When I visited South Korea a few years ago there were a number of distinct sections to the trip. The first leg involved staying at a Buddhist temple near the city of Gyeongju. The second part also took place in that city but that time I signed up for a homestay-come-B-n-B with a lovely family near the city centre. The city itself is filled with activities and sights, some even call it “the Kyoto of Korea” because of its well-preserved historical structures.
Home Away From Home
I eventually found the house thanks to numerous signs pinned against lamp-posts and hanging from walls from the nearest main road. In the past people clearly had difficulty finding the place. It was a lovely two-story house nestled slightly away from the buzz of the main street with a welcoming front garden and brightly decorated interior.
The owner, Lee (I think that was his surname actually …), was a super friendly guy with excellent English. He had recently finished University and had set up his family home as a “homestay experience” as a way to get into entrepreneurship. I don’t remember properly meeting his father but one time I came home and he was splayed out, asleep, across the sofa. Lee’s mother, on the other hand, was the first person I saw every morning as she made breakfast for the guests. She was very friendly but didn’t really speak English. However, she did speak a little Japanese. At that time I’d been living in Japan for about a year so my Japanese wasn’t terribly great but it was a fun chance to practice what I did know.
Lookin’ For Some Hot Stuff, Baby This Evenin’
Anyone who likes hot food should definitely give Korean cuisine a try. The dish they’re really known for is kimchi which is more of a side dish really, but most Koreans eat it every single day. Sometimes with every meal! There are many different varieties across the country but the most common is made from pickled Chinese cabbage. It’s mixed with this bright red pepper sauce and it can pack a sizeable punch. Many households even make their own kimchi.
After arriving at the homestay (I keep wanting to call it a BnB) and settling in I headed off for a wander about town. My goal for that evening was to wander into a small, local restaurant and try to order dinner by myself. I traipsed the steadily darkening city streets, passing many perfectly acceptable venues, each time thinking “I’ll just walk a little bit more”. It was getting late and I was getting hungry, but still I put off choosing. One little place emitted a warm glow and seemed so empty it might have been closed. I passed it. I circled the block. I passed it again. Stopped. Fingered the phrase-book in my pocket. Turned and marched in.
The waitress/owner/chef/lady, who had been casually watching TV, jumped slightly as I entered. She bade me sit down at a nearby table and I did so. There were numerous food items listed with prices up on the wall. At least, I assumed they were food items; I couldn’t actually read anything. After a couple of minutes of pondering and sweating I finally called the waitress/owner/chef/lady over.
At this exact moment my memory goes completely blank. Perhaps the sheer sense of embarrassment or the flood of adrenaline just burned away my memorization cells. I don’t know. All I do know is that a short while later some food was brought to me. And it was exactly what I’d hoped for. I’d read about how standard Korean meals are usually a collection of smaller dishes and that’s what I got.
It was good. It was interesting. It was hot! I mean, one dish was just a couple of massive peppers served with a dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was ALSO spicy! It was the equivalent of dipping a Werther’s Original in Golden Syrup.
As everyone knows the perfect companion to blistering food is beer. I got out my trusty phrase book and flicked to the word for beer. Didn’t look too hard to say. I called the waitress/owner/chef/lady over once again.
“Huh?” she said, looking puzzled.
“Beer.” She swiftly returned with a beer.
Clearly I hadn’t the first clue about Korean pronunciation. I finished my tasty meal and disappointing beer (it was light), paid up, did my best to give thanks, and headed back to my accommodation for a nice night’s rest in a proper bed.
The Special Service
Lee was keen on trying out new ideas to make his business flourish. One idea he was trialling while I was there was to post a request on a University notice-board for anyone interested in English conversation practice to take homestay guests out on an informal tour of the city. The idea being that local people could introduce visitors to those little gems hidden away from the common sightseers. Of course, I was fully on board with this idea and eagerly awaited a response.
The next day he told me “a lady has replied”. Fine, I thought. From what I’d seen, older Korean ladies seemed very friendly, so this tour around some local landmarks would surely be informative. Our meeting was scheduled for the next evening. Lee gave me a ride to the rendezvous point.
When he’d initially said that I would be meeting a “lady” the picture in my mind was of a middle-aged motherly type. When the car stopped and he pointed out a slim, twenty-something led-lipsticked stunner, I was taken aback. Yeh. Taken aback. That’s the right phrase.
Lee got out of the car with me. We exchanged greetings with the bombshell and before he left our eyes met.
“This is … weird, isn’t it?” he said through a forced laugh.
“Yes. Yes, it is!” I said in the same way.
The hotness and I walked leisurely down the street, exchanging basic info about countries and interests. She said she wanted to show me some pretty night lights. The spot she was talking about was a bridge suspended over some fields. Multi-coloured lights were dotted all about the place. About half way along the bridge this dynamite broad casually mentions to me that this was a popular spot for romance. I looked around and for the first time realised that I was surrounded by couples. I was smack dab in a swarm of doe-eyed pairings all wafting over the same bridge. Not quite the guided landmark tour I was expecting.
All joking aside, it was clear that whatever perverted imaginings drifted across my mind they had no basis in reality. At no point did this lovely lady hint at anything beyond a cross-cultural exchange plus the opportunity to show off some of her favourite parts of the city. This became obvious when we went to a bar (a totally awesome bar by the way – you could choose any bottle of beer from a series of massive refrigerators and pay when you left) and I chugged back three bottles in the time it took her to sip back one. Not really a “let’s party” atmosphere.
Or maybe she just wasn’t in to me …
After the bar we said good-night, shook hands, and went our separate ways. I casually made my way back to the house, enjoying the warm night air. I wondered if what I’d done that night could be viewed as illegal in some countries.
Arg! I didn’t get to any of Gyeongju’s sights in this post! I didn’t talk about the archers on horse back, the face in the waterfall, the talking trees, or even the power of the Magnum! All this and more coming next week, promise!