Republic of Korea (3)
It’s very much summer here, I didn’t put on sunscreen, I’m not wearing a hat, I only have one water bottle and countries that use milliliters don’t make water bottles large enough. Coming down off Inwangsan I pass a park where parents are playing with their toddlers, keep on through a thick-pined valley, descend stone stairs and am back among cars and high-rises. In search of tourist amenities I head for the giant fourteenth-century palace and am stopped by three armed police who politely ask where I’m going and seem surprised to find me a U.S. national. I don’t ask what they thought I was. They wave me on, telling me to continue straight, and going past more police and barriers I realize that I’m walking alongside the grounds of the presidential residence. The fourteenth-century palace costs three bucks to enter and is many city blocks across, gardens and grounds and a complex of buildings that reveal themselves one long low wall at a time, with unexpected offset doorways that conduct you in series through more dusty courtyards, more wood porticoes until the slope of one or another mountain appears, so nicely framed among the balancing of roofs and walls that it seems something built deep within the palace itself.
The northernmost building in the complex is smaller than some but well kept. An old attendant sits on the front steps, and everyone who goes inside leaves their shoes on one rack and takes soft blue slippers from another. I do the same, expecting to find some state or church relic within, and step into the still heart of the world.
The still heart of the world is a library with a few thousand books in many languages, old and new, tables and chairs for study, shelves of pottery, clean wood floors and white carpet, designs on the ceilings, carved birds over the doorways and circular windows open to the gardens around. I pass under one of the birds into a small octagonal reading room with desks and chairs facing open windows on all sides, small conifers in pots and a cafe counter where I order the most needful iced coffee of my thirty-eight years. When I sit down the barista brings me, unsolicited, a copy of Special Lecture on Korean Paintings. I read through it, drinking the cold coffee, and every so often a piny breeze flips the pages to a new, unexpected picture. In one case the picture is what Oh Ju-Seok calls unquestionably the best tiger painting in the world.