One of my chief joys when traveling is the discovery of something unexpected. When I land in a foreign country, there are certain things I notice immediately because I’m looking for them: scenic geography, interesting architecture, exotic food, strange and musical languages—all the novel images, textures, odors, sounds, and flavors that spring from a land and culture not my own.
When I’ve accumulated a few visits to a particular place, like Seoul, South Korea, some of the pleasure of the new is replaced by the pleasure of the familiar. There’s the Tower. They’ve finally finished that bridge. I love the way mist settles over those mountains. Here’s the street I follow on my way to work. I’m glad that restaurant is still open.
Most of the rough edges are smooth. I know how to work the subway, buses, and taxis. I can wander the neighborhoods near my hotel without a GPS and find my way back again. I can make coherent orders from a lunch menu. It’s nice, but I feel as if I’ve lost something important.
Yesterday, I took a walk, intending only to stretch my legs and get a bit of exercise. I decided to follow a busy road that runs along the base of Mt. Namsan, where I’d hiked a nature trail up to Seoul Tower on my last trip. The road offers some panoramic views of Seoul across the rooftops of an older, crowded residential district, and it was familiar. I walked a little farther than I’d planned, rounded a bend in the road, and found something I didn’t expect—a story.
It started, innocently enough, at Namsan Public Library, which stands at the edge of Namsan Park, a sprawling green space that occupies a hillside overlooking the north side of Seoul. The park is dotted with impressive monuments honoring this and that notable from Korean history and bordered by a snakelike reconstruction of the old fortress wall that protected the city in ancient times. Under normal circumstances, the park and its environs would have been the highlight of my extended walk, but then I noticed a little sign off to one side of the path.
Take note of that handprint on the sign. It becomes very important later.
The place was silent, all glass and white walls. The crowd of schoolkids in the parking lot had apparently just finished their tour, and I pretty much had the place to myself. The lone receptionist handed me an English-language brochure and pointed me to a small doorway on the right side of the entry hall, just past a massive statue of a seated figure that I presumed was Ahn Jung-geun. The banner behind him formed an auriole around his head that felt absolutely intentional. It seemed this person was something bigger than one more notable from Korean history.
And so, the story began. I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow.