Friday, October 2, 2009

Encounter of East and West

I lifted the title of today's post from an exhibit I saw at the National Museum as it perfectly encapsulates the Seoul Experience, or at least the one I had this afternoon. Since Chuseok is now underway, I had a free day and was able to meet up with an American acquaintance and her friends. They're all teachers, which I've come to learn is one of two occupations held by most Westerners here. The other is military personnel. We met at the National Museum which has an extensive permanent collection and sits on beautiful grounds. I was also impressed by the building itself; the architecture is elegant and modern. Reminded me of the Getty Center in LA, designed by Richard Meier. Even though it's an hour away by subway, I will definitely re-visit the museum. It felt more serene there than most other areas I've been to in the city. Plus, since we cruised through the exhibits, I need to actually return and pay attention to the displays so I can write about them more intelligently. Oh, and admission is free.

From the museum, we ventured over to Itaewon. It is a fascinating and bizarre blend of East and West. We arrived at twilight which has a tendency to put a pretty sheen on anything. The first places we visited had charm -we walked through a few alleys dotted with various international restaurants and landed at a Thai place. Good food, nice ambiance. After dinner, they showed me the popular foreign market which keeps plenty of American essentials in stock, e.g. Quaker Oats, Cheerios, Bisquick, and cheese, glorious cheese. The prices are astronomical, and so I held off on purchasing anything. Maybe after I get paid in November, I'll swing by for some mozzarella, but right now it's hard to justify the $15 price tag.

We also visited a bookstore called "What the Book" which has a decent amount of new and used books in English, however the prices are steep. For example, I happened to notice they had a C.S. Lewis six-book box-set priced at 95,000 won. That's almost $90. Good thing I brought along my copy of Mere Christianity. The international restaurants, shops, and bookstore were all positive aspects of Itaewon, and I know there's plenty more for me to see on my next visit. Unfortunately, there's a lot of seediness there, too. My hosts pointed out Hooker Hill, an alley lined with bars specializing in sales of a different kind. There are a ton of Westerners roaming the streets, and at first it was exciting to see them, but then the novelty dissipated. I guess I'm acting snobby for not wanting to be lumped in with a bunch of random foreigners. I'm too tired to analyze this publicly and delicately, but you can probably read between the lines.

My evening concluded with a trip to Lotte Department Store in an effort to capture some images of the Chuseok gift sets. Unfortunately, a truly hilarious episode prevented me from achieving my objective. I apologize in advance if it's too much information, but really, this was hysterical. I first stopped off at the store's restroom, and when it came time to flush, I was utterly flummoxed; could not figure out how to flush the toilet. Check out the photo below. See all the buttons? They're all in Korean. I pushed several but no luck. Then I pressed what clearly turned out to be the wrong button. It was for the bidet, and in very slow motion, the bidet spout emerged from within and began to spray. All over the stall, door, and floor for a good 15 seconds. I was mortified and had absolutely no idea how to shut it off. I pushed a bunch of buttons again, and finally the spraying stopped, but only temporarily. I accidentally pushed the bidet button again. Meanwhile, this Abba song was playing throughout the store, and it just added to the absurdity of the moment. At last I spotted the actual flushing mechanism. Turns out it was a silver handle, on the side of the toilet and in relative plain view. I felt like such a dope and sheepishly made my way out.

Because of the holiday, the store closed early this evening, and due to my prior detainment in the restroom, I was unable to capture the images in time. However, I did visit a bodega in my neighborhood, and while not quite as elaborate as other gift sets I've seen, you can still appreciate the effect. Note:  the photo below does contain a SPAM set...can you spot it?

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