Seoul doesn’t feature on many travellers’ bucket-list. Honestly, it didn’t feature on mine either. It doesn’t have the glitz of Shanghai or Tokyo’s breakneck pace. The city is austere; a lot of its cultural/heritage sites were destroyed or damaged during colonial rule. And the effect of its bitter past is hard to shake off. A lot of its past struggle is amply evident on local subway communication systems or the weathered lines of the elderly. Someone — looking for a love-at-first-sight feel — will be sorely disappointed. And yet, it’s beauty lies in its understated style, hidden local markets, smiling ajummas, and hazy mountains in the far distance. When I visited Seoul, for the first time, last August, I felt it was a city that I could possibly live in. It was laid-back enough for me to feel comfortable and not overwhelmed by cultural rigidity.
Collectively, over a period of a year (interspersed with trips back home), I’ve spent four months in Seoul. If you count the time starting from our current relocation (this July), we’ve completed over a month. This past month hasn’t exactly been an easy ride. And when things go wrong, they have a way of dragging everything else into a downward spiral. I never thought setting an apartment or subscribing to basic services would be such a task — with language proving to be the biggest barrier. The climate changed drastically, with a heat wave, that spiked humidity levels and set temperatures soaring. Back home, my mum’s health look a downturn with a tooth extraction gone wrong. And as I said, when you’re stuck in the pit, it’s hard to find a way out. Those silver linings aren’t easy to find.
Sometimes, its the simple things which bother me the most. Integration into a foreign culture doesn’t as much. Maybe, because I know, that being foreign will always be challenging and no matter how long you stay in a place away from home — it will never truly be home. But then, as a traveller, I’ve often asked myself the question, where is home?
After a while, it’s easier to accept life as is. To let go of things. And walk. Explore. Breathe. Live. Soon enough, the thoughts will fade away, and that’s probably what helped me readjust to Seoul. If there’s any city that beckons putting those feet to good use — it would have to be Seoul. And only when you walk, will you realise hidden shortcuts, gigantic exhibits of art (in plain sight), and how normal life can be here.
Basil and I often meet over lunch. There’s a small park/recreational spot near his work place and it’s a hotspot for office-goers and elderly people. In the afternoon, the sound of water fountains and children squealing, when the drops of water hits them, can brighten anyone’s gloomy day.
For as much as I like to walk around, I dislike having to play the dancing game at signals. There have been times, when the heat was intolerable and my legs would refuse to move, when I’m 5 minutes away from the crossing, and the light turns green. It’s a tick-tock from thereon. Panting and running have become a part of most of my walks.
My favourite part of any walk — is the possibility — of finding a lengthy patch of green. A new project, has converted old railway lines, in our locality, into a walking space which connects neighbouring subway stations; occasionally interrupted by arterial roads. It’s my favourite spot in the evening. Even on a warm day, there will be a gentle breeze to cool you down and the trees shield the fading rays of the sun.
In summer, the cicadas spend their last days, perfecting their pitch, and preparing to welcome the next of kin. I’m amazed by these invisible beings adding life to Seoul city. Their life span is rather short (7 years) and they spend most of it underground, only to emerge and end it on a high note. I wonder, if humans are the only species to need specific goals in life, moments of glory, and names to be etched on wooden plaques. Why can’t we more like our counterparts in the animal kingdom and be content on ‘living’ rather than achieving? Sometimes, while I walk, my thoughts seem to drown out even the loudest of them all. And that’s when, I know, that I probably need to get out more often and find someone who can speak the same language.
September is a few weeks away. And I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping for some respite from this heat and for the colours to turn. Early as it is, some leaves are already showing signs of change. At this moment, change is exactly what I need.