Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rise and Shine in Seoul

It's seven o'clock in the morning, and I'm about to do something I promised myself I would not do this year. But resistance is futile; the time and place is not right.
I have no choice.
I'm putting on a hat and winter coat.
I'm in Seoul, Korea, and it's the end of March. After four months of tropical heat and humidity, we're back in a cold climate. I had promised myself at the start of the trip that, for once in my life, I would have no winter.
So it goes.
All's quiet in Hong-dae in the morning.
I zip up, adjust my toque, and head out the door. The morning air is cool, I can see my breath and feel a peppermint tingle on my nose and cheeks. It's nothing like a Yukon March morning, there's no real bite, no snow on the ground. But my blood's been thinned by Beer Lao and Lombok peppers these last few months, and the chill cuts me.
I'm on my favourite morning mission, the breakfast hunt. I scouted out a bakery nearby the night before, and made sure it would be open this time of day. In a big city, it pays to check.
Big cities don't do mornings. Most shops and stores don't open until 10 or even 11. Seoul follows the pattern.
A morning person will tell you a city is special that time of day. It's quiet. The air is still reasonably fresh. There are no lineups, no traffic jams, no hassles. It'd be paradise- if there was actually anything to do.
I turn down another street from our guest house, ignoring the sidewalk. Cars are scarce this time of day. A clutch of school girls in uniform, laughing and hugging, fall up the street. The clip clop of high heels approaches from behind, and pass brusquely. The woman is clearly not an early riser... she's lost in thought and a scowl as she heads to work.
I'm in the Hongik University section of Seoul, or Hong-dae as the neighbourhood is called. It's a island of three and four-storey older brownstone buildings, edged with major roads and tall skyscrapers about half a kilometre away.
Hongik's an art school, and this is a trendy area, a hipster area. You see young photographers and aspiring fashion models doing shoots on the street. Galleries are everywhere. The local book stores specialize in graphic design texts and architecture magazines.
It's a human-sized part of Seoul, not like the monstrous aggregations of dozens of 30-storey apartment blocks that jut out from the landscape in the satellite suburbs. There are family stores here, tidy little pocket cafes, cute restaurants, used clothing shops, and the ubiquitous bars. The people of Seoul love their booze. Love. Their. Booze.
Alcohol may be why, I think, Seoul seems even quieter at 7 a.m. than a lot of other big cities I've been to. That suit heading to the subway over there looks a little bleary- that college student and his girlfriend are moving a little slower. Soft nights make for hard mornings.
It's not far to my destination, and the comforting hug of baking smells hit me as I open the shop door.
To a wall of nothing.
The shelves are bare.
No financial crisis at this institution.
There are no bagels, no baguettes. No croissants- butter, cheese or chocolate. No loaves of fresh morning toast, no strudels, no tarts, no muffins- you get the point.
This town is so slow getting going in the morning, even the bakers sleep in. Who ever heard of a bake shop that wasn't ready by 7:30?
Fortunately I have a backup plan.
I walk down the street, passing the sole other European out this morning. He looks like he's heading to work. We exchange the Significant Nod of Shared Race Acknowledgement and head our separate ways.
I head into another shop, and speak the universal pidgin of coffee drinkers.
Hi. Venti. Americano. Black. Hot,” I order. The girl acknowledges and sets me up, with a bagel beside.
I head back to the guest house, coffee comforting my hand though the insul-sleeve. My head is warm under the toque, so the cool air is actually refreshing.
After four months of stifling heat, of sweat, of shirts that won't dry and underwear that only sticks, it's nice to be cool for a change. No mosquitoes. No tropical disease. No touts, no bugs, or rats, and tapwater you can drink. I like Seoul.
And I think, I really didn't break my promise. The equinox was a week ago. It's already spring. I have had my Year of No Winter.
Behind me, the bright sun is beginning to peak around the blue-grey buildings, warming my back. A few more people are stirring on this beautiful day.
I'll get to the bake shop a little later.

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