A Moment of Solitude

In a city of 12 million people, it can be a wee bit difficult to find a place of quiet, a place to truly be alone (outside of your own apartment that is). The sidewalks are lined with an obstacle course of people walking in every which direction. The subway walkways look like a herd of antelope in a canyon, all rushing to the next destination. Coffee shops, which in the US are known for being places to study or relax, are rarely quiet, even at 2 in the morning. Even the hiking paths are crowded with the ajummas and ajosshis of the Korean world, equipped with walking sticks and visors, beating you to the top. Needless to say, a place of tranquilite is a rarity indeed.

However, the other day, I applauded the creativity of one of Seoul’s citizens. In a semi-crowded morning train this young man reached behind me to hit the button that opened the two sets of doors that led to the next train. He stepped inside the first door and stopped. My first thought was ‘he’s going to get stuck in there.’ I watched him with confusion and curiosity, arching my eyebrows and tilting my head, much akin to the way my former whippet would. He waited. The doors closed. He turned sideways. And promptly sat down. I almost laughed out loud. I looked away, but continued to chuckle at him for having such a brilliant idea. The 3 older women I was standing in front of caught a glimpse of him and stared, shock bringing their hands to the mouths.

In a country where not standing out is the norm, having a young Korean man take a stand against the lack of solitude was refreshing at best. I found myself blocking the button as if I could prevent anyone from trying to use that doorway while he enjoyed his moment of silence. I also resisted the urge to knock on the door and give him two thumbs up as a sign of my support. Instead I left him in silence, just him, a backpack and an MP3 player.

He was my hero for the day.

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Getting Around in Korea

Platform of Garak Market Station, Seoul Metro ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the first things you have to learn upon arrival to Korea is how to give and get directions to a place.  You would think this would be the easy part as in “i’ll just ask for directions and all will be right with the world again.”  Think again.

I haven’t had to deal with this much lately since I have now learned how to get around quite well in Korea, but now that I am moving and working in a new area of the city – previously unexplored by me, myself and I – I am having to learn how to get around all over again.

What makes it difficult here is that it is a pedestrian lifestyle (which I absolutely love!!), but we are used to getting directions by car.  In the US, we base directions off of major roads and landmarks.  Here, everything is based off of subway stop locations and most directions start with a subway stop exit, even if you don’t take the subway.  As for landmarks, we do give them, but it’s harder to do because there are soooooo (hold on I need a few more o’s)…ooooo many of the same franchises every 100 feet (I’ll talk about feet in a moment) that it’s confusing.

Let me give you some short examples of potential direction conversations.

1)  A: It’s at Watsons – B: Which Watsons? – A: The newer one that sells Cheese Balls.

2)  A: To get to the bar, go out exit 2 walk for 1-2 minutes, then make a right at the Starbucks, the one next to the McDonalds, then go up to the next alley and go left where you see the giant picture of beer, then go into the building that has a Holly’s Coffee on the outside and go up to the 3rd floor.  Go left out of the elevator and around the corner.

I kid you not, it can be that complicated and even more so at times.  It’s actually comical to me and makes things fun.  One time we couldn’t find our friend because he was at one bar named Dublins and we were at another.  They were only 2 blocks from each other.  This is the land where every third store is a cell phone store or a coffee shop.  You can even have two coffee shops right next to each other.  There is usually a Dunkin Donuts within a stone’s throw of another one.  It’s predictably funny.

In my year here I have learned how to give and get directions in a different way.  No one here uses addresses.  I don’t even know my address.  You just have to know what building or complex you live in.  But all of this goes to show how dependent Korea is on their public transportation…and with reason.  The subway and buses here are amazing.  They are clean, efficient, safe and user friendly.

For those who may be reading who are coming to Korea or new to Korea, check out the main interactive websites:

Seoul Metro

Seoul Bus (Hi Seoul site, does not work on MAC – since Mac’s aren’t as popular here yet)

TOPIS (Metro and Bus interactive site)

But wait, there’s more!

Check out this video of how they have now even added digital shopping to the subway stops.  Freakin cool!!!  I have yet to see one of these because I think they are still in trial mode, but it’s amazing what they do with technology.