The weather this springtime in Seoul has been very indecisive.
One day it was so warm that we wondered why we’d bothered bringing our heavy coats, gloves, scarves and hats, and the very next day it was rainy and cold, and I dressed up with all of my warm clothing.
As we strolled the streets, I felt cosy and was happy that I had brought along all my warm gear.
It was a rainy day and we thought that it would be pleasant to spend it indoors, viewing art at the Samsung museum.
We took the subway to the Museum.
It is very easy to navigate the subway system in South Korea, as everything is signed in English and it is practically as easy (or as complicated, depending on how you view it), as it is in New York, except that it is cleaner, with better toilets and with better services.
Before we entered the museum, we decided to have breakfast with coffee and tea at a nearby cafe.
Cafes are an obsession in South Korea.
All over the city there are franchise chain coffee shops and individually owned cafes.
I read in a Korean newspaper that in Seoul, there is a coffee shop every fifty meters.
I have never seen so many coffee shops in any other city.
Some of them are huge and spread over three or four floors.
Believe it or not, I counted four Starbucks coffee shops on one long street.
There are more than a dozen coffee chains and each one of them has at least three or four branches on any trendy street.
Small coffee shops have to compete with the big chains, which are prospering.
For example, South Korea is Starbucks’ third biggest market around the world, after the USA and Japan.
Cafes in Seoul are also more pricy than any other country on earth.
Coffee and plain tea in a cafe in Seoul, each cost around $7-$8.
In some cafes the tea and coffee are $12 and a small snack like a cookie, will cost you an additional $7-$10!
This means that if Jules and I wanted to sit in a cafe in Seoul, to rest and to have two coffees and two teas with a snack, we will be paying $46 for the pleasure.
For about the same price, you can have a nice lunch or a dinner in many good local places.
I read an article in a Korean paper that explains the reality of the coffee obsession in Korea:
“Coffee shops are mushrooming to provide Koreans who crave caffeine with their daily fix.
New cafes pop up every day in nooks and crannies of cities across the nation.
It’s not surprising at all that South Korea is sometimes called the “Republic of coffee.”
You can come across a coffee shop every 50 meters as you walk along any street on which office buildings are located in Seoul…”
Of course as a tourist who walks around the city, I love it that whenever we feel fatigued, we can hop into a coffee shop and rest on their sofas, use their free WiFi and drink a refreshing drink.
It is the only place in the world where franchise chain cafes are offering valet parking or give you a smart phone loaded with games and entertainment to amuse yourself while you wait for them to make your coffee.
When the coffee is ready, the smartphone will buzz in your hand.
Anyway… Near the Samsung museum we had tea, a mochaccino and a light breakfast in a chic cafe.
My breakfast granola was a size that was just enough to satisfy the hunger of a tiny bird, but I did not mind.
I like it that they serve small portions of food and I am attempting to adjust my stomach to eating less.
In the museum, we saw great and exciting contemporary art, as well as some major, heavily-collected artists from the abstract expressionist movement and modern art.
There was also a visiting exhibition of the classical craft and treasures of Korean, done in gold, silver and bronze from 1500 years ago, along with sculptures of Buddhist iconography.
For me, the most exciting exhibition was in the basement with interesting digital images and cool video installations.
After the museum we walked into the Itaewon neighborhood, which is famous for being full of expats and foreigners who live in Seoul.
Most of the streets were full of shops selling clothing and food, and we did indeed notice that most of the people walking around were of foreign nationalities.
We had a rave recommendation to eat at a Thai restaurant that is called “Buddha’s belly.” Since we love Thai food, we decided to give it a try.
The food was very mediocre, lacking in all the zest and colors that give Thai food its glory.
They did not use fresh basil, lemongrass, mint or green lime, and all the sauces seemed to come from bottles or a premixed chili paste.
Good Thai places make all their pastes from fresh spices crushed in a mortar and pestle, making sure to make them fresh daily.
Since we did not like the food, we did not eat it all, and instead we ate a second dinner at the “Dubai restaurant” which serves a mixture of Arab and Indian cuisine.
Of course I cannot complain, since it is obvious that you can get great Korean food in Korea, but nobody promised me that I could get great Thai food in Korea, or great Arab food in Korea for that matter as well.
It just lacks all authenticity and in many cases, it is due to the fact that they have to make do with the available ingredients and with whatever cooks or chefs they can teach or import.
Many things are charming about this place.
It has been occupied by Japan for a long time, and so the Japanese influence is everywhere.
In fact, Japan and South Korea have many similar sensibilities.
You can also get superb Sushi and excellent Japanese food, and the youth culture is similar in its attraction to music, to art, and to cutesy things.
I love it that in the subway, I see people drinking soy milk, instead of drinking the hyper poison called Red Bull.
In fact, you would not even see those kind of drinks around, except in places hoping to attract foreigners.
I also like it that cherry tomatoes are considered a sweet dessert, just as they are eaten in China and in Japan.
Almost all hotel’s and shop’s doors around Seoul are automatic, so you do not have to struggle with the wind to open a heavy glass door.
The city is very large and is home to millions of people, yet it does not have the noise pollution of American cities and you can walk the streets for hours and not hear one emergency vehicle rushing by with loud sirens.
In my own observation, South Koreans have some lingering resentment towards the Japanese occupation, which burnt and destroyed much of their cultural heritage.
But this resentment is not based on thinking that the Japanese are less than them in any way; in fact, I got a strong sense that Korea is NOT a culture full of racism.
Nobody here cares if you are Jewish or a Christian or a Muslim.
On top of this, there is a pleasant order and organization, that seem to be honored by most people, and practiced for the common good, but there is no feeling of racism or bigotry.
A city full of art and good Asian food, a city that does not exude a sense of urgency by loud obtrusive noises, in a culture that basically does not practice any racism and bigotry, where the violence rate is very low, is a great city in my book.