Insadong’s charm

lies in its alleys as I found out on one of my sketching trips.

I had been waiting to go out sketching for a while but I’m slowly realizing in my first year in Seoul that to wait for the perfect day in the months of July and August is to wait forever. After two weeks of oppressive heat it has been raining incessantly.

Needless to say that I arrived at Insadong on a rainy afternoon and after securing a map with tons of information about the area from the tourist office (out of exit 6 of Anguk Station), I decided to do away with it. The rain was turning it into pulp.

Lying straight ahead was the 700 meters long and 12 meters wide pedestrian (on weekends) street called Insadong Gil, stretching from Anguk-dong to Jogno 2-ga. It has a 7 meters tall Korean calligraphy brush sculpture at the beginning which I had already seen on my earlier visit.

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Ajumma standing in front of her hanok and the neighbourhood delivery guy passing by

I was also done browsing through the street’s innumerable souvenir shops, folk handicraft stores, art galleries, Korean paper shops, had tipped my hat to world’s only Starbucks with its signage written in local language, visited a traditional tea house and checked out the quirky Ssamziegil mall.

As per the guidebooks I could have checked Insadong off my list of places to see. What more was there?

A curiosity laden turn away from the main commercial street into the atmospheric side alleys revealed the answer.

What I saw and then sketched seemed like an alternate Insadong, one I didn’t know existed – a watered-down version of the deeply cultural neighbourhood of 1930s selling antiques, books and art, way before its colonisation by coffee chains and cosmetic shops, before Korean war even.

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Insadong 16-gil

First thing that hits you when you make this unplanned diversion is how quiet and empty the alleys are, a welcome respite from the neurotic busyness of the main strip. Barring a monk, a school girl and a delivery guy I hardly saw anyone. And then in the course of exploring this labyrinth of narrow arteries, one leading to another and sometimes ending abruptly in a cul de sac, you get a whiff of old Seoul that maybe gritty and rough around the edges but is authentic to the core.

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One of Insadong’s many narrow alleys

With Insadong’s popularity with tourists in the recent years, rents on the main street have soared such that it can only be afforded by big commercial establishments, thereby pushing older, smaller businesses and artists to the winding back alleys laid out 500-600 years ago (dating back to the Joseon dynasty), where life is still quaint, unhurried and very ordinary.

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Another beautiful alley in Insadong

I saw laundry drying on wires, potted plants outside wooden doors, beer bottles stacked in crates, cracked egg shells lying near a trash can filled to the brim, a plastic broom, a wind chime, music wafting out from open windows, someone napping on a red chair by the kitchen and pigeons hopping around, drinking rain water collected in little potholes where the road had caved in. An ajumma (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) was standing in front of her hanok (old Korean cottages) turned restaurant, caressing a snarly lap dog and staring at me with utter intrigue.

I was sitting on the steps of a closed bar in an alley I had just wandered in, and had started drawing.  For the longest time ajumma maintained a distance from me, trying to understand what I was doing while pacing outside an imaginary fence that seemed to be between us.

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I got to work, started tracing lines with my eyes and then put ink on paper.

Slowly but surely. A bunch of Absolut Vodka bottles, window slats and a door emerged.

I am always amazed how drawing makes you lose all sense of time. You surrender to this repetitive cycle of seeing, comprehending and mark making. Everything else becomes invisible. I find this heightened sense of focus the only way to connect with my new environment. You get to immerse yourself so deeply and wholly in the process that when you emerge, you feel a kinship with the place you were drawing. It doesn’t look as foreign as it did when you started out.

I like to believe that by connecting with my environment in such a way I blend in and don’t look as foreign to it too and become an ordinary person sitting in the corner doing something innocuous. That’s when imaginary fences vanish. Ajumma comes over. The dog too. They are thrilled I drew their house. The dog shows its appreciation by not snarling at me anymore and Ajumma by bringing me a steaming cup of coffee in a paper cup.

Insadong linework

A sketch and two steaming cups of coffee. I added the delivery guy later.

I must accept it, she insists. Then she takes my sketchbook and shows my sketch to her neighbours. They come closer to meet me. We huddle on the stairs, touch shoulders and giggle at our communicational ineptitude. Another cup of coffee is placed before me. When the neighbourhood delivery guy passes by, everybody raises their hands to wave at him.

I raise my hand to wave at him too, on impulse and realize that it doesn’t look out of place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

Since the last couple of days, the sun has been blazing down on us in Seoul and it is becoming unbearably hot. I watched the temperature rise from the pleasant 26 degrees with soft mornings and breezy evenings to now 34 degrees when the air feels like it has its clammy fingers wrapped around our necks. Every other day, there’s an ‘Emergency Alert’ text message on the phone warning us about a heat wave, asking us to stay indoors and hydrated.

And yet, I thought, how hot could it be? When I tell people I am from India, they say, “Isn’t it hotter there?” Much hotter, I say. “Then this should feel nothing!“, they say. So I left the house one day with a sketchbook and pen and headed towards Bukchon Hanok Village.

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When I reached Anguk station it was already 2 in the afternoon. The roads were empty except for construction workers and few lobster red tourists walking doggedly with a map of Bukchon in one hand and a hand fan in another.

Completely disoriented by the blinding sun and blistering heat, I decided to fold away my own map and follow them. But they – a group of three women and I should’ve known – led me to a souvenir stall first, then to an ice cream shop and finally to a jewellery store where I abandoned them and decided to take matters into my own two hopelessly clammy hands.

For a person who doesn’t sweat easily, I was melting like a candle and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

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Sketching with the help of water, a hand fan and a toothless grandma by my side

Bless the kind staff of Emart, where I went in purely for the air-conditioning but pretended to closely inspect melons, for giving me directions to Bukchon. “..keep going straight and turn left. Just 5 mins.”, they said. I bought bottles of mineral water to show my appreciation. Melons were expensive.

So once again, I was on the road, in the furnace, but this time with dry armpits. And while that lasted, I managed to find myself a spot in the shade on this quiet alley called Bukchon-ro 11da-gil.

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

Travelers who haven’t visited Seoul yet may already have seen pictures of Bukchon Hanok Village on every guidebook, magazine and internet article describing Seoul. This area has a large cluster of hanok or traditional Korean wooden houses dating from the Joseon dynasty. These houses are not only picturesque but have been so beautifully preserved that a stroll down the narrow winding alleys they are lined with may well feel like time travel, especially if you arrive at an ungodly hour like I did and get the place entirely to yourself sans selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be something?

It was. I hardly saw anything or anyone for the entire hour I sat on this street corner sketching except two stray cats, an SUV and the distant figure of a person hobbling in my direction. It was easy to imagine what a 600 years old office rush hour would look like –  noblemen and high ranking government officials emerging out of these houses while adjusting their elegant silk court uniforms and hurrying towards the royal palace – but my brain cells were too dehydrated to carry on with the mental imagery.

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

The air was still. And clingy. There was no respite even in the shade. The thought of quitting clouded my vision such that I lost sight of the lone approaching figure that was now standing behind me. Dressed in a lemon yellow floral patterned dress was this slightly bent, excessively wrinkled toothless grandma looking intently at the sketchbook on my lap and then matching my drawing with the scene in front. With a nod of her head she asks me to go on.

Umm..no, see it’s too hot. I was leaving..“, I say to her pretending to pack up but she keeps nodding and pointing to my dip pen. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Sigh! I feel like the performer who’s obligated to perform because one person showed up.

But sometimes that one person is plenty, if they care. So I start again. Grandma leans over with interest or to compensate for her failing eyesight. More nodding. And smiling. She looks pleased. So I keep going like a 5 year old being watched while she finishes her school homework. Grandma sticks by me, sometimes pointing out features I missed drawing or decided to overlook. A stickler for details, this one.

When I finish the drawing I was giving up on a while back, she was still there grinning ear to ear. I could see her gums.

 

Six years ago

in a dusty cobblestoned alley in Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean sea, I had tasted the most scrumptious dish of my life – Lemon chicken with chunky potatoes served in a chipped plate with roughly sliced bread on the side.

The taverna which had served this dish had an old wizened look about it that you see on places and people that have been around for a while and therefore know their shtick better than anybody. While that itself was a comforting thought, what really pulled me towards it was the picture its pretty teal coloured windows framed inside them. The picture of conviviality, warmth, love and a look of utter contentment on the faces of its diners that only good, homely food can bring at the end of a long day.

Trust me when I say that I am salivating as I write about my first bite of that buttery soft chicken doused in a light lemony sauce perfumed with garlic and oregano.

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Quick sketch of Moroccan Cafe in Seoul, done on kraft paper

It was a gustatory experience like no other and even though I’ve traveled far and wide since, nothing came close to what I had tasted and how I felt that one time in Greece until I visited Moroccan Cafe in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul and had their Lemon chicken.

Except for the distinct flavour of cumin in the Moroccan version and few other minor variations, it was the same honest, fuss-free, homespun food served in an intimate environment.  The cafe has only 9 tables and 3 main courses which makes you feel as if you are dining in somebody’s home until of course the cheque arrives!

Before the food got cold and the floodgates for six year old memories opened and swept me away, I did my best to document this new inadvertent experience in the form of a quick sketch. If you’re in Seoul and had enough Korean bbq for a lifetime, give this place a go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making sense of most things

Having moved to Seoul only 4 months ago, I am literally a tourist in my own backyard. Most things I see, hear, feel and occasionally taste is new, different and foreign.

A change like this is exciting no doubt, but it can be overwhelming too. Imagine someone pitching 90 mph balls of new information at you, nonstop, everyday, right from the moment you got off the flight. The only problem is you have two hands to do all the catching!

And you want to catch as many balls as you can, as fast as you can because our first instinct when we travel to a new place is to try and make sense of the environment we are in, even before we start comparing it with the one we just left, praising it, deriding it or adapting to it.

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Seocho-gu neighbourhood, Seoul

Being a sketch artist, drawing constantly is how I make sense of my environment. Spending time at any particular place, observing it in a way I would never have if I was walking past, and documenting it on a piece of paper is how I catch those metaphorical balls of information and process them.

Like this random scene I sketched the other day of my neighbourhood in Seocho-gu, a district south of the Han river and found that in the shadow of glamorous looking high rises lining the main thoroughfares, there are these two/three storied honky-tonk buildings in the back lanes, covered with bold coloured signages, housing barbecue joints, fried chicken and beer stalls, underground bars, design studios, themed cafes, bubble tea stores, E-Marts and 7 x 11s, beauty parlours, English learning centres and an automobile repair shop, even.

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Pen and ink drawing of a random street in Seocho-gu, Seoul

And crisscrossing the scenery or most sceneries in this city are these ubiquitous overhead power lines flying out in every direction from utility poles.

Usually after the initial curiosity of people upon seeing a foreigner sitting on a foldable stool in the street and doodling in her sketchbook has been met, I am left alone. As time passes, the ripple I had caused by being there, starts to smoothen. The novelty wears off. I am offered a glass of water here and a thumbs up there. Furrowed eyebrows are replaced with nods and smiles. Conversations are initiated and had using hand gestures and monosyllabic English. Soon enough someone clicks a picture.

And just like that I become a part of the scene I was trying to make sense of.

Isn’t that amazing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I won’t stay long

Romanesque architecture is the last thing you would expect to chance upon in metropolitan Seoul. But emerge out of exit 5 of the City Hall station, turn left on Sejong-daero 19-gil and there it is in its massive thick walled, round arched and decorative arcaded entirety.

If not for one of the local artists who insisted upon taking me there, I would’ve given Seoul Anglican Cathedral a pass. After drawing inside the adjacent Deoksugung Palace followed by a scrumptious bowl of Bibim Naengmyeon (Spicy cold noodles) for lunchI was ready to wind down.

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Seoul Anglican Cathedral

But I take all my foreign artist-friends there…this place is…Oh!you must see it.“, pleaded my friend who could easily be two decades my senior but her enthusiasm showed no sign of waning in the soporific summer heat.  If I was a wilting flower in the vase by the window, she was the sprinkle of cold water on my face.

I was revived, momentarily.

“Let’s go..but I won’t stay long, okay?” I said to a figure that had left my side, hurried into a cafe on the cathedral grounds and was now paying for two cold coffees. “You know, the cafe owner escaped from North Korea and is now making a living here. “, she said, handing me a cup.

But I wasn’t listening. I was looking around and wondering if we got teleported.

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Only a minute ago we were trundling towards the cathedral past tourists, a construction site and a bunch of former President Park’s supporters waving flags and rallying for her release. Tall glistening office buildings closed in from all sides and the din of traffic on a muggy Saturday morning felt omnipresent.

And yet in the blink of an eye here we were, standing in the quiet shadow of a 20th century brick and granite structure with a manicured garden.

I’ve drawn this a million times.”, said my friend. I could already see her trained hand forming a rough outline of the cathedral on her sketchbook with a water soluble crayon. She was in the zone while my eyes were glued to the information leaflet I had picked up.

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Sketch of the cathedral using dip pen and ink

Interestingly, the cathedral’s construction started in 1922, during the Japanese occupation of Korea but due to financial constraints it couldn’t be completed as per it’s British architect, Arthur Dixon’s original cruciform design.

The transepts on either side and the nave had to be scaled back and the building remained incomplete until, and here’s the fun part, a British Museum worker visited the cathedral in 1993, found that the architect was Dixon, travelled all the way to England to locate the blueprints which he found in the museum archives and returned them to the Parish office in Seoul. Expansion started in 1994, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1996, 74 years later.

Happy ending, right? Mine was too. I decided to stay a while longer and sketch.

 

 

 

The girl with the selfie stick

told me there was going to be a parade.

What parade?

I am the kind of a person who likes to be prepared. Wikipedia, Google maps, subway routes and the weather app – all had been read and consulted with before I got here, inside Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s four royal palaces to sketch with a bunch of local artists.

Then how did I skip the part about this parade? An oversight perhaps. All I know is finding a gaping hole in my pre-trip research, something I am a self-confessed expert of had taken the wind out of my sails was a wee bit soul crushing.

Deoksugung Palace

Junghwamun Gate inside Deoksugung Palace, Seoul.

It’s the changing of guards ceremony. Happens thrice a day…here they come“, she offered kindly, mistaking incredulity for curiosity. Wedged between her body and her thin arm was a fat Japanese guidebook on Korea.

I could already hear the drums and the sound of marching footsteps round the corner. Grabbing a bench facing the mighty Junghwamun – the inner palace gate leading to the main throne hall – I quickly laid out my sketching gear and waited with a dip pen and a bottle of ink in hand. The Japanese tourist had her phone propped up with a selfie stick and was standing by the road, also waiting. You can see her in my sketch.

As the sightly procession of uniformed guards carrying colourful flags passed us by, we captured the event in our own way.

Before leaving she asked me if I was a tourist too and though I still feel like one, I found myself savouring the fact that I wasn’t and therefore could visit this palace and watch this ceremony as many times as I wanted.

What was even more uplifting was when I reached inside by bag and touched the reassuring crook handle of my umbrella. “Wasn’t it supposed to…”. 

After several balmy days, it had rained very heavily that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life sucks but first, coffee

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Alver Cafe in Gangnam, Seoul

said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.

Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!

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(L) I was sketching this animated bunch of girls at La Eskimo cafe, and by the time I drew two the group left. The guy was promptly picked up from another table and put with the girls that got drawn. Talk about creative license!

It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.

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People of Paris Baguette below my apartment.

I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.

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(R) My husband was watching India vs Pakistan:ICC champion’s Trophy on his phone and reading William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King” on his kindle thus proving men can (selectively) multitask.

The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.

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(R) Two men eating Mango ‘Bingsu’  – Korean shaved iced dessert with sweet toppings at Paris Baguette. 

I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.

As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain.  I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.

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(L) Sketched this lady wearing work clothes and eating a big salad on a late Sunday night at Paris Baguette.

Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.

So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!

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(L) Sketched this guy in Alver cafe wearing a blue silk knotted neckerchief especially because it seems to be a popular fashion accessory in Seoul at the moment among both men and women. Most accessory shops I’ve come across were stocked to the hilt with these!