Sunday, September 2, 2007

Where I Live...

Where I Live

Pretty much since I arrived here in Korea, I have been doing my best to put where I live into relative perspective with the place I’ve lived in all my life – Calgary, Alberta. It’s a difficult thing to do. Since arriving here last Thursday, I have seen the Incheon Airport, the road from the airport to Suwon as the sun was setting, our small little corner of Suwon, plus whatever I’ve been able to see on the bus around town. In Seoul, we’ve been to a couple of neighbourhoods downtown, an ancient palace, and to the top of Namsan Mountain to get an above view of the huge, sprawling city of 14 million people who are our new neighbours.

During the instructional video we watched at our school last week, the senior teacher was relating the experience of driving from the airport to his apartment for the first time. Being from London, he was very used to shorter buildings, and mostly buildings of a certain style of architecture. So, it made sense that he felt as though he had “entered the Matrix” upon arriving in Korea for the first time at night.

Our first few days here were incredibly hot by our usual cool mountain breeze Calgary standards. Even this past July in Calgary, as hot as it was some days, it was a dry heat and the humidity that existed was relatively easy to escape if you had a basement nearby. In Suwon for the first couple of days, the heat was like a steam bath following you around from point A to point B, and the only way to get rid of it was to turn on the air conditioning or dive into a pool, which we haven’t been able to find yet.

The heat also comes with some funky smells that I actually kind of like. Yes, there is a bit of pollution, but in Suwon, as I mentioned before, it really doesn’t seem any worse than downtown Calgary, though the humidity does seem to hold onto any aromas that are there more than thinner Calgary air does.
There are the smells of seafood from place to place, the smells of good spicy cooking from restaurants, Fresh pastries from the many bakeries, and the smells of things I don’t yet know. All in all though, I am detecting a bit of “Pirates of the Caribbean” smell (Sandy and Jay and the Disney folk will know that that means) – a kind of musty but flavourful scent that reminds me of exotic and fun times. That’s fitting because, so far, that also well describes our experiences here.

I’ve been trying, as I mentioned, to describe where we live by putting it into Calgary terms that not only would help any readers of this blog understand, but would help me wrap my head around our new surroundings as well. When I first got here, we were amazed at the difference of the place and really just focused on how different it felt from the way things are at home. The air makes a big difference, as does the jetlag, and the fact that nobody, it seems, either looks at all like you, or speaks the same language. As relatively inexperienced travelers, it’s easy to get intimidated by that at first, but what’s been most surprising about our trip so far is that we both are starting to feel like we have been here for a lot longer than we have. I don’t mean that to sound as though we can’t stand it here and are counting the days – quite the opposite – but that we are feeling much more comfortable than we thought we would, in much less time than we thought it would take to do so. We’re looking at that as a positive thing.

But back to where we live…
Though I’ve only seen a city map of Suwon at Suwon Train Station and at the various bus stops around the city, I can tell that we are in the South Eastern-most area of the city of Suwon which is a city of 1.4 million people approximately 30 minutes south of Seoul. Though there are not too many more people living here than there are in Calgary, the density is very noticeable for a number of reasons. One reason is that there are no suburbs as we know suburbs to be in Calgary. Since South Korea is fairly small (roughly the size of Nova Scotia without Cape Breton), and there are ???? million people living here, urban sprawl simply isn’t an option. Apparently, only 30% of the land is inhabitable anyway (it’s extremely mountainous) so people have had to learn, in a fairly short amount of time, to build up.

Steph and I live and work in an area of Suwon called Yeongtong which is a fairly new neighbourhood in the city. I have been told that the entire neighbourhood was actually constructed in 2001. That’s kind of how Korea works – new neighbourhoods and even new satellite cities are springing-up in an attempt to make Seoul less crowded and make the country a little less centralized in its largest city.

Our neighborhood could be best described in Calgary terms as a 17th Avenue (Red Mile) type of place, but it’s really like that everywhere in Suwon. There doesn’t seem to be a well-defined “downtown” area as there is in Calgary, but rather a bunch of neighbourhoods that are much like Yeongtong with their own shops and offices, entertainment districts and apartment-lined streets. Steph and I live on an arch-shaped street that faces a large wooded hill and which seems to mark the current boundary of the city. It’s quiet here which is nice at night time, though less than 10 minutes walk from our apartment is the entertainment hub of Yeongtong which can get a bit crazy on a Friday night.

To get to school, we round a bend on our street and head south, across a street and through a park with a fountain (the fountain actually turned-on the other day as we were walking past, as though we had signaled it to ☺) and through some red metal arches towards the “downtown” area of Yeongtong. Imagine if every neighbourhood in your city had a “downtown” and you have a better sense of it; instead of the Canyon Meadows strip mall with a 7-11, Shoppers Drug Mart and other stores, you have a few blocks of 10 storey buildings that house shops, restaurants, businesses, schools, and bars. We walk through one city block which is a pedestrian mall with some of the more popular bars lining it and then across another street towards our school which is on the 6th floor of one of the many 10 story buildings, and about a 10 minute walk from our place.
I really don’t know if our place is that representative of most of urban Korea or not. So far, it seems to be, though I would say that Yeongtong is perhaps a bit nicer, newer, and cleaner than some others I’ve passed-through.

We are also fairly fortunate in that we live very close (about 12 minutes by foot) from a huge supermarket called Home Plus which I believe I’ve already blogged about. It’s very convenient to have a grocery store/department store so close to home and we have been able to visit enough by now to know our way around for the most part. Home Plus is a great place, but to anyone who’s ever felt like they work as part of a bizarre cult in their present place of employment, I offer this brief story and these photos to show you just how good you have it.

Every morning at Home Plus before 10 AM (the store has been opened since 9), the entire store staff gathers in such a way that each staff person can be visible to another from down the aisles. What I would imagine are supervisors lead their staff in an energetic stretching routine and song to some loud pumping techno music. Not only do your staff feel all limbered-up and ready to start their day, but they have also likely been reminded of the Home Plus credo, which is likely a very happy and encouraging thing ☺.
I couldn’t help but snap a couple of photos just to make sure that I could prove it really happened. I think I was stealthy enough this time.

As we walk back to our apartment each night, the buildings that were relatively colourful during the day really begin to come to life. Each level of an 8 or 10 story building is lit-up with advertisements in Neon for the dozen of businesses that exist in that block. If there is a lounge called the Audrey Bar (named after Audrey Hepburn) on the 6th floor of a building, then you would look up and find a huge sign amongst the many other signs advertising the place – makes sense, but in Canada, we are more use to most bars and restaurants being on ground level only, so street-level signage is really the norm. Here, it’s all signage all the time and at all levels imaginable. How the dude with the fish shop on the 10th floor expects you to see his sign, I have no idea, but then again I have no idea how he carries all his fish up 10 flights on a hot day.

Still, it’s pretty neat to see so many cool little spots hidden-away on the 6th floor of a building. You really feel like you’ve discovered something when you get there. One of the coolest places we’ve been so far has been Pavox – a cocktail bar that is on our way to school and literally stumbling distance from our apartment. There are 5 or 6 staff that work there every night and they are amongst the friendliest people we have met here yet. The bar is small, about the size of an average Canadian high school classroom, but it is very well laid out and has a really cool black interior with blue neon hi-lights on the floor and ceiling.

The staff there introduce themselves to everyone when they come in through the door and in addition to some very unique drinks that they serve, the staff are also incredibly skilled jugglers and cocktail spinners. If you think of Tom Cruise in Cocktail, multiply his skill by 25 and you have a good idea of what these guys can do.
Every couple of hours, the lights dim, the bell rings, and the show begins – they breathe fire, they spin 4 bottles at a time and they climb the walls to throw flaming bottles to each other and then they top it off by actually making a drink from the bottles they’ve been throwing around.

If you’d like to see a couple of videos, check-out my facebook page, although I will see what I can do about posting to this blog from youtube as well. Bottom line is it’s a really good show and anyone who visits Yeongtong should make a stop here. Pavox is one of the places that teachers from our school regularly hang out at, and it was the first bar we’ve been to since arriving in Korea. I think we’ll be back a few times in the future too.
There’s really too much to write about when I talk about “where we live”. There’s so much to see and writing about it can’t really begin to do it justice, though I will continue to post observations and opinions as they happen. I continue to marvel at the way our area lights-up at night and fills with people, only to be seemingly completely empty and tranquil on a Sunday morning – streets that were full of soju-drinking business men, young families out for a Friday night stroll at 11 PM, boyfriends trying to win their sweethearts a prize at one of the carnival-like games on the main street, or friends meeting for Korean BBQ on the first floor patio of a street side restaurant, are often quiet and seemingly abandoned the next morning.

I like living here so far. We are getting used to getting around, though I would love to be able to find a bus map in English as soon as possible – it seems that every bus we take gets us to where we need to go, but I’m sure there’s a more direct route waiting for us once we know which one to follow.
Lastly, there seem to be no houses here at all. I’m sure they exist in perhaps extremely affluent areas of Seoul and certainly in the countryside where farmers need a place to call home, but here in the city that I’ve seen, there are none. People don’t have yards, but the community has parks and carefully planned green spaces with fountains, benches, shaded areas and even public exercise equipment that is for everyone.

I liked living in a house in Calgary, but here, the luxury of space isn’t an option. It seems that even though the country has really only been free to build with a strong economy for half a century, they’ve been going about it very smartly and as carefully as possible – making sure people can live in communities where walking and public transit are the best options. Seoul and surrounding area from what I’ve seen so far is far from perfect and I miss the open space that Calgary has, but living here is a change and it’s interesting, informing, and humbling to see how so many people share so little space with seemingly such success.

Later this week: Saturday’s Trip to Changdeokgung Palace and Insa-Dong...


ROXSTAR said...

hey dave.. nice blog! :) home plus is actually open 24 / 7... except on sundays... :) and insa-dong is definitely a nice place to take a look around..

i'm by no means an expert around this area yet, but i've already managed to find some nice places! let me know if u and steph need any suggestions! :)

ROXSTAR said...

nOooO!!! i just typed a message and it got deleted... anyways... i just wrote that home plus is actually open 24/7 with the exception of sunday - when it closes at 9 till monday... whenever it opens :) i love that about asia! haha...

another thing is.. you're going to like insa-dong... around that area there's a really nice place up the hill with nice little shops, restaurants and coffee shops.. i think it's called sam chung dok.. or something like that.. and it's nice to take a look around there too...

i'm definitely not an expert on the area yet or anything..but if u and steph need some suggestions on what u should go see.. just ask! :)


Mariko said...

I'm glad to hear that you're doing well and having a good time exploring the city! Going to Tokyo for me is always overwhelming, so I think I know what you mean.

Korea has a pretty spiffy cold noodle dish that I hear they eat in the summer to keep cool - perhaps there is some in your neighborhood?

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave .......
Love the blog entries .... they are amazingly detailed - it's almost like being there ?! Unlike the fibble attempt at putting a couple picks up of Europe and having you guys figure out what and where it was..... Glad too see you are both doing well!