My buddy Charles and I met in downtown Seoul Monday evening with the specific purpose of eating golbaengi, i.e., large sea snails (I've blogged on golbaengi before: see here and here). I had told Charles about my desire to hit Golbaengi Row, which is on Eulji and Supyo Streets, not far from the Myeongdong Lotte Hotel. Charles made a counter-proposal, suggesting we hit a place he knew that served quality golbaengi. That sounded fine with me, so off we went to a place called Taeseong Golbaengi, a restaurant with a large, sedate interior that served snails along with a variety of other good-with-beer sorts of food. Charles suggested we go for the fried chicken along with the snails—a classic pairing, he said. Some Americans might raise their eyebrows at that claim, but when the food came—and it arrived quickly—it was indeed a good pairing. As Charles explained it, the idea would be to eat the snails, which were mixed in with a sweet, spicy chili sauce and veggies (muchim-style), then turn to the chicken once the taste of the sauce and the spiciness had built up. When the chicken got too greasy, we'd switch back to the snails, punctuating our meal with swallows of our beverage of choice (beer for Charles, Coke for yours truly). So that's how we ate.
Click the image below to enlarge.
Conversation involved mainly catching up on recent events; Charles had recently returned from a conference in Europe. Eastern Europe was apparently disgustingly hot, while Germany (Berlin and the city of Bochum) was cold and rainy. Earlier on, Charles had sent me some impressive photos of a delectable pizza that he and his wife tried in Zagreb, Croatia. I admit I was envious. We talked about family; we talked a little about how Charles would be prepping for the next semester whereas I would no longer be a teacher—ha ha!
From the snail palace, we walked over to Jongno Street, and from there to Gwanghwamun and into Samcheong-dong, the "couples' district." Samcheong-dong is pretty, tailor-made for dates, and when I mentioned this to Charles, he pronounced himself secure enough in his sexuality to walk with me into the land of manicured gift shops and twee tea shops. After failing to find my chocolatier, we found one of the few French-themed sit-down coffee-and-confection shops located on a back street: Deux Amis. Since I had paid for dinner, Charles insisted on buying drinks and dessert; I felt bad for him because the bill for our after-dinner refreshment was close to what I'd paid at the house of escargot. Conversation turned to architecture, especially to the types of structures that fascinated us, and to the sorts of facilities we'd like to have if we could design our own houses. Both of us agreed we'd want space—a hard thing to find in crowded Seoul. At some point, while we daintily worked our way through our poofy desserts, we got onto the topic of George RR Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire. Charles said he'd seen Season 1 (he really said "the first series," per the British terminology for a TV season) of the HBO version of the story, and while he had the books on Kindle, he hadn't begun reading them yet. I told him of my initial trouble getting into the books but reassured him that, once he gained momentum, he'd find them enjoyable.
A remark about dessert: I've come to realize that, even when Koreans closely simulate Western-style desserts, they often introduce a certain element of Koreanness to them. That was the case at Deux Amis: my dessert was supposed to be a blueberry tiramisu, but there was nothing tiramisu-ish about it. This isn't to say it was bad: I'm merely pointing out that, whatever the dessert was, it wasn't tiramisu. Charles's lemon tart was lemony and tartish; it very roughly matched some photos that we phone-Googled for comparison's sake, but even that dessert didn't seem completely European.
On our way back toward Gwanghwamun, we talked about the Harry Potter series, which Charles had finally completed. There was some movie-to-book comparison, some discussion of the rules of magic in JK Rowling's world, and a disagreement about the merits of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which Charles felt contained too much "emo Harry." I told Charles the fifth book was my favorite one, despite all the emo, but that my favorite film in the filmic series was the sixth one ("Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince"), which was well scripted, well paced, and often hilarious to boot.
We walked over to where I planned to take the 7119 bus back to Goyang. Charles was going to go on to a subway station, but he decided to hang with me until my bus came.
And that's when it happened.
A short, stocky, agitated-looking Korean woman puffed her way into view and immediately headed toward us two foreigners.
"Do you speak Spanish?" she demanded in a tone that brooked no refusal or repudiation. I said no; Charles said no. She scowled and walked away.
Then she walked back, apparently incensed.
"Thirty percent of Americans can speak Spanish!" she shouted at us. She then pointed her finger in our faces, one at a time: "You're a liar, and you're a liar!" She stormed off. Later on, I heard her barking incoherently several yards away—maybe in English, maybe in Korean. I have no idea.
The expression "You're a liar!" is one that's apparently familiar to many Korean students of English. My own students would use that expression jokingly on me if they thought I had broken some promise. "Yo-wuh rye-yah!" I'd often hear. It wasn't surprising that a Korean might keep this phrase in reserve as a rhetorical weapon; what was surprising, though, was the out-of-the-blue nature of the encounter. I really had to wonder what in hell was going on in that crazy woman's fuzzy head. Why did she need to know whether we spoke Spanish? Why was she convinced that we did speak Spanish but were withholding this information from her? Crazy people fascinate me sometimes, and this woman was obviously fucking nuts.
One thing that most of us understand instinctively about crazy folks is that they're super-sensitive to their environment. Here's an example from my time as a college student in Washington, DC: there was a certain building on M Street with street-level recesses in which a homeless guy might tuck himself. In that spot, there'd often be a guy who was constantly mumbling to himself, but the moment I walked by, I'd be looped into his narrative: "And look at this motherfucker here," he'd screech whenever I passed in front of him. No one likes to be selected for unwanted public attention, and I'm pretty sure both Charles and I felt the same way about this very angry, very unhinged woman. Both of us just wanted to be left alone, not interrogated and catechized about our Spanish ability.
When the woman went away, Charles and I joked quietly about the incident, and when we'd said our goodbyes and I'd boarded the bus, I chewed on the encounter for a while, fantasizing about what I'd have done had I had pepper spray or a baseball bat and the balls to use either. I doubt the crowd at the bus stop would have applauded violence: first, a foreigner physically attacking a Korean is always going to generate sympathy for the Korean, no matter how fucked in the head that person might be. Second, the fact that the person is cuckoo will automatically evoke sympathy in some members of the crowd: we're supposed to be compassionate to those who've been touched in the head, aren't we?
But I part company with a lot of people when it comes to the insanity defense. My feeling is that we're all afflicted with mental forces that affect the level of our human freedom, but we can nevertheless exercise both freedom and rationality even with those compulsions swimming inside our heads. When a depressed guy is about to jump off a roof, you try reasoning with him—you don't harpoon him. On some practical level, most of us believe that rationality is still effective when dealing with people who are in extremis. The unpleasant lady we encountered on Monday night was obviously rational enough to try to formulate some sort of argument to justify her nutty belief that Charles and I must be able to speak Spanish: after all, thirty percent of Americans (about 100 million of us) can speak it. So my view is this: despite the laughable illogicality of the woman's claim, she tried to offer a rational justification for her anger. That, to my mind, makes her morally responsible for her own actions, which means I can call her a bitch.
Now, Charles and I are both far too civilized to punch a short, squat crazy woman in the face, but I wouldn't have blamed Charles if he had hauled off and decked her. She was damn annoying. Luckily, the encounter was brief. Charles joked that it had been a while since he'd had a run-in with a crazy person, so he was about due. He also noted that he was a magnet for crazy people, which made me wonder how often he normally expected to run into God's very, most specialest children.
That nonsense aside, it was a good evening of snails, chicken, dessert, and conversation. Our mutual friend Tom is still in the Philippines, but we're hoping to get together at Tom's place for a rooftop barbecue sometime in August.
So we've got that to look forward to. Which is nice.