Joan loves dirt. She’s an avid gardener and potter, both of which require getting your hands into the stuff, and nothing makes her happier. So, not surprisingly, some of her favorite Korean handicrafts are those made from dirt, or what used to be dirt. She can stand forever, lovingly caressing a simple round pottery vase, waxing poetic about its beautiful shape. Sometimes I get it; sometimes I don’t. But it makes her happy, so I smile and agree.
On our flights home from Seoul, her carry-on bag is always full of the stuff. But it’s not just vases and bowls – things of a reasonable size and weight. She’s also got a thing for stone, especially garden statuary, which also sometimes makes it home in her backpack. (That woman’s got the strongest back of anyone I’ve ever personally known.) We’ve combed through one antique market after another looking for it, and if she finds something she likes, she will figure out a way to get it home, so it can take up residence in her beautiful garden.
On one of our trips a number of years ago, we decided to see if we could find a garden shop that sold stone statuary. There was nothing of the kind in Seoul, which meant a trip to the countryside. But we had no idea where, of course. So we asked the staff at Eastern Social Welfare Society – our children’s adoption agency whose guesthouse is our home away from home – where we might find some garden centers, and God bless them, they agreed to help us out. Our social worker, Miss Park, obviously drew the short straw that day because she got assigned to go with us, along with our unfortunate driver. The four of us piled into a minivan and headed off in the rain in a northerly direction.
We drove around the 30 miles between Seoul and the DMZ for about an hour and a half and what we found were not garden centers, but rather stone cutting yards, the kind of places you go if you want a giant statue to put in front of your restaurant . . . or your palace.
We stopped at 5 or 6 of them and sloshed around in the rain, finding nothing that would even fit in the van. Joan and I were feeling terrible because we were sure this was NOT how Miss Park planned on spending her day when she got up that morning, and figured she probably wanted to strangle herself. And us. We decided that if we found anything at all that we could load in the back of the van, we’d buy it.
We made one final stop, a real muddy mess of a place, and sitting among the 10’ tall Buddhas and pagodas we found three little lanterns. (We were saved; the day was not a complete waste!) One of the lanterns was missing its topknot but they assured us it was there somewhere and insisted we go inside their office and get out of the rain while they picked through the rubble to find it.
The office was, well, what you might expect the office at a stone yard to be like, complete with two dogs, both of whom had just had puppies. We were offered tea, which was nice, lunch, which was also nice but we declined, and puppies to hold, one of which immediately peed on Miss Park which I’m sure she thought was not so nice.. After a while one of the guys came in and asked us if we wanted the lanterns to look old or new. We said old would be fine, meaning the way they looked sitting there in the muddy rain.
After almost an hour nothing was happening, so we went back outside to see what was taking so long. It turned out they hadn’t been able to find the third topknot, so they had had to get the chisel out and make one. And then, because we voted for old, they had “antiqued” all three of the lanterns by painting them black, as in pitch, with what looked like that goo road crews use to fill the cracks in asphalt. They looked, in a word, terrible.
But before we could say anything, although it was too late anyway, they turned a giant blowtorch on the lanterns and torched them for at least 20 minutes to really set that paint. While we stood there slack-jawed, they assured us that if we left the lanterns outside for a while they would look convincingly old and we would just love them. We smiled as best we could and paid for them, loaded the new old lanterns into the van, and headed back to Seoul. I don’t remember how they made it home, but it probably resulted in another black mark next to our photos on United Airline’s Wall of Shame.
It was worth it, though, because as promised, the lanterns have weathered and look just fine sitting in our gardens, where we do indeed love them.
And because Miss Park is just the sweetest thing, she still speaks to us. The driver, however, has gone into hiding.
PS: In the interest of full disclosure, Joan’s not the only one . . .