Seoul is a long way to come for a hamburger, but not nearly long enough to deter us. We’re sitting at a sidewalk table in Itaewon, wrapping ourselves around mounds of beef, bacon and cheese. The French fries are drowning in Swiss cheese and mango sauce, but I’m not about to be picky. This might be my single greatest experience in Korea so far. I’m not prepared to call it until we’ve had dessert, though.
As the official Western district, Itaewon is crammed full of foreigners looking for greasy food and a pair of pants that fit. With the tourists come the hawkers trying to make a profit off them. Even on a Sunday afternoon the street is clogged with cheap souvenir booths like an artery lined with plaque, constricting the flow of traffic.
The people streaming past our table are all from West of here: Americans, Brits, South Africans, Indians, Turks, Arabs. The only people you don’t see much are Koreans. Everyone has a laidback, Sunday-afternoon calm. They’re dressed in bright colors, swinging shopping bags labeled Starbucks or Gucci. A beggar with one leg and a prosthetic arm crawls through the shoppers at ankle height. He’s got a blaring radio and a donation bowl with a half-dozen crumpled bills. No one even glances down. To be fair, there are many louder people clamoring for attention.
“Mister, mister!” a Korean man outside a shop labeled “Hulk” bellows at Sam as we walk by. “Come in! We got your size!” His voice is both jovial and demanding. All we want is to walk off the hamburgers—we move on.
“What’s the matter, Miss? Don’t you like ice cream? Everybody loves ice cream!” a showman yells after me as we pass his stand. All the fast food places have open fronts, to encourage as many people as possible to filter in at once. For some reason, the ubiquitous kebab restaurants post barkers selling ice cream. Their competition is loud and boisterous. You can’t take a step without being jostled and heckled to make a purchase.
We take a side street. Soon we’re walking amid upscale eateries with art deco food and overblown prices. Sam points out an Irish pub, painted an offensive shade of green. “Can you believe this?” he asks, pausing to take a picture.
Across the main street the shops and restaurants are shabby, but at least the crowds thin. The markets shift from Russian to Indian to Muslim. We duck into a bakery for baklava, sticky-sweet and drowned in honey. We stop for coffee at a café, propping our aching feet on patio chairs and eavesdropping on a table of young Koreans sporting a grunge look. Oddly their shih-tzus have gone preppy—little open-bottomed bib overalls and doggie track-suits.
Evening is coming on and signs and strings of lights begin to glow above the alleyways, like a street festival warming up.
We’ve heard this neighborhood’s wild at night. The restaurants and shops are surrounded by bars and clubs on the second floors and in the basements. Rumor says it’s a giant frat party from dark until dawn.
We’re not looking to find out. The subway is empty compared to the streets above. I hold onto a ceiling strap and watch the preteen girl sitting across the aisle tap on her Minnie Mouse cell phone. She’s dressed in an Adidas jacket, short shorts, nylons and ankle-high combat boots. Her hair and long bangs have been cut to geometric perfection, and her thick plastic-framed glasses have to be three inches across at the lens. She touches up her glittering lip-gloss before she goes.
We reach the station in time to catch the last bus out to Chungju. I claim the window and sit with my head against the glass. The freeway looks like the backdrop of a luxury car commercial; the black sky is starless and the streetlights turn the grey road sepia. Sleek, shiny cars sail across my view of skyscrapers, all smooth metal and reflective glass. In the distance an endless row of high-rises stand self-consciously at three-quarters profile. Below them, lights are strung along the waterfront like beads.
Seoul is one immense, vivid, ugly, beautiful place. I can’t wait to come back again.