In which we have our third literature-related lunch of the trip, and enjoy an important event in the Seoul social calendar.
Eulji-ro, Seoul, Saturday 14 June, 9am. I make a leisurely start to the day, ambling up via Jogyesa to Seoul Selection bookshop, intending to spend a chunk of cash. I get there at 10:30 to discover it doesn’t open until 11am, so instead I look around the shops in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art just up the street. I had been hoping for a coffee and a long browse at Seoul Selection, but when I return at 11am the coffee machine isn’t working and they don’t have the book I particularly wanted, and this rather takes the wind out of my sails. Somehow Seoul Selection doesn’t feel as welcoming a place as it used to be, and instead of buying a huge pile of books I simply buy one slim volume (Brother Anthony’s translation of Eerie Tales from Old Korea) and head back to Myeongdong feeling rather deflated, getting myself a coffee at a subway station on the way.
Lunch always perks me up, and I head off to Dangsan, just across the river from Hongdae, to meet up with literary translator Sora Kim-Russell. We have a pleasant chat over shabu shabu, and she recommends a walk along the river before I head back into town for the RASKB garden party.
I had forgotten what a big place Seoul is. What on the map looked like a quick stroll around the corner, followed by a hundred yards or so over a bridge to a quaint island, turned out to be a noisy hike alongside a busy highway to an island which was the best part of a kilometre in length. The sun was beating down, the traffic was hurtling past, and with each step I took the island appeared to be getting no closer. So I decided to postpone completion of the expedition to another day, and retraced my path back to Dangsan subway to return to the hotel.
Back in town, I smarten up. The annual garden party of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, is held this year in the grounds of the British Embassy, and the dress code is reputed to be smart, so I put on jacket, tie and straw hat. I walk along the street slowly, so as not to overheat, and arrive at the Embassy just in time for the welcoming speeches from Ambassador Wightman and from RASKB president Brother Anthony.
We are treated to a brief pansori performance before we are invited to tuck into the plentiful food and drink and peruse the bookstalls. Makgeolli was sponsored by a local drinks company and came in several tempting flavours including deodeok (bellflower root, Codonopsis lanceolata). I need not have bothered quite so much with my attire, as the dress code seemed to be quite a lot less formal than I had been led to believe, but I was not too out of place. It was pleasant mingling with the guests, including several familiar names from the world of journalism and Korean studies. Among them was David Mason again, and he had kindly brought along a copy of his Encyclopaedia of Korean Buddhism for me (which Seoul Selection had not been able to supply earlier in the day).
For after the garden party I had made tentative arrangements with an expat who is an emerging force in the Seoul cultural scene. But his interest in spending time with me seemed to wane when he heard that the author who might also have been joining us for dinner had some family commitments instead. So I was on my own for the evening. That was fine by me as I needed some quiet time.
As I walk across City Hall Plaza back to the hotel, I pause at the impromptu memorials that had been accreting there to commemorate the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster – a poignant installation of yellow ribbons which caught the light of the setting sun.
After changing out of my garden party attire I had a solo dinner of ojingeoteopbap somewhere in Insadong before retiring to my hotel to watch a completely non-Korean movie – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – in between answering emails and maintaining the website.