Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Directions

I have come to think that nothing matters for travelers more than good directions. This conclusion is influenced by the fact that I have a comfortable lodging, a lovely array of electronic gadgets, and excellent shoes. So what do I need next? Directions. What else do I need? The humility to take directions!

I got directions the first time I went some place in Seoul. It might have worked better if I knew enough to follow them precisely, which I didn't. I took the bus instead of the subway (big mistake). It was made worse by my confusion over "next" -- you know the problem -- "next stop is [blank]." I had [false] pride in hearing the word word "next" in Korean. Note: they don't give the next part in the English announcement, another clue I overlooked. Well, after getting off at the "next" stop a couple of times, I learned that by "next" they mean the one after this one and I should wait for it to be the one. 

These [pretty fatal] mistakes of mine were compounded by the bewildering experience of getting off and looking around and seeing everything in Korean and nothing that vaguely resembled an orderly grid with streets named by numbers. This threw me into the next problem: getting from the bus or subway stop to the place. Google maps represents this as a straight line passing right through buildings, a trick I haven't mastered. So I need to abandon my idea that I can get there and accept my dependency on directions. It turns out there's a reciprocal to getting directions and that is taking direction. 

Having accepted my dependence on good direction, it turns out that people vary greatly in the directions that they give, from rather vague to exceptionally detailed and clear. Here's an example of great directions: "Take a taxi. Show this [address in Korean] to the driver. Come to the second floor." These directions are perfect and I know I will get there. One caveat: Seoul has some pretty cranky taxi driers -- maybe they would like to be tipped??? I will tip, even though it's not the local custom. No one will know but him and me. 

I have asked permission to share the "best ever" subway directions in the hopes that this will set a standard for all of us, me included. A guest who was annoyed about getting to my house scolded me for not saying that one highway ended and another began. Frankly, I had never noticed that. So it's easy to overlook small details and editing one's directions will lead to improvement over time.  Let's all try!

What makes the directions to Noah's Roasting so excellent? First of all, they are Seoul-ful (horrible, I know). There are very particular assets and challenges in Seoul, and these directions avoid pitfalls and use strengths -- one of which is the numbering of exits from subways and trains, etc. If you take the right exit, you're halfway there. Then, more generically, the author used google street maps to give a visual -- this was a huge help. And there was a tiny mistake -- so always room for improvement! If you want to go to Noah's Roasting, at the last step, don't turn into the driveway. Instead, take the next turn, which is the alleyway. 

Noah's Roasting, by the way, is a lovely place for a meeting. Spacious, not rushed, and great coffee!

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Tao for Travelers: Lilacs in Seoul

Spring has come to Seoul. The showy glory of the cherry blossoms has been washed away by the rain. In their place, the quieter thrill of lilacs is everywhere. Lilacs unfurl their petals slowly, to the colors lightens, like the arrival of the dawn. The heady scent fills the air, especially when the sun heats on the flowers. I have so many memories attached to the blooming of the lilacs that I am thrilled by each and every shrub or tree I see. 

Just to mention a few of the associations. Louisa May Alcott wrote a book called Under the Lilacs. It is a book about finding a home. At the center of the story is house with a lilac that hangs over the porch. I had a house with lilac at the door. Walt Whitman"s famous poem -- When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloom'd -- was seared into my consciousness when I read it one spring.


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

I couldn't help but think of time. My own version was:

Last year in the bowl of trees I did not know of now.

Perhaps my surprise is in contrast to Whitman's certainty -- two faces of the process of looking back.

This spring in Seoul -- far from my own lilacs but among lilacs nonetheless -- seems a metaphor for continuity and change, and this in a city that that is emblematic of both. I was smelling some lilacs the other day and a man stopped and looked at me. He seemed to be searching for a word, then said, with triumph, "Lilacs!" Short pause. Then, "Smell good!" I nodded vigorously. He finished with, "Now write a poem!" and walked away. 

I thought it was a surprising assignment from a passerby, but maybe he sensed my adoration of the flower. 

So here is my poem: