The more we walk through the subway tunnels and speak in English with the last of the expats we met in Seoul, the harder it is to believe in the surrealism of the conversation.
“The kids there in my school just love snakes!” “Snakes, really? Are you sure?" we tried to confirm, stunned. A little later, the interlocutor asks us: “Do any of you guys have a pin by chance? "
"the pin?” we asked again without realizing why the hell he would want a pin at that moment… and the misunderstandings would continue into the late afternoon. It took some more time for us to fully understand what was going on.
Paul Parsons was a young New Zealander with a cold-flushed face and fleeting blue eyes. He had been hired by a school in Seoul to teach English to children.
The problem started with his strong accent Kiwi from the Art Deco city of Napier that turned mere snacks em snakes, pen em pine as well as countless other mutations toxic to intelligibility.
When faced with this serious obstacle to the objectives of the educational establishment, the director asked him to speak US English instead of his Kiwi.
Paul refused because, when they hired him, they knew he came from New Zealand and not the "States“. We saw ourselves as victims of his integrity as the little Koreans who were his pupils but, little by little, we understood each other there. We ended up fraternizing much more than we thought possible.
The plump Psy singer made a millionaire by YouTube has made the Gangnam neighborhood craze for horseback riding and related finery globally famous.
Paul Parsons showed us how, at least the equine aspect, had spread to various other parts of the city and took us to participate in private lessons that a teacher friend of his was in charge of in a riding ring with a suburban look.
We took a few laps at a walk, then at a trot, which increased the breath of the animals condensed by the Siberian temperatures that were already being felt under the blue sky over the Korean peninsula.
The following dawn brought an equal atmosphere, perhaps even cooler. We let ourselves sleep for an extra two hours and Paul Parsons much more. the host of Couchsurfing he had already arrived on the day of the party with his friends.
Hangover, neither the morning's riding nor repeating the program of watching the changing of the royal guard just to keep us company crossed his throbbing mind.
At around 8:40am, we set out into the cruel ice of early Korean winter determined to take a peek at the Ch'angdokkgung palace complex.
In particular, Gyeongbokgung Palace, considered the most imposing in South Korea, the most sumptuous of the five mandates built by the Joseon dynasty monarchs who led the nation from the late XNUMXth to the late XNUMXth centuries.
We arrived at the main entrance to the complex and found a few dozen people waiting. We joined the group. After a few minutes, ancient oriental music began to play.
Simultaneously, colorful soldiers from another era rounded the corner of the palace and came towards us, moving away from the granite slope of Mount Bugak.
They wore long satin kimonos in red or in different shades of blue, all of them with fluffy fur necks that protected the back of the neck and a considerable part of the face from the increasingly severe cold.
To complete the outfit, each of the guardians also had a necklace of beads and a helmet in the shape of a hat made of a kind of thin wicker on which decorative feathers of peacocks and other birds were skewered.
Several of them held flags and banners as or more colorful than their clothes, some, swords, others, shields and weapons with long handles and cut blades, similar to medieval European glaives.
Still others were archers. In addition to the bows in their hands, they carried sets of large arrows on their backs.
While the music unfolded, the actors carried out a simple choreography that made them line up in a pompous way with the flags in the wind, first facing the main portal of the palace, then with the palace behind them. So some withdrew inside.
They left the contemplated with watch shifts on a frozen guard in key positions of the portico to the delight of the small crowd of spectators who took the opportunity to take pictures with them, under the elegant architecture of the walls and inaugural entrances of the palace.
We had already witnessed numerous ceremonies of changing the guard and hoisting and collecting the flag in different countries.
Until then, none had impressed us so much with the beauty of the costumes and the realism of the re-enactment as this one. And not even the modern buildings that opposed the Gyeongbokgung Palace seemed to detract from the period subtlety achieved.
South Koreans have good reason to strive for this task. It was the emergence of the Joseon dynasty that granted them periods of stability, peace and national identity and sovereignty far longer than those they were used to.
It broke the previously prevailing scenarios of interference or dominance of China and Japan, the always atrocious Japanese ones, in particular the one from 1910 to 1945 when, with the pretext of organizing an exhibition, the Japanese razed Gyeongbokgung Palace for a second time.
Then followed the Korean War which ended with the Division of the country into North Korea and South Korea and the absolute polarization of these nations in terms of integration into the world community and development.
It is the recognition of its historical and national identity and the heritage of widespread modernity that South Korea celebrates both with its rebuilt Gyeongbokgung and its glamorous and festive guard.
We passed the medieval soldiers and entered the vast domain that the palace once again occupied. For hours on end, we explored the countless pavilions, gardens, bridges and icy lakes.
By late afternoon, we were back in present-day Seoul, with no sign of Paul, who was still struggling with the previous night's abuse.
We investigated the night market, busy and colorful in the way of the 100% genuine Korea Town that it was. We stopped at a skating rink and took a few laps that were a bit slippery and a bit clumsy but, more than saturated with cold, we soon got fed up.
We took refuge in the comfort of a downtown restaurant and Korean cuisine.
We tried a kind of mini-pizza made with super spicy vegetables and, on the side, a slightly milder dose of kimchi. "With this combination, they'll be virus-immune for the entire winter!" threw the waitress in much more noticeable English than our New Zealand friend. “Don't get me wrong if I advise you Dong Dong Ju to go with.
It is a traditional sweetened rice wine. They'll like it. But attention! It's soft but very strong!”
We finished our meal and once again comforted and anesthetized for the cold, we wandered a little further through the surrounding streets.
Back home, Paul Parsons forced us to see his university project shot on 20mm video, a horror story with a cat and four classmates.
Above all, the film allowed us to see that his accent was terribly tighter than that of his countrymen.
The next morning, we also came to the conclusion that we were too saturated from the increasingly negative temperatures knowing we had upwards of 30° waiting in the southern hemisphere.
We get on a plane. In a few hours, we moved to the Australian summer.