5 Unexpectedly Awesome Things About Living in Seoul

This post is directly coming from a “I used to live in Central/Eastern Europe” mentality. So with that in mind, here are 5 unexpectedly awesome things about living in Seoul! :)

1) The friendliness of people. OH my goodness. I’m used to people not wanting to talk to me, not caring that I’m next to them, and getting annoyed-to-angry that I’m a foreigner who doesn’t know the right way to go about things. Here, foreigners are treated so so SO nicely. Everyone wants to help you with how to find your seat on the train, how to set up your phone, and even how to eat your food (which is quite useful at first, considering how many crazy/different/unknown dishes there are).

1.5) There’s even a foreigner’s hotline whose only purpose is to translate and help you out. Seriously. Dial 1330.

2) The technology. The wifi here is insane. It’s everywhere – free wifi in all shops and even on the metro. I mean, really?

3) The heated floors. They heat their houses and apartments by piping hot water through the floors. Solves all the problems of cold feet in winter. It’s amazing.

4) The shopping. Those stories of “you can’t get x or y in Korea”? All a thing of the past. In the last five years, everything foreign is available here (if not for a slightly inflated price). And if you go to some of the massive MASSIVE shopping malls, you can find more things than (I swear) a mid-sized city in the states. Surreal.

5) The outdoors. Granted, this is slightly biased since we live literally across the street from Olympic Park, but the outdoors is lovely here! Yes you live in a complete concrete-and-glass-and-steel jungle, but if you want to go hiking or climbing or biking or picnic-ing, everything is just a hop skip (and maybe a train ride) away. I cannot wait for park days (we’ve inherited two mats and a cooler to that purpose), and for the upcoming holiday? We’re heading up to a national park to go hiking.

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Seoul is pretty darn awesome, guys!

(ok, minus the spring pollution…)

Yellow Dust

One thing we heard about but didn’t really think about before coming here was the pollution – after all, South Korea isn’t, say, China, right? The city of Seoul is incredibly dirty, but the Koreans also do a wonderful job of keeping all indoor spaces spotless and providing the cleanest metro system and free, lovely, clean public bathrooms all over the place.

BUT. We didn’t think about one crucial liiiittle detail.

Our proximity to China.

Ah. right.

Since we are so close to China we get to experience lovely terrible yellow dust storms every spring. Sand that is picked up from the deserts in the west of China, carried over a vast number of very polluted Chinese cities, carried over more polluted land (and never stopped nor slowed down because of lovely Chinese deforestation), then deposited right on us.

Jussst lovely.

And the effects are brutal. We’ve had two “hazardous for even the healthy people” storms since we’ve been here (we’ve been here one month) and both times, sinus infections have followed. And it’s hard enough to plan and teach kids 10 hours a day without feeling like your head is a floaty balloon.

So thank you, China. We really appreciate it.

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Seoul Continues to Be a Whirlwind

Remember this post? Well, another week later and it’s all the same. I haven’t even looked at my computer, but instead have moved in, figured out how to get various housing furniture and supplies through Ikea, Daiso, Gmarket, and eMart (each one a madhouse), eaten mountains of new delicious food, learned how to teach for my school, then planned and taught lessons for a week on reading, writing, grammar, math, science, health, TOEFL prep, and more to kindergarten through 6th grade, 10:30-7:30 every day, gone to immigration, opened up a bank account, did an extensive medical check, booked a hostel for Busan for the Holi festival, agreed to go to a cherry blossom biking weekend in the south in April, cleaned years of grime off of every metal fixture, cabinet, drawer, and light socket (well, actually, I still have half of them to go), completely unpacked as of last night, AND am this close to getting a hedgehog on craigslist korea.

So I apologize for not blogging.

I will hopefully return later this week(?) with things. And there are so many things. Makkoli, Galbi, Soju, Somek, Gimbop, Aegyo, Pajeon, etc. etc. etc.*

*Yes, I realize 90% of those are foods and drinks. There are a lot of good food and drinks.

First Impressions of Seoul

Guys.

Guys.

Seoul is insane.

My friend once said that if there was one word he would use to describe Prague, it would be shenanigans.

If there was one word to describe Seoul, it would be bonkers.

This last week has been a blur of mass crowds of people, neon signs crowding your vision at night, and packed days of planning and names and faces and etiquette and rules.

Rules on how the school runs. Etiquette on how to order food I don’t know the name of. Huddles of how to get through a city we don’t know the language of. Thirty plus names and faces and likes and routines and hierarchies.

And all from a little hotel room in a little corner of a massive massive massive city.

Guys.

This city is massive.

I mean halfway cross the city in a 90 minute subway ride massive. I mean a 40 minute taxi ride when all you see are steel sky scrapers on the river massive. I mean insane crowds all the time – everywhere – massive.

And you forget how much you don’t know when you move or visit someplace totally new. You don’t know enough to eat or buy a subway ticket. You spend that first night walking past intimidating restaurant after intimidating restaurant, not understanding the food you’re going to order or even how to say “This, please,” correctly.

You miss having your own comforting space – that doesn’t exist quite yet. You have to move into an apartment and find a way to buy some furniture and fill a fridge and throw away the garbage and open the door and heat the shower.

But then. But then even after just that first week you’ve figured so much out. You might not yet have the trash down, but you’ve made close friends, thrown together by the “holy shit we’re in this together” expat mentality. You’ve learned to say “More water please” and how to tell the taxi driver “straight. Right. Here! Thank you.” You’ve even prepped and are ready to teach 6 different classes on Monday – kids aged 4 years to 14.

Really, being an expat sucks, until you learn how to get by. It really is kind of awful. But then, every little scraped by victory is worth so much more over here. It’s a constant bombardment of stupefying information and a constant learning, growing, absorbing process.

I really do feel more alive.

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The Top 6 Things to Do in Rethymno, Crete

So, Crete is another one of those places that just cannot be covered in a short time. We had 3 full days on the island, and I just wish we had had more. I mean, people spend a month on this island for vacation – contentedly. That’s how much there is to do.

But in our limited three days we had to be realistic and chose just one town to park our bags and explore.

So we chose Rethymno.

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This cute little Venetian-Greek harbor town does a great job of balancing tourism with real life. It’s full of the classic souvenir-like places, but it’s markedly cheaper than other Greek destinations (co*santorini*ugh) and you get the feeling that actual people still live here. As if maybe not every corner of this sleepy town has turned into a tourist restaurant.

To get here, take the ferry or fly to Heraklion, Crete, (some ferries travel directly to Rethymno also) and then take a local green bus (about 7.50 Euros) through the mountains to Rethymno.

And as for what to do? Read on :)

1) Check out Rethymno Beach. The main beach of Rethymno (located to the east of the harbor) is huge, sandy, well-maintained, and full of shallow, warm, clear water. Perfect for spending the whole day in! It is heavily trafficked, though, so if you’re going in the peak season, prepare for crowds and rows of umbrellas. Each beach chair costs about 4.50 Euros, and nicely places you in the shade and above the hot sand (many with little wooden paths leading to showers, etc). There are even servers who come around offering food and drink (although it is a bit pricey! We ended up bringing snacks and only buying a couple cold drinks).

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2) Walk along the harbor and check out the old lighthouse! The little harbor doesn’t offer too much, but a walk along the edge to the lighthouse takes very little time and sets you up for some pretty adorable views of the old town.

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3) Go to the fortress. The Fortezza of Rethymno is definitely a main attraction. In the 1570s, the Venetians took over the city (from the Ottomans) and started to build a European/Moorish style citidel on the highest point of the city. The Ottomans came back (oops), and took over once more, using it as housing and general living until the mid 20th century. Really, until the 1960s, there were still houses on it! Now, it continues to undergo restoration and is open to the public. My tip? Go later in the day. It’s very exposed and hot midday, but in the evening there’s a great breeze and fantastic sunset views!

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4) Eat at great restaurants like Raki Ba Raki or Taverna Kyria Maria! The food on Greece just keeps getting better and better. Kyria Maria, recommended from the one and only Lonely Planet, actually did live up to its reviews! Great food, great pricing, a pretty location, and some nice complimentary raki and watermelon to finish. But the best dining experience we had? This next one. The highlight of our entire trip was probably here, on Rethymno, at Raki Ba Raki. Recommended by a fellow hosteler, this tapas-style restaurant takes a modern twist on classic Greek dishes. Delicious food, a perfect location, and not touristy at all. This was a fabulous restaurant by any and all standards.

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5) Take a couple day trips. Having a couple days in Rethymno is perfect. It only takes a day to see the town itself, but the town is well situated to visit some of the island’s more beautiful beaches and towns, like Elafonisi Beach or Palm Beach (more on this in a later post)! Go by bus or rent a car to see all these gorgeous areas. And the views in the mountains will make the rides to and from as great as the destinations!

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6) Wander the town streets. And finally, Rethymno itself is full of adorable little pathways and perfumed overhanging flowers. A good way to pass those post-beach, pre-dinner hours is wandering around the city, getting lost in the alleys and maybe even buying a souvenir or two.

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And if that’s not enough to get you planning a trip to Crete (and Rethymno), I don’t know what is!

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P.S. Stay tuned for more Rethymno pictures, a look at where we stayed, and information on Palm Beach, as well as what to do in Heraklion :)

The Best Thing to Do on Santorini

My number one recommendation for Santorini is to…

duh-duh!

Hike from Thira to Oia.

It’s a 3 hour hike or so (especially since you’ll be taking tons of photos every 100 steps!) and covers the 11km, 7mile distance between Thira and Oia.

I’d recommend starting in the early(ish) morning in Thira and hiking towards Oia. You want to start early because the sun can get pretty brutal, although the sea breeze often makes it bearable. And because this is a hiking in the desert situation, make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and sturdy-ish shoes! Vann and I just brought keds-like sneakers with us to Greece, and it was ok, but the path is fairly rocky and full of (sometimes scarily) loose shale at points.

And the views are the best I saw in Greece! The caldera really reveals its shape on the hike, with little towns dotted throughout, a couple lone sentinel whitewashed chapels, and even a grazing donkey or two! Plus, hiking isn’t the first thing people think of on Santorini, so the path should be pretty empty (escaping crowds is always a plus on Santorini).

Some extra tips: you might lose the direction at points in Thira – just remember to head up, not down, and always towards Oia. There are a couple places to grab food or a small drink along the path, but not many. Bring your own! If you want, here is a link that describes the hike in more detail. Also, if you do go early in the morning (we left at 8:30/9am?), you can arrive at Oia and have a leisurely brunch while everyone else is still asleep!

Below are some choice photos from the hike, in order, from Thira in the early morning to our rewarding brunch in Oia!

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The Best Place to See the Sunset on Santorini

Ok. You know that people crowd the streets of Oia and Thira to see the sunset each night?

And I mean crowd

Well, you, dear reader, can be wayyy smarter than every single one of them the next time you go to Santorini.

Who wants to jostle with crowds to stand for an hour (or sit at a super scrunched table you had to fight for!) while everyone snaps snaps snaps away at the sunset.

Kind of ruins the moment, don’t you think?

So when you, the informed tourist, goes to Santorini, check out this wine bar instead.

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Called “To Kafenio,” it’s located in Thira, but a 10 minute walk up the caldera towards Oia. It treats to you a hearty plate of Greek tapas with every glass of (quality yet normally priced) Greek wine you purchase, and most importantly, it stays delightfully uncrowded.

Just enough people discover this little gem to give everyone a table and view like this all to your own.

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From your perch you’ll see to your left the city of Thira bathed in sunset light.

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And to your right you’ll see the sun setting over the island’s edge. You’ll have a better view than everyone on the Thira steps, and your sunset will actually be secluded and romantic!

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And if you look closely, it’s possible to see allll those other tourists crowding those stairs. And once you see the city turn on its lights and the crowds go away, you can head down back into town.

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*Protip – now is a great time (after the sunset) to eat dinner. And if you’re looking for something tasty and right in Thira? Check out Mama’s House. It’s definitely an institution, but deservedly so (best Souvlaki I had that entire trip!). And afterwards, if you want a break from the Greek wines, check out the Donkey Brewery. A brewery on Santorini? Pretty cool.