By Lee Chang-kook
I feel greatly blessed as well as privileged to have ever visited some of the great foreign cities in the world in my life. Often I find myself recalling them one after another in spite of myself when I am alone in solitude. Any brief mention or slight hint related to any of them on TV, in newspapers or magazines takes me back immediately to the memorable sites, buildings and monuments I have been to, and makes me relive the good times once again for a while. Happy recollections are the best asset for old men other than money.
When I turned on the radio (KBS FM) this morning, to my mild surprise and delight, the woman in charge of the program was introducing Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), Finnish composer, and his ``Filandia." I listened to the piece to the end with more concentration and appreciation this time than before. I might have skipped it if I had not been to the Sibelius Park in Helsinki last summer.
When we ― a group of 34 sight-seeing tourists ― were led into a park during our tour through the Scandinavian countries, we were not much excited. There was virtually nothing much to see in it. But I was caught by the name of the park ― Sibelius Park. I knew of Sibelius and learned to sing a part of his ``Filandia" in the music class at high school. But, I had not dreamed until then that I would ever come to a park named after him in my life. I could not but be excited.
The Sibelius Park in Helsinki, as I remember it now, was a common and ordinary park with a wood of larch and conifer trees at a corner, but it had a unique monument to the world-famous composer at its heart. It was made of hundreds of white metal tubes assembled together to make a gigantic pipe organ in the shape of a tall and large tree. It was a simple but apt and fitting tribute paid to the world-class musician Finland produced, I thought.
The memory of the Sibelius Park in Helsinki was followed by another unforgettable monument standing not far from the park. It was a splendid bronze statue of a naked man arrested in the form of running in front of the Olympic Stadium. The man was no other than Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973), the greatest runner of all time Finland, nay, the world has ever seen. He won nine gold and three silver medals in the middle and long distance running over three Olympics successively from 1920 to 1928, earning various epithets to himself: Flying Finn, King of Runners, Running Human Machine, etc. I had heard of him and remembered his name vaguely, but it had never occurred to me that I would ever encounter this legendary figure in Helsinki in my life.
In fact, Helsinki came to me long before my visit to it last summer. It came with the Olympic Games Helsinki had hosted in 1952, when I was a 12 year-old country schoolboy. It was also when the Korean War was at its peak. Our country was hopelessly devastated by the war, so many people were killed and wounded, and we were poor and hungry. But somewhere on the earth there was peace, prosperity and fun. The Olympic news from the strange-sounding city of Helsinki came to us through radio and daily newspapers (we had no televisions yet then), and we were as much excited then as we are now.
Most surprising of all and for all, in the midst of the razing war we took part in it. We dispatched a team of 21 players and 20 officials in six events. In the opening ceremony we received a most enthusiastic welcome from the crowds, and the president of Finland awarded the Supreme Prize of Culture and Sports to our team in acknowledgement of its participation. We took 37th place among 69 nations by winning two bronze medals in each boxing and weightlifting. When I looked down at the beautiful Olympic stadium from the top of 72 meter-high observatory tower standing beside it, it was empty and silent as I expected it to be, but I could visualize our lonely players fighting lonely fights in it 58 years ago far from home. I felt something warm gathering in my heart.
Now I am back home from the trip to Helsinki and sitting at my desk. I feel so proud of and grateful for what we are and what I am. From the war-torn and poverty-stricken country we have emerged as a politically free and economically dynamic and prosperous country. We have hosted Olympic Games ourselves successfully in 1988 in Seoul. I, a poor country schoolboy, grew up, against all odds, to be a happy 70-year old man and lucky enough to have visited many great foreign cities in the world including Helsinki. I have too many and too much to be thankful for in my life.
The writer is professor emeritus at Chung-Ang University. He can be reached at email@example.com.