While working on this particular set of drawings sitting at cafes, eateries and subways around Seoul, it dawned on me, especially after having moved countries recently, how different we are as humans irrespective of our similarities and how similar we are irrespective of our differences!
When we first moved to Seoul (and in the subsequent months) I was fascinated by the large groups of elderly people kitted out with serious hiking gear riding the subways on weekends, by the fearless ‘Ajummas‘ (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) in identical solid perms, sun-visors and windbreakers, by the mini portable fans everybody carried in their hands all summer and the copious amounts of Bingsu (a lip-smacking Korean dessert) they consumed; or how most women would pull out a mirror from their bags and freshen up their make up every once in a while, by the raging red lipsticks and round framed Harry Potter glasses worn en masse and how clothing and preferences changed with season.
On the other hand these days there’s hardly anything novel about a couple sitting together, in silence, glued to their phones; or someone taking a picture of their food first before starting to eat! Don’t we all have that one friend who can’t stop talking, so much so that we mentally check out after a while, maybe doze off in the chair even? Look out for that person in this collection.
And a lady with a fetish for polka dots.
And two ‘rubik’s cube’ lovers.
The allure of travel has kept us on our toes. Literally.
During the last ten years we have moved from Delhi to Munich, Munich to Singapore and this week we complete six months in Seoul. Being peripatetic has its rewards but it also means getting to know a place intimately, calling it home, making ourselves comfortable and then leaving everything we were drawing comfort from for another place.
Before this new leg of the journey gets interesting, before you realize it was all worth it, moving is plain scary, no matter how many times you may have done it.
Countless nights are spent laying awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, riddled with doubt and anxiety that invariably comes when you are about to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Moving to Seoul felt no different until at my farewell dinner a friend gave every attendee a fortune cookie and I got this message inside mine.
Never has a moulded scrap of flour made more sense.
Do something you always wanted to do. It’ll be fun. This message hit the nail on the head!
Sometimes we are so worried about the outcome of a decision that we forget why we took it in the first place. In our case it was because we wanted to live in a new place, make new friends, explore yet another part of the world, learn about its history and culture and traditions, read its books, hear its songs, watch its sunsets, drive on its roads, work at its offices, learn its language, taste its food, drink its coffee, basically spend time discovering it at our own pace.
We spent the last six months doing exactly that and truth be told the ride has been bumpy at times but it sure has been very enjoyable, especially with a sketchbook in hand.
is worth a visit not just for the finger-licking good street food as all guidebooks promise but also for the experience of buying that street food and eating it in a traditional market. Not that I needed any convincing. I love visiting traditional markets. I have loved visiting traditional markets before they were ‘traditional’.
In the little town I grew up in Eastern India, my parents used to take me to the local bazaar every week. Too little to help in any other way my job was to hold the cotton tote bags tightly to my chest until the vegetable seller finished weighing baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, brinjals, green beans my parents had picked out and nodded in my direction.
I would keep my eyes peeled for that signal and would immediately stand on my toes and hand the ‘vegetable bag’ to him or her. Then we would go to the fish section and the poultry section and I’d hand the ‘fish bag’ and the ‘poultry bag’.
More than the vegetable peels, fish scales, feathers and blood strewn alleys, more than the glinting knives and weighing scales, more than the stench of open drains and smell of sweat, more than the feel of weathered notes and wet coins exchanging hands, more than the loud street cries of merchants and haggling by their customers and the screeching of chickens about to be slaughtered, more than buzzing flies and limping dogs, more than the rough leathery hands of shop owners, more than the waves of people we pushed through and more than the glow of bulbs and hurricane lamps that painted everything a lurid yellow, more than anything at all, I remember how important I felt to be entrusted with this responsibility.
For my parents it probably was just a way to keep their child engaged but for me it was a big step up. Like all my friends I was in such a hurry to grow up.
A great deal of growing up has happened since.
These days if I were to make spaghetti meatballs, I’d get a cleanly wrapped portion of minced meat off a shelf inside a clean air-conditioned space. I buy lemons that come in protective casings such that I can’t touch or smell them.
Only when the fish monger showed my mother how deep red the gills of hilsa were and how firm its body was and how clear its eyes were would she pay him, but not without examining a few other pieces and definitely not without the friendly haggling.
And now if I need a bed sheet, I lift a finger and order it online.
Progress is essential and elemental, I know. Progress is important. Progress is also placing experiences similar to the ones I had as a child inside invisible glass cases and labelling them ‘traditional’ as though they are rare exhibits.
Progress is sending what once was commonplace on the road towards extinction and that maybe inevitable but it is disconcerting none the less.
So when I can read about Gwangjang market, built in 1905 and called Seoul’s oldest ‘traditional’ market and one of its largest, I knew I had to go, not just to sketch but to get a feel of the familiar while I still could, albeit in a foreign country.
Narrow lanes lined on either side with shops cheek by jowl selling pajeon, gimbap, sundaeguk, bibimbap and tteokbokki ran into one another like a maze. Massive waves of people from students, office workers, tourists to the elderly hikers you see a lot of in Korea rolled up from all directions to eat at those shops manned by hardworking ajummas in short perms and red lipstick. Sound of chatter and cacophony melded into the smell of hot oil and the lurid colour of shop signages. The glow of bulbs hanging low over trays of food added to the visual drama and lent the space a honky-tonk aura.
As opposed to the clinical white spaces we are used to shopping in with clearly marked aisles and properly arranged shelves, a traditional market is a place where the first order of business is to lose your bearings and be overwhelmed by what you see, hear and smell.
Check and check.
I had a vague idea of where I was.
Perhaps, the Jeon Alley.
Some dishes are so popular in Gwangjang Market that they have entire alleys dedicated to them! In Korean cuisine, Jeon is referred to pancake-like dishes made by pan frying a mixture of rice or flour batter with vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry in it.
I couldn’t have been in the Yukhoe (steak tartar) Alley or the Gimbap (similar to sushi) Alley considering all the fervid grinding of mung beans that was happening around me. The jerry-built enterprise right before me had 5 ajummas working together like a well-oiled machine. Two in yellow tops were stationed at the ‘kitchen’ frying Bindaetteoks (mung bean pancakes) and piling the golden discs one above the other on the counter; one was serving the pancakes to customers gathering on the long wooden table while two more were luring people in to the shop.
And in all this madness if any of them managed to catch a breath, they’d leave their stations and come over to check my progress. I was sitting on the ground wedged between two other Bindaetteok stalls. But I was sketching them.
In return the band of ajummas kept an eye on me, nothing more than a glance in my direction from time to time and once shooing a drunk guy away when he tried to get too friendly with me. I got sober visitors too. A tour guide stopped by, a magazine editor gave me her business card and an elderly couple bought me some cooling drinks (see above).
On my way out I got the ajummas to fix me a piping hot plate of mung bean pancake. And while I savoured the crispy goodness in my mouth, I saw three young backpackers doing the same and talking about how good it tasted and how cheap the food was (4000 won for two big pieces) and how glad they were to have visited. They couldn’t wait to tell their ‘mates’ all about it.
I hope they do, ad nauseam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 lunch, I was ready to wind down.
“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.
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.
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.
told me there was going to be a 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.
“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.
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!
It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.
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.
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.
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.
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!