Sunday, July 18, 2010

Learning Korean, Han River, Commies and Home Plus

HAVING HEARD the words "I no speak English" constantly since coming to Seoul, I was pretty relieved last week to find an internet ad offering Saturday morning Korean lessons for beginners. Not only that, but according to the ad they wouldn't cost me so much as a wad of used gum: completely free. Fantastic. Free meant more Korean won for essentials like Makgeolli (creamy rice wine) and roach spray.

I had my first lesson yesterday at the not very Friday-night-clubbing-friendly time of 10am. It was almost miraculous I made it. The night before I'd gone out in Hongdae. I'd been determined to banish memories of my first night there, when friendly, unwary, English-speaking souls had been as elusive as a bulging Korean waistline. But things were much the same. Conversations were brief and guarded, if entertained at all. It had rained like the entire Pacific had been dumped out of a bucket by God. Drunk and disheartened, I climbed into my bed after 5am.

Three hours of sleep later and my alarm roused me. I stumbled out of bed like a George A. Romero film extra. I stank, my mouth tasted like sewage and my mind was porridge. Learning was the last thing I wanted to do. But I went. And I'm so glad I did. I picked up a few phrases and took down the alphabet, and I'm hoping I can put some of it to practical use. But what was really great were the people there teaching. There was a guy and a girl in college, and another, older girl who works for an airline. They were full of questions, gregarious and outgoing. The prefect antidote to the night before. After the class I went to lunch with them. I'll be back next week.

Later on I went for a jog by the section of the Han river that runs by the 2002 World Cup Stadium. It is not as scenic or tranquil as it sounds. It's dirty and smells, but it is just about free enough of people to allow you get above walking pace. But I gotta say, old folks over here can really move. I think I was overtaken by several power walkers who last had their own teeth when "gay" was a mood.

But the undoubted highlight of the day was my discovery of Home Plus. At last, a proper, full-sized supermarket. No more wimpy, ladies handbag-sized 7/11s for me. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a commercial whore. I love buying stuff. Even more, I love wandering the aisles of Tesco and gazing longingly at all the differently coloured labels. I don't care what joyless Commies like Noam Chomsky or Rage Against the Machine say about capitalism and the establishment: the establishment can provide me with 63 slightly different types of chocolate bar all featuring identical ingredients. I want 63 sightly different types of chocolate bar. I bet in Cuba they have one. Probably red too. Idiots.

Home Plus* was the real deal all right: huge enough to get lost in, only to re-emerge years later senile and with a foot-long beard. Aside from the mini LCD screens beside certain products that started talking to you as you walked by, the best thing about the place was the fact that every second aisle seemed to have a lady giving out free food samples.

By the time you walked the three miles or so from each end of the shop to the other, your belly was full and you could start all over over again because the first woman had forgotten who you were in the intervening hour. I may just begin conducting my regular eating arrangements in such a fashion.

So there you have it: Seoul money-saving tip number #43: sustain yourself with free supermarket samples. Tomorrow, I explain how regurgitated kimchi can make a great surface cleaner, antiseptic and pesticide.

(*This post was in no way paid for by Home Plus or any of its subsidiaries)

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