Lily, I have something to tell you ….
This isn’t really a text I’m ever glad to receive, but considering that it came from a friend who’d never done anything to irk me, I was curious about what that thing might be. Seeing as all the “I did something that’s gonna cause a problem for you” possibilities weren’t on the table.
It turned out my friend Clara (with whom I celebrated our shared birthdays) had gotten an internship in Busan and would be moving there within a couple weeks. This was the middle of August, and she moved at the end of that month.
From that time we were already talking about when I’d be able to go visit her. The first week of October was a very long Chuseok holiday break from work, and although Clara’s popularity and family obligations took up most of her week, I was able to capture three days to spend on the Clara Busan Tour over the holiday’s first weekend.
During the Chuseok holiday there are infamous traffic jams all throughout the country, so taking a bus was out of the question. I managed to book an ITX which left Seoul Station at 6.15AM on Saturday, September 30th, and snagged at KTX for the return trip on October 2nd. I’d never taken a train in Korea before, and I enjoyed the trip, besides the fact that it took 5 hours to arrive in Busan that first morning.
I’d actually begun my journey at 5.30AM on that Saturday morning, emerging from my apartment, dragging my half-empty suitcase around my street, which apparently was not a popular thoroughfare for taxis at that time (experience and hindsight now tell me that taxis were probably all engaged at that time, considering the beginning of the holiday). It took me about fifteen minutes to flag a cab, into which I practically flew, launching my suitcase on the seat next to me, and then about ten minutes to get to the station. I ran from the crosswalk into the train, and due to high adrenaline levels, immediately hoisted my suitcase into overhead storage and then just sat in my seat for ten minutes, not thinking clearly enough to run outside the train to the convenience store on the platform to buy breakfast.
The train started off quite empty, so I was a little bit angry when a man came and sat directly next to me. His ticket number wasn’t his fault, but it seemed unbelievable that in a train car with 100 other empty seats, someone had to be sitting RIGHT next to me, as if the train service was operating out of the same kind of “let’s put Lily at a disadvantage” point of view that many of the world’s other operating systems seem to be.
Although I had brought a book with me to read, I was too distracted by the various happenings that began to unfold around me to get through even a page of the book during those 5 hours. Among the various shenanigans of other passengers were what seemed to be the attempts of the young male in the seat diagonally behind me to get me to look back at him (and when I did, after meeting my eyes for a moment, he quickly busied himself with his cellphone and ceased all other activity); the family seated a few rows in front of me, two daughters and a mother who, after forcing the man sitting next to one of her daughters to switch seats with her, forced snacks on her daughters at a rate that caused me to suspect she’d brought a whole picnic basket with her; the couple speaking very loudly a few rows behind me, out of sight but frustratingly impossible to keep out of mind…
When I arrived in Busan after that train ride I still had a bus ride ahead of me; I squeezed myself and my luggage into a seat and became gradually more and more horrified as I watched the bus fill up around me and fill up the passageways that I would need to drag myself and my luggage down to get out at Gwangan Station.
Getting out was every bit as much of a nightmare as I imagined it would be; while I was shuffling towards the back door, pushing my luggage in front of me and probably rolling over people’s feet with it, a car zoomed in front of the bus right in front of a red light. Naturally the driver slammed on his brakes and I almost fell over, instead crushing my left hip into the side of a seat next to me. The French tourists sitting there observed me quietly and then began talking about foreigner’s fashion. While I was glad to have sparked that conversation, I was more than ready to get off the bus when it finally pulled to a stop and released me.
I waited for Clara at the subway exit, and without meaning to the first thing she said when she greeted me was “you’ve lost so much weight!”
It’s true. Everyone who hasn’t seen me for a while says this as soon as they see me these days. My ex-bf/friend whom I’d meet a few days later also said “Lily, you’re looking thinner” as soon as he saw me, too. In Korean culture this is almost exclusively meant as a compliment. While I struggle to accept it as such because I lost this weight due to illness, I know that my friends don’t know that and are saying it halfway out of surprise, so I let it go.
Anyway Clara apologized to me later for being “so Korean” by doing that because she knows I don’t like it ㅋㅋㅋㅋ Which is just one of the reasons she’s such a good friend to me….
It was great to see Clara after several months. We made the first stop at her home so I could drop off my luggage, which I’d packed only half-full in order to have room for all the vintage clothing I planned to buy at the 국재시장 (International Market).
We made our first stop at a restaurant called Stone Street, where I entered into mental breakdown because of a boy problem. I cried and chattered at Clara about it for maybe two hours. Because of the emotional distress I endured at that time, I don’t remember much about the food, but I do remember that I liked it, because who doesn’t like pizza and pasta?
After eating, we made our way to the International Market. We walked slowly through the stalls, Clara documenting me documenting the things we saw.
It took us a while of wandering around to find the vintage stores. Although we’d walked by them earlier, I could only remember the general area of the stores with “vintage” on their signs. Clara told me that the thing I do to Korean signs—glaze over the words I don’t instantly recognize—she does with English signs, so she hadn’t even noticed the English words “vintage” plastered all over the storefronts. When we finally found the stores, Clara bought a pink winter coat after deciding to replace the gaudy, faux-gold button at the neck. I find this is usually the problem with vintage clothing. I like everything else about it, but the buttons are ugly. Thankfully buttons are not that difficult to replace.
I also displayed my decided lack of talent for photography by taking this photo below. Clara took one look at it and gave me an angry expression. I told her she had to be the trip photographer from now on, although I probably didn’t have to even say it.
We walked around a lot of shops. I tried on some hats and picked up things and walked around with them before putting them back. So in the end, I didn’t exit the International Market with any vintage clothes, but Clara did take some great photos of things for me.
After fighting our way through crowds to eat 씨앗 호떡 (sshi-aht ho-ddeok), pancakes filled with sugar syrup and sunflower seeds, we flagged down a taxi to take to the Gamcheon Culture Village (감천문화마을).
It was dark by the time we reached the village, but the lights from the houses shining on the hill were very picturesque. Much more so than ME, but that didn’t stop Clara from shooting away as if I looked like a model.
She kept saying “show these to your dad, please, to prove I’m taking care of you.”
Even though I’m older, sometimes it feels like Clara is the true 언니.
We took some photos together in the 인생네컷 photo booth which is very popular in Korea these days. Although we failed our first attempt, Clara described our second shot as a four-frame transformation “from mug-shot to cutie.”
Clara explained to me that a “moon village” is a village built on a hill, with houses close together and very steep inclines leading to them. Usually poorer people lived in these villages because of the extremely high location, so high it was close to the moon. I experienced some of these steep hills and climbing because we had to get to the bus stop that would put us on the town bus which would take us to the main bus we could use to get to Clara’s home near Gwangalli. We walked down and then up for maybe 15 minutes. At one point Clara hailed a passing old man and asked him how long it would take to go to the elementary school where the bus stop was. He said we still had a ways to go. That’s when we started walking backward up the hill.
One thing I would like to impart to the reader is the absolutely absurd, crazy, and frightening experience of riding in a Busan bus. This bus driver was careening down the mountain, flying past bus stops, winding through the tight squeezing corners with what appeared to me to be a kind of contented disregard for the fear of death he was incurring in the single foreigner in the backseat.
However, as you may have guessed, I survived that “Mr. Toad’s wild ride” (which is what my mom always used to call being driven around by my dad, but I’ve found out that that is not true). For dinner, Clara found a restaurant which had a vegetarian burger, and what was even better is it was at Gwangalli beach.
광안대교 (Gwangan Bridge) is a famous bridge, and I still don’t know exactly why. But it looks good in photos. And knowing Koreans’ borderline-obsessive worship of beauty, that could actually be the reason behind its fame. But I really liked the beach. My hometown is close to the beach and the small elementary/junior high that I went to was about a five minutes’ walk from the sea, so we often ran along the coast for our P.E. classes. Since my university days, whenever I was feeling particularly stressed or anxious, I would take a drive along the coast highway, windows rolled down to pull in whatever bonfire or ocean scents were out that day. Living in Seoul is great for other reasons, but something always feels peaceful when I’m near the ocean.
Gwangalli beach is clean, and although crowded, there’s enough space to walk around without feeling like you’re intruding on anybody. It’s a very picturesque landscape in both day and night. My personal photographer Clara took this as her signal to photograph me more times than I’ve ever been photographed in my whole life.
After walking along the beach for a while, we headed to Butcher’s Burger, the place Clara had found on her self-declared mission to “find some vegetarian place or any place which can be vegetarian place.” And she, “the best proved tour guide in Busan,” completed her task with beauty and grace.
I really enjoyed the burger, although it fell apart as soon as I began to eat it. Although there were a lot of “fun” and interesting burgers to choose from, I chose the classic cheeseburger option because it had pickles on it (lol). It’s actually so difficult to find pickles in Korea, I mean Jewish-deli style sour pickles and not those weird sweet pickles that you can actually find everywhere here. The first sign that bread-and-butter pickles are weird is that they’re called bread-and-butter pickles. Why?
Anyway, I recommend this place for those of you who visit Gwangalli beach. The food was good and portion sizes were very large (as you can see). The atmosphere was so pleasant and good. We sat at the bench with a good view of the seafront and spent time people watching, wondering where all of the cute boys in Busan were.
After dinner we decided to make a wish lantern. While I wrote only a single word onto my side, Clara made a very detailed and specific wish for me on her side. You can tell by my expression what I thought about that.
Although we’d bought a couple bottles of special Busan-made soju from a convenience store on the walk home, we were both so tired that we fell asleep without drinking it at all. But I did manage to flirt with Clara’s plush bear before knocking out, which was a nice way to end the day.
While we’d been quite active during the first day, day 2 was slightly lazier and began with a trip to a vegetarian restaurant called “Vegi Narang” (베지나랑), to my obvious delight. We ordered the “bean cutlet” and “sweet and sour fake-pork,” and Clara was very impressed by the texture of this “vegetarian” food. Korean people are forever baffled by the idea of being a vegetarian, and unfailingly (to my constant chagrin) ask me if I eat only salad, then, if I’m this so-called-vegetarian-thing. But every friend who’s accompanied me to a vegetarian restaurant that serves fake meat is always so surprised that it tastes good, and then suddenly becomes very interested in trying more vegetarian food in the future. I consider this to be an instance of matter over mind.
On the subway ride to a bus we would take to one of Busan’s famous temples, I received a Snapchat from my dad, which triggered a series of filtered photos, some more horrifying than others.
We finally made it to 해동용궁사 (Haedong Yonggungsa Temple), which Clara told me was one of her favorite places in Busan. While walking up to the temple, we passed a display of “띠” (ddi) statues—the Korean equivalent of Chinese Zodiac animals (but actually the same thing just with the Korean name). Because Clara and I are a year apart in age, our 띠 statues were next to each other, so we did this:
Clara captioned the picture of me with my monkey as “a foreigner who knows her 띠” which, I don’t know, may make me somehow attractive. A foreigner who knows her 띠. It has a ring to it.
Clara’s photographing-rage continued as we walked around the temple. There was a place to make wishes where you could throw coins into fountains from far away, and to my surprise, my first shot made it into the lowest fountain. An old woman nearby exclaimed “who was that!” as her husband, who’d already tossed a few coins and missed, swung around to look at me with what may have been dismay. I thought wow, I can’t believe I did that. Sorry my hand-eye coordination is so good that it’s putting old men to shame…
As we walked along the seaside to go back to our bus stop, we ran across the scene of the place where I almost made Clara cry. Although I’m typically extremely camera-shy, Clara’s photo-taking rampage over the course of two days had attuned me to the possibilities of where to take a photo. So I spotted a bench under a heart-shaped sculpture, but Clara didn’t see it. So I pointed it out and said to her, “let’s take a picture there!” which was the phrase that incited several minutes of expressions of disbelief, and continued references to the moment later on at random times—I can’t believe you said let’s take a picture…
We wanted to drink the soju we’d neglected the night before, so for dinner we went to a 술집 (백화료리집) that Clara told me had a 90’s Korean vibe to it. We startled the waiter by asking to omit the 곱창 from one of the popular stews; after he asked the kitchen, he reported back that it was possible to omit it, but then the dish probably wouldn’t taste good. I hear this exact same remark every single time I ever ask to take the meat out of something. But unsurprisingly, the soup was really good even without the cow intestine. Although I believe that Korean people have never tasted anything without the meat in it, they always assume and insist that the flavor that is not meat is an undelicious flavor. I invite them to try something without it and then try to tell me that again.
One of the reasons Clara chose this place is because their “signature” dish is deep-fried eggplant. It was better than I’d expected, and partly because of that I was able to down half a bottle of soju, but not without crying.
After leaving the pub Clara suddenly announced that she wanted ice cream, so we walked around through the crowded area waving 되지바 around.
Clara took the following photos of me as we ascended from Gwangan station, which she had warned me was a very deep station but whose depth I underestimated until walking up this fourth set of stairs while tipsy.
The next morning we decided to go back to Gwangalli village to have a more traditional brunch at “Wonders” café. I ordered the brunch set sans bacon, and Clara ordered Rose risotto without shrimp. I’m not a big fan of risotto but I admit it was attractive.
The restaurant also provided an ocean view. We spent time talking there while I made eyes at the cute waiter with the startlingly low voice who’d taken our orders. Hopefully he still remembers me, the white girl who meaninglessly flirted with him mere hours before going back to Seoul…
After packing up my things and receiving some snacks from Clara for the train ride back, it was time to take the bus to Busan Station, from where I would take the KTX back to Seoul. Although I barely survived the packed-bus ride, the KTX was much more comfortable than the ITX, as it took only just over two hours to reach Seoul Station. I took a taxi back home, which was great until the taxi driver got mad at me for not having automatic debit set up on my card and tried to lecture me about saving him time by making the card into a transportation card, taking like three minutes to be all mad at me when he could have just swiped my card in the card reader and waited five whole seconds for the charge to clear…
In the half-year that I’ve known Clara now, she’s been such a big emotional support to me through my various emotional escapades, has supported my various attempts at socialization and hermitization, and has been someone I absolutely look forward to spending time with. We contact each other regularly and from the first time we met we’ve gotten along so well that we’ve called each other twins from the offset, rendering the nicknames “쌍둥이 동생” / “쌍둥이 언니” that we use often to refer to each other across social media. We’ve shared our poems with each other and consulted each other about not only languages but various situations in which we need advice or just someone to rant to. When something ridiculous happens to me I can tell her about it and she sympathizes. I feel so lucky to have run across a friendship like the one Clara has offered to me completely by chance, and I was so happy to visit her in Busan. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to take another trip to see her there during the course of her internship. Clara is a friend I respect and admire in her maturity, sense of humor, and kind heart.
클라라야 나를 만나줬고 부산에서 잘 놀아줬고 항상 소중한 동생으로 내 힘든점들을 다 잘 들어주고 위로도 웃음도 많이 줘서 너무 고마워 ♡