Thursday, 26 November 2009

En francais... Seoul style

There's something to be said about globalization, isn't there? How lucky are we to live in a world where cultures are now so beautifully woven together, that you can indulge your senses to feasts from opposite sides of the planet, with ease?

I've had two experiences this past week, which sent me into sensory overload.

Le Saint-Ex in Itaewon, Seoul

T came to Seoul for a visit over the weekend, and decided to take me to Sunday brunch at her favourite French restaurant in Itaewon (the foreigner hub in Seoul), called Le Saint-Ex. It was a set menu, that came with an appetizer of soup or salad, an entrée, a dessert, and coffee.

The delicious salmon entrée

The meal itself was fabulous. I was craving a good salmon for months, realizing that I'd completely taken for granted the times when mum would bake me a few slices each week. But what was so amazing about that entire experience, was the fact that we were in Seoul... South Korea... eating brunch... at a French restaurant.

Of all the things I imagined doing here, this wasn't one of them. I can't begin to explain to you how it felt sitting in that restaurant early on Sunday afternoon, nibbling on a freshly baked baguette with REAL butter, while listening to smooth French jazz sailing into the air from the speakers. I could have very well been in the south of France, doing just the same... I never would have known the difference, I think. The bursts of reality only came each time our waiter showed up at the table.

A view of the desert table at Le Saint-Ex. There were about five options

Later this week, another friend and I decided to go in search of twinkly lights and Christmas trees, and found ourselves in Itaewon once again. The rest of the gang had headed over to a restaurant to enjoy an American thanksgiving meal, so the two of us (not being American) decided to have a Commonwealth evening.

Cue Tartine - another hidden gem in the back alleys of Itaewon -- a cozy cafe with a few tables, serving some of the best pies and 'drinking chocolate' in.... well, anywhere!

Tartine, in Itaewon, Seoul

B and I stumbled across this place on purpose. She'd read about it somewhere, and since we'd already had dinner at home, it was the perfect way to end our night -- with tarts, pies, and something called 'drinking chocolate' ... too tempting to pass up.

Our drinks arrived with instructions: "You have to keep stirring, otherwise it will clot," said the young Korean man, smartly dressed in a black French beret, clean uniform and white apron. B informed me that he might have also been the chef. For all I knew, I could have been sitting in a quaint French café in Paris, again. The only thing missing were the accents.

The infamous 'Drinking Chocolate'

B and I were in heaven. We each ordered a pie, split a cookie and indulged in our 'drinking chocolates', which, incidentally, tasted like... chocolatey nectar from the Gods. And boy did we ever keep stirring, not letting a drop of it go to waste... just to our waists!

The mixed berry pie and cookie, with beautiful plate decor

You'd think these two experiences would have left me confused about my actual location on this planet. But there's really such beauty in it, isn't there? When, in time gone by, would we have ever been able to say, "I ate Indian food in Toronto, Canada," or "One of my best memories of South Korea was when I indulged in pies at a French patisserie in Seoul"...?

Bizarre saying it, but definitely fortunate to have experienced it.

My Korean coworkers have often said I'm lucky. Not because they think I walk around with a lucky penny, or because they feel I win things wherever I go... neither of which is true.

They say so, because of, as they put it, my 'international background.'

I was born in India, raised in Canada, and now I'm living in Korea, experiencing the wonders of the east and west, in a city that's both traditional, and driving head first into the modern era.

If anyone is out there reading this, please listen... This is a good time to let yourself live. To let yourself feel alive!


Not by a long shot!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

To top it off

There are various pockets around my neighbourhood in Seoul that cater to my senses.

I enjoy my late afternoon walks home from school, because they help clear my mind after hours of entertaining students with the joys of speaking English. The brisk walk to my apartment is just what's required after a day filled with limited words and simple vocabulary -- I never imagined how draining not talking could be.

And as you've become aware now, Café DaVinci is a regular haunt, where I feel at peace and find inspiration on a per-latté basis. In fact, just the other day, S and I became preferred customers, with membership cards. 10 per cent discount on lattés, anyone? Yes, we're just that awesome!

But perhaps my most favourite place among all the hustle and bustle that encompasses this busy nook in Seoul, has to the rooftop of my building.

View from my building, facing east

It took me a few weeks after moving in to find myself on the seventh floor, staring out at Seoul. I can't properly explain to you how those first moments felt, when my feet hit the cement floor, high above ground level. All I can say is that it took my breath away, not because of the spectacular view, but because it finally hit me that I wasn't in Toronto anymore.

Needless to say, I've made many more trips up to the top, sharing the view with anyone who's willing to watch it with me.

Being on this rooftop is eyeopening on so many levels. For one, when I go upstairs at night, I'm greeted with about a dozen or so neon crosses, identifying the various churches in my neighbourhood. You'd never see anything like this in Toronto. I mean, the churches do exist there, but they're certainly not advertised with a 'follow the neon cross to Jesus' tower.

Secondly, I have a direct view of Namsan Tower to the west. Yes. I know. Despite the vertical jungle that is Seoul, I am still able to get an unrestricted view of the city's famous landmark. There it stands, nestled between two towering hi-rises. On clear nights, it's beautifully lit, and is worth the 40-or-so stairs I have to climb in order to see it.

Korea University's main building is also visible if I look to the north. It has a beautiful mountain as a backdrop, and I've watched the leaves on it change colours this season. Spectacular show!

Korea University's main building is visible in the distance. Directly under, is the roof to my neighbour's building, where I've seen them dry everything from hot chilly peppers, to underwear.

Incidentally, the mountains in Seoul aren't so high according to my friend from Taebaek, Gangwando, one of the most mountainous and beautiful regions, in eastern Korea. She called them molehills...

Perhaps they are. I've yet to compare. I'll let you know when I know. But for now, they will have to do.

I can't wait till the summer, when I can park myself up there with a good book, without freezing my assets off.

Finally, one of the most uplifting and heartwarming reasons why I absolutely love my Seoul rooftop, is because it's just that... a rooftop in Seoul.

Standing there and looking out into the vast distance is a reality check and a thrill all at once. When I'm up there, I can't deny that I'm far away from all that I know. I'm a stranger to the city, and it is a stranger to me. But with each passing day, we're getting to know each other, and so far, it's going well. Who knows, maybe when the winter passes, and spring swings by, Seoul and I can share a rooftop date, without the awkwardness that comes with dating someone who speaks a different language than you.

Here's hoping.

A view looking south, towards the Hangang river and Gangnam, in Seoul

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A burst of inspiration

It's taken three months and many reality checks for me to finally say I've settled into my Seoul digs. I'm at peace with the shoebox, I've come to terms with the bills, I've accepted the communication barrier, and, finally, I've found inspiration again.

I spent most of the past 24 hours flipping through National Geographic Traveler's Dec '09 issue, and I simply want to teleport myself into the photographs I saw.

Mind you, I'm trying to plan a getaway for the early months of 2010, so this magazine couldn't have landed in my lap at a more perfect time. I remember having this exact feeling of excitement and euphoria when I realized I'd actually be moving to Seoul. I listed all that I wanted to see and do in this wonderful city of paradoxes, and couldn't wait to get here.

Now that I'm here and feeling slightly more settled, I'm looking at what's around me. I finally realized today, that I'm actually LIVING in EAST ASIA! How amazing is that?? I'm closer to some of the world's most ancient and beautiful places, than I ever was when I lived in Toronto. So, it's time to make the best of this adventure.

I've been playing around with options. I know I have to visit Japan, not necessarily because I want to go there desperately... but because it's so close in proximity, that if I don't visit, I'll feel like the biggest tool in town.

You have no idea how cool it felt to just say that.... "I'm close to Japan!"

So, dear reader, if you have a moment, please take a spin through my thoughts with me.

My first choice is Palawan in the Philippines. This came under high recommendation from a friend who lived in Taiwan for a while. She said there's no other place on earth that compares to it, and, after Googling some images, I think I'm starting to agree. What do you think?

Palawan, Philippines

Now, I know some of you will say, "If you've seen one beach, you've seen them all." And perhaps you're right. But I definitely don't feel that way. I spent the greater part of my childhood in the tropics, and any excuse to inhale fresh, salty air, and dig my toes into the sand while listening to waves hitting the shore, sounds alright by me. Just look at that photo! Don't you simply want to dive right in?!

My Second choice is Bali, Indonesia. Why? Well, some of you may know of my affair with Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat Pray Love. In part three, she talks of Bali and all its mystic beauty and serenity. I want to see it to believe it. That's all there is to it. Again, Google Images never fails to deliver.

Bali, Indonesia

Sigh! Just look at that photo. It's captured so well, isn't it? Can you imagine just traipsing around the island for a few days, talking to locals and walking away from it all, feeling alive and inspired?

Living in Seoul is a lot like living in Toronto. Well, except for the major language barrier. But it's quite easy to forget that I'm living on the other side of the world, far from all that used be comfortable and static. If I allow myself, I think I might just as easily leave Seoul after a year, having not done much else from what I'm doing right now.

I think that would be the biggest disappointment for me.

So, in keeping with trying to get away from neon lights and cityscapes, last on today's list, but certainly not least, is The Great Wall of China.

I know the list has changed as of late, but I grew up knowing that The Great Wall of China was one of the Seven Wonders of the world. And from the moment I learned of it, I knew that I wanted to visit it someday. This would be an opportune time, don't you think?

The Great Wall of China, China

Can you imagine anything more amazing than having a chance to visit this spectacular historical site, that goes on for miles and miles? I know a lot of you reading this may have already done so, but the thought of setting foot on this ancient wonder has me giddy with excitement.

Anyway, I needed to get that out. All of this may or may not happen, but I feel thrilled that I've set these down so that I can finally start planning. Fingers crossed that it all happens, yea?

Thanks, friends! Please stay tuned for updates, and do share your thoughts.


Images courtesy of Google Images

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Will Write For Chocolate

A quick note after receiving my first care package while in Seoul.

One of my friends back in Toronto had the bright idea to purchase a bunch of magazines and send them to me as a package. I realize she knows me better than I thought she did, because I was going through some major reading withdrawal. This is just what I needed! These magazines will keep me entertained for weeks. I am thrilled.

Aside from issues of People, Cosmopolitan and Elle (sure to satisfy my need for trashy reads), she also included a December '09 copy of The Writer, a magazine I used to browse through while strolling around Chapters or Indigo. One of the first things I saw while flipping through it at my desk, was a comic strip I had completely forgotten about.

Will Write for Chocolate is a pretty entertaining cartoon published on the web by Toronto-based Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It chronicles the life of a writer trying to make it through her first novel. I've found myself chuckling to these little bursts of entertainment many times, because on so many levels, I can relate.

Here's one that's my absolute favourite.

Lesson learned for today: Never underestimate the power a well thought out care package can have on your emotions... especially during a chilly, mind-numbing winter's day!

Love you lots, HC!

p.s. You can click on the picture to make it bigger.

Image courtesy of

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A bright spot

I saw this on another blog and couldn't help but share. It echoes my thoughts and sentiments at this very momement in time, as I find myself on the other side of the world, away from comforts and routine.

I hope you take something away from it as well.


Image courtesy of A Life  More Fabulous - Quote by Eve Ensler, as published in Glamour magazine's Dec '09 issue

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Fate and Fated

 The inside and outside patio area at Café DaVinci in Seoul
It's about 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night and I'm sitting at Ca DaVinci with S, for our weekly writing date.

I've come to look forward to these hours of simply... being. There's truly no other way of putting it. Every week, S and I sit here for an hour or two and just do what we love. As she puts it, "Sometimes we write, sometimes we read and sometimes we Google." It's a break from the fast paced hustle and bustle that's normal to Seoul and our jobs as ESL teachers.

We're both not teachers by trade. She used to work at a magazine in Chicago before deciding to venture out here to test the waters and, really, to test herself as well. We bonded instantly, and now, we're at a place where the silence is not only normal, it's required.

We frequent a few different coffee shops between her neighbourhood and mine, but for the past few visits, we've found ourselves at Café DaVinci. Maybe I'm jumping the gun, but I think this location might end up becoming our regular spot. She orders a latté and I go wild and order a vanilla latté. I try to change it up every time, but after a few minutes of staring at the board behind the counter, I always settle for the comfort of an old friend.

Two of my favourite photos that hang above my favourite seats, inside Café DaVinci

We're sitting here, at a table that looks out onto the street. Fall is just about to end its big show and the last of the leaves are hanging off the branches, just waiting for a gust of wind to blow them swiftly to the ground. The colours are magnificent... shades of reds and oranges that I've never seen before. Surprisingly, there's a lot of maple trees here as well... but the leaves are twice the size of those in Canada.

I think I was drawn to Café DaVinci because of its rustic ambiance. For those of you who know me, you'll know that my city-chick heart just begs for country couture when it comes to comfort and peace. And I think I've found it here. What are the odds that it would just happen to be at the coffee house that exists directly outside my window? Fate works its beautiful hand again.

S is sitting across from me, working on her novel. She's pretty dedicated to it, but makes a point to only write when she's inspired -- a few pages here and there... and, once in a while, she'll let me look at parts of it. It's pretty neat stuff.

I feed my habit of people-watching while I sit at this table as well. Even now, though its nighttime, there's many Korea University students walking up and down the streets, hand-in-hand. Oh, did I fail to mention that I'm in a country where being part of a couple is the norm? Singles (or solos, as they say here) may as well be second-class citizens.

At any given moment, there may be about a handful of different couples marching down the street to their favourite haunts... in matching couple sweaters... with matching couple bags and matching couple lattés. I'm often asked by older Korean men and women why I'm not sad being "solo".

"You need to find someone, fast," Mrs. K says, almost weekly. "You're getting old."

Clichéd, I know, but SO real. In fact, not being coupled up is the number one cause for suicides and depression here. Well, that, and the pressure of achieving high grades at school. Can you imagine being a student and not being part of a couple? Yikes!

Anyway, here's my point in all this...

Being in Seoul has been a life-altering experience so far. I've never been in a situation like this... ever! This city tests me on a daily basis, and I fight my battles, one coffee and one issue at a time. There's no other way of dealing with them.

But the gems I experience make all the fights so worth it.

Even now, as I sit here and type this, there's two men sitting to my right, chatting and laughing away. What's so cool about it is that one's a Caucasian, and the other is Korean... and they're not speaking in either English or Korean. It's not only visually fascinating, but also entertaining to the ear.

My senses are so alert right now. It's refreshing.

My mother always told me that I never took the same route as my friends or family. Ever since I was a child, I always marched to the beat of my own drum and loudly followed my own rules... much to her chagrin. But as I sit here at Café DaVinci, I can't help but glance down to the floor and grin. I stare at Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, neatly printed on the floor in glazed charcoal, and, as usual, the last verse sends shivers up my spine and goosebumps along my skin...

The floor in Café DaVinci, with Robert Frost's famous poem scribbled on the tile  

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Thanks, Mum. You've always been right.


Sunday, 8 November 2009

A class of coffee

What is it about coffee houses that allow visitors a sense of comfort and familiarity? We’ve all been to one at some point or another, and we can’t deny the fact that they’re cozy at best… unless, of course, you’re at a coffee house where a simple latté costs no less than $10.

Friends – one of this generation’s most watched TV show – was famous for it’s fictional coffee shop, Central Perk. We became familiar with its set, and, soon enough, on Thursday nights it became our coffee shop as well.

I was never truly fascinated with the ambiance of different coffee shops until I moved to Seoul, South Korea, three months ago. This city is quickly becoming one of the most westernized areas in all of Asia, and, as the devotion to western brands grows, so do the number of cafés.

Coffee shops literally line the streets of Seoul. From bigwig franchises such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, to the small, family-run cafés, there’s never a lack of choices for caffeine highs.

But what’s truly entertained me in recent months are the various themes that come with the cafés. Owners dedicate themselves to mimicking the soft, cozy comfort that adorns European coffee shops. However, in this city, they’ve taken décor a step further – it’s not simply a matter of interior design, but also about the mood and exterior.

There’s cafés dedicated to pets and their owners. Puppy cafés allow visitors to come in, have a cup of ‘jo, and pet a few furry friends during their stay. The animals usually belong to the owners, but, sometimes, patrons bring their own friends along for the visit. The dogs are friendly and even know how to pose for photos.

A puppy café in Hongdae, Seoul

If that’s not enough, how about sipping coffee and chatting with friends in a building designed as a cookbook? This café, also located in Hongdae, is a hot-spot for locals and tourists alike. On the night we visited, an artist was showcasing his work on cool, hot pink manta rays hanging from the lobby’s ceiling. Truly creative.

A café shaped like a book in Hongdae, Seoul

Finally, keeping things entertaining, and almost out of a scene from Astrix and Oblix, how about having a drink in a barrel? I found this gem hidden down an alleyway, just across from the book building. Even the mood lighting was cool.

A café shaped like a barrel in Hongdae, Seoul

What’s amazing about coffee shops in Seoul is that they serve everything from coffee to beer. Visitors can stay for as long as they want… and they usually do. One latté and cookie has bought me about three hours at Café DaVinci, with a window seat that looks out to the world.

As a writer, I couldn't be happier at this very moment.


Thursday, 5 November 2009

To be in the know

"It's really starting to get to me," I said, as I stared at my apartment window between sips of hot coffee. "I wish people would just TALK!"

C and I had met up for what had now turned into our weekly coffee/dinner/shopping date. Sometimes we sat around and vented about all the things that had gotten to us during the week, and sometimes we simply allowed ourselves to indulge in classic Korean traditions -- eating, drinking and giggling like teenage girls, while wandering up and down the busy streets.

On this particular evening, we'd ventured to Cafe DaVinci, and found ourselves on the rooftop. The window from my tiny officetel looked out directly onto this rooftop, and it had only taken me two and a half months to get there.

The view from the other side was different.

"They really can see everything from here," I said, with a frown. "I should be more careful the next time I get out of the shower."

C was laughing at this point.

"Or maybe you should put on a show!" she said, laughing even harder now.

I smiled at this. If I really thought of putting on a show from my window, chances are I wouldn't just be entertaining the patrons of Cafe DaVinci... my window also looked out onto two busy billiard halls, soju bars, coffee houses and restaurants, all filled with young university students. They would be guaranteed an eyeful too.

Hmmm... my thoughts drifted off to the window again.

"This city is pretty chaotic sometimes," I said, while studying the glass shutters. Even though it was night time and my lights were turned off, I was trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of the small postcard from Toronto that was pinned to my wall.

"... And the worst part is the communication problem," C said, while looking at the other tables around us. They were filled with students from the nearby university, either taking a much deserved break from the books, or simply catching up with friends.

"It's true. I'm tired of not knowing anything that I'm supposed to know," I said with a sigh. "I mean, it's one thing to not know everything. But I'd like to know how much I'm supposed to pay in bills, before it gets deducted from my paycheck each month."

That had happened with the last paycheck. I was surprised to find a big deduction that I'd later learned made sense... but not knowing about it till after the fact had annoyed me immensely. In the days that followed, I received my hydro bill, taped to my front door, on a small piece of scrap paper. I explained this to C.

"It didn't even look official!" I said. "All I know is I had to pay the amount... which was fine... IF I knew what I was paying for."

Things had not gotten better when I went to school the next day and asked my co-teacher about this. We struggled to communicate during the best of times, and, as you can imagine, this conversation wasn't on our list of "top-five reasons to talk to each other".

Needless to say, I paid the bill. I'd pieced together the fact that it was a bill in addition to my monthly maintenance fee. And that settled that.

"... It's literally one battle at a time," I said, while releasing a breath I didn't know I was holding. "We have such wonderful times and everything is so good... then something like this happens, and it takes everything I have to not just scream."

C just looked at me.

"I know, sweetie," she said. "It's hard because instead of even trying to explain it to us, they'd rather keep quite. But then we find out in such a bad way, and it ends up being worse."

I nodded my head in agreement.

The general consensus was that some people were in situations where they were paying fees for things each month, without any explanation as to what they were for. Mine was one of these cases.

Things generally had a way of sorting themselves out, but not without a dragged out period of confusion and unnecessary stress that could have easily been avoided, had those in power bothered to talk the important talks.

"We should do something stronger than coffee next time," I said.

"Yes, girlfriend!" C said. That was classic C... up for anything through the worst of it.


Disclaimer: This is not a reflection of my overall feelings or emotions during my time here in Seoul. This was an isolated incident that sometimes reoccurs about once a month. In no way am I miserable, here, in the Land of Morning Calm. I just wanted you to know that the communication barrier is wider on some days than on others.
And it is on those days that I truly realize how far away I am from my comfort zone.
And it is on those days that I realize I'm on the adventure of a lifetime.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Learning of Science Skills

This week's grade nine lesson was on asking for and giving advice. The main phrases they needed to focus on were "What do you think I should do?" and "I think you should..."

After introducing the lesson to them and going over the vocabulary, I put the class into groups, giving each team a problem that they needed to advise on. The problems varied from fights with siblings, to issues at school. But one group received the coveted problem of self-esteem. For some reason, every group wanted to advise on this, believing they each had the perfect solutions to the issue.

I gave the class a few minutes to brainstorm solutions, before bringing their attention back to the front of the class. Each group now had to say what their problem was, and then read out five pieces of advice, appropriate to their issue.

As each group presented their ideas, I was filled with pride. I had worked on this lesson plan for a few hours, and was happy to see it actually work in class.

Then, it was my 'self-esteem' group's turn. They started off the presentation well.

"If you've got self-esteem problems, I think you should talk to someone," they said.

"If you have self-esteem problems, maybe you should read books to help," said another.


"I think you should get help with science skills," another one blurted.

"Science skills?" I thought.

I quickly let this pass, thinking it had something to do with learning science subjects, because they believed science was the best subject ever!

Boy, was I wrong.

My co-teacher quickly pulled me aside and said, "I think you should ask them what they mean by science skills," he said. "I don't like the sound of it."

I went ahead and asked the girls what they meant by "science skills," not expecting any elaborate answer.

My mistake.

The girls struggled to articulate their thoughts through words, so they decided on body language.

One girl grabbed her nose and pretended to cut it with a scissor. She then took that imaginary nose, threw it out, and replaced it with a smaller imaginary nose. She then looked at me with the biggest smile she could muster and said, "Yea? See? Science skills!"

In case that didn't do it for me, another student got my attention and said, "Teacher, you no understand? Ahhhhhh.... OK. It's like this..."

She stared at her friends face and said, "Oh! Your lips! I LOVE! Give me, OK?"

She then said, "Doctor! Doctor!! Chingu lips on me, OK?" (Chingu means friend in Korean).

And then, the reality of all this struck me...

Science Skills = Plastic Surgery.

Who knew?

In every class that followed, I made sure to let the girls know that 'science skills' weren't an option when giving advice about self-esteem.

I can't even tell you how heartbroken and sad they looked when they heard that.


Image courtesy of

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