I am growing very wary of the word “smart”. Never dependable or stable, the word is too often used pejoratively. “Smart” was paired in my youth with “Alec”, “pants”, “arse” and “bugger” and was rarely used without irony even when the intended meaning was to be clever (in other words, too clever). Also, any praise I ever received for looking smart (as in well turned out) inevitably included the implicit accusation that this was not usual. The natural homophone is of course “smarmy”. It can describe a stinging pain or acute embarrassment, and it has also wasted some serious head time as a mnemonic acronym for assorted useless business concepts. Busking ever outwards from the original German schmerzen, more recently it has been applied to cards, cars, parking, phones, houses, and now, cities.
Busan, South Korea, is a “smart” city, and I spent a few days there not realizing it. The city was unarguably clean and tidy, with CCTV cameras everywhere, bird sounds at road crossings, dutiful traffic, and timely buses, as far as I could tell. I had to take the Deputy Mayor’s word for it in the presentation I attended as part of a delegation reviewing plans for the Bank’s annual meetings this May. 40 years ago, Busan was the proverbial sleepy fishing village. It is now home to 3.5 million people, dozens of skyscrapers, the longest beach in Asia, and is a global center for the computer game industry, as well as for agricultural drones, which we duly visited. I also witnessed the extraordinary phenomenon of the mist rolling in from the sea and enveloping the lower levels of the skyscrapers built at the sea’s edge, as if whatever Mankind can do, Nature can do better. We also took in some meetings in Seoul, Tokyo and Yokohama, where I had the great pleasure of catching up with my friend Monty for a sushi lunch near the harbor and a good chat. Yokohama has changed completely since I was last there in 1982, when I spent a weekend with a Japanese family in their miniature flat as part of a Japanese educational program for the gilded youth of Europe. In Tokyo I bought an ultra-lightweight suit and walked around Ginza and Hibiya Park. In Seoul, I hardly got out of the hotel but did manage an evening with my colleagues sampling Korean delicacies such as dolsot bibimbap, hangover stew, mung bean pancake, mandu dumpling and kimchi, which many Koreans eat every single day
The flight home was long, sleepless, and staged, meaning that I had to spend a short night in Paris before getting back to Abidjan. The “iconic” Le Grand (Inter-Continental) hotel was a gloomy, satin-draped bouffant affair whose gilt, bustle and flock pretension deflated my spirits, the more so when the lights didn’t work in the bathroom, the window wouldn’t open, and the carpet had not been cleaned. I was rehoused three floors higher to
Busan, South Korea
a drab and cluttered cupboard of a room with bowls of dusty fruit, several surplus tasseled cushions and a bathroom shower that splayed water over the floor. The next morning I took breakfast in the chair-tangled Café de la Paix, then a short walk from the nearby Place de l’Opera to the Place Clichy, which I had taken every working day when I lived in Paris in 1974. In checking out, I noted that for a night of aggravation and discomfort I had paid the same as my fortnightly rent in Abidjan.
I came back to Abidjan under the weather, and took a while to shake off jet lag, which woke me every morning hours earlier than necessary for nearly a week, and even now I am still suffering from a heavy cold and a rasping cough, requiring another blood test to establish that it wasn’t malaria. Noting the snowy photos from home, I realize that I miss the snow, ice and freezing temperatures of the Alsace, tramping in white fields and wearing a heavy overcoat. The temperature here never varies much from 30 degrees but storms are becoming rarer but heavier, with humidity that makes any outdoor activity difficult. One Sunday, extreme boredom propelled me to the breezy coast at Jacqueville where I ate fish and drank beer on the beach while watching the waves. Another outing was more sociable and literary, when I presented my choice at an Abidjan book club discussion one Saturday afternoon to a dozen local literati. Chinua Achebe’s “Things fall apart” is about the impact of the arrival of the British colonials and missionaries in Nigeria’s Igboland in the 1890s. Published in 1958, it was the first major novel with international impact about Africans by an African from an African perspective. At the book club, everyone had read it, making it a perfect book for the discussion, which went on for a lively three hours. In preparing the discussion, I was particularly taken by a line in Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s introduction: “In its stark sheer poetry, humour and complexity, I found a gentle reprimand: Don’t you dare believe other people’s stories of you”.
My birthday came and went without celebration apart from a good family chat on Messenger, and heart-warming wishes from friends and family online. I’m looking forward eagerly to seeing the whole family at a wider Stanbrook gathering in London in April.
I wish a very happy Easter to all.