Thursday, September 25, 2008

Seoul Fashion

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Seoul is one of the best places in the world for a fashionista. I remember worrying about the shopping situation before I left, thinking Seoul would probably not have too much to offer fashion-wise. I was so wrong. I think Seoul is probably one of the most fashionable cities in the world, alongside its close neighbor Tokyo. What you see on the runway is quickly replicated somewhere in China and usually finds its way to Dongdaemun market in less than a few weeks. Seoul is a mecca of trends (and fads), but Korean girls also worship the upscale designers. There must be about ten or twelve Chanel stores scattered around Seoul alone, and the same goes for all the other high-end designers: Gucci, Prada, Celine, Chloe, Hermes. Stuff that is practically impossible to find in Montreal, or if you're lucky enough you might get a glimpse of it in a corner at Holt Renfrew. And yes, Koreans buy the designer clothes and handbags, and not only the fake ones. I have no idea how they're able to afford it, but I keep seeing girls my age sporting the latest Louboutins strutting around Apkujeong (the upscale neighborhood). There is also a vast array of cheap, trendy items: just take a stroll at Dongdaemun market, which is the scariest mall in the world (in my opinion). Imagine 5 buildings in a row, about 15 stories each, all carrying clothes, clothes, clothes... and shoes, and accessories. I've been once or twice, but I don't consider myself advanced enough to go through all of it, it's overwhelming. And... it's open 24 hours... for the girl who feels like buying pair of heels at 4am. Accessories are also worth mentioning: jewelry, belts, bags, tights, socks, hairbands... everything is there, and it's insanely cheap.

Girls absolutely love to dress up here, and they look so chic: high heels on a daily basis, pencil skirts, designer handbags, and blouses adorned with bows and victorian lace. No so much my style, but I admire them (I could never walk in high heels around the Seoul subway system, I'd collapse after one transfer). They make so much effort into looking elegant at all times, and put extra attention to detail. I'm more of a jeans and ballerina flats girl, but I love seeing what they come up with. They're not afraid to try all the new trends either, such as high socks, colored tights, and high-waisted shorts and pants. In a way I'm loving it, I feel like I can try different things here, stuff I wouldn't wear back home (such as colored tights). My only criticism is that all the girls seem to adopt a similar style, no one really stands out (as opposed to Tokyo, where girls are way more casual and wear just anything). Guys also tend to look rather slick, with dark jeans, polos and fitted shirts, all proudly sporting "manbags" and loafers.

Seoul pleasantly surprised me for its fashion sense and availability of brands. After 7 months and a lot of window-shopping and brand-locating, I can safely say that it's possible to find EVERYTHING in Seoul.... from Forever 21 to Uniqlo to Marc Jacobs to Rebecca Taylor to Zara to Anna Sui to Balenciaga to no-name brands... anything you can come up with, you can probably find. And even with (surprisingly) no H&M, the brand has still found its way inside smaller boutiques (that sell it for twice as much as back home). I usually pass like 30 boutiques on the 10-min walk to the subway. I can also proudly say that I haven't gone crazy with the shopping, I think I'm a bit overwhelmed by all the choices! Never thought I'd say that.

Oh, and also, I'm grateful for my size 7 feet (practically impossible to find any shoes bigger than a 7 in Asia)!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

My Korean Gym

Yea, yea, I know. I've tackled it before, but I'm doing it again because I find it hilarious. I don't know if it's only the gym I go to, or most gyms in Korea... but they're different. I told stories before (see early entries) about an older lady stopping my machine and about wearing uniforms (I even took pictures of the unflattering oversize t-shirt).

Since I got to Seoul I kept up with my frequent gym habit- it helps me unwind, stay in shape, and stay happy in general. I even made some friends there. I since ditched the gym uniform- the long sleeves and the nylon shorts were too warm, and made me feel tres moche. I just wear my regular Lululemon gear, I'm sure I stand out a bit among the orange uniforms, but I stand out already (by being a foreigner)so why not.

So the gym. It's actually really small and really expensive. It's a small room with machine and (dirty) mats. They have enough weight machines, but their cardio fleet consists of treadmills (with no incline) and a few stationary bikes (with no resistance). I have no idea how I lasted for 7 months, using only a treadmill, which I'm already not a fan of. Oh yea, they also have the ever-popular "fat-slapping" machine... which is a belt that moves the fat around. It seems to be the most popular machine at the gym, the THREE of them are usually occupied.

And as opposed to gyms back home, Korean gyms seem to cater in majority to older people, ie. the 40 + crowd. The young people are all guys trying to add some muscles. But no young girls to be found. I'm always the youngest girl there. We also have this annoying old Korean man at our gym, he is there every single night. He spends most of the night walking from one machine to another, and "correcting" everyone. Even if you're doing the movement correctly he'll add his own little creative twist (such as sitting on top of it to add more weight). He is so annoying.

Then there is the Korean guy who can speak a few words of French, he always tries to talk to us all night long, and he is obsessed with the "Ann of Green Gables" book series. And this new guy who befriended us so he could practice his English (I suspect). He always creeps out behind me while I'm running on the treadmill, it scares me every time.

It's actually a lot of fun, but so different from what I'm used back home. I guess people try to be helpful but sometimes it's overwhelming. And then there's the locker room, with the smallest sauna I've ever seen. It fits exactly 2 people, but it's being used all evening by the same two ladies who just sit there for hours and chat. As for the showers I stay away from it, I prefer to run home and shower in the comfort of my home, but a few times I've had older ladies tell me to shower before leaving. Ha! I think they were just trying to be nice, maybe they thought I didn't know there was a shower.

All in all I love the uniform/towel system, it's so useful, I can drop by the gym on my way home from anywhere without worrying about getting my stuff (we leave our shoes at the gym). I also like the "small-town" feel of it for some reason, makes you feel more at home in a huge metropolis like Seoul. It's nice to see the same people over and over every night, you get used to it. I just wish they'd change the water system, they have a water cooler with disposable paper cups, I think it's a horrible crime for the environment. And I wish it was cheaper, but I'm willing to pay the price to stay sane.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Montreal

I was just talking to one of my best friends on the phone this morning, and we couldn't believe we didn't hear each other's voice for 7 months! It made me feel so good and feel so much closer, and instead of feeling homesick I got excited about returning to Montreal and what I'm missing the most. It inspired me to create a lists of my hometown favorites. Here's what I'll do on my first few days back in Montreal (not necessarily in that order):

*sleep
*take a real shower (ie. in a bathtub, and not over a toilet)
*have my favorite brunch at la Croissanterie (eggs, crepes, spanakopita, fruit, maple syrup) with my best friends.
*go to PA (fruit store) and buy CHEAP fruit, and all different kinds.
*go for a night run in Outremont while window-shopping on Laurier street.
*bake, bake, bake: cupcakes, brownies, date squares... anything to use an oven.
*go have dinner at a "bring your own wine" place with my friends
*go eat my mom's homemade food!!!!!!!!
*lie under my down comforter
*go walk around Old Montreal
*walk up and down boul. St-Laurent
*have a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz's
*go to my gym and use ANY cardio machine... other than a treadmill with no incline.
*shop at h&m (the only store Korea does not have)
*get a real haircut from Vanessa at Queen of the World
*share a bottle of wine and watch Friends episodes with my roommate
*eat real maple syrup. real butter. and fresh brie.
*speak French
*take a stroll on Mont-Royal
*eat some fresh bagels from St-Viateur with smoked salmon
*dry my clothes in a dryer
*get some spa treatments at Spa Diva
*go walk around Holt Renfrew
*buy underwear that is not extra-padded or covered in ribbons and bows
*go to a free gig with Aaron and the rest of the hipsters in the Mile-End
*drink Pabst at Korova with my friends(and the rest of the hipsters)

So many things. But i'm now working on a list of things that i'll miss from Seoul, and i think it's going to be even longer.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bigger, Faster, Stronger.

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That's about Korean bugs. Butterflies, moth, mosquitoes, spiders, centipedes, cockroaches: they all seem bigger, faster, and stronger than their Canadian counterparts. Every bug I see here is just bigger and scarier and more disgusting. And faster, too! South Korea is not exactly a tropical location, but for someone coming from up north, it seems like it. Enough said.

The Korean Thanksgiving turned out to be pretty amazing. Aaron and I were invited to a real traditional Korean feast, in a real Korean family. Aaron's workout friend invited us to join his family for a huge meal on Sunday night. It was a great experience to see it happening: imagine about 15 Koreans crammed in a tiny apartment, all sitting on the floor around a long table full of dishes I barely recognized. Even the 80-something grandma and the 1-yr old baby were sitting on the floor. The women were busy in the kitchen, preparing countless dishes, while the men ate and drank (and later sang!). Now imagine two uncomfortable foreigners in the middle of the action, sitting at the "foreigner" table (I think his mom kindly prepared a regular table and chairs for us, and numerous plates being presented to us. As soon as I'd finish a plate, another one would magically appear, and that lasted for two hours. I felt bad because earlier that afternoon my friend and I pigged out on takeout pizza, so I was already pretty full.

The food was delicious, though. It was my first time eating homemade Korean food, and it was amazing. I've complained a lot about Korean food since I got here, but having the homemade version changed my opinion a lot. The dishes consisted of many soups (cold and hot, spicy and not spicy), rice (of course), bulgogi (marinated beef), and various vegetables (mushrooms, bean sprouts, kimchi), all prepared differently. For dessert we had fresh chestnuts, asian pears, and oranges. They also brought a huge, HUGE jar of ice cream from Baskin Robbins (Koreans LOVE ice cream)- picture 6 different flavors, all mixed together in one jar. I was a bit taken aback, but digged in like everyone else.

The sharing culture is omnipresent here in Korea. People never (or barely ever) eat alone. In restaurants, it is common to order a few dishes and all share. Korean food is meant to be shared anyways, everything comes in huge pots with numerous side dishes. But even when Koreans go to Western restaurants (such as the popular TGI Fridays and Outback Steakhouse), they always order a bunch of plates and just share. They order one iced coffee at Starbucks and put two straws in there and share. The other day my friend and I went to a pizza restaurant, and the waitress presented us with one big glass of Coca-Cola to share. I guess it's a good thing, you get to sample more tastes and it's better for your waistline. I kind of like it, but I think the Starbucks sharing is a bit too much.

All that to say I had an amazing Chuseok, I'm so happy I got take part in the traditional festivities, and was so warmly welcomed by a Korean family. Hopefully next Korean holiday I won't fill up on pizza right before.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seaweed and Soy: Korean Thanksgiving

This weekend is Chuseok (Harvest Fest), which is Korea's very own Thanksgiving. It's a huge celebration, much much bigger than Christmas. Most Koreans return to their hometowns and visit their ancestor's graves and have a feast with their extended family. The difference is, instead of turkey and mashed potatoes they eat kimchi (pickled cabbage) and uh, rice cakes. Those rice cakes always fool me. They look so good: little colorful pastries, resembling macaroons. The pleasure is only visual, though. Once you take a bite, the glutinous rice texture and bean filling kills all hopes of a normal cake. I really don't like them at all, and I don't think most foreigners do. Today we each got a huge box full of rice cakes from the parents. I cringed at the thought of having to waste them, so instead I brought them to my afternoon class and offered them to the kids as a snack. They love rice cakes so much, it's a real treat for them. They started shrieking in delight when they saw the box. I think that's their version of cupcakes or something.

Chuseok is also an occasion to exchange presents, mostly food-related. I was secretly hoping to get more Dior makeup from the kid's moms, but instead I got a HUGE box of soy drinks of all kinds: tomato, strawberry, honey, ginger, chocolate... modified soy products, that is. I also got a huge package of dried seaweed. When I saw the package arriving, wrapped in clear plastic, I thought it was a blanket. No kidding. Turns out it's just a big pile of seaweed, which is usually boiled in water to make soup broths. Hmmm, might try to use it somehow, although I'm not feeling too creative with that one. This was a "only in Korea" moment.

The good thing is, we get 5 days of vacation from school. Too bad we can't sample a traditional family meal, but I'm sure we'll make our own version of Thanksgiving somehow. Most people travel outside of Seoul, so it's a bad idea to leave the city and get stuck in the worst traffic of the year. Instead, Seoul might be quite empty and quiet, so it's the perfect time to fully enjoy it, at a rare peaceful moment. The weather is still hot, but not humid, which makes it bearable. I'll spend my free time seeing friends, going out for brunch, reading books, and re-arranging the apartment. In fact I discovered an amazing place to have brunch, it deserves its own entry.

Oh, and right now, I'd kill for some "pate chinois", a typical quebecois dish: ground beef, potatoes, and corn. It's that time of the year when certain flavors seem so far away... in fact I'd eat anything that is baked in an oven (we don't have an oven, it's not very common in Korean homes). Weird cravings, I never thought I'd miss that. Or baking brownies (from a Betty Crocker packaged mix, of course).

Friday, September 5, 2008

Elle Korea

So my boyfriend made the streetstyle page of Elle Korea, his picture was taken at Pentaport Music Festival back in July. I'm jealous! Find the foreigner on the page ;)
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Monday, September 1, 2008

September

Sorry for the lack of regular updates... after a short hiatus, the Korean government is back to blocking quite a few websites, and although I found a way around it (wink wink), it's been more difficult and especially challenging to post pictures. I'm also back from the summer madness, so that should help. Back to good ol' teaching as of last week, but it's been going smoothly so far. I'm used to it by now, I don't stress out too much about my preparation and I don't get as upset when kids don't listen to me. I also love to see their expression when I blurt out a few Korean words (I know about 25 Korean words by now, not very impressive, but I can read the alphabet). I think they get intimidated and believe I can understand what they are saying, so they don't talk so much behind my back. Kids are also teaching me so much, I can ask them anything about the language or culture, they give the best, most honest answers. I also don't stress out too much about attending last-minute "surprise" school functions: "We have a dinner right after school" my K supervisor says. "Um, I have an appointment, sorry" (that is, after asking where it takes place and whether it's worth going or not). It's been a lot more enjoyable to not worry about what everyone else thinks.

I've been quite busy so I've been forgetting a bit about my homesickness. I figured a big part of it is caused by this awful (yes, shitty) apartment we live in. It sucks to come home to a place you don't want to be, a place that still feels disgusting even when it's clean, where the walls are falling apart and where cockroaches like to hang out. Yes, it's nasty. Apparently cockroaches are not a big deal in Korea, everyone has them or something, I still don't think it's normal. Our windows screens are teared up so we also share our mansion with countless mosquitoes, so we have to keep the windows shut as much as possible. And the air con is pricey, so it goes as follow: either I spend all night sweating but with no mosquitoes, OR I sleep well with a breeze but wake up with the biggest mosquito bites ever. And Korean mosquitoes are vicious!! Sometimes I look like I went camping in the woods for 2 weeks. Yea, so summer in Korea has been a bit brutal with the insane weather and little visitors. I dream of my all-white Montreal apartment, with my white couch, my white bed, and my white computer. My place here is brown and dusty. Ew. Aaron and I laugh so much about its ugliness that it has become a running joke.

On the bright side (there's always a bright side in Korea), the weather has cooled down a bit with some rain and less humidity in general, it's already September, and I'm keeping rather busy. I met a lot of new friends over the summer, so I've been making a lot of little play dates. Makes me feel like I really live here. I know Seoul pretty well by now, and it's nice to navigate the subway system without getting lost and knowing about the good places. I feel like there is still so much to discover, which I will spend my weekends doing for my last 5 months. Yes, the countdown has (un)officially started, I'm at the halfway point now. Sometimes I can't believe I've been living here for 6 months already, time flies by. I'm also getting excited by some family visiting in the fall, and perhaps a Tokyo weekend in the works... yes.