From our archive - Aug 11, 2001

I made pizza for Kim Jong-il
Part 2: Hot ovens at the seaside

By Ermanno Furlanis 
   (Part 1: Welcome to megalopolis)

One morning they took us to visit what they referred to as the "exhibition", some 10 oversized pavilions crammed to the rafters with the products of North Korea's presumed industrial might. A kind of ongoing fair. As everything else in this place, the scale was nothing less than vast. There was a pavilion for heavy industry, one for manufacturing, etc.

Alongside samples of products you often got a reconstruction of entire production plants. What I particularly liked were the little star-shaped markers on the floor indicating the exact point where the Leader had stood on a certain occasion and pronounced some memorable phrase to the workers. I couldn't help blurting out that all they needed here were little stars commemorating the precise spot where the Leader had relieved himself. Although my remark had been issued in Italian, the mirth it stirred meant that it had been translated for Mr Om, whose estimate of me (if this was at all possible) plummeted to new depths. I had never seen him look so offended. It occurred to me that these matters were of great significance to the North Koreans, or at least that was the idea they were attempting to convey to us, and I resolved from then on to do my best to "respect their respect" as Mr Om so graciously put it.

After the customary banquet and with my customary bluntness, I said to Mr Om that we were tired of being cooped up and that we wanted to go out somewhere dancing. Obviously this was a painful request for him. I had guessed that there was no such thing as a nightclub or disco in this country, but I wanted to hear him tell us so himself. But Mr Om's reply caught me off guard and, alas, the embarrassment was to be all mine. After a moment's hesitation he conceded that although there indeed were no nightclubs in Korea as we had in the West, nevertheless, we should get ourselves ready to go dancing. He was truly a man of many resources and as it turned out history was on his side.

All slicked up for a night on the town, at around eight o'clock a car took us to the center. We passed a couple of checkpoints along the way and ended up behind some stairs. On either side of the roadway I could sense the presence of history coming at me: We were approaching the great square where they held public demonstrations and military parades. I recognized this from a picture in one of the magazines I had read on my first night, a place spangled with banners and other symbols of the regime. It was a dizzying sight. The square itself was a boundless quadrilateral, perhaps somewhat larger than Saint Peter's in Rome, and it was facing the river. On the other side of the river, in the distance you could make out Tower of the Idea of juche with a red light shaped like a flame flickering from the top: "the fire of knowledge".

The sides of the square were lined by stark looking buildings in the empire style, no-nonsense facades on the buildings to the left. On the right loomed statues of Marx and Lenin. An immense runway cut across the middle of the square serving as a route for military parades. Here was the very heart of the nation, a place which had been carefully designed on the drawing board with the special purpose of enthralling and bewitching the populace: a perfectly functional masterpiece of celebratory art. Even we succumbed to its hypnotic effect. In the center they had set up an immense dais with a band and choir while overhead a board indicated the date and the "hymn number" on the program. It was the anniversary of some victory. All around the dais, in perfectly regular squares of 300 or 400 people, the population of Pyongang had dutifully assembled for the dance. Mr Om estimated that there were 30,000 persons. Upon a signal from the master of ceremonies, the clamor around us suddenly ceased as the participants listened to the commemoration in a religious silence. And then the dancing began.

First the squares formed into circles and then flared out into stars. I felt a shiver down my spine in front of the precision of their movements: rarely had I experienced such powerful emotions. Mr Om invited us to join the crowd. Delighted by the invitation we accepted. We clasped hands with a ring of dancers and had a wonderful time while they playfully reproached us for getting all the steps wrong. It turned out to be an unforgettable evening, historical in every sense of the word. They had really won us over. Their bluff had held.

During the next few days over lunch and in the wake of other whirlwind tours we finally got down to discussing politics. As neo-sympathizers, though perhaps a bit more moderate then them, we continued to wonder about those odd sights we kept observing around us. Mr Om, in one of is more successful flights, told us that if a Korean sees his daughter drowning alongside the daughter of another comrade it wouldn't make any difference to him which to save first because all children are considered one's own, and that is what communism is all about. I was moved by this affirmation and after the solidarity we had witnessed the night before it wasn't hard to believe.

Out of bed and on the move
By now we had acquired a taste for our lives as tourists when one morning at six o'clock we were awakened by the telephone. It was Mr Om: "Breakfast in one hour. Get your bags ready, but don't take too much, we'll only be gone for a few days. A place at the seaside." It was to be the last we would see of Pyongang before our departure. On the main highway at the turnoff I caught a glimpse of the sign with our destination on it. This annoyed Mr Om and he did his best to deny the evidence the whole time. Out of respect for him I will not reveal the name of the place here.

The scenes we saw during our 200-kilometer trip had the effect of seriously weakening the effect of our hosts' bluff. The countryside was so poor and backward looking that it had a kind of historical charm about it. Not a trace of the various gadgets and equipment (and even these had been slightly obsolete) from the exhibition. The main conveyance appeared to be a rickety sort of wooden cart with neolithic style wheels drawn by oxen or horses. Extensive areas were under cultivation, the buildings looked impoverished and abandoned, though beside them there were newer constructions that were a little more decent.

But the most incredible thing was the great number of people standing around doing nothing. Outside the city this is quite a shocking sight. Here and there among the fields there rose odd looking mounds shaped like squares and covered with reeds: these were shelters as friends from the kitchen told me later. And everywhere from the hillsides you could see immense slogans written in huge red letters. Now and then the track - there is no better word to describe what could hardly be termed a road because of the great number of potholes and the apparent absence of any form of maintenance - was marked by a militarized checkpoint manned by heavily-armed soldiers in front of which hordes of "pilgrims" crowded before being let through in small groups. I couldn't understand the purpose of these roadblocks. There appeared to be nothing of any great importance either leading up to them or on the other side, only bare, empty fields and desolate-looking dwellings. People were sprawling about as if they had been camped there for some time. The grasscutters were everywhere to be seen with huge bags of grass waiting to be picked up.

We came to a tunnel guarded by a bunch of half-naked soldiers. Inside the tunnel the darkness did nothing to hide the number of people wandering about aimlessly and the ruinous state of the paving. A veritable river appeared to be flowing over the road. A group of ragtag soldiers was loitering off to the side in disarray. One of them looked like he was sick and in the process of being relieved by another. More of the same civilians we had seen before standing around, maybe trying to get out of the heat. I was at a loss as to what was going on, but later we realized that we had been travelling near the border. We were watching all this from behind the darkened windows of the limousine to the accompaniment of the melancholy strains of Korean music. It seemed like a hallucination. Another limousine with darkened windows was waiting for us when we came out of the tunnel. It had been sent ahead by the "company". There was also a new face waiting to meet us: "Mr Pak?" we asked hesitantly. But it wasn't Mr Pak. It was Mr Chang. By his absence, Mr Pak was acquiring a legendary status.

Mr Chang drove us into the city to our base. Mr Om was now lost. This was a base he had never been to, and so he had trouble locating it. It took us several failed attempts before we finally managed to get there. The spot was pretty much inaccessible. The whole compound was surrounded by an immense park, studded with lakes and luxuriant vegetation; then we came to a bridge with a gate on it and sentries. At the end of a second driveway there was another gate patrolled by armed soldiers; then a third gate even more carefully guarded by soldiers, who this time were bearing really heavy-duty arms. It was at this point that we were finally allowed to enter the enchanted village which reminded me of a Club Med style resort on the Adriatic - clusters of small houses tucked away in a pleasant grove of pine trees.

Before we got to the seaside we had to go through yet another gate, which was an opening to a very high wall with watchtowers. This was starting to become scary. Driving down the boardwalk, every 40 meters or so, behind bundles of barbed wire, we passed batteries of anti-aircraft guns with quadruple cannons manned by four men and an officer, all of whom looked as if they were made out of wax. Finally, we passed what was to be our last gate, this time just a metal wire fence and only one guard. We had reached our destination.

To our right we could see the ocean and a gorgeous white sandy beach, so well raked it looked like cement dust; on our left at the foot of a hill there was a pond with water lilies floating on it; behind the pond ascending up the hillside in a semi-circle like an amphitheater was group of buildings. The first of these was the center with its kitchens on the ground floor; above that a longish two-storey building which appeared to be locked up. Obviously, this was off-limits for us. To the left of that three smaller buildings, each with their own kitchen. The kitchens in each of these places were elaborately equipped, reflecting what must be a veritable obsession with good food. Further on there was a high wall and gate which none of us ever dared to cross. Near the main gate and not far from the beach the barracks for the soldiers lay behind yet another wall.

We finally see action
After installing ourselves in our rooms, which were no less sumptuous than the ones we had had in Pyongang and, if anything, even more modern and well appointed, we made our way to the kitchen. Our first contacts with the staff were cordial and relaxed: it is an incredible fact that people engaged in the same line of work, no matter from what part of the world that they come from, immediately manage to make friends: toil knows no boundaries.

I had three pupils. Mr Yi, a specialist in pastry and international baking was fat, somewhat taciturn but very likeable - not a word of English though. Mr Chang, a little older but with the sweet naive manners of a teenager, spoke a very good English but his pronunciation was at first almost unintelligible to me. Koreans have trouble distinguishing their v from their b and their f from their p. Finally, a Mr Kim showed up, a younger fellow with a shifty demeanor. He arrived a few days later when it had became clear that there was more to my techniques than he had probably supposed, and that they were much more difficult than those of my celebrated predecessor, the Roman pizza chef who they were still talking about. My class immediately wanted to get down to business and asked me to make a pizza for them right away. I told them this would be impossible because my dough had to sit for at least 24 hours. Their answer was that a professional of my standing should be able to pull off any feat asked of him. I was given four hours.

Fortunately, I had brought with me a natural leaven especially for unforeseen circumstances such as this and I was able to carry out my preparations. The dough turned out perfectly, but then maybe I was just lucky. While I worked, my pupils, pen and notebook in hand, took down every detail while the rest of the staff, a dozen people or so, gathered round to watch the proceedings in an absorbed silence. At one point Mr Yi even asked to count the olives I used and to measure the distance between them. I don't know if he was just pulling my leg, but he looked totally serious.

One of the pizzas I made was then carefully selected by Mr Om and taken out of the kitchen. A few minutes later I was summoned to sit before a kind of a tribunal. Attempts were made to put me at ease, but to no avail. The eldest of the three judges was a man gleaming in gold jewelry. He wore a Rolex watch on his wrist and held a cigar in his hand. He had a cynical knowing look, rather like an Oriental Humphrey Bogart, but after a few minutes he broke into an unaffected smile, and paid me the most wonderful compliment of my entire career: "A dough like this can only have been prepared by a very sophisticated cook," he held out his hand and introduced himself: it was Mr Pak - finally.

Mr Pak went on to explain that he had been the one who had arranged our little expedition, that he had wanted to prepare a special surprise for persons he referred to as his "guests", and that this was why he had been inviting chefs from all over the world. In that center they had the capability of reproducing dishes from all over the planet, a kind of an international culinary menagerie. They had a library which contained thousands of texts on cooking. They brought me some of the material they had on pizza, just to show me that they were already up on the topic. Mr Pak;s easy-going manner, quite unlike Mr Om, who never let his guard down for a instant, gave him away as a person of exceedingly high rank.

Also, Mr Pak was not wearing the ubiquitous badge. But scoring this initial success was to prove my undoing: my hosts became eager for me to outdo myself every time. The Chef was given until the next day. After a few hours I was getting along so famously with my class that Mr Om's presence was no longer required, so he left us alone. Finally, I was able to talk about any topic I pleased and my pupils were not reluctant to converse. The breaks - 20 minutes out of each hour - we spent in another room furnished with armchairs where we could leaf through the official gazette and where smokers could indulge.

Speak but the word
During the next uneventful few days I slipped into comfortable routine. All day I was only expected to prepare 10 or 20 pizzas, and this usually took me no more than a couple of hours. My pupils gravely noted down the most trivial details and gradually began doing much of the work themselves, picking up my techniques with amazing rapidity. In the ability of these boys to learn you had an explanation for the economic miracle of the Far East, while the corruption of the higher-ups, the mysterious "guests", accounted for the current state of collapse. Once again it was a confirmation of how thoroughly things are done in the Far East. In my spare time, I indulged in the engaging pastime of learning the fascinating Korean language, a complicated idiom, divided lexically into different strata whose use varies according to caste and social situation.

My pupils informed me that they were all army officers, the lowest ranked among them being a lieutenant. I was also able to determine that they were pretty much died-in-the-wool communists: they said that money for them (money in North Korea looking pretty much like Monopoly money) was a superfluous commodity. The state provided them with everything they needed: housing, clothes, food, cars and even cigarettes. The little money they did see - according to them a few dollars a month, though the official exchange rates are misleading - was a kind of pocket money to amuse themselves with. All this sounded like a nice idea. Too bad it couldn't be applied to everybody. And yet the whole time I stayed in the country I never met anybody who ever openly or inadvertently expressed or, for that matter, even gave the slightest sign that they had anything to be dissatisfied with, and this was not just among the personnel at the base who were obviously well taken care of and had no reason to complain, but even among the people I was able to speak to the few times I was able to get away from Mr Om. I was told that an emergency plan existed to mobilize the entire population. A great many weapons were on hand if needed. The nightmare of attack is a constant obsession for North Koreans, as is getting revenge on their American nemesis. Unification is a unquestioned dogma.

Before the imposing means at his disposal, our Chef had waxed euphoric. He asked me to prepare a list of things and ingredients to order from Italy all of which amounted to many thousands of dollars. Everything arrived punctually in a matter of a few days. On one occasion, after looking over a brochure I had brought with me, Mr Pak got the sudden bright idea to order a prefabricated kiln. After first inquiring whether I would be able to build such a thing myself, he chose the most expensive model available and asked me to telephone and order it right away. It was only because the company was closed for holidays that we avoided another colossal waste of money. Every now and then a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses, and one box of prized French wines. That evening, dinner - a feast worthy of Petronius' Satyricon - was served with an excellent Burgundy and delicacies from around the world. As an Italian I could not refrain from objecting, and three days later fresh from Italy a shipment of Barolo arrived.
   Part 1: Welcome to megalopolis
   Tomorrow, Part 3: The Great Man eats

(© Heartland. Translated by Jiang Yajun. This version has been edited by Asia Times Online. To subscribe to Heartland, please email cassanpress@sina.com)
Nov 22, 2002


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