Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Drinking, dancing and early morning subway rides.

WHEN I stepped off the plane into Seoul's sticky air last Thursday I was determined to hit the town that very night. The jet lag hadn't raised it's nasty head and I couldn't wait another day to see how Seoul moved at night. Rather naively, I was also determined to stay away from the expatiates. I wanted to see the real Korea I told myself. No Starbucks and pints of Guinness for me, oh no.

So rather then head for Itaewon, where it seems practically all of Seoul's foreigners live, I took the one-stop subway ride to Hongdae, an area with four universities and more nightclubs than a dog has got fleas (assuming, of course, said dog has not fallen victim to one of Korea's specialist dog-meat restaurants).

When I got there, Hongdae was swarming with people, most of them young, ostensibly students. After flitting in and out of a few empty bars, I quickly learned my first lesson about Korean nightlife: things kick off much, much later than in Dublin. As clubs stay open all night, there is no mad dash to get tanked while the night is young - you have hours and hours to do that.

At about midnight I found myself in a club playing hip-hop that fancied itself as being straight out of the Bronx. Beer in hand, the only non-Asian face in the packed room, I bobbed awkwardly to tracks about shooting rivals and fornicating with women of easy virtue. Really clever tracks managed to incorporate the two.

But, despite the bad-ass nature of the music, the Korean crowd was among the best-behaved of any club gathering I'd ever seen. There was no grinding, no kissing, no drunken staggering - anywhere. Save the profane rapping, it was the kind of club atmosphere my mother might just approve of.

Talking to people proved rather difficult. Actually, it was nightmarish. Almost no one had English or at least that's the way they wanted it to appear. After confirming the worst aspects of the male western stereotype by gawking at pretty women and dropping my beer like a clown, I left. I needed to rethink my social strategy big time. There was always tomorrow.

The next night I caved. Maybe expats weren't all that bad. Maybe there was a reason they all went to Itaewon. The contrast couldn't have been stronger. There were black and white faces everywhere, there was mild debauchery in the clubs. There were brothels off the main street. The district's nightlife had grown out of its proximity to a U.S. army base and now was as close as Seoul came to a bastion of sin. And if sin was friendly and willing to chat, that would be fine by me.

Within minutes of sitting at the bar at the first place I happened upon I was chatting to the barmaids. They were Korean but they had English and were open to banter. One of them reminded me of what Beyoncé might look like if she was Korean. I definitely would have married her. I had to keep proposals to a minimum -- I was here for three months yet -- so I held my tongue. Yuna, I will come back for you.

The rest of the night reinforced the change of mood from the night before. There were plenty of Koreans in Itaewon, it wasn't just expats, but the difference was that they seemed more open to foreigners, or perhaps they were simply more used to them.

Things went well. People were friendly. I didn't feel as though everyone regarded me with suspicion, as one would a particularly nasty sex offender. It was a relief after the disappointment of my maiden voyage on the seas of Korean booze. I even got a phone number or two (one of which, handwritten, I couldn't read in the cold light of day. Damn Korean handwriting.)

I went to get the first subway home at 5:30am (yes, 5:30am on a Saturday). At the station I met an American soldier who was stationed in Seoul. He was very tired and very drunk. He'd been hoping to ship out to Iraq or Afghanistan, but he got S. Korea instead. He'd didn't know quite what they were doing there.

"They keep inventing stuff for us to do," he complained.

"At least you are not being shot at," I told him.

"Yeah, that's true. I guess I'm better off here than Afghanistan," he said.

"Absolutely."

I reckoned I was better of being here too. The train home was coming down the line, and a sweaty, stripped mattress was waiting for me close by.

Would I have either in Kandahar?

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