Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to my first blog post of 2020. Today is Thursday, January 9th, and for the first time in a week or so I’m actually up and about, trying to be productive. Before now, my vacation was mostly spent napping, sleeping, dozing, nodding off, and generally being exhausted. Why am I so tired? Because my mom came to Seoul on December 22nd and we kept ourselves busy. Here’s a look at our itinerary.
Day 1 – Sunday, December 22nd – Arrival
My mom’s plane touched down in Seoul right on time – no flight delays or hiccups.
For at least a month I’d been telling her that she was staying at La Cucaracha Backpacker’s Paradise and Dirt Motel and a guy named Sunflower would be there to pick her up in his van, but of course I was only kidding. Like any good son, I was there to meet her at the airport and take her to her real lodgings at the Royal Hotel Seoul in Myeong-dong.
Day 2 – Monday, December 23rd – A Day of Rest
I had to work the next day, which gave my mom a full day of rest and recovery back at the hotel. It’s always nice to have a day like that after a long flight. Later that evening, we took a cab over to my neighborhood and sampled some of the local street food: fried vegetables, rice cake, and “sauce chicken” from my very favorite vendor.
Within a couple of hours, Mom was kicked back in my chair with her feet on my bed, using my laptop, and eating Korean street food with a wooden skewer. I told her she was getting pretty good at this whole Korea thing.
Day 3 – Tuesday, December 24th – Back to School
The next day, I took my mom to work so she could meet my students and co-workers. My students this year have a bit of a reputation for rowdiness, but they seemed shocked to see my mom in the classroom and instinctively went into ultra-polite mode. I have to say, I was very proud of them. Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures from her visit. It was a busy day (the last day before vacation) and I always feel a little creepy taking pictures of my students.
When work was over, we went to a nearby shopping street for Cookie Dogs – part cookie, part biscuit.
Sounds good because it is.
Day 4 – Wednesday, December 25th – Joy to the World
Afterwards, we walked to nearby Shinsegae Department Store to eat lunch and look around at all the uppity luxury stores. As you can see, Mom made a friend at Louis Vuitton:
That night we went to a movie (the theaters in Seoul brought Love Actually back for Christmas – ask me what I think about that movie) and then had Burger King in honor of my late great grandfather, the legendary Flash (my mom’s dad), who was a bona fide Whopper junkie.
A very simple, but very nice Christmas. 🙂
Day 5 – Thursday, December 26th – A Day Among Royalty
With the school year and Christmas now behind us, my mom’s visit to Seoul entered its second, more tourist-y phase. Our first stop was Gyeongbokgung Palace, which we entered through the gate in Gwanghwamun.
By sheer luck and coincidence, we got there just in time for the Changing of the Royal Guard:
Mom said it was amazing that we could see this traditional ceremony right in front of us, then turn to the right and see skyscrapers. Without realizing it, she’d just described Seoul in a nutshell.
In another section of the palace complex was a stone depiction of the Chinese zodiac. Unlike the western zodiac, which is divided up by months, the Chinese zodiac is divided by years. How old is my mom? Well, it’s not polite to tell someone’s age, but I’ll give you a hint…She was born in the Year of the Horse.
That evening we met some of my friends from work for Korean barbecue (samgyeopsal) and did some souvenir shopping in Insadong. It was a very Korean day.
Day 6 – Friday, December 27th – To Buddha or Not to Buddha?
The next day Mom said she was in the mood for breakfast food, and I knew exactly what to do. Just a quick subway ride to Gangnam (made famous by the “Gangnam Style” craze all the way back in 2012) and we were chowing down at Butterfinger Pancakes.
Then, bellies full, we cabbed it over to Bongeunsa Temple.
Bongeunsa was the first big surprise of my mom’s visit. A lifelong devout Catholic (she was going to become a nun before my dad and his vintage Mustang “came along and wrecked everything” – her words), she had never been to a Buddhist temple before. Something about the calm and quiet of the place really did something for her, and she was very impressed by all the people she saw doing their devotional prostrations. She’s not converting or anything, but she really enjoyed the experience.
But here again is the great irony of Seoul. On one side of the street is Bongeunsa Temple, where people try to strip away their desire for earthly things. On the other side of the street (literally, directly across the street) is COEX Mall, where earthly desires and material possessions are the name of the game.
We spent the afternoon there, snacking, shopping, and walking through the aquarium.
Mom couldn’t stop laughing at this penguin watching television.
And this piranha looked like he wanted to say something:
Good pizza for dinner and then early to bed. We had to be well-rested for the next day’s adventures.
Day 7 – Saturday, December 28th – North and South
No trip to Korea is complete without a trip to the border between North and South, so on the seventh day of my mom’s visit we climbed into a tour bus and headed on up. The actual Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is currently closed due to an outbreak of swine flu, but we were still able to visit the Freedom Bridge and observation towers.
My mom was extremely lucky to visit when she did. I’ve seen North Korea from both South Korea and China, but I have never seen it as clearly as I did when we were there. Take a look:
The tour ended at the War Memorial of Korea, which ended up being the next big surprise of Mom’s visit to Seoul. Most Americans (self included) have no real understanding of the Korean War, its relationship to World War II, or the impact it’s had on all of East Asia. Everyone who comes to this museum walks away with a better grasp of history, and my mom was no exception. She really got a lot out of it.
Next time you see her, ask her about “The Drop.”
Here she is in front of the Douglas MacArthur Tree.
And just for good measure, here’s Douglas MacArthur’s corncob pipe (all blurry for artistic effect):
In the late afternoon we took a cab over to Sandwich House (one of my very favorite spots) so I could introduce my mom to the extremely friendly owner/proprietor. Great food, and an excellent end to a long day on the battlefield.
Day 8 – Sunday, December 29th – Full of Grace
The next day took us to one of Seoul’s best-hidden gems: The Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Namyang.
On more than one occasion I’ve described this place to friends as a sort-of Catholic Disneyland. The entire property is divided up into walking trails designed to resemble a large string of rosary beads.
There’s also a small, but beautiful church where a young priest gave my mom a big hug and said a blessing over her.
Sadly, the weather wasn’t on our side, so we weren’t able to stay for very long. But, it was still a good experience.
Once we got back into the heart of Seoul, we had Chinese food, shopped a little, and took a look at the Pushkin Statue near Lotte Department Store. Fun fact: Vladimir Putin came from Moscow to dedicate this statue as a symbol of friendship between Russia and Korea.
It was a good day.
Day 9 – Monday, December 30th – Top of the World
Mom’s 9th day in Korea brought us to the 6th (some say 5th) tallest building in the world: Lotte World Tower. From the observation floors near the top, we were able to look out and see the city in all directions. This was a lot of fun for a couple of reasons: (1) because I’d never been there before, and (2) because it was really well put together. The elevator that took us to the top was a show in and of itself, and in true Korean fashion there were restaurants, cafes, and shops all over the place.
We wrapped up the afternoon by peeking into all the luxury stores and acting like we had money. Then we went to McDonald’s (haha).
Day 10 – Tuesday, December 31st – Steak and Bunions
New Year’s Eve. By Day 10 we were both showing signs of wear, so Mom decided to relax with a nice pedicure.
We spent the afternoon being lazy and snacking on street food, then at 7:00 we were off to VIPs for a New Year’s Eve steak dinner and buffet before watching the 2020 fireworks from Mom’s hotel room.
Not a bad way to say goodbye to 2019.
Day 11 – Wednesday, January 1st – Galbi and Farewell
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and the following day was Mom’s last day in Korea. Before we got on the airport shuttle we headed out for one last round of Korean food: chicken rice galbi. You might think of it as Korean jambalaya.
Mom loved it.
And then just a few hours later we were at the airport for a difficult goodbye.
Can you see why I’ve been so tired for the past week? 🙂
Much love, Mom. I hope you enjoyed your time in Seoul. You’re a good travel buddy, and I look forward to seeing you, Dad, and everyone else when I come home in the spring. 🙂
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