“Let’s do something.” I half glanced up from the frying pan, juggling a spatula and an omelet. “Uh, okay. What do you – oh, crap!”
“What?” Erin leaned into the kitchen.
“Nothing. I just mangled the omelet.” I set the spatula down and sighed. “You know, I really wish Chungju had a decent brunch restaurant. Breakfast would be so much easier if I didn’t have to cook it.”
“You just had a whole month of brunch.”
I gave her a look. “Because that was enough.”
Her face fell. “Yeah, it really wasn’t. Anyway, let’s do something!”
“Okay, like what?” I said, handing her the plates.
“Well, it is Seollal!” she replied, as if this was self-explanatory.
I gave her a blank look.
She sighed. “Seollal? The Lunar New Year? The whole reason I’m not chasing third-graders around my winter camp right now? Remember?”
I nodded absently and eased the tattered eggs onto a plate. Bits of cheese oozed everywhere. “This looks like I stomped on it.” I looked up. “Sorry. I’m all ears.”
Her expression sparkled. “Let’s go to Seoul. I mean, Seollal is a huge holiday! There should be all kinds of celebrations and fireworks and stuff. I want to go out and paint the town red! I want sit on the banks of the Han River with the crowd all around us and eat street food and look at the paper lanterns all lit up in the night. I want to go to a bar and have a soju for all the people who can’t be here. This is the family holiday, and ours is really far away. We should do something nice.”
I felt a smile creep onto my face. “Everything feels remote once you put most of a planet in the way, doesn’t it? All right. When do you want to go?”
She cut off a chunk of omelet. “How soon can we finish brunch?”
The answer was quicker than you’d think. We cleaned up, stuffed a change of clothes in a backpack, and bought tickets for the mid-afternoon bus.
Two hours later, we arrived at a silent and echoey station.
“Umm, so there are supposed to be people here, right?” I said as we passed store after store closed off behind security grates.
Erin frowned, tapping at her smartphone. She brought up a website of Seoul festivities. “Here, there’s supposed to be fireworks and stuff by the Han River. It sounds like a big deal.” She turned the phone so I could see the list of events.
I shrugged. “Alright. Well, maybe that’s where everybody is. Because they sure aren’t here.”
We headed to the subway, marveling at the eerie silence of a Seoul without crowds. Whole train cars were empty. We shared our journey with an old man who spent the ride snoring into his hat. There was no one else around.
We surfaced to find downtown deserted. A skating rink was just closing as we made it to street level. The few people around it quickly melted into the night, leaving the pavement empty beneath the bright lights of billboards and neon signs.
“It’s like walking around Green Bay during a Packer Game. I mean, ten million people live around here, somewhere,” I murmured.
“No, really. This should all be one big street party.” Erin pulled out her trusty phone again. “Uh oh.”
“What, uh oh?”
“I think I was looking at the celebrations for New Year.”
I frowned. “I thought this was New Year.”
She shook her head. “There are two different holidays. New Year, as in January 1st, and Lunar New Year, which is now. Unfortunately, I think the fireworks and the party were on the first one.”
She handed me the phone. I flipped through webpages, reading. Seollal was less about celebrating the start of a new year than about celebrating family. Koreans travelled far and wide to be with grandparents or siblings, uncles and aunts, fathers and mothers. The festivities were intimate: in the home, around the dinner table, over a shared meal. There were no crazy fireworks, no loud parties, no vendors hawking wares or street performers filling the night with song. All around us, the city of ten million was quietly honoring its elders, giving gifts of love and food to its children, and making offerings to the cherished memory of its departed.
The streets seemed more solemn as I looked up. “Well, what do you think, love?”
She took the phone back and slid it into a pocket. “We came all this way. And we have a whole city to ourselves. Let’s enjoy it.”
We walked the Han, along banks running between towering steel and glass. Six thousand years of heritage and history and moonlit strolls folded around the cobbled path. High bridges spanned the water, while cool, deep shadows played underneath. In the distance, a waterfall gave a constant murmur, dancing with blue from the soft lights marking the path.
Erin pulled me to a stop, eyes shining. “It’s beautiful.”
“It is,” I agreed.