Saturday, August 09, 2014

a 19,000-step day

Today, Saturday, I walked all over the damn place with my buddy Tom. I've known Tom since 1994, and he was ecstatic to learn of my return to Seoul. "I finally have someone I can hang out with," he told me. The first third of today was devoted to searching in the Dongguk University neighborhood for a place for me to live. The final two thirds of the day were devoted to making new discoveries in the Dongmyo neighborhood, which sports a sprawling open market as well as a huge enclosed flea market.

I met Tom a little after 11AM at Dongdae-ipgu Station. We took the advice of the ajumma I had spoken with a couple days earlier, and wandered uphill from the subway station to begin our search for my new domicile. The lady was right: there were plenty of apartments and other lodgings. We visited several; some left us with a weird, unwelcome, or creepy vibe, but one place, a "weollum" (one-room), had a very nice, very talkative landlord who gave us the lowdown about my potential apartment's features. It was a slightly bigger studio than the one I had left in Hayang, and the landlord was asking for ten million won down plus over W600,000 rent. I told him I didn't have that sort of money, and we eventually agreed that I should come back when I did, which might be several months to a year later.

Tom told me that having only five million won (about $5,000) as a key deposit, these days, wouldn't get me a respectable residence. This was no longer 2006; times had changed. As I saw it, the only thing to do was to find cheap housing that required no deposit, then spend a few months to a year just earning money like a madman so that, the following year, I could move into more respectable, more human digs. This also meant that I'd have to put off rapidly paying down my debts for another year, but there didn't seem to be any way around this problem. Living in Seoul means paying the piper, one way or another.

So after wandering around for almost two hours, Tom looked across the street and saw a yeogwan. We went over to it, poked around, and didn't like it. Then, out of the blue, we were accosted by a shop ajumma who shouted over to us that we should try a different yeogwan. We shrugged and went over to the one she'd indicated. The lady and gentleman running the place (were they husband and wife? I'm not sure) were very accommodating; they showed me two different rooms on two different floors, and in the end, after conferring with Tom about price, facilities, and all the rest, I decided to go with this place. I won't move in until the 18th, as my brother Sean is going to be visiting Korea from the 11th to the 16th.

Here's a picture of the yeogwan's humble exterior:

I thanked Tom for his inspired help, and committed the rest of my day to accompanying him on an adventure. This began with a quick stop at a local barbershop, close to my new yeogwan, where Tom received a W10,000 haircut from a meticulous old man who initially had no inkling that either of us could speak Korean. We left the barbershop and made our way back uphill to Dongguk's campus, where I took a satisfying dump. That ritual accomplished, Tom suggested that we eat lunch. Since he said he needed to visit a particular flea market, he proposed going to the market and finding a place to eat around there. I cringed inwardly, knowing this would mean spending yet more money (the point of the kimbap diet is to save money), but I acquiesced, grimacing. We ended up taking a taxi to the Dongmyo neighborhood, which has the aforementioned huge, sprawling open market and an enclosed flea market as well.

Tom took me to a restaurant that specialized in kalguksu and wang-dongkaseu. Kalguksu, literally "knife[-cut] noodles," is a hot soup that ideally features rough-cut pasta along with an array of proteins—possibly clams, possibly beef, etc.* I ordered something unfamiliar to me: ongshimi-kalguksu, which looked, according to a poster on the restaurant's wall, as though it contained tiny quail eggs. That turned out not to be the case: the ongshimi itself was ddeok-like dumplings stuffed with bits of meat—decidedly not quail eggs, despite the resemblance (a Google search for the hangeul word for ongshimi leads one here).** Tom, meanwhile, ordered the wang-dongkaseu. Wang, in this context, means "king-size," but when Tom's dish came out, it didn't look all that big to me. I ate Tom's vegetables because Tom is notorious in his vegetable-avoidance. I don't know how he's managed to survive, disease-free, for so many years without ever eating veggies, but I guess Tom knows his own biology best.

The front of the kalguksu-jip, not far from Dongmyo-ap Station:

We walked, we walked, and we walked some more. All over the Dongmyo neighborhood. I can't even begin to describe the labyrinthine complexity of the market in that part of town. Suffice it to say the place is huge and diverse, and a person can find just about everything he needs there. Tom was primarily searching for baseballs, baseball cards, and CDs. He's a huge fan of Korean baseball—has been for years. But his reasons for wanting the CDs remained obscure to me. Perhaps he saw some sort of resale value in them.

Here's Tom in his element:

Below is a shot of the front of the Seoul Folk Flea Market, the enclosed shop with a maze-like interior in which can be found just about everything under the sun, from butterfly knives for gang fights to old audiocassettes to modernist sculpture, baseballs, golf clubs, military surplus, hats, belts, shoes, vitamins, sundry clothes, lamps, trinkets and kitsch, and even massive dildos and rubber vaginas for the sad and lonely.

Tom re-explained to me a lot of the geography of this part of Seoul. He kicked himself for never having visited the Dongmyo-area market before, but he knew his way around all the same. I occasionally called off the number of steps we had tread based on my pedometer; eventually, we bought some soft-serve ice cream injected into J-shaped tubes of crunchy, puffed corn—very popular in places like Insa-dong, the artistic district, but also sold elsewhere in the city. We both joked about how eating the tubes gave rise to a rather blowjob-y vibe. I finished munching my phallic symbol first, and I caught Tom in this intentional double-selfie as he was finally finishing off his J-tube:

By the end of the day, we had walked 19,000 steps which, according to my pedometer, translated to almost nine miles (14.5 km). Tom and I parted company after walking all the way to Jongno 3-ga. I took Line 3 back to Karak-dong, getting off at Police Hospital Station and walking the final couple of thousand steps up to my relatives' building.

Once I was back, I showered and went down to visit Third Ajumma. I told her that Tom and I had found me a place to live for a year, then explained the problem of having to once again taekbae everything over to that part of town. Ajumma sprang up from her seat, collected her smartphone, and called a gentleman that she knew who lived one building over. She said he could gather up all my boxes and take the lot over to my yeogwan, in one fell swoop, for a grand total of W50,000, which would be about half the price I'd have paid to taekbae all thirteen of my boxes. I thanked Ajumma for her kind assistance.

I'm not looking forward to the upcoming move. All thirteen of my boxes will have to be taken up four flights of stairs to my new digs. We might save ourselves a few trips by doubling up the boxes, but that will only make each trip up the stairs twice as tiring. Still, there's no way around this. The ajeossi will doubtless ask me to help him take the boxes up to my new room, most likely because W50,000 is a cheap fee for all that labor, which means he won't be motivated to do all the work himself. I also imagine that this gentleman is an older fellow, which means he'll be wanting a helper.

Saturday was long and tiring, but very educational. More important, it was a chance to hang out with a good buddy. Sunday ought to be a bit more restful, then the excitement begins again on Monday evening, when my brother and his friend arrive in Seoul.

*A less ideal version of kalguksu features pasta that was obviously cut by machine, which seems to miss the entire point of the dish.

**Someone from the Jewish tradition might look at those ongshimi dumplings and see matzoh balls. I wouldn't blame her.


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