Just some fish drying opposite the department store.
When I had only travelled in Europe, North Africa, Turkey and Japan, I used to say that I don't do „culture shock“. And 3 years and 30 more countries later, in a way, that is still true. I am not afraid of radically different cultures, food, religious or most social customs and can adapt very quickly.

That is, there is one thing I just can't do.

My first trip outside these countries lead me to South Korea, a country that these days is mostly known for its pretty boy bands, girls with plastic surgery and the fastest internet in the world (bus stop in the middle of the country side have free wifi hotspots!). However, it's also the country in the world that adheres most closely to traditional Confucian values. After 10 days, the way I was treated freaked me out so much I spent 3 entire days in my room in Seoul. Just like the Japanese tourists who dream of visiting Paris all their lives and then are utterly shocked that Paris is actually a shithole (I said it. I like Paris, but it still is a dank, smelly unsafe place).

Hang on. Rewind. So what exactly happened?

Confucius, the really smart old Chinese dude? Yeah, that's kind of his image in the West. Confucius revolutionize Chinese society (and with it, strengthen the emperor's and noble's role) by setting up an intricate social system. Depending on your age, gender, your job, your parent's job, your great-great-great-grandfathers job, your exact role in society was determined.

And in spite of about 50% of all the things (maybe 80% of everything in Seoul) in Korea is hyper modern, social dynamics still aren't. I've seen little boys in Busan's subway shout at a heavily pregnant women because she was “blocking” their seats – yes, even a little “man” seemed to be of more importance than a woman bringing new life into the world.

the friendly locals of South Korea
Wherever I stayed, the owners or staff, people just a few years older then me (or younger, but male) tried to tell me what to do at every moment of the waking hour. And the sleeping hours, too. What was good to wear, what I should eat. Who I should go out with. What I should say and how loudly I should say it. Even at the super alternative hostels aimed at foreigners, being there as a single woman was seen as a curiosity. I was asked where I was going or had come from even if I just went to the toilet. Controversially, much older people treated me like shit – obviously gossiped about me or mocked me and other travellers speaking English in public, kicked me out of souvenir shops (!) and restaurants (no solo dining in most traditional Korean restaurants).

I have a couple of Korean friends in Japan and London, and when I told them about my experience, they just smiled and said “I understand what you say, I have felt the same in other countries, but people just tried to take care of you”. Because I'm younger, because I'm a woman.

India did a similar thing to me, if maybe the other way around. Just because I was Western and rich by Indian standards, I encountered a submissiveness that was just ridiculous. But it didn't only apply to foreigners: rich Indians treated poor Indians like they were gods and the others vermin. Even though the caste system doesn't formally exist anymore, if you are born rich, it means that you had very good karma in your last life. The poor obviously did something deeply spiritually wrong.

I can't deal with people judging my by my supposed “background” and treating me according to my perceived “social status”. Being treated as a generic group instead of as a person.

I grew up in a culture that lacks any class system, at least officially. When I moved to the UK, I was shocked that people actually referred to themselves and others as “middle” or “working class”. Maybe because Germany has had such a stable welfare state (well, with a few decades of going backwards politically and economically) for the last 150 years, everybody knows they can make a decent living regardless of education, social status or the money/property they might inherit once.

I can use squat toilets and go to public baths with naked Japanese girls half or Arab ladies double my weight and not feel awkward. I'll say “I will be impolite” before entering a room in Japan, and “Excuse me, I was wondering if you maybe would have time to look into x” when asking for a service in England. I'm fine dressing conservatively in Muslim countries and even shutting up about the whole gay thing.

There isn't a custom that I can't adapt to. But bowing or commanding, or putting myself on a pedestal above others because some unwritten, ancient law says I'm superior or inferior?

Which cultural norms can't you adapt to?

(As much as I was interested in India, I now realised this ruined it for me. I will have another go with Korea in 2 months though!)

I can't quite believe that already six weeks have passed since our short trip to Marrakech! Going to Morocco is something that for some reason, seems crazily bold for many people, and very unusual due to the fact that it is a *dun-dun* Muslim country AND in "Africa". I've had seasoned travellers gape in wonder when I told them I went to Morocco on my own when I was 23, and before I had gone to any other "non 1st world" country.

Now, Morocco remains one of my favourity countries, yet, going there is simply no big deal. Morocco has had close ties with Western Europe for a long time (simply given its location and the fact that is used to both a French and Spanish colony), and given the influx of cheap flights, has become even more western-friendly. Morocco has an excellent train network and pretty much all ameneties you would look for in a "rich" country, yet it remains decidedly... Moroccan (people don't seem to like being lumped in with "Arab" countries as a big part of the population is Berber and the middle and upper classes strongly influenced by French culture).

If you are in Europe already, it's not a difficult place to get to, either: a flight from London to the Northern half of Morocco takes 3 hrs, 3.5 hours to Marrakech.

In short: there's no reason to hesitate or be intimidated to go to Morocco!

A visit to Yves Saint Laurent's Jardin Marjorelle offers an interesting combination of Spanish, French, Arab and Berber (native North African) culture. I actually missed out on the place on my last visit as I was only in Marrakech for two days, so this was on top of my list.

The gardens were established by French artist Jacques Marjorelle and later bought by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner - another example how Morocco accepted even those who were somehow "different" decades ago already (an openly gay couple running a landscaped garden in a Muslim country!).

Unfortunately, while we visited, about half of the garden seemed to be closed to the public due to renovation works, but that wasn't actually that bad because it's the atmosphere with lots of water and cooling blue tiles that makes the visit worthwile, more so than the plants themselves in my opinion (after all, it's not a botanical garden).

The absolute highlight for me was the small Berber museum, in which we unfortunately couldn't take any pictures and where every room seemed to have a ridiculous amount of "security" in the form of pushy bouncers you'd expect in a fancy west London nightclub. The different rooms show crafts, jewellery, clothing and much more about Berber culture and would be worth the quite hefty entrance fee (about $12, a lot considering most attractions in Morocco will cost you maybe $3).

Especially if you spend most of your time in the hustle of Marrakech's touristy main square and medina, the garden and museum seem like an oasis of tranquility.

On top of that, there are a bunch of really fancy yuppy-ish restaurants and an organic juice bar place outside the gardens - it might not be traditional Moroccan, but the place right at the corner opposite the entrance was uber trendy and served some of the best smoothies we've ever tried!

I've been trying this grown up relationship thing for a while. No, not as in getting children and a mortgage and all, but the light version of it. We both travel lots and are far from conventional, but still: at the prospect of moving in with the girlfriend this summer, I have started accumulating lots of crap.

From the 8th red dress to make up I will never wear to a dozen kitchen appliances and fancy bowls, and even high quality bed sheets, I have been spending money like crazy, telling myself that I need all these things now. And you know what, somehow, I do. I knew in my heart of hearts when I moved to Belfast that it's time to put down some roots, if only very fine ones. But mostly, buying lots of stuff means another thing: at the end of the day, I don't have the money left to plan any multi-week escapes to other continents.

Because there's a part of me that wants to run away, not from commitment, not from the girl. Maybe from myself. Mostly though, it's a running towards something. 2012 was a fairly unsuccessful year in travel for me: with the exception of three cities, I didn't really love any of the places I went to, and so I decided that this year, I will only go to place I really long to go back to, or that my heart really wants to explore.

No more “x could be nice”. If my heart doesn't give me a “hell yes” when thinking of a place, I won't go there.

I've been discussing this with the girl and close friends for the past weeks: in between moving out of my current place and moving into the next place, I could travel for a little. Everybody already seemed to know where I would be going, but I wasn't that sure.

But somehow, the stars have aligned: weeks of cheap flight offers by good airlines, all the books I read, all the movies I 've been watching, all the food I've been eating and all the new people I got in touch with.

I should be lying awake at night thinking of moving in with a partner for the first time in my life, but instead I lie awake and think of convenience store rice balls, neon-coloured shopping malls and train trips where you spend hours going past green mountains and rice paddies intersected by wooden houses and twee little vegetable patches.

So, this May, I'm going back to Japan, and giving South Korea another chance.

Which places keep you up at night?

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