Tag Archives: food

Street Fighting in Seoul

The last part of my family’s Korean expedition was in Seoul. This capital city is best known for its unexpected combination of its close proximity to North Korea/DMZ, being the country’s financial and business hub, being the Hollywood of Asia with its famous and perfect (sometimes surgically perfect) stars and of course Psy’s Gangnam Style, which had I think a billion views on You Tube and made that particularly posh neighborhood even more desirable.

Another unexpected aspect of Seoul is that for most of my life, until I was in my mid 30s, I believed it was also my birth city. I mean, that’s what I have on every official document in my life and when people have asked where I was born, I always responded “Seoul”. That is until mom casually dropped one day, “you not born in Seoul. Why you think that?” To which I replied, “Ummmmmm? Ok. So where was I born? And the only way I would know where I was born would be because you would’ve told me.” Mom just shook her head in response disappointed that I would come to such a conclusion. Apparently I was born in a city called Gwangju, which is not known other than the prestigious university. So yeah, not born in Seoul.

Tourists love to go to the palaces in traditional Korean clothes.

Sylvia and I are both the Year of the Ox in the Chinese Zodiac.

The first half of the week we stayed in a hanok, which is a traditional Korean house that’s located close to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the most famous of the Seoul palaces. I thought it would be fun to have a more “authentic” experience of staying in one of these historic homes, but it turned out it meant really cramped quarters where mom, Sylvia and I essentially played Twister to maneuver around each other in the bedroom and that we had to escort mom in the dark of night to find the bathroom so she wouldn’t slip and fall on the rocks in the courtyard that you had to cross to get there. Win some, lose some.

Getting really cozy in the hanok.

Seoul is a big city, filled with sharply dressed Koreans who are all in a hurry to get somewhere, my guess is shopping. Shopping isn’t a casual activity in Korea, it’s a blood sport. We visited so many malls, open markets, boutiques, stalls and there isn’t a square foot of Seoul where a transaction isn’t readily available. Mom and Sylvia were PSYCHED. Luckily/unluckily mom and Syl bought two enormous new bags that they were on a mission to fill/overload so we scoured Seoul for all kinds of goodies.

Thankfully there were lots of options to stress eat.

One of our treasure hunts involved going to Namdaemun Market, one of the most popular outdoor markets where you can find deals on everything from clothes, shoes, amazing street food, hair accessories, medicine and more. And if there’s one thing mom loves, it’s medicine. No matter where we travel in the world, she’s always looking for a cure for a variety of ailments and pains and often brings back these treasures for gifts for her sisters and brother. We were looking for a particular kind of arthritis medication when mom’s legs and back were acting up and unfortunately this market where you can find anything except for a comfortable place to sit. I knew she needed a break from walking around in the heat, so I told her to stay put with Sylvia while I offered to run around the maze of the market to find the medicine and would come back to find them once I accomplished my mission.

After about 30 minutes of frantically running around the market, I came back to the spot where I left mom and was relieved to see she found a rare bench in front of what looked like an antique market. She looked exhausted and overheated. Right then a man in a pink polo shirt pulled up and parked his moped next to the bench. He gestured to a couple of other guys sitting on the bench next to mom and he asked “who’s this lady?” I disliked him immediately. The two goons shrugged and smirked in response that they didn’t know and then Pink Polo looked at mom and said to her with his rudest tone “Lady, you need to get up. This is my seat.” Mom shot up immediately and replied to this 40 something Pink Polo in shame “I’m sorry. I am just so tired and my legs and back are really hurting”.

Don’t be fooled by this adorable face. She’ll fight you and win.

Apparently Sylvia made a failed attempt to pull me and mom away from Pink Polo before things escalated, but I honestly must’ve had a rage blackout. And that’s when she decided the best thing to do was to escape on her own into Pokémon Go on her phone and seeing her holding her phone up was like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. Pink Polo then crossed over toward Sylvia and grabbed the phone from her hand and started screaming about taking his photo. When he did that, I lost what little patience remained in my body and thought “ok, this guy is really crazy. He could get physical with us”. So I rushed over, grabbed his free hand by the wrist and simultaneously concocted an exit strategy that would cause the least harm to mom or Syl, which may or may not have involved taking mom’s massive E-cigarette whom we call Precious (as in Gollum’s Precious) and defending us with it. I got up in his face and threatened “how dare you touch my sister and give me that phone. If you don’t give me her phone right now, I’m calling the police!”

Spicy Korean fried chicken is something every person should have at least once in their lives.
Sylvia is in a chicken coma
My mouth is on fire and I am psyched about that.

We didn’t realize that during this conflict, the many many people in the market started to circle around us to watch in horror/excitement/fear at the spectacle. I managed to grab the phone from him once I told him she wasn’t taking his picture and was just playing a game and the next thing I knew, a team of skilled older Korean women who worked in the market swarmed around us like an elite Navy Seal Team and pulled us all apart. They attempted to calm us by confirming and reassuring us that Pink Polo was in fact an ASSHOLE that was in the wrong, but that nothing good would come from continuing on with this fight. And they were right.

Mom was understandably really shaken and upset from the entire ordeal and the only way she could deal with it was by retelling the story to every person that crossed her path the rest of the trip. I think the worst part for her was thinking that Sylvia and I would walk away from this trip to Korea thinking that the people are awful and that would color our impression of the country she loved so much. But I assured mom that Pink Polo wasn’t an asshole because he was Korean. He is just an asshole that could’ve been from anywhere. And truth is that there were also really good, kind, respectful, helpful people we met on this trip as well.

We saw a wonderful musical called Arirang about the history of Japanese oppression of the Korean people. Needless to say, not the happiest musical, but mom loved it.

Despite this unexpected street fight in Seoul, my overall impression of the city was really positive. I had amazing food, explored beautiful palaces and historic sites, begrudgingly shopped like a gladiator, and most important, I spent time with two of my favorite Korean Americans, mom and Sylvia. And so we left Korea with our bags and bellies filled to the max, ready to come back to our actual home in the good ol’ USA.

Sylvia’s doodle of the three of us that we left in the Seoul Tower.

Italian Masters and Sisters Trip

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When I was a little girl either working or watching mom work, I would have elaborate daydreams about my “other” fantasy family life. These dreams would include exciting twists like Barry Gibb being my stepdad (what can I say, I love disco and he’s the sexiest Bee Gee); I had magical powers and I could fly; and mom didn’t have to work twelve hours/day, six days a week or at all; we would take amazing trips all over the world, stay in fancy places and eat delicious food. So now at 42, when I find myself eating handmade pasta steps away from Il Duomo in Florence with mom and Sylvia, it’s like my fantasy life has become my real life — sorry Barry, we couldn’t wait for you any longer.

We started our Italian adventure in Venice, a city of water taxis, canals, streets purposefully designed to get you lost and a feeling that you’re somehow transported back in time. It could be the absence of cars on the streets, the walking up and down cobblestone streets and bridges that lead you to nowhere/everywhere, or the fact that I still did not have a working phone, but there was something about the city that makes you feel like you’re living in a different time in history.

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We stayed in a gorgeous apartment in the heart of Venice in the Jewish quarter where you step outside to see the canal and the street is lined up with merchants selling everything from household cleaning items to leather goods to freshly caught seafood. We had an awesome assortment of cafes, restaurants and bakeries and each meal continued to feel like a feast. The downside of living in a city of water is that the mosquitoes are abundant and aggressive. It didn’t matter how much or how frequently we applied repellent, they too took part in the feasting.

San Marco Square
San Marco Square
Sunset outside of our apartment
Sunset outside of our apartment

One of the most exciting aspects of this trip for me was that it was my sister Sylvia’s first time in Europe and we both anticipated that she would be particularly inspired by the history and magnificence of Italian art. Sylvia is an artist, she is mostly focused on character design and has worked on video game and graphic novel projects that will someday become available to the public. From my earliest memory of Sylvia, she always had a pencil and paper in her hands, opting to sketch characters over pretty much anything else. I know that I am completely biased when I say this, but she is so fucking talented. From an early age, we could see that her doodling was so much more than that. And like many artists, she’s incredibly sensitive and uses art as her primary means to communicate her thoughts and imagination. And despite the fact that I was always the “high achieving” sister, I have never doubted that she is so much smarter than I am or ever will be. In fact, she has this rare brain (like Da Vinci) that can synthesize science and art and for her the two are completely symbiotic. When she draws fantasy characters, their bodies and musculature must always be accurate and she is constantly citing the Latin terms for each muscle group when we have regular conversations about mom or my various aches and pains. And if you think my previous statement about her talented is solely a sister’s love, her work was actually featured in The Washington Post a few years ago for her sketches that included the aforementioned anatomically correct subjects. My dreams for Sylvia are both unlimited in potential and as simple as just wanting the world to see how beautiful her work is. And she really soaked it all in in Italy. She was as inspired by the constant stream of paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and ancient buildings — we were literally surrounded by the masters of the art world.

Artist at work!
Artist at work!

In addition to enjoying the beauty of the city and strolling San Marco Square, I was also dealing with an incredibly persistent cold that became an ear infection and all of the flying and trains around Europe seemed to only exacerbate the situation. My left ear was completely closed and I was feeling really worn out. Mom was terrified that I was going to become partially deaf and insisted that I find a doctor. For those who have ever experienced being sick abroad, it’s an interesting part of the travel experience. I found an “emergency” medical clinic located within San Marco and they have a doctor who speaks English, but to be completely honest, it’s not the place to go for thorough, quality care. He was perfectly nice and prescribed some antibiotic drops and decongestant, which I pretty quickly discovered was not going to cut it and ended up visiting a specialist in Rome.

Mom, Sylvia and I soaked in the beauty and confusion that is Venice. No matter how lost we were, the three of us managed to find pleasure in wandering the narrow streets and discovering new shops, cafes, bakeries and much more. I’ve seen a lot of sub-par souvenirs in my travel, but it seemed like everything in Venice was beautiful, even the small trinkets that I would usually categorize as “junk”. Mom and Sylvia loved shopping — leather bags, leather art notebooks, leather luggage, clothes… when in Italy.

Sisters
Sisters

We left Venice after five days and headed to Rome where mom’s younger sister Jemma would meet us from Germany. Sylvia and I referred to this part of our time as the “Sisters Trip”. It’s funny to see that sisterly dynamics are not that different in your 30’s/40’s as they are in your 60’s. Your sister is the person you love most, but also drives you insane. Mom has lost 3 of her older sisters in the past few years, so it was really special for her to spend time with her only younger sister and I know that my aunt who lives so far from her siblings also was grateful to be with us and enjoy some rare family time.

Sisters cracking up
Sisters cracking up
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome

Rome was a totally different kind of chaos than Venice, much larger in scale and scope. It’s impossible to see “everything” in this big bustling city, but we did a fair job of it. While I can see why Rome falls under many of my friend’s “favorite cities” lists, I found it overwhelming. It’s hard not to appreciate the incredible history and absolutely gorgeous architecture, the food and the culture and I absolutely did. But I also found it exhausting and being progressively more ill while I was there didn’t help. (Side note: the worst place on earth when you’re about to faint is inside St. Peter’s Basilica.). It’s challenging to relax in Rome, perhaps because there is so much to see and do, and perhaps because like many other large cities, there’s a frenetic energy that can either feel exhilarating or exhausting. Sylvia even managed to stop a young woman from trying to poach stuff from mom’s bag and then her own. I was so unnecessarily worried about Sylvia being able to handle international travel — she was a total BOSS.

Opera night!
Opera night!
Sylvia and Aunt Jemma all dolled up for La Traviata
Sylvia and Aunt Jemma all dolled up for La Traviata

We saw many of the “must sees” in Rome and Vatican City: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museum (which for me was kind of a nightmare due to the crowdedness and my ear infection), Spanish Steps, Trevi, the Pope, the list goes on and on. One of the highlights of the trip at Sylvia’s suggestion was going to see La Traviata at St. Paul’s, a beautiful 19th century church where they perform the famed opera inside the church. The music was transcendent and we were seated right next to the orchestra. My mom and I were both completely transfixed by the conductor as our seats were facing him and watching the maestro at work, full of passion, excitement and pushing his musicians and singers to perfection was truly inspiring. Mom was so smitten that after the show, I asked him if he would mind taking a photo with her and I can honestly say that I have never seen mom so excited (even more excited than when I took her to see DOLLY PARTON)!

Look out Barry Gibb, you have some serious competition!
Look out Barry Gibb, you have some serious competition!
St. Peter's Square in Vatican City
St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City

We left Rome and spent our last week together in Florence, my favorite of the three cities. Although the weather was probably the worst for us in Florence, it didn’t matter because it’s just so stunning. I also tend to enjoy these small to medium sized cities more than the larger ones, the pace is slower, you feel like you get to know the city after a few days of wandering the streets. We had the best food, easy sightseeing, even spent a day just chilling in our gorgeous Airbnb apartment and cooking, playing cards and just being “normal” which in itself is a gift. And miraculously, I was starting to feel a little better!

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Mom’s a total trooper in the rain

Ponte Vecchio

We spent our last day doing a short day trip to Sienna, a small town just an hour from Florence and enjoyed seeing the Tuscan countryside on the way. Sienna is a gem of a small town with one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I’ve seen in all of Europe. And mom and my aunt also really enjoyed the shopping in Sienna as well. The “Made in Italy” thing really has a significant effect on a woman who wants to buy clothes, bags, and shoes.

Florence form Michelangelo's Square
Florence form Michelangelo’s Square
Sienna
Sienna

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When it was time for all of us to say goodbye, I couldn’t believe that we really just spent a MONTH together in Europe! And we did it the right way — we laughed, we were there for each other, we pushed through brief spats and annoyances, we were grateful and we had a blast. I was so anxious about how we were going to get through a potentially stressful month of logistics, tons of walking and close quarters, but my family pulled together as we always do and we made it something that none of us will ever forget.

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