From our archive - Aug 18, 2001

Part 3: The great man eats

By Ermanno Furlanis

   (Part 1: Welcome to megalopolis)
   (Part 2: Hot ovens at the seaside)

Too much salt at the sea
Mr Om told me to get ready because the next day we would be cooking at the seaside on a boat. When I expressed my doubts about this he cut me short with his usual smile and a urged me "not to worry". The next morning a cabin cruiser topped with a salon and kitchen was sent to pick us up like a private water taxi. The writing on her stern read: "Capri Miami-Florida". Ah, the mysteries of international politics!

We sped along for about half an hour to the languid notes of Korean music past the islands and islets that form an archipelago in front of the base. At last a kind of a semi-mobile, floating amusement park appeared before us which was able to anchor in different places every day. It was made up of two waterslides which dropped down into a swimming pool. On the other side of the pool there was a two-storey building with an observation deck on the roof. I doubt if even Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude. We did not draw near this floating fun fair, and our guides even tried to prevent us from gawking at it. They went so far as to physically, though partly in jest, turn our heads aside with their hands. About half a mile further on we came to a big ship which lay anchored in sea. The heart of this ocean liner was, needless to say, a fully equipped kitchen fitted with huge windows overlooking the sea and where it would be our pleasure to work.

Tied to the side the ship was a pontoon raft upon which I beheld a most miraculous sight. In truth, I could hardly believe my eyes. They had brought out my entire pizzeria and all its accessories in one piece. All that was left was for me to do was to start cooking. Shortly before the great luncheon banquet the air suddenly came alive with a stir. I had just finished preparing my pizzas when I noticed that everybody in the kitchen seemed to be caught up in an inexplicable flurry of agitation. They almost used force to drag me away from the kitchen windows into in a comfortable salon for a beer.

I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the Chef, who was performing a very delicate operation at the time, was less amenable to being distracted from his task. He had to lose his temper with his pupils to keep them from pulling him away. But by then his suspicions were aroused and he insisted on staying where he was at all costs. His instincts had been right.

On the other side of the darkened window of the kitchen, crossing the gangway which led from the cruiser to a luxurious suite overhead was the Man in the murals, the successor of the Creator of the idea of juche (self-reliance), whose girth gave the measure of his power, followed by his entourage. The Leader-hero was immediately recognizable by the distinctive cut of his hair, a style of his own, unique not only in Korea but in the rest of the world. I am not in the position to say whether it really was Him, but our Chef, who had no reason to fib, was, for the space of several minutes, utterly speechless. He came into the salon where I was sitting looking quite beside himself. After listening to the description of the vision he had been privileged to witness I tried to calm him down him and offered a maekchu, the sweet Korean beer. He said he felt as if he had seen God, and I still envy him this experience.

That evening we had a light dinner back at the base: a pair of lobsters, salad and French white wine. The phone rang. Mr Om put down his glass of Remy Martin which we had been downing by the bucketful and went to answer. It was always a stressful moment for him: his daily progress report and communicating the preparations for the next day. Suddenly the expression on Mr Om's face darkened visibly as he listened in silence to whom I think must have been Mr Pak on the other end complaining that the food had not met with approval.

After our wives had been sent scuttling to bed, the Chef and I were led into an office and subjected to a classic brainwashing session. Actually, the problem hadn't been the pizza at all, but the lamb. It had been allowed to marinate for two days. This was followed by the immense labor of preparing the garnish with little bundles of dried spaghetti which I had tasted myself. It was really an exquisite dish, visually stunning, but, alas, somebody had found it too salty. So that night until one o'clock we were obliged to stay up and revise the entire program, with Mr Om removing anything which was deemed to be too salty.

My initial reaction was to flat-out refuse. Cursing aloud, I wanted to return to my room and pack my bags. After all, we were the specialists. What right did they have to tell us how to do our job? The Chef was a little more sanguine about it all. He advised me to stay calm and count to 10. He was, he admitted, livid with rage and felt he had been personally humiliated, but he was able to keep his cool. It was better to swallow our pride, he told me, than risk the consequences which might result from a failure to cooperate. I resigned myself and started rewriting the entire program, striking out various dishes which contained anchovies and capers. As if all this weren't enough, at two o'clock in the morning Mr Om came in with couple of beers attempting to soften the impact of the next brilliant idea which he had just received over the phone: we were to move out of our suites - right away.

Inside the enchanted village
It was not easy to wake up our wives and convince them this wasn't a practical joke. Mr Om was inflexible even when I refused point blank. A few minutes later we found ourselves in one of the little bungalows in the pine grove two fences out from the main building. There was a sentinel standing behind a tree trunk whose job was to protect us, but all he did was increase our anxiety.

The rooms were, however, first rate, with a view of the ocean and they came with television. Not the boring state TV, but real TV: CNN and three Chinese channels which were surprisingly modern and entertaining, Japanese, Australian and Indian TV, a Babel of foreign tongues; finally a whiff of air from the outside world. Our move had been the brainchild of Mr Pak who it seems did his best thinking after-hours. At least that was how he explained the affair the next day when he apologized to us. He said that since they had been unable to obtain an interpreter for our wives at least they could now watch TV in our new digs. There was also a sauna and the seafront could be accessed directly without climbing through rolls of barbed wire.

There was only one small condition attached to these new privileges: we were never to leave the precinct of the villa. Our wives had unwittingly attempted to do just that in the morning and had made the startled acquaintance of two screaming guards. We were told that any attempt to leave the immediate area around of the villa could prove to be very dangerous. This was an even shinier gilded cage, but it was still a jail.

Other "guests" were very shy and hard to come by in this place. In our enormous compound there were distinctly more servants than guests. I counted about 50 of them including the kitchen staff, chauffeurs, gardeners. In addition to these, every morning a dozen of cleaning women turned up before the main entrance waiting to get in. The garrison was made up of about 70 soldiers, young boys who were beginning their term of compulsory military service, which in North Korea lasts about 20 years. These lads were expected to do exhausting guard duty and subjected to intense physical exercise sessions early every morning. We used to hear these sessions come to an end at about seven o'clock with a final warlike shout.

As for the other guests, we could only detect their presence indirectly and bumped into them on very rare occasions. Athletes must enjoy a great many privileges in North Korea. In our new building we were also able to infer - from the slippers - the presence of a young lady guest, a rather attractive woman whom we caught sight of only on a couple of occasions from a distance - once riding the cabin cruiser out to the floating island and another time when she was returning by car after lunch. She approached the building, but as soon as she saw us she darted out of sight only to reappear a few minutes later after we were safely in our rooms.

Another guest was a certain Mr Chang whom I waved to while he was pedaling around on a bicycle. He gave me five minutes of his time and we chatted and watched the sunset from the fence that marked the inviolable boundary of the precinct. Mr Chang was another man with a Rolex and without the badge. He didn't seem at all surprised when I told him about our restrictions in movement, but then he also didn't invite me to accompany him when he left. In spite of this, his manner was very friendly and relaxed and he complimented me on my pizza.

And so as the days passed our apprehension melted away. We had grown accustomed to the arsenal around us and our guards would smile furtively at us whenever we greeted them. They were just teenagers and could have hardly been older than 16. I continued to pursue the movements of my mobile pizzeria: mornings at the base and afternoons, time permitting, on the ship to which I was ferried by my own personal water taxi. While this was going on the Chef was making superhuman efforts to get dinner ready for one or another of the 30 or so bungalows in the village. Our wives had an entire half-deserted seaside resort to themselves presided over by a numerous staff who raked and manicured the sand until it shone and who kept them from venturing into restricted areas by their unequivocal screaming.

Television made their confinement more bearable before mealtimes. Due to a rather cruel coincidence, CNN was broadcasting a continual series of reports denouncing famine in North Korea brought on by a drought and the death of thousands of children. In truth we had never encountered anything like the scenes shown on TV. While the countryside did have a Third World look about it, we hadn't observed any extreme hardship. Probably we had been kept away from stricken areas, or CNN had exaggerated. When pressed on this point Mr Om admitted that there were, in fact, difficulties. To this I suggested that the higher-ups in the compound would do well to concentrate less on stuffing themselves and more on the people outside. Mr Om's reply to this and similar questions was, "Man is the same all over the world." The same regardless of the political system, I suppose.

The inhabitants of the desert island
In any case, our sense of imminent danger was rapidly diminishing; it was clear how hard our hosts were trying to put us at our ease and how concerned they were that we should enjoy ourselves. They even rewarded us with two days off: one a trip to the seaside and the other an excursion to the mountains. One day the water taxi brought us to one of the thousands of little islands forming the archipelago. According to our hosts these islands were uninhabited. The trip was rather longish and it took at least an hour to get to our destination. Once we were on shore we were treated to a magnificent picnic of pulkogi, the famous Korean barbecue of thin meat strips, reverently served up by a couple of boy-waiters. After the meal and our usual drinks of ginseng mixed with Remy Martin and orgiastic dancing to music played over the cabin cruiser's stereo, I wandered off to try and get sober. Mr Om had said that these islands were totally uninhabited, but I had caught a fleeting glimpse of some figures who fled as soon as they became aware of me. When I asked who these people were a look of concern came over Mr Om's face. He told me that I must have been mistaken. I wasn't about to give up on this. I may have been drunk but I wasn't hallucinating. Following the bleating of a goat I came upon a well-tended vegetable garden.

I ventured ahead, soon realizing that the deserted island wasn't deserted after all. I found a sweet tempered nanny goat at the end of the garden and two kids which looked like stuffed animals. To the left was a kind of ancestral village. Some shanties lined one side of a rectangular courtyard and on the longer side what looked to be primitive shelters partly built out of wood and partly dug out of the mountainside. Here there wasn't a living soul to be seen. Excited by my discovery I called our womenfolk to come over and see the goats. The entire Italian contingent had assembled here.

After a while one of Mr Om's lackeys arrived and tried to pull us forcibly away. He made an effort to explain to me in English that we had put ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. But by now the Chef and I were so drunk we couldn't care less. Attracted by the racket we were making the denizens of this colony gradually began to emerge from their hiding places and draw near. They were all boys between the ages of 16 and 18, their heads shaven and bare-chested. They popped out of their refuges and formed a crowd around us so that we were a little afraid.

Then suddenly a football appeared from nowhere and the magic spell of soccer descended on a remote island in this North Korean archipelago. An afternoon's excitement with these non-existent islanders. We divided ourselves up into teams. Obviously this was going to be a rematch between Italy and North Korea - a chance for us to get even. But there were too few of us so one of these tanned barefoot boys in army pants joined our side which included our colleagues from the kitchen. There was a dreamlike quality about the whole situation. If you believed Mr Om's view it was even dangerous. But what did we care? We had a football to play with and an afternoon's enjoyment ahead. After a few moments it felt like just any Sunday afternoon in any Italian football stadium. We were having fun just like little kids while the fans on the sidelines cheered their teams on. Italy started off badly, and before long we were three goals down. But with a header we managed to score the equalizer and then went on to win. We had redeemed our country's honor. Facchetti and his teammates could rest in peace. Actually it occurred to us that we might have a revolt on our hands but nothing of the kind happened. Our opponents shook hands cordially and walked with us back to the beach. We could see that Mr Om was not amused, nor did he ever enlighten us as to who these people on the island were, who apparently lived off goat's milk and vegetables from the garden and maybe fish. It was to remain just another one of Korea's undecipherable mysteries.

Kun-gan-san, ahhh!
One morning Mr Li was to be heard repeating some strange sounding verses to himself. Kun-gan-san, ahhh! He leaned backward and laughed. I finally figured out the reason for this at lunch. Mr Om told us that it had been decided we would be spending two days at the sacred mountain of Kun-gan. Here we brought the usual picnic with us and then went for a walk. The mountain itself was very beautiful, but quite like the mountains back home. The vegetation was much the same and so were the rocks and the shape of the streams running down. There were some really interesting engravings on the rock face which you could see from a long way off. The picturesque Korean graffiti lent an artistic touch to the whole scene.

Many individuals had signed the common surname Kim, but a few must have dated back centuries. Here and there we met up with tourists from China and a few souvenir stalls, the incipient stages of a market economy. For five dollars a couple might rent a boat from two enterprising boatmen and have themselves rowed around a high altitude lake whose water was emerald green. Once again, dinner was an interesting event. We took our own provisions to a kind of restaurant where all they did was supply the facilities and you could eat your own food. What they provided was the cutlery and glasses. The spot was lovely on the shore of a lake. Too bad that at a certain point that lights went out and we couldn't see anything anymore.

Back at the hotel Mr Om, perhaps heartened by all the Remy Martin he had been consuming, decided to forget the wife he had waiting for him in Pyongyang and accompany our alpine guide, a very sweet girl, back to her house. He must have gotten lost that night because he didn't return to the hotel!

The hotel was a grandiose establishment there was a gigantic crystal chandelier hanging at least five or six meters over an immense staircase in the foyer. It was, however, too neglected to merit praise. I found some little shops which were by Korean standards well stocked with souvenirs and a bar which exuded a slight air of decadence, a typical hotel bar. There were some Koreans here smoking and munching on dried squid - a real delicacy in that country. The most revealing encounter we had was with a very engaging young lady, one of the salesgirls. She was able to speak a little English and agreed to answer some of my questions.

She had never heard of Italy and when I started talking about Rome I was happy to see her face light up. "Yes, Romania!", she exclaimed. She went on to explain that they don't study European history or geography at school. On the other hand, they do a great many scientific subjects. She said that life in Korea was pretty good. They state provided everything for free, as far as this was possible; the money she earned, around US$300 at the official exchange rate, was more than enough for her needs. Her family's house was small but comfortable. But what troubled her most of all was a longing to be reunited with her brothers from the South who are cruelly prevented from joining them - though every once in a while somebody manages to escape. One day they will free their brothers from their chains. I smiled ironically at this and asked her, "Are you really sure?" "Of course, it must be so." Very moving.

Mission Accomplished
After over 20 days of "hard labor", our time there was supposed to be over. And yet nobody had brought up the question of leaving. Quite evidently our efforts were being appreciated. A proof of this were the sizeable tips that came my way - once a single 1,000 yen bill, and on another occasion $120. One night at around one o'clock in the morning there came a knocking at our door. It was Mr Om who wanted me to me to come downstairs. Mr Pak was also waiting outside. I had never seen him so serious. He explained that what he was about to tell me might be taken as an affront but that I should not be offended. His "guests" had been so enthusiastic about my pizza that they had taken up a collection for me which they asked me to accept. Mr Pak held out a roll of American dollars. It had been the day of the pizza al salamino which, in the wake of its success in the United States, is in the process of establishing itself as nothing less than an international cult, a pizza without borders, which is appreciated in every land no matter the ideology or regime, a dish which could help reconcile the most irreconcilable differences. The next Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting should be held in a pizzeria in the portici district of Naples!

Our cook had to be back in Italy by a certain date and raised the question of our return. In order to gain time they allowed us each to send home a fax. Then, one day at lunchtime we made the acquaintance of a new colleague, a Pakistani chef just off the plane from Karachi. Well, we thought, now it's his turn. Still nobody was saying anything about going home. We finally had definite news in the late afternoon. We would be leaving that very night. It was Mr Pak's final touch, it bore his unmistakable signature, a brilliant stroke. This way he could bid us farewell without having to be there in person. Very little time remained now for sentimentality, but that didn't mean that all of us in the kitchen were feeling lumps in the throat which still haven't gone away. Our pupils, eyes brimming with tears ran after the limousine as far as they could to present us with little souvenirs: ginseng tea and pestilential cigarettes. I occasionally smoke one of these cigarettes out of nostalgia even though I hate smoking. In the meantime, the chef from Pakistan was being "re-educated": too spicy ... the cycle was starting again.

In the secular temple
There were still three days before we were to leave for Beijing. The Chef managed to obtain visas for us for a brief visit. So we had three days to wear all our clothes which had stayed behind in Pyongyang. Korea still had a few surprises in store for us, until the very last minute. We spent two days in another tourist spot, Maan-san. Here was another huge, thoroughly dilapidated hotel. Our first day we spent visiting the ancient Buddhist temples with the classical pagoda style roofs. Very interesting, to be sure, but a little monotonous. But there was another temple here which would win our hearts and minds the very next day. Nestled among a mountains of rare beauty was the "Exhibition of International Friendship".

This is difficult to describe. My impression was one of going back in time to the days of King Cyrus the Great of Persia. It was like visiting his legendary palace in Persepolis. Just that kind of atmosphere. Four floors of 40,000 square meters each. The roofs were just like those of the temples. All the exhibits were behind protective coverings and the temperature and humidity were constantly controlled. The objects housed here were among the most splendid and precious things the human mind can conceive. They were exposed with a kind of religious fetishism alongside certified junk from around the world. This was a place to strike envy in the hearts of Pharaohs: marble, plants and chandeliers. Here were gifts various heads of state (from around the world and not just communist countries) had given to the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. In his generosity he decided to share them with the public rather than keeping it all for himself.

There were precious jewels, Chinese vases which we later saw in Beijing selling for thousands of dollars, tables of engraved ivory, bas-reliefs in ivory and oak, crystal vases, cups in gold and silver. But thus as not all: beside the precious objects you also had the uniforms and arms of various revolutionary movements from around the world. I trembled before a machine gun of the Sendero Luminoso and found particularly memorable the saddle cloth used in parades for Gadaffi's camel woven of gold and studded with precious stones. One room contained a train car with a luxurious salon which had been a gift of Stalin. I shall not attempt to describe the amount of priceless treasures we saw. In the four hours we spent there we only saw the smallest portion.

The Italian pavilion is, however, worth describing even though it was rather austere compared to the others. Here they had another thing which sent shivers up my spine: a silver carnation (probably silver plated) given by Bettino Craxi, and a crystal seagull which was a gift by Enrico Berlinguer, an eight centimeter high model of Ghiberti's Baptistery Door in pure gold which had been donated by a Florentine lawyer who expressed the wish that the gates of paradise would open for the Great Leader. Our guide, clothed in dazzling traditional garb, scribbled down the translation on his hand. Another exhibit literally stunned my wife: a plaque bearing the name of her hometown and the chamber of commerce from our region. Absolutely everything found its way in there.

But the best was yet to come. Towards the latter part of our tour of the pavilion Mr Om suddenly stopped in front of a magnificently carved door. He turned to us and said that we were about to enter one of the most important places in the country and that we should behave with due reverence. He opened wide the door. The effect was reeling. An immense hall of about 10,000 square meters. The floors were wood parquetry and the walls lined with marble. At the very back of this room, lit by natural light, was a reconstruction of the vegetation of the Great Leader's favorite mountain, the sacred mountain of the Korean revolution, Mount Paektu. In an enormous wall mural behind this we could see a life size version of HIM. At first I thought he was embalmed, fortunately it was a wax statue. Mr Om asked us to bow before this. Naturally, an argument arose involving the Chef's wife, who refused to do any such thing. Strangely enough I was more tractable, I was too enchanted by this cult and also caught in a kind of historical fantasy. I imagined I was in a book by Xenophon and was being asked to bow before a God-King, to which I complied, thinking of Alexander the Great and Augustus.

The Orient always remains the same. The centuries pass and with the various regimes, but the cult of the God-King continues to persist as if nothing happened. The caste of pseudo-communist tyrants do nothing more than adopt the forms of the great dynasties of the past, but the substance of things and the social context are unchanged. The ghost of Genghis Khan still haunts this secular temple.

As if the impressions we had got so far had not been enough for us, our final evening in Pyongyang proved to be completely overwhelming, though in a way which again contradicted the fuzzy picture we had been able to form of the country.

We had often seen a building with a sign which said "Bowling" in English. We imagined this place to be the usual run-down Korean dive and we dared Mr Om to take us there. After we had nagged him for a while he finally agreed with a sly grin. Once again it was our turn to be embarrassed. We entered the largest, most modern bowling alley I have ever seen with 20 lanes, lights and mirrors everywhere, all of it brand new and in impeccable condition. Our first thought was that this was a place for tourists, but we were mistaken. The patrons here were Koreans and better bowlers than we, in spite of the famine. There were also a lot of foreigners. We met a banker from Great Britain whose bank was starting to sow the first tiny seeds in this country in the hope that the market will one day open up.

That evening we attended our final lavish banquet with mixed feelings, but happy to be getting out at last. But not even the cognac and ginseng were able to produce the usual effects. The speech Mr Om gave that night was flawless. Although he was visibly exhausted he could not hide the fact that he was moved, especially after I bestowed on him an honorary diploma from the Pizza Institute.

The next morning our passports magically reappeared in the limousine from where they had vanished. We weren't required to bother with such trivialities as customs or check-in, and together with a squad of mega-generals plastered in medals we waited for our shuttle bus in an exclusive lounge.

By now Mr Om had become silent and oddly distant. His mission had been accomplished and evidently his heart and mind were already on other things. Not even our chorus of cheers from the bus window appeared to affect him. Amid all the bustle we kept on singing at the top of our lungs, but he just stood impassively off to the side indifferent to us. And our thoughts too were moving elsewhere, to the luminous, refined city of Beijing. But that is another story.

... the next day I awoke feeling queasy. My stomach was acting up again; it was bean sprouts. Then and there I decided to cancel Oriental Pizza from our repertoire.

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

Nov 23, 2002


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