Feb 252011

This is a night picture of Seoul viewed from the heights of the Top Cloud restaurant.  Virtually right below Top Cloud, a “little” Venice (I would say “piccolissma”!) rivulet flows past.  Seoul appears to have  a massive number of dense and socially alive centres, where people enjoy company and of course drinking.  But what really impressed me was to drink without a worry about how to get home. Hence the title of this post.

Sometimes people come up with ideas so cool you wonder why you had not thought about them yourself. How do you solve the problem of going out in the city for a night of merriment and then trying to get home?  Normally we imagine either using a taxi/public transport or have one of the persons in the party not drink so they can drive.  We have become accustomed to add  a dash of sobriety to our thinking about drinking, lest we run foul of a breath test (‘Sobriety Police’).

How many times though do we find our preparation or assumptions about getting home go wrong? Public transport may not exit or if it does, crowds crush within. Or taxis provide speed and privacy, but can you find them at those times at night when you need them? This becomes particularly pressing when, despite the delights of the night, rain or cold weather assails you. Or the person who was supposed to stay sober, to ‘drive’,  gets carried away and has drunk too much. Not to mention the searching for the car with a hangover the next day!   Here’s a story of a different solution. A (non-governmental) public utility service without much of an infrastructure!

I was at a dinner party in the busy city of Seoul last week at a quiet place in the upmarket part of town.  Everyone was drinking at this gathering – even though they arrived by car (eg SUVs – Hyundai, of course!). So how, I wondered, will they get home? And more pertinently for me, how will they get me to my hotel?  Eventually after one of them made a phone call – which I thought was for a taxi –  a guy, a complete stranger to all, turns up and within a minute he drives the car owned by one in our group.  The car darted and drove through the traffic with the finesse of a dancer.  Passengers merrily enjoying the ride (in their own car!).  These guys know how to drive – fast.  In our case, onwards to yet another destination (my hotel would come next).  Then after that, another guy turns up and drives onwards to homes and hotels.

How does this system work?  It turns out there are thousands of these ‘drivers’ and driver companies. Email in-boxes in Korean offices are bombarded with spam regarding this service.  In my stupor I thought of them as Serenity Soldiers! People on call to rescue all car drivers from the perils of drink driving. I couldn’t work out how insurance works (I am assuming these companies have cover for accidents, or maybe policies have a ‘class of driver’ that covers such services?).

Why does such system exist?  Less public transport, more car use (again ubiquitously Hyundai), and taxi expenses – if you go hopping between places. So a private system has evolved which provides a transport safety net that operates through a market.  So the entirety of people at a table in a restaurant can go their merry way. A veritable vortex of allegria happens – everywhere. It appealed to my Italian sensibilities. (Posts to come on the Italian sojourn that preceded this part of a long trip).

Compare this to the tyranny of sobriety checks. In order to stop the small portion of  ‘drink drivers’ via breath test, entire cities have their residents either to transform drinking into an all out ‘binge’ event for the young, or the drinks are consumed with a cultivated abstemiousness (“I’ll have water now”) for the less young, or residents stay at home – particularly if older.  But if one person has to stay sober in order to drive, the very disparity of inebriation levels within a group alters the social chemistry. The risks mount of some people ‘making a fool of themselves’ and others to be able to – indeed feasting on being able to – remember this. It need not be like this.

Does Sydney have such ‘serenity soldiers’?  If only……

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