Escape from Seoul to Ottawa’s Cityscape

I stop at my regular food stall in Gangnam. The Uncle is Seoul’s human landmark; his hands are accustomed to heat-intensive labor; he sells the ultimate street meat – fish paste on wooden sticks and delectable rice cakes stewing in a red, tangy sauce.

I tuck into a coffee shop. A twenty-year odyssey continues, even now as I sit table-locked with today’s Sumatran brew and my obsolete Mac stays open to catch this present word-flow. I am in Seoul. New travel experiences propel me while the momentary stops in stations across the world afford me reflection.  I am free to enjoy departures.  I miss the unmapped but I am bound to the scenes here for a little longer.

Office buildings dominate Gangnam while the entertainment venues and eateries multiply to the power of the unimaginable. Residential pockets exist behind the boisterous arteries which provide a backdrop for life beyond sidewalk competition.  Multitudes of shoppers and commuters cram crossing tunnels while emerging couples pour into the street savvy walkers.  The street sellers add their own precarious element to the melee that greets me as soon as I bound down this avenue.  An occasion of sunlight glinting off the cold, paneled windows of innumerable office tower spaces inspire. Gangnam Style is concrete and steel – fashionable modernism.

The Han River threads through Seoul; the dark weave of its currents entice.  Weekends and holidays give me ample time to bike, jog or walk along the edge of a long history that takes me hours to tread.  Urban flavors mingle along with the taste of instant cup noodles and cold Cass beer or during those more refined times, Absolut Vodka. A bridge’s expanse is yet another opportunity for meditative travel. I stand, suspended above river currents. Midway, I contemplate my steps and compare it to those longer strides over the years, across borders.  What other thoughts could one have, aloof and above water in this stage of post-rain and intense Spring?  Ideas toss turbulent. I continue my trek through Seoul, gathering images of antiquities or traditions.

I am here for the last time at Insadong, near Seoul’s centre at Jongno.  Insadong is an artistic nexus of crafts and Buddhist handiwork, galleries and cobbled roads where the everlasting spirits of Chosun remain dancing long after night.  Visitors find handmade paper to offset the austerity of commercial walls. An art bookstore and on the 2nd floor, a tea room with canaries free from cages revitalizes those who enter. Vendor noises succumb to the hum of a temple in near proximity. Restaurants capture spicy peninsular flavors and the smoke from dinners of grilled pork places permeates all clothing.  Small glasses filled with Soju (liquor) promise conversation.

Other districts call.

Forays into the boisterous markets of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun are integral to the scenes here since it is in these very places, named for South and East Gates respectively, that local and international shoppers blend into seamless collective.  Beside Yongsan, near the foreign enclave of Itaewon, Shinchon and Hongdae are neighborhoods where bar denizens and club crawlers celebrate midnight and pre-dawn rotations of the clock.

Seoul is scene-city. Eclectic rhythms of spin doctors add to the mechanic screech of cars and trains while the whoosh of commuters in constant movement compete with the fervor and tremor of escalating drums and gongs. It is here that these snapshots converge, overlap and change. 

My cup empties.  My table waits for another from this city in pastiche. I push through glass doors, cross an intersection then descend the gray stairs underground, ride an escalator and find myself people-pressed on a subway platform.

A message flashes. A few stops away, a gathering of friends will take to the darkening street and color it with vibrant conversation across plastic chairs in convenience store brilliance before they take on new venues.

Seoul moments tick away as the bus speeds on to Incheon Airport. Soon I’m in the haze of a Beijing night and a morning crashes into noon. Windy Seoul thoughts storm my head but I anticipate Canada. I crumple into my economy seat with a faulty screen in front of my face, pick through greasy airline food and count the hours until Vancouver.

Icy rain pelts the tarmac as an Air Canada flight lands in Ottawa from Van City. Baggage in hand along with a boxed mountain bike, I Uber across town to the calm residential neighborhood of Sandy Hill. A place I recall in name since childhood ever since my great grandparents settled down from Eastern Europe. The house on Blackburn still stands but new owners occupy its rooms – my Aunt and Uncle long-departed. My rent-a-room-for-a-week from Airbnb is warm and in the comfort of the familiar I wander about to Laurier Social House for food and after 17 years, I taste Canadian beer. Street names still echo through my grandmother’s voice. Sleep approaches in the silence with the pace of distant time zones rolling over the Pacific and the land of several provinces.

Awake at 5AM – and before dawn, I glance at my iPhone screen and move my dislocated self to the living room. I  hope my mind can adjust to new geography, if not, Google Maps is THE APP.  Another walk on Laurier to find Timothy’s open. A large cup orients my being. City Hall moves into view and OC Transpo buses crisscross in blurs of red and white. Elgin, Sparks, Bank or Somerset bring a past back but new buildings and the current tangle of future subway construction disorients. On track for 2018 is the truth but what track or line do I follow?

One that leads from building to building as I secure a space to call home. The other from a phone company that promises fast internet, cable and a smartphone. Instant connection with a short wait for a wire to the world.

Visits to supermarkets like Metro or Loblaw’s, even Dollarama are normal or reflect the regular foraging of people living in an urban center. Yet each time I walk through the aisles I feel euphoric about the represented Brands and in awe – each part of the grocery store is a cultural experience – products cause jubilation.

A Saturday night birthday celebration – my first in Canada since the Millennium turned, unfolds in the Market.  I find an illuminated Ottawa. I watch crowds spill onto pavement from bars and clubs whose names I read like headlines on new newspapers. I find a diner and order Poutine with beer – I choose a table close enough to the window so that my gaze can take in the street outside just in case a Carleton friend walks by in a flash of sudden synchronicity.

That doesn’t happen.

Sunday morning follows with a hike through Strathcona Park and a stop at an Asian supermarket on Montreal Road. The namesake here spells my hometown. I will make the two-hour trip in a few months to capture past memories. Still this archaeology must wait even with phone calls to a best friend. Until then, a Tim Horton’s sign appears nearby.  A large Dark Roast cures chills and brings with it, a donut or two. No soup this evening.

Tomorrow means beginning the work week and for me, Monday begins my life in Ottawa or Ottawa life.

I anticipate pages pouring from a Brother printer filled with stories of an Ottawa in transition.

I am in transit.