Long before I understood anything about life, I understood music.
Miss R, my ever-optimistic high school piano teacher, failed to give up on my sight-reading skills, despite all the evidence that suggested she was wasting her time. Mr H had drawn the short straw with the shoe box room in the corner of the music department and even he shovelled his cynicism beneath a gaping smile of sincerity when I declared my ambitions to play electric guitar on an international stage one day.
Time has eroded the links of cognition that once enabled me to play those piano sonatas with such poise. So too has it earned me regret for allowing my musical skills to seep away but as an angsty 14-year-old, stomping around with the conviction that I knew best, I may not have been in any mood to listen to my parents but I listened with intent to REM on 1992’s iconic Automatic for the People.
I have no recollection of my first shopping purchase, my first crush or my first restaurant but I do remember my first live gig and the
first only time I crowd-surfed in a cloud of euphoria across a hundred thousand revellers.
Music was a medium I understood when life was a phenomenon I thought I understood.
A Plan for Gangnam
I wonder what derision my 14-year-old self would sling my way now if she caught me watching the Gangnam Style video on YouTube. Could she comprehend (could anyone) just how an indie-music loving, naïve teenager turned into a 30 something year old woman who travelled to Gangnam solely because of the worldwide acclaim of its eponymous Korean pop number.
South Korea’s capital has far more to boast than Psy’s renowned record but one can’t argue with (at least) 2.8 billion You Tube views and one balmy Saturday night during our visit to Seoul, we somehow found ourselves alongside Seoul’s savvy adolescent masses in the bar and club laden district of Gangnam.
Just how this surreal evening unfolded, launching with rainbow fountains and ending with rainbow cakes is about to be revealed.
The Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountains
Rather like Singapore at night, Seoul was a city I found most engaging after hours. As Mother Nature dimmed her glow for the day, Seoul harnessed the energy of man-made illuminations, pooling together exhilarating night food markets, neon sculptures and sparkling skyscrapers. Leisurely ambles and ad hoc exploration defined our daylight hours but by night, we were two ninjas on a mission, the velocity of our steps rocketing as we strived to conquer this mammoth Korean metropolis after dark.
From the cathartic, cascading hum of water to the aesthetic appeal of the linear colour splashes, the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountains were always going to feature on our itinerary. We reached in good time to find a spot by the Han river in time to see the rainbow jolts of water dancing to the uplifting beats of the loudspeaker, as crowds of locals and tourists alike gathered together, bearing spicy snacks and Korean beverages.
More enchanting still were the walkways drawing us towards the riverside location, hallmarked by a galaxy of fairy lights and with beaming floral lanterns floating ahead. The location was a millenial’s dream but I managed to briefly bag myself the ideal photo opp spot, just before a queue of Insta-zealous ladies discovered it and followed suit.
Exploring Gangnam in Seoul
The plan was relatively straightforward from this point onwards (or so we had convinced ourselves). We would make our way to Gangnam, wine and dine there and if luck and education came our way, we may even have solved the mystery as to what on earth Gangnam style is. How optimistically we scooted into that taxi without even a destination to tell the driver other than the less than specific, “Gangnam please”.
He bore the subtle smirk of a man who had ferried many a similar tourist in this direction. “Where in Gangnam,” followed unsurprisingly but with our travel guide book unwisely sitting on the bedside table of our hotel room and no internet access, we hedged our bets on Gangnam station.
We stepped out of the taxi in Gangnam with no concept as to where we were, what we were here to do or candidly, why we had even come. The call of familiar contemporary music sounding in the distance felt strangely reassuring, a musical compass to guide us through the maze of neon lights.
Like animals in the wild, we let our ears navigate us and lead us they did, to a Saturday night sanctuary of restaurants, bars and clubs. Psy was nowhere to be seen but the ensembles sported by the post-pubescent hordes suggested that we were coming close to locating that infamous Gangnam style.
Tourists, however, were a more elusive species here in Gangnam and whilst we had taken it for granted that dining would be no issue here, the language barrier proved more apparent than in other areas of the city, particularly when hunting for English menus. Koreans love their beef but as two non beef-eaters, this was a city where we needed to at least know the genre of the restaurant we were walking into.
An Unexepcted Dinner in Gangnam
Korean fried chicken was numero uno on our foodie hit list so it remains a mystery to us as to why we walked straight past a Korean chicken restaurant to shop around for other choices first. Our mistake was assuming this would be quick, since the patience needed to pace the entirety of the street was inconsistent with the increasing hunger pangs coming our way. Forty minutes later, we were still wandering aimlessly and reaching the point where a vending machine dinner would have seemed gourmet.
Ravenous, I hobbled into a casual looking eatery on a side road, densely concentrated with diners. I was greeted just inside the entrance by a heavily pregnant waitress, who was refusing to allow her 7 month sphere to stop her from flitting frantically between dishing out platters of spice and polishing down surfaces.
“English?” I asked, as politely as I could but fully aware of how much like an ignorant tourist I sounded. Luckily, the warmth in her expression showed empathy towards my bewildered expression. “Yes, English. Little” she reassured me calmly.
I pushed my luck with needless greed. “Chicken,” I questioned further?
“No,” she smiled apologetically.
“Here, lamb. You know lamb?”
I did know lamb but under the impression that we were still on the lookout for chicken, I thanked her for her help and left to make my way back to Pumpkin. I recited the story verbatim but now desperate for a feed of any sort, the prospect of lamb suddenly seemed tempting.
And this was how, much to the delight of the waitress with child, we found ourselves on wooden seating, sandwiched between dozens of Korean locals. All the tables seemed to be equipped with their own grills and given we had stumbled upon this restaurant purely by chance, curiosity took over as to what kind of foodie establishment we had walked into, particularly since the absence of English menus had left us quite the comprehension challenge.
Fortunately, a young Korean woman, out with her friends for the night and seated adjacent to me, overheard the jumbled, confused medley of Korean and English conversation occurring between us and the waitress, who was trying to express the minimum ordering requirements. Intercepting with an offer to translate, our new dining companion for the night made recommendations about the restaurant’s signature dishes, accompaniments and quantities we should order, her advice proving on point within minutes of our meals arriving.
As the only confident English speaker in her group of friends and to the relief of the waitress, she courteously explained the technique with which we should cook the skewered meat at our own table. I have been to Japanese Teppanyaki and Okonomiyaki restaurants (if Okonomiyaki means nothing to you, flick through my guide on must try foods in Japan) but aside from that, I had never previously seen a set up like this.
I pointed this out to Pumpkin and with confident assertion, I raved about the authentic “Korean barbecue” restaurant we had found ourselves in.
How was I sure of that, he had disputed but I offered the reassurance that my day job gives me so much practice in and reminded him that many a Korean restaurant have a similar concept and as the self-proclaimed foodie in our household, he accepted my reasoned explanation, respectfully nodding in intrigue.
After we had broken the ice over some introductions and filled in the blanks on our neighbour’s questions about how long we were in Seoul and which sights we had seen, she delivered the line that would pave the way for a side-splitting round of laughter.
“So why did you decide to eat here,” she pondered.
“Oh we were hungry and were initially looking for chicken and…” Pumpkin nudged me weakly, for I was wittering on in her second language at the speed of light and at 10.30pm, did she need all the superfluous details about the chicken?
“No, but why you come here,” she continued, her emphasis on the final word, clearly dissatisfied with the answer I had provided.
Offering a more robust argument this time, I proposed a better version of the same story, mentioning how I had left the guide book at home, how we had to choose a restaurant off the cuff and had been loving authentic Korean cuisine.
Still, she persisted with her endearing and friendly interrogation, not appeased by my evidently dull responses. What more could we say?
“No but why you come somewhere tiny?”
Oh right. In an area like Gangnam, brimming with restaurants and bars, she was puzzled as to why we had chosen a hidden, tucked away restaurant on a side street, which incidentally, we would not have classified as “tiny”.
She repeated herself a few times and that was when the penny dropped.
She had not been counter-intuitively describing this spacious bustling restaurant as tiny (that would have made no sense.) No, this was yet another hilarious lost in translation moment where the nuances of her accent and our lack of exposure to Korean accents had stopped us from hearing that what she was truly asking was:
“Why you come somewhere Chinese?”
Chinese. Not tiny.
Yes – on our penultimate night in Seoul and with a self-confessed obsession with mouth-watering Korean food, we had somehow walked into a Chinese restaurant for our impromptu Saturday night dinner! 😀
And to add an enormous wedge of humble pie to the meal, Little Miss Foodie here had delivered Pumpkin an entire spiel all about what a special authentic Korean meal we were partaking in.
Suffice to say, there are not enough embarrassed emojis in the world for the wave of raucous laughter that spread when the final piece of the jigsaw closed in on this anecdote, followed by a second round of chuckles when she translated the tale to the remainder of her group of friends in Korean.
Our night in Gangnam had been anything but predictable but having a chance to laugh with locals like this made for one of our most memorable evenings of the trip.
After an evening that had proven to be colourful in more ways than one, the only fitting ending was to make our way to Billy Angel Cakes for the most colourful dessert of all with a slice of this deceptively light rainbow crepe cake, made up of layer upon layer of almost sheet-thin crepes, sandwiched together with slivers of cream.
After my visit to Gangnam, I later learned that the actual song, Gangnam style is something of a satirical mockery of the wealthy women of Gangnam and whilst I am not sure I got to grips with the true essence of Gangnam style, our bizarre evening weaved a memorable style and charisma of it own.