Life in Yeonsinnae


The women of Yeonsinnae.  I wrote about them last year when we were visiting for a few months over summer. We are back. Our granddaughter has turned one year old. Indeed, here in Korea, that is considered to be two. Confusing but true. So, we are back in our old stomping ground enjoying the contrast between our quiet (possibly sedate) life in the bay back home, compared to the teeming liveliness of this place.

It’s not difficult to imagine the contrast when you consider the population of New Zealand and the concentration of people who live in Seoul alone. Population of the wider metropolis of this area is estimated to be 25 million and the concentration in Seoul city around 10.5 million.  Yeonsinnae is about 15 minutes on the metro from downtown Seoul. We love this place. I can’t find up to date population statistics for this area, but it is in the wider area of Eunpyeong, an upcoming and rapidly expanding district of Seoul.

What I have observed since our visit last year, is the constant change happening here. Our favourite café or restaurant might still be here, but it’s menu will have changed, or it has new owners, or the time of opening and closing is now different. It feels like a small wave of ‘gentrification’ beginning as new apartment buildings are springing up.

But Yeonsinnae street market, in the heart of this place, is the same. The women who sit on the pavement, some on cardboard and some on more comfy chairs, are the same. I recognise them. There is one, tall, elegant older woman who has the loveliest smile. She is near to the station. I’ve now become embarrassed by my privilege of being able to walk past her so frequently, footloose, fancy-free, going where I wish, as she sits day after day in the same spot. I’ve taken to taking side streets now to avoid having to smile at her, as it has begun to feel patronising. I’m not assuming she’s unhappy, but I am made uncomfortable. In contrast, there are older women, more doubled over, less able, and sadder looking who I observe with less guilt, because I haven’t made a personal connection.


The thing about being in a thriving, ostensibly ‘working class’ area of Seoul (compared to downtown where glamour abounds) is you are confronted with both the glorious immediacy of human activity as well as many of the tragedies. I’ve come to notice more and more the extraordinary tenacity of the disabled in this community. It’s inevitable in a community with such a wide cross section of people from grandmothers to young families to working executives, that too there will be the less able. A city this size does not bend for the less able, they bend to it. I am always amazed at the extraordinary resilience and independence of the less able negotiating this busy place. In particular, the metro takes no prisoners. Nobody waits should you stumble and the rush to the elevators by young mums and the elderly is a stampede with no regard for age or infirmity.

We have often chuckled as we are elbowed out of the way at the elevator (my daughter-in-law and me) by feisty old men and women, only to find when we finally squeeze into the tiny space left, that these aggressive old people, turn into clucking loving chucking under the chin baby admirers… who feel free to practically pinch the cheeks of my granddaughter (although her mother is certain they will not)… our eyes meet across the baby buggy in delightful recognition of the dichotomy.

The sky here is not the bright blue of home, and the air at times questionable. But what is not in question, is the pulsing, lively, fascinating hum of humanity.  We’ve been watching a Korean political drama about the gentrification of districts, removing local markets, and indeed, we were visiting Hongdae the other day (now quite gentrified)…. It’s sad to see big shopping malls with generic labels and big glass shopfronts, repeating themselves…. Whereas the colour and vibrancy of Yeonsinnae and nearby Bulgwang markets are unsurpassed.

Daughters of Messene


Daughters of Messene (now in translation and for sale in Greece)

I’ve talked about this before.  The tricky balance between self-promotion and total modesty. As a writer, total modesty probably no longer does the trick. It’s a shame. It would be amazing if our work stood on its own merit. And indeed, it should. But it also needs a little push/shove along.  The trouble is, if you shout too often, people become averse to your shouting. And if you don’t shout out at all, your writing achievements (however modest in the scheme of things) may not reach all their possible audience.

So, here I am to bask once more in the glow and delight of having my third novel, a story with a strong Greek flavour, that sprang out from a not very well known true story of the migration of young Greek women to New Zealand in the sixties… now translated and on sale in Greece through Kedros Publishers Athens (to whom I am most grateful).

One of the lovely serendipitous moments researching this novel in 2007, I have written about before. It was my lucky encounter with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor at his splendid home in the Mani on his Name Day. To be there, with the ‘local’s and to share this magical moment, was unforgettable.  On that day, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, generously signed my copy of his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. I had found and read the book while in Greece and was bedazzled by his magical flights of language and historical observations, the marvellous segues.  He signed my copy of his book with his usual motif of a small flock of flying birds.

A reader of my blog, Diana Wright, managed to decipher the inscription as I was unable to. It says ‘with all goodness’.

To my great delight, the cover for the Greek translation of ‘Daughters of Messene’ includes a similar flock of birds.  This is pure coincidence and a lovely one at that. Indeed, my novel includes a moment of migrating birds, so these links are quite perfect.

So, here is the very splendid cover for you to admire and hopefully if you speak and read Greek to tempt you to buy the book.  Plus a picture of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s inscription in my copy of his book.

Searching for Happiness


Who is that lady

in the mauve felt

hat telling me

that the arsonist

who set her house

alight, is like

all of us

searching for happiness

but he will find more

grief than happiness

she says

without rancour

and we view her

coffee cup blue

on a saucer

in the front room

she was sitting

in, unable to sleep

and so still alive.

They’ve arrested

a thirty-seven year

old they tell us

searching for happiness

can be hazardous.


(I wrote this poem several years ago after watching a Sunday evening news item on the telly about a woman from Gore who had survived an arson attack).

Putting on a Face (in the style of Prufrock)


Prufrock knew about the face I’m looking for today

I had it on last week, or even yesterday and I must have put it away


I can’t find it, it was cheerful, and quite clean, I’d washed it twice

It’s the one that I pull out when I want to appear nice.

I’ve looked in my handbag, but although my wallets there

the face I’m looking for just will not reappear…

It’s not something that I lend so no-one else has got it on

and in my wasteland of despair, I need this face to call upon

to impress the faces that I’ll meet

Upon those sad deserted streets

and so into the room I will come and go

are those my tears their melting backs upon the window pane?

All my indecision, would I, could I, ‘Do I dare’

put on my coat, turn up my collar

face them – faceless

this is my overwhelming question

impossible my nerves

I’ll walk upon the beach

I daren’t look back

My face, my face is out of reach.

Outrage on Twitter


Outrage on Twitter

I like social media. I know the pitfalls, but I love the positives. Many young people are abandoning Facebook, leaving it to the boomer generation it seems. I want to stay connected with young people, and politics, so I am on Twitter too. (I’m also on Instagram, but only to follow my two darling granddaughters).

Lately, I’ve become disillusioned with Twitter. I love all the links to clever political analysis, to satire and literary links. And as a writer, it is a way to promote achievements, post links to successes. But more and more, my thread is filled with people, crying over the cliché level of spilt milk. I don’t care if your bus is late… I don’t care if your latte isn’t perfect… I don’t care that you are locked out of your house briefly.  But yes, you can tweet about it, and maybe your friends do care, and that’s cool too.

But then there is another level. This is more problematic and has been causing me to pause. I am fascinated that people feel free to tweet personal information, not about themselves, but blow by blow accounts of actual private interactions with their children. Do they seek permission before doing this?  Now, as a writer, I can see I’m heading for trouble, as we writers, plunder, plagiarise, copy and steal in the name of fiction. My defense is that as fiction, people are not recognisable (although of course people do see themselves, even when it’s not them).

But, if your child, teenager, young adult, is going through a rough patch, do you tweet a blow by blow account of this? Is this fair.  This child, teenager, young adult, will have a life beyond their mistakes hopefully… but will these tweets about their mistakes, outlast even their achievements as they mature, develop, and change. There seems to me, to be a narcissistic quality to the cries of ‘poor me’, from parents seeking support and affirmation, sharing all these troubles. At times, I have wanted to respond, with ‘stop tweeting and start mothering’… but indeed, I wasn’t the perfect mother and I also know the anguish when a child (no longer a child), goes missing for days and you are desperate with worry. Back then, without Twitter, we networked with friends and our children’s friends for answers.  Twitter seems such a random way to seek solace and support on serious matters.

On the other hand, I love the political traction. I loved it when Mona Eltahawy tweeted non-stop and eventually the young Saudi woman she was supporting, found asylum in Canada – this was real-time activism and it worked. And too, this was about a ‘run away’ child as the young woman was a teenager.  But the difference as I see it, is this young woman was seeking help via Twitter, using it as a tool for her own benefit.

And too, the tribalism. Twitter seems devoid of nuance and compassion at times. It’s not the place for reasoned debate. The very platform requires complex issues to be reduced or drip fed in threads where reason seems to dwindle.

We all seem to enjoy being outraged… I’m beginning to think we might take some advice from Prufrock perhaps, prepare our faces to meet the people we will meet – not to be two-faced, but a chance for more understanding.

Of course, I’m writing this because, I’m outraged… but in truth I laugh a lot as well, following some of the fabulous political satire both local and international…whew!