Maybe the bumper sticker on the back of the Hyundai didn't say "Shop Till Ya Drop." Maybe it said "Baby on Board" in Korean. But probably it was about shopping, since the car was parked in the It'aewon district of Seoul, and anyone worthy of his (or her) charge card knows It'aewon (pronounced Eat-a-won) is to shopping what Wall Street is to stockbrokering.As the host city for the Games of the XXIVth Olympiad, Seoul is welcoming the world with open arms, and open cash registers. Can there be any doubt that this city is ready for the responsibility of staging the Olympic Games when the sign in the "Saville Row Tailor Shop," deep in the heart of It'aewon, says "Olympic Family Come In, Make Special Good Deal."
The town is alive with good buys and good moods. After being awarded the 1988 Games in 1981, Seoul had seven years to get ready for "the biggest Olympic Games in history" and it shows. Not just in the new state-of-the-art athletic facilities clumped fashionably together in the Olympic Park and the Sports Complex, but in its obvious desire to pull the whole thing off without a hitch.
Like, for example, there's the voluntary odd-number/even-number car curfew that runs for the duration of the Games. If your car's license plate ends in an odd number then you can drive on odd-numbered days; even numbers get the even-numbered days.
Nobody is forced to comply, but so far the system has worked very well. It's odd to see an even-numbered license plate - other than on a taxi or a delivery van or a police car or a Rolls Royce - on an odd day, and vice versa.
It's Seoul's way of saying "Have a nice day" on the highways and in the parking lots, or as nice a day as possible in a city of 10 million where they drive as if it's Indianapolis East.
In other ways, too, Seoul is showing its soul.
For one thing, you can now take pictures just about anywhere in town during the Olympic period, even in the direction of the president's palace - heretofore a violation punishable by the confiscation of your camera. Only if you get within two kilometers of the president's residence must you now put your camera away.
To make certain that other, less ostentatious, residences don't also clutter the background of any tourist photos, miles of billboard fences have been erected surrounding the poorer sides of town.
But there's nothing unusual about that. A city always likes to show its good side when the world drops in to visit. It would just as soon its visitors enjoy the sporting events in the pleasant new Olympic facilities, and then maybe drop around the economic centers of town, like at It'aewon, where operators are always standing by.
Just why Seoul, and It'aewon, became such a noted shopping center remains something of a mystery. But if they don't have it, you don't need it. Or, to put it their way, if they have it, you need it - and can't afford to pass it up. Their contention is that if you take their deal you should consider yourself lucky that you're not picked up for shoplifting on the way out.
A lot of the items that are stamped Made in Korea apparently actually stay in Korea. This is brand-name city. There's Benetton and Nike and FootJoy and Chanel No. 5 and L. A. Gear and Converse and Reebok and Polo and Izod and Arrow and Fila, just to drop a few. And the deals, they're not of this world. You can get a pair of Reebok high-tops, for example, for around $13 (although, upon close inspection, they may not reflect the exact quality as a pair you might find in the NBA or your average American junior high school).
Or how about a nice NFL Spalding football, signed by Pete Rozelle, for $12? Or a suede jacket for $20, or 100 monogrammed Christmas cards for $2.50, or an official USA sweatsuit for $22, with or without an NBC peacock on the back?
Buy two or more and they're even cheaper.
Walk through It'aewon some time, and all these things will be thrust at you, not to mention tailor-made wool suits for $100 or less.
The prices of other goods and services in town aren't so rock-bottom. A Wendy's cheeseburger (they have Wendy's here - the one in It'aewon is right next door to the Kentucky Fried Chicken), by way of comparison, costs slightly more than three dollars, and dinner at a nice restaurant can go to $30 or $40 in a hurry. Hotel rooms are over $100 a night at anything that has central night out with the Jazz.
But that's a problem for the Keynesians to worry over. The Seoul-ites - they'll adhere to their favorite Korean proverb: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. When the going gets easy, too. It doesn't matter. And with the Olympics in town - featuring plenty of free parking - well, that just makes the deals even better.