As soon as you step out of the crowded airport railroad, it becomes apparent that Seoul, housing almost half of the South Korean population, possesses an atmosphere and energy that can make you feel quite alien as a visitor, yet far from unwelcome. Actually, this sense of unfamiliarity and feeling lost, is something I have been longing for, which is why Seoul might just be the perfect place to stock up on a few Lost in Translation moments. As this bustling city will be my home for the upcoming months, I will have plenty of opportunities to get lost in between lectures and assignments.
It takes less than ten-seconds of breathing in the Seoul air for it to once again dawn on me why locals tend to recommend foreigners to visit during spring or late autumn. Although it is just one year since my last time here, I had forgotten the degree of impact the heat and humidity of August can have on this place. It covers the whole of the city, and at the rise of dawn – it almost becomes visible among the skyscrapers, blurring out the view of the rising sun. My first days here are spent adjusting to the shift in temperature. The nights are spent coping with jet-lag, waking up with the uncomfortable cold-like feeling all air conditioners tend to provide.
Seoul is everything but stagnant. Only the traffic, sometimes. Making my way through crowded streets in the evenings, or the packed hallways of the metro stations during rush hour, there is an overload of impressions to take in: flashing neon signs, overly friendly voices of store employees, music blasting out of a number of different speakers, people conversing in a language that my ears are getting more and more used to hearing. None of these things seem to make any particular impression on the people surrounding me. This is a part of everyday life for the true ‘Seoulites’. They all also look as they always know where they are heading: eyes focused somewhere far ahead, seemingly occupied by their own thoughts, but rarely colliding.
Rush hour in Seoul might just be the perfect example of controlled chaos. Individuals in such close proximity, but still somehow able to stay so very separated from each other. There are times when it is possible for me to smell what someone had for their last meal, but it is still highly unlikely for them to look away from their smartphones to glance back at me.
Even though I have yet to experience a time where Seoul appears to be standing still, in contrast to the vivacious rush hour, the first metro departures in the early AM seems to be characterised by a different pace. A slower one. Youngsters sleeping off hangovers on their way home from a night out, elderly out to complete their morning errands, and the first office-workers clocking in. After daybreak has taken its hold on the city, some of Seoul’s countless cafés and coffee shops start coming to life. Even more striking than the amount of places scattered around, are all the different concepts to be found, ranging from cafés housing any number of cats, to the so-called flower cafés.
It has become clear to me that, to Seoul citizens, cafés play an essential part of socialising, the abundance of caffeine-quenching spots seem to be the number one hangout during daytime hours. In a city where you often feel as if your surroundings are in constant movement – blinking lights, sounds of millions of voices and twice as many footsteps – it has been a delight to discover that some of the places I have come across act as quiet oases, rather than just beverage suppliers.
Before I discovered some of these places turned favourites, I often found myself lost in the narrow streets, more than one or two times I would realise I was actually walking in circles. But the hunt will usually be worth it. In hidden alleys or up multiple staircases, surrounded by concrete walls or among plants and books, I have been able to process some of the outside’s overwhelming impressions in a pace I decide for myself. In this way, Seoul’s hustle and bustle does not become all-consuming, and I am sometimes still able to hear my own thoughts.
Any new and different place one visits, will be unfamiliar in its own way. Here in Seoul, it is not just the fact that I am walking down streets I have never walked before, or getting lost in places I am visiting for the first time. The city itself is arranged differently than anywhere else I have been, there are signs written in a different alphabet, people interacting in another fashion. Even the air feels different. In some ways, it feels like this must be worlds apart from what I am used to, but at the same time it is utterly surreal that home is on the opposite side of the planet.
I frequently catch myself feeling how time seems to pass at a different speed here in Seoul than it does back home. Sometimes it feels like, by moving around this city, I am part of a time-lapse on repeat. It starts as the sun rises behind the clouds of fog and citizens step onto the first subway, and it has no time to pause or stop before the adventures of the night greets dawn the next morning, with Seoul’s early birds waiting for the first train to arrive once again.