Lately I’ve become a vegetable (maybe to make up for not eating enough of them–vegetables, that is). Although the winter here in Seoul is nothing like what folks are enduring back in New England–or even in Old England, for that matter, and we’re not having our worst drought in 500 years, as they are in California, it’s still far from inviting to go outside. Not just due to the clammy temperatures (again, it’s not even that cold, but as you get older, you get colder; that’s why, as the Rolling Stones say, “You’ve got to move”), but on account of the influx of yellow dust from China and Mongolia, which used to be a seasonal phenomenon, but now likes to drop in off and on throughout the year. It makes breathing a challenge. I could wear one of those flimsy little white cotton masks you sometimes see on pedestrians’ faces, but that would mean fogging up my glasses and running balls-first into parked cars. It mostly just irritates your eyes and throat, not to mention allowing cancer cells to insidiously colonize your assorted internal organs.
Yesterday my wife Jina, a formidable opponent, I assure you, and I finally got up and started moving around in the late afternoon. (I largely live my life in parentheses, like Steven Wright; in other words, I slept especially late due to a long and exceptionally unproductive stretch of insomnia spent surfing the Internet; Jina tends to stay up incredibly late, and shortly after she retires, I get vertical, not so much to escape her snoring frame as to write without interruption or distraction. Yesterday I neglected to do any writing, marooned in a listless state of non-inspiration due to a squabble we’d had the night before. Marriage: the merger that turns into an emergency.)
Once we’d dispatched our “breakfast”–I guess you couldn’t even respectably call it brunch–we walked up the hill outside our building.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “Look what they did to the trees!”
The ginkgo grove that grew alongside the road had been suddenly truncated.
“They’re only half as tall as they used to be,” I said.
“Did you know it’s not safe to eat ginkgo? It’s contaminated,” said Jina, as if that explained the arboreal emasculation. Considering how filthy the air is though, if so, it’s no surprise.
“It looks wonderful,” I said, even though I meant to say “terrible,” but sarcasm reared its ugly head at the last second.
We went to a cafe owned by a friend of ours and had a nice chat with her and her housemate, who lived in France for six years and speaks English with such a heavy French accent and with such animated, demonstrative facial expressions and inflections and gestures, I sometimes forget that her native language is Korean.
Since I was flush with Jina’s allowance (forty bucks–woo-hoo!), I decided we should live it up and asked Soomi, the woman who runs the cafe, to regale us with one of each of her assortment of “hand-made” cookies and brownies. That meant two small cranberry and oatmeal cookies, two star-shaped double-layer shortbread affairs bedecked with apricot and strawberry jam, respectively, and one rectangular brownie. We also ordered two Americanos. I usually ask for two shots of espresso in mine, but since it was the weekend and evening was coming soon, I decided to settle for just one instead. Jina, as always, ordered a single (believe me–for her, that’s plenty. She doesn’t need any more help in the hyperactivity department).
I asked Bridgette, Soomi’s housemate, if she wanted a cookie, but she politely declined. I offered Jina one of the two teeny oatmeal cookies and ate the other one myself. It tasted a hell of a lot better than a eucharist wafer, much as I could have used some wine to wash it down with.
Inserting the apricot star-shaped cookie in my mouth, I took a bite and said, “Mmmm! Soomi, this shortbread cookie is delicious!”
And God incinerate me in a drone strike if it wasn’t.
She thanked me with her big, warm, everybody-loving smile. She has beautiful, glittering eyes that are of such a dark brown hue they’re almost black. Soomi is one of the most impressive people I’ve met in Korea. She works her ass off to keep her cafe going, and she’s managed to sustain her business by securing a core of loyal customers, including Jina and me. (Jina often says we should stop going there in an effort to save money, but if we didn’t we’d probably never get a chance to see Soomi, considering she practically lives there, and after all, she is our friend.)
Not helping matters are the other new cafes popping up along the street. Korea’s a vehemently competitive society, so it’s not unusual to find a ridiculous number of the same type of establishment in close proximity to one another. You’d think they’d like to spread out a bit more, but claustrophobia is built into the culture.
For example, after an informal teachers’ meeting at another cafe in Gangnam on New Year’s Eve, I got a first-hand glimpse of what the future may look like around the world. When I looked up at a clock on the face of a building upon entering the subway station, it read ten past six. I waded into a river of people. It took me ten minutes just to get down the stairs to the subway platform. Then I had to wait all over again near the back. It was so crowded, I had to let three trains go by before I finally managed to board one. By the time I finally got on the train, it was five minutes to seven.
That’s forty-five minutes spent in a mass of strangers, each one separated from the pack, not only by the cranial confines of their brains and caged hearts, but by earbuds and smart phones. Sure, I could have been a jerk and pushed my way to the front, but I thought it more polite to suffer in silence with my fellow commuters.
Suffering is the one thing everyone has in common.
Getting back to Soomi’s baking skills, the funny thing is that she doesn’t even like to eat sweets herself, but she’s a master at creating them. She’s like Beethoven in that respect, seeing as he couldn’t enjoy his Ninth Symphony due to an unshakable attack of deafness. I guess you could call her the bodhisattva of tasty treats.
It was imperative that we buy a jar of her homemade tangerine jam too, an exotic alternative to marmalade.
Jina was feeling achey so we went to a drug store nearby so she could buy a heating pad. The store had expanded from the humble pharmacy it once was, looking more like a bona fide convenience store. Progress works in strange ways.
I got a kick out of some of the names of products displayed on the shelves. Germanium Heating Pad. Shouldn’t that read “geranium”? Or is it a product from Germany? Is it made with some kind of German uranium, and if so, are you sure that’s the best way to sell it? Sensy Gel. Rub yourself with it and you’ll feel sensy all over. Shining Teeth. That sounds like nuclear toothpaste. Acnes. Don’t hold back–call a spade a spade. But don’t you think a better name would be Zits? Arginine 5000 Potenciator. What’s that, a ramped-up Argentinian Viagra substitute? And my favorite: Dr. Nuts. Hey, that’s my doctor you’re talking about. (Under the logo of this nutty package it read: “Be My Doctor.”)
Before we left I sat down and checked my blood pressure. It was a little high. I’m in the pre-hypertension category. According to a website I looked at when we got home, that means I’m three times as likely to have a heart attack as someone with normal blood pressure. The other night, when Jina and I had our latest big fight, I thought I was going to, but my body changed its mind at the last minute. Sometimes I can feel my heart rate increase when she enters the room.