The Goodbye is an occasional series about women leaving a place behind. Are you moving and feeling nostalgic? Fill out this form, and you could be part of the series.
I am standing next to a floor-to-ceiling bay window in a high-rise apartment, looking across the Han River at Seoul’s gorgeous 63 Building and the remains of a sumptuous sunset. A delicate string of lights travels along the train bridge, moving through a quaint neighborhood until it finds its way beneath me, revealing passengers whose lives briefly intersect with mine in this city of nearly 10 million.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, I had no idea that I’d one day be living in Seoul.
But one intrepid husband and three children later, with a thrilling year of teaching in Australia and three years in Japan behind us, I found myself accepting a teaching position in Seoul. Our plan was to stay for a few years and move on, but the city wrapped its arms around my family and became home sweet home.
The country’s rituals, people and food instilled within us a sense of belonging, whether that came in the form of befriending the chef at our favorite street food spot; sharing a bow and a smile with the ajumma (an older Korean woman) I passed on my daily walk to work; or discovering the car-free pleasure of public transportation while exploring ever-evolving neighborhoods such as Ikseon-dong. Walking the safe and novel streets of Seoul roused within me a perpetual smile, reciprocated by a generous sparkle in the eyes of passersby; it became a safe and venturesome place to raise children into adulthood.
Eight years later, my husband and I felt the universe nudging: The school where I taught was closing, and our empty nest was looming. Our youngest children are now embarking on their own foreign experiences, attending university in small-town America while calling Seoul home. My husband and I quit our jobs and are heading to Budapest for a gap year all our own. I’ll study math and we’ll travel, finding novelty on a new and lovely continent.
I will miss Seoul for a million reasons. The realization that after eight years, a place can feel foreign and familiar all at once, is profound. Contrasts are what make Seoul vibrant: the cold and the heat; traditional markets beneath the modern high-rises; big-city density composed of cozy, intimate neighborhoods.
Now that it’s time to say goodbye, here are the places I’ll miss most.
The Han River is the backyard to my high-rise apartment, my nature fix. Along the river lies Hangang Park, where there are art installations, exercise equipment, bicycles to rent, runners and walkers and a continuous display of ever-changing wildflowers. Night runs are my favorite, when the river transforms with lit bridges and the glowing tips of fishing poles. The city lights reflect on the water like multicolored shards of glass.
Seoul is a mecca for the arts, with a constant influx of installations, exhibits, competitions and concerts. Seoul Arts Center is one of my favorite venues; it offers stunning cello concerts, for a mere 20,000 won, or about 17 U.S. dollars. I savored attending solo, whether perched front and center surrounded by the acoustic aesthetic pleasure of the recital hall, or in the large concert hall with 16 cellists so mesmerizing that my fellow patrons seemed to disappear.
There are so many types of delicious Korean food, but it is the dakgalbi at Ogeunnae, a small restaurant across the street from my apartment in the Ichon-dong neighborhood, that became our family’s go-to for comfort food. Dakgalbi is a kind of stew with chicken, cabbage, sweet potato, sesame leaf and a rich sauce made from the classic spicy, pepper-y warmth that defines Korean food. It sits in a giant pan above a flame in the center of the table, along with sides of kimchi dishes and a bowl of jigae. My heart was warmed by our weekly ritual and an attentive owner who treated us like family.
We grabbed gimbap (Korean sushi rolls) and frozen meokgoli, a refreshing rice wine, and headed up a busy trail that turned into a more challenging climb along a sheer granite face. At the top, we were awarded with a brief but brilliant thunderstorm, the surprise of a giant golden Buddha nestled in the mountain flora, the chant of Buddhist monks and a colorful pagoda where we sipped meokgoli thawed to thirst-quenching perfection.
Seoul has a stream that runs through the city, and I loved walking along its path on hot summer days. There, you’ll find gentle waterfalls, charming greenery, art and people of all ages sitting under steps, gathered to soak their feet and find respite from the humid heat.
Sungnyemun Gate, a 600-year-old world heritage treasure, is magnificent. Although it burned down in 2008, it was rebuilt and reopened in 2013. I remember traveling the streets at night in a taxi with the window down, my head leaning out, when my breath was taken away: There was this majestic beauty surrounded by sprawling modernity, aglow with the history she holds.
This covered market is packed with eateries selling a wide variety of traditional foods; my favorite are the mung bean pancakes. Tourists and locals alike visit this crazy-crowded food court, where friendly vendors invite you to sit at their counters. The market also sells fresh produce and a variety of products throughout its sprawling interior.
Visiting Seoul? Find Lisa’s recommendations mapped out here.