Monday, June 19, 2006

the triumph, the tragedy, and a
pair of literary epiphanies

Tonight's major triumph was a double hike up Namsan: I didn't go up the entire mountain twice, but I did make it up two sets of stairs. The goal for me is to do this without stopping; slowing down is permissible; stopping isn't.

The stairs are the most challenging part of any hike up Namsan; from Smoo to the foot of the mountain, I get about twenty minutes of ease. What comes next, no matter what path you take, is about ten minutes of sightly demanding incline, and then you have a whole menu of choices for the final part of your trek. The bus routes are the easiest: gentle switchbacks, shallow incline-- but they do take a bit longer. The stairs-- no matter which set of stairs we're talking about-- take you up faster, but the price you pay is twofold: steeper incline, plus the quadriceps workout.

A few days ago I found a new set of stairs up the mountain. To reach them, I have to bypass my usual entry point, Namsan Public Library, and keep walking along the road that curves leftward past the library and up the mountain's flank. The entry point is easy to pass by mistake: a humble set of concrete steps that suddenly appears on your left. The first thing you notice about these steps, as opposed to the steps by the library, is that they're high. You have to lift your feet about 20-30% more than you would on the other, midget-sized steps that abound in Seoul.

The steps are curious. I've seen them only at night, but they give off a vibe somewhat similar to the path in Heidelberg, Germany known as the Philosophenweg, a.k.a. the Philosophers' Way (some say "Philosophers' Alley"; the German "Weg" is etymologically related to the English "way"). True-- along this set of Namsan steps, there are no meticulously tended gardens, no stone walls with mysterious-looking doors, and no quaint German neighborhoods, but the vibe is there. Perhaps I feel this way because the stairs begin rather close to the local Goethe-Institut, which sits along the same road that passes the Namsan Public Library.

So this Koreanische Philosophenweg, if you will, is armed with tall steps. After you take the initial turn or two, you find yourself before a loooooong incline that stretches far ahead of you. The first night I saw that, I admit I lost heart, but I trudged up the steps all the same. Tonight, I was surprised that I made it up the steps even faster.

Some joker-- I suspect an American-- left chalk messages on the steps. This must have happened in the last day or so. At the trailhead: "Go on up." About halfway along: "Keep going!" And near the top: "U can do it!" That was my first literary epiphany of the evening.

When you hit the top of the Koreanische Philosophenweg, you find that you're not done: you're only about two-thirds of the way up Namsan, and now you have to follow one of the bus routes to the top. What I did tonight was this: instead of turning right and going up, I turned left and went down, with the intention of hitting another set of stairs up to the top: the meanest of the bunch, the library stairs.

I walked down the bus route, back toward the library, and discovered a different set of stairs from the ones I normally take. Shrugging, I decided to try these stairs out, and while it was murder on my thighs, I'm glad I did. They joined up with my "normal" stairs, and I continued on up to the top, my shirt completely drenched in sweat.

Seoul was roaring again this evening, perhaps in preparation for the upcoming World Cup soccer match with France, which starts around 4am, Seoul time. I don't know how this is going to go, and my heart is divided since I'd like to root for both France and Korea. The French team gets my sympathy because a lot of those players experience shocking racism at home. Hate French politics if you must (and I'm no fan of it), but the players playing their guts out on the field deserve better than what they get from the home crowd. Good luck to both teams.

My second literary epiphany struck me as I was walking downhill toward home: I entered one of the neighborhoods at the foot of Namsan, and passed a small English hagwon whose awning said:

E & I English Languuge School

I had a chuckle at that, and wished I'd brought along my camera. I hope those students are eventually able to master the English languuge.

I got home, clothing soaked, and decided to take a shower and wash my clothes at the same time, single-man style. You gents know what this can mean: close the drain of your bathroom sink, fill it with warm water and detergent, then dump your clothes in.

The wash cycle was going swimmingly... until I dumped my sweatpants into the sink and felt something hard and rectangular through the thick fabric.

Shit. My cell phone.

I yanked my pants out of the sink and tore the phone out of the pocket, but it was far too late. A single dousing, a moment of unmindfulness, and now... a long-time companion is dead. I hate cell phones, but this little guy had been with me, more faithful than a dog, since 2002, when my buddy Jang-woong first gave him to me. I feel almost as though I've accidentally eaten a beloved pet hamster.

Luckily, I have a new cell phone waiting for me at the office: one given to me for free by a very nice coworker of mine. It's been sitting at the Smoo office since last year. I'm going to have to get my number switched over to that phone; given previous experience, I might have to get my Korean buddy to do it for me, because my cell phone account is in his name. That's a pain in the ass, especially when a few Koreabloggers have reported success at getting phones on their own. Know this: my phone was foisted on me when I arrived in 2002. I didn't ask for it; it was given to me. Otherwise, I'd have tried the same obtain-it-yourself stunt.

And now, 'tis time for bed. I neglected to mention that I'm looking forward to seeing my good friend John the Kiwi again; I haven't seen him in years. If I'm not mistaken, he's here with his family, and I'm meeting him (them?) Monday afternoon. I know, I know-- earlier in the month I'd written that I had only one big social engagement in June. I was wrong, but I'm sure you'll live.



Maven said...

Congrats on the hike! The mental is so locked into the physical, and visa versa... I hope the chalk quotes encouraged you, a bit!

Jelly said...

Way to go on the stairs. You're the Stair Master! Sorry about your phone, but I almost spit the water I was drinking out my nose when I read the part about eating the hamster.
Since France and Korea tied, you should be very pleased, eh? It's balanced!

Anonymous said...

Korea pulled off a stunning draw with France, courtesy of a last-minute goal by my boy Park Jisung. We were very fortunate to get the draw, I think. Yet even undefeated, we stillneed to win against Switzerland to ensure going through to the Round of 16. Even a draw against Switzerland could sink us if both France and Switzerland beat Togo by more than one goal (a very likely scenario). I hope we don't come to regret that poor showing against Togo (yeah, we won, but it shouldn't have been that close).

Anonymous said...

Oh, forgot to mention this... you want racism? How's this for a comment from a Korean newspaper (related to me by Hyunjin, so I don't know which paper, could find out if you wanted): France's team has poor organization because most of the players are immigrants or second-generation immigrants.

Um, OK...