It was Friday evening. There was a stiff whiff of garlic in the air and an awful syrupy voice crooning “O Sole Mio” on the taxi’s radio as it scorched down a freeway topping 110kph.
The only signs I could see not written in Korean warned 60, meaning kilometres per hour. Whoever dubbed Korea the Land of the Morning Calm had evidently never been to Seoul. This is a city in a hell of a hurry.
I was on a two-night stopover armed with two Korean words and an expectation gleaned primarily from television news of unfriendly prosaic people, blisteringly hot food, stony-faced capitalists and rioting students who threw stones at police – a nation, in short, devoid of the touchy-feely stuff.
The Novotel Ambassador Doksan Hotel wasn’t far from Gimpo Airport but half an hour from the action in central Seoul. I registered and took a walk to ward off deep vein thrombosis and test some preconceptions.
There was a line of gut-rumbling aromas curling out of a back alley that led to a phalanx of takeaway joints frying chicken and steaming unidentifiable morsels in baskets, augmenting the overwhelming fragrance of garlic already thick in the air. I learnt something new – Koreans munch raw garlic much as Americans chew bubble gum.
Between the cafes were enticing little beer bars with frosted glass windows and sliding doors. There were no tourists but there was a Korean bloke in a ruffled suit with a stubby of beer in one hand, the other holding a building. I felt strangely at home. “Hullo, hullo,” he cried, spying a foreigner. “Hullo,” I replied pleasantly. He leant closer: “Ah,” he said. “You speak.”
The only other Korean I had ever met was a restaurateur in Brisbane twenty-five years ago. His name was Kim and he was a wealthy, almost ascetic sort of fellow most of the time, but his austere manner masked a roaring sense of humour and he did like to share a drink.
Next morning, on a cool sunny autumn Saturday, I set out to discover Seoul and whether the hometown mob was as enigmatic as Mr Kim.
Maple trees had discarded their crimson leaves joining the golden gingko ones on the footpaths as fast as they were all meticulously swept up while gun-toting guards patrolled in pairs.
I found Seoul to be an impeccably clean city of tranquil green parks full of wedding couples, combative traffic, centuries-old palaces set in stubborn defiance of the encroaching skyscrapers and open-air markets full of quality fake designer clothes nestling between mammoth department stores full of the real thing.
In Tapgol Park, elderly folk gathered to play traditional Korean chess and sit aloof in the thinning sunlight. I caught the eye of an old man with a stringy grey beard dressed in balloon trousers and a flying jacket several sizes too big. There was a tentative smile before he proffered a gloved hand.
“Hujo,” (Australian) I tried clumsily. “Ah, Hujo,” he grinned. “Hujo.” He seemed delighted either that I could utter a Korean word or that I happened to be Australian, probably the former. Apparently not many Hujo turned up in Tapgol Park.
I felt a tender touch on my arm and turned to see a smiling youth with four top teeth missing and food scraps stuck to the corners of his mouth. “Kiss, kiss?” he lisped. “Anyo!” (no) I snarled, exhausting my vocabulary. He tried a couple more times and eventually took the hint, sashaying back to a clutch of down-market queens wiggling their bums at a bunch of students who had volunteered to clean the lawns.
Outside the park, food sellers prepared for lunch. An elderly lady tossed little dark things crackling in a wok. She giggled when I studied them closely and offered me a scoop of deep-fried crickets, sans wings.
They were crunchy with a not unpleasant nutty flavour. I followed up with half a dozen stuffed chillis. “Aaahh?” she called after me shaking her head in synch with her forefinger. “Kamsa hamnida,” she chided me gently. “Say thank you,” she repeated in English, smiling sweetly. I felt like a barbarian dork but now I knew four words.
A colleague who knows about these things suggested I have a cool drink at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club. I think it was up on the 23rd floor and at reception a beautiful twenty-something called Kim (25% of the population is called Kim) looked up from a rock magazine as I explained that I was not a member but a bona fide travelling journo from Australia and in urgent need of refreshment.
She looked at me quizzically and shrugged. I took that as a “yes” but it didn’t matter. Miss Kim was back in the rock magazine.
There were two men inside who turned out to be a sensitive American and a Korean movie director who apparently owned a property in Montana where a relative was a Christian missionary. It was impossible not to eavesdrop.
“My son-in-law was driving last week and saw a whole family of elk right by the car door,” the KMD began. “He grabbed the rifle, drew a bead and – oh shit, it was still a week till elk season and you could reach out and touch them,” he marvelled.
“Why shoot them?” the American seemed horrified.
“Sausages,” said the KMD.
I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was an important looking Korean with a stony expression. “Are you a member?” he asked. “Well, no but…….”
“Sorry sir,” he beamed, “this is members only club.”
I was trying to avoid It’aewon but one drink is never enough. Seoul’s bar district is not everyone’s cup of tea; its proximity to the large US Eighth Army base at Yongsan is one reason but the street markets, hectares of kitsch and cheap junk teeming with tourists, is another.
Elvis was bleating “Don’t be Cruel” from somewhere as I passed a clothing shop with a commotion inside. A pigeon had flown in, crapped all over the ski jackets and slightly injured its wing. The owner was comforting the bird, trying to protect it from further damage when an American backpacker with attitude intervened.
“Let it go,” she shrieked, misreading his motives. Startled by the command he did and it flopped onto a rack of pullovers barely able to fly, outraging the backpacker even more. “He’ll probably eat it,” she growled storming off. He didn’t, he set it free.
By dusk the streets were bristling with Korean suits. It was a short hop from boardroom to bar. The Country House promised “fun ladies” but I picked the Stardust Bar run by a grim Miss Kim who was chatting with a large American across the bar.
“Hi buddy,” he greeted me affably. “I’m Magic Mike.” Magic was a Vietnam veteran whose leg shattered in eight places when a booby trap exploded. “Ah went home and got stoned awhile, studied up engineerin’ and now, Ah just goes round the world afixin’ things,” he drawled.
“Why Magic,” I asked. “Ah had this sixth sense about situations,” he confided. “Even saw that goddam tripwire just as mah buddy tripped it. He got his whole leg blowed off.”
As we shared a couple of Budweisers and reminisced about the war, I asked Miss Kim why the parks were full of brides and kissing couples. “Autumn and spring are the marrying seasons,” she smiled. “We’re very romantic, you know.” I didn’t.
In the Cowboy Bar down the road it was early and I was the only customer. Behind the bar, dressed in a T-shirt and tight leotards, was a very attractive Korean bartender named Sonia who was practising stretch exercises to a Jimmy Buffet CD.
After she delivered my fourth Alabama Slammer (Amaretto, Southern Comfort and sloe gin) I noticed a magazine on the bar in English with an advertisement on page seven.
“Feeling travel stressed?” it read. “Blow off your stress with live bullets. Ten rounds of .38 calibre bullets for only 30,000 won at the Taerung International Shooting Range.” I drained my glass with a parting glance at Sonia, now almost in a clove hitch. “Onya Sonia,” I called. She didn’t notice.
By ten o’clock, It’aewon was buzzing. I almost collected a motorcycle guided one-handed by a delivery girl, the other hand was steadying a pile of pizzas on her head. Song Ki Soo yanked me out of her path, a middle-aged architect who had learnt some English at school and still carried his original phrase book.
I offered to buy him a drink in appreciation, as one does, and he steered me up some dark stairs into a dark sort of club bar. He ordered five large bottles of beer and some hard dried squid. Ki Soo poured my drink into a warm glass inviting me to pour his. “Custom,” he said. “Ah, sank you so very much,” referring to his phrasebook. “Beer,” he said, practising pronunciation. “Beach,” he added.
“Beach?” I queried. He indicated a video screen behind me with topless girls bouncing on a beach and grabbed his chest. “What you call?”
“Tits?” I replied. “Ah, tits.” He jotted this into his phrasebook and showed me. There was an important phrase he had heavily underlined. It read: “Can you give me a discount?”
The bill was 15,000 won for the beer and another 15,000 for the repulsive squid. I paid up and hailed a cab. An hour later I was barely a kilometre away stuck in First Namsan Tunnel with a cabbie who kept falling asleep. It was probably carbon monoxide poisoning; the windows were closed against diesel fumes. Without air-conditioning, it was so stifling I slowed my breathing. It was starting to feel like a suicide pact except there was a meter ticking.
I couldn’t talk comprehensibly to the driver but I’d shown him one of those “Getting Home Safely” maps the hotels provide so you don’t become a missing person. After two hours he pulled up in the driveway, grabbed the 18,000 won and disappeared.
I looked for the familiar revolving door. There wasn’t one. He’d dropped me at the Novotel Ambassador Kangnam. There were at least three hotels in Seoul with similar names that in Korean can be easily distinguished. For anyone unable to communicate it was a gridlock lottery. The concierge was sympathetic and phoned another cab. He’d obviously done this before. “Sofitel Ambassador,” I heard him say to the driver. “No, no, Doksan,” I howled.
Back in the traffic and thoroughly disoriented I gave up fretting. Prosaic people? Soppy romantics? Wasn’t that a contradiction in terms? A head down-arse up, take no prisoners work ethic? Probably, but anywhere else that would be at odds with a conspicuous soft spot for tradition, religion and getting smashed. Not here. Somewhere between a bus terminal and the Han River the notion of benign schizophrenia sneaked into focus. Inside every Korean, I decided, there lurked another poised to pounce on a preconceived notion and shred it to bits.
Outside the crawling cab it was almost freezing and I had only a cotton shirt. I could see myself spending all night in that cab. Recalling those homeless guys in New York living in subway cars I almost began to envy them. They only needed a lousy token to ride all night and my meter was already on 16,000 won. “Doksan? Doksan?” I begged him feebly.
“OK,” he grinned, eyes fixed ahead. Then I saw it. High above the windscreen, dead ahead, was a jet in landing mode. Airport? Doksan. He did know, God bless his garlic breath.
Story and images Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited).