Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jumping into the Seoul Scene

Sunday, Seoul time was an exhilarating trek through the streets and by-ways of a city bigger than New York that felt somehow more intimate and open. Maybe it was just the charm of my guide, Jungmin (later joined by another charming guide) and her shrewd maneuvering. However, nothing can be done to avoid the traffic jams of Seoul which are growing more and more severe even as I am typing this paragraph. It is one of those things that everyone complains about, but somehow seem to accept as a modern condition of city life. With 44 million people who own at least one car, driving is a challenge and you usually are trying to flee the city and the congestion for points south and the endless shores that outline the peninsula.

We went through some fashionable shopping malls to watch people and the gleaming and timely products, and ended up at Tani for lunch, a fusion eatery designed as an upscale but cozy retreat where conversation and idleness reign. It was difficult to disengage from this quiet oasis, but we were seeking to be in the streets and mingle with people and Korean Culture. It was extremely hot and humid, but nevertheless we headed for a landmark, Myeong Dong Catholic Cathedral, which was about 200 meters away. Our path led us through the street of youth, Myeong Dong, a boulevard without cars, inhabited by thousands of teenagers (and younger) with many shops and carts designed to lure them into sales, but they seemed especially savvy and out for other adventures. Walking this street gave new meaning to the phrase "strolling the boulevard..."

Eventually we came to the church, which because it was Sunday was filled with worshippers and tourists like myself. I took a few pictures but was fiercely attacked and admonished by a girl of about 15 years, who was supported by some man who appeared to be in charge of the back of the church. They were intent in herding people to the sides of the church where no one could see, while keeping the center of the sanctuary vacant.

Our real destination for the day was a martial arts musical show called Jumping that had been running for some time and became extremely popular after being acclaimed by a festival in Edinburgh. As it happened, we were to see the last performance of this show in the Cecil Theatre (a typical off-Broadway style space) before it began a national tour.

Upon leaving the church, we grabbed a taxi, and discovered that the driver did not have the slightest idea how to get to the theatre, even though it is a well-known destination and quite famous because of the hit shows that have played there. It was at this point, Jungmin pulled out her phone and called someone for directions, and then handed the phone to the driver, who despite this assistance seemed very reluctant to accept the directions.

Even though we inched our way through traffic, we made it to the theatre much too early and were told about a nearby cafeteria where we might spend some time and find some refreshment. But the cafeteria was closed for Sunday, so we wandered a long the street and stumbled upon a true national treasure that had been named by an international group of architects as the most impressive and beautiful building in Seoul, the Seoul Anglican Church.
This was an extraordinary discovery, and although the sanctuary was closed, a very kind gentleman unlocked the doors and gave us a personal tour. The architecture is Anglican gothic mixed with Korean, the only such structure of its kind. Even as I write this in the plaza of the Seoul Plaza Hotel, I am looking at this idyllic structure with the deep earthern orange roofs and light brown stone that sits in the center of the city, out of the way but also deeply in the midst of the life of Seoul. Begun in 1924, the church took more than 70 years to complete, and saw Seoul survive some of its most tempestuous times.

After leaving the church, we discovered a gallery maintained by one of Korea's largest newspapers, Chosan. In the gallery we found a very tasteful snackbar where we tried a beverage Clearly Canadian and a mango frappe. This turned out to be a great spot to talk politics, and I discovered that Korea's president is not well thought of (to say the least).

We then headed for the Cecil Theatre and watched a wonderful display of energy and imagination called Jumping, and by the time the show was over the whole place was jumping. A highlight of the event was after the show when the entire cast lined up to give autographs and pose for pictures. Jungmin collected all the autographs as I served as the historian/researcher.

You might think that would be the finish of a wonder-filled day, but we were joined by Youngju and headed for the Samsung Tower and a restaurant/bar known as Top Cloud. There we had impressive French Cuisine and shared ice cream and cake to finish the meal. The manager of the restaurant and our waiter were rather smitten by my guides, so we were treated to a tour and pictures before we finally left and called it a day.

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