When I checked in for my flight to Seoul at the Belgrade aerodrome,
the desk clerk was bewildered. She had heard of Korea, she had even
heard of Seoul. But: oh my god, she exclaimed, I do mix them up so,
the north and south.
When I finally landed in Korea -- no visa required -- they had
never heard of Serbia. I had to trigger that magic word "Yugoslavia,"
so that the Korean computer blinked in nostalgic approval and allowed
me into the country.
The wild demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is a major
tourist attraction: so I was told. Not for me it isn't, I said: I've
seen too many of those borders, from Berlin, to Serbia, to the rest
of the world.
The American Cold War propaganda is surely bad enough there,
but in North Korea they are segregated so drastically from the rest
of the planet that everything they say sounds shallow. South Korea
wants to reach out to the North, to build cultural bridges,
diplomacy, finance, the usual, yet the North seems entirely
uninterested. What must the people think? All this fanaticism without
even the luxury of an ethnic
Until 15 years ago, in South Korea, women would
get a driver's licences whenever their husbands got one.
Women never had to take any driver's education courses, as it was
presumed that women would never drive. Then women took the wheel and
finally the law changed.
A huge, rapid transition for women, says a guest at the LIFT
event in Seoul: I am an optimist. He is a foreign expert living as
an optimist in Korea, he hopes his daughter will marry a Korean and
that two Koreas will re-unite.
People are lively, hard working, and, I notice, strangely
silent: this huge Asian metropolis of over 20 million is quieter than
a small town in Italy. The airport is as clean and solemn as a
hospital ward. The service in malls, restaurants, hotels is like
something from a science fiction movie: everything is possible, just
let me know from which planet you come.
The shopping malls are crammed with the usual Western luxury
brands, and hordes of Korean women shopping: when the women meet for
lunch, for once, they let themselves talk loudly.
The city never sleeps, but the workers are allowed to sleep at
work if they have no urgent duties or customers to pester. Empty
shops are manned by slumbering clerks. Unemployment is next to
zero: everybody is doing his/her small task in the mighty chain of
the big civil utilities, the Korean "chaebol" cartels.
Love hotels are rented by the hour, ten dollars for a bed in a
tall shiny building without architectural glamour. The skyscrapers
are as anonymous as the city's black and white cabs. Nameless
buildings bear numbers in nameless streets which are also numbered...
Beauty shops, beauty clinics, medical anti-aging clinics, in a
city where obesity seems almost unknown if not expressly forbidden.
What do they eat? The famous Korean dog-meat, live octopus
hastily chopped into violently wriggling shreds, a putrid pink fish
which reeks of ammonia. This pink fermented skate fish, stinking and
crunchy with cartilage -- the natives of the Korean deep south long
for this fish when they are in Europe, surrounded by stinking
European cheeses. And hot Asian peppers, even big Korean garlic
cloves that are searingly hot, as hot as hot can get; they might not
cure cancer, but one bite of those obliterates culture-shock.
The farewell event was a champagne party, sponsored by the
French, aimed at Koreans. Hundreds of beautiful Korean girls dancing
to Brooklyn rap music, dressed in their silky local fashions and
stiletto high heels, men in dark or silver business suits with long,
pointed, narrow black shoes... One woman at the party told me how
hard life is for a feminist in this very chauvinist male society. She
wants her career: society wants her to have a baby. Perhaps that was
why, after swilling much free champagne, she suddenly jumped into the
discotheque's swimming pool, fully dressed. Her boyfriend jumped in
after her and they lived there happily ever after.
Seoul's statue of the Maitreya, the huge Buddha of the Future,
was built only 11 years ago. In downtown Seoul this Buddha Who Is to
Come oversees the bland skyscrapers with his tolerant, easy worldly
wisdom. In his towering concrete meditations, perhaps he will open
the door to futurity for the one Korean people, so sadly divided by
that military business they call the Past.