I’m really not kidding when I say that I counted down until my first day out of quarantine very intensely. I believe I arrived in South Korea on a Saturday and was allowed to leave quarantine two weeks later on a Sunday at exactly noon. During this time, I had to report my temperature on the Quarantine app managed by the Korean government twice a day and always had my location tracked; it felt very freeing to be able to delete the app and step outside into the world that I had only been staring forlornly at through the window screen in my room.
Once I stepped outside, I truly did not dally! I had a plan and headed immediately to the nearest convenience store to purchase a T-money card, which would allow me access to any mode of public transportation in Seoul and is rechargeable at most convenience stores and at charging machines in the subways (keep in mind these machines only accept cash). I headed to Hongik University Subway station after standing at a bus stop confused, only realizing that I needed to take a subway line after hovering around for 20 minutes. To say my first subway ride headed toward Konkuk University station was fascinating was an understatement: it was very fascinating and nerve-inducing. I was so scared I was going to get something wrong and stick out like a sore thumb as I feel like the culture here is very fast-paced.
Eventually, I successfully made it to the Konkuk University area to meet up with some online friends I had made during quarantine and we had went to a western style brunch spot. I believe someone had explained to me that the Konkuk University area is nicknamed “Kondae” by locals because it’s an up-and-coming hangout spot among university students, similar to the established trendy and youthful area, “Hongdae.” There were many pretty cafes and interesting places to eat, so it’s easy to understand why it was becoming so trendy! So combine Konkuk and Hongdae and you get Kondae (please don’t quote me on this). I was actually really happy to have French toast as my first meal out of quarantine as I had solely been consuming Korean food for two weeks! I was also reminded of how our study abroad advisor, Young-Min had advised us that cheese is quite expensive in Korea and harder to get: I definitely felt that with my first meal as it felt as if the majority of my bill was coming from the chunk of burrata cheese sitting on top of my toast. However, the meal was very good and the ambience of the café was very nice. One thing for sure is that although it is only appropriate to familiarize yourself with some basic Korean before coming here, you can definitely try to survive with body language and basic English. I also use an app called Papago to translate English to Korean-is not cutting it.
After that meal I went to a café, which I hope to write more about, particularly regarding café culture in Seoul. Up until now I’ve only been out of quarantine for around 3 weeks, but am 100% sure I’ve been to more cafes here than I have been in my entire life prior to arriving in Korea. The one I visited on that particular day had ambient colorful lighting and was all floor seating, which was new to me! There was also a projector playing a black and white silent film, that had contributed to creating a darker mood and atmosphere – I think Korean cafes have a thing for projectors.
After parting with the friends, I headed back to Hongdae to explore the area I’d be living in for the subsequent months and was excited to find out that I lived in a truly vibrant and lively neighborhood! I especially feel this now, as Hongdae is still one of my favorite spots to shop and eat even after visiting a few other neighborhoods in Seoul. There are many things to do as there are numerous clothing stores catered to different styles and there’s a seemingly endless amount of food, entertainment, and cafes. I had felt overwhelmed by the amount of stores I had passed in a single night and was also fascinated to see all the people milling about. It was an eventful and exciting day!