July 17-25, 2013
Our Air Canada flight across the world fell just about where I expected it to, gently between the decadence of flying with the Asian airlines and the horrorshows that are the American carriers. They earned points for having an actual person at every key point of our journey (and usually an effusively friendly person at that), but lost points for substandard vegetarian meals and dysfunctional touchscreens.
But, oh the entertainment on those screens: Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket and The Grifters AND Louis C.K.’s Oh My God. (Is The Criterion Collection running the in-flight content department at Air Canada?). My joy at these selections was only exceeded by the moment halfway through the flight when I noticed that the Korean auntie next to me who had put down her Pope Francis book and was fully engaged in the obstacle climbing scene of Full Metal Jacket.
We landed. Linda was ecstatic at her homecoming “Korea is the best country in the world, this is the best airport in the world.” I was grumpy and groggy. My plan this time for dealing with the fun time that is our bodies telling us to go fuck ourselves for switching so many timezones so quickly was to stay up the entire flight and crash hard having been up 24 hours straight. A plan that was obliterated when I dozed off for the last two hours of descent. It was just enough sleep to thoroughly ruin my sense of time and space. My sense of wretchedness rose steadily the longer I lugged the 53 pounds of vitamins, nuts, gifts and suitcase that we are delivering to relatives in Korea. First to the rental phone counter, then to Korean Air counter to pay for our Jeju flight (on the other side of airport), then to the Airport train station (on the other other side of the airport), down a narrow street, into a cab, and down another narrow street.
In the cab we learned that, in their attempt to leave us an apartment stocked with groceries, Linda’s aunt and cousin has also inadvertently locked the keys behind a 5-foot concrete wall. When we arrived, finally free of the 53 pound bag, but still halfway in New York, I scaled the 5-foot wall that became a 6-foot drop on the other side opened the gate for Linda and then fell asleep at 6p/5a. But the two-hour nap on the plane and the 15 minute snooze on the train proved our undoing. After waking once at 10p/9a, staying up for 30 mins and then sleeping again until 2a/1p we decided to get up and plan our day.
With the skills we learned in China and refined in Mexico, we have finally learned that the first day of travel is always about errands in this order: finding electricity (plug converters), internet (always with a bonus coffee), money (international ATMs), and transportation (nearest subway). When the banking and transportation scenarios proved as difficult as they are in any foreign place, elated Linda had descended into frazzled Linda. She’s more than frustrated that Korea is less familiar than she wants it to be.
Elated Linda returned later in the day after the completion of less mundane, but simpler wedding-related errands. She scored a free haircut from a stylist friend, we ate a cheap yummy meal of ddukbbokki and fish cakes, and were doted upon by a fawning professional as we picked out the hanboks (Korean traditional dress) that we will wear at Sunday’s reception. By 6p/5a it felt like we had been up for 16 hours, because we had. We crashed, and this is the key I think (or at least it will be what my plan next time), we awoke at 10p/9a and went out for massages and beer. The rest that followed was deep and let to waking up at 7a, feeling like one should at 7a.
Today we woke up for the first time in 18 months without a wedding to plan. Yesterday was our third ceremony to celebrate our marriage. First there was the official efficient New York State/ New Jersey health insurance declaration that meant much much more, then the Quaker/Korean lakeside extravaganza, and finally yesterday’s formal Korean banquet. We kept this one brief. Dressed in hanboks, we read our Quaker wedding certificate, ate with the 40-odd friends and family of Linda’s who remain in Korea, and posed for photograph after photograph. With the final celebration done, our smiles will be resting alongside our brains.
Even though we made every effort to have our weddings reflect our mutual love of simplicity, pulling off two ceremonies, one in the middle of nowhere and the other on the far side of the globe had its share of complications. It has brought us closer to each other and gave us a better understanding of each other’s family (I fully appreciate that Linda’s grandmother’s primary concern yesterday was that I ate enough.) But as much as we enjoyed every moment of each event, we’re both looking forward to days without details and nights without negotiating.
Aside from the banquet, we’ve made a couple of excursions around the city for art museum visits and meals with friends. Seoul, depending on your measure is the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 8th most populous city in the world. But it has yet to feel dense like New York or Mexico City, even at rush hour there seems to be enough space for everyone. There is no jaywalking, there could be 100 people on the corner with no cars in sight and the crowd would wait for the flashing green man (an aside here that the best walk/don’t walk signs reside in Oaxaca where the figure does as close to a mosey as a collection of small lights can get when its time to go).
The majesty of this hit me on an early morning walk around the apartment. I came to an intersection and across from me stood two older women. We looked across at each other for about 30 seconds as the streets around us remained undisturbed by vehicles. An amazing little pause amid the noise of the city. You walk, you wait, you carry on. It’s like an urban breath. Obviously, I’m on vacation, not rushing to an appointment, perhaps I’d be less enthralled if I was on my way somewhere of consequence.
About a quarter of the way through our 14k bike ride along the Han River that divides Seoul in half south and north, I decided I adored Seoul. My point of reference for cities, for better or worse is New York. New Yorkers love our Newyorkness, that indefinable element (usually related to culture) that keeps us there despite the fact that it’s filthy, cacophonous, and almost everyone is rushing from whatever they were just doing to whatever they are about to do. The city is relentlessly challenging and unsympathetic, almost daring you to mess up so it can take advantage of you.
Seoul appears to be just the opposite. After a week, despite not understanding Korean, I believe I could survive and thrive here even without Linda as my gracious translator. What Seoul has along with beauty, cleanliness, efficiency, deliciousness, and accessibility, is serenity. On Wednesday, before our bike ride, we ate among stockbrokers and bankers at a noodleshop in Seoul’s financial district. We managed to arrive just after noon, when the entire neighborhood takes lunch. If anywhere was going to be filled with the brusk edge of urban living this was it.
The line was long, but brief and the only anxiousness came from me. When we finished our meal and set out to find our rental bikes, it was us the vacationers who zoomed past the strolling salary men. To date the only aberration I have discovered to this relative calm is the occasional motorcycle (usually a delivery person) that speeds along the sidewalk.
It was then we experienced the enchantment of a diagonal crosswalk, cars signaled to stop in both directions to allow pedestrians to cross both streets at once by walking across the entire intersection. There are countless numbers of the these subtle design elements (most related to computerization) that make moving around the city remarkably easy, despite the vast numbers of people going from place to place. Korea is for the most part still a homogenous society, but the entire subway system and most public announcements are in a minimum of two, usually four languages. Compare this with New York, which has more immigrants than natives, but if you are lucky enough to find subway signs, they are almost all English only.
Our bike ride along the Han followed a path in a park that is at the level of the river, a good two stories below the highways that run on either side. This location puts you at once at the center of the city and entirely removed from it. Our ride ended at a fountain where we dipped our feet in the cool water. We returned our bikes, and picked up the bags we had stored in the keyless secure lockers that are available at every subway stop before heading to a baseball game between LG Twins and Kia Tigers.
Across Eastern Asia, professional organized sports teams and leagues represent the latest evolution in team names. In Europe in the 19th century, teams represented athletic clubs within a very small geographic area. This is why most major cities in Europe have a half-dozen soccer teams. Supporters and players were bound to the club and often the ethnic identification or social class associated with it. In the US, we rather than root a team in a community teams were corporate businesses were assigned to municipalities, evolving to the point where taxpayers provide massive subsidies to the corporations that own the teams in order to keep them from fleeing to another town. The Asian clubs have done away with the geography altogether and included the ownership company in the team name. Thus you get the team representing the electronics corporation battling the team representing the car company.
The most striking aspect of Korean baseball is how active and involved the fans in the game experience. Each team has a soccer/ college basketball style support section. Each player has a song (usually to the tune of a pop hit) that the supporters sing in unison when he comes to bat. This performance is led by an MC and four cheerleaders on a stage about 10 rows into the stands on either side. What this translates into is constant positive energy from the fans whenever their team is at bat.Additionally, fans are permitted to bring their own food and alcohol to the game. People gather outside fried chicken shacks before the game and share their picnics as the night progresses. Tickets are cheap and Korean cities are close to each other ensuring that nearly every game is packed.
The baseball itself was pretty unsightly with lots of dropped balls and aggressive baserunning mistakes (at one point a Kia Tiger tried to score from 2nd base on a ground out). But the gameplay is only part of the experience. LG Twins fell behind early, but the supporters continued to sing throughout the game with the kind of energy, I’ve only experienced at playoff games in the US. Small plays like balls going barely foul or pick off moves inspired brief loud songs, exciting plays entailed half the stadium singing the name of player at once. It was nine innings of pure unadulterated joy with not a boo to be heard.