I made pizza for Kim Jong-il

Part 1: Welcome to megalopolis
By Ermanno Furlanis 

One evening in July we were working late at the Pizza Institute in northern Italy where we carry out research on new ingredients for our courses. As usual, we had shown little restraint in tasting new toppings, our excuse being that it would not be ethical to propose innovative combinations without first trying them out on ourselves, and therefore it was all in the line of duty to volunteer as guinea pigs. 

One of the last pizzas we tested was an "Oriental" style pizza topped with a filet of smoked goose, shrimp, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. Needless to say, all of this was copiously washed down with choice libations. 

That night in bed I had the distinct sensation the bean sprouts had begun growing in my intestinal tract, the effects of which were periodically interrupting my attempts to fall asleep, when suddenly, and rather rudely at that, my mobile phone rang. The voice on the other end dispensed with the usual preliminaries, and immediately inquired whether I would be available to do a training course in a "distant land". I attempted to stall for time in order to figure out what this was all about, or at least obtain a few more details, but the best I could do was to agree on an appointment for the following day. 

It turned out that my caller was a high-ranking cook in one of Northern Italy's swankiest hotels - a Chef with a capital C. He informed me that he had been approached by a group of foreign diplomats who were interested in organizing culinary demonstrations of Italian regional cooking - they were particularly interested in pizza. At first he refused to reveal just where this country was, but he did let on that we would be hired to demonstrate Italian cooking, which is famous for being cheap, nutritious and easy to prepare, in a land which was currently in deep trouble. 

This news set my fantasy roaming. In that country, I thought, people would have to learn to cook Italian style because they were in the grip of famine or because they were opening up their economy to the free market. I had no idea where such a place could be and my interlocutor laughed to see my confusion. Finally he provided a hint: "It's a communist country in the Far East". 

"Vietnam?" I asked. "North Korea," he shot back. He explained what preparations I would be expected to make for a meeting with the North Korean delegation which was take place in a few days time. He warned me to be ready for a real grilling in the third degree, "They can't afford to make another mistake." 

I showed up for the interview in a state of some agitation, but also more than a little amused. After all, I really had nothing to lose, at the very worst I would be out on a trip. I entered the reception room on the fourth floor of an old shipping house in the historical center of town. There was something surreal about all this. First the Chef introduced me to a personage I will refer to as the Young Man, a Korean who spoke Italian reasonably well and made strenuous efforts to smile the whole time in order to put me at ease. In typical Oriental fashion, his manner revealed measured doses of trepidation or worry, as the need arose. We were waiting in this austere old reception hall for the Old Man to arrive, and when a figure made an appearance the already strained atmosphere became even more somber. Even the Young Man's smile seemed to fade. 

The Old Man did not speak our superfluous language nor did he bother with pointless smiling, but he did scrutinize me up and down with the razor slits he had in the place of eyes and then ensconced himself at one end of the regulation conference table. On his right was the Young Man whose job it was to interpret, on his left the Chef and myself. I felt my amusement rapidly ebbing and my agitation rising. 

The interrogation was probing and systematic: Why had I chosen this line of work, for how long had I been doing this job, in what capacity, where had I worked, did I have any references, where could they test my products. 

No matter how many honors I pulled out of my hat, diplomats, activities in Spain, Portugal, courses in Switzerland and Slovakia, regional courses, the Old Man's stony visage failed to betray the least sign of interest. He and the Young Man twittered to each other in their language through which I could detect a good deal of nervousness intermingled with unrelenting skepticism of me. 

I decided to take the bull by the horns, and after a particularly heated exchange in which the Chef took my part and attempted to win over the Old Man via the rather more malleable Young Man, I exclaimed. "If it's any help, I can speak Russian." A sudden hush fell over the room. The Old Man lost in thought stared at the Young Man, who in turn looked searchingly at the Chef. Then a faint crack appeared in the plaster cast of the Old Man's features: a kind of grimace which one might have taken for a smile. His voice seemed calmer now. He said something to the Young Man who translated in a manner that finally seemed at last friendly, confidential and, surprisingly, almost intimate, "I think we might be able to reach an agreement." 

And so I found myself "drafted". I suppose I should have been happy about this prospect, but I was even more worried than before. 

A few days later I was called in for my confirmation. This second meeting was over quickly. We were told that we would be leaving in 15 days. We asked what we were supposed to do for the ingredients and utensils which we would need to prepare our dishes and which we could not substitute with ingredients in Korea. They just told us to write out an order for a wholesaler and to have the merchandise together with the bill sent to them. 

They especially stressed that we should spare no expense. At the end of this we were handed envelopes with our compensation - all cash and in advance. This led me to believe that we were dealing with a government, even though they were at pains to refer to a hypothetical "company". In all of my previous experience in any part of the world, payment was always the last business to be taken care of, and then never without either greater or lesser degrees of tension: it just happens to be one of the thorns in the rose of capitalism, known as "negotiation". Fifteen days later, the Chef and I and our wives were waiting to change planes in Berlin en route from Malpensa to Pyongyang. 

Arrival and sequester
The fact that I had read George Orwell's book 1984, with its descriptions of Big Brother's enormous face posted everywhere was certainly not a fortunate coincidence. Already upon landing we could see huge pictures of North Korea's ex-president-cum-sovereign welcoming us from the inside of the airport. Check-in was a laborious affair presided over by a little man in an impeccable white uniform wearing a police cap which seemed many sizes too big for him. He scrutinized our visas with great care, turning them over and over again in his hands. 

One of our suitcases was missing, our weariness and confusion indescribable, when the tension suddenly lifted with the appearance our "savior", our guardian angel and protector, a man who would never let us out of his sight for the entire duration of our stay - our joy and our despair: the imperturbable Mr Om. He was a typical Oriental, of slight but sturdy build and around 40 years old, seemingly defenseless but armed with the same well-trained smile I had seen before on the Young Man. 

He greeted us cordially and immediately made us feel comfortable. But while he was busy doing this he also deftly appropriated our passports and visas which somehow disappeared and which we would not see again until we were ready to leave. It was clear that Mr Om was a man of considerable experience and culture. He was thoroughly familiar with the Western ways and his English was flawless: He used a variety of refined expressions I had trouble understanding. Actually, we had been told we would be meeting a certain Mr Pak, who was evidently someone much higher up. 

We were very much impressed by Mr Om's attractive grey-blue linen suit which reminded us of the get-up Mao Zedong used to wear on official occasions. Given how hot it was we asked whether he could procure one for us since we were literally bathed in perspiration. Then a black Mercedes arrived, with darkened windows and the standard six doors. Once inside, our baggage stowed away and under the cool flow of the air conditioning, we were finally able to relax. 

I took an instant liking to Mr Om and had the feeling I had known him for a long time. We started to pester him with questions. We especially wanted a Korean-English dictionary. It was no doubt this request which must have led him to classify me as a troublemaker because he replied with an embarrassed grin and shortly thereafter bestowed on me the epithet "Ermanno, eh,eh, my best friend." On the highway leading to Pyongyang I was engaged in taking in the view, and this didn't seem to be very interesting at all. A more or less desolate countryside with vegetation resembling our own, acacias and broad leafed deciduous trees - irritatingly familiar after all the distance we had come. 

But there were also the crowds of people walking along the sides of the street or just waiting around whose faces and complexions were so different, the cyclists in their cone-shaped hats, all of which made me feel I was staring at a page out of my old geography book. The city itself emerged abruptly after about half an hour, enormous and monumental. I was looking forward to getting to the hotel and having a nice shower, making a phone call home and then slipping out and exploring this grey cement jungle covered with huge signs in red letters which I would be able to decipher thanks to the dictionary Mr Om had promised me. 

But such was not to be. We were not heading for the Hotel Koryo - and this was the first of a long series of surprises. As we drove along a tree-lined avenue we began to notice some rather peculiar sights. At first we didn't think anything of them, but as the days passed these sights became increasingly frequent and increasingly odd: groups of scantily clad people standing around the ditches lining the river apparently engaged in washing their clothes. It must be the heat, I thought. 

Presently we came to an enormous gate at the end of an avenue with a guard inside a building. A green light flashed on the hood of the car and the gate rose. The guard made a kind of queer waving gesture at us as we passed and suddenly we found ourselves inside a magnificent park with trees and flowerbeds and fountains and manicured lawns surrounding a strange building made up of two square shaped wings each about 150 meters long, one of the wings was four floors high, the other was lower and had no windows at all; the two wings were connected by narrow lower structure. There were no signs in this hotel, no reception counter, no room keys. A boy in white appeared to take our bags. By now it had dawned on us that we were not in fact at the Hotel Koryo. I demanded an explanation and Mr Om replied in his affable way with a smile, "Ermanno, don't worry, we have time." 

Well, I was too tired to pursue my questions so I decided to take events as they came. The building which we entered was positively splendid, inlaid with white marble and lined with a few very beautiful plants. No pictures here, no furnishings anywhere and most of all a total, spectral silence. There was not a soul to be seen. Even without the air conditioning there was something vaguely cold and inscrutable about the place. To our right, a big salon stretched before us with armchairs and tables and false ceilings and wood paneling. Mr Om deposited us here and then vanished. 

A short while later an elderly lady materialized, scrupulously silent, with drinks. She kept smiling all the time and backed away to the door bowing. After a few minutes we were shown to our rooms by yet another young man in white as silent as a mouse. Finally we would be able to make ourselves at home and relax. The rooms were magnificent. Real suites each with a big sitting room, an immense bedroom, bath and various halls. The sitting room came with a desk and a well-stocked library. 

The phone rang. It was the Chef from his apartment and telling me to turn on the television. I did this while pouring myself a drink from the beverages I found in the refrigerator. Incredible: it was like going back in time. They were showing war scenes with epic hymns playing in the background and subtitles. It was somehow reminiscent of karaoke. Military parades accompanied by threats. I clicked to the other channel: This was intended to be some kind of comedy with all the actors wearing uniforms. For the whole time we stayed in the capital this was the only fare they offered - apart from very brief news bulletins which dealt exclusively with domestic events. 

The phone rang again. It was Mr Om and he was expecting us for lunch. I told him not to bother because we had all eaten more than enough in the plane, but this did not phase him. He explained graciously but firmly that the "program" was something sacred and that it could not be altered in any way. Later we figured out that it was other people who decided on the program and Mr Om had no choice but to give heed. 

As an ex-army officer myself I deduced that it was a form of military behavior, and then in a flash everything became clear: that was why he had laughed when we asked for the linen suit - because it was a uniform, and the funny wave by the guard at the gate was really a salute. I looked out of the window: the North Korean flag was fluttering from a pole in the middle of the lawn just in front of a little rise leading to a driveway, a driveway which Mr Om had especially warned us not to take. 

It all had the look of a military base. But where did the driveway lead? I remembered that when we were on the road just before turning off I had seen a gate with soldiers. So this was apparently the main entrance to the barracks. I stared at a gorgeous fountain in the beautiful setting of the park, then turned back inside the room. Here we had every modern convenience at our disposal and yet I had a sudden sense that we were trapped. None of the telephone lines led to the outside world and we were surrounded by a staff of utterly speechless servants. I remembered how our passports had been confiscated: so this was a cage we were in, a gilded cage to be sure, but nonetheless a prison. For the first time I savored the idea of what it meant to be free. 

The solemn moment had arrived for "the program" to be announced. According to the plan, our wives were supposed to spend the afternoon in the rooms while we were to go somewhere with Mr Om. The destination was yet another a surprise. They drove us to the other side of town to a big medical clinic. Apart from the staff the place looked to be totally deserted. It was equipped with every type of the most modern looking apparatus. Mr Om explained that we would have to undergo a series of tests, the ostensible purpose of which was to make sure "there wouldn't be any problems". We felt that there was really another reason. They gave us a complete check-up: X-rays, electrocardiogram, brain scan, magnetic resonance imaging, urine samples, and after a good deal of beating around the bush they also managed, tactfully but insistently, to extract a sizeable blood sample from us. I was by now worried out of my mind. Here was proof that we were completely in their power, and they could do with us as they pleased. 

At dinner that evening, with my usual bluntness I asked Mr Om what kind of game they were up to, naively adding that I wanted to get in touch with our ambassador. He smiled good humoredly and invited me to "be quiet and enjoy myself". There was no point in my telling him that I wasn't here for a vacation and, anyway, I could see that he probably had a point. So I decided to take his advice. During the next three days they treated us, to all intents and purposes, like real tourists bending over backward to make our stay in this gilded cage a pleasant one, preparing a packed sightseeing schedule for us to visit the immense city. 

That night I wasn't able to get to sleep and I ransacked the tomes on the bookshelves. The many books I found there were in various languages, English, Spanish, French, Japanese. Most were horridly boring tracts written by the President-God Kim Il-sung or his son Kim Jong-il. They went to great lengths to expound the not very controversial idea of the self-determination of people, which is after all a pretty simple concept to grasp, and which has become increasing popular around the world - though these two authors can hardly take credit for having invented it. 

Their guiding principle or philosophy is known as juche which is more like a kind of secular religion than an ideology and whose main tenets are the unqualified adoration of the Founder and his Successor. Apart from other texts in this vein, I also found a book in English which provided a good explanation of customs, food and other characteristics of the country. I was particularly struck by the fact that the book kept referring to Korea as a single nation and that the current division was only a temporary state of affairs. This impression was later confirmed whenever I was able to broach the topic with the few Koreans I met when I was out of sight of Mr Om. 

A village in the shape of a megalopolis 
The next day we began an enthralling albeit officially supervised tour of the city. My first impressions were confirmed: this was an absolutely immense megalopolis adorned with gigantic buildings and monuments of unimaginable proportions in perfect Oriental opulence. Mr Om explained that the entire city had been razed to the ground during the Korean War and only a few dozen structures date before that time, a couple of beautiful old gates with the characteristic pagoda-style roof, a building here and there with a patio along the riverside: Mr Om said that seven bombs per square meter had fallen on Pyongyang, which is some kind of world record.

After the war, an immense effort of reconstruction was undertaken, it seems, mostly for the purposes of show. One must try and picture wide, endless avenues which had been planned for a future city traffic which never materialized, flanked by futuristic skyscrapers reminiscent of San Paolo in Brazil, all of which are regularly interspersed with monuments three, four or even 10 times the size of our Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, and just about as tasteless. From behind every corner murals leap out at you depicting legendary scenes from the life of the Leader-Hero and his family. 

The captions everywhere, written in huge red letters, provide an element of unity in what would be otherwise a hodge-podge of imperial and capitalist styles. By now I was able to decipher a few of them myself: the one which recurred most frequently was: "Kim Il-sung Tongji Manse" which translated means "Long live [or long life and glory to] comrade Kim Il-sung". We were able to get an idea of just how grandiose this city was when we went to the top of the Tower of the Idea of juche: a swift elevator ferried us up 80 meters of reinforced concrete which overlooked a complex of gardens and fountains along the river and an enormous glittering bronze monument bearing the symbol of Korean communism: a sickle, a hammer and a brush (the implement traditionally used for writing) and which represents the intellectual class. The place was astounding. Rarely have I ever seen monuments of such dubious taste displayed so harmoniously and to such theatrical effect. 

The heat and humidity were unbearable and a heavy grey pall hung over this imposing exhibit of power. There was also a kind of bleakness in the air which you could see in the faces and gestures of the inhabitants. The only note of color was in the children perfectly arrayed in their uniforms of white shirts, blue skirts or trousers and red handkerchief. There were entire squadrons of them parading the streets by the hundreds. They were especially noticeable whenever you came to a bridge where they formed up in a long line. Particularly charming were the fleets of little boats bearing young couples or groups of friends along the canals and water courses and the men playing the game "go" in the parks. 

We also saw a number of painters at work; art is held in very high esteem and practiced as much as possible. But as soon as you looked behind the facades what you saw was a ubiquitous, unremitting grey. At the foot of these space-age buildings, tied to a tree you sometimes could catch sight of a goat waiting to be milked or chicken and a great many ducks for eggs. In denial of appearances the city was eking out a bare subsistence. 

A closer examination of the walls and door frames of public buildings (but not the monuments which were always perfectly maintained) revealed that they were more or less falling apart. Often the windows were without panes, and indoors at twilight the lighting was so poor it reminded me of candle racks for the dead in an Italian church. If you added to this the rarefied traffic - the odd Trabant or high-powered luxury cars with darkened windows - the overall effect was distinctly lugubrious, especially in the evening. 

A visit to the underground only confirmed these feelings. The tunnels looped down almost a hundred meters beneath the surface and riding the escalator felt like a descent into Hades. Strange shrieks like laments emanated from the loudspeakers on the wall singing the glory and magnificence of Him. At the bottom you could see thick anti-radiation shutters fixed into the side walls which, if ever the need arose, could turn these tunnels into nuclear shelters. This explained their great depth: their primary purpose was to serve in case of a war. The North Koreans, as Mr Om explained, are a people living in a state of siege, constantly expecting an attack. When a train finally pulled in we were swept off our feet by a human tide: the crowd one invariably encounters in the Orient where the individual counts for little and only the Leader is important. 

It was at this point that I became aware of an unusual detail which had been straining for some time to surface to my consciousness: everybody here, without exception, male and female, young and old alike, ugly or beautiful, those toiling or resting, absolutely EVERYONE in North Korea was wearing a little pin on the left side of their chest above the heart with a portrait of the Leader, what they called "the Badge". The coming days only served to confirm this observation. Only a very few individuals didn't wear the badge and this was a highly significant fact. We were propelled along by the crowd up and out of the catacombs. 

I still had a lot of unanswered questions about the inhabitants. In the downtown area near the big hotels and well-stocked department stores the people you saw were elegantly dressed, probably soldiers or diplomats and their families or foreigners, a great many Chinese, dwindling numbers of Russians. But as soon as you got out of the center of town whichever way you turned you caught sight of people squatting on their heels, their legs folded under them as if doing knee bends. They appeared to be waiting around for something - though it was impossible to tell what this might be, or how long they had been waiting for it, or how long they intended to go on waiting. Some gave the impression they were hanging around waiting for their clothes to dry, others were grouped around old lorries without wheels raised up on cinder blocks. Maybe they were waiting for their friends to come back who had gone off hours ago to repair the wheels, others I found out later were engaged in the business of cutting grass. 

Outside our enchanted garden where the grass was impeccably mown I noticed that most of the lawns had a scruffy look and I could find no explanation for this. Well, the explanation was that the job of cutting grass was assigned to work details of hundreds of laborers scattered all over the lawns. These people were armed with tiny scissors and they cut the grass leaf by leaf stuffing the proceeds into special bags. What an imaginative way to achieve "full employment" I thought. I made several attempts to photograph these scenes from the middle ages, but every time I lifted my camera lens the grass-cutters would all stampede away in panic. 

Once I did manage to get a shot of their backs as they fled, and it was only Mr Om's generous intervention which prevented an irate foreman from seizing my camera. As for all those others I saw out in the country, people asleep at night in the middle of the roads, forcing our car to weave around them in dangerous evasive manoeuvres, people standing immobile in thick woods, or inside a cold tunnels, old men embracing their grandchildren, stock still out in the middle of deserted fields, far away from anything or anyone, for all those other unforgettable images of people indelibly stamped on my memory, I have no idea what they were doing, nor did Mr Om or any of his colleagues, no matter how much we prodded them, ever provide us with a plausible explanation. But the facts would emerge only after some time. For these first few days the bluff held. Our hosts still had a good many tricks up their sleeve.

Part 2: Hot ovens at the seaside 

One morning they took us to visit what they referred to as the "exhibition", some 10 oversized pavilions crammed to the rafters with the products of North Korea's presumed industrial might. A kind of ongoing fair. As everything else in this place, the scale was nothing less than vast. There was a pavilion for heavy industry, one for manufacturing, etc. 

Alongside samples of products you often got a reconstruction of entire production plants. What I particularly liked were the little star-shaped markers on the floor indicating the exact point where the Leader had stood on a certain occasion and pronounced some memorable phrase to the workers. I couldn't help blurting out that all they needed here were little stars commemorating the precise spot where the Leader had relieved himself. Although my remark had been issued in Italian, the mirth it stirred meant that it had been translated for Mr Om, whose estimate of me (if this was at all possible) plummeted to new depths. I had never seen him look so offended. It occurred to me that these matters were of great significance to the North Koreans, or at least that was the idea they were attempting to convey to us, and I resolved from then on to do my best to "respect their respect" as Mr Om so graciously put it. 

After the customary banquet and with my customary bluntness, I said to Mr Om that we were tired of being cooped up and that we wanted to go out somewhere dancing. Obviously this was a painful request for him. I had guessed that there was no such thing as a nightclub or disco in this country, but I wanted to hear him tell us so himself. But Mr Om's reply caught me off guard and, alas, the embarrassment was to be all mine. After a moment's hesitation he conceded that although there indeed were no nightclubs in Korea as we had in the West, nevertheless, we should get ourselves ready to go dancing. He was truly a man of many resources and as it turned out history was on his side. 

All slicked up for a night on the town, at around eight o'clock a car took us to the center. We passed a couple of checkpoints along the way and ended up behind some stairs. On either side of the roadway I could sense the presence of history coming at me: We were approaching the great square where they held public demonstrations and military parades. I recognized this from a picture in one of the magazines I had read on my first night, a place spangled with banners and other symbols of the regime. It was a dizzying sight. The square itself was a boundless quadrilateral, perhaps somewhat larger than Saint Peter's in Rome, and it was facing the river. On the other side of the river, in the distance you could make out Tower of the Idea of juche with a red light shaped like a flame flickering from the top: "the fire of knowledge". 

The sides of the square were lined by stark looking buildings in the empire style, no-nonsense facades on the buildings to the left. On the right loomed statues of Marx and Lenin. An immense runway cut across the middle of the square serving as a route for military parades. Here was the very heart of the nation, a place which had been carefully designed on the drawing board with the special purpose of enthralling and bewitching the populace: a perfectly functional masterpiece of celebratory art. Even we succumbed to its hypnotic effect. In the center they had set up an immense dais with a band and choir while overhead a board indicated the date and the "hymn number" on the program. It was the anniversary of some victory. All around the dais, in perfectly regular squares of 300 or 400 people, the population of Pyongang had dutifully assembled for the dance. Mr Om estimated that there were 30,000 persons. Upon a signal from the master of ceremonies, the clamor around us suddenly ceased as the participants listened to the commemoration in a religious silence. And then the dancing began. 

First the squares formed into circles and then flared out into stars. I felt a shiver down my spine in front of the precision of their movements: rarely had I experienced such powerful emotions. Mr Om invited us to join the crowd. Delighted by the invitation we accepted. We clasped hands with a ring of dancers and had a wonderful time while they playfully reproached us for getting all the steps wrong. It turned out to be an unforgettable evening, historical in every sense of the word. They had really won us over. Their bluff had held. 

During the next few days over lunch and in the wake of other whirlwind tours we finally got down to discussing politics. As neo-sympathizers, though perhaps a bit more moderate then them, we continued to wonder about those odd sights we kept observing around us. Mr Om, in one of is more successful flights, told us that if a Korean sees his daughter drowning alongside the daughter of another comrade it wouldn't make any difference to him which to save first because all children are considered one's own, and that is what communism is all about. I was moved by this affirmation and after the solidarity we had witnessed the night before it wasn't hard to believe. 

Out of bed and on the move
By now we had acquired a taste for our lives as tourists when one morning at six o'clock we were awakened by the telephone. It was Mr Om: "Breakfast in one hour. Get your bags ready, but don't take too much, we'll only be gone for a few days. A place at the seaside." It was to be the last we would see of Pyongang before our departure. On the main highway at the turnoff I caught a glimpse of the sign with our destination on it. This annoyed Mr Om and he did his best to deny the evidence the whole time. Out of respect for him I will not reveal the name of the place here. 

The scenes we saw during our 200-kilometer trip had the effect of seriously weakening the effect of our hosts' bluff. The countryside was so poor and backward looking that it had a kind of historical charm about it. Not a trace of the various gadgets and equipment (and even these had been slightly obsolete) from the exhibition. The main conveyance appeared to be a rickety sort of wooden cart with neolithic style wheels drawn by oxen or horses. Extensive areas were under cultivation, the buildings looked impoverished and abandoned, though beside them there were newer constructions that were a little more decent. 

But the most incredible thing was the great number of people standing around doing nothing. Outside the city this is quite a shocking sight. Here and there among the fields there rose odd looking mounds shaped like squares and covered with reeds: these were shelters as friends from the kitchen told me later. And everywhere from the hillsides you could see immense slogans written in huge red letters. Now and then the track - there is no better word to describe what could hardly be termed a road because of the great number of potholes and the apparent absence of any form of maintenance - was marked by a militarized checkpoint manned by heavily-armed soldiers in front of which hordes of "pilgrims" crowded before being let through in small groups. I couldn't understand the purpose of these roadblocks. There appeared to be nothing of any great importance either leading up to them or on the other side, only bare, empty fields and desolate-looking dwellings. People were sprawling about as if they had been camped there for some time. The grasscutters were everywhere to be seen with huge bags of grass waiting to be picked up. 

We came to a tunnel guarded by a bunch of half-naked soldiers. Inside the tunnel the darkness did nothing to hide the number of people wandering about aimlessly and the ruinous state of the paving. A veritable river appeared to be flowing over the road. A group of ragtag soldiers was loitering off to the side in disarray. One of them looked like he was sick and in the process of being relieved by another. More of the same civilians we had seen before standing around, maybe trying to get out of the heat. I was at a loss as to what was going on, but later we realized that we had been travelling near the border. We were watching all this from behind the darkened windows of the limousine to the accompaniment of the melancholy strains of Korean music. It seemed like a hallucination. Another limousine with darkened windows was waiting for us when we came out of the tunnel. It had been sent ahead by the "company". There was also a new face waiting to meet us: "Mr Pak?" we asked hesitantly. But it wasn't Mr Pak. It was Mr Chang. By his absence, Mr Pak was acquiring a legendary status. 

Mr Chang drove us into the city to our base. Mr Om was now lost. This was a base he had never been to, and so he had trouble locating it. It took us several failed attempts before we finally managed to get there. The spot was pretty much inaccessible. The whole compound was surrounded by an immense park, studded with lakes and luxuriant vegetation; then we came to a bridge with a gate on it and sentries. At the end of a second driveway there was another gate patrolled by armed soldiers; then a third gate even more carefully guarded by soldiers, who this time were bearing really heavy-duty arms. It was at this point that we were finally allowed to enter the enchanted village which reminded me of a Club Med style resort on the Adriatic - clusters of small houses tucked away in a pleasant grove of pine trees. 

Before we got to the seaside we had to go through yet another gate, which was an opening to a very high wall with watchtowers. This was starting to become scary. Driving down the boardwalk, every 40 meters or so, behind bundles of barbed wire, we passed batteries of anti-aircraft guns with quadruple cannons manned by four men and an officer, all of whom looked as if they were made out of wax. Finally, we passed what was to be our last gate, this time just a metal wire fence and only one guard. We had reached our destination. 

To our right we could see the ocean and a gorgeous white sandy beach, so well raked it looked like cement dust; on our left at the foot of a hill there was a pond with water lilies floating on it; behind the pond ascending up the hillside in a semi-circle like an amphitheater was group of buildings. The first of these was the center with its kitchens on the ground floor; above that a longish two-storey building which appeared to be locked up. Obviously, this was off-limits for us. To the left of that three smaller buildings, each with their own kitchen. The kitchens in each of these places were elaborately equipped, reflecting what must be a veritable obsession with good food. Further on there was a high wall and gate which none of us ever dared to cross. Near the main gate and not far from the beach the barracks for the soldiers lay behind yet another wall. 

We finally see action
After installing ourselves in our rooms, which were no less sumptuous than the ones we had had in Pyongang and, if anything, even more modern and well appointed, we made our way to the kitchen. Our first contacts with the staff were cordial and relaxed: it is an incredible fact that people engaged in the same line of work, no matter from what part of the world that they come from, immediately manage to make friends: toil knows no boundaries. 

I had three pupils. Mr Yi, a specialist in pastry and international baking was fat, somewhat taciturn but very likeable - not a word of English though. Mr Chang, a little older but with the sweet naive manners of a teenager, spoke a very good English but his pronunciation was at first almost unintelligible to me. Koreans have trouble distinguishing their v from their b and their f from their p. Finally, a Mr Kim showed up, a younger fellow with a shifty demeanor. He arrived a few days later when it had became clear that there was more to my techniques than he had probably supposed, and that they were much more difficult than those of my celebrated predecessor, the Roman pizza chef who they were still talking about. My class immediately wanted to get down to business and asked me to make a pizza for them right away. I told them this would be impossible because my dough had to sit for at least 24 hours. Their answer was that a professional of my standing should be able to pull off any feat asked of him. I was given four hours. 

Fortunately, I had brought with me a natural leaven especially for unforeseen circumstances such as this and I was able to carry out my preparations. The dough turned out perfectly, but then maybe I was just lucky. While I worked, my pupils, pen and notebook in hand, took down every detail while the rest of the staff, a dozen people or so, gathered round to watch the proceedings in an absorbed silence. At one point Mr Yi even asked to count the olives I used and to measure the distance between them. I don't know if he was just pulling my leg, but he looked totally serious. 

One of the pizzas I made was then carefully selected by Mr Om and taken out of the kitchen. A few minutes later I was summoned to sit before a kind of a tribunal. Attempts were made to put me at ease, but to no avail. The eldest of the three judges was a man gleaming in gold jewelry. He wore a Rolex watch on his wrist and held a cigar in his hand. He had a cynical knowing look, rather like an Oriental Humphrey Bogart, but after a few minutes he broke into an unaffected smile, and paid me the most wonderful compliment of my entire career: "A dough like this can only have been prepared by a very sophisticated cook," he held out his hand and introduced himself: it was Mr Pak - finally. 

Mr Pak went on to explain that he had been the one who had arranged our little expedition, that he had wanted to prepare a special surprise for persons he referred to as his "guests", and that this was why he had been inviting chefs from all over the world. In that center they had the capability of reproducing dishes from all over the planet, a kind of an international culinary menagerie. They had a library which contained thousands of texts on cooking. They brought me some of the material they had on pizza, just to show me that they were already up on the topic. Mr Pak;s easy-going manner, quite unlike Mr Om, who never let his guard down for a instant, gave him away as a person of exceedingly high rank. 

Also, Mr Pak was not wearing the ubiquitous badge. But scoring this initial success was to prove my undoing: my hosts became eager for me to outdo myself every time. The Chef was given until the next day. After a few hours I was getting along so famously with my class that Mr Om's presence was no longer required, so he left us alone. Finally, I was able to talk about any topic I pleased and my pupils were not reluctant to converse. The breaks - 20 minutes out of each hour - we spent in another room furnished with armchairs where we could leaf through the official gazette and where smokers could indulge. 

Speak but the word
During the next uneventful few days I slipped into comfortable routine. All day I was only expected to prepare 10 or 20 pizzas, and this usually took me no more than a couple of hours. My pupils gravely noted down the most trivial details and gradually began doing much of the work themselves, picking up my techniques with amazing rapidity. In the ability of these boys to learn you had an explanation for the economic miracle of the Far East, while the corruption of the higher-ups, the mysterious "guests", accounted for the current state of collapse. Once again it was a confirmation of how thoroughly things are done in the Far East. In my spare time, I indulged in the engaging pastime of learning the fascinating Korean language, a complicated idiom, divided lexically into different strata whose use varies according to caste and social situation. 

My pupils informed me that they were all army officers, the lowest ranked among them being a lieutenant. I was also able to determine that they were pretty much died-in-the-wool communists: they said that money for them (money in North Korea looking pretty much like Monopoly money) was a superfluous commodity. The state provided them with everything they needed: housing, clothes, food, cars and even cigarettes. The little money they did see - according to them a few dollars a month, though the official exchange rates are misleading - was a kind of pocket money to amuse themselves with. All this sounded like a nice idea. Too bad it couldn't be applied to everybody. And yet the whole time I stayed in the country I never met anybody who ever openly or inadvertently expressed or, for that matter, even gave the slightest sign that they had anything to be dissatisfied with, and this was not just among the personnel at the base who were obviously well taken care of and had no reason to complain, but even among the people I was able to speak to the few times I was able to get away from Mr Om. I was told that an emergency plan existed to mobilize the entire population. A great many weapons were on hand if needed. The nightmare of attack is a constant obsession for North Koreans, as is getting revenge on their American nemesis. Unification is a unquestioned dogma. 

Before the imposing means at his disposal, our Chef had waxed euphoric. He asked me to prepare a list of things and ingredients to order from Italy all of which amounted to many thousands of dollars. Everything arrived punctually in a matter of a few days. On one occasion, after looking over a brochure I had brought with me, Mr Pak got the sudden bright idea to order a prefabricated kiln. After first inquiring whether I would be able to build such a thing myself, he chose the most expensive model available and asked me to telephone and order it right away. It was only because the company was closed for holidays that we avoided another colossal waste of money. Every now and then a kind of courier would show up from some corner of the world. I saw him twice unloading two enormous boxes containing an assortment of 20 very costly French cheeses, and one box of prized French wines. That evening, dinner - a feast worthy of Petronius' Satyricon - was served with an excellent Burgundy and delicacies from around the world. As an Italian I could not refrain from objecting, and three days later fresh from Italy a shipment of Barolo arrived.

Part 3: The great man eats 

Too much salt at the sea
Mr Om told me to get ready because the next day we would be cooking at the seaside on a boat. When I expressed my doubts about this he cut me short with his usual smile and a urged me "not to worry". The next morning a cabin cruiser topped with a salon and kitchen was sent to pick us up like a private water taxi. The writing on her stern read: "Capri Miami-Florida". Ah, the mysteries of international politics! 

We sped along for about half an hour to the languid notes of Korean music past the islands and islets that form an archipelago in front of the base. At last a kind of a semi-mobile, floating amusement park appeared before us which was able to anchor in different places every day. It was made up of two waterslides which dropped down into a swimming pool. On the other side of the pool there was a two-storey building with an observation deck on the roof. I doubt if even Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude. We did not draw near this floating fun fair, and our guides even tried to prevent us from gawking at it. They went so far as to physically, though partly in jest, turn our heads aside with their hands. About half a mile further on we came to a big ship which lay anchored in sea. The heart of this ocean liner was, needless to say, a fully equipped kitchen fitted with huge windows overlooking the sea and where it would be our pleasure to work. 

Tied to the side the ship was a pontoon raft upon which I beheld a most miraculous sight. In truth, I could hardly believe my eyes. They had brought out my entire pizzeria and all its accessories in one piece. All that was left was for me to do was to start cooking. Shortly before the great luncheon banquet the air suddenly came alive with a stir. I had just finished preparing my pizzas when I noticed that everybody in the kitchen seemed to be caught up in an inexplicable flurry of agitation. They almost used force to drag me away from the kitchen windows into in a comfortable salon for a beer. 

I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the Chef, who was performing a very delicate operation at the time, was less amenable to being distracted from his task. He had to lose his temper with his pupils to keep them from pulling him away. But by then his suspicions were aroused and he insisted on staying where he was at all costs. His instincts had been right. 

On the other side of the darkened window of the kitchen, crossing the gangway which led from the cruiser to a luxurious suite overhead was the Man in the murals, the successor of the Creator of the idea of juche (self-reliance), whose girth gave the measure of his power, followed by his entourage. The Leader-hero was immediately recognizable by the distinctive cut of his hair, a style of his own, unique not only in Korea but in the rest of the world. I am not in the position to say whether it really was Him, but our Chef, who had no reason to fib, was, for the space of several minutes, utterly speechless. He came into the salon where I was sitting looking quite beside himself. After listening to the description of the vision he had been privileged to witness I tried to calm him down him and offered a maekchu, the sweet Korean beer. He said he felt as if he had seen God, and I still envy him this experience. 

That evening we had a light dinner back at the base: a pair of lobsters, salad and French white wine. The phone rang. Mr Om put down his glass of Remy Martin which we had been downing by the bucketful and went to answer. It was always a stressful moment for him: his daily progress report and communicating the preparations for the next day. Suddenly the expression on Mr Om's face darkened visibly as he listened in silence to whom I think must have been Mr Pak on the other end complaining that the food had not met with approval. 

After our wives had been sent scuttling to bed, the Chef and I were led into an office and subjected to a classic brainwashing session. Actually, the problem hadn't been the pizza at all, but the lamb. It had been allowed to marinate for two days. This was followed by the immense labor of preparing the garnish with little bundles of dried spaghetti which I had tasted myself. It was really an exquisite dish, visually stunning, but, alas, somebody had found it too salty. So that night until one o'clock we were obliged to stay up and revise the entire program, with Mr Om removing anything which was deemed to be too salty. 

My initial reaction was to flat-out refuse. Cursing aloud, I wanted to return to my room and pack my bags. After all, we were the specialists. What right did they have to tell us how to do our job? The Chef was a little more sanguine about it all. He advised me to stay calm and count to 10. He was, he admitted, livid with rage and felt he had been personally humiliated, but he was able to keep his cool. It was better to swallow our pride, he told me, than risk the consequences which might result from a failure to cooperate. I resigned myself and started rewriting the entire program, striking out various dishes which contained anchovies and capers. As if all this weren't enough, at two o'clock in the morning Mr Om came in with couple of beers attempting to soften the impact of the next brilliant idea which he had just received over the phone: we were to move out of our suites - right away. 

Inside the enchanted village 
It was not easy to wake up our wives and convince them this wasn't a practical joke. Mr Om was inflexible even when I refused point blank. A few minutes later we found ourselves in one of the little bungalows in the pine grove two fences out from the main building. There was a sentinel standing behind a tree trunk whose job was to protect us, but all he did was increase our anxiety. 

The rooms were, however, first rate, with a view of the ocean and they came with television. Not the boring state TV, but real TV: CNN and three Chinese channels which were surprisingly modern and entertaining, Japanese, Australian and Indian TV, a Babel of foreign tongues; finally a whiff of air from the outside world. Our move had been the brainchild of Mr Pak who it seems did his best thinking after-hours. At least that was how he explained the affair the next day when he apologized to us. He said that since they had been unable to obtain an interpreter for our wives at least they could now watch TV in our new digs. There was also a sauna and the seafront could be accessed directly without climbing through rolls of barbed wire. 

There was only one small condition attached to these new privileges: we were never to leave the precinct of the villa. Our wives had unwittingly attempted to do just that in the morning and had made the startled acquaintance of two screaming guards. We were told that any attempt to leave the immediate area around of the villa could prove to be very dangerous. This was an even shinier gilded cage, but it was still a jail. 

Other "guests" were very shy and hard to come by in this place. In our enormous compound there were distinctly more servants than guests. I counted about 50 of them including the kitchen staff, chauffeurs, gardeners. In addition to these, every morning a dozen of cleaning women turned up before the main entrance waiting to get in. The garrison was made up of about 70 soldiers, young boys who were beginning their term of compulsory military service, which in North Korea lasts about 20 years. These lads were expected to do exhausting guard duty and subjected to intense physical exercise sessions early every morning. We used to hear these sessions come to an end at about seven o'clock with a final warlike shout. 

As for the other guests, we could only detect their presence indirectly and bumped into them on very rare occasions. Athletes must enjoy a great many privileges in North Korea. In our new building we were also able to infer - from the slippers - the presence of a young lady guest, a rather attractive woman whom we caught sight of only on a couple of occasions from a distance - once riding the cabin cruiser out to the floating island and another time when she was returning by car after lunch. She approached the building, but as soon as she saw us she darted out of sight only to reappear a few minutes later after we were safely in our rooms. 

Another guest was a certain Mr Chang whom I waved to while he was pedaling around on a bicycle. He gave me five minutes of his time and we chatted and watched the sunset from the fence that marked the inviolable boundary of the precinct. Mr Chang was another man with a Rolex and without the badge. He didn't seem at all surprised when I told him about our restrictions in movement, but then he also didn't invite me to accompany him when he left. In spite of this, his manner was very friendly and relaxed and he complimented me on my pizza. 

And so as the days passed our apprehension melted away. We had grown accustomed to the arsenal around us and our guards would smile furtively at us whenever we greeted them. They were just teenagers and could have hardly been older than 16. I continued to pursue the movements of my mobile pizzeria: mornings at the base and afternoons, time permitting, on the ship to which I was ferried by my own personal water taxi. While this was going on the Chef was making superhuman efforts to get dinner ready for one or another of the 30 or so bungalows in the village. Our wives had an entire half-deserted seaside resort to themselves presided over by a numerous staff who raked and manicured the sand until it shone and who kept them from venturing into restricted areas by their unequivocal screaming. 

Television made their confinement more bearable before mealtimes. Due to a rather cruel coincidence, CNN was broadcasting a continual series of reports denouncing famine in North Korea brought on by a drought and the death of thousands of children. In truth we had never encountered anything like the scenes shown on TV. While the countryside did have a Third World look about it, we hadn't observed any extreme hardship. Probably we had been kept away from stricken areas, or CNN had exaggerated. When pressed on this point Mr Om admitted that there were, in fact, difficulties. To this I suggested that the higher-ups in the compound would do well to concentrate less on stuffing themselves and more on the people outside. Mr Om's reply to this and similar questions was, "Man is the same all over the world." The same regardless of the political system, I suppose. 

The inhabitants of the desert island 
In any case, our sense of imminent danger was rapidly diminishing; it was clear how hard our hosts were trying to put us at our ease and how concerned they were that we should enjoy ourselves. They even rewarded us with two days off: one a trip to the seaside and the other an excursion to the mountains. One day the water taxi brought us to one of the thousands of little islands forming the archipelago. According to our hosts these islands were uninhabited. The trip was rather longish and it took at least an hour to get to our destination. Once we were on shore we were treated to a magnificent picnic of pulkogi, the famous Korean barbecue of thin meat strips, reverently served up by a couple of boy-waiters. After the meal and our usual drinks of ginseng mixed with Remy Martin and orgiastic dancing to music played over the cabin cruiser's stereo, I wandered off to try and get sober. Mr Om had said that these islands were totally uninhabited, but I had caught a fleeting glimpse of some figures who fled as soon as they became aware of me. When I asked who these people were a look of concern came over Mr Om's face. He told me that I must have been mistaken. I wasn't about to give up on this. I may have been drunk but I wasn't hallucinating. Following the bleating of a goat I came upon a well-tended vegetable garden. 

I ventured ahead, soon realizing that the deserted island wasn't deserted after all. I found a sweet tempered nanny goat at the end of the garden and two kids which looked like stuffed animals. To the left was a kind of ancestral village. Some shanties lined one side of a rectangular courtyard and on the longer side what looked to be primitive shelters partly built out of wood and partly dug out of the mountainside. Here there wasn't a living soul to be seen. Excited by my discovery I called our womenfolk to come over and see the goats. The entire Italian contingent had assembled here. 

After a while one of Mr Om's lackeys arrived and tried to pull us forcibly away. He made an effort to explain to me in English that we had put ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. But by now the Chef and I were so drunk we couldn't care less. Attracted by the racket we were making the denizens of this colony gradually began to emerge from their hiding places and draw near. They were all boys between the ages of 16 and 18, their heads shaven and bare-chested. They popped out of their refuges and formed a crowd around us so that we were a little afraid. 

Then suddenly a football appeared from nowhere and the magic spell of soccer descended on a remote island in this North Korean archipelago. An afternoon's excitement with these non-existent islanders. We divided ourselves up into teams. Obviously this was going to be a rematch between Italy and North Korea - a chance for us to get even. But there were too few of us so one of these tanned barefoot boys in army pants joined our side which included our colleagues from the kitchen. There was a dreamlike quality about the whole situation. If you believed Mr Om's view it was even dangerous. But what did we care? We had a football to play with and an afternoon's enjoyment ahead. After a few moments it felt like just any Sunday afternoon in any Italian football stadium. We were having fun just like little kids while the fans on the sidelines cheered their teams on. Italy started off badly, and before long we were three goals down. But with a header we managed to score the equalizer and then went on to win. We had redeemed our country's honor. Facchetti and his teammates could rest in peace. Actually it occurred to us that we might have a revolt on our hands but nothing of the kind happened. Our opponents shook hands cordially and walked with us back to the beach. We could see that Mr Om was not amused, nor did he ever enlighten us as to who these people on the island were, who apparently lived off goat's milk and vegetables from the garden and maybe fish. It was to remain just another one of Korea's undecipherable mysteries. 

Kun-gan-san, ahhh!
One morning Mr Li was to be heard repeating some strange sounding verses to himself. Kun-gan-san, ahhh! He leaned backward and laughed. I finally figured out the reason for this at lunch. Mr Om told us that it had been decided we would be spending two days at the sacred mountain of Kun-gan. Here we brought the usual picnic with us and then went for a walk. The mountain itself was very beautiful, but quite like the mountains back home. The vegetation was much the same and so were the rocks and the shape of the streams running down. There were some really interesting engravings on the rock face which you could see from a long way off. The picturesque Korean graffiti lent an artistic touch to the whole scene. 

Many individuals had signed the common surname Kim, but a few must have dated back centuries. Here and there we met up with tourists from China and a few souvenir stalls, the incipient stages of a market economy. For five dollars a couple might rent a boat from two enterprising boatmen and have themselves rowed around a high altitude lake whose water was emerald green. Once again, dinner was an interesting event. We took our own provisions to a kind of restaurant where all they did was supply the facilities and you could eat your own food. What they provided was the cutlery and glasses. The spot was lovely on the shore of a lake. Too bad that at a certain point that lights went out and we couldn't see anything anymore. 

Back at the hotel Mr Om, perhaps heartened by all the Remy Martin he had been consuming, decided to forget the wife he had waiting for him in Pyongyang and accompany our alpine guide, a very sweet girl, back to her house. He must have gotten lost that night because he didn't return to the hotel! 

The hotel was a grandiose establishment there was a gigantic crystal chandelier hanging at least five or six meters over an immense staircase in the foyer. It was, however, too neglected to merit praise. I found some little shops which were by Korean standards well stocked with souvenirs and a bar which exuded a slight air of decadence, a typical hotel bar. There were some Koreans here smoking and munching on dried squid - a real delicacy in that country. The most revealing encounter we had was with a very engaging young lady, one of the salesgirls. She was able to speak a little English and agreed to answer some of my questions. 

She had never heard of Italy and when I started talking about Rome I was happy to see her face light up. "Yes, Romania!", she exclaimed. She went on to explain that they don't study European history or geography at school. On the other hand, they do a great many scientific subjects. She said that life in Korea was pretty good. They state provided everything for free, as far as this was possible; the money she earned, around US$300 at the official exchange rate, was more than enough for her needs. Her family's house was small but comfortable. But what troubled her most of all was a longing to be reunited with her brothers from the South who are cruelly prevented from joining them - though every once in a while somebody manages to escape. One day they will free their brothers from their chains. I smiled ironically at this and asked her, "Are you really sure?" "Of course, it must be so." Very moving. 

Mission Accomplished
After over 20 days of "hard labor", our time there was supposed to be over. And yet nobody had brought up the question of leaving. Quite evidently our efforts were being appreciated. A proof of this were the sizeable tips that came my way - once a single 1,000 yen bill, and on another occasion $120. One night at around one o'clock in the morning there came a knocking at our door. It was Mr Om who wanted me to me to come downstairs. Mr Pak was also waiting outside. I had never seen him so serious. He explained that what he was about to tell me might be taken as an affront but that I should not be offended. His "guests" had been so enthusiastic about my pizza that they had taken up a collection for me which they asked me to accept. Mr Pak held out a roll of American dollars. It had been the day of the pizza al salamino which, in the wake of its success in the United States, is in the process of establishing itself as nothing less than an international cult, a pizza without borders, which is appreciated in every land no matter the ideology or regime, a dish which could help reconcile the most irreconcilable differences. The next Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting should be held in a pizzeria in the portici district of Naples! 

Our cook had to be back in Italy by a certain date and raised the question of our return. In order to gain time they allowed us each to send home a fax. Then, one day at lunchtime we made the acquaintance of a new colleague, a Pakistani chef just off the plane from Karachi. Well, we thought, now it's his turn. Still nobody was saying anything about going home. We finally had definite news in the late afternoon. We would be leaving that very night. It was Mr Pak's final touch, it bore his unmistakable signature, a brilliant stroke. This way he could bid us farewell without having to be there in person. Very little time remained now for sentimentality, but that didn't mean that all of us in the kitchen were feeling lumps in the throat which still haven't gone away. Our pupils, eyes brimming with tears ran after the limousine as far as they could to present us with little souvenirs: ginseng tea and pestilential cigarettes. I occasionally smoke one of these cigarettes out of nostalgia even though I hate smoking. In the meantime, the chef from Pakistan was being "re-educated": too spicy ... the cycle was starting again. 

In the secular temple
There were still three days before we were to leave for Beijing. The Chef managed to obtain visas for us for a brief visit. So we had three days to wear all our clothes which had stayed behind in Pyongyang. Korea still had a few surprises in store for us, until the very last minute. We spent two days in another tourist spot, Maan-san. Here was another huge, thoroughly dilapidated hotel. Our first day we spent visiting the ancient Buddhist temples with the classical pagoda style roofs. Very interesting, to be sure, but a little monotonous. But there was another temple here which would win our hearts and minds the very next day. Nestled among a mountains of rare beauty was the "Exhibition of International Friendship". 

This is difficult to describe. My impression was one of going back in time to the days of King Cyrus the Great of Persia. It was like visiting his legendary palace in Persepolis. Just that kind of atmosphere. Four floors of 40,000 square meters each. The roofs were just like those of the temples. All the exhibits were behind protective coverings and the temperature and humidity were constantly controlled. The objects housed here were among the most splendid and precious things the human mind can conceive. They were exposed with a kind of religious fetishism alongside certified junk from around the world. This was a place to strike envy in the hearts of Pharaohs: marble, plants and chandeliers. Here were gifts various heads of state (from around the world and not just communist countries) had given to the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. In his generosity he decided to share them with the public rather than keeping it all for himself. 

There were precious jewels, Chinese vases which we later saw in Beijing selling for thousands of dollars, tables of engraved ivory, bas-reliefs in ivory and oak, crystal vases, cups in gold and silver. But thus as not all: beside the precious objects you also had the uniforms and arms of various revolutionary movements from around the world. I trembled before a machine gun of the Sendero Luminoso and found particularly memorable the saddle cloth used in parades for Gadaffi's camel woven of gold and studded with precious stones. One room contained a train car with a luxurious salon which had been a gift of Stalin. I shall not attempt to describe the amount of priceless treasures we saw. In the four hours we spent there we only saw the smallest portion. 

The Italian pavilion is, however, worth describing even though it was rather austere compared to the others. Here they had another thing which sent shivers up my spine: a silver carnation (probably silver plated) given by Bettino Craxi, and a crystal seagull which was a gift by Enrico Berlinguer, an eight centimeter high model of Ghiberti's Baptistery Door in pure gold which had been donated by a Florentine lawyer who expressed the wish that the gates of paradise would open for the Great Leader. Our guide, clothed in dazzling traditional garb, scribbled down the translation on his hand. Another exhibit literally stunned my wife: a plaque bearing the name of her hometown and the chamber of commerce from our region. Absolutely everything found its way in there. 

But the best was yet to come. Towards the latter part of our tour of the pavilion Mr Om suddenly stopped in front of a magnificently carved door. He turned to us and said that we were about to enter one of the most important places in the country and that we should behave with due reverence. He opened wide the door. The effect was reeling. An immense hall of about 10,000 square meters. The floors were wood parquetry and the walls lined with marble. At the very back of this room, lit by natural light, was a reconstruction of the vegetation of the Great Leader's favorite mountain, the sacred mountain of the Korean revolution, Mount Paektu. In an enormous wall mural behind this we could see a life size version of HIM. At first I thought he was embalmed, fortunately it was a wax statue. Mr Om asked us to bow before this. Naturally, an argument arose involving the Chef's wife, who refused to do any such thing. Strangely enough I was more tractable, I was too enchanted by this cult and also caught in a kind of historical fantasy. I imagined I was in a book by Xenophon and was being asked to bow before a God-King, to which I complied, thinking of Alexander the Great and Augustus. 

The Orient always remains the same. The centuries pass and with the various regimes, but the cult of the God-King continues to persist as if nothing happened. The caste of pseudo-communist tyrants do nothing more than adopt the forms of the great dynasties of the past, but the substance of things and the social context are unchanged. The ghost of Genghis Khan still haunts this secular temple. 

As if the impressions we had got so far had not been enough for us, our final evening in Pyongyang proved to be completely overwhelming, though in a way which again contradicted the fuzzy picture we had been able to form of the country. 

We had often seen a building with a sign which said "Bowling" in English. We imagined this place to be the usual run-down Korean dive and we dared Mr Om to take us there. After we had nagged him for a while he finally agreed with a sly grin. Once again it was our turn to be embarrassed. We entered the largest, most modern bowling alley I have ever seen with 20 lanes, lights and mirrors everywhere, all of it brand new and in impeccable condition. Our first thought was that this was a place for tourists, but we were mistaken. The patrons here were Koreans and better bowlers than we, in spite of the famine. There were also a lot of foreigners. We met a banker from Great Britain whose bank was starting to sow the first tiny seeds in this country in the hope that the market will one day open up. 

That evening we attended our final lavish banquet with mixed feelings, but happy to be getting out at last. But not even the cognac and ginseng were able to produce the usual effects. The speech Mr Om gave that night was flawless. Although he was visibly exhausted he could not hide the fact that he was moved, especially after I bestowed on him an honorary diploma from the Pizza Institute. 

The next morning our passports magically reappeared in the limousine from where they had vanished. We weren't required to bother with such trivialities as customs or check-in, and together with a squad of mega-generals plastered in medals we waited for our shuttle bus in an exclusive lounge. 

By now Mr Om had become silent and oddly distant. His mission had been accomplished and evidently his heart and mind were already on other things. Not even our chorus of cheers from the bus window appeared to affect him. Amid all the bustle we kept on singing at the top of our lungs, but he just stood impassively off to the side indifferent to us. And our thoughts too were moving elsewhere, to the luminous, refined city of Beijing. But that is another story. 

... the next day I awoke feeling queasy. My stomach was acting up again; it was bean sprouts. Then and there I decided to cancel Oriental Pizza from our repertoire.