Finding my “Seoul”

Great East Gate

Great East Gate

A city is a lot like a lover. In the beginning it seduces you with its charms, its unknown mysteries luring you down its shady corridors. You want to know it, to plume its depths so that it reveals itself, slowly but willingly. And as the initial charm wears off you begin to wonder why in hell you upended your life for such a fickle, at times psychotic, affair. What was exciting becomes annoying, what was fresh is now staid, boring.

That’s into the first few months, an adjustment period when a lot of people entertain thoughts of jumping ship. But then slowly, over time, it begins to reveal itself anew, allowing itself to be known, not because you demand so, but because you’ve accepted it, you’ve found a place in your life for it, and thus are rewarded.

My first few times to Korea I actually saw very little of Seoul outside of the tourist alley called Insadong, but the batting cages there were enough to draw me back for more. That and the dramatic peaks that frame Gyeongbokgung Palace, or the winding alleys of Itaewon, the snaking Han River as it courses between the old city and the new. And the seasons; I wanted to see Seoul in its various guises, hot and sweaty or frigid with snow. Bedecked with gold or a flourish of green.

Three months into it and I was cursing the place. “What was wrong with the people here!,” I’d exclaim. God damn crowds, lousy restaurants everywhere, and more popping up every day. Fucking mall elevators that take an hour to reach your floor, and when they do everyone else elbows in so you have to wait for the next one. Nasty cabbies, rude grandmas, and no more respite from the maddening blitz than a cheap bottle of soju and watery beer.

Almost a year’s gone by now, with this past weekend spent relaxing in the Citizen Forest, on the southern outskirts of the city. I watched as my son played, deliriously happy, in the fountains nearby. A group of mothers sat on a mat under a ginko tree awaiting their jajjangmyun, black bean sauce noodles that are delivered more or less anywhere, whether a park bench or a high-rise apartment. The next day we lazed in a local jimjilbang, a sweat room where for a few bucks you can spend hours sweating, soaking, stretching, eating, watching TV, or sleeping. Afterwards we came out and devoured an Indian buffet.

Over the past year I’ve seen the city at its highest and lowest, from the peaks above to the depths below, mine and its. On mountain tops or subway tunnels, the city has opened itself to me and the more I come to know it, the more I fall in love with it, though I know she isn’t mine alone. Like the best of lovers Seoul offers something unique to all who accept her embrace.

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One Response

  1. nice article Pete.
    for me it is like with every new city. all the excitement at the beginning, while only later you understand and see a city how it really is. Away from all the tourist attractions.
    But unlike for you in Seoul – Singapore is not a lover to me.

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