Seoul Searching 6: My First Christmas Away from Home
Recently I keep looking back at where I was last year, in a time when no-one had heard of COVID and I could travel around the world with few problems. The term was coming to an end and I was preparing for Christmas: my first Christmas with my partner, my first Christmas away from home, and my first Christmas abroad.
At the time, crisp sheets of snow lined the car park outside my partner’s apartment. The door would often get frozen shut and require a gentle shove before it would begin to budge. In the summer, the apartment block reminded me of a shabby prison thanks to the brutalist architecture; however, in winter the place was picturesque.
The trees were coated in white, reminding me of the forests seen in Narnia, and the pathways crunched with each step. In places, the snow would reach up to my knees and melt into my shoes. The bone-chilling wind was harrowing and even the thickest coat couldn’t conceal me from the breeze. At -10 degrees, this was the coldest weather I had ever experienced, and I knew it was only going to get colder.
Our Christmas was a humble one. Over breakfast in bed, we opened our presents in unison. I found it impossible not to smile smugly as I watched him tear open his gift from me. We had been watching a South Korean Drama dubbed “Crash Landing on You” a show which follows a South Korean woman who accidentally paraglides into North Korea and her blossoming love with a North Korean soldier. We were both hopelessly enraptured by the programme, even leaving social gatherings early to ensure we could watch it as it aired on Netflix each week. As such, I thought a paragliding experience for two would be the perfect gift.
As he pulls out the card, I see his smile slightly falter causing my heart to plummet: did he hate it? Had I chosen something entirely ridiculous?
Plastering on a smile as best he could, he hugged me tightly and thanked me for my unique gift, thrusting a card into my hands. Excitedly, I ripped open the envelope and read aloud the gift: “A paragliding experience for two”. Of course, he’d bought the exact same thing. Looking up at him, we both smiled nervously and then erupted into explosive laughter.
Feeling warm and slightly homesick, we decided to watch a film which reminded us of home: Harry Potter. For both of us, Harry Potter was a vital part of the Christmas ritual. Having grown up in big families, the beloved children’s series was an easy watch filled with nostalgia. Wrapped in a flurry of blankets, we snuggled up close entwining our legs like paper chains.
Midway through the movie, a heavy flutter of snow caught our attention. Snowflakes danced in the wind, twirling around one another and settling on the balcony ledge. Enraptured, we sat in a trance watching the shimmer of white silently fall. The silence felt heavy and forced unrealistic expectations on our day. In the movies, a White Christmas signals a perfect day, one of the unending smiles and fulfilled anticipations, and as this was our first Christmas alone together, the pressure was heightened for it to be cinematic.
Once the film finished, we made our way into the kitchen to begin dinner preparations. While other families in the building cooked traditional Korean winter meals such as ‘ogokbap’, five-grain rice and ‘mandutguk’, dumpling soup, we were desperate for a meal which would remind us of home.
Opening the fridge, I gasped as my partner pulled out a fully winged chicken. Apparently, he thought it would be a fun cooking experience to de-wing and behead the chicken as a pair. Disgusted, I turned away and forced him to deal with the chicken preparations. While he may have chosen to play butcher, I certainly would not.
Working alongside my partner, I peeled and quartered potatoes, drizzling them with olive oil and an assortment of spices. As my partner moved onto seasoning the chicken, I sliced carrots, diced leeks, and chopped broccoli, leaving them to steam inside a slightly salted pot of water. As the water began to boil, the pot screamed out as if to criticise our inexperience. I had turned the heat on too high and now the water was quickly evaporating. After rectifying the error, the pot settled down and remained quiet until dinner was ready.
Between us, we had made a spectacularly simple meal. Whilst we didn’t have the equipment to make Yorkshire puddings and stuffing, we had the bare bones of a Christmas Roast. It was modest and delicious, and I wouldn’t have changed it for anything in the world because it was something we had created together.
Suitably stuffed, we wrapped up in several layers and went on a walk in the snow. In the few hours we had spent cooking, the sun had disappeared and was replaced by the glow of neon lights. Taking it in turns, we would exhale as hard as humanly possible, competing to see who could create the biggest fog. Slowly inhaling, I sucked in breaths of air until my throat trembled from the force. Emulating the cry of a dragon, I blew out deeply, impressed by the strength of my asthma infused lungs.
Wandering through the town, we were surprised by the buzz of the town. In the UK, most places are closed on Christmas Day; however, here everything was open like any other day. Whilst South Korea is a predominantly Christian country, Christmas is one of the country’s smaller holidays. Interestingly, Christmas is seen in a similar style to Valentine’s Day, meaning that Korean Christmas’s are more couple-orientated. Even in our small town, we noticed that cafes and restaurants were filled to the brim with young couples on dates. Following in their footsteps, we visited our favourite local café and were warmly greeted by the owner.
For a festive feeling, the owner erected a Western-style Christmas tree in the centre of the café and dotted a few placeholder presents underneath to give the shop a homely feel. Many cafes across the country had chosen a similar set-up, decorating their shops with simple ornaments which signalled that winter was here. These decorations spread across trendy areas where young adults and foreigners were likely to visit. However, none of these decorations could compare to the elaborate embellishments of London during December.
Settling down at a table on the upper floor, we grabbed a selection of the owner’s board games. Starting with Rummikub and ending with an intense game of Chess we spent hours squabbling over who won the previous match, often popping down to the counter to replenish our hot chocolates. The warmth from the mug wrapped itself around my hands leaving my fingertips with a thawing tremble.
Around 10 pm, the café became suffocating, families crammed themselves into each corner of the shop and their hoarse laughter reminded us of the family we were unable to see. Feeling slightly lonely, we left the café and walked along the river, setting off fireworks and playing with sparklers.
Whilst I felt remorseful that I couldn’t spend the holidays with my parents, it was nice to spend Christmas with the one I love. Usually, my family Christmases are quite stationary whilst my partner’s family usually spend the day jumping between activities, so it was nice to combine traditions and create a special day for one another. This Christmas gave me an insight into how I would like to spend future holidays and traditions I would like to pass on to my future family.
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