Spring is moving season in Seoul, so we can see these ladders everywhere reaching up to balconies to unload or load up belongings. Everything can be delivered up the ladders – sofas, fridges, beds. The lot. We’ve moved in Seoul a few times!
There are several different kinds of accommodation in Seoul including high rise apartment complexes (apartu), officetels, individual houses, and villas. A villa is a low apartment building no more than 5 or 6 floors high. The rent and maintenance fees are usually cheaper than an apartment. And then there are various types of student accommodation too. Here’s a wall that’s turned into a notice board including advertisements for student accommodation:
Most people in Seoul prefer to live in an apartment if they can afford to – apartments are even more popular than houses because they are thought to be safer and easier to maintain. There’s no gardening required and no need to run around locking lots of doors and windows. Officetels are popular too as they are furnished apartments which is convenient for some people. So every year more and more large apartment complexes are constructed in Seoul and they are getting taller and taller! Now I live in an apartment. But I’ve also lived in a villa, and they both have their good points and bad points. Location is important. And so are the neighbours!
Different parts of Seoul have a different personality. Gangnam-gu is modern, clean, fashionable, and expensive. University areas like Hongdae in Mapo-gu are young and studenty. Then some areas are still quite run down – like Dongjak-gu. But they have their own personality and the local shops are more reasonably priced.
One of the big visual differences between, say, Gangnam and Dongjak is that in Dongjak gu the electric cables are still over-ground. They criss cross each other overhead and then mangle together fighting for space. They look better in the winter though (below) covered in snow!
The pavements are cracked and at rubbish pickup points the remains of ramen packets, soju bottles and the smell of kimchi remain. But they have their own quirky atmosphere. Here’s a backstreet in Dongjak-gu. I love the guitar sitting outside someone’s gate.
JUST ASK THE SECURITY GUARD
Apartments don’t seem to have much chong 정 – human warmth and feeling. Residents don’t have to talk to each other at all. If a resident has a problem with their neighbours, for example, they don’t need to say anything to them directly. They can call the security guard to deal with the issue. In some ways that’s a good thing since taking matters into one’s own hands can end in tragedy: man kills neighbours over noise on lunar new year’s day. But on the other hand it creates a very cold atmosphere.
In the villa we lived in our neighbour downstairs was in charge of collecting money for the monthly cleaning fee for the communal areas. She also passed on any other messages that we needed to know. Any messages that need to be given in apartments are given over speakers that are built INSIDE each apartment.
And every morning (and sometimes in the evening too) there may be announcements – information about the weekly vegetable market, or the mobile meat van, or times that the cleaners will be coming to disinfect the drains etc. There are also warnings and complaints – encouraging neighbours to be considerate and quiet in the evenings or telling us not to park cars in a certain location. The amount of announcements depends on the apartment but in some places they can seem endless. And the volume of the speaker can’t be turned down.
Another job of apartment security guards is to oversea the rubbish collection. When we lived in this apartment the guards made sure that the weekly recycling was organised in an orderly fashion. Paper, plastics, cans, glass, and large items have to be separated on the same day each week. So if we forgot to take out our recycling on the right day, then we had to keep it for another week.
Since there is no security guard in a villa, it’s up to residents to sort out their rubbish on the right day and leave it outside in the designated area – in the car park or on the road. Not everyone likes to follow the rules though and rubbish can be left out for days before it’s due for collection. And then if a stray cat finds something interesting in a bag, then the next morning you can wake up to find a stream of rubbish all the way down the street. Not to mention a pungent aroma of fermenting foods – especially in the summer. 😕
In the villa we could rely on neighbours to collect deliveries and parcels that arrived for us when we were out. I took in a box for my neighbour – it was food from the countryside – and when she got back she gave me some chestnuts from the parcel. During the winter our water pipes froze and the balcony got flooded from the washing machine. The neighbour from downstairs came up to help out and suggest what to do. In an apartment all these issues can be dealt with by the security guards.
SO WHICH IS BETTER?
Well, in an apartment residents can avoid speaking to their neighbours completely. But living in a villa means that you might sometimes need to ask the neighbours for help. So on the one hand that’s good because this creates human warmth – chong 정情 and more of a community spirit.
In our local corner store near the villa I noticed that the whole wall behind the counter was covered in receipts. So I asked why this was – It’s because sometimes locals come in the shop but haven’t brought enough money or forgot to bring their wallet so the receipt is put on the wall like a tab to be paid next time. (I don’t think you’d find that in Gangnam!) Here’s a cute book shop too.
I didn’t use to like living in apartments. I felt isolated. For over a year I NEVER saw any of the neighbours on my floor, so I preferred the villa where at least I knew who the neighbours were. But now I’ve got used to apartment life. Yes, it’s more expensive. But it’s also easy and feels safe. And I always get a friendly hello from the security guard when I come and go.