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26 Nov 2021

Moving – Yesterday, given a slight break in the madness that has been this semester, I went on an expedition with HJ. We traveled far to the north, where snow blankets the land and the days grow vanishingly short. That’s right—we went to Sweden! Well, maybe not exactly Sweden, but apparently the closest you can get to Sweden and still be in Korea: IKEA. HJ had been there twice before, but this was my first time, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that, until this year, this IKEA had been the largest in the world (they just recently opened up a bigger one in the Philippines, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom). But I don’t think I was prepared for how massive the place was. We left the house at 9:30 in the morning and didn’t get back until 4:30 in the afternoon. It took about an hour to get there and back, which means we spent five hours there. Granted, some of that time was spent eating lunch (being a first-time visitor, I dutifully ate my plate of Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam—it was pretty good, I have to say), but the rest was spent wandering through the maze-like showroom and then nearly collapsing in despair when we reached the end and I realized that the showroom was just the beginning.

“...we will soon be leaving behind faculty housing...”

But I’m not going to write today about my experience at IKEA. To be honest, most of it is a blur now anyway. Instead, I wanted to write a little bit about why we went to IKEA. We didn’t actually go to buy anything (although we did pick up a few very small items), but to get some ideas. Ideas for what, you ask? Things like lights, curtains, shelves, etc. And why do we need these things? Well, because we’re moving.

I’ve actually been sitting on this for seven months now, since the end of April. That might seem like a long time to keep mum about something, but I wanted to wait until everything had fallen into place before I wrote anything. Things have now fallen in place, dates have been set, and we will soon be leaving behind faculty housing and moving into a small apartment of our own. But let me rewind a bit and start at the beginning.

It all started back toward the beginning of the year, when it became clear that we were not going to be able to go abroad for my sabbatical semester. I was definitely disappointed about that, but the truth is that it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have preferred to not have been stuck here in the middle of a pandemic, but there was a silver lining to the dark clouds (as I hinted at earlier this year). We have lived in faculty housing here since 2014, but our contract period was set to end at the end of July. This meant that we needed to find a new place to live. Our original plan was to be away for the spring semester and then come back and somehow find a place in the fall semester. We would have been on a much tighter budget and much tighter timetable. As a result, we probably would have had to settle for a jeonse somewhere for a few years until we had saved up enough money to buy a place. Jeonse is (as far as I know) a uniquely Korean system by which you pay a very large one-time lump sum instead of a monthly rent. We’ve done this before, but jeonse places are not ideal for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that the contracts only last two years, and if your landlord decides to raise the jeonse amount, you might find yourself looking for a new place to live.

However, since we didn’t go anywhere for my sabbatical, we had more money to work with and were able to spend more time looking for a place. Long story short, we got lucky—we found a place that the seller was eager to unload before new government regulations came into effect (which would have meant more taxes for the owner, who owned several properties). There also happened to be a tenant currently living there, which made it less appealing to buyers who wanted to move in immediately. We had the luxury to buy the place early and take on the tenant, since we didn’t need to move immediately. Obviously, moving before the end of summer would have been ideal, but the school was not going to kick us out of our apartment. We just need to pay a monthly penalty in addition to the normal fees. Fortunately for us, the rent we receive from the tenant pretty much offsets the penalty.

By law, we could have given the tenant six month’s notice upon buying the place, meaning that he would have to move out six months from the date we closed on the place. There were a number of reasons that we didn’t do this, though. For one, the contract ends in the beginning of December anyway, so it would have only gotten us in six weeks earlier. Also, the tenant is a graduate student at my university, and I didn’t want to be kicking a student out. Besides, if we had kicked him out at the end of October, we would have ended up having to move right about now (or possibly last week), and I knew that things were going to be busy. So, in the end, we just decided to wait until the end of the contract, and I have zero regrets about that.

We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what we were going to do in terms of remodeling the place before moving in. This is something that we have never had to think about before, because we’ve never lived in a place that we owned. Now that this is going to be our place (well, technically it already is our place, even if we don’t live there yet), though, we want it to be nice. We don’t have enough money to completely redo the entire place, but fortunately it doesn’t really need it. It does need a new bathroom and a new kitchen, and that is where most of the money is going, along with new windows, wallpaper, etc.

You may be wondering what sort of place this is. It is something known here as an “officetel,” although it is not what is traditionally associated with that term. “Officetel” is a portmanteau cobbled together from “office” and “hotel.” These are usually studio apartments, but our place has a bedroom and two smaller rooms, in addition to the living room/kitchen area. To be honest, I’m not sure why it is called an “officetel.” I guess that’s just the legal designation, even if it is more like a small apartment (kind of like how most bars here are actually restaurants). By “small” I mean 71.5 square meters (or about 770 square feet), which probably seems tiny by American standards, but actually works out just fine for HJ and me, since it’s just the two of us.

It is smaller than our current apartment, though, which is one of the cons. Our current apartment has a rather large living room for its overall size, and that is something we knew we were going to have to compromise on. Another thing that we have to give up is verandah space. A “verandah” in Korean is not what it is in the US; it is basically a long, narrow room at the edge of an apartment that is neither heated nor insulated and is generally used for storage and/or as a laundry room. We have two verandahs in this apartment, one at each end, and not having that space is going to cut down on our storage options. To be honest, though, I won’t be terribly sorry to see the verandahs go. The south-facing one will be missed, as we grow herbs and stuff there, but the truth is that we didn’t use it as much as we thought we would when we first moved in. The north-facing one, though, which never gets any sun, has a huge problem with condensation and mold. It will be nice to not have to deal with that. And, like I mentioned above, the new place has two small rooms in addition to the bedroom and living room/kitchen; one of those rooms will be my study, and the other will be a storage/exercise/piano room, so we will have space to put our stuff.

Location is another big factor. The new place is actually only about a twenty-minute walk from our current place, but it is in a very different area. We currently live on the road running from Nakseongdae Station to the rear gate of the university; the new place is on the road running from Seoul National University station to the front gate. However, it is about a twenty-minute walk to the subway for us now, while the new place is literally a stone’s throw away from the station (yes, I do mean “literally” here). So as far as public transportation goes, the new place has this place beat hands down. It will be a lot easier for HJ to get to work in downtown Seoul, which is something that I know she is looking forward to. It is still within walking distance of my office, although it will double my commute from fifteen minutes to thirty minutes.

Transportation isn’t everything, of course. On the face of it, we are moving from a relatively quiet area halfway up the hill to school to a much busier area right next to a subway station down below. I say “on the face of it,” because you would assume that this means it is going to be a lot noisier there than it is here. Here’s the thing, though—and I was rather shocked to learn this when we moved into our current apartment—it is pretty noisy here. You would think that a road that only leads into the university would not be that busy, but SNU is a big school. This road is not as busy as the road leading from SNU station (which goes past the school and on to Sillim), but that’s actually a mixed blessing, as less traffic here means that motorcycles and mopeds can buzz up and down the street at high speeds, especially late at night, and those things sound like a hive of angry bees through a megaphone.

Also—and this is something else that I hadn’t originally considered—when I say “up and down the street” I again mean this literally, as we are on a fairly significant incline here. This means that cars, buses, and motorcycles are a lot noisier as they power up the hill than they are down in the flat. We are also much closer to the street here; our apartment is probably two meters from the street at its closest point, while the new place is actually on a side street and only faces the main road obliquely and partially at that (that is, the main street is partially obstructed by other buildings). Taking all of these factors together, the new place is surprisingly quiet, even with the single set of double-glazed windows it has now. We’ve stood in the living room completely silent, just to listen, and while you can hear the traffic outside, it is only a faint white noise. In the bedroom, where we want to be sure to have quiet, we are having an extra set of double-glazed windows installed, and I imagine that will take care of any residual noise (in addition to insulating the room a little more).

Noise issues (or non-issues, as the case may be) aside, the new location is just more convenient in general. There is a convenience store right down at street level in the next building over, and bars, restaurants, and other shops are all very close. The only real downsides are the longer commute for me and the lack of green space. The commute doesn’t really bother me all that much—I can survive an extra thirty minutes of walking a day—so really it’s only the green space that we will miss. Here we have Nakseongdae Park close by, which is great for walks in the evening when the weather is nice. We also have a great view of Mt. Gwanak from our apartment, and we will be sad to see that go; the views from our new place aren’t nearly as inspiring. But, like I said above, we will not be far from where we are now, and if we ever want to visit the park or climb Mt. Gwanak, we can always just walk back here.

Of course, this listing of pros and cons is little more than an academic exercise, because the biggest pro of the new place outweighs everything else: It is our place. Seeing as we have to move at some point, that is pretty important. Like I said above, they won’t actually kick us out of faculty housing, but every semester we stay the penalty goes up, and I’d rather leave before it gets too unreasonable. It probably wasn’t the best time to move in terms of the housing market, but it could have been a lot worse, so I’m pretty thankful.

I imagine I will have more to say about the new place soon, especially since the tenant is moving out at the end of the first week of December and the remodeling process will be beginning the next day. But I think that’s enough for today.

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