Sometimes the most important discovery you make when you travel isn’t the best restaurant or the best shopping–it’s self-discovery. In this and the following post, I bare my Seoul, and share some thoughts about how a different culture and new experiences challenged my worldview.
Listen To What a Place Is Trying To Tell Me
I’m Welsh by proxy (through Steve’s family tree) but I haven’t spoken to any Welsh people about this word. It’s apparently quite difficult to translate into English. It’s been described as like homesickness or longing, but more than that—a nostalgia for a place or a time that no longer exists, or perhaps never did.
So why am I talking about a Welsh word in a post about Korea?
I’m on a day trip from Seoul, to a small theme park called Petite France, about an hour and a half outside Seoul, in Gapyeong. It’s one-third of a long day tour that takes in The Garden of Morning Calm and Nami Island. Petite France is the last stop of the day. This place is more than unusual, it’s downright weird.
The theme park is not what I expected. It’s not so much a miniature France as an homage to the novella Le Petit Prince and its author, Antoine de St.-Exupéry. Statues of characters from the book are scattered everywhere . You’ll see multiple Little Princes posed around the park. And there’s a café named after the fox. The shop sells mainly Le Petit Prince themed trinkets. The café sells Korean snacks.
The façades of the houses are supposed to represent a quaint little French village, although frankly with their half-timbers I think they look more Bavarian. Tourists arriving in droves by bus seem confused, but try to make the best of it, for Instagram.
It’s like somebody’s acid trip vision of some rural France of some yesteryear. I stroll along the ‘Bonjour Walkway’—a long wooden boardwalk with music piped in from underneath. I hear a crooner version of “On Top of Old Smokey”–not kidding–and then of course, de rigueur, bien sûr, some Edith Piaf. There’s a painted facsimile of a poster for the movie Amélie. She looks like a Manga character.
There are houses you can go into that are supposed to be like ‘a French man’s house’ and a ‘French woman’s house.’ Multiple historical periods are jumbled together. ‘Jean’, the fictional male home-owner, seems to have an untoward fascination with Royal Doultons and porcelain clowns. I’m narrating all this into my GoPro, a wry smile on my lips, feeling quite smug– having been to France, I know it ain’t nothin’ like this.
I peek into another one of the half-timbered houses, expecting more clowns. Instead, it’s a gallery of photographs of Petite France, in different seasons, at different times of day. They’re surprisingly lovely. The ones in winter are particularly striking—not forlorn and grimly black and white as I expect it really would be in a cold Korean winter—but wonderland blue-white, with glittering snow, magical. The night scenes with fairy lights twinkling throughout the village make me think you might be able to spot the Little Prince’s Asteroid B-612 if you look hard enough.
This is not a theme park like other theme parks. This is one man’s pet project and he is very proud of how it’s turned out. You can see it in the photographs. They say ‘Look at me, I’m not weird, I’m beautiful.’ I’m a little ashamed of my earlier wry smile, but I still can’t shake the feeling that everything here is a little ‘off’. Like I’m disoriented after a strange dream and have resolved to stop eating cheese before bedtime.
I go into another house, and it’s chock a block with Le Petit Prince memorabilia. A wall of illustrations. A glass-front case with copies of the novella in all the dozens of languages it’s been translated into. Quotes from the book—in Korean, of course. I’ve never thought about people in other countries reading this book in other languages. I’m struck by how beloved this book is, worldwide, because of how perfectly St. Exupéry captured the universal feelings of loneliness and the need to belong and to be loved. My throat suddenly feels a little sore.
There’s a large plaque on the wall, an iconic scene of the Little Prince alone on his planet.
It makes me think about when I first read and loved Le Petit Prince: My last year of high school. I have a cute boyfriend. I’m at the top of my French class. I feel cool and worldly carrying this French book down the hall. I’ve been accepted to university. All is as it should be. Life and all its infinite promise beckons. I can’t wait to get on with it.
I’m still staring at the plaque, but not really. I’m staring at the memory of myself. Before teenage heartbreak. Before self-doubt. Before I met the wonderful guy who became my husband. Before marriage, births, deaths, careers and mortgages, joy and sorrow, sickness and health. Before life stopped being like I planned it would be and became the random thing that it is.
There are tears in my eyes. I feel homesick, but not because I’m thousands of kilometres away from where I live. I’m timesick. I’d like to go back in time. But, wait, no, I wouldn’t really, because then I’d have to go through all that again. (Once through law school was quite enough, thank you.) I wipe away a tear and bring myself back to the present.
I love my life and wouldn’t trade all its twists and turns for anything. There has been some sadness and hard times, but I have led a charmed life, by and large. But it’s still unsettling to think back on the earlier, fresh-faced version of myself and all the things, good and bad, that I didn’t know awaited me.
There should be a separate room dedicated to Proust enthusiasts here. This experience has been, to carry on the French theme, a little À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). It’s reminded me that, as my kids would say, ‘Adulting is Hard’. Leaving my past self behind with a sigh, I head over to the theatre to watch the marionette show.
The Pierrot marionette is almost carried away by his balloon, to the Theme From A Summer Place. (When was the last time you saw a marionette show? When was the last time you heard the Theme From A Summer Place?) We laugh. But then the puppeteer stomps on Pierrot’s balloon. It bursts and Pierrot hangs his stringed head in sadness. We still laugh. Because, really, what else can you do?
In the distance, Edith Piaf warbles La Vie en Rose from underneath the boardwalk.
There are some TripAdvisor reviews that say this is ‘not much of theme park’ and ‘you can be through it in five minutes’. At first glance, I would have agreed. But as I listened to what the place was trying to tell me, a deeper level of understanding emerged.
Petite France is not about France at all. It’s about nostalgia for a place and time that no longer exists, and perhaps never did. A time like Edith Piaf sings about, when we saw life through rose coloured glasses.
Petite France is about Hiraeth.