Travel

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

Reaching New Heights Hiking Bukhansan

Last Tuesday, I wanted to give hiking another go because Achasan was such an easy hike. This time, with my Airbnb host, I hiked Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest peak. Standing at just above 800 meters, it makes an impression on the surrounding landscape. I’m not an avid hiker, but I do like new challenges. This was probably the tallest mountain I’ve hiked before, and it was a brutal two and a half hours to get to the top. My first hint that this would be a rough hike should’ve been that I couldn’t get a single friend to join me in the hike. On my first day in Seoul, my friends asked me, “so how do you want ot spend your time in Korea?” I answered with, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, but what about hiking?” The response was met with a wary, “okay, where were you thinking?”

“Well, I heard Bukhansan is the tallest mountain in Seoul. It’s supposed to offer amazing views.”
“Uh…okay, wow. Bukhansan? Hm. Let’s think about it.”

Anyone that’s spent time in East Asia or South Korea, knows that such a vague answer usually means, “No.” Undeterred, I mentioned my plan to hike Bukhansan with or without company to as many people as I could. Finally, I mentioned the idea to my Airbnb host, Noah, and to my surprise he said he wanted to join. The morning of the hike, I dressed in yoga pants, a tank top, and my old running shoes. My purse carried two water bottles, my wallet, sunglasses, some peanut snacks, a roll of kimbap, and my phone. In my world, that means I’m ready to hike. In his world, and every Ajima (elderly woman in Korean) I met on the subway ride to the Bukhansan bus stop, I was setting myself up to sincerecly regret my day and possibly slide down a mountain face to my death. No matter. Even though I stood out like a sore thumb among the fully equipped, backpack-ed hikers, I was determined Bukhansan was going down.

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

I saw this Ajima, barely five feet tall, hop on her Harley just before our bus arrived. She rode up to the intersection and I snapped a picture without thinking. Why stay home and knit when you could ride your motorcycle into the sunset like a total badass?

Hiking Bukhansan easily takes a full day. First, it takes at least an hour and a half to arrive at the base of the mountain, by subway then by bus. Then it’s an increasingly steep and rocky climb to the top for two hours. If your legs aren’t ready for an endless stairmaster workout, then it’s better to save Bukhansan for another day. Also, be ready to sweat. No matter how much or how little clothing you’re wearing, hiking in July entails that you will be streaming with sweat. But it’s all worth it when you reach the peak. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was the endorphinsf from pushing my body to climb as fast as I could, but standing on top of Bukhansan’s windy peak and staring down at the green and hazy world below lifts your spirits like nothing else. You will also have a newfound appreciation for all the seniors climbing up along side of you. I only wish I could be a fraction as healthy and fit at their age as they are now. In another bad ass Ajima/Ajashi moment at the peak, many of them were drinking Makgeolli at the top of the mountain. Makgeolli is a milky alcohol and an acquired taste that resembles an alcoholic, watery yogurt in texture and taste. It reminded me of something that maybe our grandparents’ generations would drink during wartimes when options for something better were scarce.

I won’t post too much about the actual hike, so I can talk about Daegu in my next post. But leave me questions in the comments if you have any, and I will be happy to answer them!

Thumbs up, half way point!

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Old fortress wall near the peak. Noah takes another break (right) as he admits defeat to mighty Bukhansan.

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Munching on some kimbap near the peak. The altitude is supposed to make food taste better, but I think sheer exhaustion was a good enough flavor enhancer.

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The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it's real name, but it works.

The Stone Phoenix of Bukhansan. Probably not it’s real name, but it works.

Of course they sell ice cream on the mountain and of course we got some.

From the Heart of Asia to Its Seoul

I arrived in Seoul from Taiwan (the “Heart of Asia“) a few days ago and have been spending my time mostly with one of my best friends from college and her sister as well as being lost in the endless Seoul subway system.

Just from the first few days I have to say it’s been great getting away from Taiwan’s heat and humidity. The first night I was here was windy and I actually felt a chill that made me put on my jacket. I checked later and saw it was a frigid 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also nice to be in a place that has the same living standards as the U.S. and that has elaborate and mostly convenient subway system. I say mostly because I’m writing this while waiting for my train and it’s already been 30 minutes. I guess Hoegi (pronounced “higgy”) Station must be like Greenpoint and this train is like the G train running weekend schedule every day.

The past couple of days I’ve mostly spent in the Gangnam area with my Ye-lin and Ye-Jin. Gangnam is about 35 minutes away from Hoegi and its also the place named in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” They have this massive mall that’s like the Macy’s NYC mall but if the entire building were made of marble and glass, half of it were entirely underground, and the foodcourt was an endless array bakeries and restaurants. The mall is Shinsaegae, and anyone who has been to Seoul has been there or at least bumped into one of them. They are owned by Samsung, so they have the wealth and power to erect huge buildings all over the place.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Ye-Lin (left) and me. Friends since 2010, Orange pride for life.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

Me, Ye-Lin, and Ye-Jin (left to right) after our spa day on Sunday.

I also went to the French Quarter where, get this, there is actually a significant population of French people living and working in Seoul. So there are some amazing patisseries and boulangeries as well as almost every single luxury French brand store you can imagine. It was so bizarre to see so many French people in the middle of Seoul, but I guess the feeling is akin to a Midwesterner visiting Chinatown in NYC for the first time. You might be thinking I had French food for lunch there, but you’d be wrong. Ye-Jin suggested this incredible burger place called Brooklyn. Seriously, it was probably the best burger I’ve eaten since going out to Harlem Public last year. If for some reason you ever find yourself in Brooklyn, in the French Quarter of South Korea’s capital, eat there! Don’t even bother to look at the menu. Order the Burgherita and a Nutella and marshmallow milkshake and enjoy the rave your taste buds throw for you in your honor. Seriously, it’s that good.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Brooklyn in the French Quarter of Seoul.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

Burgers, shakes, and fries.

On Saturday, I had the whole morning and afternoon to myself so I decided to go for a hike. It’s been a long time since Kaohsiung wasn’t a fiery hellscape, so I’ve been itching to climb a mountain without suffering from heat stroke. Looks like I picked the wrong day.

I went to Achasan or Mt. Acha (San means mountain), a begginer’s level hiking peak. I took the train to Wangshimni, which brought me to another subterranean world (half of Seoul’s population could probably live in the tunnels that crisscross all over the city, there are just so many!). I grabbed some mini pies and an egg sandwich from a bakery and continued onto line 5 which would take me to the Achasan stop.

Though I’d heard Achasan was the smallest of the local peaks in Seoul and one of the easiest to climb, I was dripping with sweat just from the walk from the metro station to the perimeter of the park. Clad in athletic shorts, a T-shirt, running shoes, and a baseball cap, I easily zipped by the swaths of seniors who sported full hiking gear (long pants and jacket), backpacks, large hats, gloves, and ski poles/hiking sticks. At the gate of the park was a water refill station that provided free, ice cold water from the tap. Dozens of seniors were crowded around the watering hole, and I could barely find a free spot to squeeze through before I felt an elbow or a hand push me out of the way. I looked around and noticed everyone was equally soaked in sweat and had a look of utter fatigue on their faces. Maybe today was hotter than I thought?

When I finally refilled my 2 water bottles, I headed up the mountain. After a year in a subtropical climate where shady large-leafed trees, bamboo, monkeys, and flying cockroaches are the norm, hiking on Achasan felt plsin. Besides the pine trees, which were a sight for sore eyes, that took root in the shallow soil above the granite there was little natural life beyond the occasional mosquito. I nostalgically yearned to hear the sound of monkeys fighting and bamboo creaking in the wind. Speaking of wind, there was barely even a breeze the entire walk up until I reached the very peak of Achasan. There, I could feel the air subtly moving like a whisper, just enough to actually offer a cool sensation.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

View of the Han River from Achasan.

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Stone Pavilion reconstructed on the site where the original once stood some 600 years ago.

The first reason I chose to hike Achasan was because of it’s reputation of being an easy peak (meaning I’d just spend a couple hours and go home), the second was because of its historic value. There are still some ruins of fortresses and look-out stations from Ancient Korea’s “Three Kingdoms” period (not to be confused with China’s Three Kingdoms), when the control and use of the Han River (Seoul’s lifeline) was still contested. When you reach the top of the mountain and stare out at the cityscape, you can see exactly why Achasan was so important. Achasan has a perfectly clear view of the eastern portion of the Han River and its banks. A lookout could easily spot any dangerous movement of people or ships in and around the river from miles away. They would also have ample time to warn people living at the base of the mountain and surrounding areas. Nowadays the peak of the mountain serves as a beautiful scenic spot; a moment of gratification once you reach the top.

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What’s left of the ancient fortress built nearly 700 years ago. You can still see the shape of the wall just behind the trees.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul's hottest day.

One of the very many elderly hikers also visiting Achasan on Seoul’s hottest day.

As I made my way back down the mountain I became increasingly self-conscious as to how much I had actually sweated. It was probably the most in my life. My entire shirt was a shade darker and I could feel the grit of salt and sand sliding on my forearms and shins. I would find out from Ye-Lin later that apparently it was Seoul’s hottest day of the year, so hot that city hall announced a warning against people exercising during the day.

“Dear God,” I thought as I approached the subway entrance. I was thinking of all the beautifully dressed, meticulously make-upped women on the subway, “I’m a mess and I really hope I don’t smell.” Luckily I’m 85% sure I didn’t have super bad B.O. on the commute home.  No one covered their noses or stepped back when they stood next to me, so I took that as positive feedback and tried to avoid contact the entire ride home. Random sidenote, for a developed country capital, Seoul adheres to some really intense gender norms for appearance. I’ve noticed make-up, especially lipstick, is pretty much a requirement for going outside if you’re an adult female. Heels aren’t a must, but encouraged. Everyone looks like a freaking model, and if they don’t have the size 0 body, they definitely have the wardrobe. It’s enough to make a girl think twice about stepping onto the shiny, AC’d subway in sweaty workout clothes. In my, what most people would assume is, disgusting condition on Satuday I’m sure I stood against everything that is expected of a lady commuter that afternoon. Oh well.

I made it to dinner on the other side of town an hour late. I was supposed to be there for 5:00 but arrived at 6:00. Ye-Lin and Ye-Jin planned a fried chicken and beer picnic near the Han River. Thanks to not having any cell phone or data plan in Seoul, I was unable to tell them that apparently on Saturday evenings commuters are just as packed into the trains as they are during weekday rush hour. I waited 35 minutes for one train and then another 15 minutes to transfer. We were packed into the cars to the point where I couldn’t move my arms and legs until the next stop, and then it would only be to readjust before the onslaught of bodies unforgivably mashed themselves into the train car again. Awesome that some folks DID sport the enchanting parfum of outdoor hard labor on the hottest day of the year.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

Just a bit of the crowd on the subway on Saturday.

When I finally did make it to meet up spot, I had all but irrevocably damaged dinner plans. The chicken was cold, the girls were weary from worry, and my legs were tired, limp meat bags on my body. Luckily, there was some daylight left and we headed straight away to the park and commenced picnicking. Night fell two hours later and by that time the good conversation and food made my commute of nightmares seem like a distant past. I was sufficiently content with the way the day went. The mosquitoes started biting, cuing our exit, and as we carried the trash away, fat and scattered raindrops began to fall. The typhoon expected to pass on Sunday was signalling that it would be on time.

The First Jewel: A visit to Songgwangsa Temple

Main Temple Building

 

Songgwangsa Temple is known as one of the “Three Jewels of Korean Buddhism” (the other two are  T’ongdo-sa and Haein-sa Temples). Relatively isolated, it is located high up on Mount Songgwangsan and visitors can choose to hike the mountain from the base or take a bus partly or the whole way there. I would encourage the relatively spry to hike at least part of the way, the trek is a natural beauty in itself. Whether you walk or take the bus, it is better to get to the mountain in the morning when the temple is most active.

All along the walk, if you keep a sharp eye out, you can spot ancient inscriptions carved into stone faces or the occasional forgotten tombstone wrapped in vines. Because of the dense tree cover and altitude, even on a hot summer day the temperature at Mount Songgwangsan is much cooler than at the base. There are springs spread out along the trails, too, so visitors may refresh with the cold mountain water and refill canteens. Upon arrival to the main temple area, you are welcomed by a flood of color; blue, green, red, yellow artfully adorn the temple buildings in intricate designs. During the spring and summer seasons, they are accompanied by the pinks and yellows of indigenous flowers.

Soggwangsa Temple one of the oldest active Buddhist temples in South Korea and you can feel the weightiness of its timeless legacy from the moment you step onto the grounds. Built more than 1,000 years ago, the temple site has grown seamlessly into its natural environment with lush green mountains and low-hanging clouds as its backdrop and bridges connecting the main structures of the temple over untouched rivers. During the summer there are fewer monks on the grounds, but those that are there can be spotted performing their daily tasks throughout the temple area. There is a small museum on the grounds (no shoes allowed) where you can see some of the treasures of the temple’s past and read about the history of Korean Buddhism. Because only some English translations are available, doing a bit of research on the area before you go, or hiring a local tour guide would definitely enhance the experience.

If you need to get away from stress of urban life or just want explore a traditional part of South Korea, you must visit Songgwangsa Temple. It will be an unforgettable trip. When you depart Mount Soggwangsan, grab lunch near the base of the mountain where there are some small traditional-style restaurants that serve vegetarian Korean food (in keeping with the Buddhist tradition they do not serve meat). The overall experience may tire you out physically, but it is a truly spiritually and mentally refreshing adventure.

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