Bittersweet symphony

In Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Bradley Cooper’s character, recently released from a psychiatric institution, is doing sort of okay. Not great, but adjusting to being back out in the wider world. Then Pat hears this one song in the waiting room of his therapist’s office, and he just loses his shit.

In attempting to identify the title and artist of that song, Google offered a lovely little suggestion, based on phrases lots of other people have searched for: ‘silver linings playbook song that makes him crazy’. And that song, it’s by Stevie Wonder and is called “My Cherie Amour”.

We learn shortly after Pat’s incident in the waiting room that this was the song that was playing when he came home to find his wife in the shower with the tenured history teacher from the school where he also teaches. So that’s why hearing the song acts as a trigger that just drives him bats now.

I didn’t used to have my own ‘song that makes me crazy’. But since I left DPRK, I discovered that I do. Not throwing aside the magazine rack in an attempt to find the hidden speakers crazy, a la Pat, but it is a song that takes me away from wherever I am and makes my breath catch in my throat. It evokes memories both pleasant and painful; painful because I’m gone from that moment the song is now forever associated with. It’s such a strong, bittersweet feeling that I couldn’t voluntarily listen to the song for months afterward.

That song is “Ho hey” by The Lumineers.

Innocuous, right? Fun, even. And indeed, that’s why I played it that afternoon on the bus from Kaesong, heading into Sariwon City. Third of January 2014.

I was sitting in the back of the bus next to the tall blonde western guide, Rowan, who’d made no attempt during the trip to hide his interest in getting into my pants. I’d been trying to decide if I liked him enough to let him. We’d been flirting, chatting to the new friends we’d made on the trip who were at the back of the bus with us. Then at some point, to pass the time, we quizzed each other on what music we listened to, to see if we each surpassed the cool bar.

After listing off a couple of names of bands, we decided it was easier to just swap phones and pore through our music selections in them.

Being a good Aussie boy, despite having been away from home for a couple of years, Rowan had a few Triple J Top 100-types amongst his collection. A music genre that I can only broadly define as ‘electronica’ because I’m so far out of it was also well represented. Lana del Rey was in there.

He scrolled through my files, saw She & Him, Kanye, Adele. Nodded his head in approval at The Killers. Unprompted, I launched into a rendition of “Smile like you mean it” and he joined me in a sort of reprisal of our New Year’s Eve karaoke duet.

Rowan gave the nod to Kings of Leon. Cocked an eyebrow at Taylor Swift. Then he asked if I was familiar with some artist or rather and eliciting a look of bafflement. He sang a few lines and I brightened in recognition, joining in with what words I knew.

We tried another song, this time with the aim of encouraging greater audience participation. He riffed on the opening verse of “Empire State of Mind” and I chimed in for the chorus. A few others at the back joined in for Alicia Keys’ part. There was swaying. Hands were in the air. There was a sense of unity and togetherness and hope and joy out there on some road at the ass-end of North Korea.

Then we were at a loss for further lyrics and looked for another song. This continued on for a bit longer, this bus karaoke without musical accompaniment.

Outside, daylight was slowly giving in to the night. We had entered the outskirts of Sariwon, but I was barely paying attention to my surroundings.

I asked if Rowan knew of The Lumineers. Of course he did. We pressed ‘play’ on “Ho Hey” on his phone. It came out tinny, the highest volume level barely able to compete with the sound of the mechanical movements of the bus, the air rushing by outside and the low cacophony of a dozen conversations taking place inside.

Then I had an idea. I pulled out my phone again and located my copy of “Ho Hey”. We grinned at each other. He handed me his phone so I could hit the play button on both devices simultaneously.

The familiar, rousing guitar intro started up. It wasn’t loud, but it was loud enough. The way any good anthem should, it caught the attention of the back half of the bus, who could make out the strains of the music. We all shouted:


I didn’t know the opening lyrics, but Rowan did. He sang along, opining about how he’d been trying to do it right, living a lonely life. He stared into my eyes as he sang, his face aiming for a Frank Sinatra kind of earnestness.

We reached some lines that I finally knew.

(Hey!) I’ve been sleeping in my bed
(Ho!) Sleeping in my bed

I was looking back at him, half laughing, half singing away.

(Ho!) I don’t know where I belong
(Hey!) I don’t know where I went wrong
(Ho!) But I can write a song

We were young. We were free, in a country where that concept is not well-lived. We had new friends around us; old friends for some. Food and beer in our bellies. The possibility of romance.

The adventure might’ve been ending tomorrow, but that day, we lived in the brilliance of that pure, happy moment.

I belong with you, you belong with me
You’re my sweetheart
I belong with you, you belong with me
You’re my sweet-

We only got through one round of the chorus. Our bus was pulling up to our destination and Ms Pak was trying to make herself heard to announce our stop. Rowan obediently stopped the song on his phone, and a few seconds later, I reluctantly followed suit.

Everyone disembarked shortly after and we would all make our way up flights of icy stone steps to reach the mountain pagoda, overlooking the beautiful, snow-covered city.

Arriving back on flat ground some 40 minutes later, I would begin to feel the effects of the food poisoning from the juice I’d had at breakfast. For our next journey on the bus, to the pizza restaurant I’d so been looking forward to, I wouldn’t be well enough to sit in the back seat. I’d be sitting near the front, by myself, eyes closed and my forehead against the cold glass of the window.

The rest of that painful, nauseous 12 hours that followed would become a great disgusting blur. But that beautiful, preceding afternoon on the bus? Crystallised, totally and forever in The Lumineers.

I belong with you, you belong with me
You’re my sweetheart
I belong with you, you belong with me
You’re my sweet-


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One thought on “Bittersweet symphony

  1. Don’t you have friends that are willing to comment…
    anyhow, here’s mine.

    get into your pants?
    wow, of all the the guys on the world you end up traveling with a cross dresser.
    I remember a person who was dressed as a woman standing in front of a urinal as I had just walked into the toilets at a movie theater, many moons ago.
    I remember her or “it” turning to look at me as I walked in, Awkward!eeekkk!

    she or it was absolutely beautiful but inside a stinky male toilet & in front of a urinal, it was difficult to gather any rational thoughts.
    After that long, split second stare, I looked away & walked straight passed “it”and headed for a booth where I was unable to do what I came there for, until I could just hear the sound of trotting hight heels and the door opening to the outside & then closing.
    can you imagine that sort of confrontation & I could also hear that Star Wars tune playing through the speakers inside the toilets & I used to Love that John Williams theme song. And I mean used to. As I was walking out I quickly glanced at where she/ it was previously standing and noticed liquid all over the floor. I chose to carefully step over & and around it.
    Yep, certainly not Jewish man.
    Anyhow, if he wanted to get your pants, why didn’t you get his address and Mail him a pair when you got back home. Cross dressing isn’t a crime. Unlike “bad singing” insincerely, especially in DPRK where it could be a capital offense, pending the mood of Kim Jong-underbelly.
    As far as your tummy woe’s, Just the orange juice, nothing else? hmmm.. think about it next time you eat somewhere, anywhere, especially around where you live, maybe visit the toilets in that establishment and I would say if the toilets are clean then maybe, it reflects how clean the people & everything else is.
    ( although i know you’ll probably dispute this)
    it’s sort of an inevitability when you travel to a country where you never see toilet paper,(btw, some third world communities use Clam shells) clean toilet or proper hand washing facilities and you have to buy food to put in your mouth.
    it should make you wonder how that food was made.
    Mmmmm Lamb…
    But as with some restaurant crawlers, out of sight is out of mind.
    btw (again) have you ever seen those shocker hidden camera, restaurant kitchen, video’s? nice….

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