Bonjour Tristesse

“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Tom Clancy

The other day, I went out for a quick stroll downtown, a managable 30 minutes distance from where we live. Approaching the city center, the urban scenery had changed somewhat since I had last set foot there. New 30 storey towers and architecturally postmodern bus stops lined the landscape, and one of the main roads at the intersection where the statue of admiral Yi Sun Shin stands was having its original ten lanes cut down to six to accommodate a new park or something. The reason I was here in the first place was to retrieve two items that I had lost on my flight from Zürich to Helsinki (before flying from Helsinki to Seoul): 1) the first item was a novel I had been reading and had left in the plane before getting off  and 2) was hair gel that I had to give up as part of the security theater in Kloten airport.  So I went down to the Kyobo Book Centre to buy a new copy of Dance, Dance, Dance – of which I had maybe read about two thirds. The book deals with themes of loss and regret and adds a surreal touch to events as they unfold. In a very absurd way, it seemed to befit my current situation – as I find that everything that had happened to me in the past few weeks and is maybe about to happen is still not fully comprehensible in an almost unnatural manner. Talk about reality not making sense.

Night street

With item number one securely located and acquired in exchange for legal tender (btw, they changed the design of the money here, I don’t like the new design – not that it matters much, the old design sucked, too), I’m off to hunt down the second item. The reason I mention this at all is because hair gel is actually one of few (if any) cosmetic products that actually matter to me. Good hair gel makes me have good (or let’s say better than usual) hair and that makes me feel good. Simple as that. (There’s more to be said about this, of course, but I’ll spare you the grisly technicalities). My current favourite gel is L’Oréal Studio FX Indestructible/Invisible. There’s a reason I prefer this mass-produced off the shelf commodity product to more expensive, exotic alternatives, but for now let’s just say that it feels right. Plus it’s great value for money. And I actually viewed its ubiquity as a great advantage – you could get the stuff everywhere in Europe – so how hard could it be to find a tube somewhere in Seoul? I headed off to Lotte Department Store, located near the fashionable Myeongdong shopping area. This megalomaniac colossus is one of the largest department stores in Korea, you could comfortably fit the entire Freie Strasse in Basel into this building and there would probably be some space left. (That was most likely something of a slight exaggeration… but you get the idea.) I make my way to the grocery section downstairs, where they sell hygiene and basic cosmetic items (not the luxury stuff) and the selection of hair gels is ridiculous. I ask if they have L’Oréal hair gel, and the lady points me to the L’Oréal booth at the other end of the floor. “You mean the luxury corner upstairs where they sell the perfume and expensive eau de toilette?”, I ask. No, apparently there is a different cosmetics section in the connecting underground path between this Lotte department store and the neighbouring sister store (“The Young Plaza”) and I should look for the L’Oréal booth there.

So I make the trek to that section over there at the other end of the building. And indeed, I find a L’Oréal booth, and indeed, it looks promising. After a quick skim over the shelves I am unable to locate the sought-after item and I ask the lady there if they have the gel I am looking for. No, apparently not, is her answer. This came as something of a shock. Over 44’000 square meters of floor space and a parking lot for 1’800 cars (I checked their website) and its own separate L’Oréal corner and this buy-everything place couldn’t even offer the easy to get hair gel that meant so much to me. I wasn’t sure what was more pathetic – this store or me. The sales lady said I should try the specialty shops in Myeongdong or in Gangnam. A trip to Gangnam at the other end of town would take me at least 40 minutes with the subway and in my current tired state was out of the question. And I didn’t feel like going back to the hustle and bustle of Myeongdong. So I reluctantly bought a hair gel from the neighbouring Shiseido booth. Now, I wasn’t even aware that Shiseido even made hair gel, so I didn’t know what to expect. I made the trip back home (=waiting for the right bus, getting in, waiting, getting out, transferring, waiting, getting out, walking uphill), after having achieved only half of my goals for the day – paperback novel and wrong gel sitting uncomfortably in the bottom of my plastic shopping bag.

The next day, I took a shower, got a shave and tried out the strange new gel. I gave the white transparent tube a gentle squeeze and the clear substance fell neatly on my palm like a drop of liquid glass – just like the old stuff. So far, so good. I applied it carefully over my hair, shaping loose strands in the usual fashion. It wasn’t bad as far as gels go, I guess. But it didn’t feel the same. It was different. Like everything else around me. My surroundings had changed but I had stayed the same. Just as the gel and I didn’t make a perfect match, I didn’t well, gel with this place. What a way to start the day.

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