Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Puttin' on the Ritz

From October 1st through the 7th, I enjoyed a lovely week of vacation; it was in celebration of Korean Thanksgiving, known as Chuseok. Some of the teachers had the money to travel a bit around Asia during the week, but I was not in such a fortunate position. So, I made my own plans!

My first goal for the week was to go to CostCo in search of cheese, meat, and other hard-to-find ingredients. One wouldn't think that it would ever be hard to find cheese and meat, considering that they constitute half the lineup of the average American supermarket, but here it's a real trial. Actually, it's not hard to find meat, per se, it's just hard to find beef at a reasonable price. If you'll recall, I once spent $7 on a ¼ pound of ground beef at the Carrefour. However, since CostCo specializes in bulk buying, you can get a much better deal there, specifically 2 pounds for $14. I know this still sounds unacceptably expensive, but if you look at in terms of the previous beef purchase I made, it's an absolute bargain.

Cheese is another matter entirely, because it really is impossible to find cheese you'd actually want to eat at a regular grocery store. The CostCo sells large blocks of cheese, even Tillamook brand from Oregon, a personal favorite of mine. So, I made a big list of all the recipes I wanted to cook during the week, and a correspondingly enormous list of ingredients to shop for.

Sadly, I was thwarted in all attempts to purchase anything resembling Mexican ingredients like chipotles and tortillas. Italian ingredients fared slightly better, with me actually lucking into some real salami! And I was able to get staple items like chicken stock and NutriGrain bars as well, so it wasn't all bad. I then went to the Carrefour later to finish stocking up on things like fruits and vegetables.

I was able to make Lemon Chicken and Rice Soup, which was so delicious! And a new meatloaf recipe (the one from Tyler's Ultimate on the Food Network), also yummy. I made tacos from the Old El Paso taco kit I got (only thing Mexican in the whole place). And I also made Creamy Rice Casserole, which was so filling I had leftovers for days! I didn't get to make half the things I wanted, still, it was so great to spend my vacation doing some real cooking for once. I really miss it. (I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but I bought a $100 toaster oven that works almost as good as a real oven. It drastically improved my quality of life!)

The second thing I did on vacation was to take the Seoul City Bus Tour. This is a great option for anyone visiting Seoul, as it's cheap ($10) and takes you to all of the most important monuments, palaces, and neighborhoods of the city. It's really too too much to do in one day. There are 27 stops (some just being hotels) on the route, and we went to 3 of them before we were just too exhausted to continue. The nice thing is that the buses run all day, so you can get off at a stop that interests you, and every half hour a bus stops back so you can get on and continue to sightsee. We went to a palace, a type of living history museum of life in old Korea, and the Seoul Tower. It was a warm day, and we had an enormous lunch, so this may have contributed to our lethargy, but oh well!

The palace grounds were calm and elegant. There was an incredibly peaceful feeling there that made one just want to sit for hours in the shade, enjoying the breeze and some conversation. The living history museum was a bit more dull, but because of the holiday they were having some performances and demonstrations. There's a great clip on here of a guy whacking a big mound of rice into submission. Eventually the rice is turned into sticky sweet candy. We ended our day at Seoul Tower, with fantastic views of the city. It was impossible to believe that I live out in that madness.

The best part of my vacation, BY FAR, was the two evenings I spent at the Seoul Ritz-Carlton with my friend Emma. (She was going to travel to Japan with Ryan, but ended up not being able to. So, I invited her to come to the Ritz, and by splitting the costs, we were able to stay two nights instead of one!)

I've stayed at a Ritz before, but Emma never had, so it was quite an experience for her! Starting with the bellboy who took our luggage from the cab and disappeared with it ("Will he know where our room is?") to the bellboy who carried our luggage down to street level for us so that we could catch a regular cab instead of the ones waiting up at the Ritz for twice the price. I'd like to think that Emma is now spoiled for any regular hotel she visits in the future, as inevitably happens once one has stayed at the Ritz.

The hotel was just beautiful, starting with the floor-to-ceiling marble lobby. We were guests on the Club Level, so once we came in we were immediately escorted to the Club Lounge, where a private concierge checked us in while an attendant made us some tea. The Club Level is great for so many reasons! You enjoy "5 complimentary food and beverage presentations" throughout the day (believe me, we arranged all of our plans around them), although you can really go in at any time because there is only a half hour between presentations, plus you can get drinks whenever you'd like. They serve: breakfast, mid-morning snacks, afternoon tea, hors d'oeuvres and cocktails before dinner, and chocolates and cordials before bed.

My favorite part was ordering tea. It's hard to get real English tea here in Seoul, but they had it. Plus, their tea service is very pretty, with simple porcelain tea pots and cups, but cream and sugar in solid silver holders on a silver tray. Exceedingly elegant. I would have loved to have been able to steal a set, but I am not that brazen. I did manage, however, to make off with 4 small plates, a knife, and a spoon. How I missed a fork, I don't quite know.

The food isn't bad, either. It's all in small portions, but you can have as much as you want. For the first time, I tried caviar. Let's just say I won't be snorking it up on a mother-of-pearl spoon any time soon, but it wasn't all bad. Mostly just salty. They also had goat cheese, among others, and the most delicious little pastries.

The staff in the Club Lounge really makes it, though. They will do anything (within reason) for you, and treat you like an old friend. Saturday morning I woke up with a very sore throat, so when I came in for breakfast, I asked for tea and mentioned my throat in passing. Later that day when I came in for afternoon tea, the attendant asked how my throat was feeling. How nice!

Our room was great, simple yet elegant, with a nice view of the city and Seoul Tower. We stayed in the room most of the time, enjoying the cable television (we only have 2 watchable channels here at school). We got to know the room service staff quite well, even though it cost us an arm and a leg. I spent a total of about $75 on room service, for only two meals! One meal was a sandwich with fries($19) and hot chocolate ($10 for two cups worth). The hot chocolate was straight out of my youth, exactly like my mom used to make, so I considered it worth the investment. The second meal was a different sandwich and Caesar salad ($16). I know a $16 salad seems excessive, but when they wheel it in on the lovely little trolley and set it up like a table...you just feel like Pretty Woman and you could care less about the price.

We ate dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant, The Garden, one time. It was a really gorgeous night, so we ate outside. It had great ambiance, and food. Umbrellas, dashing waiters, quiet conversation. The only thing missing was twinkling white lights up in the trees! There was a middle aged white woman sitting alone, and I wanted to ask her to join us, but I didn't have the nerve. We ended up seeing her in the elevator and it turned out that she's the director of a local English school. We could have had some great conversation with her, so I really regretted being such a chooch.

Our two days naturally flew by, and too soon we were on our way back to school. But, as if to round out our magical Ritz weekend, the security guard at school actually let our cab drive through the gates and up into the grounds so that we wouldn't have to walk so far with our heavy bags. That was the first time that has ever happened, so I attribute it to Ritz Magic.

Speaking of weird, magical things...on this past Saturday night, I went out to dinner with some friends. We started out looking for this Thai place called Buddha's Belly, but we just could not find it. So, we ended up waiting to get into an Italian restaurant nearby that was run by an actual Italian-American (this is quite rare here). While we were waiting on a bench outside, we started talking to this Korean guy (mid-30s) who was hanging around by himself. Turns out he likes to practice his English on foreigners. He kind of pissed me off because the first thing he said to me was a comment on how fat I am (I keep wishing I knew the Korean for "No shit, Sherlock."). Eventually, he started talking about other things, and it came up about how we were waiting to get into this Italian restaurant. Well, out of nowhere, the guy starts singing in Italian! O sole mio!! I couldn't believe that I was sitting on a bench in Korea, listening to some guy sing "O sole mio" and "Santa Lucia" in fairly decent Italian. Very bizarre. And of course, I couldn't get the songs out of my head the rest of the night! The food was great, though, and definitely worth the wait, even though we were seated next to some obnoxious prick from the New Jersey area who thought the whole restaurant wanted to hear about his oh-so-important business deals. Sorry, keep those impressive tales for your bored-looking Korean girlfriend.

Anyway, that's the full update! I hope all is well back home. Try not to worry about the North Korea thing. The South Koreans aren't worried at all, I promise!

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