In this second post, I continue sharing discoveries I made about myself while travelling in South Korea. Namely: Sometimes I can overcome differences in expectation vs. reality. Sometimes, not so much.
Comparisons Invite Judgments
“There” is not “here” and there’s no reason why it should be.
I’ve spent many happy hours on Toronto Island in my life–childhood trips to the Centre Island amusement park, roller-blading in younger adult days along the paths, and nowadays as an older adult, more sedate cycling and admiring the scenery. I had Toronto Island in mind as I took the short ferry ride on my day trip to Nami Island.
Well, it’s an island. You get there by ferry. And there, the similarities to Toronto Island pretty much end.
I was surprised that there were no amusement park rides for kids. I was expecting there to be bumper cars and carousels but didn’t see any. Instead, there were Koreans of all ages strolling through the forests, meandering by the riverfront and cycling along the paths. I thought kids must find it a bit boring and that they’d have to be dragged there by their parents. But then I realized that the statues around the place are amusement enough 😉 I know Toronto Island has a nude beach, but I don’t believe there are any statues like these about the place.
Now, imagine if Suits had been filmed on Toronto Island and droves of Meghan Markle fans flocked to the island to see where certain scenes took place. That’s what I was thinking about when I saw signs dotted throughout the island, explaining that scenes from a very popular Korean drama were filmed on location there. But, never having seen the show they were describing, the signs meant nothing to me.
I found myself becoming unaccountably irritated. The familiarity-but-unfamiliarity was making me feel out of sorts and dissatisfied. Clearly not having learned my lesson, I decided to go to the Italian restaurant for lunch instead of having Korean food. The spaghetti carbonara was, like everything else on Nami Island, ‘the same but different’. The sauce was kind of soupy. It seemed to me like someone was trying out a new recipe without knowing what it was supposed to taste like.
But after lunch, I felt less grumpy and was able to properly take notice of the beautiful path along the riverside. It seemed the perfect place for a stroll. The trees were just coming into their fall splendour. Leaves drifted lazily to the ground on a gentle breeze. There were chipmunks. Sunshine glinted off the water, as it does, making the world a brighter place, time zone after time zone.
I happened upon another sign, this one proclaiming that a scene from Winter Sonata had been filmed at that very spot. It looked like a sweet show. One of the joys of travelling the world is seeing places you’ve been randomly pop up on tv or movies, and being able to say “I’ve been there!” I wondered if I could find episodes of Winter Sonata online, now that I’d been where it was filmed.
Before I caught the ferry back to my waiting tour bus, I bought a red bean bun from a vendor. It was fresh and soft and hot and sweet. I never used to like red bean paste. I used to think red beans only belong in savoury things like chili and it took me the longest time to get used to them as a dessert. But this tasted exactly right and I wished I’d picked up another one.
On the ferry, as I looked out on the sun reflected on the water, I reflected that it was a silly thing to travel thousands of miles away from home and yet expect things to be the same as at home. I thought about how out of sorts I was earlier in the day when I was making comparisons to Toronto, and realized it was because comparisons invite negative judgments. I thought about watching House Hunters International and how unhappy the prospective tenants always are when they compare the size and amenities of a property to what they had ‘back home.’
The ferry reached the shore. On my way back to the bus I saw a sign for another unfamiliar incarnation of a familiar item–Cheese Toast–that was just…so cheesy it made me laugh.
And I thought about signs and shows and toast and buns, and how, if you let the sun shine in, as it does, time zone after time zone, the different soon becomes the familiar.
It’s okay not to like everything
I pride myself on not being a jaded traveller. I can find joy in even the most ordinary travel days. I suspect I come across as being a bit Pollyanna about travelling as a result. But sometimes even I have to acknowledge when an experience is no fun.
Han River Cruise
So, being a water sign (Pisces), I like river cruises. The three-hour cruise (earworm alert!) I took in France along the Rhône river between Avignon and Arles seventeen years ago still makes me sigh with longing. It was that amazing, right down to the woman with the three-pack-a-day voice who sang like she was the reincarnation of Edith Piaf. I still have her CD.
Seoul has a river running through it–the Han River, which is quite historically and culturally significant, as well as beautiful. As I walked along the Yeouido Hangang waterfront park on my afternoon stroll, I saw that there was a river cruise leaving shortly. It was a sunny and warm fall day–a perfect day to listen to some interesting commentary and learn about Korean history; to watch the scenery go by while standing out on deck with a balmy fall breeze in my hair; to hear some nice music. Maybe it would be even better than the one in France! This was a no-brainer: I took the cruise.
Me, and approximately 300 pre-schoolers. And fifty or so infirm elderly Koreans and their carers.
Apparently, 1 pm on a Tuesday in October is not the optimal time to take a Han river cruise. Unless you are 4 or 84. There was no commentary, just a straight shot down the river to the turnaround and back. You go, then you come back: Koreans are a practical people.
There was a male singer with a constrained upper range singing earnestly–about love, I presume, although Korean does not sound like the language of love to my unpracticed ear. I decided to go out on deck, away from the music.
They sell seagull food on the cruise. Let that sink in. They encourage feeding the shithawks, the same damn things that rip open my garbage on Tuesday mornings after we’ve had mussels on the weekend.
Did I mention that I dislike birds? A lot? Like, if I wouldn’t get arrested, I’d be in St. Mark’s Square in Venice or Trafalgar Square in London going all Clockwork Orange on the pigeons. So a full seagull escort was really quite surplus to requirements, as far as I was concerned. As was their 21-bum salute. When Richard Bach wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a loveable and noble character, I’m sure he had never met an actual seagull.
I retreated inside and sat with the elderly Koreans and listened to the singer try to hold onto his high notes as desperately as a seagull trying to keep a fish away from his rival.
And then we were docked. The procession off the boat moved so slowly, it felt like it took as long to disembark as it did to take the cruise. Sandwiched between the old and the young, I was a pied piper of pre-schoolers behind thirty-seven people with walkers.
I walked back to my hotel with considerable relief that neither children nor seagulls were following me. I figured I could outrun the seniors.
The Rhône cruise has nothing to worry about.