|Passersby walk past one of Seorae Village’s only French bistros, The Madeleine. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)|
Located near the bustling Express Bus Terminal, the quaint area of Seorae Village in Banpo-dong has, over the past 20-odd years, garnered the reputation as Seoul’s “Little France.”
The village does have a certain je ne sais quoi.
The words “quaint French village” often spring to mind the aroma of small bakeries with the freshly baked breads of the day, delectable pastry shops with colorfully sweet macaroons on display, elegant wine bars and cozy cafes where one can go to relax and sip on an over-priced coffee and watch as the world passes by.
It might be going too far to say that being there is just like sipping coffee outside a bistro in Paris, the area does have a subtle French ambience.
Arnaud Zobel, originally from Versailles, is currently the president of the Association des Francophones de Core, a French association committee in Korea. Zobel has lived in Seorae for nearly three years and claims that there definitely is something different about the area compared to other parts of Seoul.
“Oh yes, I do enjoy living there. It is a very quiet and easy place to live, especially when you compare it to other places like Gangnam with all the tall high buildings and Itaewon, which is very touristy,” he said. “Seorae Village does not have that kind of pressure like other areas do.”
With its small buildings and quiet surroundings, the village is also located next to a spacious hilltop park, aptly named Montmartre Park, which is perfect for a peaceful stroll.
“Montmartre Park is very nice to go on a little walk on a beautiful Sunday afternoon or any day actually. Many of the French families here like to go there with their children,” he said.
The idea of Seorae Village as a little taste of France has been peddled around throughout the years with its nickname as a Frenchtown. Although the neighborhood doesn’t quite encompass the visual or practical expectations that one expects from an area that has received attention as a sort of France away from France, it does mark itself out from other areas in Seoul.
The neighborhood first acquired its reputation as a French enclave in 1985 after the relocation of the city’s only French international school ― the Lyce Franais de Soul. French citizens in Seoul then began to flock to the neighborhood to get closer to the school.
Although just 718 of Seorae Village’s 13,000 residents are foreign nationals, according to data from the Seorae Global Village Center, around 420 are French, with a majority of them children.
In the early 1990s, the country saw an increase in the local French population during a time when big French companies ventured into Korea. However, this phase did not last long, and the country began to see a decline in its French population after these big businesses shut down.
“There used to be lots of French people. This was mainly because in the 1990s there were a lot of French businesses in Korea. There used to be Train a Grande Vitesse ― a French rail company ― Carrefour ― a market chain of goods ― and a Credit Lyonnais, a French bank in Korea,” said a Seorae Village realtor from the Moamoa Reality Agency.
“However all these enterprises have all pulled out of Korea and with that, the numbers of French people decreased,” said the realtor. “We can’t really say that the number of French people decreased in Korea due to many enterprises pulling out. Europe’s economy is not very good right now and this has resulted in the disappearance of many French residents.”
In terms of the look of the neighborhood, at a quick glance, there doesn’t really seem like there is much about the area itself that conjures up images or emotions of a cozy, nestled away French village.
|The Merci French Flower and Cafe is located along the main road of Seorae Village, Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)|
An area where it is easier to find a place to have sushi or noodles than it is to find an authentic French bistro ― more than 15 Japanese restaurants are located on the main road, with less than a handful of wine bars and quaint cafes sprinkled in the mix ― one might say that Seorae Village actually seems more Japanese than it does French.
Upon first arrival at the village, one may ask if they have taken a wrong turn.
“At first, I wasn’t even sure if I was at the right place. I had to ask people, ‘Is this Seorae Village?’” said Najat Sifer, head of the Seorae Global Village Center, who is a native of Paris. “I was really expecting more French things, more French signs, more French restaurants,” she said. “There is nothing really French over here except for the people that you can meet on the streets.”
|Young French students learn traditional Korean folk painting at the Seorae Global Village Center. (Seorae Global Village Center)|
Sifer, who has lived in Korea for around two years, recalled that she was very excited to hear of a French Village in Seoul, where she imagined she could go to eat, shop and feel a bit more at home. However, when she first arrived, she realized that her initial expectations of the area were too high.
Although Sifer’s disappointment in the lack of many French-like establishments in present-day Seorae Village was a major factor in her initial less-than-satisfied reactions toward Seoul’s only Frenchtown, she did suggest that maybe the one correct term in Seorae Village was in calling it a village. It may not visually appear like an area in the French country, but the neighborhood does seem to have a quaint village-like quality to it ― in the small community of local French residents, everyone seems to know everyone.
“It’s a little bit different than other areas, it’s very nice and everyone knows each other,” Sifer said. “When people meet each other on the street they say ‘hi’ and they are all speaking French, so it has this kind of atmosphere.”
And although the streets in Seorae may be filled with non-European restaurants and chain cafes and establishments like Starbucks, Tom and Toms, Caffe Bene, Paris Baguette and Quiznos, one should not be too quick to judge. Many people may be tempted to add the Village’s Paris Croissant bakery into the mix of just another one of those chain stores that can be found all over the Seoul area. However, the Paris Croissant in Seorae is actually not like the others and offers its local French customers a wider variety of French cheeses, desserts and authentic French baguettes.
“If you go the Paris Croissant here, it’s the same quality as you would get it in France. You can even order your bread in French and everyone there can understand you,” said Zobel. “To French people, bread is very important. It is like the importance of rice to a Korean. So if you have good bread, you can already feel like you’re having a little bit of France.”
By Julie Jackson (email@example.com)