My German-American son has lived in Korea permanently for the past five years. Before that, he lived there off and on for more than ten years. If you add all the time he has lived in or stayed in the US, it would probably amount to no more than about a year and a half total. He told me recently after a business trip to the US, “Americans are easier for me to communicate with than Koreans. It’s so hard for me to pick up on their cues.” If it’s hard for him, who has had daily contact with Koreans for years, how must it be for me? Communication with Koreans in a way that is satisfying to me feels like a practically insurmountable challenge.
One of the issues I find perplexing is not knowing how direct I can be with a Korean. I love clarity. One of my ingrained beliefs is that we humans need clarity for our very survival! One example of this is in driving a car. In order to be allowed to drive, every driver needs to know and obey the rules of the road. Without clear rules everyone follows, there will be accidents, some of them even fatal.
Not only do I believe in clarity – I crave it. In my Western culture, people tell me that one of my finest qualities is my ability to be direct. Normally, in my culture, I have the ability to open people up. Somehow, people talking with me are able to converse about even difficult emotional subjects. But with Koreans, my foot keeps getting caught in my mouth! I feel like my verbal hands are tied. I am tongue-tied. I am not allowed to speak in a way that comes naturally for me. In other words, in Korea I am verbally impaired!
One day my Korean teacher and I were talking about a Korean drama she had watched, and she quoted a line from it. It went something like this: “You need to be careful about the methods you choose, because they might not always have the desired outcome.” Is there a saying like this in English?” she asked me. At first I had no idea what she was getting at. Finally, I surmised that she meant that we can miss our goals by using unhelpful methods. “Do you know the saying, ‘The end justifies the means?’” I asked. No, she had never heard it. So I explained the saying in its political context. Politicians like Lenin, I said, believed that if the goal was good, it didn’t matter how you got there. Even killing people could be justified in this philosophy, if the end is good. But the saying has also been reversed, I said, and goes, “The means justify the end.” That means we shouldn’t hurt someone in the process of trying to achieve our worthy goal. It felt good to be explaining these expressions so clearly. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it. But then came her response, throwing me off balance, as so often happens to me with Koreans.
“Those sayings are too direct for Koreans,” she said. “We speak with a mere picture, and everyone knows what we mean.” I have no idea what she meant, even by this sentence. A picture? How does one speak in pictures?
My teacher is university-educated, trained in the sciences, and yet prefers to relate to people in pictures and metaphors rather than direct, plain speech! I am also university-educated, a trained social worker and also a language teacher, trained in teaching intercultural communication. I have been trained to be direct, to speak my mind, to be as clear and precise as possible. But it seems I have to drop all this training by the wayside when dealing with Koreans. Direct communication in this country, it seems, can be lead to road crashes!
The first time I blew it was during my first visit to Seoul, when I met one of the Buddhist nuns at the temple Dahae’s (my daughter-in-law) mother is affiliated with. She came specifically to visit me, bearing a gift. Just a few weeks before in Germany, when Dahae and my son Jayden had their German wedding, Dahae and her parents brought gifts from the nuns at the temple. I had no gift for them, and now here was one of the nuns with yet another gift! It was a hand-made little bag, a sort of pouch like those women carry when out for an evening. There was some Korean money inside the pouch. Dahae explained to me that this was how Koreans gave gifts when the gifts was a bag of some kind. A bag always has to contain something of value, and bags of this size always contain money, she said. I thanked her, admired the pouch, and tried to show delight about receiving this gift of money. “Oh, no, it’s not really much money,” she protested. “It’s mostly just symbolic.”
Even though I was already in a somewhat embarrassing situation, I was happy to be having a nearly private audience with this nun, whom I was curious about. I decided this was my chance to ask about her spiritual journey. “Why did you decide to become a nun?” I asked, in all innocence. Her eyes widened a little in surprise. Why did my question surprise her? I asked myself briefly, then going on to listen for her answer. She paused, and then answered. She wanted to bring good Karma to her family and thought this was the best way to do it, she said. I was happy with our conversation and felt that I had drawn a little closer to her, and had come to understand a bit more about the Korean culture. Later, after she had left, Dahae told me that the fact that I had no present for the monk was no problem. I was the guest and people bring guests presents. However, she said, my question had been much too personal. “But we ask questions like this all the time in the West!” I protested. “This is how we get to know people! This is how we try to understand them!”
“But not by asking personal questions like this one,” she answered. Luckily, this nun and I are still on good terms with each other, but I still don’t understand why my question was too personal. My lesson in this? I just try not to ask questions that are too personal. This saddens me, because I like to hear from people what they think, believe and feel, in their own words. I don’t like guessing about what makes people who they are. Nevertheless, on these terms that were set out for me, I am now “friends” with both her and the head nun, even though I know nothing about how they think and feel. I cook meals for them when I’m in Korea, and we enjoy being together. They love the experience of eating Western food, and I think they feel pampered when I cook for them. We laugh a lot, but I refrain now from any questions. I wish we could have these conversations. From my point of view, if this is the way you have relationships in Korea, they must be destined to be shallow. For the sake of “harmony”, true understanding seems to get sacrificed. But I know so little about this culture. Perhaps it’s really a matter of gaining trust. Perhaps when there is more trust, people can open up and go deeper. Perhaps the lesson in this is that sometimes curious people like me are not entitled to certain information until we have gained the trust of the other.
Even though I try not to ask questions that are too personal, I find myself perplexed by all the questions Koreans ask me that I would regard as very personal. I have been asked my age several times by Koreans who are strangers to me. This is something we in the West regard as much too intrusive! But, there is a reason for this. Koreans need to know one’s age so that they know which level of formality they need to use in talking to their counterpart. Older people must be treated with more respect, and this is reflected in the grammar of their language.
But some questions in Korea are so different, they are hard to accept. There are more personal questions people ask of others they have barely met, questions about their personal lives. Are they married or single? Are there children? If so, do they plan to have more? In job interviews, employers have been known to ask how much alcohol a person can handle. Or what the parents do for a living, or whether a woman is dating anyone. Times are changing, though, and employers, especially those in large corporations, are also learning that there are some questions people cannot ask. Laws are also changing, providing people with more privacy.
I am beginning to see for myself, however, that sometimes my directness gets in the way of relationship. I tend to speak my opinion without reflecting about how my statement might affect the other person. One time this happened was when I told my son and daughter-in-law that I would like to try the Korean-Chinese restaurant version of sweet and sour pork. So, in order to give me a pleasurable Chinese meal, they searched online for the restaurant with the highest reviews for sweet and sour pork and ordered a delivery of this for our dinner. “But this is nothing new,” was my first comment after taking one bite. “This tastes just the same as sweet and sour pork in Germany,” I said. “I don’t understand all the hype about this dish. It’s not any better than the dish I’ve eaten in Germany many times.”
My son later told me when we were alone together that this was a faux pas. I had not shown any appreciation for the effort they had made to find the best possible restaurant with sweet and sour pork. I had valued neither the food nor their effort. I should show gratitude and appreciation for their kindness, he said. Koreans need to hear that they and their work are appreciated.
I have learned that Koreans often hold back their true opinions about things Westerners are open about. The reason for this is so that they don’t offend the other person. They would rather maintain harmony than exchange opinions when their opinion may hurt the feelings of another.
I have read that harmony is one of the chief goals of Koreans when dealing with one another. Families should be harmonious. There should be harmony at the workplace. Relations with neighbors should be harmonious. Yes, I am beginning to see that first-hand. Harmony has a higher value in Korea than clarity. In order for me to have good relationships with Koreans, it seems I also need to place harmony above clarity. This is very difficult for me, who deep down believes that through only through clarity can we achieve true harmony. But I need to understand that others do not see life through my eyes.
I keep making mistakes. I still find myself speaking my mind too freely, but I have been trying to watch my tongue more closely. I think I am slowly learning not to utter everything that crosses my mind.
My daughter-in-law, my son and my Korean teacher have become a sort of human GPS for me, guiding me through some of the mysteries of the Korean mentality. Through their help, I am learning how to anticipate and avoid a few of the roadblocks, traffic jams and potential accidents that come along the way. Yes, there will be the occasional traffic jam. But I’ll keep coming back, despite traffic jams and road blocks. This country is wonderful, and has much to teach me.
It was the end of May, 2015, and already swelteringly hot. I was walking around the middle of Seoul with my son Jayden, his new bride Dahae, my brother and his Japanese wife. We had had flown in together a few days before from Japan for the wedding. Now the wedding was over, and we were being treated to a tour of Seoul, where none of us had ever been. It was bewildering looking at all the things there were to see on the street. I knew basically nothing about Korea, not even about the beauty culture.
“Would you like to buy some cosmetics?” Dahae asked me.
“No thanks,” I replied, not knowing I was in the country where people reportedly have the best complexions in the world. I didn’t know that Koreans were famous for taking exceptional care of their faces. “I have enough.”
“How about something to drink, then?”
“That sounds great!”
They led us to Osulloc, a trendy-looking café. Dahae ordered for me. “The crushed iced yuja green tea drinks are good.” Not knowing what a crushed iced yuja green tea drink was, I consented. It looked nice in the photo. We went upstairs with our drinks, admired the industrial chic décor and opened our drinks. How stylish Seoul seems, I thought to myself. As I was removing the paper from my straw, I asked, “What’s yuja?”
“It’s a kind of citrus fruit, kind of a cross between a mandarin orange and grapefruit.”
“Sounds good,” I said, took a sip, and was instantly transported to heaven. This was the most sublime drink I had ever, ever had. Truly. It is the perhaps the main reason I keep coming back to Korea. Well, maybe it is tied with my wish to see how Leon, my little grandson, is doing. But this takes orange juice to celestial levels. And it is, to me, the perfect combination of Korean traditional cuisine, concocted into something really hip – the coolest drink on earth. Every time I go to Korea I have to have some crushed ice yuja green tea. Yuja, called yuzu in Japan and in the Western world, is tangy and not sweet at all. But when sweetened, it has a hauntingly delicious tart-sweet flavor. And paired with green tea, it is stimulating and refreshing enough on a hot day to get you going again with a smile on your face and a spring to your stride. Sadly, Osulloc doesn’t seem to sell this drink with yuja anymore, using a different citrus fruit now, hallabong. Hallabong is also delicious, but too close to orange in flavor to convince me. For this drink they combine yuja, or hallabong, both traditional Korean/Asian fruits, and green tea, and then mix it with sugar and crushed ice like you might find at Starbucks or at a street fair when you ask for an orange slush. But this Korean drink turns orange slush on its head.
One of the things that amazes me about Korea is that I am constantly confronted between ancient traditions and really cool innovations. You would think there would be a conflict here, but if there is, I am not aware of it. I see it everywhere, in fashion, architecture and music, but in this post I’m going to focus on how this seeming contradiction thrives in the culinary world.
I love food. And I love discovering food. New dishes, old dishes new to me, and trying out new things from old things. Of course, cooking can be a matter of just getting it over and done with. My mother’s church cookbook is full of recipes that tell you to add a can of cream of mushroom soup to some instant rice, add some chicken already chopped up for you at the supermarket, and a couple cups of water, maybe a little grated cheese from the supermarket. That, to me, is not cooking, and it is most definitely not creative. And, although I have cooked this way when really pinched for time, it somehow doesn’t feel very spiritual. Creativity is spiritual. We, like our Creator, are fashioned to also be creative. I believe this is true of everyone, because everyone is created in God’s image. I know that I crave creativity, especially in cooking. I love taking things that have been done one way for a long time, maybe even hundreds of years, and then sometimes tweaking them, maybe even ending up with something entirely different! But new things that really resonate with others often become tradition. I think traditions are birthed out of creativity. But please, let’s not end with tradition. Creativity needs to flow out of tradition. We need both! And Korea, much to my surprise and joy, has both.
The Korean culinary tradition reaches back to over 5,000 years ago, during the Stone Age, when the Maekjok, who settled in Korea, brought the tradition of eating rice as the center of the diet, and several side dishes to go along with the rice. This is how Koreans still eat today. In fact, when they ask if you have eaten yet, the word they use is “rice” – “Have you had your rice today?” All Asians are fond of their rice and there many similarities between various Asian cuisines, but it is things that each culture does differently that makes it unique. In Korea, one of the differences is the widespread use of fermentation. Other cultures, such as the Japanese and Chinese, also use fermentation widely, but from what I hear and have experienced, Koreans seem to be the fermentation specialists. Fermentation is a method of preserving food. In addition to being a great preservative, however, there is another advantage to fermentation. Properly fermented foods have strong medicinal qualities. They’re great gut foods, giving us healthy probiotic bacteria. Kimchi, miso paste, known in Korea as doenjang, the famous Korean red chili pepper paste (gochujang), vinegar and soy sauce are all fermented.
Koreans have always considered food to be medicinal. They eat an amazing amount of roots and herbs. Eating healthily has always been important to Koreans. They are very sparing in their use of sugar and oil. Dahae’s mother rarely uses sugar, turning instead to fruits such as nashi pears or apples, or homemade fruit vinegars to sweeten her food.
For Koreans, whose culture is closely connected to thousands of years of contact with China, balancing yin and yang is crucial to this balanced life. Part of a well-balanced life is eating a well-balanced diet. Not too salty, not too sweet, not too fatty, etc. I have heard the same said about Japanese food, but somehow the result is quite different. Korean food turns out to be pretty extreme on the spicy side! Koreans love their chili peppers so much, you can see random chili peppers laid out to dry just while walking down the street, as I did one day.
But not always. Some dishes are very bland. I learned that the five elements – metal, wood, earth, fire, and water, also fit into the cuisine. Each element has its corresponding color – red, green, white, yellow and black. You can see this in the architecture, and also in the food.
One of the things I love about Hanna, Dahae’s mother, is that she always tries to introduce me to something new. It’s almost always traditional, and is always healthy. Thanks to her, I think I have eaten meals prepared from pretty much every cooking method known to the traditional Korean cuisine. I didn’t know about all these categories until preparing to write this post, but I have sampled soups, various noodle dishes, fried rice, pancakes, stews, steamed meats, fried vegetables, pickled vegetables, and stir-fried dishes, all cooked by Hanna. And of course the barbecued (grilled) dishes we always seem to eat for special occasions. Whenever I used to go to a Korean restaurant in Germany, what was usually featured was the barbecue. In a Korean barbecue, the meat is grilled, then cut into little pieces and eaten a bit like tacos. Instead of taco shells, though, you use a no fat, one calorie lettuce leaf and put a bit of meat, maybe a grilled garlic clove, maybe some other leafy herb, maybe a bit of kimchi, maybe a tiny bit of rice and a barbecue sauce called sssamjang on top, fold it all together and eat it in one bite. You repeat this process until you are so full you can’t fit even one more stuffed lettuce leaf into your mouth! Eating a Korean barbecue is a lot of fun and goes on for hours. But there is so much more to the Korean cuisine than Korean barbecue.
One of my memorable days this trip was a day spent with my young friend Beomsuk. The day began in the morning, drinking coffee together at Paik’s, a Korean coffee chain. Beomsuk tells me that Jongwon Paik is a famous Korean chef whose goal is to make food – and coffee – affordable for everyone. He is thus known as the “Gordon Ramsay of Korea”. Here we mixed tradition with innovation! I had a dalgona coffee, the drink I first read about – not in Korea, but rather in the New York Times. If you like creamy, sweet iced coffee, this is the drink for you! I love it – it has crushed bits of a traditional Korean candy called dalgona, with frothy milk, coffee and ice. Beomsuk had a fig latte. I have no idea if that is traditional, but I would guess it’s one of those concoctions Koreans come up with, using the figs so readily available in October. And then, as we sipped our drinks, we shared some very traditional sweets that he had bought, similar to cookies.
And then, after a morning of sightseeing with both modern and traditional elements (a French bakery just down the street from a traditional food market, we strolled through the Bukchon Hanok village, a neighborhood with only traditional Korean houses. These houses, because they are so old, are very expensive. In some of them you can find exclusive clothing boutiques or art galleries.
Then we walked over to Insadong, a neighborhood with tiny warrens jutting off from tiny warrens.
You could get lost here! In Insadong you can get everything from bulgogi to Burger King, but Beomsuk wanted me to eat traditional Korean food. He took me to a restaurant in a hanok, one of the traditional Korean houses.
This restaurant features only side dishes! I suppose it would be comparable to eating a meal with twenty appetizers and a bowl of rice. It was overwhelming. We each got a big bowl of rice with some sort of herb mixed in. We had seen these hanging to dry at a palace we had visited, and that gave Beomsuk the idea of visiting this kind of restaurant. There were various soups, a ssamjang sauce – that mixture of miso and chili pepper paste, all sorts of steamed vegetables, slices of fish cake, and steamed cabbage leaves you could stuff into your cabbage leaf. All of this was delicious, and extremely low in fat and calories! We drank makeoli – a kind of unfiltered rice wine – with our meal.
The Korean cuisine is adapted from whatever culture Koreans have come into contact with. In a way, you could say the same about Americans, who eat their own versions of Jewish bagels, Italian pizza and Mexican tacos. But what the Koreans come up with is generally very different from what you’d find in the States. They have “Chinese” restaurants with “Chinese” foods on the menu too, but for the most part with different items on the menu than you’d find in the States. The most popular one in Korea is jajangmyeon, a very rich, creamy, gooey black bean sauce with loads of noodles and bits of pork – invented in Korea, just as chow mein was invented in America! If you look at the two words myeon and mein, they look very similar. Ramen, Japanese noodles, also has the word men in it. These similarities are because these dishes all feature noodles, pronounced like miantiao in Chinese.
Koreans eat fried chicken, their own version of KFC, but much crisper – and generally much hotter. My mouth was burning a little from the chimaek I had in a restaurant. By now going out for chimaek – chicken and beer – is a very Korean tradition.
While in Korea, I sampled Korean versions of Vietnamese spring rolls, Mexican tacos, and pizza with a potato and ham topping and mayo drizzled over the top. Delicious – and uniquely Korean. The sandwiches Koreans make are unique and fabulous. I fell in love with potato sandwiches – basically egg salad sandwiches with potato mashed into the filling. Another delicious one was chicken and cheese with lettuce, pickles,pepper, onion, and a delicious tangy dressing.
When I see all the things Koreans come up with nowadays, most of them ultra high in calories and fat, I wonder how seriously Koreans still hold to this philosophy that food is supposed to be medicine. Most people are still so slender I envy them. But each time I visit, it seems there is a larger number of people with figures at least as rounded as mine. Maybe it’s also because, especially during this pandemic, they have who knows how many meals delivered to them! Maybe the extra pounds can be blamed on the pandemic, just as we in the West blame all our bad habits on the pandemic.
I find it liberating, discovering all the many kinds of food there are in Korea, and watching how Koreans adapt recipes to make them their own. It has freed me up in my cooking. If I don’t have any Korean miso on hand, I don’t hesitate now to substitute it with the Japanese miso I bought last time at the Asian food mart. If I can’t find minari to put into my kimchi, I don’t have any qualms any more about using watercress or cilantro (coriander leaves) instead. Nowadays I feel free to add a little kimchi to my cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich, or to mix a bit of gochujang or ssamjang into a salad dressing. We all learn from each other, and with each new twist of tradition, life becomes that much more interesting.
We Americans, not really that circumspect about traditions, do have one tradition that most people I know stick to – Thanksgiving. There are many ways we find to celebrate it. Even those who are vegetarians or vegans who don’t eat eggs or dairy products find a way to prepare at least one of the traditional items for their Thanksgiving dinner table – turkey, stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, some vegetable like green beans or Brussels sprouts, and pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, or just plain pumpkin. And maybe a pecan or apple pie. But I’ve been at Jewish Thanksgiving with gifillte fish, and at an Italian Thanksgiving with antipasto and lasagna added to the menu. My brother-in-law is African American and one quarter Cherokee. His family always makes macaroni and cheese, which they serve alongside everything else.
I remember my mother slaving for hours alone in the kitchen, days before Thanksgiving, and also for hours on that day, preparing the stuffing for a gigantic turkey and then stuffing it into the turkey. A couple of hours later, the delicious aroma of turkey roasting wafted from the kitchen. I was in awe of her, wondering if I could ever master the art of preparing such a gigantic feast. It seemed such a massive task! If she ever felt overwhelmed or lonely spending all those hours in the kitchen, she never gave me that impression. The unspoken message I got from her was, this is the way we do Thanksgiving, and you will also have to do it one day. Somehow, I did learn to do Thanksgiving pretty much the way she did, and I carry on the tradition, year after year, in Germany. It is so deeply programmed into me, I feel like I must do it! But my son Jayden, much as he enjoys eating my Thanksgiving dinners, has never been interested in making Thanksgiving a holiday he wants to observe or pass on. He says it is probably because he hasn’t spent that much time in America, and although he loved celebrating Thanksgiving with me, his American mother, and his German father, it wasn’t part of the German environment he grew up in. Now he lives in Korea, a culture with holidays of its own, so he has adopted these holidays into his life.
I was fortunate enough to be able to celebrate one of those holidays with Jayden and his Korean family last September. Jayden calls it “Korean Thanksgiving”. In Korean, it is called “Chuseok“, which sounds a bit like “CHEWsuck”. It has something to do with full moon in September, sometimes in October. It is celebrated for three days, and seems to be even more labor-intensive than our American Thanksgiving! However, when I told my young Korean friend Beomsuk about my Chuseok with my son Jayden’s inlaws, he said, “I can see that Jayden’s family is very traditional. I’d say only about 10% of Koreans celebrate Chuseok the way you did it. In my family we buy most everything.”
Chuseok, translated into English, means “the great middle of autumn”. It would be more accurate to call it an autumn harvest festival than Thanksgiving. But, when you look at the holiday more closely, it does, in the end, have everything to do with gratitude.
The origins of the holiday go back to the earliest days of Korea, when it was known as the kingdom of Silla, from around 57 BC until 935 AD. It was a shamanistic festival held at the time of the harvest full moon, when new harvests were offered to local deities and ancestors. This tradition has continued among Buddhists, but not in the same way among Christians. I was told that some Christians in Korea don’t celebrate Chuseok at all because of its shamanistic origins.
The Buddhists, especially the oldest son in the family, get up very early and go to the temple, or else to a special ritual table prepared by the family. There are many, many different kinds of foods prepared to honor, in particular, the ancestors on the male side of the family. I didn’t see or participate in this, but I saw photos of the ceremonial table, where everything is laid out in a particular order. At this table, the oldest son in the family participates in a ritual to honor the ancestors on his father’s side of the family. When I asked what they do for the mother’s side, I got no answer!
Many Koreans also travel long distances to visit and care for ancestral graves on this day. I saw people cleaning their sidewalks, driveways and garages in the days before Chuseok, getting ready for family members traveling to visit them. There were also cartons lined up near the entrances to the home, with gifts of fruit for family and friends.
Christians in Korea have nothing to do with ancestral worship, but I was told that most Christians celebrate Chuseok in their own manner. Beomsuk told me that in his family and church, they remember and thank God for the lives of Korean Christians who, in years past, shared, or even sacrificed their lives to bring Christianity to Korea.
For me, it is invaluable being able to see how differently some Koreans can live from each other. It is important for me to remember that not everyone celebrates in the same way my son’s in-laws do. However, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky, because I was able to go back to the basics. I could experience how this holiday is traditionally prepared and celebrated, largely because of the connection in the family to the local Buddhist temple.
There are a number of types of food that are eaten only during Chuseok, or also sometimes also for the lunar new year. These foods include:
pounded rice pastries, similar to moon cakes in China, or mochi in Japan. These are called songpyeon.
pancakes, called jeon
fish, breaded and fried. They call this pancakes too!
a soup made from the taro root
a stew made with beef ribs, called galbijjim
baekju – distilled rice drink, similar to soju, but made only from freshly harvested rice, whereas soju can also be made from potatoes or sweet potatoes
fruit, especially nashi pears
The nuns at the temple invited me to come and watch them prepare for Chuseok. When I arrived, they had already prepared songpyeon – those beautiful rice cakes, having made them from scratch. They treated me to a glass of water and a plate of delicious chewy, sticky, sweet songpyeon
Koreans like to make their rice cakes into a half-moon shape, which is mostly what you can see here. They were filled with various kinds of sweet fillings, such as sweet azuki bean paste, nuts, sweet rice, or chestnuts, The various colors of purple, yellow and green were made with natural coloring, using azuki beans, pumpkin and green beans, each cooked separately to achieve colored water in shades of light purple, yellow and green. Imagine going to such lengths to color your Easter eggs!
I watched them prepare bindaetteok, a crunchy kind of savory pancake made with mung beans. Unfortunately, I can’t digest these, so declined the offer of a serving. But they looked beautiful, decorated with slices of pepper and onion.
The nuns, other helpers and I washed and peeled taro roots to go into a soup they eat for Chuseok. Taro is a starchy root, shaped a little like a potato. Asians and Africans eat a lot of taro, but I had never tasted it. I can say it is really hard to clean and peel, and discolors almost immediately! And it doesn’t taste very good, or of much. My daughter-in-law never eats it, so I’m thankfully not alone in my opinion!
The nuns also made other things for the seventeen families that would be showing up, one after the other, for their ritual rites. One was a kind of cake made from rice paste, also known as rice cakes. Rice cake-cake! Very pretty, studded with nuts, and rather bland in flavor. Then there were little fried crackers made from seaweed. The nuns were up half the night and early the next morning cooking and preparing the ceremonial table!
When the day arrived, I didn’t go to the temple. My son Jayden is not a Buddhist, and his wife, Dahae, doesn’t practice it, so they didn’t go either. For us, the day began in the afternoon, when we prepared food with Hanna, Dahae’s mother. We made completely different, non-vegetarian dishes from those the nuns had made. Together, all of these make up the food eaten at Chuseok.
We made a kind of pancake on little tooth-pick skewers, called ohsaekjeon. Ours had strips of five different things skewered together, so they are literally “five color pancakes” – Oh for five, saek for color and jeon for pancakes. Hanna made strips, all of the same length, of green pepper, green onion, Spam, imitation crab meat strips (surimi), and also some slices of leek.
It was really hard to thread these strips onto our toothpick skewers without pieces falling apart! But that was part of the fun, listening to amused little chortles as they observed me trying to be peaceful as I battled the strips.
Mine didn’t look very pretty, but I did get better at it, after about the 100th toothpick! I’m exaggerating here, but we made a veritable mountain of pancakes! Then we dusted them all in flour, dipped them afterward into beaten eggs, the same as if you were going to bread something and deep-fry it. Then Dahae’s parents both fried the pancakes with a bit of oil poured onto a table grill.
When all the ohsaekjeon got fried – and eaten – it was time to move on to the next course. Fried white fish, which Koreans also consider a form of pancake. Same procedure, different dish. Dipping the fish in flour, then in the beaten egg, adding a few strips of scallion, and frying.
We ate that too as soon as each piece was fried, standing around Dahae’s parents busy frying, eating as quickly as they were finished frying.
We’d been eating for hours, but hadn’t sat down to a meal yet! Dahae joked to me, “Chuseok is a holiday where we stand around and eat all day!” I laughed. It was true, bringing back happy memories of my dad frying Hungarian pancakes on Sunday evenings, while we hungry kids devoured each pancake as soon as it left the pan. We could hardly wait till one of us finished spreading the pancakes with cottage cheese and cinnamon sugar, rolling it up and cutting it into pieces three or four hungry mouths would devour in ten seconds or less.
The sit-down meal, a couple of hours later, after the kitchen had been cleaned up from all the frying, consisted of LAgalbi jjim, a delicious dish of beef ribs that had been marinating for days, rice and kimchi.
For this meal we also drank Jeju gosorisul, a particularly high-quality soju (a distilled grain beverage somewhat similar to Japanese sake) from Jeju Island, located in the southernmost part of Korea. This soju, rather than being distilled from rice, potatoes or sweet potatoes, is made from millet and natural yeast. It was so smooth and delicious, I could have drunk it all evening and not had a hangover the next day! Not that I drank that much of it, but it’s supposed to be that good.
We continued to sit around the table, chatting, until dessert. Dessert was a relief to eat after all this food – simple slices of perfectly ripened, luscious red watermelon.
The next day we walked to the temple and greeted the nuns.
We were warmly greeted and served the foods I had watched being prepared, some of which I had even helped to prepare, and more. I sampled the taro soup, ate seaweed crackers the nuns had made themselves, and had a bit of teokk (rice cake) cake, which they had been preparing in the middle of the previous night.
Experiencing the rich gastronomical heritage of Chuseok was marvelous. These were magical, extraordinary moments I will never forget. But, fascinating as cooking and eating the food was, observing the people involved in the preparation, something went deeper inside me. Here there was something to hold onto forever. We can learn life lessons from watching people interact, and this, to me, was the richest part of Chuseok . It is because of the life lessons I seek to learn while traveling that I call myself a mileage plus pilgrim.
This was the second time I have spent time in the kitchen with a community of women. The first time was in a convent for Coptic nuns in Cairo, Egypt. In the convent in Cairo, as also in the temple in Seoul, there were lay persons who worked alongside the nuns. In addition, in Seoul there were lay volunteers helping the nuns. In both cases, it was the easy-going camaraderie, the comfortable companionship, that struck me.
I basked in being a part of this group of cheerful, normally kind women. Sometimes in the afternoon, after we had all cleaned the kitchen together, we would sit in the dining room and chat or do some personal task or other. I remember sitting at the dining table a couple of times with my laptop, writing in my blog, sharing Coptic worship music that I had discovered on a previous trip to Cairo. The nuns were familiar with the music, and we could all contribute to the atmosphere in the room.
In Seoul the women chatted and chuckled sometimes as they sat there peeling taro roots, frying mung bean pancakes, and stuffing cucumbers with kimchi filling. They enjoyed one another. There was a sense of ease, relaxed companionship as they sat together. When we greeted one another, we would observe all the corona restrictions, everyone wearing her mask. But we had all been vaccinated, and nobody felt sick, so we removed our masks as we sat down to work. Both our K95 masks and our social masks which only serve to hide our true selves were set aside as we sat down to spend a few hours with each other. At one point while sitting there with these women, I thought to myself, I don’t know what these women are talking about, but I really enjoy being with them! I have always considered myself more of an introvert than an extravert. I really do enjoy being alone, and got through a nearly six-month lockdown feeling pretty good. But sitting with these women, I knew how much I need to be in a group of others sitting around, doing routine things that leave the mind free to chat or be silent.
I know that there are also times when people who live and work together disagree. I witnessed two women disagreeing one day about the best way to fry the pancakes. At least, that’s what I think they were discussing. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but watching their body language, I think I understood that there was some difference of opinion about the right way to go about doing this. I smiled and made some comment about how we old ladies are no different from our grandchildren. They laughed, stopped arguing, and resumed the method they had been using before. By then we were all laughing, and one of them said to me, “She is like my big sister, so of course I give in to her.” Aha! So that is how they resolve disputes here, I thought. The cook, who is in charge here, has seniority, so they follow her lead. But first after speaking their mind. This works! The cook was a shy, seemingly self-effacing, petite woman. But obviously she was in charge, and because the structure of their group life was worked out, the atmosphere was relaxed and peaceful. In Cairo the head nun was in charge, and I assume the nuns followed some rule, as many Roman Catholic nuns do, following the order of St. Benedict. In Seoul there is a head nun who has the say in what goes on.
I think the feeling of easy comfort while being with a group of women has shown me how much I miss this, that it is an important need of mine, and that I need to find a way to be involved in activities with a group of women. I am a member of a women’s writing group. Here there is that same wonderful feeling of community as we sit together over drinks and discuss our work.
In this age when we have to endure a pandemic and live with lockdowns, the fear of lockdowns, the fear of congregating, quarantines and imminent quarantines, we need to remember how much we need each other. We need to find ways of building community, even if it is in tiny groups of two or three people. This is what I have resolved to practice this year, even if I have to organize it myself.
Watching Jayden’s mother-in-law cooking pancakes and fish with the entire family milling around, helping to cook and eating, I could see that it was here that she felt in her element. She had her own version of community – her family, with me, whom she added on. The dining room table, where we were working and eating, was like a human beehive, with human bees milling around, coming, going, and returning for more, and Hanna was the queen bee. Her pleasure at being surrounded by family was palpable, but she expressed it in words, too. After we had finished eating our sit-down dinner she sighed, closed her eyes and said, “This is what I love – when my entire family is together and we cook and eat together!”
I look back to the years when my mother cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our large family plus friends, all alone in the kitchen, for hours on end. Was it perhaps a lonely, overwhelming task? Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so overwhelmed about cooking my own Thanksgiving dinners if my siblings and I had worked together with her in the kitchen. Instead, I carried on the tradition of tackling this feast alone, cooking Thanksgiving and many other dinners by myself, year after year. I have enjoyed the work, and enjoyed anticipating the pleasure we would all have eating it, but now I think shared time in the kitchen is a better way to live. I think the time spent with my father as we crowded around him, helping to roll up and eat the pancakes he cooked was at least as valuable as an hour or so at the Thanksgiving table with our exhausted mom, too tired to talk.
I have been told the Korean culture is a “we culture,” whereas our Western culture is an “I culture”. This past Thanksgiving, keeping Corona guidelines in mind, I invited only two guests. I cooked the main part of the dinner with one of them and the other, who had less time, came later with a delicious dessert to share. Then she shared the recipe with us. What better way to honor those who have gone before us, paving the way for our own journeys, than to honor those on our present journey by doing it together. No more just metaphorically walking our solitary journeys, as they say you’re supposed to do a pilgrimage. Yes, time alone is important. But with these traditional Korean women I discovered how rewarding it is to the soul, as well as to the body, to sit or stand with others while talking, scrubbing, laughing, chopping, listening, stirring, dreaming, mixing, sharing, cooking, and at the end, eating. The loneliness of Covid and the camaraderie of Koreans, at least those who still do things the traditional way, have shown me the value of doing it together.
The Korean cuisine is widely considered by nutritionists to be one of the healthiest in the world. Of course, the first thing they immediately mention is kimchi which, by now, is widely known throughout the world. The kind most people know about is baechu kimchi, the one made with what is known as Chinese or napa cabbage, known in Australia as “wombat”, with a lot of chili pepper and other seasonings and ingredients. But there is much more to kimchi than fermented cabbage, and much more to the Korean cuisine than kimchi.
After four trips to Korea, I think I have still only scratched the surface of this cuisine. Still, in this segment I would like to share with you a little of what I have learned, which is already enough to be the chapter of a book, or a small cookbook in itself!
Let’s start with kimchi, since that’s where everybody begins. Since I arrived in September and didn’t leave until late October, I missed the primary kimchi-making time, which normally takes place after the first week in November. That is a mega-deal often involving entire families, even extended families or neighborhoods. The mother of my daughter-in-law normally makes baechu kimchi with 100 heads of napa cabbage she and her husband have organically grown themselves in the garden of their country home. They spend about a week together picking and cleaning the cabbage and making the kimchi together. The idea is to make enough baechu kimchi to last an entire year, until the following November. This means, though, that by September the supply of baechu kimchi is running really low. But there are at least 200 other forms of kimchi, according to a Seoulistic, a website I found explaining the history and different types of kimchi.
When I arrived, it was time to make summer kimchi, known as oi kimchi, made with cucumbers instead of napa cabbage. If you click on the link you can find a recipe explaining how it is made. I had already attended a kimchi workshop in Germany, where we made three kinds of kimchi, one of them with cucumbersh. My teacher, who has spent a lot of time in Korea, urged me before I left to try all the traditionally fermented things in Korea I could get onto my tongue! “A good place to try all of that is at a Buddhist temple”, she said. Dahae, my daughter-in-law, has an aunt who is a Buddhist nun, and her mother, Hanna, sister of one of the nuns and also a devout Buddhist, spends much of her helping out at the temple. I hit the jackpot when one day, Hanna said, “The nuns wanted to know if you’d like to help them make kimchi. They’ll be making the summer cucumber kimchi tomorrow. Would you like to help? Is the Prime Minister of Korea Korean? That was on my bucket list! But I didn’t want to push myself onto anyone, so didn’t know how I could try out fermented temple food. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days there, making cucumber kimchi, watching them make two other kinds of kimchi, and eating their delicious, nutritious vegetarian temple food, which includes many fermented roots and greens I have never heard of. And then, over the next few weeks, to visit and watch them cook on several other occasions.
We made buckets full of cucumber kimchi, which the nuns shared with Hanna and others. Cucumber kimchi from the temple appeared every evening on the dinner table.
During my previous trip to Korea, I met Beomseok, my niece’s boyfriend. They have since broken up, but Beomseok and I have remained friends, calling each other nephew and auntie. Beomseok is a Protestant Christian from an entirely different background than Dahae with her Buddhist relatives. When I told him about making cucumber kimchi at the temple, he said, “Nancy, you are privileged to experience something very few people get the chance to have.”
“What shall we eat for dinner?” Jayden asked me. “Shall I cook up some pasta and vegetables? I think there’s a little bacon in the fridge.”
“No! Let’s eat something Korean! I’m in Korea for the first time in two years. Is it possible to order something when we’re in quarantine?”
“Yes, we can. What a good idea!” He made a quick phone call to Dahae, his wife. Dahae was stationed at her parents’ home with little Lian, observing the quarantine regulations. As far as we understood the regulations, I was allowed to be with no one but Jayden until I tested negative for the coronavirus with a PCR test at an official testing location. Having just arrived from the airport, and it was 6 pm, there was no testing possible until the next day. So, from where she was staying at her parents’, she went online and ordered for us from Bonjuk, a chain restaurant in Seoul with a good reputation for porridge and bibimbap.
Jayden ordered mushroom bulgogi bibimbap. Bibimbab has become one of my go-to recipes when I’m in a hurry and want something nutritious and satisfying. A few years ago I wouldn’t have called a stir-fry of various vegetables, rice, and a fried egg with a flaming red sweetish hot sauce my idea of a favorite dish, but as Jayden once told me, one acquires a taste for Korean food only gradually. I’ve had plenty of bibimbap over the years, so this time I wanted to try something new, even though bibimbap is also one of Bonjuk’s specialties.
I decided to order something I hadn’t been able to eat during my previous visit, but have been seeing on the K-dramas on Netflix – porridge. In Korea, porridge seems to be something people eat when they’re sick, like the chicken soup we in the West eat. But there must be more to it than that, because perfectly healthy people seem to be eating it all the time in restaurants all over Korea. It wouldn’t be a staple on the menu if people only ate it when they were sick. There aren’t THAT many sick people, I hope! I ordered something called “seven-vegetable porridge” – “ilgob gaji yachae joog”.
I sat back and relaxed. Jayden was no longer a pixel image on a screen. I could touch him, feel the vibrations of his voice, and bask in his presence. I would have him all to myself for more than twenty-four hours! We talked, and talked, having the leisure to discuss anything we felt like for as long or briefly as we wanted. Jayden has learned a lot about being a gracious host by living in Korea. In Korea, you treat your parents and elders with special respect. It felt good to be waited on, hand and foot, by my son, who poured me a glass of cold barley tea after I declined the beer he was drinking. Alcohol does not agree with me after a long flight. I didn’t even miss it – I was at least as soothed by the conversation and barley tea as a glass of beer would have done.
Two years ago my conversations with Jayden were not soothing. “I was in the middle,” he tells me now, “and that was not a comfortable place to be.” None of us were comfortable that trip, and I understood least of all why Dahae wasn’t talking to me. After much anguish and many more conversations, I have come to understand that I had somehow inadvertently hurt my daughter-in-law in a major way, but her culture wouldn’t allow her to talk to me about it. But we managed to talk things out anyway, albeit years later, to clear some of the misunderstanding, and to restore our relationship. More than restore it – it has been resurrected into something much more beautiful than anything either of us had imagined, and has a beautiful, glorious, vibrating life of its own! I will write about relationship difficulties, the misery of cultural misunderstandings and the miracle of resurrection in another post. For now, suffice it to say that it felt wonderful to be sitting with Jayden, knowing that Dahae and I were also on the best of terms.
A restored relationship and relaxed environment are like candles and tablecloths, providing the setting so that comfort food can live up to its name, something that can comfort and cuddle the soul. When the setting is right – the relationship is sound, and everything is relaxed, then comfort is elevated to sublimity. Food is a fascinating substance, I think. One would think it was purely a materialistic thing, made up of nothing more than various combinations of molecules, chemicals balanced in various proportions. But food has spiritual properties as well. It can heal people, body and soul. Even when relationships ae struggling, they can be restored while sitting at a table, chewing on molecules. Hopes and dreams can be ignited. Food is a wonderful medium for us spiritual seekers as we journey through life. Comfort food is so much more than just some dish we like to eat.
I asked Jayden recently which dishes come to mind when he thinks about comfort food. Chile con carne, lentil soup, and kimchi stew, he said. What an interesting combination, I thought! These are all products of the cultures he has lived in. Chili con carne and cornbread are something I often cooked for our family as he was growing up, something I passed on from my American heritage. I had never thought about that before, but I suppose I could call it comfort food too. I do remember being literally warmed and comforted with chili con carne on the day my siblings and I scattered the ashes of our dear sister, who suddenly died much too soon. We threw some of the ashes into the icy waters of Lake Superior on a bitterly cold December day. We buried more of them in the garden of one of her best friends. After we were finished she treated us, fingers almost too stiff to remove our mittens – to chili and cornbread. We sat around her wood-burning stove in her little house, listening to the wood crackle, warming our fingers around our bowls of steaming chili.
I enjoy the mushiness of the kidney beans, and the rich Tex-Mex spiciness, contrasted with the warm, slightly sweet, tender texture of cornbread, with butter melting into the bread as soon as you spread it on. I guess we could call it an American dish, but I suspect some elements of it immigrated up from Mexico into Texas, spreading across the United States and then exported to the rest of the world.
Lentil soup is a staple of German cooking, something I often used to serve for lunch, just opening up a can I had bought at the supermarket and warming it up in time for lunch. I learned to make lentil soup, however, from the Jewish mother of one of my boyfriends, long before I met my husband. I suppose my lentil soup is a sort of Jewish-Italian version.
Kimchi stew is something Jayden learned to love while living in Korea. Like chili con carne, it is tangy, but not overly so, because the cooking tames the spicy acrid taste of the kimchi. It comes with tender chunks of pork shoulder, and often soft tofu.
My choices, like Jayden’s, are a product of the places I have lived, also not limited to the things I ate as a child. But childhood foods are definitely some of my favorite comfort foods. Waffles with butter and maple syrup. Mushy, cooked oatmeal. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But also creamy German noodles called spaetzle, mixed with fried onions and tangy gruyere cheese melted into it. I find it interesting to discover that food I first tasted in Germany could also be among those that warm my soul. Germany has become a part of me I marvel at discovering, as I realize that I must have assimilated to some degree, adding a German dish to my list of comfort foods.
The food arrived. My order had a pretty pink drink with it, a little sweet, and a couple of pickled things on the side. I took a picture of our dinner, slid my spoon into the soft mush, brought it to my mouth, closed my eyes and started wrapping my tongue around this soft, creamy custard. There was no dairy nor meat in it, but it was creamy nonetheless, cooked for who knows how long until it was so soft there was nothing really to chew. I could simply let it warm my mouth and later my tummy as it slithered down, warming the rest of me as it melted into my body. I took another spoonful. It was not purely bland, although my body had been unconsciously craving the blandness this dish provided. There were tiny chopped vegetables mixed throughout it, and there was a slightly nutty hint of sesame oil. I was hooked.
Before Jayden and Dahae had met, I’d never imagined visiting Korea, let alone tasting anything from this country. And now, six years into their marriage, I was incorporating the Korean version of chicken soup into my own repertoire. Vegetable porridge, jachae jook has become one of the foods I will turn to when my body and soul cry for comfort.
Mushroom bulgogi bibimbap
You can find recipes for vegetable porridge and bibimbap on the recipe page in this blog.
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.
“Theworld is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Saint Augustine
This is as good a place as any to revisit Gatlinburg for the third time, this time from my desk in my apartment in Germany, where we are laboring through our second lockdown because of the coronavirus.
The Tennessee sky on the day of my visit was a gorgeous, clear blue, a rarety here in the winter, they say. The day I entered Tennessee, a Saturday, it was pouring with rain. It had rained so much that the entire State was flooded, and I had to drive on a detour to get to Knoxville, having to drive through more detours even after I entered the city limits. Thanks to all the flooding, schools were closed, and both of my brother’s sons could spend the day with us in Gatlinburg.
We spent Sunday morning in church. I, as the oldest child in a family with seven children, grew up with a habitual feeling of responsibility. It was a weight that I can’t say I welcomed, but I accepted it, willingly sharing in the upbringing of my younger brothers and sisters. Now, an adult in retirement age, I find myself still unable to shake off this weight. I observe it, pray about it, offering it to God. But it always remains, at least in the background of my thoughts. I have always felt protective of Jason, my second youngest brother, so I was a little apprehensive about the kind of church he attended. I didn’t know anything about Tennessee, so I wondered, was it some backwards, reactionary redneck church? As soon as we entered the parking lot, I felt the sense of relief in experiencing a comforable familiarity. From the outside, it looked like a large, thriving church. When I heard the pastor, I quickly ascertained that he was educated. He talked about his seminary years. I found the people friendly. I met some of Jason and Lucy’s friends, and was impressed, not only by their friendliness, but also by the concern they showed for Jason’s family. One of his and Lucy’s sons is over eighteen and autistic. These church friends have invested time trying to find help for my brother’s son.
The next day, the first thing we saw in Gatlinburg was a wild mountain stream with pansies decorating the bridge. Someone had brought something of beauty into this town, which delighted me. In the photo you can see that the hillside is black. This is not only because it is winter, and the trees have lost their leaves. Huge portions of the National Park which I found so beautiful on my first trip to Tennessee were devastated by a forest fire in 2016. I read that the fire destroyed over 15,000 acres in the park, extending all the way into the city of Gatlinburg. https://eu.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2016/11/29/gatlinburg-extend-fire-damage-comes-into-grim-focus/94625786/
The summer of 2016 was the worst drought Tennessee had ever seen, and fires raged throughout the State that summer. Now, the day of our visit, in Februrary 2019, two and a half years after the fire, Gatlinburg’s scarred hillsides remain blackened and bare, and will still be so for years to come.
I study the photos again from the warm comfort of my room. Because of the lockdown, I have plenty of time to study photos. In my effort to connect with, to understand this town a little, I notice something today I hadn’t noticed the day we sauntered along Gatlinburg’s main thoroughfare. Gatlinburg has an aquarium, and it appears that the aquarium is powered by solar energy. Someone in this city is concerned about sustainable energy, and that delights me.
For our day in Gatlinburg, Jason and Lucy decided that we would only spend our money outdoors, and not venture into any of the many attractions. That is exactly the decision our parents would have made, should they have even made the decision to spend any time in Gatlinburg.
As we sauntered along the “strip” – a road with very broad sidewalks on either side, we noticed that there were attractions galore in this town – among them the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and Guinness World Records. There was a cable car too, where you could see the town and forest from above, and an aquarium, which felt somehow out of place to me, located in this mountain town, far from any seas.
In another way, Gatlinburg is a world away from cities I’m familiar with, like New York City or the Twin Cities in Minnesota. This town is geared just for tourists, and it seems to me, the goal is to rid them of as much money as possible. The towns and villages outside of Gatlinburg are the same. You drive miles and miles past one amusement park after another. Dollywood, a theme park named after Dolly Parton, is only one of them.
We sauntered along, sampling the experiences allowed outside the Guinness attraction. They’re actually kind of fun! I decided to go along with it all, and found myself getting into this. There’s a model of the world’s tallest man, sitting down. He is eight feet, eleven inches tall. My nephew, who’s not short, stood next to him, shorter than this man while seated. There is a Madame Tussaud-style model of Donald Trump, who seems to be selling copies of the Guinness Book of Records, and who apparently holds several records himself.
We all smiled and laughed as we paused to pose behind the corpus of an enormously fat farmer. We may be overweight, but not THIS bad!
You can’t help but have fun here, but besides having fun, I noticed that a part of me was also smirking. Was my brother smirking behind his smile too? We were brought up never to venture into such places. Now, as I reflect on our upbringing, I think my father, a second generation American, wanted to escape any traces of the poverty and ignorance he grew up with. His father was an uneducated shoemaker from a village in Hungary. My father had the good fortune to graduate from Columbia University in New York City, with plenty of opportunities to educate himself culturally, which he and my mother did, often attending the opera, operettas, and concerts. We children grudgingly trudged along with our parents to art museums. If we had heard or participated in any discussion about the paintings we may have been more enthusiastic about art museums. I guess the point was to get a little culture into us. My father used to quickly switch stations or turn off the radio if there were even a few bars of pop music being played. So no wonder my father drove through Gatlinburg on that first visit to the Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg, with its carnival atmosphere, was completely the opposite of what we in my generation were brought up to appreciate.
I’m not sure how much of this has rubbed off on Jason. He just doesn’t talk about what is called “high culture”, throwing himself instead into the music of the Rolling Stones and other hard rock groups. Here in Gatlinburg, the boys were free to look and have fun, as long as it didn’t cost any money. I could tell by their enthusiasm that they would have loved to be able to go inside and experience more, but for today, that wasn’t an option. Trying to understand this town, I can see why families might like to go here. “It’s entertainment in its lowest form”, I can almost hear my father grumbling. And Jason, his kids and even I protest, “But it’s fun!”
The strip extends for many blocks, with shops, little cafés where you can have a meal or ice cream, or coffee, or buy trinkets. It may be fun, but for me, conditioned by my parents’ ideas of good taste, it is also embarrassing to admit this. This is what I wrote afterwards in my journal:
“I was immediately struck by the garishness of it all. It is all of America’s worst taste, the most garish, outlandish, most rednek collection possible, jammed into this crevice between mountains. All lit up at night, with fake snow, a fake snowman, some fake German-looking buildings, fake Western buildings, a fake English house. But it is so brazen, so confidently presented, you have to get into it and enjoy it.”
The “strip” led us to the Smoky Mountain Mall, with more shops and cafés. And then on to the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Distillery, a sort of mall unto itself. This part of Gatlinburg actually felt as though it belonged there. In the center of the mall is an outdoor auditorium, filled with beautiful identical wooden rocking chairs. How comfortable! How cozy and thoughtful! We sat down and enjoyed listening to a group playing bluegrass music.
The centerpiece of this mall seems to be a bar and store selling “moonshine”. If there’s anybody reading this who doesn’t know what moonshine is, I’m probably the last person you should ask. Even we from the North know, though, that moonshine is a variety of distilled alcohol beverages that are produced illegally – hence the name “moonshine” – made under the light of the moon. During the prohibition years, 1920-1933, buying and selling alcohol was illegal in the United States. Then the moonshine business really fluorished, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains, right where the Smoky Mountains lie. In the Appalachians, there are many places inaccessible by road, so it was more difficult to get caught. I read online that moonshine is generally young, unaged whiskey, and is still produced in some places. What we saw in this setting was obviously legal, though, an example of trademarking a moniker. There seemed to be several types of “moonshine” being sold. We didn’t try any, even though they had free samples, because we grownups were already buzzed from some delicious fruit-flavored wine we had already tried at the mall.
We walked on, hungry by now. We sampled “bulled” peanuts – boiled peanuts, a local specialty. Not nearly as good, in my opinion, as roasted and salted peanuts. We bought homemade fudge with various flavors, sharing our choices with each other. Not very healthy, but the fudge was a treat, reminding me of what my mother used to make every Christmas. In Germany, where I live now, fudge is unknown.
We also passed stores like this, selling T-shirts. I had never heard of the “Save the Turtles” movement, but I read online that sea turtles are an endangered species. This shop seems to be one whose owners have an ecological, social conscience. Most of the T-shirts have the “simply southern” logo, so I looked that up while researching for this blog entry. I learned that “Simply Southern” is a brand of T-shirts and other clothing, known for comfort and quality, and very popular among college students. I also learned that access to the “Simply Southern” website is denied because of online attacks. I wonder why people are attacking this company. Why is there so much nastiness these days?
Then, as we peered at the wares of the next shop, my feeling of well-being while having basic fun quickly shifted to intense discomfort and revulsion. I felt so uncomfortable I would have crossed to the other side of the street if my curiosity hadn’t been stronger. Here was a shop full of Confederate symbols – flags and stickers, juxtaposed next to American flags and symbols of support for US troops. The aura of the shop felt somehow aggressive to me and utterly appalling. What was it doing here in this town, nestled in the mountains? Is Tennessee even a Southern State? I suppose it must be – before I crossed the border on my way to Tennessee, I was in Mississippi, clearly in the South. And Alabama, also on the southern border, is a southern State. Tennessee did join the secession, after all, albeit two months after South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama and Georgia, the first to secede.
As I sit at my desk in Germany, two years after my day in Gatlinburg, I ask myself, why is there all this hype about being Southern? I see a banner with a Confederate flag and the text, “It’s a Southern thang. Y’all wouldn’t understand.” Shutting me, a Northerner out. We don’t have shops in the North advertising how great it is to be a Northerner, or a Yankee, as Southerners call us. Another banner has the Confederate flag with “Rebel” written across it. Still? Over 150 years after the end of the Civil War? Another Confederate flag with the inscription “Southern Bride”. No, I don’t understand, and I feel like bolting away. Instinctively, I don’t want to understand. But I visited this town, willing and determined to set aside my condescension. I want to grow beyond the snobbishness lurking inside of me. So, even though my insides recoil at setting eyes on that Confederate flag, I wish there had been someone from this town whom I could have talked to and helped me understand, even if I didn’t like or approve of what I saw.
Luckily, there was a lot more of Gatlinburg I could enjoy and identify with than this store. I loved the care someone went to, to plant pansies on all the bridges crossing the stream. I enjoyed the heather growing otside the visitor center. I enjoyed the friendliness of the people in the shops. I enjoyed the playful attitude towards their mountain culture – the attention that went into building sturdy wooden rocking chairs, giving me the opportunity to sit down and enjoy a taste of moonshine and bluegrass music. I think I could even enjoy sitting down in a bar somewhere with a glass of beer or “moonshine”, listening to bluegrass. I’d even give country music a try. But if I had someone from Tennessee sitting across from me, I would definitely ask about that Confederate flag.
I am writing this post to try and understand. It is difficult, since this is a world completely foreign to me, and I don’t even know anyone from Tennessee, except my brother and his family, who came to live here, knowing nothing about the State, well after my brother’s fiftieth birthday had passed.
Someone once told me that we tend to negatively judge what we don’t understand. Even as I write this, I find myself doing this with Gatlinburg. I am ambivalent about this city. Just as with my brother’s choice of church, I instinctively want to put my stamp of approval or disapproval on this place. I know I am not alone in this. It is what we humans all do, but my heart and my faith tell me it is wrong, a mistake, to judge. Jesus told us not to judge others, lest we be judged ourselves. How am I to embrace this town without judgment? I think the answer is to look beyond and behind even what we believe to be wrong.
There is more that I need to understand. I notice something else about Gatlinburg that troubles me as I sit here, just months after George Floyd was killed – in Minneapolis, of all places, my home town, reputed for its tolerance! If I could talk to someone from Gatlinburg, I could acknowledge that things in Minneapolis are not as rosy as white Minneapolitans would like others to believe. We Northerners are so often completely unaware of our assumptions of what it is to be an American. Before Floyd’s murder and hearing the response of many Black Americans, I probably would never have noticed that I didn’t see a single person of color during my visit to Gatlinburg, except for my sister-in-law, who is Asian. The “fake” buildings and things I experienced were all symbols of white culture – bluegrass music, a Western-style building, an English-style house, a German-style house. I read that they celebrate “Oktoberfest” in Gatlinburg. Why? Is there a German heritage there? There was nothing that I could see that Black, or Hispanic, or Asian Americans could identify with. Is there only a white heritage in this part of Tennessee? My brother said the city reminded him of Las Vegas, a city I’ve also never been to. We came across a sign claiming that Gatlinburg was second only to Las Vegas in the number of weddings taking place there per year. Somebody posting online about Gatlinburg called it the “Vegas of the South”. What does Gatlinburg have in common with Las Vegas? Is this another aspect of marketing, of commercialism to attract tourists, or is there something else about this city I need to understand?
Not everything about Gatlinburg seems to be innocent fun. That store with Confederate flags and banners left a sour taste in my mouth. But I need to try and understand.
I am writing this three weeks after watching on TV in horror as a mob of violent thugs brazenly stormed the US Capitol. My heart was in my throat, watching one man carrying a Confederate flag into the chambers, into the very hall Congress had just been meeting in until they rushed to escape into safety. He carried the flag into the room where the House of Representatives sits, a room Senator Dick Durban called a “sacred place”.
I haven’t slept well in the days and weeks following this insurrection, and finally breathed a sigh of some relief when Biden was finally sworn in as the new President. What am I supposed to do with this Confederate flag I saw in my Capitol? And with the people who identify with it? Surely the man carrying this flag into the US Capitol was communicating something to the world, something that is repulisive to me. As far as I understand it, it symbolizes everything I deplore. For me, this flag symbolizes separation. An unwillingness to understand. It symbolizes racism and white supremacy. a narrow world view, a lack of openness, an unwillingness to travel, to open one’s eyes and heart to other cultures, needs and values. On the other hand, to me, the American flag symbolizes inclusion, an open world view, welcoming people of every land, culture, religion, race, gender and sexual orientation. It symbolizes freedom, liberty, and democracy. It symbolizes tolerance for one another.
But the country I am a citizen of is divided. I don’t live there any more, but I am thoroughly American, and my heart aches to see my country divided. My world is divided. What can I do about that? I think I can go deeper, and try to understand even those I consider my enemies.
I write this during a period of rioting and vandalism which is taking place all over the Netherlands because of a curfew the government declared, to try and deal with the new British variant of the corona virus. I hear about division over and over again, all across Europe. There are clear differences of opinion in my own family, and I hear that this is happening all across America.
I have felt my heart aching when trying to communicate with those who are of a different political persuasion than me. It so often seems as if in these “discussions”, they are trying to convert me to their opinion rather than understand me. But I am still committed to trying to understand those I don’t understand, whose values I even abhor.
One of my heroes is Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the memoir Just Mercy, upon which the movie is based. Here is a Black man who reaches out even to the people on death row, trying to help them achieve justice. Some are wrongfully imprisoned, but there are others he talks and listens to who have murdered someone. Some of them are white. He finds the humanity in each of these prisoners, and this reaching out seems to have softened many of them.
In my family and with my friends, we are committed to talking to one another. One of my friends believes all this COVID stuff is made up and exaggerated. She used to try and convince me with her “evidence”, but after a few months of discussion, she came up with a way to talk to her friends who see this differently. We agree to talk for several minutes without interruption, and then allow the other to talk for an equal amount of time without interruption. By now we smile and agree to disagree, and then talk about other things.
In my family, even though we don’t agree with each other about everything, we respond lovingly, positively, to the WhatsApp photos we send each other about the little moments of our lives that have nothing to do with politics or COVID. I hope we can grow still more in understanding one another, as we, as I let go of my urge to stand in judgment.
I hope that we who are appalled at what happened in Washington can honestly ask ourselves why these people feel so aggrieved. Our mainstream media is quick to judge and then dismiss these people as terrorists. But I have never heard an honest discussion with anyone who subscribes to these conspiracy theories on CNN. CNN piously castigates these people as vile criminals. By the same token, as I watch and listen to the conspiracy videos I have also been sent, I don’t hear anyone trying to understand why progressives want more centralized government. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are simply denounced as Marxists.
How can we communicate with one another? We have to stop putting each other down. I believe we have to try, even if it feels like the other side is merely bent on converting us. People with values and beliefs that appall us are still human beings, just like I am, with longings, disappointments, hopes, dreams and values. My experience is that, as I listen, not only is my heart softened. The hearts of my opponents are also softened. They begin to understand me a little too.
Even if those in our lives with opposing or different beliefs than us are unable or unwilling to try and understand us, I think we need to try and understand them. Not to agree with them when we believe they are wrong, but to to look inside and also be open to the possibility of being wrong in some ways too. To look for common ground, to feel around for a way to unite again. If we don’t, we continue the cycle of judgment and disdain. We help increase the tension, which will lead to more violence, more division and less understanding than ever. There is so much more to each person than their political or religious beliefs. I hope this day in Gatlinburg will help me learn the importance of trying to understand so that I, and those I interact with, can connect and come closer to being united.
In the light of what has transpired just over the past year, it is impossible for me to write about a trip that took place nearly two years ago purely in the present tense. Time is forcing me to change my format, just as it is also, like the force of a little stream, slowly, sometimes abruptly affecting the shape of my perceptions.
One of my memories of Tennessee, etched into my mind like a boulder, is a day we spent in Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg was, to me, an in-your-face redneck town. I most definitely do not see myself as a redneck person. Does anyone, really? I don’t know. Since returning, since witnessing the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, I have done some thinking.
I have to admit that I, an alumnus of a post-graduate university program, carry an attitude of superiority if I even deign to enter such a milieu. I don’t think I really paid much attention to my attitude before. As I looked, watched and smiled, perhaps condescendingly, I didn’t think about the fact that I saw myself as better than the people who built or frequent such places. No wonder there is such resentment from the other half of America! I find my ideas reflected, dressed up and polished, listening to NPR, and my cultural craving satiated by PBS. But what about the other half of America, the half I can’t relate to? How are we to become a more perfect union, or to unify at all, if we don’t want to associate with each other? I have the feeling that the people I don’t understand resent people like me at least as much as people like me have despised them.
But, the whole reason for my trip was to understand members of my family I don’t necessarily agree with politically, and to see parts of America for myself we Northerners tend to ignore. I am trying to understand. I don’t want to be condescending.
So, how to come to terms with Gatlinburg?
My first visit to Gatlinburg was really a quick drive-through on a family vacation our family took in 1964, when I was a teenager. Our destination was a campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All I can remember seeing of the town was the Great Western, wishing we could stay there and enjoy a hot shower, a real bed and pancake breakfast in a restaurant instead of having to set up camp in a campground. But once we arrived at our campground, just a few miles outside of Gatlinburg, we marveled at the lush beauty of the Smoky Mountains. I don’t know if I had ever seen such dense, thick, friendly forests, where trees blossomed! There were flowering mountain laurel bushes everywhere. Rhododendron trees were also blooming, with showy pink and purple flowers. Minnesota winters are too cold for rhododendron trees.
Coming from Minnesota, with its harsh, cold winters, we weren’t used to lush, flowering forests. Minnesota does have beautiful flowers in its forests, but not flowering trees.
But then we went for a drive along some mountain roads outside of the National Park. Dotted along the hillside were flimsy, broken-down shacks I imagined a big storm would wash down the hill. These tiny houses had porches with wringer washing machines like my family had exchanged years before for automatic machines and tumbler dryers. There were abandoned cars, couches, and appliances marring the land surrounding the houses. My brothers and sisters and I were shocked that people could live like this. My parents told us about the term “white trash”. I was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a saga about the American South during the Civil War. I think the term “white trash” may have been mentioned in the book. I think my parents tried to be neutral when talking about this group of people, but I also remember feeling that these people were not only disadvantaged, they were somehow deficient.
We stopped at a Dairy Queen for ice cream. A teenage girl appeared at the window of my father, who was driving. She held a pad and pencil ready and asked what we would like to order. “Nine chocolate ice cream cones, please,” my father said. She looked at him uncomprehendingly and said,
My father repeated the order. “I still don’t understand you,” she said in a thick Tennessee accent.
My father sat there, puzzled, for a few seconds, trying to fathom how he could communicate with the server. Then he grinned broadly and said, “Oh!” Something had dawned on him. “Naahn chaaawklit aahs crim kah-oons, plah-ees.” We spoke the same language, but didn’t understand each other.
There is a big divide among Americans. I felt it during that first trip to Tennessee. I sensed it on this day fifty years later, revisiting Gatlinburg. But this gap isn’t only about North and South, I am coming to see. It is about those with a college education and those without. It is about those with secure jobs and those without. It is about whites and minorities who are quickly becoming majorities. It is about city people and rural people. It is about the religious right and those of other religions and Christians who are not on the right. It has come to be about Democrats and Republicans, bringing the divide even into families. How can we ever bridge this divide? How can we ever come to understand one another? This is my concern as I write about my day in Gatlinburg.
The sun is still bravely trying to brighten my day as I drive out of Natchez, but rain is forecast, and the skies are darkening. And I have no GPS, only an old map of the Southeastern States Robert gave me. I have studied the map and have an idea of a route I could take to reach Tennessee. From the map, it looks like the most direct route might be a road outlined in green called the “Natchez Trace“. The scenic route, no less! I will try and find that, but I’m never completely sure of where I am without Google Maps. If only I had internet! But at least as far as my phone is concerned, I am in a foreign country with no mobile program including roaming. I am left at the mercy of an old, outdated roadmap and the sun, which threatens to leave me at any moment.
Outside Natchez now, the road is lonely, with few cars on the highway. I turn on the radio and decide to listen to a country-western station to get an idea of the life I imagine Southerners to live. Then I switch to right-wing talk radio, then some Christian station, then NPR. Surely with all these choices, I will get some idea of how people in Mississippi live and think. I feel a little nervous, driving along the highway. Will I really find my way into Tennessee? Will all go well? But my curiosity is stronger than my fear, and I am intrigued by the hilly scenery, the little villages, the farms, and the wooded pretty countryside – and the many churches I keep passing. Most of them are Methodist or Baptist.
In my tummy I feel a mixture of fear and pleasure at finally being completely on my own, free to explore as I will, but afraid that I might get lost, or somehow end up in a car accident. It’s been wonderful visiting family and friends, but I’ve had very little time to myself. Now here I am, on my own! But unsure of how to get to where I want to go in the country I grew up in. My thoughts range between inner commentaries about what I hear on the radio, little snatches of fear about whether I will arrive at my brother’s and how many mistakes I will make getting there, and enjoying exploring a region I have never visited.
My thoughts are focused almost entirely in the present. The only thoughts about the future are about whether it will rain, and whether I will arrive at my brother’s house today or tomorrow, at the latest, with no accidents or problems with the car. There are no thoughts about how my life will look in a year from now, let alone in a month. At this moment I have no clue that life for everyone I know, as well as for myself, will become much more frightening in a year from now than my present little tugs of apprehension. I have no inkling that it is a luxury to even be driving across a part of America. The talk on the radio is about blackfacing, racism, and whether or not a wall will be built to keep the illegal immigrants away from the Southern border to Mexico. I cannot imagine that tiny, microscopic invaders will build a much stronger, far more effective barrier to migrants than any wall. Depending on whether I’m listening to a conservative radio station or liberal, the speaker is either proclaiming Trump to be truthful or a liar. I can’t imagine that in one year there will only be one news item across the entire world. I can’t imagine that everyone in the entire world who doesn’t live in America will be denied access into this country, including wealthy Europeans.
I drive along a country road, US Route 84, which will take me, hopefully, to a freeway, Interstate 55, and onto the Natchez Trace in Jackson. Just at the intersection of Route 84 and 55, near a town my map and the road signs promise to be Brookhaven, I finally spot a place where I can probably eat. By now, mid-afternoon, I am truly hungry. Here is a big Chevron station with a large cafeteria inside. Everything there looks delicious! Pork and red beans, potato casserole, peach cobbler. I haven’t had any Southern fried chicken during my time in the South, and I see this being served. It looks so good! And others around me, many of them black, are eating this crispy chicken. I order some legs and fries and a diet Coke. They give me some cornbread along with the chicken. There are free local newspapers available. I take one and read between mouthfuls of delicious chicken. I find an article written by someone who confesses to having belonged to a sorority during her time as a student in a college in Mississippi. She couldn’t remember what happened while she was going to college, so she went through old yearbooks. There, she discovered that she had witnessed blackfacing during her college years, thinking nothing of it at the time. By now she is ashamed of what went on during her youth, as well as her own indifference. Blackfacing, for any readers unfamiliar with the term, is the act of painting one’s face black to imitate the appearance of a black person. It was apparently a big joke in years past for white people to attend parties dressed in blackface. Thankfully, by now it is considered to be racist, insulting behavior. I am really happy to discover that people in the South, which I am coming to like more and more, want to be rid of racist attitudes.
It never crosses my mind that I am eating in the presence of strangers, that our bodies occasionally brush one another as we reach for ketchup or stand in line to pay. Focused on blackface, racism and getting into Tennessee, I cannot imagine that in a year’s time this cafeteria may be closed down, or that no cars will be lined up to buy gas, or that the employees here may well be at the unemployment office, filing for unemployment insurance or fighting to stay alive, or dead. I have no thoughts about whether many of these people of color around me may be either unemployed and unable to afford a meal of fried chicken at the local restaurant, or may even be dead, because good medical care is not there for those in America who can’t afford it. Those at the bottom of the heap, and those include black people, are the ones who will die first from this invasion of microscopic intruders, only because they can’t afford good medical care.
I fill up with gasoline, holding my bare hands to the pump, not imagining that there could be any other way of filling the gas tank, and swipe my credit card over the pump to pay, bare-handed. No one here is wearing a face mask or seems to be obsessed with hygiene. Surgical masks are not part of American life. No one has ever heard of home-made masks.
I climb back into the car and prepare for a long drive. By about five pm I’m encountering a bit more traffic from Vicksburg. How far am I from Tennessee? I need to find the Natchez Trace! Hopefully driving along there, I’ll soon be in Tennessee. Finally, I see a sign instructing me how to join the Natchez Trace. I turn off Interstate 55, onto the Natchez Trace. It is indeed green and beautiful. I am driving along a beautiful lake surrounded by pine trees. It is really getting late, but the speed limit is only 50 miles per hour, and this is only a two-lane highway! This is like driving to my grandparents’ house as a child, before there were any freeways and it took three hours to drive 120 miles! At this rate I will never reach Tennessee! But at least there is plenty of time to read the signs along this beautiful lake. I am driving along the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
There are no towns, no restaurants, not even any hotels as far as I can see. Only beautiful parkway. This was a mistake. How to get off this road? If only I had decided to pay for a toll road! But I thought the Natchez Trace would be my most direct route. Yes – if it were only a freeway.
Later I discover that this truly beautiful stretch of road was originally a footpath used by Native Americans for hunting. The parkway was built during the 1930s during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I am unaware that I am driving along a national monument of sorts, and also that in one year’s time our country may be experiencing a depression more severe than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I don’t consider the fact that in a year’s time more people will be applying for unemployment than in the 1930s and that even more businesses may go under than during that period.
I see road signs announcing a town coming up – Williamsville. Hopefully I can get off this Trace there and rejoin Interstate 55. This proves to be possible. One hour later, by now around 6 pm, I am back on the 55, heading north. Now and then my windshield wipers swipe off a few sprinkles. A road sign tells me I am about 152 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. Well, here I can drive faster, since I’m on the freeway. Maybe I can reach Memphis, or somewhere near Memphis and stay the night there. I should be able to make it by about 8 pm, I figure.
But then it begins to rain in earnest. Rain as heavy as an ocean crashing onto the windshield. Sometimes the showers are so heavy I have to stop the car and wait for the rain to lessen in intensity. At one of these stops I phone my brother. I apologize, saying I had wildly underestimated the time it would take to reach him. I will have to find a motel somewhere to sleep in.
The next morning the rain has stopped, for now, and before nine I am back on the 55. My roadmap has shown me that in Memphis I can branch onto the Interstate 40 and drive along there until I reach Knoxville, my destination. I drive along the 55, and before I know it, I see that I must be in Tennessee because most of the license plates now are from Tennessee.
Wow, are these roads in Tennessee treacherous! Huge potholes as big as cars, at least six inches deep, keep slowing me down. Don’t they improve the highways in this State? I later read that in 2018, the city of Nashville had 9,179 potholes, compared with over 5,000 in 2017. In 2019, today, there are more than in 2018. 2019 has seen the heaviest precipitation in Tennessee on record. By 11 am, it is raining heavily again, increasing the record margin. As I drive along, the radio blaring to keep me awake and alert as much as anything else, I hear talk of highway closures. One of them is my interstate! Then I see flashing lights warning the same, with a detour sign. I am going to have to take a detour into Knoxville. How will I ever find my way to my brother on a detour without a map? On and on I drive, anxiety mounting by the minute. There is flooding on the highways. I slosh along. The water is too deep to see the potholes. Traffic is very slow, visibility poor. Sometime in the afternoon, on my detour highway, I see a little snack bar and filling station. I stop there and buy a sandwich, diet Coke and a big package of M & Ms. Hopefully, this will keep me until I reach Knoxville.
Finally, at around 5 pm, I reach the Knoxville city limits. Visibility is poor, but I think I see my exit, and leave the freeway, hoping to find the car rental agency, which is almost certainly closed by now. I can only hope that there will still be someone working in the office. There is such major flooding along this road, portions of it are closed off and I cannot find the car rental agency. Besides, there is some big road construction project. I drive into a mostly deserted strip mall, and find a bar that is open. I ask about the car rental office. The man instructs me where to go. I arrive there, and find it closed, just as I feared. Not a soul in sight. But there is a sign saying that rental cars are to be delivered at the Knoxville airport. Yikes! Where is the Knoxville airport? It is not on my map! I phone my brother for the third time today, and he tells me how to get to the airport, and says he will be there to meet me. Hurray! I have almost made it to the end of a harrowing journey. I am unaware that the entire world will be experiencing something that goes much deeper and stretches much wider than what I have just been through. When I am relieved to almost be out of danger, I do not realize that many will die or lose loved ones from something that kills more people in one month than car accidents do in one year.
I arrive at the car rental at 6 pm, and there are my brother Jason and Ron, one of his sons. I throw myself into Jason’s arms in relief. The car didn’t break down, there was no accident, I am in Knoxville. We are all alive and well. Jason’s wife Lucy has cooked us a delicious, comforting lasagna dinner. We sit at the table, a happy family reunited. I am relieved to find both well. Each of them has been battling cancer and Lucy will have to go to the hospital next week for another round of immunotherapy. We are all unaware that another disease even deadlier, even swifter to kill than cancer, will be threatening us all in one year from now. I do not know that I will later savor these memories as perhaps the last time I was able to see my brother and his entire family because a disease disrupted all travel plans.
We are also unaware that in a year’s time we citizens of the world will value our families and friends much more than we have ever before. We will treasure phone calls, Skype and other video conferences, savoring little tidbits of each conversation. We don’t know then that much of the world will begin to linger over the little things, learning to be grateful for sunny weather and Skype or Zoom conversations. We don’t realize that in a year’s time strangers will greet strangers with a smile, wishing them a good day and good health. We don’t yet know that an afternoon bike ride along the river close to home can be just as beautiful, just as meaningful, just as full of discovery, as a drive along the Natchez Trace.
We wake up to glorious sunshine. And we need to get going, or we’re not going to see much of Natchez! Breakfast is in some building away from the main house. We use the map the staff provided us to find our way to the breakfast building. Yesterday was drizzly, no good day to do sightseeing, but today is perfect! Not only is the sun smiling down on us, the weather is warm! I’m finally getting to experience a warm Southern day. The grounds are gorgeous, like walking through a manicured park. We pass a pond with a fountain in the middle, and a bridge, an inviting little pagoda. There are magnolia trees in full bloom – in February! Every now and then we pass a piece of sculpture. We spot pretty white lawn chairs placed strategically around the grounds, as though beckoning us to stay a while and rest here. But sadly, we must move on. We’re already almost too late for breakfast, and we still have to check out.
As we rush to try and get breakfast before they chase us out, we see a young woman sitting out on the terrace, drinking a cup of coffee in the sunshine while looking at her cell phone. She looks up at us briefly. Suddenly she’s waving at us with a big smile. Robert walks over to her and they hug. “Melissa! What are you doing here?”
“I could say the same! Robert, what brings you here?
Robert introduces us. Melissa is not exactly a friend, but someone who Robert sometimes runs into at some of the parties he’s invited to in Natchitoches. We’re over two hours out of Natchitoches now, and we’re still running into people from Robert’s life! Robert invites Melissa to come and join us for breakfast. She’s already eaten, she says, but she’d love to join us for a few minutes. She’s in Natchez on an overnight work trip. “I always stay here when I’m in Natchez,” she says. “I always stay in the carriage house. That’s where the best rooms are.” That’s where we have just spent the night – right next door to Melissa. She tells us we had the best room in the entire hotel. We talk about life in general and a bit about politics. Melissa is black, and she tells us about how people in her community compare President Trump and former President Obama. We have an interesting, lively conversation, and then she has to leave us to go to work.
After she leaves, Robert tells me that he has seen and talked with Melissa at several parties he’s been invited to, but he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her because she seems to be so intent on showing off whatever she has to show the world – her intelligence, or her taste, or by talking about things in her home.
A distant memory from my childhood surfaces. My parents, who both grew up impoverished during the depression, became increasingly prosperous, but were very reluctant to show it off in any way. For that reason, my father never drove a Cadillac, but he criticized my uncle, who drove one, and another uncle whose wardrobe my father considered too large and ostentatious. My mother never let me wear red clothes. They also criticized black people for driving gleaming Cadillacs, “trying to show off”, they said.
Just a couple months before this visit, I visited my sister and African-American brother-in-law for Christmas. Sam was listening to the audio book “Becoming”, by Michelle Obama. “It’s amazing listening to her,” he said. “There are so many parallels to my own life. Just like her parents, my parents worked incredibly hard to make sure we children all had the best possible careers, given our race. We had to be better than the rest of them in order to be good enough.” I’m not like that. I think I was always afraid to reach for more than what was easily within reach. In my youth I chose to live as a hippie. One of my “achievements” was to accidentally end up at Woodstock. I regret that I have not achieved more.
I tell this story to Robert, who admires this free-spirited side of me. I think I understand Melissa a little better than I would have because of what my brother-in-law told me. And now I think Robert understands more of why Melissa may seem to be showing off.
While checking out, we learn that there is to be a guided tour of Monmouth Inn at 11 am. If we go, we will get to learn a lot about the history of the estate we have had a taste of, as well as receive an inside glimpse into something of Natchez. We eagerly sign up for the tour. Our tour guide is an African-American woman who proudly displays the opulence of the home in which she spends most of her day. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is a plaque outside the house, outlining the history of the estate. The plaque informs us of something our guide has not mentioned – that after the Civil War, the owners of the house could not afford to keep it. They were forced to sell parts of the land to former slaves. Reading this, I feel a sense of jubilation, realizing that those who once labored as slaves on this property later became the owners of it. I rejoice for people like Melissa, whose ancestors could never dream of sleeping in the carriage house unless they were unpaid mistress-slaves of the owners. Melissa, a descendant of slaves, is free and affluent enough to live in the same opulence the slave owners enjoyed. Here, a hundred and fifty years or so after the Civil War, in Monmouth Inn, black and white staff members work alongside each other, each of equal status. Knowing this, I feel it has been worth it to visit the South. There is some justice and retribution in this world after all.
I discover another “plaque” of sorts in the visitor’s restroom – a description of Southerners. I am utterly charmed, reading this.
What lovely values! These people are some of the friendliest and most polite I have met in all of America, no matter where I am in the South. They treasure memories and their private and collective histories. Their countryside is beautiful. They are the best hosts, who make me feel so comfortable, even inviting strangers into their homes, like Margie! I do see many cultures here, seeming to get along pretty well, although I think there could be more mixing. And I have tasted their cuisine, so different and much more carefully prepared than what I usually experience in America. But – it still feels foreign to me. It’s a lovely, magical world I’ve entered for a few weeks.
Our tour has taken an hour and a half. There’s not much more time left for us. Robert has to get back to Louisiana, and I need to get to Tennessee, hopefully by the evening. We agree to part, and each do a little more sightseeing on our own. I feel a pang of regret, having to part from Robert. We have grown much closer over the week. I have grown closer to everyone I am visiting! Their homes don’t feel like anyplace I could settle down in, but I have felt more and more at home spending time with them.
I drive alone into Natchez, park the car in the center of town, close to the Mississippi River, and start strolling. At first I rest my eyes, gazing at the mighty river I saw so often during my childhood and youth. It is the river that divides Minneapolis from St. Paul. How many times have I crossed it, driving into Minneapolis? But here it is amazingly wide and majestic.
Then I walk away from the river, following the map in my hands, towards the center of town. It doesn’t take long before I see my first building. I am almost swept off my feet viewing it and all the magnificent buildings surrounding it. Homes as big as palaces, one after another. I begin to understand that this was truly once the wealthiest city in America. The synagogue, the oldest in Mississippi, looks more like a Greek temple than what I would imagine a synagogue to look like. Across the street is an equally impressive Episcopal church.
Looking up at the flags flying from one of the mansions, I am confused by one of them, a dark blue flag with a white star in the center. I later read that it is the “Bonnie Blue Flag“, one of the flags from the Civil War period meant to symbolize the secession from the United States. I have no one to guide me now, no one to answer my questions. I can only assume that it hangs there to symbolizes someone’s pride in being both a Southerner and a US American. I hope both flags flying means that the owners stand for integration. Maybe it shows the “timeweaving” aspect of being Southern that I just read about – a treasuring of memories and tradition.
I must move on. I wish I could spend several days in Natchez, perhaps when they offer their open house tours of the mansions. If I had come just one month later, I might have had been able to have a tour of many more mansions than Monmouth Inn. But I have run out of time. Clouds are building up in the sky again, and precious daylight hours are slipping away from me. But I am very grateful to have been able to see a little of the city that was once the wealthiest in the land. Farewell, Natchez.