packed with Korean nationals, students, families, people on their lunch break, all shopping or settling down for a quick meal.
We got to the market a little bit before we were ready for lunch, which gave us time to wander around cluelessly taking in all the sights and smells. It's a bit disorienting and overwhelming navigating the narrow halls and weaving between the stalls (especially when you're on the verge of a heat stroke and wrangling a 2 year old who wants to run ahead). First we grabbed our wild boy a fresh watermelon juice blended with ice. It was the perfect treat to cool him off and also distract him for a few minutes while we narrowed down what foods we were craving.
Then we found an empty bench at a bindaettok stall and after only a little pointing we were given a huge plate of the yummy fried mung bean pancakes and some chopsticks and we went to town! It was a huge portion but the three of us cleaned the plate before we moved on to the next item on our menu.
We crossed the aisle and plopped down at another booth where we were eyeing a few classic dishes we'd been told were must-trys.  More gesturing and pointing, do we like spicy or no, okay sure, and not entirely sure what we just ordered we were handed an enormous plate of tteokbokki (spicy soft rice cakes) and gimbap (kind of like a Korean version of sushi),  and another plate of japchae (glass noodles). A third plate of steaming mandu (pork and kimchi dumplings) soon followed and T.J. and I both looked at each other and asked: is this what we ordered and did we mean to order this much, and will we have enough won?? Luckily we were able to bag up what we couldn't finish and incredibly only spent ₩23 (barely $20) the entire time we were at the market.
We wandered around a bit longer and located the now famous food stall that sells hand-cut noodles featured on the Netflix documentary series "Street Food." We made plans to come back and try it when the weather was cooler, although the heat didn't seem to stop anyone else from ordering big bowls of soup.

We had booked our return train tickets for a little later in the afternoon, not knowing how long we'd need or how adventurous we might be feeling. I had heard of the Cheonggyecheon Stream just outside one of the market gates so we made our way there and gravitated towards the first shade we could find.  I think in other circumstances it would have been the perfect place to walk off our lunch and I definitely want to try to go back in the fall when it's all stung up for the national Korean Lantern festival but we had hit our limit with the heat for the day and knew it was time to start making our way home.

Nap time was not totally sacrificed in the name of adventure and Tommy went right to sleep once we got back to our hotel and T.J. and I also crashed on the couch after cool showers. Even though we were hot and sweaty messes I feel so proud and excited about our first trip to Seoul, that we managed it without getting lost and without any major meltdowns (on the part of Tommy or myself). I feel more confident about getting out on my own, going to new restaurants, new grocery stores, finding new places that will slowly start to feel like ours.

I think I needed this first excursion, just like I needed this big move across the world to remind me that I'm brave and that I can do hard things! We're all slowly coming out of that thick fog you're wrapped in when you land in a foreign country and I think we're doing pretty good over here.

**And if you want to see a bit more of our day at Gwangjang Market check out my youtube video here!

Friday, July 26, 2019

to my terribly wonderful two year old

Tommy you are two years old and life with you is anything but terrible. How has it been two years since you can into my life and made me a mother? How can so much life, and so many sweet, precious, irreplaceable memories be squeezed into just two years? We made sure to celebrate big with balloons and Thomas the train and corn on the cob and family (a few of your most favorite things) before leaving town. And even though today will probably be spent house hunting I couldn't let this favorite precious day go by without notice.
Sweet Tommy you are true joy and you brighten everyone's day with your full-on eyes closed cheesy smile or your enthusiastic "Hi!" and "See ya!" that you shout to everyone. Your first words when you get up in the morning, as your tripping around the crib in your sleepsack, are usually some combination of "ball," "Daddy," or "Hun-we" or, especially lately "suitcase!"  You seem to have some sort of word quota you think you need to meet each day, and there are few silent moments in our house that aren't filled with your chatter (usually about balls, or trains, or something to eat, or balls) and I love our little conversations.
I love how you want to lay on the "pill-wo" with me before bed and then you start listing every single thing or person you saw or did or touched that day. You call me "Bobby," which sounds like Mommy only slightly British and like you have a cold, and it's hard to turn down any of your demands when they start out that adorable. I am not prepared for the day Bobby becomes Mommy.
You are the most adaptable little guy I know.  It makes me so happy to see you so comfortable in yourself, and your place in our family, that you are able to face so many huge changes better than many adults would (even better than your dad and I have at times). In the past two months alone you've left behind your first true home, spent weeks and weeks not sleeping in your own bed, and you've flown across the world like it was no big deal.
You have a sweet and feisty little spirit. You are so stubbornly independent, running here and there with such purpose like you know exactly where you're going, thank you very much!  And when you wipe out or fall and then immediately shout "Okay!" it sometimes tricks me into thinking you're older than you actually are. Of course other times you come running full speed at my legs wanting to be picked up and you lay your head on my shoulder with your thumb in your mouth and I have my baby again. I am so excited to see you become a big brother. I doubt you really understand what it all means but the way you lay on my belly and say over and over "hi baby hi baby hi baby hi baby" makes my heart swell picturing you with your little brother. I hope and pray you two will be best friends for your whole lives.
You've gotten really proficient at screaming NO! even when no one did, said or asked you anything, but then are (usually) quick to correct to "no tank you." I see such a tender heart in you, especially at meal times when you throw out your hands to either side and shout "Grace!" and then finish with a hands-raised-halelujah-Amen! I hope you always have as much passion and move through your life with as much purpose as you do now.
 These two years are hands down the best years of my life. Not being your mom, not knowing you as only your daddy and I will ever know you, is simply inconceivable. I am so excited for all the adventures we're going to have with you in this next year and watching you settle back in to our new normal here in Korea (or Key-ah as you say). Tommy, you are my little buddy and I love you endlessly.