“We are guileless in our dreams” I read inscribed on the stone rail of a bridge I crossed on the way to the museum and art gallery in Seoul Grand Park. The sentence was a poem and I stopped for a moment to look out across the frozen lake. There was still some snow on the side of the lake though I suspected it might disappear soon under that blue sky.
This week was the coldest we’ve had this winter. It’s our first winter in Seoul so we had no idea what to expect. Indeed it’s our first winter in 15 years, prior to this we lived in the desert and then the tropics and Sydney winters, where I spent 29 years of my life, are mild. We had been warned winter in Korea is bitter, “harsh” was the word a local used to describe it to me. I talked to other foreigners and they agreed it was frigid. In winters past I heard, the Han river froze over and the wind chill was arctic. It was the stuff of legend.
All these warnings made me apprehensive but I’d purchased a heavy duty winter jacket, and I had a beanie, gloves and some scarves floating around. “How bad can it be?” I thought during late summer when it was so humid, I was in a sweat walking up the hill to my apartment. Then, the weather was similar to Singapore and I couldn’t imagine any sort of chill. Nonetheless when the first really cold day arrived in November, I hotfooted it to Yongsan to purchase some thermals. Layers, I’d been told are the way to go. That same day my husband and I also turned up the ondol (under floor) heating in our apartment.
Still, this winter, I’ve heard said, is the mildest for a very long time. Some people even insisted it wasn’t really a winter, there was no snow and the Han is flowing rapidly, although I wouldn’t want to dip my toe in the freezing water. It is cold nonetheless, colder than I’ve ever experienced for a longish period, negative temperatures in the morning and not much above zero during the day. The tree branches are bare and as I walk to the subway station in the morning, the wind is cold enough to hurt my face if I don’t wrap a scarf over it and I carefully step over frozen water on the footpath.
We experienced a taste of “real” winter this week when the temperature plummeted to negative 12 and we had several days of temperatures that didn’t reach zero. On Tuesday it snowed! Big flakes, fluffy and white, swirling about outside the cafe I was sitting in with my friend, delighting us both. The large windows showcased the cascade and we ventured outside where I took a picture of her amid the snow fall.
Whilst the weather is very different for me, as a winter novice, it’s the practicalities that have taken me most by surprise. I was completely unprepared for the time it takes to put winter clothes ON and take them OFF. Also, it’s too warm to have outer layers on inside and too cold to step outside without them on. The entrances to homes in Seoul have a foyer where you remove your shoes and this is where the merry ritual of putting on the outer layers and removing them also happens. In fact, I have been so hot putting on my layers, I’ve had to open the door to let the coldness in to make it bearable to layer up. Lastly and most recently, because I take the subway twice a day, I must put on a mask, as do most people on the subway, to help protect us from the novel Corona virus. Interestingly, the mask keeps my face warm but my glasses fog up.
Last Friday I met my cousin for a coffee and as I was pulling my snow boots on I got into such a sweat! Then, on goes my extra jumper, scarf, big coat, gloves, and beanie. I’ve got to have the right bag too. I need one with a long strap to go over my coat but I have to be careful to pull the hood out from the bag strap. THEN, when I hook the bag off, I’ve got to extricate the strap from the hood first. This long winded process also makes me hot. Then off comes the beanie, gloves and scarf.
I’ve become quite adept at putting all these accessories in the pockets of my coat after losing many gloves and scarves. Not quite as adept at putting on and removing those layers quickly. I’m still struggling with the zipper on my jacket. The jacket is so long and heavy and…puffy. On one memorable occasion at the hairdresser, the zipper got stuck at the very end of the jacket. In front of the receptionist and several staff members, including the gentleman waiting to hang my coat, I felt like Mr Bean trying valiantly to undo it to hand it to him. I got myself in all sorts of contortions, bending down to inspect it, walking away and trying with all my might to undo it. All the while, because I was inside the salon, and possibly because I couldn’t, it would seem, complete the simple task of unzipping a jacket, a furnace of hellish proportions had enveloped me and I just needed that jacket off. After an eternity of repeated attempts to wrench the zipper free, I was forced to wriggle my shoulders out of the jacket, drop it to the floor and step over it. My little performance was watched in complete silence by the staff and I handed the jacket to the gentleman who took it with nary a word.
I’ve also purchased several beanies and pairs of gloves for all different uses. That set for hiking, this set for school, my good going out beanie with the pom pom (lol). This is all new for an Australian woman who, if she felt a chill, might pop on at most, a denim jacket.
Our dinner menu has changed too. It’s soup, soup and soup. Kimchi jiggae, dumpling soup, noodle soup, miso soup, anything hot. And anything spicy, the spicier the better. Plus pots and pots of green tea in the evenings, whilst snuggled under one of my mother’s patchwork quilts watching Korean dramas (all in the pursuit of furthering my study of the language).
I’m aware in this world people live in places where the snow is so deep you have to dig yourself out to step over the threshold. It’s not like that here, but for me it’s freezing and a real effort to leave the apartment once I’m inside and cozy and warm.
Still, my husband and I force ourselves to go walking at night, we put on all our layers, I put on my special walking beanie and exercise jacket and thermals under my active wear. But once we are out in the crisp negative temperature air, city lights twinkling, the Han river black and mysterious, our hands, despite gloves, numb from the cold, we are glad we made the effort.
The day I ventured to Seoul Grand Park was the day it was negative 12, the coldest day of this winter so far. I learnt that while winter is a bit inconvenient it can be pretty dreamy too. Lovely, in all its layers.