When my son was in college, part of the experience of majoring in European Studies was to spend a semester abroad. He was allowed four choices. His third choice, Korea, was the place destiny took him to. After one semester there, he fell in love with the country. And months and years later, after studying the Korean language in Korea and ultimately getting his MBA in an English-language program at a university in Seoul, he met his future wife there. This is where they now live with their little son.
This decision of his university to send my son to Korea ended up changing my life as well. My first trip to Korea was to their wedding. I can’t say I took to Korea like a duck to water, but I have enjoyed each visit, and little by little, this country has been growing on me. Almost all I know of Korea is only Seoul, so I can’t write about much more in this series, but Seoul does represent much of Korea. Some thirteen million of Korea’s 50 million plus inhabitants live in Seoul. That is about a fourth of the nation’s people!
This latest trip was my fourth – it’s about time I wrote something about this place! My last previous visit to Korea was in the autumn and Christmas of 2019. Like most people on this planet, I had assumed that life would proceed as usual, and that I’d be back in Korea, visiting my son and his family there in 2020. But no such luck. The corona pandemic visited every part of the planet instead and seems to have made itself at home among us like a parasite, eating away at things we thought were our birthright. Things like traveling.
So, returning to Seoul would be a little like returning to at least something that was familiar. Familiar like the feeling an astronaut must have, back up in the space station again, looking down at planet earth for the fourth time. In other words, not at all! But – I have been faithfully learning Korean for the past two years and faithfully entertaining myself by watching Korean dramas on Netflix. I have tried cooking all the Korean food my daughter-in-law’s mother cooked for me the last time I was there, so I at least know the names and flavors of some of these Korean foods. And I have even made kimchi, the one dish Korea is famous for. This should surely qualify me to call Seoul home!
In the late summer of 2021, as more and more people were being vaccinated, South Korea eased its travel restrictions. Normally, anyone entering into South Korea must undergo a two-week quarantine in a government-approved residence, paying for this themselves. But then, fully vaccinated (two vaccinations of everything except Johnson & Johnson’s one shot) people who have immediate family in South Korea could apply for a quarantine exemption. It is a complicated, lengthy process, but I applied for an exemption and was granted it. So I booked a flight immediately! Even as I write this, the rules have changed yet again. Last week the omicron variant made itself known. It seems to be spreading wildly, so many countries, including South Korea, have taken steps to restrict travel. Korea is back to a mandatory quarantine for all would-be travelers into their country. That decision just squelched my Christmas plans – all the more reason to reminisce here about the precious few weeks I was able to spend there this autumn.
I have always glanced enviously at those lucky few who get to travel business class. Sometimes I have actually been allowed to walk through the business or first class section on my way to my cramped seat in economy. And each time I have promised myself, “One time in my life I’m going to fly business class too!” This seemed my golden opportunity. I hadn’t flown anywhere in two years except for a short flight to Majorca earlier this year, again after restrictions started easing. Tickets are cheaper than ever, I suppose as a means of enticing people to fly again. I found a reasonably-priced business class ticket to Seoul on KLM.
The lounge in Düsseldorf was nothing special, but they did serve nice warmed Balkan cevapcici, little sausage-shaped meatballs, with rice, There is plenty of booze available for those who want alcohol. You can go to the bathroom there in complete privacy. The KLM lounge in Amsterdam was much more inviting, with many choices of food, drink, comfortable easy chairs, and books to browse through, whiling away the time until boarding the plane. First, I headed for the bathroom, eager to see what was on offer here. Showers! Changing rooms! I had plenty of time to kill, so I looked through the books on display. I found one about a man who cycled halfway around the world on his bike. As I gazed longingly at the photos, I wished I were young enough to do that. My brother cycled halfway across North America once, on his way to visit our mother on the West Coast.
Flying business class was truly a way to pamper myself, with a collection of cosmetics from Rituals in a nice bag, and noise-cancelling headphones, slippers, a big pillow and warm blanket, but I was disappointed in the food created by their star chef. It was, however, nicely served with a cloth place mat, real cutlery and stoneware dishes, but there were no Korean or even Asian entrees on this flight to Korea. The best thing was being able to turn my seat into a bed, lie down with a warm blanket and pillow and get several hours of good sleep!
The night began on the ground in Schipol Airport, and the next day, the day of my arrival, began somewhere about 35,000 feet above the ground, after midnight, depending on how you determined what was midnight. Time becomes a fluid substance when you’re flying. And when I finally arrived, disheveled, dirty and disoriented, it felt a little as though I was also some fluid substance about to dissipate into space. I had slept about five hours, half my flight, time, but I still had to shake myself into the shape of my body again, and remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that I was truly in Seoul – or rather, Incheon, a city near Seoul, where the airport is located.
It didn’t take long to find out that I was truly in Korea. At each of the many checkpoints there was always some Korean immigration officer instructing us how to fill in the various forms and download the app everyone entering into Korea was going to have to use for the next two weeks. Bus some of the instructions were in Korean, and the only way I could install the app was with the help of a nice young man waiting with me to go into immigration. With this app I would have to record my body temperature twice a day for the next two weeks and answer questions about my physical condition. After downloading the app, I was shepherded to officers at various points along the way, handing in forms I been instructed to download and print before I even left my apartment in Germany. Woe to those without copies of their quarantine exemption!
After well over an hour, and after many interviews and forms to be handed in, I was finally ready to pick up my luggage at the baggage claim and be reunited with my son for the first time in two years. In this disconcerting time we are all having to navigate ourselves through, without any guidebooks to show us the way, I was finally allowed to be with family, the only familiar thing about my life these days.