Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Palaces, Lattes and A Public Nuisance
I'm playing catch-up here, but I'm okay with it. Last weekend Steph and I headed in our separate ways so that we could catch-up with some friends from home. While Steph drove out for a Saturday night in Itaewon and surrounding area - eventually making her way to a pig roast, I opted for the more traditional Saturday afternoon outing.
My day began with a trip to Insadong - one of our favourite little Seoul districts so far. There are good segments of it that are quite touristy, but it's worth it - small, cobblestone streets and lots of tea houses, coffee shops, art galleries and museums. I met with brother Ian for a nice long coffee at where-else? Starbucks. It is sometimes nice to get a taste of home while you're here. It was great to catch-up. It seems like it's been a long time since we were room mates back in Calgary, but meeting for coffee made it seems as though we were back there just waiting for Rob and Nav to come over so that we could play a little Halo online. Ah... the memories... we then went for a short walk to a music market that is the equivalent to Youngsan, only instead of electronics, this place is all about musical instruments. It makes me tempted to buy a guitar so that I can finally learn to play something other than "hot cross buns". Perhaps I'd better master the tin flute first.
After a coffee, we went for a stroll around the largest palace in Seoul: Gyeongbokgung (one of many English spellings that I have seen since I've been here). Insadong is also nice because of its close proximity to this and other worthwhile heritage sights. Like the palace that steph and I saw in our second week here, Gyeongbokgung is beautiful, huge, and majestic. Well, of course it is - it's a palace. But what makes the thing even mor impressive is the fact that it is one of the many that has been destroyed by occupying forces throughout the centuries since it was built in the late 1300s. It's a pretty sweet place to walk around. The grounds are huge, and though I would say that Changdeokgung Palace is in some ways a bit more picturesque, Gyeongbokgung is still a beautiful place to spend a couple of hours. We didn't have too much time to walk about, though I would like to return some day. There is a lot more to see there than time would allow.
After saying goodbye to Ian, I headed back towards Myeong-dong to visit with Joe - a friend I had know through the theatre community in Calgary who had been in Japan the past couple of years, teaching English. After a quick return to Calgary, Joe is back in Asia (Korea) teaching again and pursuing his masters in TESOL. It was great to catch-up with him and to wander around some of the madness for a while. Even better was having a plate of nachos and a giant jug of beer to ourselves. Better still was spending an evening chatting to a guy who missed theatre as much as I did, but was doing something equally important to him. That was very reassuring to hear.
My way back home on the subway provided me with my first truly strange experience with a Korean. How strange? It was really a beyond-the-realms-of-all- that-I-knew-“strange”-to-be, kind of strange. I was standing on the subway reading my new Richard Dawkins paperback when I was witness to a near religious experience! Well no – not really. What actually happened was I saw an older man – perhaps in his 70s though here it seems to be very difficult to tell someone’s age.
He was not a frail man though. And he was trying to chat-up a nice lady who happened to be the unfortunate one that chose to sit beside this man. He was pawing her a bit – not in an inappropriate way necessarily, but just in a “listen to me” or a “look at me” kind of way. For anyone who has ridden public transit before, this guy would be familiar to you. He was either inebriated or just plain wacky! Either way, I would, every now and then, glance over at the poor lady who would catch my eye and give me a pleading look as if to say: “please, freckly pale man… please get me the hell out of here!”
I could only comfortably reply with a knowing glance and a quiet shared laugh. But then the lady got off the train and it was my turn. The man decided that it was me who needed to be prodded next. So, he rose from his seat and approached me. He threw his arms around me and kissed both of my cheeks. This seemed to please the majority of the other people in the car who were either delighted at my discomfort or embarrassed as all hell for my predicament. I am hoping it was the latter.
Dude guided me to sit down with him where, through the assistance of a nearby surly and reluctant university student, I was able to understand most of what this man was saying, while the student was able to translate for me too. All was fine – even positively memorable at first. But then he wanted me to start singing with him. He tried to conduct me along with his Korean song, but I couldn’t understand the words or the song at all. At this point, I was also feeling the pain of realizing that I was in a subway car and I was the modern day discomfort equivalent of William Wallace on the cutting table. I simply needed my freedom. He suddenly developed an angry look on his face when I wouldn’t sing. I asked the young man nearby why this man would be mad, and he said “he thinks you should learn Korean.” Fair enough.
After I looked around at the other faces that were now too terrified to laugh or even offer a sympathetic glance, I realized my stop was next, took out my camera, snapped a quick photo of my new friend for this here blog and got the hell out of there. There is nothing like being ostracized in public in another language to really make you feel like an outsider. But – lesson learned: try to learn more Korean so to avoid similar occurrences in the future. Either that, or just realize that Korean Rail crazies are just the same as C-Train crazies back home and move to the next subway car.