Adjacent to my table for one, the only word that I can make out is “computer virus.”
Sitting a few meters away from me are six Korean men in their mid-50s, possibly older. They have rounds of various empty coffee cups scattered in front of them and seem to be engaged in some animated conversation. Some look attentive, others disengaged.
But me? I’m the only one in the place who is obviously not Korean. And yet, minutes before, the friendly girls behind the counter hand me a cup of steaming lemon tea that says “There is no king’s road to learning.” in large type across the circumference of the outside.
And then, in smaller type above: “Bandi & Luni’s Bookstore.”
This is one of the largest bookstores in the city, from what I can tell, deep inside the COEX mall, the largest underground shopping haven in the business district of Seoul.
Now, I wonder, who comes to a place like this at 2 pm on a Tuesday — that is, of course, beyond the older men discussing computer viruses. Other than the men (who soon pack up and leave), there’s a long row of chairs along one of the glass walls, facing the adjacent bookstore. It appears to be filled with a few students decked out in textbooks and espressos. Each one sits alone.
The chairs in the middle of the room, each a garish orange, stand alone under a blue light that flares out along the ceiling in a decorative manner.
I can’t really tell if this is the kind of place that ever gets bustling. Does it fill up on the weekend with literary shoppers? Are there raucous poetry readings on the first Friday of every month? Or does it just stay quiet all the time?
I took advantage of the free WiFi here and called Becky. Thanks to the magic of my built-in webcam on my MacBook, I gave her a little tour of the cafÃ©.
Her first reaction: “What, did they not get out of the 1970s?”
* * *
Bandi & Luni’s sits in the COEX mall, a big underground shopping cavern just off the Samsung metro station, the heart of the commercial district in Seoul.
I find it rather amusing that one of the main streets in this neighborhood is “Tehran St,” and it’s the Silicon Valley of Seoul. Indeed, Jin Ho Hur’s office at FON Korea is adjacent.
Pretty much every shop at COEX has an English name, and often no visible Korean name. I’m not sure whether that means that it’s so hip to just have an English name, or if they’re just catering to foreigners. But then again, since being in COEX, the only person I’ve seen who was obviously not Korean was a random black guy who just walked by the window — the second one I’ve seen since being here.
From my vantage point, I can see Mulf II, The Day Underwear, & c. multishop, Pomodoro Spaghetti, and Teriyaki.
* * *
Before venturing into COEX mall, I had an interview with Jin Ho Hur, a former student of Chon Kilnam’s, who has since gone on to start various tech ventures, including one of the first Korean ISPs in the 1990s, iNet. Today he works for FON Korea, a project to share WiFi access throughout the world. He was impressed when I showed him that I am Fonero #4830.
After our interview, he and his wife, who also works for FON Korea, took me out to a local restaurant for lunch about three blocks away. His wife told me that this place’s speciality was ginseng chicken, a traditionally summer dish — and with summer approaching, it seemed appropriate. She also told me that according to Chinese medicine that it’s good for people with “hot” bodies, or personalities. But then she qualified it by saying that there are various schools of thought on this matter, although my wearing sandals (I’ve yet to see anyone else doing the same) seemed to help her case.
It was a small place, with 2/3 divided into a traditional-style section, with floor seating and low-to-the-ground tables. They asked me if we wanted to move to the other side, with more Western height tables and chairs — but no, as with the chopsticks, I would do as the Seoulites do.
The soup, which came out barely two minutes after we’d sat down, was delicious. The chicken meat easily came off the bone, and suprisingly, you could eat it with chopsticks. Surely this soup must have been simmering for hours. There was rice, ginger and ginseng dashed throughout, along with what might have been a jusjus fruit (looked similar to a date).
Jin explained that you were supposed to take the bones out and put them into a refuse bowl, and that if you wanted do you could dip the pieces of chicken into a small dish of salt and pepper that he poured for me. We washed it down with a cup of cold green tea — I sipped mine a few times during the meal, but I’m not sure if traditionally, beverages, as in Senegal, are usually consumed after the meal.
We talked about my book, food, and Korean culture. I learned that Koreans joke about their immediate neighbors, the Chinese, Japanese and yes, the Russians. The Chinese are “dirty,” the Japanese are “sly,” and the Russians “can’t be trusted.”
Also, as I expected, according to Jin, everyone’s mother makes the best kim chee — speaking of which, my Lonely Planet book tells me that there is a kim chee museum here in the COEX mall, certainly the only one in the world devoted to the ubiquitous form of pickled cabbage. There are possibly thousands of different varieties of the stuff.
* * *
One thing that’s surprised me here so far is that most bikes that are set up outside subway stations and in public spaces aren’t locked to the racks. None of the bikes that I saw in Daejeon were locked up, and so far in Seoul I’ve seen maybe two that had locks on them.
* * *
The Seoul subway is surprisingly foreigner-friendly. All the station announcements are given in Korean and English, and the maps usually are transliterated into English, and sometimes Chinese as well. I’ve ridden over a solid two hours on the subway so far and have spent about three dollars. Like the BART, it costs more depending on how far you’re going. Unlike the BART, the trains come every few minutes, and the most you can spend on a one-way trip is about two bucks.
Riding the subway gives you a sense of just how big this city is.
Nearly every subway rider has some sort of electronic gadget that they’re playing with. Some are texting their friends, others are getting their Tetris on, and still others are grooving to portable video or audio players. I spotted one iPod yesterday, but most of them appear to be small audio devices worn around the neck, no bigger than a stick of gum.
Speaking of which, it’s about time for me to head back on the subway and meet up with my host, Loren Everly. He’s an English teacher who has been here since November. Born and raised in Hawaii, he attended the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and also lived in Iceland for awhile. He’s just now applied to be a dishwasher in Antarctica.
We’re supposed to get some bibimbap tonight!