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9 Mar

Miscellaneous ramblings, no. 3: spring fever – Considering that I carried on like a sullen child about winter last week, I think it’s only fair that I carry on about spring this week. I realize that spring isn’t actually here yet—we’re due for one last cold spell, most likely, and the weather forecast says possible snow on Friday—but today was a beautiful, warm day, and it did wonders for my mood. I suppose everyone is sensitive to the weather to some extent, but I seem to be particularly sensitive. When the weather is bad I am down, but when it is good I am up. It does bother me that my moods are so easily swayed, but today is an up day and I’m not going to worry about that. Instead I’m going to do a little rambling.

“Today I got the first taste of spring for the year, and it was good.”

There are twenty-four days of the year in the Korean calendar that have specific names. They are calculated according to the solar calendar because they were originally used in agriculture, and apparently these things are better calculated by the solar calendar (all other Korean holidays, etc. are calculated by the lunar calendar). Some of these days we are familiar with in the West: vernal equinox, summer solstice, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest could be found in Western almanacs, but I haven’t done the research on that. That’s something I’ll have to look into, I guess.

Anyway, around the fifth of March is what is called “gyeongchip.” The two characters mean “surprise” and “hiding,” and the term refers to the time of year when the frogs and insects begin singing, chirping, and peeping again. The “hiding” refers to the fact that the insects hide in the ground throughout the winter, and the “surprise” comes from the traditional idea that the first thunder of the year peals on this day and the insects emerge from the ground in surprise at the noise.

For most of my life in the States, I lived next to a rather extensive swamp. We knew spring had finally arrived when the “peepers” came out, and the day when all the insects and tree frogs came out and began singing was called Peeper Day. It was such a part of our lives during warm weather that we didn’t really notice it, but I remember one time when some relatives (cousins, perhaps? I don’t remember) came to visit. The kids asked me, “How can you sleep with that racket?” I said, “What racket?” For me, it was simply background noise, like cars in the city.

Thus I was amused when I first heard of gyeongchip here described as “the awakening of the frogs.” I’m halfway around the world from my birthplace and a lot of things are as different as night and day, but every once in a while things coincide like this. It makes me feel good to think that there are things that do connect us, no matter how different we might be.

The fifth of March this year, though, was not Peeper Day. In fact, it was freezing. It also happened to be the day my wife and I celebrated our eighth anniversary. Sometimes eight years seems like a long time, and other times it doesn’t seem like a very long time at all. Be that as it may, after eight years we still aren’t very good at organizing a nice, romantic anniversary celebration. Last year our plans were foiled by snow, but this year the sun was shining and we still couldn’t really think of anything to do. After tossing around a bunch of ideas, like going on daytrips to various parts of Korea, I suggested just heading into Seoul. We decided to head for Apgujeong-dong first and then go to the Seoul Arts Center in Seocho.

We arrived in Apgujeong-dong and walked to the Galleria Department Store. These days, south of the river (Gangnam) is where it’s at, but in days gone by north of the river was hip, and Apgujeong-dong was the Mecca of hipness. It still is rather trendy, and the Galleria Department Store is still one of the most ridiculously priced department stores in Korea. I don’t really know why we went there, to be honest. In retrospect, I think it might have been to have a good laugh at how expensive everything was. At least, that’s what I got out of it. For me, it was an exercise in keeping a straight face while the salespeople spouted obscene prices to my wife. I only failed once, when they wanted upwards of $300 for a pair of jeans. I did avoid laughing out loud, but I stood there with a very wide grin on my face until we left.

The Galleria is also a pretty good place to watch people (mostly girls) who take fashion way too seriously. I noted to my wife that the skirts were growing noticeably shorter in that area, and the Galleria seemed to be the epicenter, almost as if it had some reverse gravitational effect on hemlines. She laughed, which made me nervous. When you notice out loud that most of the women around you are wearing dangerously short skirts and your wife laughs, it can mean a number of things. It could mean, for example, “I’m laughing because we’re in public and it would be in bad taste to castrate you in the middle of the store.” I suppose it could also mean that my wife has a sense of humor, but I don’t think that’s nearly as funny.

Interestingly enough, we left the Galleria shortly after I made that comment. By that time we were hungry (all that skirt—I mean people—watching had been quite a workout), so we wandered around looking for someplace to eat. It was then that we realized how cold it was out. The sun was shining, and I don’t think the actual temperature was all that cold, but the city streets acted as wind tunnels. We stopped by a place called Bigger Burgers, originally a Hawaiian (dang, I didn’t realize how difficult it was to spell Hawaiian) restaurant. Our extremities were about to fall off, so we decided to give it a try. The burgers turned out to be big (I had a hard time getting my mouth around it to take a bite), and they were quite good.

There’s just something glorious about a good burger. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone in their right mind can eat McDonald’s hamburgers. Those things taste like my grandmother chewed up some ground beef, spit it out, and then mushed it flat with a spatula. Yet they remain immensely popular. Billions served, they say—it just boggles the mind.

Now, the west coast of the United States has some good burger chains. When we were in Las Vegas with some friends during our last visit, we stopped at an In-N-Out and had some really good burgers and fries. Carl’s Jr., though expensive, also has some really good burgers. What I want to know is this: why aren’t there any good burger chains on the east coast? Burger King is OK, I suppose (way better than McDonald’s at least), but I don’t think it compares with the west coast chains. It just saddens me that I had to live thirty years of my life without having tasted an In-N-Out burger. It saddens me even more to think that there will most likely never be an In-N-Out branch in Korea. In the meantime, Bigger Burgers is a good substitute, but it’s a bit out of the way.

After lunch we wandered around some more until we reached our pain threshold and then decided to head over to the Seoul Arts Center. On the way out of Apgujeong-dong we passed a few interesting stores. One was an organic produce store selling products from New Zealand. One of Hyunjin’s students once gave us some New Zealand honey, and I fell in love with the stuff. Unlike honey in the States (at least the honey I used to eat), honey in New Zealand and Australia is more like a spread, and people spread it on toast. Hyunjin says that in Australia they spread margarine on the toast until it becomes opaque, then they put the honey on, but honestly that sounds revolting. I like my toast with just plain honey.

Anyway, we decided to take a look around the store and see if they had any of the honey. It turns out that they had a number of honeys. My honey, Comvita’s Raw Natural Multi Flora Honey, sold for fifteen dollars for 500 grams, and there was one container left. I snagged that baby quick and then looked through the other honeys. As it turns out, the Multi Flora is the cheapest—there is something called Active Manuka Honey that sold for around seventy dollars for the same size bottle. So, not only was I psyched at having New Zealand honey again, I could comfort myself with the fact that it was actually the least expensive. Honestly, though, it didn’t matter. I was just happy to have my honey.

Another store we stopped in was The Tea Museum. It’s actually a tea shop where they sell high-end teas. It’s tough to get good black teas in Korea (although it’s a lot easier these days than it used to be), so I was pretty excited to find this place. After browsing through their selection I found what I was looking for—Darjeeling. I got hooked on Darjeeling when I was in London, and it is now my favorite black tea. I like the bergamot scent of Earl Grey as well, but nothing beats Darjeeling in my book. I bought thirty grams of a high-end Darjeeling for fifteen dollars. That might seem like a lot, and I suppose it is if you compare it to low-end tea, but when you think of how much it would cost to get a good cup of Darjeeling at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (the only chain where you can get decent Western teas in Korea), it’s a bargain. I don’t remember exactly how much a cup of Darjeeling goes for at the CB&TL, but it’s somewhere around the five thousand won mark (at the current exchange rate, that’s about five dollars). Two to three grams of this tea brews two cups, so at the least I get twenty cups of high quality Darjeeling out of the deal. It’s a steal, really.

I brewed some of the tea yesterday, and it is excellent. Inferior Darjeeling leaf tea, not to mention bagged tea, just can’t compare. The scent and flavor are sublime. I don’t think I have ever in my life described a scent or flavor as sublime, but it is definitely fitting here. The only downside is that I am now ruined and will never be able to settle for inferior Darjeeling again.

Something came to mind as I was writing the above descriptions of our shopping adventures, and that is that we will always find a way to justify purchases meaningful to us. Fifteen dollars for 500 grams of honey is on the steep side, but I forked over the dough quicker than you can say Raw Natural Multi Flora Honey. Fifteen dollars is also a lot for thirty grams of tea, but the purchase was worth every won. Somewhere out there, in the land of short skirts, I am sure there is someone who can justify a $300 pair of jeans. The only thing I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t marry her.

Our next destination was the Seoul Arts Center. They were having an exhibition of Western art that we thought would be nice to see, but when we got there the place was packed with people, and a large number of those people were small and screaming (i.e., little kids). There’s nothing worse than trying to appreciate art in a sea of misbehaved (because their parents won’t punish them in public, if at all—oops, did I say that?) children. Well, maybe there are worse things, but I still wouldn’t rank it as one of my favorite ways to spend a wedding anniversary. Hyunjin agreed, so we wandered around outside until we once again reach our pain threshold. We couldn’t think of anything better to do, so we went home.

Had the weather been warmer, like it was today, I think we would have been more inclined to stay outside. Today I got the first taste of spring for the year, and it was good. I know it’s going to be a little while yet before spring truly arrives, but today I drove home from the station with my car windows open for the first time this year. I think I’ll call today “gaechang,” or “open window” day.

I decided to give today’s miscellaneous ramblings a subtitle, as you may have noticed. As I did so, I thought, “Gee, I should have given the other miscellaneous ramblings subtitles too.” Then I realized that this is the internet, not print, and nothing was stopping me from giving them belated subtitles (you can check the Archives if you’re curious). From now on, all miscellaneous ramblings will have subtitles that may or may not have anything to do with the actual content.

It was also interesting that I finally posted the February Wallpaper of the Month today, as it features snow. With my luck, I’ve gone and ruined spring and we’re really going to get snow on Friday. I suppose I’d better get around to putting up the Osan-ri: Winter gallery before spring really gets hold of me.

Random closing note: during my reread of today’s entry, when I got to the part about the Darjeeling, I suddenly got an image of a guy in a trench coat with a hat pulled down over dark glasses. This fellow accosts strangers in narrow alleys, opening one side of his trench coat to reveal silver foil bags of tea. “Psst. Buddy. I’ve got some high-grade Darjeeling. Fifteen thou’ for thirty grams.” Ah, it was funny in my head.

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