[TRADING PLACES] Hot-blooded passion unites Koreans and Italians

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[TRADING PLACES] Hot-blooded passion unites Koreans and Italians


From left, architect Jung Tainam, who spent more than three decades in Italy, Stefano Scopel, an Italian who has been studying and teaching particle physics and cosmology for 14 years in Seoul, and Italian Ambassador to Korea Marco della Seta at his residence in central Seoul on Dec. 14. [PARK SANG-MOON]

All roads lead to Rome — that was how it all started for Jung Tainam, whose three decades of living and breathing Roman architecture and history began with a pen pal letter from Italy.

Jung Tainam: In my last year in university, I had a strong passion for the Italian art and culture when I randomly met an Italian diplomat in Seoul. He suggested that I look into scholarship programs in Italy. I was fortunately selected by one program. And so in the few months I had before I was to fly into the country, I decided to sign up for pen pal letters with Italians. I got in touch with two people in Italy, and after exchanging a few letters, I asked them to post an advertisement on newspapers in Italy for me, to find people interested in exchanging letters with me. And then I got more than 100 letters from Italy!

Jung: Of course I answered them all. And what I did was, I used some of the Italian expressions that I picked up in one pen pal letter in writing a response to another friend in Italy. So in a pretty short span of time, I was able to improve my Italian.

Arriving in the country and beginning his studies in architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome, Jung realized that getting his degree wouldn’t be as simple as he imagined.

Jung: My first assignment in my architecture course was to design a virtual museum for the Roman Forum. The task was impossible if one did not have in-depth knowledge on Roman history. So that’s where I had to start. The classes in Rome were quite different than what one would expect in a university course — basically students were given a major project like this to focus on for a longer period of time. But this course really changed my life. After I had spent months studying Roman history, I just found more things to study about the history and architecture of Rome. So months became years and years became decades. After that, I saw that even just one stone in the Roman Forum that initially looked like an abandoned stone tells so much history of Rome and Italy.

After living amongst the ruins and old buildings of Rome for years, Jung said he came to appreciate what it meant to be Korean when he came back.

Jung: For 10 years I didn’t come back to Korea. So I was Italianized in a sense. Then I came back to Korea just for two weeks for a project. Of course Seoul had changed so much. But some things don’t change in the city — like Gyeongbok Palace, which has been around for centuries. But I guess I had changed. Because when I went back to it, I saw newly the beauty and warmth in the architectural design of the palace that I simply didn’t see before. And it was not only about the architecture but also the language — Korean is my mother tongue but I never thought much about it before. Knowing other languages, I could see how Korean is just an incredible and unique language, so different from other languages.

Marco della Seta: A major vantage you gain from living abroad in a different culture from yours may not so much be about you understanding the new culture you’re living in, but it may be about getting a totally new and refreshing perspective on your own culture. I would say that living in Korea gives a totally different perspective on what I know about my country. And this is one of the biggest advantages of living abroad.

della Seta: One example, for me, is how I came to consider the nature of politics in different countries — the way an individual relates to power. In Italy many centuries ago, we had the church, the emperor and local powers, and all parts of the country were fragmented. So there was room for individual political initiative and that creates the power structure which is more conflictive but also more individual.

della Seta: I think here, it’s very much about belonging to a group — you belong to your school, office, university or region. I thought I saw power move in a very group-based manner here when I saw the candlelight movement, which was very well-organized and peaceful. And power seems to be much more direct here — you had kings here, and we had kings, too, but also popes and it was never only one source of power. But I’m open to debate on this, it’s just a feeling.


Left: Jung Tainam, left, with Italian architects Amedeo and Andrea Schiattarella, during a project discussion on Saudi Arabia in 2011. Right: Stefano Scopel at Mount Naejang in North Jeolla in 2015. [JUNG TAINAM, STEFANO SCOPEL]

The Neapolitans of Asia

When Stefano Scopel was moving to Seoul for a research project at Korea Institute for Advanced Study, he was reassured by his Italian friends who have been to “the Land of the Morning Calm” that he may find nothing calm in the manner of how Koreans go about their business.

Stefano Scopel: A colleague of mine who had already visited Korea told me, “Don’t worry, Koreans are like the Neapolitans of Italy.” And you know, Napoli people are known to be very expressive and open. Arriving here in 2004, I saw that it was quite true. Embers burn under the ashes in the Korean society — I learned that the real nature of Koreans is passionate, sometimes even hot-tempered, convivial and open and, above all, so supportive of others. When my mother passed away, my colleagues in Sogang University offered spontaneously to take care of my classes and fulfillments while I was attending the funeral, and at my return I was overwhelmed by the number of messages of condolence.

Scopel: Another aspect of Korea that keeps surprising me is the welcoming culture toward foreigners that finds expression in small, spontaneous gestures of kindness. For instance, when I lived in Itaewon, on my way from home to the subway I passed in front of an old barber, who, without knowing me, one cold winter morning insisted to give me a cup of coffee, and repeated the same gesture the following mornings, so that we eventually became friends.

Scopel: One thing that I really liked about the barber shop was this — the shop had a sofa, which was always full not only with customers but also the barber’s friends. When I would get my hair cut there, people would constantly come in and out of the shop, it was like a small village of its own.

Though the speed at which some of the services provided in the country is remarkable (“I got my alien registration card renewed at a local immigration office within some 20 minutes,” Scopel said. “That process could take months in other parts of the world, you know.”), there are some things in the city that he wishes would be kept the way they are longer.

Scopel: I know that since I have been here I have seen Seoul change in front of my eyes — a new terminal in the airport, new lines in the subway and the development of the Han River Park. And a small neighborhood in Itaewon was recently chosen for renovation. The idea is that it is going to be completely erased and some high-rise building is going to be built there. But I think the area will lose the atmosphere of a small village-like feeling it has now. In Italy, we have buildings in downtown areas that are some 300 years or older. There are some parts of Seoul that I think would be nice to preserve.

Jung: Well, things don’t change easily in Italy. That’s what attracts the tourists.

Scopel: If you live in the downtown area, you are not allowed to change some things about your house, like the paint, for example.

della Seta: From the 1930s we started having strict regulations on urban planning to preserve old buildings. As far as historical centers in downtown cities are concerned, you cannot actually destroy a building — you have to keep it the way it is, keep the same color of the building and such, these are the regulations.

The science behind it all

The science behind how Jung connected with some Italian architects and Scopel with Korean scientists may be a sign for the future relations of the two countries.

della Seta: We have a long tradition on the science on preservation and restoration of cultural heritage. When you restore a painting of a building, you have to know the science behind it, the chemistry and physics and such.

della Seta: The Italian Embassy in Korea organizes six seminars on science every year, and we invite experts from the two countries to exchange their experiences and findings. The topics of these seminars range from biological farming to astronomy, marine sciences and preservation of cultural heritage. Italy is well known in Korea, and I am happy to see that it is loved by Koreans for its food, fashion, cars and arts, but I think the two countries can do more to cooperate on science. Italy is strong in basic and applied sciences, with 12 Nobel laureates in science.

della Seta: Another area Korea and Italy could share information about would be on earthquakes. Italy is a country with many earthquakes, which affect the cultural heritage. The country has created a map, which we call the risk map for cultural heritage and monuments —it tells us where the most vulnerable areas are and what should be done before a quake hits.

The top envoy, also a serious scientist himself, puts on a different hat over some weekends.

della Seta: Outside of my working time, I tend to travel a little around the country and stay in homestays. I’ve been to Gyeongju, the Haein Temple in South Gyeongsang, the Namhansanseong Provincial Park, three times to Daejin and I can’t recall the name right now but a small fishing village in the northeast coast.

della Seta: In past May I stayed at a home in Eocheong Island, which is out in the far west — also known as the location of the first lighthouse in Korea. The owners of the home were an elderly couple and they were extremely kind. I was traveling with a group of friends there, the island is very famous for watching birds, which is my hobby. It’s a famous stopover for birds when they go up north. At the time there were a total of 12 tourists on the island, among whom 10 were bird watchers. Lots of birds pass through in that season, as they travel from Siberia to Southeast Asia and back.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Italian Ambassador Marco della Seta

Coming to Seoul in 2014 as the Italian ambassador to Korea, Ambassador Marco della Seta was previously the deputy chief of the Diplomatic Ceremonial of the Republic at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the deputy head of mission at the Italian Embassy in Beijing. Having commenced his diplomatic career in 1989, the top envoy’s international posting destinations include Mexico City and Buenos Aires. He is the author of the introduction to the Italian edition of “China Emerging” by Wu Xiaobo, in addition to “The Immunity of Foreign States in the Farnesina Experience” on The International Community in 2013. During his spare time the ambassador likes to explore contemporary arts or go hiking and bird-watching.

Stefano Scopel

Arriving in Seoul in 2004 as an assistant research professor at the Korea Institute of Advanced Study in eastern Seoul, Stefano Scopel pursued projects on particle physics and cosmology at the Seoul National University subsequently and started teaching at Sogang University in western Seoul from 2010. Scopel married his Korean wife in 2009. They like to go hiking together on Mount Bukhan or biking on the Han River.

Jung Tainam

It was fall 1979 when Jung Tainam first stepped off the airplane in Italy, where he began his studies on architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome. As a registered architect of Italy, Jung collaborated with A. Schiattarella, president of Architects Association of Rome. In Korea he was the vice president of Baum Architects and has authored more than 10 books, eight of which are on Italy. He says most of his time is taken up in promoting Italian arts, culture and history through lectures and writing.
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