Day 1 We woke up early, still full of duck-boogie and doc-galbee, but obviously ready to start eating more weird Korean food. We started with some… pastries? Yep, there was a “Paris Baguette” cafe next to our hotel, so we basically ate bagels and coffee every morning. Very authentic. Our first full day in Korea was to be spent walking. Literally, my favorite thing to do when traveling – just walking around and seeing things. Our first stop was to be a gigantic palace complex in middle of Seoul, close to city hall, called Gyeongbokgung. Say it with me now – g-yong (breath) buck (breath) gung. Great job! You now speak Korean. What’s amazing about this palace area is that it is both absolutely massive and fits perfectly into the middle of a bustling metropolis, so much so that when inside, you almost forget that there are skyscrapers outside every wall. Like many of the palaces we’d eventually see, Gyeongbokgung was packed with people, but the complex had so many giant plazas and small nooks that you could get lost for hours.
Through every massive gate like this, there was another open plaza, another palace building, or a stream, or a park, and almost always a group of a few dozen old Korean women and/or young boys. Every gate, every wall was impossibly detailed, and the colors were incredibly vivid. I felt like the place was as big as my entire city, and though each palace inside looked similar, they somehow managed to keep me enthralled like each one was my very first. We spent a solid few hours exploring the area, and the time slipped by. A few times, we nearly lost Randi in a crowd of ajumas, or tiny old Korean women, but we always grabbed her just in time. In other spots, it wasn’t the colors that grabbed me, but the almost unreal peacefulness of it all. I mean, shit, this might as well be right out a Google image search for “Peaceful Garden Asia.” Seriously, check it out.
Now were I alone and in a more zen mood, I probably could’ve spent damn near all day floating between sacred, secret gardens and palaces and gates that led to palaces and palaces surrounded by gates and the like, but when you’re with your family, you tend to want to move along. And that we did, but not before these pictures, which are awesome:
So handsome, all three of you.
How many monkeys are in this picture? For lunch, we headed to Namdaemun market, a giant shuk where you could buy anything from dish towels to fried maggots. They smell like dirt; definitely not suggested. The place was wildly alive and moving. We circled a block once and on our second go-around, an entire row of street food vendors appeared out of thin air where there’d been none before. Magic, or Korea? We were hungry from the palace searching, and we picked the first non-descript Korean BBQ joint we found. Phil doesn’t speak much Korean. And that’s being generous. He can say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and order beer and soju and such, but his conversations with Koreans tended to be filled with nodding and smiling, then turning to me with a look of “I have no idea what the fuck she just said, but I think I ordered steaks, and possibly asked her daughter to prom.” Thankfully, at this particular lunch, that’s exactly the outcome we were hoping for.
If you’ve never had true Korean BBQ, there’s a missing piece of your life that sorely needs to be filled. By Korean BBQ, of course. Some restaurants will have a grill built into the table. Not this one! Our delightful, toilet-paper-roll-sized waitress brought us upstairs and sat us, on the floor, around a table, then quickly hauled out a camping grill. What followed was a steady stream of kimchi, salads both really spicy and kind of spicy, some kind of soup and, yes, a steak that we cooked ourselves on our brand new camping grill. All told it was more food than any sane person needs to eat in a week.
Steve loved the meal so much, but he wasn’t thrilled with the Korean seating arrangements.
The afternoon entertainment was NANTA!, which is basically the Korean version of STOMP, except instead of sexy black people doing percussive stuff with brooms and trash cans, it’s a bunch of Korean chefs doing percussive stuff with kitchen utensils. During our cab ride to the theater, Phil put his Korean language skills to work. Cab driver: (Something in Korean, then laughter) Phil: Yes!
Cab driver: (Again, something in Korean. Less laughter) Phil: Ok! And so forth. Phil’s general plan of action during cab rides was to simply know which metro stop was closest. As long as you know the name of the nearest metro stop, a cab driver will at least get you near-ish to where you want to go. Thing is, most metro stops in Seoul have between 3 and 16 exits, which often cover a several-block radius. That, and your destination might actually be on the way to the metro stop. More than a few times, we’d pass where we wanted to go while in the cab. “Phil, tell him to stop here.” “I wish I could.” Anyway, Phil had reserved four second-row tickets. For the following weekend. While Randi and I stood watching, Phil and Steve tried to negotiate moving the tickets to the show that was starting in 10 minutes to no avail. In the end, Steve bought four new tickets. All told, almost $500 dollars was spent so that we could see NANTA! (letter capitalization required by copyright laws). The NANTA! ticket lady said Phil could get refund for the next weekend’s tickets online. Is the money lost in the South Korean economy, or safely returned to Steve’s bank account? I have no idea. NANTA! was entertaining, and told the dramatic story of three struggling chefs slaving over a wedding meal under the watchful eye of an overbearing boss while training the boss’ incompetent nephew. Really, it was just dudes in chefs uniforms making Korean dishes onstage while using everything in the kitchen as a drum. Phil even got called up onstage for some good ol’ crowd participation.
While Randi and Steve fell asleep off and on throughout the show, Phil and I were riveted – mainly by one issue. At one point in the show, one of the chefs comically falls into a trashcan. He can’t get out of the trashcan, no matter how hard he tries! What’s he gonna do?! I hope the garbage man doesn’t come and take him away! He pushes and strains to get out, grunting and groaning, then briefly makes the unmistakable “Oh, no! I just accidentally shit my pants” face (Note: I don’t know what the “I just shit my pants on purpose” face is. I don’t want to know). But after that moment, no attention is given to the fact that the head chef of this fine establishment shit his pants. None at all. He never even gets off the stage to go change pants. I’m totally fine with willful suspended disbelief in movies and onstage, but shitting in one’s pants is no joke. Any actor or playwright knows that. He should’ve at least gone offstage for a moment, allowing us the comfort in knowing he was able to change into a fresh pair of slacks. Phil and I argued this point for at least 45 minutes after the show. Randi just interjected things like, “I wish I had a daughter.” For dinner, we were to meet Phil’s friend (and longtime family friend) Brett, and his white, Jewish friend who he met in Korea, Danny, at a restaurant that served ducks stuffed with pumpkins stuffed with rice. Yes, let me repeat that again, and try to let each part sink in individually so you can comprehend the meal as a whole: entire ducks stuffed with entire pumpkins stuffed with rice. All those things served together on one plate! So, duh, we ordered two. Plus lots of soju and beer. We raised our glasses and said “Segbo!” The meal was glorious. Here’s Steve looking at it, struggling to wrap his head around just how awesome it is:
At one point, I took Randi’s phone to snap a photo for her and noticed that — what do you know? — her phone background was a picture of Tal and I. Because I am both an older brother and an immature asshole, I immediately showed this to Phil, across the table, and told him that my girlfriend outranked my brother in the eyes of our mother, and she smells much better. Naturally, Phil was (pretending to be) outraged. Randi (who didn’t realize Phil didn’t actually give a shit) was quick to correct me — she loved us all very much. Yeah, sure. I was also sure to note that Randi’s Facebook pictures (this woman loves her Facebook) also placed Tal higher than Phil. She grabbed her purse, and out came some actual photos. I was unaware those still existed. Randi handed over two photographs. One was Phil and I from a beach vacation a few years back. And the second — what do you know? — was another of Tal and I. Everyone at the table lost their shit. I laughed so hard I almost threw up duck and pumpkin all over the table (which would’ve been wonderfully colorful). Beyond the fact that, in terms of sheer quantity of pictures of Tal vs. Phil in my mom’s possession at that moment, Tal won, I managed to ask, through stifling laughter, “Why do you carry around a bunch of 5X8′s in your purse? You have an iPhone.” “Excuse! Me!” she said, causing everyone to pause. “These are 4X6!” Enough said. We headed back to the hotel to prepare for a serious night out. The next 12 hours of the trip will be best described in list form. Too much drinking and singing for a pure narrative. 1. Phil and I, our parents and Brett and Danny all returned to our hotel and up to the rooftop bar, called creatively, Sky Bar. It was blue-lit and could’ve been super sexy, except for the facts that it was empty and we were there with our parents. Still, Steve paid for the drinks (though he certainly didn’t need to; thanks pop) and we sat on the roof of a hotel in the middle of Seoul. Not bad. Not bad at all. 2. When the folks were ready to retire, the four people under 50 hopped in a cab headed to Hongdae, a university neighborhood across the city. 3. Stuck in traffic a few blocks from where we’d planned to go, we said Fuck It and got out of the cab. 4. We hit the first bar, Vinyl, where the shtick is ‘No Glasses, Just Bags.’ So we all ordered drinks and sipped them with straws out of ziplock bags. Whiskey never tasted so weird. 5. A group of girls stopped to talk to us. None were Korean. Phil asked what they did. “Oh, I’m an English teacher,” said all of them in unison. 6. We headed to Hongdae Park, in the middle of the neighborhood. Hongdae Park during the day just looks like a shitty, graffiti-covered park for abandoned children. At night, it’s a zoo of drunkasses. We watched two dudes, each with a blacked-out drunk girl on his arm, approach the jungle gym, then sit their women next to each other, then watch as they used each other to balance. We took bets as to whether they’d puke on each other or start making out. I think they just fell asleep. 7. I met Makgeoli Man. Makgeoli Man sells Makgeoli (pronounced Mak-lee), which is either the nectar of the Korean Gods, or watered down male ejaculate in a bottle, depending on who you ask. Phil says its the former; I say the latter… at least what I think that would taste like. Um, anyway. Makgeoli Man is a homeless-looking dude with Seoul’s biggest smile who bottles his own makgeoli (it’s actually rice wine) and sells it for $2 to drunk people in Hongdae Park every weekend. I didn’t even have to buy some. A bunch of Americans in line before me bought a dozen bottles, and one just ended up in my hands. I gave Makgeoli Man a hug and asked him his name. He smelled like the t-shirts at Goodwill. He didn’t answer, he just nodded and kept on smiling.
Don't stop believin', Makli Man. 8. We met Phil’s friends Lacey and Kate in the park. They were already very drunk. At one point, within 5 minutes of meeting her, Lacey dropped a beer bottle she’d been holding and it shattered. She wasn’t handing it to someone, she was just holding it. And that was just too much to ask of her at that moment. We all decided to go to a bar. It was crowded, so we bought some drinks and stood outside. Then an Australian lady offered to sell us LSD. We considered it briefly, but then remembered we were visiting the North Korean border in the morning — tripping on LSD that close to North Korea, with my parents, seemed like a terrible, terrible, very much not fun idea.
9. We headed to a noryaebong, or karaoke room. We stocked up on makgeoli (for those into male ejaculate), beer and soju at a 7/11 and headed to the glitziest noryeabong around, offering two-story rooms with giant windows facing the street. Little did we know that this was the only noryaebong that had a strict no-booze policy. Our efforts to smuggle over a dozen bottles under our shirts were foiled by the crack team working the door. But they agreed to hold our alcohol at the front desk. Such service, those guys. Still, the bottles smuggled in our pants made it through.
10. We proceeded to destroy the karaoke room. Brett stuffed cheese-curls into all the security cameras. Several people pressed their bare-asses against the window. I’m pretty sure I sang Bruce Springsteen. Phil hung from the balcony for awhile. Popcorn was everywhere. The room looked like it’d been trashed by a bunch of rockstars who preferred snacks over drugs. Within 25 minutes they asked us to leave. Lacey sang, into the microphone, that we would not (illustrated below):
"Come on down from there, you stupid, stupid Americans." 11. Ok, ok, we’ll leave. And go to another karaoke room, bitches! The second fine establishment let us bring in our alcohol. By this time it was 4 a.m., and everyone was a shameful, shameful mess. I walked into the room of a young Korean couple and insisted on singing with them. Phil freestyle rapped for awhile. A video exists of an outrageously passionate rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” that I will not post here for the dignity of those involved. 12. We got hungry. Or, I got hungry and convinced everyone that I needed my first Korean drunk food experience. Thing was, it was already tomorrow and almost everything was closed. Then I saw a fish restaurant that was open, with fish tanks outside. I reached in and tried to grab one. Not my best decision. Fish are hard to grab with your bare hands! I was asked to leave. I found a guy selling shawarma and we talked about Israel for awhile. That was really nice. 13. The sun came up and it started to rain. Fuck. 14. We took a cab back to the hotel, looked at our watches and said, “Aw, shit.” It was 7 a.m.. We’d promised my parents we’d be awake to go to the North Korean Border at 7:30. The next thing that happened was our parents woke us up, fuming, while standing over our beds. As we’d slept through our alarms, and their two or three dozen phone calls, they’d asked hotel security to open our door. And so began the day that I was hungover on the North Korean Border! But that’s for the next post…