AT LAST draws the end to another hectic semester of the weekly-18-hour lectures, jam-packed exam schedules, and the never-ending array of all-nighters. Squashed under the heavy load of responsibility and assignments, everyone eagerly awaits the first possible moment to disentangle and bounce away for the summer holidays. In hopes to rejuvenate my weary heart, I impulsively booked a ticket to Chuncheon, a city rich with the days of my innocent childhood.
6:00 a.m.: ITX Train
My trip began early in the morning when I took the first train of the day. The only memory I had as a child regarding trains is the “Mu gung hwa ho which is no longer neither the fastest nor prestigious train line. Consequently, I did not know what to expect from the flashy digital ticket on my phone screen that read “ITX Cheongchun.” Cheong-chun, which directly translates to “springtime of life," refers to one’s youth and is the most romanticized age in Korea. With Korea's aging population and the responsibilities that come with maturity, many reminisce and celebrate their golden, youthful days. Some elders may scold, “Blinded by privilege!” however, as an undergraduate uncertain about life and anxious of the soaring unemployment rate, I could not help but scrunch my nose at the term that innocently paints college students to be free, hopeful, and passionate with unceasing energy. Knowing very well that cheong-chun is a mere fantasy I never will attain, I muttered, “We get tired too,” as the announcement alarm rang.
I looked around the ITX and did not notice any drastic changes from my memory of trains as a young girl. Though I could no longer fit sideways to nap on the velvet seats, I saw what seemed to be an ordinary train. But on hearing that the ITX did not cater any snacks, nostalgia crept into my heart. I remember eagerly waiting and peeping into the aisle to see when the next cart would pass. I would gaze at the different choices of snacks and yummy delights as the train rocked us to our destination. I disappointingly glanced at the boiled eggs that I had packed. They now seemed useless without having any drinks at hand. My mind jumped to conclusions and imagined of the dreadful possibilities that were waiting for me on this trip.
11:00 a.m.: Gimyujeong Station
“Open” is the most appropriate word to describe Gimyujeong Station, named after a celebrated local novelist. Contrary to the architectural stations built in recent years, Gimyujeong Station is out in the open connecting man and nature together. The railway is no longer used today but instead stands as a symbol of memory. Windows opened, seats turned to face each other, and books shelved neatly on wall ledges painted white, the vehicle now serves as an attraction and a pleasant resting spot for passing pedestrians.
Opposite to the station is a literature village to commemorate Gim Yu-jeong whose works are studied by most Korean high school students. I myself also recall reading his work “Spring, Spring” and cramming for exams. Never have I took the time to appreciate his works and empathize with his sad love story. Getting into university was my top priority, and I let my circumstances take control. Now, I am a little older and more mature. Even amidst my busyness, I have learned to enjoy the works of others and the values they possess. Looking back to see how much you've grown and matured always imprints a strange feeling. I once was determined to never grow up, but I suppose that I also am defenseless to time.
The station was the perfect backdrop for a perfect family outing: families gathering around picnic boxes, children chasing after each other, and babies snoozing on their father’s broad shoulders. Trying to balance my grown feet and body on the narrow railroad, I felt cast away from the cozy atmosphere. I missed my family and wanted to reject the cruel reality which separated me from my family who lived far away from Korea.
2:00 p.m.: L’Atelier Kim:ga
As far as I can remember, I’ve always loved bread. From light to heavy, savory to sweet, bread is my quick, convenient, and delicious necessity. Bread makes everything better. Thus, it was only necessary that I visited L’Atelier Kim:ga— the star bakery café of Chuncheon.
It turns out that the countless rumors of the bakery’s famed reputation did not go around without reason. As I stepped in, I found myself already salivating at the sweet and luscious buttery aroma. But I wasn't the only one. The freshly baked batches were devoured and sold to demanding customers in an instant. The large crowds made it almost impossible for me to place an order. After tackling the flood of customers, I finally succeeded to squeeze my way into the only vacant spot in the back corner of the bakery, holding a tray with an orange and grapefruit tart, a signature squid ink camembert cheese bread, and a classic Americano. Unlike most bread sold in Korean bakeries, the camembert cheese bread lacked sweetness, but its savory flavor was one to be appreciated. As if I was under a spell, I inhaled the addictive combination of authentic camembert cheese and the chewy texture of the squid-ink bread in only a few moments time. The tart’s surprisingly light and mellow filling layered with honeyed fruit was a bulls-eye hit for a girl with an extremely sweet tooth as well. Unknowingly, I found myself drawn back to the long que with an empty tray.
While waiting in line, I thought of the days where I busily pointed at the pastries I wanted to eat while my mother graciously laughed and followed around with bread tongs in her hand. Everything was about me, me, and me. Seeing families, friends, and couples share their love and their desserts, I also found myself wishing I could be doing the same. I finally understand the joy of my mother, who offered her bread to me instead of finishing it herself. It's not food that matters, but it's the happiness that fills your stomach, leaving you satisfied and full.
4:00 p.m.: Soyang Skywalk
As the sun sets and the atmosphere cools down, Soyang Skywalk is the perfect place to be as it is a resting haven for relaxation and comfort. Standing above the Ui-am-ho Lake, you can see the waves swirling and gushing against the breezy wind. Walking on the see-through bridge can be quite frightening at first and I struggled to take big strides across the walkway. While my heart trembled and legs wobbled against the glass, I felt like I was walking on water which reminded me of my favorite Disney princess—Ariel. Humming “Under the sea,” I stooped low and grasped tightly onto the handlebar; it was a perfect childhood replica pack of overcoming fears, like the monsters that once lived under my bed.
Nevertheless, the highlight of the experience was not the flashy manmade architecture. Instead, it was the profound beauty I found in the face of nature. My worries seemed so insignificant as I watched the systematic sway of water below and the outstretched sky above, bringing an odd sense of comfort.
6:00 p.m.: Dak-gal-bi
This perfect outing ended with Chuncheon’s most popular dish—dak-gal-bi. The typical dak-gal-bi is a stir-fried cuisine with spicy marinated chicken, cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes, and tteok*. With the dish served and cooked on one big plate in the middle of the table, the meal is found popular among Korean families. The restaurants at Chuncheon refused to sell small servings of this cuisine, so I had to try charcoal-grilled dak-gal-bi instead. There were two flavors of charcoal grilled dak-gal-bi: marinated and plain. I prefer the sweet and spicy go-chu-jang** marinated flavor. Biting into the spicy dak-gal-bi wrapped in lettuce while sipping mak-geol-li***, had brought my day into completion. If there is one thing you should take away from this account, remember to try this combination! Spicy grilled chicken with sweet mak-geol-li is a match made in heaven. The musky, heated smoke in the restaurant evoked warm memories that complimented the chilly evening temperature. When I was young, my mother would scoop a fair mix of chicken and vegetables on to each person’s dish when the dak-gal-bi was finished cooking. She refused picky eaters. For the Kim siblings, Dak-gal-bi required teamwork and tactics. I would secretly eat all the sweet potatoes on my brother’s plate while he hurriedly gobbled down the carrots I loathed. Looking back at it now, it must have been impossible for my mother to not notice our cheeky mischief. It must have been hilarious to watch us try so hard while pretending to be oblivious to it all. These innocent memories still bring laughter to the table.
* * *
Although it was nothing spectacular, Chuncheon offers an opportunity to reflect on the old and make new memories. With its accessible location, trendy sites, and delicious nourishment, it is surely a city of delight. I originally set off to Chuncheon longing for the past and thinking that my childhood days were the best. However, visiting this city of sentimental ties as a grown individual was an experience that prompted me to compare myself to my younger days. As an overwhelmed and stressed college student, I could not realize it, but there definitely are perks of maturing. I ended my day lying in bed content, thinking “maybe growing up isn’t so bad after all.”
*tteok: Korean rice made by steamed glutinous flour; Can be eaten as a sweet snack or as an additional component of a bigger dish
**go-chu-jang: Red chili paste commonly used in Korean dishes
**mak-geol-li: Traditional Korean alcohol made by fermented rice (rice wine)