[Click on pictures for larger copies]
Sunday 24th March Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul
A week and a bit, and I'm surprised by how settled in I feel.
My apartment is only ten minutes walk from the University, which is in the former headquarters of the secret police, up on a hill. In front of it is a small park, alongside it a small historic site, [an ornamental garden and some royal or noble tombs - Korean dignitaries of old were buried in kind of Tellytubby grass mounds] which costs about 40 pence to get into, but is very peaceful and beautiful. Behind the campus is a tree covered small mountain, which is fenced off, and at the other side are the university's own gardens which have a large pond and wooden gazebo for contemplation and a wooded area with a kind of trim trail. All the park areas are used very fully by people of all ages but mostly older people exercising in impressive earnest. All in all it is a really nice area, immediately bordered by the shambling residential district of my flat, which is built around a maze of narrow streets and alleys, and is full of very mixed, mostly low-rise housing. From what I have seen of other parts of Seoul, I think I'm very lucky to be where I am. It is much more obviously run down than some parts, but it is on a more manageable scale than most. In fact the flat itself is incredibly quiet, considering the density of population of the whole place.
I am on the first floor [or second in Korean] and although there is only one bedroom, there is a separate living room, with two sofas in it, so we should be OK when the family arrives. I've now got most of the technical domestic issues more or less sorted out - I can switch the wonderful heated floor on and off, I know when to put the rubbish out [any night I want is the impressive answer to this one - it's collected every day!] and I can even operate the interestingly different washing machine. To achieve this last one, I took a picture with my digital camera and printed it off, so that Insoo my translator could scribble down what the buttons mean for me. There is a television in the bedroom which shows fourteen Korean Channels, one from Hong Kong and the American Forces Network, which has the odd thing worth watching, if can cope with the bits in between - [Operation Enduring Garbage] But now, outstripping all this, I have a cable connection to the internet -I'm wired up 24/7, for twenty pounds a month all in. I can surf the hours away, video-conference with home, and listen to Radio 4 round the clock if I feel really homesick.
The neighbourhood wiring is all up in the air, with a spaghetti of cable on every street on every level. It's a good metaphor for the way the place has grabbed technology with both hands, fantastically impressive, but also terrifying. You want somehow to slow down the stampede and pause for thought, but why the hell should they have to wait.... Another wonderful symbol is the dark pink plastic machine on the draining board. I thought it was a dishwasher, but it is actually just an electric dish-dryer - a drainer, where you can stack the dishes, and then press some buttons so that hot air dries them. 'At last, an end to all that tedious waiting while the dishes drain dry!'
So all in all, I like my flat. There is no wash-basin, and there are large cracks in all the walls, but perhaps it is an indication of the deranged optimism which is my inoculation for this trip that I found myself being pleased about them. I figured that Ali will not worry so much about the hairline cracks in our kitchen. As I write this, I see a small flaw in my argument......
This week has been very full of work. Rehearsals are probably going well, but it's difficult to be entirely sure. I spent five happy hours on a trip to the Immigration Office to be registered as an alien, I visited one palace and several markets, I got more used to the constant bowing of students, and I slotted into a kind of rhythm
My traumas over the Gobi Desert seemed a fair way away by Tuesday, but they've followed me, or at least the desert itself has - in the form of a yellow mist which descended that morning. Everyone put face masks on, and the nurseries and elementary schools were closed, so that children could be kept inside. This is the Chinese Dust, a nasty smog which floats across from China every now and then. Mostly desert sand, but picking up sulphur and stuff en route. I made my way into college, and asked a student about it. 'How long will it stay?', I asked. She shrugged and said 'I don't know...Spring, maybe' So for a while this was a cause of some gloom. In the end it was thinner the next day, and has gone altogether now. Again, though, perhaps it's just me, but there seemed to be something more significant held within the idea of this country being helpless in the slipstream of China, vast and mysterious....
Time for bed. I hope you are all well. It would be good to hear if you've received this, because a good deal of my e-mail seems not to be arriving, and it's impossible to know who is getting what. I'm copying these messages onto my website, in case I go on having problems, so you can always keep up with me there.
Love to you all