GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – At the entrance to the cafeteria at Gangneung media village, there is a giant jug of hand sanitizer. Whenever you enter, the two women stationed at the front desk will smile and point it out.
Walk past that jug at your own peril. If you don’t put two healthy pumps of goo into your hands, those two women will chase you down. They smile. They speak quietly and gently. But they are insistent: You must use that hand sanitizer. It’s for your own good.
That’s Korea in a nutshell: tidy, polite, friendly and very, very helpful. Unlike some other recent Olympic hosts (I’m talking about you, Sochi, and you, Rio), Gangwon Province was clearly ready for the Winter Games, and it has put its own spin on the Olympic spirit with a tide of Korean efficiency and hospitality.
Our three-bedroom apartment is spotless, even though it overlooks a prison, which also seems spotless. It is in a forest of high-rise buildings; the cafeteria is actually in the parking garage, but it’s so cheerfully decorated you have to look really hard to notice. There is a library with Korean literature and poetry translated to English, a haunting exhibit of photos from the Demilitarized Zone, and a letterpress booth where you can make prints with your name written in Korean.
Security is refreshingly low-key. Though there are lots of police around, they don’t display guns, yet it feels safe. The bus drivers actually follow traffic laws, unlike the drivers in Brazil.
And the buses! The ceilings are covered with multicolored lights, like the ceiling in a casino or a disco, and the windows are framed in faux silk. Every one has a 50-inch flat-screen TV in the front. The drivers take ramen-noodle breaks in the back, between runs, and keep a mop and bucket on board so they can wash the floors. They have humidifiers. They might be the nicest buses in the world.
The Koreans always are looking out for their Olympic guests, and they like to give gifts. There is a Korean medicine center at the media village where they refuse to take money for treatments and medicinal tea. After you get your acupuncture, they give you an adorable stuffed animal, a blanket and a tote bag. Then they ask you to come back again, and they mean it.
Occasionally, the helpfulness gets a little out of control. At least 10 emergency alerts have appeared on our cellphones, written in Korean and accompanied by a shrill squeal. The biggest emergency was an earthquake 100 miles away that wasn’t felt in Gangneung. Other alerts warned it was extremely windy.
Mostly, though, it’s comforting to spend a few weeks in a culture where simple kindnesses and concerns are just ingrained in daily life. Where the guy at the village store writes down, in English, the name of the noodle snack you like, because you might want to order some on the internet after you go home. And where the cashier at the nearby minimart asks you to wait, then runs back and grabs two more candy bars because they’re on a two-for-one special, and he doesn’t want you to miss out.
And yes, where smiling women will chase you down in a cafeteria in a parking garage, to make sure you sanitize your hands before you eat.