Gyeongbok Palace April 2009
I have an unabashed love for Seoul. But like most places I have only visited once, it begged the question: "Do I love the place, or just the memory?"
That was what I was wondering as I fiddled to get my seat in the upright and locked position for landing at Incheon airport. I looked out the window at the landscape below and it was deja vu all over again. This time, however, the landscape looked green and lush - a far cry from the early April chill that accompanied the air on my first trip in 2009. I wondered if my memory was going to be better than the reality.
Incheon is an enormous airport, but the customs lines moved with precision and speed. Six international flights had all landed within minutes of one another, yet I found myself stamped, inspected and with luggage in hand in less than 20 minutes; impressive by anyone's travel standards.
As I headed through the electric doors to the main terminal, I knew I was being met by the organizers. However, to my great surprise, the first two faces I saw in the sea of humanity waiting at the greeting area were those of my friends Seung-ah and "MJ." At that very moment, all the concerns I had about my return literally dissolved in a flurry of hugs, smiles, gifts and greetings in English and Korean. I was back. The "girls" were here; life was good.
After some confusion because of time, language and trying to catch up on 18 months in 18 minutes, I was whisked from the air conditioned comfort of Incheon out the doors to the sauna of a Seoul summer. I wanted to spend more time with my friends, but culture and convention did not allow them to ride with me in the sedan from the airport to the hotel. We stood around curbside talking for a few minutes. The next thing I saw was a van pulling up behind me. Immediately following the van, I saw my son for the first time since Canada. I have to admit it was more than a bit surreal. Here we were, months later, strangers in a strange but strangely familiar land, trying to greet one another but painfully aware that this was a public moment, not a private one. He and I exchanged pleasantries and a somewhat awkward hugging moment. He talked to our friends and accepted welcome gifts then he hopped into his van and was off. I hastily made plans to meet on Friday with Seung-ah, hugged both ladies and then was escorted into my sedan for a very singular 30 minute ride to the hotel.
Since there was no conversation between my driver and me on the way to the Mayfield Hotel Resort because of the language barrier, I had time to survey the landscape. Again, I marveled at how green everything was. I marveled at how familiar everything was. I tried to figure out why this distinctly different, hot and historic land felt so comfortable. Was it that parts of the landscape reminded me of Southern California where I spent my summers, or was there something else - like a past life? It was a question I pondered the entire week of my trip and one I am not sure I will ever answer. All I knew at this point was the fact that I was back in Seoul. That made me smile, and smiles are the same in any language.