Kim Il Sung Square is a place filled with hidden gems. It took me some time to figure them out, and I still believe I missed something important. For example, only two years after I moved to Pyongyang did I discover that the two gates at the side of the square, which look like the entrance to an underground garage, instead lead to an underground mall where one can buy local glass, paper, straw helmets, old pottery, soft drinks, and even water color paintings.
One more example is the first coffee shop opened in the DPRK. It is located on the ground floor of the building opposite the museum, and there is no visible sign to indicate it exists. Like all the foreign shops in the country, it is a joint venture between a foreign company (apparently an Austrian coffee roasting enterprise) and some local organization. Today Pyongyang is full of coffee shops, perfect imitations of Starbucks or Caffé Bene. Some of them even resemble internet cafés, but all the computer cubicles are empty.
I still prefer this old one, in the corner of the square: the waitresses with their brown and cream uniforms, aprons in fake Sangallo lace and small hats, like in a café Viennois. In the window, slices of cakes – nobody knows when they were prepared.
Inside are round tables in Vienna straw, too far one from the other, in a room way too big, with a ceiling way too high, the lights way too low and the fridge way too empty. The coffee machine dominates the counter in its shining metal. It grumbles and mutters every now and then. If one is lucky there is electricity, and one can ask for a coffee, which is not exactly excellent, but one must appreciate the effort. Today I am lucky, and I order a coffee to take away.
Today Pyongyang is full of coffee shops, perfect imitations of Starbucks or Caffé Bene
The waitress in her apron gently and duly fills a plastic cup, and gives it to me with a coupon that I will need in order to pay. In fact, in the DPRK the person that handles goods is rarely the same that handles the money. I walk with my coffee to the money room, where I give the coupon to a different lady with the same apron.
This information is of no use for me: the convertible won is an imaginary currency whose rate is decided by the North Korean government according to rules unknown to me.
“Euros?” I ask in Anglo-Korean.
I give her a brand new 5 euro note. She looks at me with disappointment.
She sighs. After a while, she asks if I’ll accept change in dollars.
She starts to rummage through purses, wallets, drawers, with no special success. She asks again if no change? She asks me to wait. She’ll go to ask for help from the other waitresses.
I wait alone in the money room. The power has gone again. Everything is silent and the room looks even bigger than usual. I hear the waitress running back and forth looking for the lost dollar. After a while she returns, but she gives me 7 RMB and chewing gum.
If one is lucky there is electricity, and one can ask for a coffee
This time is me who sighs. I give her back her small treasury, and I pick the 5 euro note up from the counter, still there. I look in my wallet and I give her an Aspirin.
She looks at me in bewilderment. I calmly explain that if she wants to give me my change in goods, then I will also pay in goods. She can choose between Aspirin and Ibuprofen.
She sighs. Sighs again. Looks at me and at the 5 euro note in my hand. Tries to argue. Finally, she disappears again.
And she comes back after few minutes.
With the exact change.
I look at my watch. 18 minutes have passed since I entered the coffee shop. My coffee is cold and undrinkable. But I won. If I am lucky, I will have to repeat my trick only two or three times before dinner.
I smile at myself, and I walk towards the embankment.
I am walking through Pyongyang and it is eleven in the night, they have just switched off the lights in the big street. I like that in this city there is still a time when the lights are switched off.
When I arrived in that country there was so little light at night, but after a while, other lights arrived, and according to many it is a tangible symbol of the increased wealth of this place. At least, I believe so. Lights from the windows of skyscrapers, readings, chats, radio, and TV. Every day more light, and for longer.
And then the day arrived when working street lamps arrived in the main alleys. I think it has been a progressive process, although I now don’t remember all the steps. At a certain point, I remember, I noticed that workers were substituting the now useless street lamps of the 80s with brand new street lamps.
I had forgotten about this, because these new street lamps have been off for long. And one night, not too long before, the big streets started to be lit until 10 pm. Lamps were on alternatively. Then one night, all the lamps were on. And then they started to be on until 11 pm. Meanwhile, cars arrived, with all their colored lights, and the signs of the shops, and the shining arrows, and the writings on the taxis, and the city ceased being dark.
I am now walking through the big street after 11 pm and it all looks like when I arrived years ago. Every now and then, a sudden torch illuminates another pedestrian, a silent shadow heading towards one of the many courtyards at the side of the street. Up high, in a tall building, some light shows the unlucky plodding through the stairs of the tenant of the top floor’s apartment, arrived in front of the door of the elevator after the blackout of 11 pm.
Other lights arrived, and according to many it is a tangible symbol of the increased wealth of this place
Every so often I stumble on some unknown object on the floor. It is a metaphor of precariousness, this footpath where somebody threw, some 10 or 20 years ago, a bucketful of cement, without ever leveling it.
There is the tram, a relic from a forgotten Maoist China, or maybe from some socialist Hungary. Every star on the side of the tram indicates fifty thousand kilometers traveled without accidents. Looking at the stars on this tram, I guess it has done thirty thousand kilometers, more or less.
I look at the tram with all the people inside, workers perhaps heading to a shift, or perhaps returning home. I hope they live on the ground floor. Many of them sleep, on the chairs, or sagging against the metal of the doors. Some look in my direction, without seeing my face, as I am protected by the darkness. They cannot see I am a foreigner, and they may assume I am also going to attend my shift.
Walking at night on the semi deserted alleys is a relief. It allows me to think clearly about all the little discoveries I make every day. For example, a couple of weeks ago I went for the first time to the brand new Aquatic Park situated not far from the Arirang stadium.
Everybody is nice and gentle to me, and they don’t ask me strange questions that put me in an uncomfortable position
It is a huge complex built in 6 months, where people can enter if they have a coupon (first-hand information shared by one of my local acquaintances). How to get this coupon, I did not manage to find out. On Sundays, there are many buses parked outside, and long queues of people waiting to be allowed inside. Once inside, they receive sleepers, a basket and, if they want, all they need to go and swim, including a swimming costume. Inside they can go on the slides, have fun with the big inflatable donuts, try one of the many cold and hot pools, and even have a sauna.
There are restaurants and even a playground. In the garden outside, there are frames for those who want to take pictures.
I was a bit cautious before deciding to come here, and in fact, I had declined the official invitation received for the opening ceremony. First, I am not much of a social animal and I happily avoid meeting all the international celebrities. Second, I thought it was something perhaps built for the foreigners or for some lucky local. Instead, I had to revise my judgment.
The park is often full of people, that look very much like local, normal people. They are sincerely enjoying their day off, playing with the water, making jokes. Old ladies are chatting while sitting on the side of the pool, with their legs in the water until the knee.
Since my first visit to the park, I had already been three times. It is not very cheap for us foreigners, but the water is clean, the lady at the lockers speaks some English, and the showers have big mirrors and hot water.
Everybody is nice and gentle to me, and they don’t ask me strange questions that put me in an uncomfortable position. I think that if I have the chance I’ll go there and swim at least once a week. At least until the good season lasts. When winter comes, I will return to the Old Diplo and to the university swimming pool.
I am still walking in the darkness of Pyongyang by night. It is pleasant. All is quiet around me, and my mind drifts towards my recent memories of two other swimming pools. I like them, also, although for different reasons. The University swimming pool is like the setting of a movie. It is impressive in its massive dimension and emptiness. I have been going there almost every Saturday for quite a while (in fact, foreigners can go only on Saturday, as far as I know), and only once I met a small group of Chinese students.
Sometimes I go there with my friends and we play with the diving boards. We swim slowly in the cold water, looking every now and then at the empty rows of chairs facing the pool. Some play with the slides, but the water is too cold for me, and I prefer swimming. Most of the times, however, I go there alone.
The Old Diplo is quite a different story. I think that the correct name is the Pyongyang Diplomatic Club, but everybody calls it Old Diplo, and so do I.
Apparently, before they opened the Friendship restaurant inside the diplomatic village, the Old Diplo was the main gathering point for international staff working in NGOs and UN agencies. People were coming here every evening, playing, dancing and eating together. Some of the most senior international staff also recalls karaokes and live singing. There is a room with numerous billiard tables, upstairs, and apparently, in the past it was quite popular.
Often the restaurants and dancing are deserted, with the exception of few receptions and workshops organized here by some Diplomatic Mission or by the UN. On the contrary, the pool is enjoying a new wave of popularity, and is always crowded by Koreans and foreigners, and even more crowded is the big jacuzzi, where Russian men rest and talk. Children are always playing in the small pool, and the showers are dense with chit chatting in Korean and many other languages. I enjoy the sauna here, where I rest for some 20 minutes every time I go, watching the old ladies playing Korean chess.
There is also a gym upstairs, but I have rarely seen anybody using it, with the exception of a couple of Chinese businessmen who discuss their affairs while walking at a relaxed pace on the treadmill.
I stumble again against something emerging from the pathway, and suddenly I go back to reality. I am still in Pyongyang in the middle of the night, and in the darkness it is difficult for me to find the landmarks that indicate the back entrance of the compound. I must have passed it while I was busy enumerating all the swimming pools of Pyongyang. And by the way, apparently there are also other swimming pools where foreigners are allowed, but I think I will stick to these three, they are more than enough for me.
I stop, I turn and I look carefully until I see my landmark: the tall building (pink, but I cannot see the color in the night), close to the dark shape of a water cistern, that rests just at the beginning of the small path leading to my compound. I walk my way back paying attention not to put my feet on the small orchards on the side of the street. Although I do not see them, I know they are there in this season. A man on the bicycle approaches me gently, and tells me in Korean that if I want he can give me a lift until the next corner. Then he looks at me better, he realizes I am a foreigner and he apologizes repeatedly. I try to smile and I say thank you anyway, but I have arrived. He says goodbye and pedals away.
The guard switches his torch on my face. It takes him few seconds before realizing that in front of him there is a foreigner, who has the legitimate right to enter the compound. He greets me in Korean. I answer as politely as my reduced vocabulary allows me. I walk the remaining 100 meters until my flat in silence.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_7607 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-04 19:50:43