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Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Old Korean Inn

Two zany ladies in their mid-thirties ran the place, an otherwise no-frills inn with five or six rooms
Nearly always smiling, the ladies of
my Korean inn
and an austere garden. Their antics created an oasis for me over the course of a year, down an otherwise unremarkable street about three blocks from my university.

I was greeted with a knock on my door early each morning. Ms. Han or Ms. Bae would bring my breakfast on a tray-usually rice in a metal bowl, soup, fish and several side dishes of vegetables or black beans along with some barley tea. Before I left for the day, they always would ask if I would be home for supper. 

My days there were strands of solace in place and time.  The world inside the heavy metal gate was warm and comforting. On cold days the heated floors drew me in like a toasty pouch. I washed at the outside faucet. Hot water was only a dream.

As with any stage, there was a cast of unusual characters. The cute little girl who brightened my day like a wild spring flower. Friends of Ms. Bae or Ms. Han who came to share gossip and play Korean card games. There were, of course, other guests too, though they brought an itinerant sense to the place, coming and going, fleeting glimpses of life at the inn.

The sign says "yo-gwan," Korean for inn. I washed
here, along with other guests.
In those days inns were almost everywhere in Korea. Their rooms were on one or two floors in layer cake fashion, or if older style, off wooden verandas that surrounded quiet gardens with tiny ponds. Shoes outside a door would trip your imagination about the guests inside and their stories.

Like the old Korean coffee shops and public baths, these inns have all but disappeared. They were the anchors of Korean neighborhoods, places of tradition and social sanctity. The winds of change have swept through Korean society leaving the likes of motels and Starbucks in their place.  My old inn? The inn, the street, the entire neighborhood, were razed by bulldozers years ago. Now only memories remain, entrusted to me and perhaps to a little girl with a smile.