Monday, July 10, 2006

A shopping excursion

Last Saturday I went shopping with Emma and Ryan at the Carrefour department store. I was looking forward to getting some stuff for my kitchenette. It turns out that I have a hot plate already here (plus the dorm fridge), so all I needed to get was a microwave, a pot and pan, some groceries, and then I would really be in business!

Doing this little bit of shopping turned out to be the biggest adventure I have yet had here. The plan was to take the bus there (following a route recommended by a girl who had done it the night before--the crazy Vanessa, who will never again be trusted to give directions) and then get a taxi back since we would have so many packages. Getting on the first bus was easy enough; it was just a 5 minute walk outside our front gate. Getting the second bus proved to be a little more difficult.

We got off at Suyu subway station to catch the second bus, the #106 toward Carrefour (the bus doors opened up to reveal a Pizza Hut straight ahead and a Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins just down the street--good grief!). We could not find the right bus stop no matter where we checked. Up and down the side of the street we got off on. Couldn't cross the street because of bus barriers, so down three flights of subway steps, under the street, up three flights of subway steps. Up and down the other side of the street. Nowhere. Back down into the subway because we remembered that we needed two passport pics to turn in for our alien registration forms on Monday (they have those little funny photo booths down there and our senior teachers had advised us that they would also take normal passport photos). They neglected to say "Good luck trying to figure it out!" It was entirely in Korean, so I started grabbing random strangers to help us. Finally landed this guy and his wife who were so helpful and wouldn't leave until we got the damn thing working (it wouldn't take our money for some reason). They were so nice! And the pics weren't bad either!

OK, back up three more flights of steps. More walking up and down the street. Crazily enough, we actually ran into three of our senior teachers, and they were able to point us to the right bus stop, which was CLEAR down the fucking street AND on the the other side. Fucking Vanessa. This time, we crossed at the light and got to the bus stop just as the bus we wanted was leaving. Natch.

Once on the bus, we got to Carrefour alright and made a plan to meet at the front door in an hour and a half. My two friends went upstairs, but I decided to take a quick tour around the main floor. Nothing much there, so I headed upstairs. They have escalators that are just flat, so that you can take your cart with you. Very nice. I got up a flight and there were my friends, looking very confused. Turns out, every flight up is just for parking. We were standing there going, "Where the fuck is the fucking stuff??" Turns out, you have to go DOWN a few flights. Food is on the bottom floor, then it's a Wal-Mart type floor with mostly household goods.

They went right down to the food floor, but I decided to start on the Wal-Mart floor. The girl at the entrance would not let me in, and it took me a minute to figure out that she wanted me to put my backpack in a locker before I could enter. Still, I got some great stuff (an electric kettle for $15, hairdryer with diffuser for $20, laundry stuff, Swiffer Sweeper, etc...) but when I got up to the checkouts, I saw that most people had groceries along with their household goods. So, it appeared that I was screwed and should have gone all the way down to the food floor to begin with. (Turns out that you seemingly can't leave the grocery section without checking out, either, so there must have been some magic way that my friends and I just couldn't figure out.) I went to the entrance and tried to leave to go downstairs, but the same girl was there and would not let me go. She motioned that I HAD to go through the checkouts. Great. Oh, and I had forgotten my money in my backpack, safely tucked away in the locker! Luckily, it was right by the checkouts and I was able to run and get it quick while the lady was ringing up my stuff. Thankfully, my credit card worked with no problems, sparing me any further embarrassment in this section of the store.

Now, down to the food floor. Of course, I was too shady to be let in with a cart full of packages! (I had taken the precaution of putting my backpack in a locker on that floor before even attempting to enter, but that was obviously not enough of a gesture. I would have put everything in there, but the Swiffer would have been a bit of a crunch.) The girl (I think it was even the same one from upstairs!) gave me a claim ticket and kept my whole cart. I motioned that I would be needing a cart (which I had had to get from a rack of carts at a cost of 100 won--you get it back when you return the cart--which I don't even understand because are people putting these carts in their minivans and driving off or what? And would the equivalent of 10 cents even cover the cost of losing one?? *sigh*) so she got some flunky to go get me another cart, while I stood there looking like a big white idiot.

Once inside, it was quite cool. In the prepared foods section, the guys behind the counter were not merely standing there serving food. No, they were loudly hawking their wares, screaming about how great their kimchee was or something. It was really neat (sorry, that's honestly the best word). It felt like being at an outdoor market like I've seen on the Travel Channel. Other than that, it was mostly another Hy-Vee.

Due to time constraints, I ended up having to race through there, grabbing plates and silverware and shampoo (how did I leave that out of my damn suitcase??) and hardly getting any real food at all. I managed to get the makings of a salad and that was about it. I couldn't find balsamic vinegar (then again, I wasn't really expecting to), but I was pleased to try Persimmon vinegar. By the end, I felt like a contestant on the long-lost Supermarket Sweep, just wiping whole shelves into my cart and running to the next aisle.

My friends and I hailed a taxi, relieved to entrust the journey home to someone other than ourselves. However, although the taxi driver was a nice old man, when I showed him a business card with the school's address in Korean, he clearly had no real idea where the hell it was. But, he was game enough to give it a go, and we were exhausted enough not to care.

He drove in what seemed to us to be the right direction. I think that he recognized the name of the neighborhood (which is included in the address), just not the specific street. All we really knew was that we needed to go towards the mountain because our school sits right at the base of it (my balcony faces into it). Halfway there, stuck in traffic, he beeped his horn to get the attention of the taxi next to us so that he could ask the other driver for directions!! They conferred for a bit, after which he seemed a little more confident. Once we got going again, we kind of recognized street signs (which are in English, as well as Korean) listing things like "Rehabilitation Center" turn left. In the end, these signs led us to the main intersection we all knew, with the big 7-Eleven, and a sign pointing the direction to Suyu English Village up the street. When we saw the sign, we all whooped, even the driver! He clapped with unbridled joy. :-) He tried to turn into our gate, but the construction guys were in the way with a big earth mover. So, we had to haul all of our packages up the steep-ass driveway and then up scores of steps to our individual apartments. But, no matter. We had used public transportation, shopped in a foreign department store with minimal embarrassment, helped a confused cabbie to get us home, and we were all in one piece with some cool shit to show for it. Not a bad start to our time in Seoul.

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