CISK note: a version of this story was received too late for the recent travel story contest, but was a great read. Go watch the stories of the three finalists and vote for the winner on Travel Pants Korea’s Facebook page.
Of course…it all sounds so wonderful, so complete, so carefully planned. It’s just a matter of get on and go! Well, it did go rather smoothly, except for one night in Rome…
Photo credit: Dave’s wife.
Your narrator is a former U.S. Servicemember who was serving a tour of duty in the ROK. It was a planned two week vacation from duty, and the ‘family’ would all enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Europe. The ‘family’ now included my lovely bride and new Mom and Dad, those loving but always traditional Korean parents-in-law. Gotta love ‘em, ‘cuz they were willing to do the plane, train, and bus-a-mobile jaunt with their daughter and two year-old grandson and his American GI father. Hardy souls, sturdy stock, and pretty darn fun to be with – so off we went. The entire trip was set up such that Korean was spoken and Korean was eaten and Korean was woken and Korean was slept – there was never any need for us to have our little Korean travel world shattered by anything other than Korean-ness. Cozy. It was only I, the foreigner (that’s right, I was a foreigner in my native continent) who needed translation – from Korean into ANY other language. But somehow my lovely bride and I managed to trans-cross-interpre-late most of the key points about each location.
Once the bag tags and name tags were applied at the airport, it was Austria a la Geneva 1st stop. Onto the first busmobile and a spin around Lake Geneva. A roadside pullout contained about 7 or 8 other busmobiles with more Asian tourists – wait…yep, Koreans. OK, cool, I guess this route is popular – onward. All over Vienna, through lots of alleyways and into historic buildings of Goethe and Ludwig Van. My Mom got hungry and my Dad never strayed off, my son dozed lovingly on my chest in the port-a-kid vest that was my official uniform while traveling, and my wife refused to buy souveniers. Our tour guide, whom I officially named Miss Perky, casually mentioned that there would be a meal of Korean food each and every day, so those of us who were hungry (and perhaps had a hankering for some kim or bap or guk) need not become ‘stressed’. Super! That outta keep the moaners and whiners at bay, I thought. Wait – did I say no souveniers? Of course, me being of Franco-Germanic blood, and able to get into trouble quite nicely in both French and German (due to elementary school and a long tour stationed in Germany previously), I was having none of that. Dammit Jim, we have money, let’s buy a postcard or two! Onward.
Switzerland and a cool gondola ride up to a frozen Alpen mountaintop, picture perfect blue skies, and some great gleuwien, which was kind of lost on my Dad because it did not taste anything like soju, even though I told him he could get a buzz if he just slowed down and drank another mug or three. My Mom got hungry and we stayed the night in an overly comfortable Swiss lodge, otherwise known as heaven. I think the Swiss steak and potatoes for supper were a miss, because quite non-chalantly, the issue of when we would get to the next Korean restaurant was brought up halfway through the meal…like clockwork. But, onward we went. A bit of a drive down to Italy, hindered somewhat by a gradual merging of all the other 7 or 8 Korean buses into one grand Korean Busmobile Konvoy all the way to Milan, or Pompeii, or Rome – no matter, we were ‘ensemble’, but separate, each according to their nametag and name-of-tour, cozy for sure. I think Mom and Dad enjoyed strolling the streets and funky bathhouses of Pompeii the most on this tour, because they took up the most natural stride with their arms clasped behind their backs, and I heard a lot of chatter about room size, water wells, cart paths and vegetable gardens. It was enjoyable to watch them enjoy. We topped the volcano city off with a delicioso salad with supremo oil and vinegar dressing – it was the best-o. The rest of Italy would not measure up – canals of Venice, glass and leather factories, ancient ruins of Rome – nah; these were nowhere near the rustic and earthen charm of Pompeii, as far as the old folks were concerned. However, the ‘tour’ aspect quickly dissolved into ‘when do we get to the factory outlets?’, and the conspicuous consumption of status brand leather goods and cosmetics and accessories took off in earnest when we hit Venice. In retrospect, the appreciation of some of the most incredible aspects of Europe was pale in comparison to the energy and excitement of actually possessing genuine Gucci handbags and Ferragamo shoes. Mom, you guessed it, got hungry, in Rome, at night, and the entire tour team joined in her hunger, for bap and kimchi. It was like a gradual crescendo, a rolling tide, a frothing samulnori that would not be ignored! Miss. Perky used less perk and more purpose in pressing the driver to find the one and only Han Shik Rest-o Roman-o that was on the itinerary but now could not be found. But even after facing near death by don’t-eat-local-food syndrome, we found paradise under the neon light, in an alley, on our 6th or 7th time around the block, which are pretty long in Rome…never mind. We survived, we chopped, we picked, we slurped, we burped, and all was good. Therefore, onward.
Another ever-dependable busmobile to France, where, imagine our surprise to find all the other 7 or 8 Korean tour teams lined up outside the Louvre, AND Notre Dame, AND the Basilica de Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Lots of love in the air, and I got back-, shoulder- and head-slapped for looking at too many pouty jeunes filles – merde. Mom was hungry again, and this time our perky little guide found a Korean restaurant and saved us from bap and kimchi starvation. I mean, let’s face it; the Louvre just ain’t that special if there’s a home-cooked meal of rice and kimchi just 10 minutes away. Even the hippest jetsetters on the tour, which was a young couple with way too obvious name brand labels about their persons, did not object to leaving Notre Dame in order to catch some holy hanshik nearby. The lovely bride and I took some time to park on a park bench on a tiny rue alongside the huge cathedral. We inhaled as much joie de vivre as possible in 5 minutes, and then we joined the herd and milled back to the bus. I can tell you that I personally wish we had more time to browse and explore during the official tour times. It was always ‘back to the bus’ and ‘we’re waiting on the American, he’s still looking at things’. Mais naturellment, it was I that one everyone looked up to when I could miraculously remember a few hip phrases in French or Italian, and then translate them into Korean AND English. Nobody else seemed to speak any European languages; at least I had not heard anyone buy Miss Perky do her thing to bus drivers and hoteliers. So I thought that this international coolness more than made up for my late returns to the bus, but the lovely bride was not fooled for a Parisian minute, and jacked me up square into staying with the group, lest the old ones become embarrassed at my impudence. I had forgotten how one’s behavior is a reflection upon one’s family – and mine was just in the next row of seats. So I junked my obsession to linger and fell in line, or followed the line, and got back in peaceful harmony with the bridal element. Onward.
To the trains – and the one and only Chunnel Train – how exciting. Not for Mom and Dad, or lovely bride. I could only imagine how many trains they had ridden, this was just another. But wait – it connects two land masses under water, it’s amazing and incredible…but…is there food? How long will it take? It goes to where? So anyway, London was weird, wet, and not exciting at all. Team Tour needed a pick-me-up, and I delivered. The McDonald’s forced me to buy another serving of large fries, just because it could, and so I was a bit tardy, shall we say, to get on the busmobile as it pulled away. No worries – GI Dave just put on the doubletime jog and managed to bang on the door at the next weird traffic light about a quarter mile down the street. I climbed on with my fries intact to greetings of ‘where did you come from?’ and ‘no, we didn’t know that you were not on the bus’. Blimy (sp?). Onward – well, not exactly.
Not because it wanted to, but ‘family’ broke contact with Team Tour/Team Consumer, and took a brother-in-law detour at this point, direct to Moscow via Amsterdam. TT pressed their way through the final itinerary to Heathrow, and we bid them a tidy farewell. All in all, a pretty complete package, except for hunger. This is how you learn Korean language, Korean customs, Korean patterns, and establish that closeness you always wondered about if marriage is lurking in your future plans. As an American, experiencing Europe on a Korean tour was a weird one for the books, for sure. Now, I can much more easily get in trouble in four languages. Adieu, Jus, Ciao, Anyong!
Dave has lived in Korea for a total of 12 years. He is married to his Korean wife for 20 years, they have one son. His family lives in Uijeongbu, where he is semi-retired and addicted to X-box golf.