I like a good street name. In Melbourne, ten years ago, I lived on Byron Street. The house was brown and white and had a front porch with an old blue couch straddled across it. My roomate Kate called it The Byron House.
“Where do you live?” someone might ask.
”Byron,” I could say. “Left off of Tennyson, if you’re walking from St. Kilda.”
The street name, like the house, gave me a distinct sense of belonging, even though Melbourne was temporary, the room was rented, and in the end I left it all after only four months.
You hear about streets, in cities you’ve maybe never been to and will maybe never see. The names of roads and avenues occupy a shared lexicon, surfacing in conversation, in the paper, on the lips of friends who’ve just returned. Bloor and Yonge and Queen in Toronto. Robson and Granville and West 4th in Vancouver. Broadway and Madison in NYC. Oxford Street in London. Even Edmonton has its Whyte Ave. Part of the collective urban identity is to know where a street is and what rugged and beautiful haunts you’ll find when you stroll along it. The street is the artery. It leads to the heart.
So, Day One in Busan, stepping out of the Rotary Motel and into the pale sun, I wished to find two things: a cup of coffee and the name of the main street closest to the motel, mostly so I could feel free to wander and know I would find my way back.
I didn’t have high hopes for the coffee. My friend Cathy is teaching in Gangneung, a city north of here, and I’d read on a photo caption she posted that the Koreans drink a lot of instant. The only person who has ever offered me instant coffee was, bless her, my Grandma Lil. That was also the only time I drank it.
A minute from the motel, I hit the main street, subway station to the left, buildings climbing everywhere, and Korean women trotting in heels and leggings and dresses, bows clipped into their hair, Korean men in dark suits and skinny ties, all heading somewhere. Bundles of deep green seaweed were piled up along plastic tables on the sidewalk. The air smelled like sewage and soup broth. I turned right toward the intersection, and walked ten minutes down the road. What appeared to be names were posted on a couple side streets: I saw a “Gongni 5(o) ro” and a “Gongni 4 (o) ro.” But the main street, and it was CLEARLY a main street–it stretched for miles, it hosted a subway stop–had no name in sight. I crossed over and back. No sign. No name. But suddenly, in front of me, a coffee shop called…HUSSY coffee?
Inside, Americano was spelled out in English on the menu. Americanos! In Korea! The woman behind the counter wore a ponytail and a black apron that said Hussy in red letters. She looked like a schoolgirl. I asked for cream but there was none and when I asked for milk she seemed confused that I didn’t order a cappucino. I took a sip, said thank you in English, reminded myself to learn thank you in Korean, and stepped back out to the nameless street. The coffee was weak and thin. I chugged it back anyway. Turns out the streets in Korea don’t have names, and when they do, no one uses them. Jason, an American teacher I work with, explained this to me the following day.
“So how do people know where they’re going?” I asked. “Or where they are?”
“Landmarks,” he said.
I saw a clear example of this today, two weeks later, looking at the directions to Club Fabric, where Jason’s wife Ashley is performing this weekend in a comedy sketch with a bunch of other expats. There is, of course, a Facebook page describing the event, which is called BuSan Night Live. The location: on the same road as Ol’55 and a block behind Ghetto bar in KyungSung.
Landmarks have a different feel than street names. They are singular and isolated, lacking the connective elements that a street identity contains. I will have to find a way to make them home: the Yeonsan Dong subway stop, the Lotte department store, the 2nd-floor restaurant with the soup bowl sign. When I wander, I will search for new markers, chosen posts to guide my return.
Some of you have asked about my address.
I’m on the 6th floor, half a block from the creek, across from the toilet bowl store, and around the corner from the railroad track…please, send coffee!