Ljubljana February 14 2013
The priest recites prayerful rhythms I partly recognise. “This must be the ‘Glory Be’… This must be the ‘Our Father’ … ” as we call these prayers at home twelve hundred miles away from this Alpine village where the evergreens are white today.
Snow is falling in Gatwick as the airport bus takes us from the 06:35 from Belfast arriving around 08:00 to the terminal. The pilot delighted to tell us we have arrived 25 minutes early. But as any ”frequent flier” knows, when the plane is early it catches the handling agents napping or handling something else. I continue to read the book I am to finish before returning home. The passengers stand stooped and wait for the door and the bus to take us on. But being early is no boon to my travel plans. I’m almost four hours too early for the easyJet flight to Innsbruck. Too early for the gate. So I kill time until 10:00 with emails and text messages. Once through passport control in the business lounge, I can get free coffee, wifi and snacks. All the modern traveller needs.
And this is why we need, if not permanent, then regular access to wifi. Email: an offer of a lift from Tatjana Radovic who works at Visit Ljubljana. That will cut out the part of the journey I had been looking forward to least; the bus from LJ to Kranjska Gora.
The snow; a metre deep on the church roof where beneath, the band plays, the prayers are said, the flowers add the only colour to the scene.
Where the urn is on stand.
The snow, compacted into ice underfoot, freezes feet in thick soled shoes and boots. The snow covering this graveyard so steeped upon the graves, we walk through trenches shoulder high. No other grave can be seen but the one where we two or three hundred will lay carnations.
The approach to Innsbruck on this cold February afternoon is spectacular. The snowy Alps below as the plane flies south then turns hard east. The cries of a baby who can’t understand why her ears are becoming more painful as the air pressure rises, turn to giggles as her – and our – tummies tickle when the aircraft drops unexpectedly and the pilots fight against the sudden changes in wind direction. We are flying along the valley toward the small airport.
Too small to stay in. I have four and a half hours to pass. No point staying here. So a bus, then, to the train station which is not much bigger than the airport. With a half hour walk around the chilly town, I’m back in the station to find warmth and coffee. Later a Big Mac. There is opera playing in the background in the station waiting room. Opera!
America has done more exporting the English language than the English. Not full sentences you understand. “Big Mac, fries, Coke” along with “Danke” and “Bitte” are the only words I have spoken since leaving Gatwick.
On the train the conductor is very chatty. I have no idea what he is chatting about. I smile and say “Danke”. Across the border a different conductor says “Danke schoen”.
The train is almost empty, and not what I was expecting. The carriage for the international trip from Austria to Germany is not unlike to old Belfast to Bangor trains that were replaced almost 10 years ago. There is no first class that I had paid extra for and I’m disappointed that I can’t find refreshments. It’s 20:54 (19:54 at home) I’ve been travelling for 16 and a half hours. It’s a long way to go to a funeral. At 23:34 I will change trains for the next 7 hour leg.
“Austrian tickets! There are always problems with Austrian tickets.” Says the German conductor as I show him my €60 first class ticket which the receipt I printed out at home – “not usable for transport” – states Innsbruck to Munich to Ljubljana. Not a bad price I thought when I bought it. As he issues me a new ticket for the German leg of the journey, he explains Marley-like that he is the first of three who will visit me tonight; himself, for Germany, another for Austria – where I had just come from and am going back to, and finally at 5:00 in the morning, the Slovenian who would conduct me to my destination.
Half an hour.
Half an hour.
An hour and then I’m joined by another passenger for the first time since Munich. I start and sit up “Where are we?” “Slovenia.” He says. No turning back now. Since this journey began I have been looking for excuses to cancel, turn back, abandon. “This is stupid.” I have been telling myself since making the last payment for the journey. “Stay at home, cut your losses. You can cancel the hotels at no cost. If you go, there will be more to pay. And work. I have so much to do at work.” But my friends at work and my wife tell me I must go. They are right.
Tatjana in Ljubljana changes and improves my hotel booking and arranges for me to join the coach trip to the funeral. 40 people from the Slovenian travel industry, and me. Every turn is an encouragement. Now I’m here, about to step off the train greeted by deep crisp if not all that even snow. I’m in the orangey yellow lights outside Ljubljana train station. I’ve been here before I know here to go. It is 06:34 the next day.
The silence is not even broken by bird song. 35,000 feet above the low thick cloud cover, 300 or more other people pass by in a Boeing or Airbus or some such craft. They fly in that low rumble with their own sorrows and joys and pass us without a thought. Hello, goodbye. But we, snowbound, have time to say goodbye.
I love the Big Bang Theory. It’s a funny intelligent American TV programme. I love the way they satire the Apple Stores of the world for exploiting and debasing the word “Genius”; something that Facebook has done to the word “Friend”. Who are all these people I have never met who want to be my “Friend”? Yet Tatjana in Ljubljana is a friend. We only met once before in the late 1990s. In the past two days she and Jan have been kind and generous with their time and help. “You should have contacted me before you came. I could have arranged …” But I only knew I was coming a day before I left home.
Rok was a friend; we had been in each other’s company on 5 occasions. Twice in Slovenia, twice in Ireland and once in Madrid. It has been 10 years. Since then phone calls out of the blue, the occasional email and then Facebook. How can that be a friend when, for most of our lives, friendship is moulded by time, shared experiences, common ties? But that is not the only route to true friendship. There is a quality of relationship which requires none of those things. Some attribute it to superstitions – previous lives, shared Astral planes. Sometimes it is just a moment, a crossing of paths. Kindness between people; kindness that asks nothing and expects nothing. A giving that asks not even the appreciation of the gift. Rok and I were close, close friends. “Bring me language tapes. I want to learn Irish.” I did. He began to learn Irish – one more language to add to the 14 he already knew. “I am Celt, too.”
The funeral bell. No birdsong from the pines, no heavy aircraft passing eight miles high. Even the sound of snow shuffling off the branches now absents itself. Our weeping is silent but for some physically hard as their bodies spasm in mourning . There are words – I don’t know what is being said. I am the foreigner here. The band play music in 3/4 time; no-one dances. Accordion, double bass, guitar, trumpet, clarinet. A sort of folk music “I can’t stand oompah bands.” Rok says to me as he fiddles with the car radio to find a station to listen to somewhere outside Maribor on our way back from Ormoz in 1996.
I’m a traveller. I’m a tourist. I’m a mourner. I’m a friend.
We, the congregation turn, we follow the urn, the family, the tears to the grave, listen to the prayers, lay a carnation on the ground, embrace the family.
Rok Klancnick 1966 to 2013.
“I’m Davy. I’ve come from Ireland to say goodbye to Rok.”