SEOUL, Korea -- October 22 & 23
As breath of Autumn's being bathes Seoul in hectic red, young men's fancies turn to... Costco!
Colleague Kelly Walsh and I discuss the possibility of a Costco run several days in advance. After a lunch meeting on entrance admissions and interview procedures Thursday afternoon, we tentatively agree to embark on a shopping adventure the following day. Upon answering his call Friday morning, we again discuss the benefits and detriments of a Coscto shopping spree. After a brief silence, my ear meets with a statement of indubitable gravity: "I'm running low on cheese." All doubt eliminated, I set out to Jongo to meet Kelly in his taxi bound for Sangbong, the location of the nearest Costco (there are at least three in Seoul).
This is where I wait for Kelly's taxi. As I wait, I see the following sign:
Pondering the moment of my chance encounter with this quaint shop, its window display seems a portent: is not every moment of our lives consumed with time?
I try to discern Kelly's form in the many taxis that pass. Little do I know, at this time he is approaching the Han River, far in the opposite direction. With little knowledge of the city and even less command of the language, after two years I still find it difficult to get around; Kelly has been here less than two months.
Once there, it is as if the entire staff recognizes the ardors of our journey, and welcomes us accordingly. While Kelly gets his papers in order, I take the opportunity to sanitize my cart handle.
Suspecting it might be unwise to shop on an empty stomach, we make our way to the B1 dining area, all the while taking pleasure in the spectacle of this Gourmand Disneyland. What would Roland Barthes have written of it?
As other customers who placed their orders after ours begin to receive their slices of pizza, we exchange dubious glances. I begin to wonder if we are being treated as second-class citizens. Then the man above points to the empty pizza tray. While Kelly had ordered a meat slice, I had ordered cheese. When the cheese comes hot out of the oven, Kelly changes his order to cheese: "Fresh."
Dining with Wallace Stevens scholar (and new Costco Gold Card Holder) Professor Kelly Walsh.
Membership has its privileges.
In good company: we find space to eat next to these two cheerful middle school girls. I ask if they are twins. They share pizza and bakes. Like most Koreans who dine at Costco, they also partake of this side plate:
10/23 1:36 pm
My taxi driver is
10/23 2:00 pm
DID YOU TELL HIM
ITS CHEAPER TO
BUY IN BULK?
My purchases include four cheeses:
The night before, I took a nap before heading over to a 7 o'clock cocktail party hosted by my student, Maciej Grzybowski. Unfortunately, I slept later than planned, and arrived for the first time in his neighborhood (near Hanguk University of Foreign Studies) map in hand. As they say in Japan, I'm a little "direction-blind." Although the map was precise, I made some mistakes, had to backtrack, and finally arrived at what seemed to be the site of the cocktail party. The house number was correct, but there were no Christmas lights or party sounds. I tried calling Maciej and some others I expected to be at the party, but couldn't reach anyone. It was almost 9 o'clock. I had an appointment to meet another friend at 9:30 for ping pong, so I had to head back. I had promised Maciej I would attend, and felt terrible. I imagined people laughing and drinking, then all going out for dinner. "What kind of professor am I? Can't even show up on time for a cocktail party..." On the way back, I send Maciej a text:
10/22 9:05 pm
Sorry I was late --
party is over?
Once home, I take another look at the invitation:
Rather than being 2 hours late, I had in fact been 22 hours early.
Quick post-swim dinner: told you the sandwiches here are good! This one (and salad) is from Lord Sandwich, near school (anyone know what these purple salad leaves are?).
Swimmingly refreshed, I head back to the cocktail party--again two hours late. This time, I am in time.
I also thought of likening writing poetry to going to a party. It puts you in a good mood. You know there will be music, even dancing; there's no work to be done there, just drinking, talking, and flirting. This analogy was fine for the initial pleasure part but not descriptive of what happens later, since in writing poetry you really do have to work, to make some kind of sense, and to bring things to a conclusion, which you don't usually have to do at a party.
(from Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days)
Inspired by this and talk during the party with Nina Jung, a Chinese graduate student in Policy Studies at Seoul National University, I ask several party-goers if they can write down a poem or part of a poem in their native languages from memory. This results in the production of three poems; the first, from Nina:
Quiet Night Thoughts
Bed In Front Bright Moon Light,
Doubt Is Earth Above Frost.
Fist Face Raise Bright Moon,
Low Face Thoughts Home Town.
Quiet Night Thoughts
by Li Bai (translated by Loren Goodman)
In front of my bed, bright moon light,
I doubt there is frost on the ground.
I raise my fist and face to the bright moon,
Then lower my face and think of my hometown.
Nina explains that this poem is about "Chusoeok," or the Chinese equivalent of this Korean holiday, a harvest festival during which everyone returns to their hometowns to be with family.
The next poem flows from the pen of Hajir:
We're more hard working than you
Even though we're drunk, we're more aware
You drink people's blood, we drink rose blood
Be fair -- who's more brutal?
Hajir explains this "anti-Islamic" poem was written by a poet whose name I heard as "Chayum" (hard "Ch-") around the 12th century in Persia. This would be "Omar Khayyam," right?
Konrad channels the third poem of the evening:
Great party! I stay much longer than I planned.
Once home, I look forward to sleep. But first, one last stop: