Guest Interview: Alex Nems on Seoul, Korea

Colibri Boston had the unique opportunity to interview Alex Nems, whose blog won the Korean Observer Best Blog Award. She was kind enough to answer all our questions and provide insight into her current home, Korea—a country Colibri Boston will visit in September along with a group of delegates from AAIDD.

Check out her blog here: http://swiatodpodszewki.blogspot.com/

Aleksandra (Alex) Nems was raised in industrial southern PolanAlex Nemsd where she devoted herself to revitalizing post-mining landscape. Later, she submerged herself in rural Ireland where she got her MBA in tourism. Currently she lives in Gangwon-do, South Korea, lecturing and working on projects for the Korean Tourism Organization.  She’s a freelancer for Groove magazine and Seoul Mate App, and runs the best 2014 foreign language blog about traveling around Korea. alexandra.nems@gmail.com

Colibri Boston: Do you remember your first impressions of Seoul?

Alex Nems: I remember my first impression of NY (laugh). I was just amazed by it. I stood on 5th Ave and just couldn’t believe I’m in NY! With Seoul, I don’t remember anything like it. It came natural. The transition was so easy, maybe that was due to the fact that I knew a lot about NY prior to my arrival and I knew very little about Seoul, I simply didn’t know what to expect. My love for this city came in very fast, but I don’t think it was the first day.

CB: What is it that sets this city apart?

AN: I’d say there are 3 such things:

A unique mixture of NY at its best with post-Soviet countries from 80’s / 90’s. We have a fab financial district on Yeouido Island on Han River. This is the heart of the 13th largest economy in the world. We call this place Manhattan; it really does look like it when you look at it from the other side of the river. At the same time you can find many Ajummas (old ladies) selling carrots, beans and garlic from their gardens just outside the main entrance to some of the most powerful financial institutions.

Another thing is that Koreans living in Seoul love it to the bones. They are proud of the city. Youngsters may leave to study in US or Australia but they all say, they will come back and work for the benefit of their country or city. The beautiful Face of patriotism.

The third thing I would say I related to the fact, that Seoul was fortunate to have great Mayors.Korea 11 Each one of them had unique qualities that made this city one of a kind. I think this is why Seoul is so diverse.

Mayor Lee who became mayor in 2002, decided on uncovering Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cost $900 mil. Some people were saying it was too costly.  When the project was finished all loved it!! Then, Lee decided to run for presidency and he won, so some were saying he “bought” his presidency for $900 mil. I guess some people are never satisfied.

Mayor Oh, took over in 2006. He was responsible for fabulous projects: DDP, designed by my beloved Zaha Hadid and a new Seoul Government Building. He also pushed the Floating Island on Han River project, but that did not turn out well. Lots of money spent and not a whole lot of satisfaction, but they do look beautiful after dark.

Mr. Park is our current Mayor, he has a long history as a human rights activist. He focuses more on environment, work-life balance, quality of life; his focus for this summer is to create more bicycle trails around Seoul downtown and some low cost bike rentals.

He told me once he would love if people living in Seoul had places to relax during weekends they spend in the city. I guess he would love to combine the feel of Hamptons with NY in Seoul, and I do believe he will succeed.

CB: Is there anything specific about Korean culture and people that is hard to find elsewhere?

AN: Ajummas – the old women. They will run you over getting into subway or a bus. You have to be very apologetic, even though she was the one who just hit you with her bag following a good punch with an elbow! Well, she is in the right in Korea and if she wants to cross the road on red, she will do so. You just have to wait.

Protests – Koreans exercise their right to protest on every day basis. There are several protests in Seoul every weekend! They yell, they march and then, after the protest or demonstration is over … they clean up the site! So when they leave it’s like nothing ever happened!

Koreans use the expression, “Have you eaten lunch yet?” the same way we use “How are you?” I did not know about it, so for the first few months I was explaining with details what I cooked or bought. Everyone listened and no one ever stopped my monolog! And then, one of my colleagues from work told me that they do not really need to know what I had. It’s just a way to say “how are you.”

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CB: When did you decide to write a blog and why?

AN: It was my husband who decided he will write a blog. We have travelled a lot, for work, living, for fun but we have never felt that we need a blog. It was different with Korea, maybe just because it surprised us in such a good way. It is modern and yet peaceful, it is crazy busy and yet pleasant, it is just a perfect mix of East and West. Since we could not find information in Polish language (native to my husband) we decided to let them know about Korea and that’s how it all started. Unfortunately after few months my husband got too busy with his work and I was the one who ended up writing it ever since.

CB: Do you have your favorite spots in the city?

AN: Yes, a few, depending on the season.

I love Saturday spring mornings at Namsan Tower – a clear sky, you can see the beautiful panorama. Nothing better with a cup of coffee.

Summer – Yeouido Island and Han River Park where you can rent a bike and have a ride, but only in the morning, it gets too hot in the afternoon. And the Cheonggyecheon stream – always nice and cool. Besides you can take your shoes off and put your feet in cold water – super cool thing to do at +40 Celsius.

Autumn – Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden up there. Red maple trees are just amazing!

Winter – Tea houses in Insa Dong

All year round: Coffee in Seoul City Hall – Fair Trade Cafes there are absolutely fabulous. It’s all part of a project introduced by the current City Major Mr. Park. Cafes employ disabled people, coffee is Fare Trade, and you can buy fabulous hand-made items in “Danuri” store that helps small startups– all prices are low and the quality is fab partly because those places are subsidized.

DDP Plaza (Dongdaemun Design Plaza) – my Love. Designed by Zaha Hadid – absolutely unique place! A gallery, a store, a museum – all under one roof. And you can get fabulous vanilla, organic ice cream there! Design lab that is a part of DDP is the place to go! One may buy products designed by young Korean designers at very reasonable prices.

Seoul Flee Market and other similar places– that’s where I hunt for antiques (laugh)

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CB: Are there any things that people should shop for in Korea, things that are unique to this country?

AN: Oh yes!

Lacquer and mother of pearl items, the best place to buy those is “Danuri” store in Seoul City Hall. All items are handmade and original.

Hanji – special paper made from mulberry tree. Small items like a business card holder would look fab on any desk. It’s great in brown as a present for any man.

Silk – silk cushions if someone is a color freak

Korean Pillows – with wooden insert, very healthy.

Ginseng – the best is of course, the one that grows wild.

For kids – cool Korean socks or phone cases – we have stores that sell only those 2 items – both are Mega Big with teens in Korea

Food and drink – soju, makkoli, kimchi, gochujang (hot pepper paste)

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CB: How do you rate Korean cuisine, and what would you recommend as “must try”?

AN: You will love or hate Korean cuisine, there is nothing in between. The problem is that, I guess it needs time to get used to it. Most of the dishes are easy to prepare, but some are time consuming. Among the must try one is of course Kimchi – you should try a one /two day old one and a week or two weeks old one to taste the difference. For all those who are more into sweet things: Hotteok – a pancake with seeds and brown sugar filling. And of course Mandu and gimbap – Mandu are Korean dumplings and Gimbap is similar to Sushi, but much nicer

CB: You recently met the mayor of Seoul, what was the occasion?

AN: Lunching a new tourist product “Ihwa-dong Village.” Current Mayor, Mr. Park focuses more on people. His goal is to make the old, forgotten neighborhoods in Seoul beautiful again. Ihwa is one of those places. It was a large event for foreign journalists, TVs from all around Asia, few big newspapers from US and Europe (France). Seoul is re-launching its brand, wants to become a tourist destination and this event was a part of the launching campaign.

Korea 9CB: In many countries you can win over locals by learning a few words in their language. What is the best way to approach Koreans?

AN: If you say “anyohaseyo” instead of hello – you have already won Korean hearts. Anyohaseyo means exactly hello in Korean 😉

CB: Thank you so much, Alex. See you in Korea in September!

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