Seoul Searcher

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do It When You Can

Venice, they say, is the city that you must visit at least once before you die.

Sure, I would like to visit the Italian city but it is just one of many cities and places that I would like to visit. Sadly, though, I realize it’s more than likely that I will die before I have a chance to do so. Time is running out on me fast.

Like so many others, I wanted to visit those famous places when I was young. But it was the period in my life when I was too poor or too busy trying to make a living to do so. Since I retired, I have time enough and a bit of money, but, ironically, I have reached the stage in life when traveling is simply too strenuous to enjoy.

There is a saying in my native Korea: “Play, play when you are young. For, you cannot when you are old.” How true!

But when you are young, as I said, there are a lot of other pressing things for you to do (which is generally known as “the rat race”), so that traveling for pleasure or enlightenment has to take a backseat, in a manner of speaking.

Last year, my wife and I went on a cruise on the Baltic Sea. No, it wasn’t a fancy or luxurious cruise, I thought, but since it was my first and only experience, I have no way of comparing it with others. But it was a good way of travelling and sightseeing for old folks, my wife agreed, because it wasn’t physically demanding as we moved from one country to another by ship. But it was a far cry from my youthful days when the ideal trip was to visit places alone or with friends who shared similar interests.

I used to despise group tours when I was young. I thought it was foolish for tourists to follow a guide, like a flock of sheep, from one place to another in accordance with the schedule set by the tour company. They passively listen to what the guide tells them and exclaim “ah” and “oh” as they look at the things the guide points out to them.

Herded by their guide, they breeze through museums, barely managing to have time to click their cameras at “famous” paintings or sculptures, before moving hurriedly on to catch up with the group.

In this connection, I remember an episode I read a long time ago. Dostoevsky, while visiting a museum in Basle, was transfixed in front of a painting of the crucified Jesus. According to the story, Dostoevsky stood there, apparently all alone, for a long time staring at the painting, “Descent from the Cross,” by Holbein. Perhaps because his reaction to the realistic painting that depicts the physical suffering of the divine being was so intense, he suffered an epileptic fit on the spot.

There are very few who can be captivated so intensely by a painting as Dostoevsky was. Although I wasn’t such a sensitive connoisseur of the arts as the Russian author and visionary, I used to prefer to visit a place—be it a museum, a church or even a public park—when I could spend as much time as I wanted, alone, so I could enjoy it.

But in this day and age when every well-known museum in major tourist destinations like Paris and London is packed with milling visitors, it is impossible for anyone to stand in front of a famous painting for a long time undisturbed.

The idea of going through such a vast and grand museum, for instance, as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in Russia, in a couple of hours is ridiculous, even outrageous, and yet such, it seems, is the norm for any group tour these days.

Perhaps, it would be worthwhile to join such a tour if your purpose for visiting world famous places is to tell your friends and relatives about it as well as to remind yourself that “I have been there,” and to show the pictures or video clips to prove it. But of course, we all know that we like to visit well-known places to satisfy our intellectual curiosity and aesthetic senses.

Should I ever be able to visit Venice, I would go there not just to ride one of the gondolas through the canals or sip a cup of espresso sitting in the famous St. Marco Square, but rather to look at paintings by renaissance masters and cathedrals and other beautiful structures I had been introduced to through The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, both by John Ruskin, among other books.

But if my experience during our visits to St. Petersburg and the Scandinavian capitals were any indication, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate all those wonderful buildings as well as works of arts, if I were to go there under the arrangement of a guided tour.

In St. Petersburg, in particular, I wanted to stroll around the Nevskii Prospekt, the bridges and embankments of the Neva River and the back alleys of the old Russian city, all of which have become familiar to me by reading and rereading the stories of Pushkin and Gogol. I had also hoped to have at least a glimpse of the apartments where Dostoevsky and Nabokov were said to have lived. But touring those places was impossible, unless I gave up the tight tour arrangements made by the travel agency.

Years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon. It was indeed a grand experience to stand on the edge of a rocky precipice and feel how great—how infinitely great—the works of nature were and, conversely, how tiny and insignificant I was in their midst. But later, I realized that we had only skimmed the surface of the Canyon. Far more magnificent and awe-inspiring spectacles were hidden, as it were, from us, I found out, when I went into a nearby theater and watched films that showed breathtaking, unbelievably beautiful views of the Canyon down below where we hadn’t had the time or energy to go.

Then, I thought that even if we like to travel, there is a limit to it, like everything else we do in this world, and that there are many places where we can only visit in our imagination aided by books and DVDs and television programs.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Gingko Trees Forever

The city of Seoul has been the capital of the Chosun Kingdom for 500 years and of the Republic of Korea for 61 years. It is an ancient city by any standard. And yet, today, it is a modern metropolis and many old landmarks and structures have been torn down mercilessly in the name of economic development. They were replaced with tall gleaming—and ugly, I must say—steel and glass buildings as well as broad streets and boulevards, that were paved with concrete to accommodate millions of cars running over them day and night.

Except for a few city gates, palace buildings and pockets of traditional houses that were designated by the government as “cultural ”assets,” there are few structures that Koreans can proudly show to foreign visitors not to mention enjoy themselves as part of their time-honored heritage.

There used to be a stream that ran through the heart of the city but even that was covered up to build a highway in the 1970s, the period of rapid and heady economic progress. Recently the highway was torn down and the stream was rebuilt with concrete.

It is true that whereas most buildings and roads in the capital cities in Europe were built with stone, granite mostly, those in Seoul and other Korean cities, were built with wood that easily decayed or was destroyed by fire. Compared with stone structures, wooden buildings, needless to say, are difficult to preserve, especially in time of war. And Korea has its share of wars triggered by foreign invasions.

Incidentally, most Koreans do not remember but during the World War II, when Korea was part of Japan, the United States did not drop a single bomb on Korea from its aircraft, thanks to the ardent appeals by Syngman Rhee, an exiled Korean leader in America, who later became the founder of the Republic.

In any case, many old buildings that survived the Korean War (1950-53) were razed to the ground, without a second thought, by government authorities and the construction industry during the 1970s and ’80s when South Korea was making the dizzying economic ascendancy, which eventually become known as the Miracle on the Han River. A few ancient structures were also rebuilt and sometimes relocated as they were forced to make way for new buildings and streets according to ever-changing city reconstruction plans.

The latest victims in the city’s fast changing fa├žade were a row of large, old gingko trees that line the middle of Sejong-no Boulevard, Seoul’s equivalent of Champs Elysees in Paris. Some 29 gingko trees, 12 to 13 meters high, that stood in the traffic divider in the middle of the street were uprooted and moved elsewhere in the city under the plan to build a plaza in the middle of the boulevard.

The gingko trees up to 100 years old had graced the otherwise desolate and traffic choked street with their green leaves that turning to brilliant yellow in the fall. They provided Seoulites not only with a beautiful and romantic atmosphere but also cleaner air, as they are extraordinarily environment friendly trees.

The gingko trees on Kwanghwamun were designated as the symbol of the city of Seoul in 1971. But President Lee Myung-bak, when he was mayor of the city in 2004, decided to remove them in order to build a plaza.

In an opinion poll, however, 88.7 percent of citizens opposed the plan. But when it was publicized that the gingko trees had originally been planted there by the Japanese colonial government (1910-1945), 72.3 percent of the people approved their removal. The Koreans hated the Japanese colonialists so much, they want to destroy and erase everything Japanese from their memories.

When I visited Seoul last summer, the construction of the plaza was going on in full blast with most of the gingko trees already gone. And the work has been completed by now, and the plaza opened to the public on August 1. But if you are living overseas, there is no way of knowing how the boulevard looks now with the plaza in the middle of it.

I read somewhere that the plaza was going to be declared a rally and demonstration free place, but I am willing to bet my last dollar that it will be used by the people of what has become to be known as “the demo-crazy” country sooner or later. After all, the street is lined with the main government buildings and the U.S. embassy and therefore it is, in a way, an ideal place for political activists to air their feelings and grievances.

In any case, in a country where the cityscape seems to change at the whim of government leaders, I hope that someone in Seoul city hall or in the central government will decide to replant those wonderful gingko trees in the Kwanghwamun Plaza someday soon.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mona Lisa and Me

When did I first see her? It was such a long time ago that I cannot remember exactly. It could have been when I was in fourth or fifth grade in primary school in a remote mountain village in Korea.

One day, leafing through the school’s only copy of an encyclopedia in the small reading room that was dubbed a library, I came across Mona Lisa.

It was a faded black-and-white photo printed on coarse paper. The caption, I remember, said something along the usual line that the name of the woman “with the mysterious smile” was Mona Lisa and that it was a great portrait done by Leonardo Da Vinci.

I just didn’t know what to make of her. To tell the truth my first impression was that she wasn’t so beautiful. I thought she looked rather severe, if not forbidding, on account probably of her fixed and unflinching gaze. And her famous smile was not a smile at all; it simply looked like she was smiling because of the shape of her mouth.

Thinking back, I realize it was impossible to judge any work of art by looking at an extremely poor black and white reproduction only a little larger than a postal stamp in the Japanese edition of the encyclopedia. What’s more, I was only 10 or 11 years old, born and living in a remote village where I had had no chance of running into a Westerner. There was no point of reference, in other words, and therefore, I had no way of knowing whether Mona Lisa was a beautiful woman or not.

It was during the Japanese colonial period in Korea. And Japan was in the midst of the Second World War against the United States and its allies. The Japanese imperialists had been brainwashing their own people as well as Koreans with daily bombardments of propaganda that portrayed all Westerners as evil incarnate and downright monsters. That was despite the fact that Japan was part of the Aix with Germany and Italy.

In view of the hatred that we were supposed to feel toward the people in the West, it was almost unimaginable that there still existed an edition of an encyclopedia in Japanese that showed the Mona Lisa among other objects of Western culture.

I saw the “real” Mona Lisa in her permanent home—the Louvre Museum in Paris—in 1964. Even now, whenever I think of that day, I feel it was like a miracle as I had the great fortune of being almost alone while standing face to face with Mona Lisa in that room.

It was a dismal rainy Friday afternoon in late October that I happened to pass by the Louvre, on my way to my flat from Alliance Francaise, the language school. I noticed that there weren’t many visitors at the museum, perhaps because of the inclement weather or perhaps because most foreign tourists had gone home by then and the Parisians were busy preparing for the coming weekend. Anyway, I decided to drop in.

As expected, the museum was practically deserted. Even in the room where Mona Lisa was hanging, there were only two or three visitors at a time. And even they were not lingering in front of the smiling woman for long.

Imagine how excited I was! There was a god-given chance to have a tete-a-tete with Mona Lisa without being distracted by other visitors. I told myself to be calm and collected while unobtrusively looking at her from various angles and distances and without disturbing the occasional fellow viewers.

Needless to say, since my first encounter with her in primary school in Korea, I had seen many different copies of the masterpiece before I was actually able to look at the real Mona Lisa. And some of them were really excellent reproductions showing even the traces of individual brush strokes. I had also read a great many articles and books on the paintings by Da Vinci written by art critics and cultural historians. As a result, I had already formed a vague sense of admiration for the Mona Lisa, like so many people around the world.

Yet, the moment I stood in front of the painting, all they said about her seemed to have vanished; there was only her “real self,” having shed, as it were, the words of almost universal adulation and appreciation; there was only the close and intimate look and the feelings that I got from her in return.

My initial reaction was that the painting was small, much smaller than I had expected. And it was also dark, perhaps because of her dark hair, the dark brown costume she was wearing and dark bluish background. If I had not known her all those years through reproductions, I must confess, I could have easily passed by it after giving it a cursory glance as I would at many other portraits by other major Florentine artists that were hanging in the Louvre. But then, of course, it was Mona Lisa, and she is different from all the rest.

Even though I was untrained and unsophisticated as a lover of art, I was struck by the ethereal quality that, I understand, is evident in all Da Vinci paintings. There is that all-too-well-known smile of hers with a slight touch of irony and sense of being amused at the whole set-up she found herself in—posing for a portrait.

But because of her serious and unflinching gaze, I felt, she was not only an enigmatic woman but also a nobler lady than the mere wife of a wealthy merchant as she was reported to be.

I lingered in front of her for more than a quarter hour and then, thoroughly familiarized with the famous woman, I came out of the museum and into the October rain, with a profound feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

“Accomplishment,” I must admit, is a strange word, but in view of my later experience where Mona Lisa was concerned, I, indeed, felt that I had accomplished something on that day in the Louvre.

The next time I came close to meeting the Mona Lisa was in 1970 or 71 in Tokyo. The Japanese Government borrowed the painting and exhibited it at the Ueno Museum in the capital. At that time, I was working as a reporter for a large international news agency at its Tokyo bureau.

Since I was covering social and cultural affairs, I had the right to attend the “introductory” event open only to the members of the press prior to the opening of the exhibition to the public. But somehow the highly coveted ticket allocated to our agency found its way to the teenage daughter of one of our bosses at the bureau. And I was forced to write a report on the exhibition without having gotten another look at the painting.

As I still felt like meeting Mona Lisa once more, I decided to join the crowd one day during the exhibition. Expecting a few hundred visitors and ready to wait in line for some two hours or so, I went to the Museum.

To my great surprise, however, I found a serpentine line of Japanese art lovers extending at least three long city blocks from the entrance to the Museum. And I was told I would have to wait at least four hours before I could get to Mona Lisa. That was not all, you were allowed, they said, to halt in front of the picture for only a few seconds, much less minutes, as visitors were constantly urged to move on. Even if you insisted on halting for a few more seconds, you wouldn’t be able to because the people behind you would push you right out of the way, they said.

After a long debate with a friend who went there with me, we decided to drop out of the line and go home. I was able to consol myself because, unlike my friend, I had had the chance to see Mona Lisa in Paris less than a decade before.

The last time I saw Mona Lisa—a glimpse of her, really—came in 2008 when my wife and I went to Paris for a visit. Even though I didn’t tell my wife in so many words, one of the reasons I wanted to revisit the City of Light was to meet the Mona Lisa, among other great paintings at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.

When we got there, it was at the height of the tourist season and the Louvre was filled with an incredible number of people. Every corridor and every room were crowded with camera toting tourists from all corners, I suppose, of the world. Especially the room where the Mona Lisa was being shown was packed with so many visitors that it was well neigh impossible to move around even if you managed to squeeze into it.

And everybody in the room seemed to be taller than me (at 5 feet 7) so that it looked as though a huge wall was formed inches from my eyes; I tried standing on my toes and craning my neck as much as possible in order to take a look over the shoulders, if not over the heads, of the people in front of me. But despite my desperate efforts, all I got was a couple of fleeting glimpses of the Mona Lisa who now seemed to be smiling in amusement at so many of her admirers.

But what made me really feel bad about the whole affair was that my wife, who had never seen the real Mona Lisa before, had a much harder time as she is shorter than I am and is not such a strong and aggressive person that she could push her way somehow through the walls of milling people. To make the situation worse, the room was very hot and stunk with sweat and other bodily odors of the many people so that my wife decided to give up her attempt.

Coming out of the Louvre, I suggested that we buy a good reproduction of the Mona Lisa at the souvenir store, but my wife, who is an art purist of sorts, said no. “No one can live through one’s life by doing everything one wants to,” she said. And I agreed with her but took secret comfort in the fact that at least I had had the good fortune to take a close and intimate look at Mona Lisa when I was young.


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