28 September 2003
...And a second apology due, to anyone who's been watching these pages impatient for another bulletin from my oh-so-exotic life: I haven't been ignoring you, truly, I've been away again. Korea this time, Seoul and points north, on a British Council trip to attend a fantasy forum with a bunch of other writers, publishers & academics from the UK and Korea.
And a quick private grovel to all my friends, for the conspicuous lack of postcards. I did buy some, but they were in a book and it was far too beautiful to tear up; and then I never found a post office anyway, except the one that had been sacked in a riot in the early 1900s and so had never had the chance to sell a stamp to anyone, let alone to me. Let this be my postcard to you all: a few scattered notes, gleaned from those few random hours when I was neither working nor wandering the streets, gazing about me in shock and awe...
[Sunday 21st Sept]
So I've been in Korea four nights now, and I have another four to go, and it's not enough. No surprise, that: I do seem to like these big Asian cities. Taipei still has the edge, I think - it's sort of looser, less confined, its laces far less strait - but Seoul still makes me very happy. There must be a universal factor at work here: the people, the climate? Nope, they're both distinctly different. The pollution? Surely not, but it's the only constant I've spotted so far.
No matter. I am here, and I love it, and I'm already trying to ooze an invitation to come back. I'm being so virtuous, I'm starting to stick to the carpet. I have chatted up the ambassador, and the ambassador's wife; I have smarmed and smiled with the great and the good, and done dirty drinking late into the night with the lesser lights who actually get things done. Mostly by me, at the moment. I've done everything the British Council have asked me to, and volunteered for more on the side; I even said yes to a TV interview tomorrow morning, which is a first.
I'm meeting publishers tomorrow, as well. Here at my new hotel, which is a bit of a pity. I've just moved from the very grand Koreana (room & board all covered by those lovely people at the BC) to somewhere distinctly downmarket, or in this case upalley, because hereafter I have to pay for myself. Sigh. I do like the gravy-train lifestyle, it suits me well.
Still, even cheap & institutional has its consolations. There's a sign in my room that says 'Civil Defence exercise is conducted on the 15th day of every month. Please english yourself as the exercise at the pamplet in the lobby.' I have no idea what it means, and I've missed the 15th, but I'm still swanning around being as English as I can be, just in case that helps.
Actually, in Korea you don't have to be a cheap hotel to have weird English in your signs. The Koreana has a notice in its lift that says 'Please do not lean against the wall and open compulsorily.' So I tried not to do that, but it was tough. Here the lift has the sexiest voice I have ever heard in a speaking machine, all soft and husky and whispering. Doing it in Korean only makes it more suggestive.
And I have an Emergency Rope in my room. It's not long enough to reach the ground, and there are bars on my window in any case, but it's still a great comfort to me.
Also, the hotel has no fourth floor. I've been up the stairs to confirm this, as I didn't quite believe the lifts, and it's true. Straight from three to five. Must be a superstition thing, I guess; they can't have forgotten, or miscounted.
This hotel is a very long cab-ride from anywhere, because none of the cabbies know where it is and they won't listen to advice - not from Hyang-A, not from Yoomie and certainly not from me. It's actually only a very short walk from the last, much grander hotel, but it might as well be in a different world: up a seedy back alley rather than right on the main drag. In this at least Seoul is much like Taipei, that there are seedy back alleys crouched all around the main drags. That's universal - I walked as close as I was allowed to the presidential palace, the Blue House today (and yes, it is blue), or at least as close as my nerve would let me given the increasing interest from secret service personnel, charming young men in dark suits and smiles who wanted to know just who I was and where I was going, where I was coming from, all of that, and the point where I turned back was right above the most ramshackle shacks I've seen in the city so far.
But I digress. I like this hotel more and more, and one of the reasons I like it is the alleys all around. There's a man outside right now, with a stall selling soft toys and bad jewellery; and every time I'm passing he's flicking at them with something halfway between a fly-whisk and a feather duster, and he never touches them but he puts a startling amount of energy into whatever it is that he's actually doing, and I can't work it out. If he had a water-sprinkler I would accuse him of asperging (and talking of which, there are whole displays of water-droppers in the museums here, and they are ceramic objects of varying sizes and I cannot for the life of me work out what it is that they do either, or why they should want to do it). Perhaps he's being prophylactic, dispersing the city's grime before it actually touches his wares. But I doubt it. It's probably something magical, to make them sell better.
I found out why there's no floor 4 in the hotel, by the simple expedient of asking Yoomie in the taxi coming back from the TV interview (a triumph, apparently - watch it on line, at arirangtv.com, if you must. I won't). The Korean word for 4 is the same as their word for death, and not unsurprisingly has acquired a little superstitious baggage. Even sensible buildings like the British Council substitute an F for a 4 in the lifts, to keep the semiotics not so threatening; silly buildings like this one just omit the fourth floor altogether. Fine by me, I like a bit of silly.
But the best thing about the alley life is all the food on offer. Yesterday I ate udon noodles with octopus and clams; I felt obliged to, having entirely chickened out of trying to find out what one of the street-stall cooks actually did with the dried octopus on display. [Note from later: they heat it up on a hotplate, and you buy it so, and take it into cinemas in lieu of popcorn.] Tonight I had pork dumplings in beef broth. Both, of course, came with kimchi; I am growing to love Korean cooking, at exactly the same rate as I am growing tired of kimchi. This is pickled vegetable, usually cabbage or radish, highly seasoned with red pepper and garlic and dried fish and then left to ferment. It's not at all unpleasant, in fact I like it entirely - but not every night. It really is the national dish; it seems to be compulsory on every table, and the largest display in the Folk Museum is devoted to tableaux of every stage of its manufacture. I found a two-volume coffee-table book devoted to it, in slightly dodgy English but with beautiful photographs, priced at around thirty quid. Two volumes might seem extravagant for pickled vegetables, but they have a couple of hundred different recipes, so maybe not. As the governing party here is splintering into several different factions, a journalist has stolen de Gaulle's quote about the impossibility of governing a country that has so many varieties of cheese - but here, the cheese becomes kimchi.
The folk museum is housed in this extraordinary complex at the heart of the city, where the royal palaces used to be. The Japanese demolished almost all the original buildings during their fifty years of governance here, and built their own administrative HQ on the site; the Koreans have demolished that, and are now painstakingly rebuilding what was here before. It's a vast site in the very centre of Seoul, and they're making a monument of it, and everything except the emotion that informs the project is ersatz, and I'm not even sure about that. It's a sort of patriotism, or perhaps a nationalism that demands reassertion after the Japanese occupation, and that's not hard to sympathise with; but if its best expression is this sterile environment where nothing happens, nothing grows, nothing lives, it's just a theme park with no rides, then perhaps they'd be better off with something new. They've even recreated a changing of the guard, 'like Buckingham Palace' the posters say; only these guards are actors rather than soldiers, their drums may be loud but their weapons are not sharp, they wear mediaeval costume and pose for the tourists' cameras, they guard nothing because there is nothing to guard here and the boys in red even have to wear fake beards to underline the humiliation of it all.
I found out what a water-dropper is; it's a device for adding water, drop by drop, to your inkstone when you are grinding ink for calligraphic purposes. So that's all right.
But this jetlag is a funny thing. I didn't sleep at all on the plane coming over, and we landed at half nine in the morning so I had another full-length day to drag through, and then slept only in sections through the night. My solution to this was to get drunk the next night, and the nights following; and it seemed to work more or less without argument, excepting only the one time when waves of sleepfulness broke over me and threatened to carry me away, at the very time when I was sitting on stage under the lights listening to my fellow contributors at the forum.
But then all the other guys went away, they only stayed till the weekend, and since then I've been more or less sober, and suddenly the jetlag is rubbing its hands and cackling. It hath seize of me, and I cannot break away. I'm exhausted, dozing where I sit by ten in the evening, and then wide awake by four am. Or three, this morning. It's now coming up nine pm, and I'm on the verge of giving up the good fight and succumbing to my bed, for however long that lasts tonight. At least I have the Discovery Channel for company through the long dark hours.
Oh, and I've figured out how everybody in the hotel knows me already. It's not just that I'm the tall Westerner with the hat; as it happens, I'm the only Westerner in the hotel. Which suits me fine. Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and why would I bother to move the world? I'd just wave the lever and cry 'Hi, everybody, here I am, look at me....!'
© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.