Sancheong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, 18 May 2016, 7am
The morning is bright and (because we are still in the cool of the day) refreshing. I make my regular 7:30 call back to London, and start getting myself together. Black coffee, fruit and a pastry is the breakfast. We are due to pay a visit to the mayor at 9:30 in County Hall. As we chat over breakfast, Kyung-sook mentions that our friend Director Kim, who used to head the Sancheong Herbal Medicine Institute, has now changed jobs. His new job is heading up the tourist village where we are staying with the objective of making it a commercial proposition for the county. There is a fair amount of construction work going on, expanding the facilities (particularly in relation to sports) to broaden the appeal beyond its initially intended purpose as a corporate retreat for employees of the Hurom company. We wonder if Director Kim is likely to be around for a cup of tea before we head off to Sancheong town, but discover that he is away in Busan on business. We shall have to catch up with him next time.
Quite apart from my disorganisation I am forever having to re-arrange my packing to accommodate the gifts I am constantly being given: from Sancheong, local tea and a large box of doraji (candied bellflower root). I also have to make sure that the English tea I have brought for giving away to appropriate recipients is in the right place in my bag for giving away at the right time, and that I reserve enough tea for giving away to people I am likely to meet later in my trip. So repacking my bags in the morning is always painfully slow. I dither and faff, and we leave the accommodation village at shortly after 9am to drive down into Sancheong Town. A parking space has been reserved for us at County Hall.
We first make a courtesy call on a local assemblyman who has been a good friend to us, and whose son I met with a couple of times in London over the previous twelve months. Then we walk along the corridor to the governor’s office where we are soon ushered in. Kyung-sook slips into her normal role: making polite ambassadorial-style conversation with the governor, effectively conducting the conversation on my behalf. She really does not need me to be there – she is a goodwill ambassador in her own right. I do my part by uttering the occasional pleasantry about how nice it is to be back and how sorry I am that I could not spend longer this time. Kyung-sook interprets for me, or tells the mayor what she thinks I ought to have said. It’s great to have not only an interpreter but a diplomat by my side.
As is naturally the case, the conversation is conducted in Korean. I try to follow what they are saying, but I pick up maybe one word in every fifty. Two words used consecutively I pick up on. They are either talking about a Korean restaurant I used to visit in London, or the river that flows through Seoul. But there is a third possibility that I had missed – you don’t expect the polite conversation with a local dignitary to turn to the finer points of literature. But in fact they are not talking about Hangang Restaurant in Hanway Street off Tottenham Court Road. Or about the Han River. The conversation had turned to Han Kang’s Booker International Prize and I manage to improve my standing by saying that I had met the author over drinks in London and had once had lunch with her translator Deborah Smith.
My status enhanced, it was time to leave, but not before I am given instructions to provide detailed recommendations about how to improve the Royal Azalea Festival and the Traditional Medicine Expo with specific reference to enhancing its appeal to foreigners. Crikey – I’m going to need to do a tourism promotion PhD. There is also a photo call with the governor which no doubt will appear in the local web portal in due course.