Category Archives: Seoul Sketches

An Afternoon at Alver

Last Monday was Children’s day in Korea and therefore a holiday. We had finished most of our chores over the weekend, and so with the whole afternoon to spare I and my husband decided to walk over to our favourite cafe.

Besides the massive floor to ceiling windows which let a ton of natural light in, I love Cafe Alver’s excessively long wooden tables which can easily accommodate twenty people at a time. When I’m sketching that’s where I like to park myself. There is plenty of room for all my art materials and my crayons don’t keep rolling off the table.

Alver GOT Board game

There is another set of people who seem to enjoy the extra elbow space even more than I do – board game players! Over the last two years of our stay in Korea, I have watched some epic board games with elaborate themes and mechanics being played here on these very tables of Cafe Alver.

That afternoon there was an intense ‘Game of Thrones’ board game in progress. It looked like only two people could play at a time so the third friend was always standing by the side, making remarks, thumping the table at times, and generally cheering on. It was all very loud, we didn’t understand a word they said but it was great fun to watch. And sketch, of course!

Viewing Cherry Blossoms

There is no sight more wondrous for me than that of an endless path leading under a canopy of pink cherry blossom flowers. I feel lucky to be living in a place where I have access to views like that every spring! So do the locals and tourists who visit Seoul during this period to marvel at the piercing beauty of these flowers and celebrate their transient nature.

The build-up

It all begins with the media reports of cherry blossom forecast dates. And since the blossoms last no more than two weeks everyone wants to make the most of this period. The city starts preparing for it by organising cherry blossom festivals at parks and alongside lakes where there are food trucks, art and cultural performances, competitions, musical concerts and exhibits even. Cherry blossom themed drinks appear on cafe menus and tour companies offer great deals on blossom-viewing trips.

Gangnam scene

Riding the wave of anticipation I was made my own list of places I wanted to visit this year when the time arrived. The sketch above is of a bright sunny day in my neighbourhood in Gangnam when spring had barely set its foot.  It was early April and the trees along the road were waving their naked and spindly arms in the breeze. But not for long.

The Precursor 

One Sunday afternoon we decided to take advantage of the relatively warmer weather and walk 4 km from our apartment to Bongeunsa Temple to see one of the tallest (28 meters) stone statues of Buddha in the country. It’s a sight to behold, both the statue and the sprawling temple grounds, part of which was decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. The sound of chanting filled the air and our hearts with an all pervading calm.

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The spell of tranquility however was short-lived and we were quickly drawn out of it by murmurs of excitement rising from a crowd gathering by this lone tree (in the sketch above), not far from the statue. Against a muted backdrop of rust and olive green vegetation, the bright pink flowers of this single blooming cherry tree stood out in stark contrast. Countless hands with cameras and selfie sticks wanted to grab a piece of spring’s early bird offer! Some people climbed nearby rocks to get a better angle for their shots.

I inched as far back from the scene as I could to enjoy this comical sight unfolding in its entirety. It was not until another week or so before the thousands of cherry blossom trees in the rest of Seoul burst into flowers.

The spectacle

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Spring had dressed Seoul Forest in its most breathtaking regalia. This massive park located on the bank of Han river was the topmost location on my cherry blossom viewing list this year. Few hundred meters from the entrance gate was a field bathed in sunshine and fringed by dense pink flowers delicately hanging from the branches of cherry trees.

Beneath the trees were couples pick-nicking on blankets and nibbling on goodies out of wicker baskets and families playing cards and listening to music. There were kids running about with wild abandon and trusted friends bending over backwards (and in all sorts of ways) for each other to help take that perfect Insta-worthy shot.

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Wondering if the park offered more scenic spots like these I decided to follow a film crew with actors and filming equipments walking with urgency in a certain direction. We climbed a flight of stairs, passed by few convenience stores and a pond with turtles before arriving at a brown unpaved path that as far as my eyes could see was lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees!

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I took my time in walking all the way till the end of the path, soaking in the scenery as much as I could. The bridge you see in the distance in my drawing above turned out to be the best spot to be cheek to cheek with the flowers provided you could get to them past the million selfie sticks!

The retreat

Last weekend while sipping tea at the alfresco cafe in my neighbourhood I noticed the cherry trees along the sidewalk shedding petals. Tiny green leaves were filling up empty spaces left behind on the branches. The atmosphere that was taut with excitement only a few days back at the sight of these blossoms was replaced with a poignant reminder of the passing of time.

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Coffeesmith

Around me people seemed to have already moved on and were going about their businesses – walking their dogs, returning home with groceries and sipping coffee while browsing the Internet on their phones.

Until next spring arrives with the promise of fresh blossoms, I take comfort in the fact that I have to only turn back the pages of my sketchbook to relive the memories I just made.

My Neighbour’s trash

I have never seen my next door neighbour.

But interestingly, almost on a daily basis we see stacks of delivery cartons and trash left outside their apartment door. This is true for other apartments in the building as well.

The trash, however doesn’t contain kitchen wastes! There are separate waste disposal units for that in the basement. Most of the time what one comes across lying haphazardly on the floor outside apartment doors are these empty cardboard boxes that their deliveries came in.

Ever since we moved here, I have been curious about the constant ebb and flow of delivery guys in our building at all times of the day, everyday, pushing hand trolleys stacked with cardboard boxes that they keep unloading at every floor. So what are people buying all the time? And why?

neighbour's trash

Turns out, South Korea is home to the fastest internet on the planet. Nearly 100% of households here have internet connection. Combine that with excellent service from Korea Post and you will see why this country has such rapidly growing e-commerce market, which is currently 7th largest in the world and 3rd largest in the Asia-Pacific region.

From golfball to a toilet seat cover, you can buy almost anything on the internet (Gmarket and Coupang are two very popular online shopping websites in Korea) and have it delivered to your doorstep inside those ubiquitous brown cardboard boxes I always see outside our neighbour’s door.

Once in a while discarded household items like a TV, a hoover, giant ceramic vases – things too big for a trash can but small enough to not block the hallway make an appearance. They are of course disposed off by the cleaning staff in a day or two.

Of all the trash I have seen outside apartment B1302’s door, this lot has got to be the most intriguing, hence the drawing! That tall structure I recently learnt from a pet owner is a ‘cat tree’ for a pet cat to play, exercise, relax and sleep on.

I may not know my neighbour from Adam but at least now I know he/she has a cat.

Too cold for ice-creams?

 

Not in Seoul! For the last two winters in Korea I have been processing images of people consuming cold beverages and frozen desserts in their down jackets and mittens with absolute wide-eyed wonder.

I am the kind that associates frigid temperatures with drinking hot cocoa or tea with fingers wrapped around the cup for extra warmth. So imagine my befuddlement at finding Seoulites sipping coffee with chunks of ice in them all through winter.

One night in Jamsil station not too long ago, I saw this dad buying soft serves for his kids at Lotteria –  a fast food chain. We were waiting for our order and in those 15 minutes until our food arrived we saw soft serves flying off Lotteria’s shelves and landing in the hands of pimply teenagers, kids and elderly couples, practically everyone except us.

Lotteria Jamsil

Now, I may not be fully convinced about eating an ice cream at the height of winter yet but the more I see people doing it around me, easier it is getting for me to wrap my head around something which I thought was outlandish!

Isn’t it interesting how travel constantly stretches our perspectives and makes it easier for us to acknowledge and even adapt if we so desire to norms, values, beliefs, behaviours, attitudes that are far different from ours?

Rick Steves in his book, Travel As a Political Act says “Travel challenges truth that we were raised thinking self-evident and God-given. Leaving home we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room”.

This sketch will remind me of many such truths that are different from mine and how I can always choose to coexist with them.

White Day

 

I made a fascinating observation the other day on my walk around the neighbourhood.

Every convenience store on either side of the road had built an outdoor makeshift facility with a table and few wooden racks for peddling love-themed goodies in bulk. Candies, chocolates, flowers, cards and soft toys were being sold as individual pieces or collectively in baskets wrapped in cellophane and ribbons.

Seoul streets seemed to be plastered with packaged love and I wanted to know why?

White Day

Turns out that today, March 14 is celebrated as White Day in South Korea and in few other countries such as Japan and Taiwan. In these countries, while Valentine’s day tradition (which is a give-and-receive event for couples in the West) requires women to offer chocolates to men, the reverse occurs on White Day! Men are expected to return the favour by plying women with candies and gifts.

On my way home from the walk I peeked inside Artbox – a popular stationary shop in Seoul. The place was an explosion of red and pink hearts printed on all kinds of merchandise imaginable. Across the room I saw two strangers shopping for greetings cards and of all the choices available, they reached for the exact same ‘I love You’ card which was awkward for them but I got a big chuckle out of it!

And a sketch to immortalize the moment. I just hope it isn’t intended for the same person!

 

 

Two years in Seoul

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To mark the occasion of our two year stay in Seoul today, I wanted to share this drawing of a guy I once spotted inside Gangnam subway station probably returning from a trip, lugging his suitcase up the stairs towards the exit gate.

What caught my eye as he passed by me was not his very conspicuous cherry red Rimowa suitcase but the large ‘I love Seoul’ sticker pasted on it which got me thinking about my own relationship with this city. Would I ever consider making such a declaration?

To be honest, I’m not there yet. After a rocky start and a reasonable number of ‘oh wow’ and ‘aw snap’ moments we, this city and I have eased into a steady pace. Found our rhythm. And a certain fondness for one another. Like every relationship, this one’s a work in progress. And if experience has taught me anything it is to not make snap judgements and to never compare especially on occasions when things don’t work out (very hard to execute as it’s all I wanted to do in my first year here).

You have to take it slow, keep an open mind and have patience. I’ll keep enjoying this ride while I’m on it and who knows, maybe somewhere along the way I may reach for that same sticker!

Second-guessing

I bought several pairs of really cheerful looking Happy socks for my husband few weeks back. Realising I had gone slightly overboard in choosing the designs, I saved the receipt in case there was a need for exchange. To my surprise there wasn’t. He liked all of them.

This is my husband leaving for work, wearing the socks with the one design I was definite he’d want to get rid of but didn’t. Strangely, what once charmed me as a classic polka dotted print is now starting to look like a slice of the most obtrusively bright pepperoni pizza.

What was I thinking?

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When it snowed

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Our apartment in Seoul is on a high floor and has floor to ceiling glass widows that face the road. When it snows, and it doesn’t snow much here, the world outside feels like a giant snow globe.

Couple of weeks back when it did snow, I grabbed a few crayons and a kraft paper, jumped on the bed and drew the view outside my window as snow flakes floated from above and settled on the roofs of buildings, sidewalks and on top of cars, blanketing everything, blurring edges and corners until what was left was an unidentifiable white blob under a leaden sky with splashes of bright colour peering out from places.

This sketch is a depiction of what I saw that day and an expression of how I felt in that moment!

A walk around the neighbourhood

A year and a half back when we moved to Seoul and found an apartment in the Gangnam area, my first instinct was to explore the neighbourhood.

Every day after finishing work, not knowing where to head exactly, I picked a random road and kept walking on it until my legs hurt while taking everything in. And if something caught my eye I  stopped and took a few minutes to examine it, like the vending machine for flower bouquets I once stumbled upon by the roadside. crayon5

A standalone booth with multiple glass panels displaying a collection of flower bouquets  was something I had never seen before! Or the mobile tarot card reader conducting business from a lurid pink truck. I still remember being amused by the life-size Statue of Liberty replica outside Gangnam station’s exit 11, looking as much out of place as the mom-and-pop kimbap (korean sushi roll) stall beside it, both dwarfed by shiny hi-rises, plush hotels, designer boutiques, clothing retailers, cosmetic surgery clinics and cafes!

It took me a walk or two to realize how ubiquitous cafes are in Korea! They seemed to be everywhere, hidden in basements, inside shopping malls, museums, subway stations, on rooftops, under office buildings, along narrow alleys, and on bridges even. An article published in Korean Herald in March 2017 says Korea has the world’s fourth largest number of Starbucks coffee stores in relation to its population. crayon2

In the evenings, I found people gathering in front of food trucks lined in the back alleys selling barbecued meat on skewers, corndogs, teokbokki (rice cakes in hot and spicy red pepper sauce) and Odeng (fish cake on skewers served with hot broth) or making a beeline for the numerous Dak-galbi (spicy stir fried chicken), Korean barbecue and fried chicken joints.

In hindsight, not having a destination is sight was exactly what I needed to process my surroundings. I let curiosity fill the blank slate I arrived with to my neighbourhood with new impressions. Having lived in Seoul for a while now, I may not see everything with a fresh pair of eyes as I once did, but I still go on my walks, without a destination in mind and with a sketchbook in hand.

Because you never know what lies at the next corner.crayon3

Like the wondrous sight of streets covered with golden gingko leaves after a light shower. See the first sketch. On my recent walks from November to early December until it became too chilly to spend time outdoors, I observed my neighbourhood transitioning from fall to winter. Having lived on a tropical island for the last seven years and stuck with the same weather, the novelty of changing seasons isn’t going to wear off anytime soon.

And I find myself attuned to everything that enunciates this seasonal transition. From a guy furiously sweeping dry leaves off the sidewalk along Teheran-ro which is one of Seoul’s busiest roads to someone browsing winter jackets at ‘Vin Prime, the Vintage select shop’, I have them captured in the pages of my sketchbook. With the sudden drop in temperatures the mannequins at the shop windows of Gangnam’s local boutiques had changed their look too. In the drawing below, I sketched this girl checking out a bright red coat freshly displayed at Dalfactory and probably trying to find a reason to come back for it later! I know I would.crayon4

The last sketch is also of a scene observed on Teheran-ro which is lined with giant trees that were hurrying up and shedding their giant yellow leaves. What caught my eye was the caption on this guy’s sweatshirt. He was waiting for the traffic light to turn green and I was standing right behind him wondering if the hoodie looked like a shark’s jaw.

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The perfect bag

Is there such a thing? Or is it a construct of our imagination?

After losing several items of value over a period of time my husband recently decided to invest in a bag that he could carry to work everyday and around the city on weekends. Not a laptop bag, but something smaller, lighter and reasonably priced that could hold everything which until now was clutched in hands or stuffed in pockets and had been subsequently dropped or left behind in cabs, at meetings, cafes and bookstores.

You know, like pens, notebooks, phone, sunglasses, e-reader and the occasional umbrella.

crayon 1a.jpgThe search began, casually at first but actively after the loss of a fairly new kindle either at the tea house across our apartment or inside the stationary shop next door. There’s no way of knowing so we give them both the stink eye.

The following weekends were spent walking in and out of stores sometimes hopeful but mostly despondent. The perfect bag seemed elusive. If the fabric was agreeable, the colours were dull; if the number of pockets were ample, the space inside the main compartment wasn’t; if the design was fabulous, the size didn’t work, if the size was decent, the price was outrageous.

One day while rummaging the house for something I don’t recall anymore, out came an old leather satchel we had owned for years. It wasn’t the perfect bag my husband was looking for. But with time and use, it is becoming one, as most things do when we agree to calibrate our criteria for perfection.

The above drawing is of him checking out some options at the store and not looking very convinced.