Sorae Maeul – French Village, Bangbae-dong.
Seoul may not be initially lovable to every traveling connoisseur of the
developed world’s megacities. Repetitive units of suburbia can induce a
subdued state of directionlessness when traveling the city by taxi,
while the same by city bus adds a hint of vertigo to the experience.
Apartment blocks litter the urban landscape, like armies of colossal
tombstones, from which the odd glass skyscraper can be seen rising up,
frozen in its historical bid to escape the clamour of convention below. A
gargantuan automated subway that is its own obsessed demon, places
Seoulites wherever the algorithm of life destines them to be with an
aroma of wicked efficiency, while sweeping up in the human river those
who stumble or lose their way. Into the darkness of Seoul’s underbelly
it will take you, popping out into the grey sunshine every once in a
while, to present its sardine-like passengers with views of the mighty
Han river, itself appearing like a Kraken Gandalf on its own slow
stampede toward the mudflats of Incheon. Should you find yourself
heading south on such a blasphemous mode of transport, I highly
recommend alighting at a station called Bangbae on the green line.
Within the leafy confines in which only a chosen few can reside Sorae
Maeul is a small streety area, peppered with foreign restaurants and
glinting in the healthy glow of a French community hidden to the naked
eye. Here, one can find such rarities as recognisable bread, unsweetened
pickles and Seoulites commuting by foot in an unhurried manner.
Although I don’t visit the Promised Land frequently, it does feature in
my daydreams from time to time. It’s a reflection not of what Seoul
really is, but perhaps of what it may earn to someday be.
Seen here: http://map.naver.com/local/
Wedged unassumingly between an unremarkable real
estate agent and the misnomer of an Outback Steakhouse near Exit 1, SNU
Station, is a medium-sized barbecue restaurant called Saeng Gogi 4,900.
The name means ‘fresh meat 4,900’, which, as you may note, appears to reflect the
owner’s disregard for appetizing descriptions. Here they basically sell
two items, fatty barbecue pork and duck meat, for barbecuing on heavily
sloped pans that inevitably gnash and spit with displeasure at whatever
visceral contents are plopped onto their searing surfaces. Assuming that
you are not seated at the dreaded Toilet Table (so named for its
intimate proximity to the site’s ancient lavatory), one can have a
pleasurable dining experience. The lack of a fixed door to the back of
the restaurant adds an element of outside influence to the smokey
atmosphere of the noisy room. This place is generally crowded, not least
because of the reasonably priced and fairly tasty meat, but also, as I
like to think, because of all the things it doesn’t try to be. The sign
above the self-serve banchan trolley warns of a 5,000 won penalty should you overstock your chopshi and not entirely devour the fruits of the weathered ajummas morning
labours. And the meat is good. It tastes good and people come to buy
it. Despite my insecure propensity for uninvited wordiness, I feel I
wouldn’t be doing the place justice if using more bourgeois terminologie.
The flies and the heat coalesce with the cacophany of neighbourly
diners shouting above the din of sizzling pans, for what I imagine would
be an atmosphere akin to a Namdaemun market samgyeopsal festival.
And the occasional solar flare caused by a random sizzling ball of oil
leaping for freedom from the frying pan will ensure that more than the
recommended weekly intake of anaesthetizing soju is consumed.
Littered amongst the urban sprawl and as synonymous with daily Korean life as kimchi and
plastic surgery can be found the modern Korean convenience store. At
carefully calculated intervals they sit, like a dispersed monument to
the logistical revolution, ensuring that a steady stream of discount
processed foods are always within reach of the modern weary traveler.
With their inviting lights bringing the brilliance of a desert day to
the gloom of a solitary post-hweshik walk home, to their virtually guaranteed stock of fresh(?) triangular kimbabs,
these friendly metropolitan equivalents of the bygone speakeasy serve
more than just Minute Maid juice(?) and Denmark Milk with an arbeiter’s
smile. Through some divine act of grace bestowed upon the Korean expat
community ever since the first Germans brought beer to Korea, at no
place in Seoul is cheap alcohol not within reasonable walking distance. pull
up injection-molded chairs and an umbrella-impaled table, sit, and
enjoy the scenes of the passing local milieu. A number of foreign
beverages are usually for sale, along with the local industrial fluid
confusingly labeled as three distinct brands. For those practicing the
forgotten arts of inebriated alchemy, I highly recommend a mix of soju and aloe vera juice in the bottle. It rivals Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.