Sydney: Our New Favo(u)rite City

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Sydney Opera House and Harbor at dusk

As most of you know, Alex and I aren’t city people. Despite spending almost four years in Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world, we just don’t like “living on top” of other people. Were there perks to living in Baltimore, New York, and Seoul? Yes. Barhopping in downtown Baltimore was how Alex and I initially hung out. In New York, you can’t beat the amazing, eclectic, ethnic food. We enjoyed watching the glimmering city lights and North Seoul Tower every night (well, when the air was clear-ish) from our 32nd floor apartment.

But, if we had to choose a place to spend our time as young professionals (so, in our twenties… yeah that was a decade ago), we would definitely choose Sydney. It’s just such a cool, vibrant, and yet livable city! It has the diverse restaurants/bars of New York City and the coastline/harbor of San Francisco or Seattle (actually, Sydney’s coastline is really interesting — take a look at a map!). But it also feels safe, walkable, and quaint.

I started off planning our itinerary using TripAdvisor’s (yes, I LOVE TripAdvisor!) 3 Days in Sydney guide: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Guide-g255060-k51-Sydney_New_South_Wales.html

And, since we had Baby M, we cut out about half of what we wanted to see/do. Unfortunately, we were in Sydney while there was a tropical storm, so the rain kind of slowed us down a bit. But, we still managed to have a great time!


Day 1: Arrived in Sydney in the AM, after a redeye flight, the Rocks, Manly Beach

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Sydney Opera House and Bridge, as viewed from our ferry to/from Manly Beach

We checked into our hotel early, had lunch, and took a two-hour long nap. Afterwards, we walked to the Circular Quay station at the Harbor, and took a ferry to Manly Beach. The view of Sydney from the ferry was great (especially on the way back, when it was about sunset, and the skies had cleared)! We didn’t have too much time to explore Manly — we mainly walked around the boardwalk and tried to find a diaper changing table. (While I found many bathrooms in Sydney with changing tables, they looked highly questionable — covered in graffiti and dirty. We proceeded changing Baby M’s diapers in her stroller or standing up. Luckily for us, no poopy diapers while we were out!)

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Clockwise from upper left: I liked the sign with a Chinese panda and Australian kangaroo!|Dinner at Darling Harbor|Lunch at the Rocks|Bavarian Dinner

We walked around the Rocks, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, and had a nice Bavarian dinner (although we both felt slightly sick afterwards — too much meat and grease).


Day 2: Sydney Opera House, Botanic Gardens, Chinatown, and Darling Harbor

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Sydney Opera House

We walked around the grounds of the Sydney Opera House in the morning. Alex and I were both surprised by the actual material used for the outside of the Sydney Opera House. We always thought it was made of a continuous (or at least a larger) piece of material, but it’s actually composed of small tiles, and it’s not a uniform white color (some tiles are matte finish, and some are glossy). And, there are actually three structures, not just one. The two larger ones are the concert hall and theater, and the smaller one is a restaurant.

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See the two-tone tiles of the Sydney Opera House?

[Note: When there aren’t any performances, the elevator inside the building only goes halfway up — we walked outside, and had to walk up a bunch of steps. And we were scolded for leaving our stroller at the bottom of the steps — a security concern.]

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View of Sydney while walking to the Botanic Gardens

Next, we walked to the Royal Botanic Gardens. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the cafe (good sandwiches and salads) before walking all the way to Chinatown for… second lunch (by now, you should all know that Alex and I are big eaters). Chinatown itself isn’t actually that big, but the area around it has tons of restaurants. We grabbed a couple of bubble teas, and headed to the Chinese Garden of Friendship. It was actually one of the highlights in Sydney. Very peaceful and secluded, in the middle of the city, this garden provided a nice refuge (it was also nice because while we were there, under a covered pavilion, we dodged a downpour). And, we happened to be at the garden for the afternoon feeding of the koi! Baby M really enjoyed throwing food pellets into the water (well, sometimes they landed on the bench, and Daddy had to sweep them into the water). There weren’t many tourists there, so the staff gave Baby M cups and cups of feed. If I remember correctly, I think she said there were over 200 koi in the pond. It was a fun experience for everyone!

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Chinatown and the Chinese Garden of Friendship: feeding koi and a bright orange rooster for Year of the Rooster!

We then walked to nearby Darling Harbour (what the hey, I added the extra ‘u’… when in Rome…) for dinner. Since we were early, we took advantage of one restaurant’s ‘Early Bird Dinner Special’ — it was delicious, and Alex and I actually had trouble finishing it (even with Baby M eating all my broccoli and half of the calamari!).

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Darling Harbour


Day 3: Sydney Harbor Bridge, Bondi Beach, and Queen Victoria Building

On our last day in Sydney, we walked from our hotel to the Pylon Lookout at Sydney Harbor Bridge. Since a). we had Baby M, and b). we didn’t want to spend the money on the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb (it costs a lot and not sure we could have carried Baby M in the Ergo, anyway…), Alex and I opted to learn about the history of the bridge and view it from a pylon lookout. It only costs $15 AUD per adult. There are quite a few steps to get to the lookout, but there are places to rest along the way. We were able to store the stroller next to the ticketing desk (1/3 of the way up).

The view from the lookout is spectacular. We could see people doing the bridge climb (I think you’re wearing a harness, and there are a LOT of steps). It was a wonderful (and cheap) way of getting a 360 degree view of the city!

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Pylon Lookout: we could see the bridge, the opera house, and the harbor!

After a quick lunch (delicious sandwiches), we hopped on the train to Bondi Beach (there was at least one transfer, but there are elevators!), and then took a bus from the station to the actual beach. It was a really windy day (and kind of brisk), but there were people in the water, mostly surfing. We walked along the boardwalk for a bit, got some ice cream (Alex and I ate it quickly, behind the stroller so that Baby M couldn’t see… yeah,  we know our days when we can get away with not giving Baby M ice cream are numbered…), and then headed back to Sydney.

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Bondi Beach

[There’s a coastal walk, touted as “Sydney’s Best” from Bondi Beach to nearby Coogee Beach: http://www.bonditocoogeewalk.com. We didn’t do this, but it’s very highly recommended.]

Back in Sydney, we had dinner at the Queen Victoria Building. Originally built as a concert hall, it’s now an upscale shopping area. The building itself is gorgeous!

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Inside the Queen Victoria Building (QVB)


We really enjoyed our (short) time in Sydney. It’s definitely a city we would love to explore in more detail, maybe once the kiddos are a little older!


Sydney is an expensive city. Hotel prices reflect that. For the price, I thought that the Quay West Suites (centrally located, very close to the Circular Quay train station) was a great choice for us. We put Baby M’s Pack and Play in the living room, and she slept really well because of the black-out curtains (amazing!!) and because we were in the bedroom. The kitchen is fully equipped so we were able to make breakfast each morning before heading out. And, there’s a washer and dryer in each suite! We didn’t splurge for the harbor views, but the pictures look amazing!

Word of advice: The Opal transportation cards are for just that: transportation. We didn’t understand, and on our first day, loaded up our Opal cards with way too much money, thinking that if we didn’t spend it on transportation, we could spend it at convenience stores, etc., like the Octopus card in Hong Kong. Nope. And what’s worse: you can’t get a refund unless you have an Australian bank account. “But it’s good for 10 years!” the guy behind the Opal desk at Sydney airport reassured me. Um, yeah. Not sure I’m going to be flying 24+ hours to get to Sydney, not anytime soon. So, be smart and don’t overload your Opal card!

Another note: One of my friends, who recently visited Sydney with her toddler, recommended renting a car, since she thought the public transportation system wasn’t that convenient, and the city wasn’t that walkable. Alex and I didn’t rent a car, and are so glad we didn’t! We thought the city was very walkable (yes, it’s not small, but budget plenty of time for breaks) and walking a great way to explore the city! Also, parking at most hotels is NOT free (usually a $30 – $50 AUD per day charge) and city parking isn’t cheap.

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There were so many posters and ads about not being a “tosser,” which in this case means someone who litters. Alex and I thought the word “tosser” was hilarious.


To read a summary of our trip to Sydney & New Zealand: Our 3.5 Weeks in the South Pacific


Stay tuned for our adventures in New Zealand! 😀

Our 3.5 Weeks in the South Pacific

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Sydney Opera House

Alex’s work contract with Samsung ended the first of April, and since we figured that a). he wouldn’t have another six week break between jobs (well, at least we hope not, unless it’s our choice!), b). we were closer than we’d ever be to New Zealand (only a 10-ish hour flight, as opposed to 24 hours!), c). it’s easier to travel with one kiddo rather than two, we decided to take a three and a half week vacation to New Zealand. Lots of our friends, who recently visited from Seoul, raved about the South Island of New Zealand. “You can’t take a bad picture,” or “You’ll be stopping every two minutes to marvel at the scenery,” or “There isn’t a more beautiful place on Earth!” were the things we heard.

It was an added perk that my mom had a conference in Auckland (on the North Island) around the same time, so she could join us for two weeks. Alex and I had a ton of Asiana frequent flyer miles, so we wanted to use those before we left Korea. The only place Asiana flies into, in the whole South Pacific region, is Sydney, Australia. We’d heard good things about Sydney, too, so we booked our Asiana tickets from Seoul to Sydney, roundtrip. Looking at where we wanted to go on the South Island, we decided to fly open jaw. We booked tickets from Sydney to Christchurch (the South Island’s biggest city) via Emirates (highly recommend — the service was excellent, as was the meal, and they hand out a ‘fun-pack’ to all the kids… this kept Baby M occupied for a while!). On the way back, we booked Air New Zealand from Queenstown to Sydney (this route, since it was short, was run more like a budget airline — you have to buy snacks/food/drinks).

So, that’s how we came to spend almost the entire month of April traveling around Sydney, and the South Island of New Zealand. I’ll be blogging about Sydney and New Zealand separately, so stay tuned!

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Glenorchy, outside of Queenstown, New Zealand


Pro-Tip for traveling with a kiddo:

We only had enough miles to purchase two roundtrip economy tickets (Baby M traveled as a lap infant since she’s under two). But, as many of you know, traveling with a lap infant is really hard, especially when they are squirmy and can’t sit still (basically once the kid is over the age of nine months!!).

[Before we had Baby M, I always said, “I’m not going to buy a seat for my kid under the age of two! Parents who pay for a seat when they don’t have to are dumb! Why waste the money?!” Well, now that I have a kid, I’ve changed my mind. It’s almost worth it just for preserving your sanity!]

Since we were flexible, Alex and I tried to buy tickets for the middle of the week. We figured the flights wouldn’t be as busy, and maybe, we would luck out with an empty seat. When we reserved our Asiana seats, we chose an aisle and a window seat, hoping no one, in their right mind, would want to sit in a middle seat next to a lap infant (we were right). But, since we didn’t have a guarantee that Baby M was going to get her own seat, we couldn’t bring a carseat on board. How to restrain her? We purchased a CARES Harness — it loops through a normal airplane seatbelt, and is designed to hold in smaller children (but not babies), and it’s the only one that’s FAA approved. It comes in a small bag, and it’s lightweight, so we just tossed it in our diaper bag. It came in handy on both of our Asiana flights. (Although I’ll have to agree with other users that if your kid is particularly squirmy, like Baby M, s/he will slide down the seat. It’s not perfect in restraining your child, but it works well enough.)

[An aside: If you have a chance to use the Air New Zealand lounge at Sydney Airport (we’re Star Alliance Gold), do so. It is the best lounge we’ve ever visited. There’s a freakin’ pancake machine! ‘Press YES if you would like a pancake,’ says the sign. Um, yes! There are also a few super automatic espresso machines, and the water dispenser can dispense both still and sparkling! The best thing? There’s a play area for kids!]

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Iconic Opera House

 

Seoul Tourists for a Weekend

[May 31, 2017: As you can see, I started writing this post way back in March…]


Last weekend my cousin PP and his wife QQ came to visit us. It was their first visit to Seoul. And, sadly, they will be our last visitors in Korea (this weekend, our last weekend in Seoul, we will be parting ways with our sofa, and next week, the movers come)!

So, despite the truly terrible air (five days in a row where the air quality index was above 150 — “unhealthy” level), Alex, Baby M, and I joined PP and QQ in playing tourists (we hope our lungs will forgive us…).


After they arrived Friday afternoon, we got a sitter so that the adults could go get some Korean BBQ (not baby friendly, especially with the hot grill right in front of you). In typical Korean fashion, we had our ‘first round’ at a BBQ place (I am telling you: pork and beef entrails are amazingly delicious!), and then our ‘second round’ at a fried chicken and beer place. (In Korea, fried chicken, chi-kin 치킨, and beer, maekju 맥주, is a thing, and it has its own name, chimaek 치맥.) Not in typical Korean fashion, we went home after only two rounds… (we’re parents, you know?)

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Gangnam-style Korean BBQ

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Fried chicken and beer: a very Korean food/drink pairing


Saturday, we explored the touristy area of Insadong 인사동. We had a traditional Korean lunch and walked around the streets of Insadong, before going to Jogyesa Temple 조계사. I always love going to Jogyesa Temple in the spring, because there are colorful lanterns decorating it, in honor of Buddha’s Birthday, a major holiday in May.

And, finally, after almost four years, Alex and I finally visited Bukchon Hanok Village 북촌한옥마을, a village with lots of well maintained traditional homes (hanok 한옥). Believe it or not, Alex and I set out to find Bukchon Hanok Village one of our first days in Seoul. After walking around in the sweltering heat, we gave up. And I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to visit with some other friends who were in town over the past three years! I’m so glad we finally stumbled upon it, because the streets and traditional doors are beautiful, and after the climb (pretty steep, especially with stroller!) to the top, you are afforded a great view of Seoul and the North Seoul (Namsan) Tower!

Before leaving the area, we tried to get a glimpse of the Blue House (the presidential residence), Cheong Wa Dae 청와대. (We couldn’t get very close, but did see the famous blue roof tiles.)

We stopped by Gangnam for some Korean cold noodles, naengmyeon 냉면. This is a very popular dish to eat in the summertime (our first summer in Seoul, I think Alex and I ate it for every other meal, because it was cold, but pretty spicy, and cheap — usually between 5,000 KRW to 6,500 KRW a bowl). Chinese people call this type of dish ‘North Korean cold noodle,’ because it originated from the North. PP and QQ, who’ve tried the Chinese version of this noodle, liked the taste, even though it was different from what they were used to.

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Lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant in Insadong

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Walking around Insadong, hanboks (traditional Korean attire), and ‘nitro’ cold brew coffee

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Jogyesa Temple: so colorful with all the lanterns

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Bukchon Hanok Village

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More of Bukchon Village, and view of the Blue House from afar

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Naengmyeon: it’s best to cut these chewy buckwheat noodles with scissors before eating, as they are so spring-y, they can be hard to chew & swallow!


On Sunday we visited the War Memorial of Korea 전쟁기념관. (I’d been there before, but it was Alex’s first time!) My cousin PP is such a Chinese history buff, it was really interesting to listen to him talk about the Joseon Dynasty and the history and conflict between China, Japan and Korea.

Parting ways, Alex, Baby M, and I enjoyed a dinner date at a pizza place near Noksapyeong Station (by the Yongsan U.S. Garrison). It was like a trip down memory lane, because when Alex and I first arrived in Seoul in 2013, we visited this area a lot (there’s a very affordable second-hand/used furniture place nearby, and we basically furnished our entire Seoul apartment with stuff from here!). Back then, it was hard to get up and down all the subway and street underpass steps with a badly sprained ankle; this time, it was hard to carry Baby M in stroller up and down these steps!

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War Memorial of Korea (Baby M was more interested in the playground)

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Pizza date and view of North Seoul (Namsan) Tower near Noksapeong Station


On PP and QQ’s last full day in Seoul, we did some shopping around Myeongdong 명동, a very commercial area with lots of small shops but also huge department stores (e.g. Lotte Department Store). There were lots of signs in Chinese, catering towards Chinese tourists, advertising tax incentives, etc.

QQ found a porridge (congee) shop called Bonjuk (a chain), made famous by the Korean drama (‘K-drama’) ‘Boys over Flowers’ 꽃보다 남자. The female lead in the show worked at a Bonjuk porridge shop. When I first arrived in Korea, I used to watch a lot of K-drama, since I was a). bored, b). trying to learn about the culture, c). trying to pick up some Korean, and d). in love with Lee Min-ho, the male lead in ‘Boys over Flowers.’ Another tidbit: back in college, my roommate Judy and I watched all the episodes of ‘Meteor Garden’ 流星花園, a Taiwanese drama that’s also based off of the same Japanese manga ‘Boys over Flowers’ (of course, it originated from Japan…).

If you’re into porridge, you’ll like this restaurant: there’s an assortment of sweet and savory porridge, all for under 10,000 KRW. My seafood porridge (served with a side of kimchi, of course) was actually pretty good. Baby M enjoyed it so much, she finished half of my meal!

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Bonjuk porridge

Alex and I got a sitter Monday night so that we could join QQ and PP for some (more) Korean BBQ.

It was really nice having family visit us in Seoul, and it forced Alex and me to see Seoul again, as tourists.

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More Korean BBQ

Farewell, Korea. 안녕히 계세요.

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View of Changdeukgung (on a bad air day)

After more than three and a half years, Alex and I (and our cat and Baby M) have left Korea. It was a wonderful experience and we’ll always cherish our memories and friendships.

We left Korea amidst the rising tensions between the North and South (to the relief of our family and friends). But honestly, being in Seoul, there was NO indication of any tension or change. Everything was… normal. Life went on, as usual. South Koreans are used to the rhetoric from the North.


During my last months in Seoul, I started brainstorming a list of all the things that I would miss about living in Korea, and of course, all the things that I was eager to escape. Writing these down are mainly for my benefit, but I’m sure anyone who’s visited or lived in Korea understands at least a few of the points here!

I’ll start with the negatives, and end with the positives…

Things I will NOT miss about Korea:

The traffic: We didn’t own a car in Korea (just rented a car when we wanted to get away), and for the most part, it was a good decision. Why? The horrendous traffic. Most of the time, it was faster to take the subway than to take a cab. During the week, traffic was often at a standstill during the morning and afternoon commutes. I’m still not sure why people (who have a choice) decide to drive versus take the subway. I had a friend who drove to work every day, and it took her 40 minutes to drive what would take 20 minutes on the subway… My conclusion? Must be a “prestige” thing.

(Also, as Alex’s mom and Baby M not so fondly remember: it took us 10 hours of driving, from Seoul to Boseong Tea Plantation, during a holiday weekend — when Google and Naver maps estimated 4.5 hours!)

Taxi drivers: They don’t know how to drive. They really don’t. Besides weaving in and out of traffic and running red lights, it also feels like they drive with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes: you’re constantly lurching to the front and then immediately falling back into your seat. I’ve never once taken a taxi and gotten out and thought, ‘Wow, that was a pleasant ride.’ It was always, ‘I survived another ride. And while I almost threw up in the cab, I didn’t. Hooray!’

Complete disregard for pedestrians: Across the street from our apartment, there’s a Homeplus (supermarket). All I had to do was walk by the entrance/exit to our apartment parking lot, the entrance/exit to the adjacent apartment parking lot, and cross the street (at a crosswalk). Simple, right? Well, cars just fly into/out of the parking lots. It doesn’t matter if there are pedestrians crossing. It got so bad that our apartment building added a gate at the exit (… but not at the entrance), which only slightly solved the problem. Cars were still zipping up to the gate, braking for the gate to lift, and then darting onto the street. Pushing a stroller in front of you? Be extra careful. Those cars will stop for no one. Oh, and that crosswalk (with a light)? Cars will just drive through the red light. When we first moved to Seoul, I was almost hit a few times because I assumed (silly me) that I had the right of way since the light was red and the ‘walk’ sign was lit green.

I know two people whose kids were hit by cars — and the drivers didn’t even bother to stop and check to see if the people they hit were injured. My friend’s son was hit while riding his bike (and he had the right of way). Her son sat dazed in the middle of the road, and the driver drove around him, peered out of her window to see that he wasn’t… what, dead? and drove away. Oh, and she had a kid in the car with her. Presumably her own son.

And, the last example I’ll give is a horrific video that appeared all over Korean media a few months ago of a pedestrian who was hit by a car in Busan (Korea’s second largest city). The driver didn’t bother to stop and check to see if the person was ok (she was still alive). Several cars drove around her, and then one car drove over her, killing her. That car also didn’t stop.

Mopeds: It’s not legal in Korea to ride a motorcycle on the highway. But, it is legal to ride a moped on the sidewalk. Mopeds (usually used for delivery) drive awfully close to pedestrians and strollers (!), weave in and out of traffic, go against traffic, and (also) don’t obey traffic rules. I was crossing a right turn lane because cars were yielding, and was almost hit by a moped, that was driving between the line of stopped cars (not wondering, ‘Hmm, why are all of these cars stopped?’) and the curb! I often thought about how wonderful it would feel if I could clothesline a moped on the sidewalk…

Spit: There’s spit all over the sidewalks. People who hack up in front of you and spit. I’ve even seen people spit on a subway platform (inside!) and on a subway train (definitely inside). (And yes, I know this seems to be pervasive across much of Asia, but it still grosses me out.)

Poor (toilet) water pressure, prevalence of septic tanks, and the smell of sewage: When we first arrived in Seoul, during an especially hot and humid day in the summer of 2013, the first thing I noticed when we began walking around Gangnam (that posh neighborhood, south of the Han River, made famous by the song, “Gangnam Style”) was the smell. Warm and putrid, the smell wafted up from sewer caps and street drains. You could walk by a super expensive department store selling fancy perfumes on the ground floor, and before you even opened the door to smell all the floral scents, be greeted with a smell of poo. The smell is especially bad in more populated neighborhoods, and during the spring and summer months.

After living in our Seoul apartment for the better part of four years, we almost got used to the smell of sewage, wafting up from our shower drains and bathroom drains (and kitchen drains). Almost. At first, since it was a brand-new apartment, we complained to the landlord, who put in a request with the maintenance department. After several ‘grey-water’ leaks (yuck!) and fixes, our bathrooms still smelled pretty terrible. The culprit, we were told, was the wrong size return-line pipes the builder had used, so that at certain times of the day and most nights, our bathrooms smelled like sewage (and our master bedroom, with vents coming from the same place, smelled like poo).

And, for anyone who’s been to Korea, and used a public bathroom (although our extended stay bathroom in Gangnam also had a sign), you will have seen the wastebaskets next to toilets, full of used toilet paper. Most places have signs that say, “Do not flush toilet paper into toilet — toilet paper will clog the toilet.” (But even in places like Incheon International Airport, where the signs specifically say to flush used toilet paper down the toilet, people still put it in the adjacent trashcans… In fact, we just came back from a trip to New Zealand, and the signs said in Korean, “Our toilets are designed to handle toilet paper. Please flush used toilet paper down toilet!”

Read this article from The Korean Herald: Unusual problems with Korean public toilets

(Almost) No One Holds Doors for You: In general, I think Koreans are really friendly and helpful, if they either a). know you, b). are in the service industry. But if you’re expecting someone to hold the door for you (even if you’re a). immediately behind them AND b). pushing a stroller and could really use the extra hand, and/or c). they see you, walk in front of you, and then just push the door open a tad, enough for him/her to walk through), you’ll be shocked and peeved when that door slams in your face. Yup, it’s happened to all of us.

I’ve had (young) people walk in front of me, through the door Alex was holding for me pushing Baby M’s stroller. I’ve had people run from behind me, open the door a sliver, and walk through, as if they wanted to distance themselves from me so that they wouldn’t have to hold the door. I’ve had to ask a mom to hold the door for me pushing my stroller, after she was about to walk away right after I held the door open for her and her stroller. And, this one is the worst for me, personally: I saw a mom frantically trying to carry her stroller (with child inside) up a flight of stairs, so I parked my stroller at the bottom, and helped her carry her stroller up, thinking she’d offer the same help to me. Nope. She just walked away. And the worst thing I’ve heard: my friend Janna was 40 weeks pregnant, on her way to the hospital to deliver, and carried her 40-lb sleeping toddler in his stroller all the way up 2 flights of stairs. People stopped and stared at her. No one offered to help. She cried (I would have screamed). Maybe it was the fact she’s a foreigner who is foreign-looking, and sometimes people are afraid of foreigners or in their own English-speaking abilities? But, I look Korean, and still (most) people don’t help!

General attitude towards safety: There was a kitchen fire, which started in a ground floor restaurant in our apartment complex, when our apartment was less than six months old. Smoke rose quickly through ALL elevator banks, getting to ALL floors of both apartment buildings. The fire alarms failed to work. I smelled smoke, and when Alex opened the door to our hallway (32nd floor!), we could barely see a thing, the hallway was filled with so much smoke. We knocked on our (Korean) neighbors’ door to inform them we should evacuate. The mother proceeded to press the elevator button. (Not many people know that you should NOT take the elevator in the case of a fire… and it’s not posted in many places, either.) Following us, we ran down the stairs, and into the open air. The alarms in the lobby weren’t working. The guy at the front desk didn’t know what to do. There apparently was an announcement (only in Korean) for both buildings, saying ‘Everything is ok. Do not evacuate. Stay inside.’ Moments later, with the smoke getting worse, the fire department started going up and evacuating people. Several people, who didn’t know any better, were trapped in the elevators, and had to be sent to the hospital for excessive smoke inhalation. After the fire, we were told the smoke rose so quickly because the builder hadn’t used proper insulation. Smoke never should have gone up through those elevator shafts. To this day, I’m still not convinced anything was ever done to fix it. And I’ll never know if they fixed those smoke detectors in our apartments (there was one per room — for… what, decoration?). We immediately asked Alex’s parents to ship us a carbon monoxide/smoke detector.

That’s just one example of the poor safety standards!

Poor hygiene: I was pregnant with Baby M during the whole MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak the summer of 2015. How did MERS spread so quickly in Korea, killing so many people? I’m convinced it’s the poor hygiene. Even in the midst of MERS (where each hospital patient/visitor had to sign a form saying they hadn’t been exposed to camels or traveled to the Middle East, and had to have our temperature taken at the door), I saw people not washing their hands after using the HOSPITAL bathrooms. I’ve seen nurses barely rinse their hands off (with only water) in the sink. I’ve seen people spend more time brushing their teeth in the bathroom (Koreans are really into good dental hygiene) than washing their hands (in fact, more people seem to brush their teeth while on the toilet, spit in the sink, rinse off their toothbrushes and walk out, than actually wash their hands). It made me cringe every time!

Air pollution: To be quite honest, this was one of the main reasons we decided to leave Korea. When we arrived in 2013, rarely was there a day when we couldn’t see blue skies and the North Seoul (Namsan) Tower from our apartment window. The air pollution became noticeably worse with each year. The summer of 2015 was when I started checking the air quality (PM2.5, those fine particles that can get lodged in your lungs and cause health issues — including heart and lung disease, asthma, bronchitis, even years later) before leaving the apartment. (To give you an idea: a fine spec of sand has a diameter of 90 microns, whereas the PM2.5 particles are 2.5 microns in diameter. They are tiny!) We started wearing fine-particle face masks if the PM2.5 level was higher than 100ish.

After Baby M was born, and in 2016, the air quality became worse. Rarely were there “green” days with good air. I started wearing a facemask when the PM2.5 level was over 150. But of course, it’s impossible to get a baby to wear a face mask. We have many good friends in Seoul whose kids have been hospitalized numerous times due to asthma and bronchitis caused by the poor air quality.

And even though we only spent a few months in Seoul this year, everyone could tell the air quality had gotten even worse. Since Baby M is now a toddler and needs to expend her energy by running around (ideally outside), we decided it was time to leave.

The air quality definitely affects everyone’s quality of life. In recent years, the Korean government has finally started acknowledging that 50% or more of the pollution is caused by the coal plants, traffic congestion, and construction, within Korea, whereas previously they put the blame 100% on China. No matter who’s to blame, it’s definitely depressing to wake up to grey skies on a ‘sunny day’ and sad to have to keep your toddler indoors for several consecutive days due to the poor air quality.


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Wearing a traditional Korean hanbok

Things I LOVE and will miss about Korea:

Cheap transportation: The basic fare for the subway is 1,250 KRW (~$1.25), and this is after a fare hike (when we arrived in 2013, it was 1,050 KRW). Compare this to the subway fare in New York City (when we left in 2013, it was $2.50 per ride; now it’s $2.75!). Cabs in Seoul start at a base fare of 3,000 KRW (~$3.00) AND there’s no tipping!

Low crime rate: I’ve always felt safe walking by myself in the middle of the night. There’s such a low crime rate in Korea, and even in a big city like Seoul!

Also, you can leave your valuables at your table in a coffee shop, use the bathroom, walk outside for a smoke, chat with your friends outside, and then come back, and nothing will have been touched. Korean students studying abroad have to be taught that you can’t do that outside of Korea — your things will be stolen!

I’ve heard this too: In Seoul, you’re more likely to have someone chasing after you trying to return your wallet that you left at a restaurant rather than have someone chasing after you trying to steal your wallet.

Supermarket right across the street: Yes, there were times when I hated living right next to a grocery store (more out of self-pity that I was at Homeplus for the third time in one day), but let’s be honest, living right next to the grocery store when you have a baby is kind of amazing. Forget something? No problem! Just dash across the street. Can only work out at night after baby is asleep and hubby is home? Sign up for 9 PM fitness classes! (It was so unbelievably awesome to be able to take Zumba and kickboxing twice a week at 9 PM and only have to leave the apartment at 8:55!) Want to take baby to music/play classes nearby? Homeplus offers all kinds of classes for all age groups.

{Sigh} I REALLY miss Homeplus. Not only do I now feel completely out of shape, but going to the grocery store is such a chore. Having to strap Baby M in a carseat and then drive to the store, and have her scream because I’m not in the backseat with her? Not fun. I really miss strapping Baby M in a stroller and walking to Homeplus.

Free and quick delivery: Need toilet paper/diapers/almost anything in one or two days? Order it online (I used gmarket, a Korean website that’s a mix of eBay and Amazon) and have it delivered (usually free!) within two days. Ah-maze-ing!

Free wifi, everywhere: Alex and I used Olleh (SK, the other carrier also does the same thing), and our phones automatically connected to the free wifi available at (almost) all subway platforms and subway cars. And our phones connected to anywhere with Olleh wifi. Almost all restaurants, and definitely all coffee shops, offered free wifi. Pretty nice!

Clean bathrooms at all subway stations: Being pregnant with Baby M in Korea, and just having a small bladder in general, having access to a clean bathroom (at almost all times) was awesome (except for the aforementioned bins of used toilet paper). I’ve never been in a subway station bathroom stall and not had (plenty) toilet paper! And, there is always soap (although 95% of the time, it’s bar soap… but it’s soap, right?).

If the toilet is located inside the paid area, no worries: just tell the attendant you have to use the bathroom, and he’ll let you through. Likewise, for if you’ve already paid and realize the toilet is outside the paid area.

물티슈 Mool Tissue (moist toilette): I love that at every restaurant and cafe, you’re handed individually packaged moist toilettes 물티슈 (pronounced m-oooo-l tissue). They are so useful for cleaning your hands before a meal, after a meal, and good to carry in your pocket (ahem, you never know when you’ll be out with your toddler, and realize to your horror that you are OUT of wipes and oh, it’s a poopy diaper, but good thing you stashed away the extra 물티슈 from lunch!).

Incheon International Airport: Oh, Incheon, voted best airport by Airports Council International every year since 2005, how I will miss you. Alex and I’ve flown out of/into Incheon (i.e. roundtrip) more than 30 times! I’ve never used it, but my friend Renee swears by the spa (“best massages in Korea!”). Incheon is also home to Korea’s two largest airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, and the service on their flights is excellent (you really can’t beat Asian airlines’ hospitality)! If you’re pregnant, or traveling alone with kids, there’s a special (shorter) check-in line for you. If you’re traveling with young children, you get a pass for the accelerated security line.


And in parting, here are some photos from a very fun tea ceremony and hanbok 한복(traditional Korean outfit) dress-up session that I participated in, with many friends, during my last week in Seoul.

Alex and I are incredibly thankful for our experiences in Seoul, Korea, for the opportunity to travel around Asia, as well as for all the wonderful friends we made along the way.

안녕히 계세요, Korea.

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Where we enjoyed a traditional tea ceremony (next to Insadong, in Seoul)

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We were able to choose our a ‘dress’ color and then were given a ‘matching jacket.’

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So many choices…

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My friend Tricia getting dressed

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Ready to go!

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Start of our tea ceremony: presentation is an important part of it, as is showing respect to the host

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Matcha tea (yes, it came from Japan) and traditional Korean snacks

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When in Asia… gotta do some cute poses

The photos below were taken courtesy of my friend Tricia.

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Feeling pretty in our hanboks

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Tricia and I kind of match…

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Sipping our tea: even though it’s hot, you’re supposed to finish the tea in one-go, to show appreciation to your host.

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Enjoying our tea

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Taken with our host

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Taken on the rooftop with Changdeukgung Palace in the background

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Goodbye, Seoul!

Thanks Nature Sheep Cafe

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Thanks Nature Sheep Cafe

Last Thursday Anna and I took the kids all the way to Hongdae (lively college town) to go to a sheep cafe. When we arrived, we were confused when we didn’t see any sheep. Asking the barista, she told us the “sheep are there every day of the year. Except for today.” Needless to say, I was pretty pissed. I wanted to scream, ‘Do you know how HARD it is to take two toddlers on a 45-minute subway ride, find the freakin’ elevators at the subway stations, and then carry two strollers down to your cafe?!’ (The cafe is located one floor below street level.) Instead, we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant and planned to go back on Saturday.

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Adorable sheep… look at that face!!

I asked Anna’s husband to call the cafe Friday night to make sure the sheep would be there Saturday morning. Saturday morning, we retraced our steps. This time it was slightly easier because 1). Anna’s husband was with us, 2). We knew where all the elevators were. When we arrived, we were happy to see two cute little lambs (one of whom was also called Anna!). At first, the kids were more interested in the fake sheep inside the cafe, and their lunches. The cafe sells drinks and waffles; you need to order something off the menu in order to go into the sheep enclosure. I ordered a Croque-monsieur, the only savory thing on the menu (it was decent, for Korea). We packed lunches for the kids (read: I packed a lunch for Baby M, but Anna also packed a super cute bento-box lunch for her, and mine was quickly tossed aside).

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Baby M and H petting the sheep

After finishing our food and drinks, we used the provided hand sanitizer, and proceeded into the enclosure. The sheep were a little shy, but so were our kids. It took a few minutes before they wanted to pet the sheep (OMG! Sooooooo fluffy!). When Baby M finally warmed up to the idea that sheep were also animals, not unlike her kitty brother, she wanted to hug the sheep. It was pretty cute to watch.

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Moms and kiddies

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Fluffy white sheep


If you’re into Seoul’s animal cafes, you might want to consider doing the raccoon cafe (just down the street from Thanks Nature sheep cafe) at the same time. The sheep cafe was definitely cleaner (the sheep are outdoors in their own enclosure; you can eat and drink in peace), but the raccoon cafe was more interactive (read: watch your drink or else a bandit will steal your drink).


{ Thanks Nature Cafe in Hongdae 땡스 네이쳐 카페} 

Address: 마포구 서교동 486 서교푸르지오상가 B121 Seogyo Prugio Apartment store B121, 486, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu
Phone: 02-335-7470
Closest subway stop: Hongdae Univ. (line 2), exit 9
Admission: Must purchase something off menu
Hours: 11 AM – 10 PM


To read about my experience at Hongdae’s Raccoon Cafe:
Raccoon Cafe: A Must-Do in Seoul!

Raccoon Cafe Date Night


To read about my experience at Blind Alley Raccoon Cafe:
Korean BBQ & (Another) Raccoon Cafe

Raccoon Cafe Date Night

Since Alex was quite disappointed with the raccoons at Blind Alley Raccoon Cafe, where we went on our last date night, we decided to have another date night at the raccoon cafe where Anna and I went (with the more active raccoons). Alex met me at home (after eating at the office cafeteria), after I had put Baby M down to bed. We left our baby monitor with Anna (it’s awesome she’s our neighbor in many ways, but it’s an added perk that her bedroom can receive our baby monitor’s signal!).

I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking, but I want to offer the following advice to people who are interested in going to the raccoon cafe: they’ve added even more dogs (normally, great), but while the raccoons are potty trained to only pee/poop on the pee pads/trays, the dogs will just go anywhere. So, even though the employees were picking up the dog poop and mopping up the pee, I’m pretty sure they did a terrible job keeping everything sanitary. Bottom line: be prepared to put the clothes you wore to the raccoon cafe directly into the wash when you get home, and take a shower.


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Alex’s first close encounter with a raccoon

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It looks like he’s surfing with a raccoon on his back…

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One of these photos shows something ‘inappropriate’ (that a raccoon is doing)… 

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Raccoons like to climb on you when you’re close to the fence. They’ve figured out they can use you to hop over the fence… yup, very clever!

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Raccoons and husky dog, play-fighting

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Despite how uncomfortable he looks, Alex enjoyed the raccoon cafe


To read about our last raccoon cafe date night: Korean BBQ & (Another) Raccoon Cafe
To read about my very first raccoon cafe experience: Raccoon Cafe: A Must-Do in Seoul!


{ Raccoon Cafe in Hongdae 홍대 라쿤카페 맹쿤} 

Address: 서울 마포구 홍익로 17 / 서교동 358-2 4층
Location: On the 4th floor of the ABC Mart building
Closest subway stop: Hongdae Univ. (line 2), exit 9
Admission: 6,000 KRW
Drinks: 1,000 – 3,000 KRW, optional
Minimum age of admission: 12 years old
Hours: 12:30 PM – 10:30 PM (note that they start herding the raccoons into their cages around 10:15 PM)

Note that the address/map listed on the Facebook page (not their official page) isn’t correct.

Lotte Signiel Residences: So Expensive, Few People Can Afford It

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Spotted in Hong Kong: ad for Signiel Residences

A few weeks ago while walking around Central, in Hong Kong, I spotted a wrap-around advertisement for apartments for sale in the Lotte World Tower 롯데월드타워 (the tallest building in Korea, fifth tallest in the world) in Seoul. Besides the shock of seeing an advertisement for a building that is a five-minute walk from my Seoul apartment, in Hong Kong, I wondered why Lotte would even advertise in another city. Well, a few days ago, I read an article that answered my question: the apartment prices in the Lotte World Tower range from 4.2 billion Korean won (~3.72 million USD) to 38 billion Korean won (over 33.6 million USD!!), and there aren’t enough (super rich) people in Korea to buy them all. (Why Lotte chose to build such expensive apartments without the demand is beyond me!) So, Lotte turned to Chinese investors (hence the advertising in Hong Kong… although, if someone could afford a 33 million USD apartment, why not just buy one in Hong Kong, which is a more desirable location?).

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“The most extraordinary climax of prestige life in Seoul, South Korea”

The observation deck (third highest in the world) actually opened today, March 22. In the three and a half years we’ve lived in Jamsil, Seoul, we’ve seen the tower slowly go up (we used to be able to count from the bottom up, to see how many floors had been completed… we stopped keeping track after 50 or 60 floors). Alex doesn’t really have a “Korea bucket list,” but going up to the observation deck was the only thing he wanted to do before leaving Korea… We’re running out of days, but who knows, maybe we’ll have a chance. 😉