Sleepless in Seoul

“So leben wir und nehmen immer Abschied.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien

It has been, what, two or three days already since I arrived – and I can’t shake the indelible feeling that I am somehow, somewhat very, very out of place in this town. Whereas ‘town’  is probably not the appropriate word – the  icy skyscrapers of Seoul, the city of 12 million inhabitants where I was born one Sunday afternoon 27 years ago, loom large on the horizon. From where I am standing, the dark sprawling contours of the cityscape and the never ending sea of flashing neon exude a menacing chill. This is a place that I always enjoyed visiting but where I didn’t  necessarily want to stay for more than a few weeks – never have I felt this as poignantly as now. Jet-lag and general bewilderment have definitely contributed to such a condition – but the pain of parting, the uncertainty of one’s own immediate future and perceived lack of control have rendered former feelings of familiarity and belonging into something desolate and alien.

Seoul by night

Rewinding a couple of days back to my last moments in Europe, I realise that the giddiness and simultaneous multi-track hypertension of fast-forward farewells conspired to (at least partially) mask their gravity. My tongue, my lips, my larynx, they had uttered the words ‘good bye’  so many times in the past few weeks that taking leave was becoming something akin to a state of mind. Now that it was irrevocable and beyond doubt that I had arrived at my intended destination, the reality of separation from those dearest to me has hit with full force. I feel genuinely and profoundly blessed to have enjoyed the company of such wonderful human beings, and so sad that I must relinquish what has brought me great happiness and comfort over the years. But such is the fleeting nature of human relations, of life in general – and although it has been said many times over and over again to the point where such utterances have lost whatever meaning they had – to feel this again, once more, with such biting clarity and immediate realness, expels any doubt one might have had concerning the legitimacy and brutal truth of these words.

As I sit here wide awake, the clock tells me it is 5:00 a.m. and I am unsure if I am tired or… well, not tired. I open the vacuum sealed plastic bags which I had bought to save space in my luggage – put your clothes in there and press all the air out and you’ll be surprised how much you can cram into a suitcase – and it occurs to me that I am out of breath myself. This is no place to harbour a restless mind, much less a heavy heart, and the air-conditioned clinical urban vastness can be strangely consuming, sucking you dry just like one of those vacuum sealed plastic bags. I am sleepless in Seoul, and I guess I will be for some nights to come.