My new favorite neighborhood hangout is a cemetery.
Let me explain.
On all of the road signs near my house, one of the local landmarks is the 4-19 Cemetery. For the past seven months, I've assumed it was a military cemetery to honor soldiers who died in some kind of April 14 attack. But last week, one of my coworkers said that he visited the cemetery and discovered that it's also a park filled with trees, picnicking families and benches to sit on and relax.
You have no idea how novel benches, much less full-scale parks, are here. Seoul doesn't do parks, with the notable exception of Olympic Park, so there are very few places to sit outside that don't cost money. Most cafés and coffee shops don't even have outdoor seating so really if you want to sit outside on a beautiful spring day, you're pretty much out of luck.
These men were hilarious to listen to -- they sat talking for at least two hours (the entire time I was there) and I ended up sitting on a bench behind them. I couldn't understand their conversation but they kept laughing and gesticulating wildly to make a point. Very sweet.
But the 4-19 Cemetery is full of places to sit and people-watch. No walking or sitting on the grass, which seems to be a Korean taboo since it's banned pretty much everywhere, but I'm willing to accept that.
The cemetery and memorial honor 224 protesters killed during the April Revolution, a dark period in Korea's history. The 1960s were a time of tumult and social unrest in Korea, as in the rest of the world; as African-Americans marched for civil rights in the United States and students went on strike in France, just a few years earlier Koreans were calling for a democratic government.
University students held a large pro-democracy rally on April 19, 1960, calling for the resignation of the president (who they believed rigged the election in his favor). Soldiers, seeing the large number of students, fired on the unarmed crowd.
I couldn't capture the scale here but picture this many graves times two (this is just one half of the graveyard) and you'll get an idea of how many protesters were killed that day.
The problems didn't stop in Korea after this tragedy -- a decade later, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency assassinated then-President Park Chung-hee, claiming to do it "for the democracy of this country. Nothing more, nothing less."
Arlington National Cemetery was startling. The actual graves are set back a bit from the park itself but there were lots of noisy students running around laughing and shouting, with no one seeming to request respect for the graves or even trying to control the kids.
It's strange to say that I look forward to going back to the cemetery but graves aside, it's really a lovely place to spend an hour or two. A short 15-minute walk from my house is a quiet oasis. How can I not return?