Thursday, March 22, 2012

I wandered lonely as a cloud

Before you begin reading the blog post proper, here's a question for you: How many squares are there on a chessboard? (Hint: a lot more than 64.) The answer is many paragraphs down.

I have only two hard-and-fast appointments during this week off from school: a bar trivia quiz with friends last (Wednesday) night and a follow-up hearing test/doctor visit tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon around 2:30, I was sick of being in the apartment and convinced myself to leave for Itaewon, even though I'd agreed with my friend Jane to meet her at Phillies Pub by 8:00 to save a table for the 9:00 game. I wanted to walk, I wanted to see things on this first full (very nice) day of spring, and mostly I just wanted to do something. (I'm thinking of a song my mom used to sing to me long ago: "The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.") In my pack, I had my hash happi coat, patches for the patch lady in Itaewon to sew on it, and books to trade in at What the Book. And I had lots and lots of time.

So I set out on the seven-mile-or-so walk to Itaewon, along the Yangjae Cheon and along the back streets amidn all the kimbap restaurants and convenience stores. After an hour, I'd walked three miles, I was in Gangnam, my knee was starting to twinge, I could already feel the wind off the river I'd need to walk across, and there was the 421 bus to Itaewon, just sitting there with lots of empty seats...

So I got to Itaewon a lot earlier than my ETA, which was already really early. I dropped off my happi and patches and went over to WTB to swap out a Janet Evanovich, a Robert B. Parker, and a Korean for Dummies book, which proved true to its title by teaching no Korean letters whatsoever, for one Dalai Lama.

No, not this one.

 Then I had a coffee and went back to pick up my happi. (Incidentally, I just Google Image-searched for "happi coat + hash" and found five pictures from this blog. Huh.)  By then, I only had 2 3/4 hours till I was supposed to meet Jane. It was time to wander.

I've written about Itaewon several times before, but I don't know if someone who hasn't been there can really picture it. It's just around the corner from the United States' huge Yongsan Army Base. Itaewon features dozens of people selling socks and hats and toys out of motorized kiosks on the streets, about a million bars and restaurants of every cuisine on Earth, innumerable shops selling oversized hip-hop clothing for American soldiers, a bevy of Korean gentlemen who stand in front of their shops (windows adorned with people like Walter Cronkite and US generals shaking their hands) and ask a thousand men a day, "Custom-made suit, sir?", and, on the sidewalk and in the streets, Nigerians and Russians and Turks and Americans and Pakistanis and Poles and Egyptians and even a whole bunch of Koreans.

I'd never really explored "Food Street" behind the monolithic Hamilton Hotel before, but I went in search of Honest Loving Hut, the vegan place I'd heard so much about. I didn't find it. In the lanes on the other side of the main street, I did find Hyundae Sauna ("Korea's Biggest Queer Shelter"), whose door had the repeated close-up motif of what I can only assume from the drawing style is Homer Simpson's Private Area, as well as the most honestly named bar in Asia, "Are You Ready to Drink?"

I wonder as I wander. I was thinking Deep Thoughts and enjoying the sights of Itaewon's back streets and my solitude in the crowd. The sun was lowering in the west but it was still warm enough to have my windbreaker tied around my waist. There is so short a spring here, and an even shorter fall, and they're both beautiful.

Then I started on the half-mile walk to the other great Waegook (foreigner) neighborhood, Haebongchan, home of Phillies Pub, our trivia site. On the way down the main road from Itaewon, you pass the huge, ornate Noksapyeoung subway station...

This is its skylight. Those little dashes are pigeons. It's a big place.

...walk along the interminable, razor-wire-topped wall of the Yongsan Garrison, turn left at the end of the wall by the big kimchi pots...

...and head straight toward Seoul Tower, whose shifting nighttime colors make it quite the sight, up on Mount Namsan.

But you mustn't get transfixed by the tower, because Haebongchan-daero, the street, is narrow and has neither sidewalks nor shoulders. What it does have, though, is haphazardly parked cars on both sides and a steady stream of traffic, much of which is being driven by drunks or, worse, cabbies. Too fast. At dusk, in this case.

After stopping on the main road for some gourmet basil/tomato pizza and exploring another little neighborhood on the slopes of Namsan, I picked my was along Haebongchan-daero to Phillies, where I arrived at 7:15. Phillies is tiny and if I'd met Jane at 8:00 as planned, we never would have gotten a table.

But despite my incessant prattling here about everything I saw, at its heart this post is about solitude. For many hours, I had nothing in particular to do and nobody to talk to. I wandered and felt alone. I don't know if other people feel as I do, or if it's just me being a loner, but for all my life I've many times where I've sought out solitude in the outdoors. The feeling isn't sadness, but it's not happiness either. It's a kind of satisfied loneliness, if that makes any sense, a sort of solace in separateness.

Hmm... separateness, serenity, satisfaction, solitude. The Sound of Silence. Stephen. And my favorite word in our language, solace.

See Robert Frost's "Acquainted With the Night"

Okay. My fifty minutes are up.

Moving on.

I held down the table at Phillies for quite awhile, quietly growling at anyone who looked as if they might want to steal chairs, till my peeps arrived.

 No, not these.

Finally, we were all there: my hashing friends Jane, Martin from Ireland, Emily, and Kat, Jane's friend Ally from Scotland, and me. There are only two big tables at Phillies and a half-dozen little round ones. The big ones housed us and the Team That Comes Every Week and Never, Ever Loses. (That was my folks, Brian, Nancy, Todd, and me, aka Hogwarts, in St. Augustine.) We wished very much to beat them.

We finished second, by one point. That was good for two free pitchers of beer (plus one from when we played a few weeks ago). But the good part...

After each trivia game proper, Phillies asks a bonus question. The pot starts at 100,000 Won and goes up 5,000 in each week in which nobody gets the answer. They had gone 17 weeks without a winner and the pot was now up to $185,000 ($163). The question was the one I asked at the top of this post: how many squares are there on a chessboard? Ally frantically scribbled "64" and ran toward the MC as I screamed, "Ally, come back! Come back!" (I knew very well they weren't giving out 185,000 Won for "64".)

He came back and the two of us figured it out: one 8x8 square, four 7x7 squares (two horizontally times two vertically), nine 6x6s (three horizontally times three vertically), 16 5x5s, 25 4x4s, 36 3x3s, 49 2x2s, 64 1x1s...

The answer is 204. If you got it right, I'll share my winnings with you when you come to Korea to visit me.

Ally tipped the bartender and bought shots for the quizmasters with the winnings, then split the money with me. I got 70,000 Won, or double what I'd spent on the whole day. I grabbed the subway home and got back at 12:30 a.m., coated in cigarette smoke, beer fumes, and glory.

But really this post is about solitude. That's what I'll remember about Wednesday, March 21, 2012. That, and 204.

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