It's amazing how two locales, so close in the geographic sense, can occasion such divergent interactions. One recent weekend, I made the trip down-coast from my home in Portland to Boston, the historical and financial center of New England, and found that there's more separating the two than a mere 100 miles.
My visits to big cities since leaving Seoul in 2006 have been few. But whenever they occur, whichever metropolis I find myself in inevitably brings forth some pretty potent fondness for my two years in Korea. Saigon, Bangkok, KL, Singapore, more recently D.C.--each worked the same spell on me.
It was particularly powerful in Boston, as, due to a series of unlikely coincidences, I was able to meet up with my former boss from Korea for an Easter Sunday brunch. She was in the middle of an impressive metropolis-hop of her own, attending TEFL conferences and searching for adventure in San Francisco, New York, and London (Boston being just a side trip). Already missing Seoul as I strolled the narrow streets of downtown, her cheerful, halting voice on my phone took me all the way back.
But what is it about the big city that's able to transport me so fully? I mean, it can't be size or population, because Boston only has half a million people. It's rather tiny on the world scale. It does have a subway, though, and that's a good place to start. In my mind, this gives Boston membership in a somewhat exclusive club. I had to laugh at Ms. Koh's surprise when I told her that Portland, the largest city in all of the great state of Maine, is subway-less.
Subway stations the world over share a similar atmosphere. Sure, some are decadently decorated while others are strewn with litter. But there's a universal quality to standing underground, peering down a long, dark tube as you wait for a train. Very modern, very metropolitan. Sitting in a Boston green-line car, rickety and small though it was, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was back on Seoul's green line, beginning my hour-long morning commute.
But it was more than the subway. Boston has the busy sidewalks, the wide public parks, the fleets of taxis blowing horns and running red lights, even some neck-craning skyscrapers. Instead of driving into the city and paying $40 a day for parking, I left the car at the commuter rail station in Woburn and came in by train. How novel, how sophisticated.
And once I got back to Woburn on Sunday and steered my car onto I-95, once I paid the tolls and crossed the bridges that brought me back to Portland, its red-brick buildings, old cobblestone poking out from beneath damaged streets, a faint tinge of fish guts and foghorns, I felt again as I did after leaving Seoul. Strange. So close, yet so far.