Leaving Seoul

IT STARTED TO RAIN. The weather had been tortuously sunny and humid for days but last night the sky had relented, and in bursts the drops continued to fall. Underneath my yellow umbrella I heard a pulse of thunder and they came down harder. There were the sounds and smells of late summer: crickets singing in the bushes; the sweet, earthy fragrance of wet leaves.

My wife and I had spent two years living in the Sinjeong (新亭) neighborhood of Seoul. We landed there by chance when J was assigned to be the English teacher at a nearby public elementary school. But after many weekends spent exploring the city’s other nooks and boroughs, it was still our favorite. There were no crushing crowds, but the streets felt healthy and alive. We sensed (and, to an extent, felt a part of) a community. Everything one could need or want — from pig feet to pocket wrenches — was a short walk away.

And it was the walks, really, that made the neighborhood. Especially those along the wide, tree-lined pedestrian paths that cut through the surrounding Mokdong apartment complexes. Here, families played badminton without nets, women sold seasonal fruit under pop-up canopies, and grandmothers gathered to gossip in the shade. Almost every neighborhood had a park nearby with outdoor exercise equipment. One had a path of differently shaped stones on which you were to walk barefoot, supposedly aiding circulation.

During the past week we hadn’t spent much time around home; J’s  brother and sister-in-law had come to visit from New York and we hopped around in a whirlwind of sightseeing and binge-eating. But today, our last in the city for a long time to come, I again found myself strolling through Mokdong Complex 7, lingering for a moment in its isolated calm and listening to the rain.

In Foxglove Tree Park, workers were setting up for a festival being put on by a local radio station, and I thought about the fact that I would be long gone by the time it got underway. It seemed impossible. Here, all around me, were the mundane goings-on of life…my life, the life that I had made and come to know. But tomorrow they would fall out of sight as we peeled away from the tarmac and launched forth on a journey of uncertain proportions.

The thought passed. When I had said my goodbyes to friends, I felt the emotional weight of my departure. Now I didn’t feel it. I went and got my hair cut. I ran to the post office. What had carried me here in the first place was momentum, a blunt but powerful tug to go and do. And so I let it carry me again. Backpack on, step forward, out the door.

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