Fall frolicking with some Seoul-inspired substitutions

Pano of Seoul: View from a Lookout Point while walking Namsan Park
Pano of Seoul: View from a lookout point while walking in Namsan Park this past weekend.

In a recent conversation thread on the popular Facebook group “Restaurant Buzz in Seoul,” one topic struck a chord with me: The flavors of fall.

I follow the group to get suggestions on new restaurants to visit, but this time the discussion focused on what many could not comprehend nor have a frame of reference for: apple cider and cider doughnuts. A fellow Midwesterner (hailing from Ohio) asked the group if she could find these items in Seoul.

Very quickly, the replies came pouring in. However, they were about alcoholic cider drinks like Merrydown, Strongbow and Somersby at foreigner friendly bars in the Itaewon neighborhood, or about the Chilsung Cider in Korea that is actually a version of clear lemon-lime pop like Sprite. (Cue my immense disappointment.)

At a cider mill with friends in the East Lansing area (2009) Photo taken by April Karl
At a cider mill with friends in the East Lansing area (2010) Photo by April Mae June Photography.

Eventually, the Midwesterners (including me and other Michiganders, as well as the Northeast Coasters) chimed in and clarified: Apple cider is more rich and tangy in flavor than apple juice – unfiltered, unsweetened and non-alcoholic. Cider doughnuts are cakey, soft on the inside and covered in cinnamon and sugar. We bonded over our commiseration of the fact that these items are not available here, and therefore, their absence made us homesick for autumn in America.

Playing in the leaves in Chicago (2008)
Playing in the leaves in Chicago (2008).

Pumpkin patches, corn mazes, cider mills, apple orchards and football tailgates – Various iconic meeting places of the fall season (especially for Midwesterners) are all missing in Seoul.

Nine years of fall fun

These places, flavors and activities not only have marked the fall season for my husband and me from our childhood to adulthood – they are also associated with the beginning of the school year (a respite from usually the most stressful points in my career as a educator) and, even more importantly, have come to signify an important point in our relationship, as we started dating nine years ago in undergrad on October 24, 2006.

For five years before we got married, we celebrated this anniversary with classic fall fun. And we still like to recognize the date after marriage.

Making caramel apples and carving pumpkins at home in Michal's apartment in Schaumburg, IL (2008)
Making caramel apples and carving pumpkins at home in Michal’s apartment in Schaumburg, IL (2009).

This past weekend, we attempted to celebrate the fall season, as well as Michal’s return to Seoul from his first long international business trip and, of course, our dating anniversary – with a few Seoul-inspired substitutions.

Fall foliage in Namsan Park

Namsan Park Walk: At the entrance and on the trail
Namsan Park: At the entrance and walking along the trail.

After getting up in the morning for the MSU vs. Indiana football game and listening to another win on the Spartans Sports Network (8-0 record!), we did a stroll on a popular walking circuit through the park that took us to N Seoul Tower. We enjoyed being outdoors and taking in the views, but definitely would recommend others to go during the week, if possible, when it’s less busy rather than on a Sunday. We also think that hiking at a higher elevation would have revealed more vivid color changes in the leaves, but we were glad to take it a bit easy as Michal was jetlagged from his trip.

In addition to the stroll/hike and visit to the top of the observatory deck of the tower, we stopped at nearby Namdaemun Market for items that would contribute to Halloween costumes. (More on this later in the blog!)

Fall food at home

Doing our best by transforming CSA ingredients into fav fall dishes!
Doing our best by transforming CSA ingredients into fav fall dishes!

In the past, we used to make a fall-themed dinner based on what we would pick at the orchard, pumpkin patch, etc. during the day. This year, based on the majority of this week’s Gachi CSA shipment (along with a few key items from the foreign food markets in Itaewon), we were able to make some of our fav fall comfort dishes.

We had pork tenderloin seasoned with thyme accompanied by a side of thick applesauce/maple syrup gravy (made from a carton of mini apples!) , along with creamy pumpkin soup. (Green pumpkins are extremely popular in Korean cooking throughout the year, not just in the fall.)

Lesson learned

Although we weren’t able to have our usual fall anniversary date, we enjoyed being tourists in our own town … and I was just grateful to have Michal back in Seoul! I also have a feeling the concept of “make do with what you have” will be a reoccurring theme in our time here.

Past fall seasons in Michigan and Illinois
Past fall seasons in Michigan and Illinois. Photo on left by April Mae June Photography.

For the expats in Seoul: What do you miss most about the fall season from your hometown?

Any suggestions on where in town (restaurant-wise) to get the best traditional fall flavors of America, such as various combos of produce like pumpkin, apple, pear, sweet potato and squash with spices/condiments like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, maple syrup, etc.?

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Starting Over in Seoul: Plans vs. Steps

Cheonggyecheon Stream
While walking along the Cheonggyecheon Stream in the center of Seoul,  we stumbled upon a Thai festival at the end of August.

Proverbs 16:9 – The human heart plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.

Home is where the heart is.

These two idioms about the heart illustrate the tug-of-war between what I thought would happen after the B-school experience and what actually ended up happening.

MSU vs UofM
Celebrating a win for our Spartans at a bar in Chicago (2010)

My husband Michal and I are proud Midwesterners: We point to our hand to describe where we’re from, we follow Big 10 college sports religiously, we play cornhole at tailgates (not bags), and we drink pop (not soda). After meeting and graduating from MSU (Go Green!) in 2008, we moved to work in the nearest big city – Chicago – and lived there for five years. After getting married in 2011, we started to seriously contemplate next steps in our relationship and in our lives in general: Career change? Buy a house? Have a child?

In 2013, we eventually opted for career change, which meant I left the world of teaching high school English and journalism – burnt out and not sure what to do next – while Michal knew he wanted to do his MBA. Darden at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (about three hours south of Washington D.C.) became our home for two years. I loved blogging and working with students at the Women’s Center at U.Va., while Michal gained valuable experiences with Darden ranging from studying abroad to consulting for local start-ups.

Foxfield
All decked out for the legendary Foxfield horse race in Charlottesville (2015)

Living in Cville was a bit of a culture shock in a way. We weren’t used to dressing up for football games (“girls in pearls and guys in ties”), nor were we used to spending our leisure time at wineries, polo games and horse races. We enjoyed our time creating a new community of friends, but looked forward to returning to our families and long-time friends in metro Detroit. For years, we defended our hometown area vehemently to all the haters (it’s more than just 8 Mile and a declining car industry). Both of our families urged us to consider moving back. And after four years of marriage, everyone essentially asked, “Wasn’t it about time for us to have the stereotypical American dream of a white picket fenced house in the suburbs with children?” Home is where the heart is, as they say. And our hearts were in the Mitten State.

However, Proverbs 16:9 held true as the plans in our hearts did not quite turn out the way we intended because the Lord knew better: We’ve now started to make a home in Seoul – farther than we had ever originally imagined living post-MBA.

Jjimjilbang
After years of visiting the Korean spa in Chicago, I finally learned how to properly wear a towel in Seoul at the Yongsan Dragonhill Spa/Sauna (aka jjimjilbang) in Seoul.

As we surveyed our options during second year of B-school, Seoul looked better and better. Truthfully, there weren’t very many career opportunities for either of us back in Metro Detroit. And we’ve always enjoyed traveling – before we met, as individuals with friends and family (because of our international backgrounds) and after we met, as a couple (having visited 12 countries together in our marriage alone). So the chance to live abroad for a few years and take advantage of the ease of visiting nearby countries in Asia seemed too good to pass up.

We’ve been in Seoul for about two months now. We started to learn Korean, we moved into a new apartment, we’ve started our jobs. But we’ve still got a ways to go before we can officially call Seoul our home.

Join me in my journey with this blog as I figure out my next steps in Seoul…