2016 in life and travel

2016 will go down in history as an overall disappointing year for most people. To be honest, it was a difficult year for me too. I was injured for a lot of it and having to undergo some expensive physical therapy. I had a difficult year as a teacher as well. Plus a year of stress regarding family matters as well.

But 2016 was also really great in a couple of ways. I went to Germany and France both for the first time, along the way visiting many friends in both those countries. I came back to Korea and here I got engaged to my boyfriend. This past fall we tied the knot as well. Planning a non-Korean style wedding in Korea was incredibly stressful, but the day itself went off well and was a fun and intimate affair.

So I want to share a couple of my favorite pictures that I took this year but haven’t shared on this blog yet. All are unfiltered and largely unedited. Just candid shots taken with my phone. I already did a post featuring many photos of Hamburg, so I’ll focus this post on some other places I enjoyed this year.

  1. Seoul Forest~ one of my favorite spots in the the city. A sanctuary of green in Korea’s concrete capital city. My husband and I ended up having our engagement photos taken here a few months after this picture was taken.

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2. Falkenlust, Brühl~ I visited a friend living in Cologne, Germany and we took a day trip out to Augustburg Castle and its companion, Falkenlust. The architecture was beautiful and the sprawling grounds were a pleasure to ramble through.

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3. The confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers in Lyon, France~ Lyon is a gorgeous city that is sliced by two rivers. If you visit the confluence (and the very eclectic Musée des Confluences) you can stand in both at once.

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4. A Chacun Sa Tasse, Lyon~ a really lovely salon de thé (or tea shop) in Croix-Rousse. I went there with a dear friend who has worked in tea shops for several years. The place was highly recommended by her and I was not disappointed. It was cozy and had a great selection of teas as well as other drinks.

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5. Musée d’Orsay, Paris~ I didn’t make it to the Louvre. I was trying to avoid too much cliche during my week in Paris. Musée d’Orsay has an impressive collection of sculpture and Impressionist paintings which I particularly enjoyed. A perfect way to spend half a day or so.

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6. The Pantheon, Paris~ On a gloomy day I visited some historical sites around Paris including The Pantheon. I also may have been snuck into the Sorbonne during distinctly non-visiting hours by a friend of a friend who is a student there on that same day.

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7. Versaille~ I really need to do a whole post where I just dump all the photos I took on my day out to Versaille. The scale of the place is just incredible and even in winter time, the grounds were splendid.

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7. Nami Island, Gapyeong-gun, South Korea~ Rounding off my pictures with one more taken in Korea this year. This one on an excursion out of the city to the famous (and often filmed on) Nami Island. Like most attractions in Korea, it’s a bit theme park-like and crowded. But, it is truly beautiful and feels like a nice retreat from the city. It’s definitely worth a visit.

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Hopefully you enjoyed my enthusiastic, but by no means professional cellphone photography. Looking back on the past year makes me hungry for more adventures this year.I know it will be a year of big changes, but I’m feeling positive that most of them will be for the better.

I hope we can all have a 2017 full of travel and love.

Cozy and Quaint: Hamburg, Germany

Last November I was supposed to fly to Paris. A few weeks before my departure date, the city experienced a terrorist attack and was put into a state of emergency. My flight was canceled. I thought about canceling my whole trip and I’m sure that’s what my boyfriend and my family would have preferred. But I’d been planning this trip for half a year. It was the culmination of a promise I had made to myself long before that. So I changed my itinerary slightly.

I left for Europe a month later than my original plan and I arrived first in Hamburg, Germany. Giving Paris time to settle, I would save it for last. Traveling from Hamburg to Cologne, then crossing the border into France– going to Lyon, and finally Paris, where I would fly out.

An old Oxford friend of mine is currently living in Hamburg and she invited me to come stay with her. I knew little of the city and had no real expectations. That gave me the chance to simply take the city as it was. An unusually organic traveling experience in the age of mapping out and researching everything to death.

Weirdly, when I find myself missing Europe, I find myself longing most to return to Hamburg. I was bewitched by this port city.

It’s a very watery place where rivers converge and form large, lake area quite close to my friend’s flat. Even in January, the off-season, the walking paths around the water were full of people on bikes, moms with strollers, couples with dogs. Cafes peppered the street and riverbanks, some on the water even had “boat-up” windows for the summer season.

It’s a big enough city to have a huge library, a big central shopping area, and a moderately diverse population (in my quest to cook Korean food for my hosts, I discovered several Asian markets in the immediate vicinity). It’s a very walkable and bikeable city due to its size and wide sidewalks. But it’s also fitted with a metro and bus system. The public transit was surprisingly quaint, still employing paper passes and physical ticket checks. For day to day commuting, that might prove a bit annoying. But as a break from the super high-speed, digitized world of Seoul, it was refreshing and kind of endearing.

On Sundays, nearly everything shut except some local bakeries and a local street market with homemade pasta and cheese, fresh pastries, licorice, and produce. I may have overdone it on bread and beer actually. I was even moved to try salted licorice, a phenomenon found mainly in the northern parts of Europe. Germany’s licorice isn’t as strong as the sort that some Swedish friends tried to trick me into eating once. After a few days, I started to see how it can be strangely satisfying.

Even in winter, it was a stunning city. Lots of great food and cool museums. I’d love to see it in full bloom some summer.

My Korean Apartment Hunt

Horror of horrors. When I got my new job in Seoul this spring my new boss said to me, “so where will you live?” At that moment I was between apartments, crashing on a friend’s floor about 45 minutes away from the school. Typically workplaces will have suggested accommodations (which you are free to refuse for something else) or will help you deal with real estate agents.

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Not my new school. Most of the teacher at my new school are more established. They’ve been in Korea for several years or they are married and already settled into an apartment with their partner. I’ve been in Korea a while too, but this was the first time I’ve had to go through the hunting on my own. Well, on my own is a strong word. I had a few supportive friends and a lovely fiance to help with the actually visiting places and talking to estate agents.

Ultimately it was overwhelming, but also somewhat satisfying to be in control, making deals and negotiating. I had some agents who were amazing, some who were super pushy. Some spoke great English. Some spoke zero English. The whole process felt like some final exam for how adapted to Korean life I’ve become.

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Yongsan district

Getting an apartment in Seoul can be an ordeal for many reasons. Things get snapped up quickly in a metropolitan area of more than 20 million. Many newcomers to Korea are also shocked at the cost of a deposit. For a basic studio apartment, it can be almost ten thousand dollars for your deposit– more than a year of monthly rent in many cases. Fortunately, most employers will sponsor your deposit (they’ll get it back once you move out).

I was daunted, but decided that this was my chance. I could finally have an apartment that wasn’t crap. My first apartment was a studio that was so small, it was bursting at the seams with a bed and a desk as the only furniture. My second apartment was more spacious, but suffered from mold and was two subway stops away from a decent supermarket. The third apartment (which I shared with my friend from New Zealand) also had a severe mold problem and neighbors who were always experiencing some form of screaming, dish breaking, death threatening domestic upset. Perhaps that’s a story for another time.

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So there were a variety of tools I used for my search:

Zikbang App: This a Korea real estate app. You can narrow your app by area, price, and other factors. You can also star your favorite properties. Through the app you can contact agents. The downsides are that it’s pretty much entirely in Korean. After a couple years here, that’s not a problem for me. My Korean’s not great, but I can read it well. I had Korean friends call the estate agents for me because I’m not that confident.

Craigslist: Many listing for smaller, less expensive properties can be found on Craigslist. A lot of English-friendly agents will post shorter term, low deposit places there specifically looking for foreign workers and students who might be staying in Korea for less than a year

Seoul Homes: This site had a great variety of listings throughout the city. Some agents were English friendly on that site as well. I highly recommend that site.

Over the course of two weeks, I saw about 40 apartments. I was completely exhausted by the end of it. My work is in Gangnam district, but typically living in the Gangnam area means paying for the neighborhood more than the tiny apartment, so I widened my search to Yongsan, even as far west as Guro.

I realized a couple of things. Many loft apartments are not worth in. Having a loft was something I really wanted to create a bedroom space separate from the rest of the house. Nearly every loft I saw was about three feet from floor to ceiling. That means you could only sleep on a floor mat. When we get married, my fiance is bringing his plush queen size bed with him. That’s about a foot thick. So if the cat knocks something over and we bolt upright in the night, our foreheads would be at real risk for concussion. Lofts tend to bulk up the price tag one to two hundred thousand won a month as well.

If a building is less than five years old, that also adds expense. Elevators in the building are great, especially if it’s over five stories, but that usually comes with a maintenance fee slapped on top of your rent. Living on a lower floor will often be slightly cheaper because in a high rise building, higher floors are more desirable.

The neighborhood is extremely important too. Having markets in walking district, as well as close access to train and bus stations is extremely important to your comfort and time. Sometimes you will have to pay a bit more for prime spots.

After a couple of overpriced high rises, and a few cheap, but scary places in the middle of a slum that looked like the perfect spot for a murder, I finally settled on a villa about a 20 minute walk or ten minute bus ride from my work. Yep, I ended up in Gangnam. The price is about the same as my apartment in the north of the city, but it’s about a third of the size. Villas are nice though because they are studios plus. Mine has a little patio room where my washer is so I don’t have to have it in the kitchen or bathroom like most Korean apartments.

It’s about ten years old, but the landlord is super nice. And it’s on a fourth floor with no elevator, which is very livable. Not a hint of mold. So, it’s pricey for the size, but overall, it is the nicest place I’ve lived in Seoul. I guess I passed the test.

Are you on the apartment hunt? What have your experiences been?

Another Parisian Cliché : My Experience with French Stereotypes

It seems there are few people steeped in as much mythos as Parisians. Whether you’ve been to France or not, you probably have your own mental image of what Paris is like. And you’ve probably heard a lot about its citizens. Fresh off my first visit to the city of lights, I thought I would share my humble perspective on some of the most common French stereotypes.

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Paris is 24/7 high fashion. Well. I can understand why this stereotype exists. Some of the finest fashion houses in the world originated in France. This stereotype is especially popular in America. People overall dress much less formally in America. Pajamas, sweat pants, and track suits are common sights in shops and cafes in the US. This would be considered inappropriate in many places, Paris is just one of them. Overall, the mode of dress is slightly more formal. This seems to be a point of anxiety for many people traveling to France or Europe in general. Yes, you can wear jeans. You don’t have to wear heels or dress shoes all the time. But if you wear gym shoes and track pants, people will raise an eyebrow. Graphic tees and sweats are what children and lazy college students wear, not professionals.

Most of my French friends seem to build their wardrobe around neutral colors and basic pieces. Scarves are popular accessories to add color and serve a practical purpose in winter. But many of my French friends were very interested in the cosmetics and accessories I brought from Korea. Everyone likes to look to others for inspiration. But even in Paris, you see people trying too hard to be trendy, dressing lazily, or dressing too young for their age. Living in Paris doesn’t immediately give you Chanel style. And luxury brands are still mainly for the rich.  Many magazine articles that promise to reveal the “secret of French beauty” reveal incredibly expensive beauty regimes afforded by very few Parisian women. Primark and H&M are quite popular in France. And my friends swore by some solid pharmacy brands for their skincare routines.

French people are rude. Even friends from other European countries gave me this warning. France in general, but Paris especially is supposedly the place where manners go to die. My experience was quite contrary to this.From the evening I arrived when an older man helped me get my suitcase on the train, until the worker at the information desk complimented by attempts to speak to him in French on the day I left, I didn’t have any truly negative experiences. All the French people I met were very warm and relaxed and even those I only dealt with at shops and restaurants were perfectly polite.

I know that some people have negative experiences in Paris, but there are rude people in every country in the world. And sometimes it becomes a matter of us as travelers not knowing the cultural expectations. In spite of the relaxed atmosphere, there is a code of conduct and sense of formality that exists in France. You are expected to exchange greetings with the staff when entering a shop and say “voila” as you hand them payment. Taking the time to properly thank and people as wish them a good day is also expected. Overall, it seems that the French aren’t as prone to making small talk with strangers as North Americans are. Even when speaking to friends in public places, they tend to keep their voices a bit lower that you may be used to. This isn’t disinterest or rudeness from them, but simply a stronger sense of personal reserve. By trying to follow some basic rules of conduct and trying to speak French as much as possible (even though I made plenty of mistakes!), I had no trouble navigating Paris.

Paris is the city of romance. In my opinion, any city can be quite romantic if you are with the right companion but, Paris has this reputation mainly because of its many beautiful monuments which are conducive to viewing by night. Indeed, Paris has its share of impressive architecture and iconic art collections. Perhaps the abundant wine also helps to get the mood going. People visit for honeymoons and anniversaries hoping to soak up a little of the “Parisian romance.”

The French may seem more flirtatious by different cultural standards and greeting with a kiss may shock some people, but to my French friends, greeting with a hug seems more inappropriate– you are pressing your body up against someone else’s! Like any city, living there means working, buying groceries, paying electricity bills, and taking out the rubbish. One of my friend commented that the tourists are the romantic ones. Everyone else is just living their life. But perhaps in a hometown a bit prettier than yours.

I am way behind on posting about my trip to Germany and France, but I hope to catch up soon! If you’ve visited France before, was there anything that surprised you? If you’ve never been, what is your mental image of the country and its people?

 

Getting There: Seoul to Hamburg

I love traveling. But sometimes the getting from one place to another is not so great. My January journey from Korea to Germany was no exception. Three flights, two layovers, and four countries were involved. I guess I often gloss over the unpleasant and annoying sides of travel in my blog. This is a post entirely about how annoying travel is. So read and commiserate, prepare yourself for a similar long-haul, or skip it entirely if you don’t want anything to bring down your travel high.

I started in Gimpo airport, Seoul around 11 am. Gimpo is much smaller and easier to navigate than the awesome, but imposingly sized, Incheon. I was seen off my some of the loveliest people I know and waited as long as possible to go through the security gate– passing final hugs and kisses across the barrier before I ducked in for my check. Somehow before boarding my flight, I managed to lose my black knit hat. The first casualty of my Europe trip.

The first stop was Beijing. I am fairly well traveled. I have been in many airports throughout the world. Never have I been more frustrated than in Beijing. The signage was very sparse and unclear. They staff gave me contradictory instructions. I relied on the technique, “I guess  wil just go where other people go and hope for the best.”

My layover was about 8 hours long with my flight being after midnight. Since my flight was technically the next day, the airport offered some accomodation. That was a big relief. The idea of trying to find a niche to spend 8 hours wasn’t particulary appealing. Especially considering that once off your flight, you must go back to the big dparture hall and start the check in process all over again if you are taking another flight. And of course, no flight lets you check in 8 hours early.

A China Southern Air representative told me to go get my bag– it would need to be rechecked, then come back to find her. She was the ticket to my slightly more comfortable layover. I went to the carousel that had my flight number and waited. I waited for nearly a half an hour. Then suddenly, the flight number in the carousel screen changed and we were all herded down to a different carousel. Finally, after a few minutes, the correct bags came out.

I grabbed my bag and went looking for the China Southern employee, but of course she was gone. I ran to the international connection desk to ask them for advise. They scolded me for taking my bag and told me to put it back on the carousel. I heaved it back up and bid it farewell– starting to doubt the likelihood of seeing it again at this point. I went through customs and ended up back out in the main area of the airport with a 24 hour pass into China, but nowhere to go. I went to the China Southern desk and was told that (of course) it was too early to check in. So I hazarded to ask about the mysterious accomodations again.

She said that yes, they do indeed exist, but that I have to take a shuttle bus to the hotel. It’s not that close. She said that the next shuttle was in 10-15 minutes. That I should stay nearby and she would call me when it arrived. I sat by the desk and waited for about 20 minutes. Then I realized that I had been forgotten about and awkwardly crept back over to the desk to ask if it was arriving soon. Oops. She had forgotten, so she called them again and sent a staff member to escort me to the next bus. It was the original lady I had met before baggage claim. She and a male staff member very helpfully got me on my way (the male staff member even personally escorting me to the bus outside, inspite of the cold windy weather).

The hotel was very far from the airport. At least compared to what I was imagining. It was also on a weird back road by some train tracks, quite far from anything else. My plans to walk around a bit were immedieately squashed as my atempts to look for any sort of public trnsportation nearby didn’t turn up anything promising. So instead, I was able to rest for about 5 hours at the hotel. I napped for about an hour.nI washed up a bit and changed my clothes into something a litle more comfortable for the longest leg of my flight coming next. I Skyped a friend in Korea and browsed the offerings of Chinese television. Finaly, the shuttle to take me back to the airport came. The shuttle driver kept answering his phone on the way and seemed quite angry with the person on the other end. Whenever he started yelling into the phone, his driving became much slower. A problem when we were in the middle of the highway. I couldn’t help but think that I might die on a highway outside of Beijing. Inspite of the three phone calls that stood between us and our destination, we managed to make it relatively unscathed back to the airport.

Back at the airport, I was about two hours early fro my flight and feeling quite hungry. I swung by an open snack stand where I was told it was cash only (maybe due to the late hour). The lady told me that they took US currency, so I whipped out an old, crinkled twenty left from the last time I was stateside. Then she told me that my orderwas only $6 but she couldn’t make change, so if I wanted it, I would be paying the entire twenty for a sandwich and juice. I walked away. Who needs fod after 8 hours? I sat by my gate waiting. The flight was delayed almost an hour. Fortunately, my next layover was three hours long, so I easily made my conection in Amsterdam.

I slept about five hours on the flight from Beijing to Amsterdam and arrived pre-dawn in Europe. My brief stop in Amsterdam was blissfully uneventful. We were taking off as the sun was coming up so I was able to enjoy watching the orange-pink rays pierce through the deep, cool layers of cloud. It was a welcome change from the gray skies I had been watching since Seoul.

And then, I was there. Safely tucked into the arms of my old Oxford buddy, Cat. I had amde it to Germany. Even my bag had somehow managed to arrive safely in my arms. Which was lucky, since it was loaded with presents for everyone I’m seeing along the way.

I am in France now and have a lot to catch up on! I wil post soon about my time in Germany.

My Travel Survival Kit

I am about to embark on a litte European/North American travel extravaganza which is going to last two months, use up all my money, and hopefully refresh me for another grueling round of ESL teaching applications and interviews. My trip was delayed, but I saw the change of plans as an opportunity for adventure, so I will be dropping in on some friends in Germany now on my way to France.

I love traveling, but sometimes the getting there part can be really challenging. Especially when you can’t afford first class, direct flights, and bullet trains. So as I prepare to go, I thought I would share with you some of things I pack for long hauls and longer layovers.

Sleep Aids: No, it doesn’t have to be medicine to help you sleep (though sometimes I do toss medicine like Advil in my bag to help relieve headaches caused by cabin pressure). Think about the things you’ll need to be comfortable, especially while flying coach. A neck pillow might be a good investment– especially an inflateable one that can be easily stowed in your bag when you land. A sleep mask may also be useful when your seatmate is awake watching movies or using the reading light beside you.

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Extra Clothes: I am one of those people who are always cold. And plane cabins have notoriously unpredictable temperatures. I like to dress in layers (to keep my suitcase light) and bring an extra jacket and wide shawl/scarf I can use as a blanket when the temperature starts dropping.

Skincare: Plane cabins not only tend to be cold, but also dry. My dry sensitive skin can feel like cracking and peeling after 14 hours in the air. I pack a little kit of supplies such as cleansing wipes (not part of your liquids allowance and easy to use at your seat) and moisturizer for my face and hands. Solid lotion bars will also save you on your liquids allowance and you can use them to keep your hands and body feeling moist and supple. A small bottle of toner might be helpful as well if you have acne prone skin.

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Hygiene basics: Sometimes I end up in transit for more than 24 hours at a time. So having the basics of my daily hygiene ritual are extremely important. This includes toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and often dry shampoo. If you have a long layover in a well-equipped airport, you might get the opportunity to do the works with a full shower. Othewise, dry shampoos and deodorant are helpful cheats that let you feel somewhat human again.

Digital Equipment: A power bank or travel charger is indispensible. Charge it over night and depending on the size, it can charge your phone, tablet, or ereader up to four times. That tablet or ereader is also very useful on flights and layovers. Load them up with books, podcasts, and games. And don’t forget your earphones–noise canceling if possible.

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Analog Equipment: I am an analog sort of girl. I love paper books, notebooks, pens, etc. And this can come in handy while traveling. If you’re going to be taking a lot of trains and buses while traveling (as I will be in Europe) you don’t necessarily want to be flashing your tech around. Pickpocketing and purse cutting are very common crimes in many big cities. I am happy to pretend to be a penniless student (while I’m still young enough to sort of pull that off) with a paperback and notebook. Besides, I love to write and taking notes about what I see is a big part of traveling for me.

Snacks: Airports sell food and often so do trains. However, I don’t want to blow half my budget on buying food during a ten hour layover. Nuts, dried fruit, protein bars, and chocolate are some of my favorites to pack. Airports, in my experience always have water fountains. So bring a bottle to fill up instead of wasting money on drinks. Water is the best way to keep your body healthy and fight jet lag.

If you’re new to long-haul flights and long layovers, hopefully this article will give you some ideas on how to survive it. If you’re a veteran of this style of travel, what are some of your most valuable items?

Going to Your First Korean Wedding: An Etiquette Guide

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Korea easily has one of the most “coupley“cultures in the world. In fact, it seems a large part of the economy is driven by young couples. Marriage, however, still tends to be a business-like arrangement. If you don’t marry your college sweetheart, you will probably go on arranged blind dates when you are in your late 20s to early 30s.

For more information about romance and culture in Korea, check out my posts on Flirting in Korea  and Sexuality in Korea. But, the topic on hand today is marriage.

First, don’t be surprised if one of your Korean friends or coworkers hands you a wedding invitation out of nowhere one day. You likely didn’t even know they were dating. This is pretty normal. Courtships, especially ones that started through a matchmaker are pretty short. 3-6 months after meeting, it is typical to be married.

You’ll need to make a few preparations. First, while weddings can get very formal for the guests in Europe and North America, don’t stress so much about what to wear to a Korean wedding. While you’ll want to look neat and presentable, often the dress code tends more to semi-formal or even business wear. A dress and a cardigan will be fine for a woman, a basic suit or dress shirt, trousers, and tie will work for a man.

You’ll also need to prepare some cash. Presents aren’t typically given at Korean weddings. Instead you’ll bring cash (approx. $30-$50 for a coworker or acquaintance is considered polite, $50-$100 for a closer friend, relatives and bosses will often drop in the equivalent to a couple hundred USD at the wedding).

Likely, their venue will be at an all-in-one wedding hall. Some couples opt for church weddings if they’re from religious families, but typically it’s all in a wedding hall. These halls are kind of like the conveyor belt of marriage. You’ll rent the main, pre-decorated auditorium for 1-2 hours and have your ceremony quickly before the next couple runs in. When you enter the wedding hall they will be a reception where you can get envelopes to put in your cash. Sign the envelope and exchange it for a meal ticket at the desk.

When it comes to finding a seat, there is no bride’s side or groom’s side. Just make sure you get there early to sit. Wedding invitations in Korea are often spread wide to distant relatives, friends of the family, coworkers, old school friends, etc. Out of politeness, many people are included. At every wedding I’ve been too, it’s been so crowded that there were dozens of people standing at the back.

After the ceremony, the guests a line and take turns congratulating the couple (sometimes 2 lines, one for the bride, one for the groom). Then it’s picture time. First will typically be photos with the couple’s family. Then they will do friends– depending on the number of guests, they may do separate photos for the bride and groom’s friends. While you finish up your pictures, the venue staff will likely be prepping the next groom and guests for the next wedding will start trickling in.

After pictures, you’ll make an exodus to the eating area, often on a different floor. Occasionally, venues will have the wedding and eating all in one area, but typically it is in a separate area with a large buffet. If it’s a large wedding venue with multiple halls going at once, then you may be eating with the guests from several other weddings. The bride and groom will sometimes have a reserved table with their families. The couple will usually make the rounds to greet and thank their guests before they get to enjoy their dinner. After you eat and congratulate the couple again, you should get out of there and make room for the next party coming in.

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Some couples may opt to have a traditional Korean wedding. I have only attended one of these at an outdoor venue. A traditional house or temple may be the backdrop and the couple will wear classic wedding hanbok. The colors tend to be red for the bride, blue for the groom. In this ceremony, the bride and groom get carried to the front on a chair or palanquin. These ceremonies tend to be a little more intimate because you don’t have the same venue sharing. Time is less restricted and you know that everyone there is part of your wedding party, not from the wedding down the hall.

Korean weddings tend to be quick and efficient, if a tad impersonal for my taste. What kind of weddings have you been to in other countries? Have you had a traditional wedding?