Tuesday, July 20, 2010
"Are you here for the match?"
A voice behind me caused me to throw a glance over my shoulder. A friendly face with a compelling smile met my stare. Our eyes locked. Uncertain if this handsome stranger had been speaking to me, asking him if he was there with the same intentions as us - watching the bronze final in the soccer championship - was the first silence breaker I could think of.
Previously that day, my friend B. and I had left our other friends behind at Hvar Island, and gone to Split for the last three nights of our holiday. Now we were firmly placed in comfy chairs in front of the flat screen at an open air café along the city's Marmontova parade street, our regular small beers in hand, ready to enjoy the game.
It didn't take long to establish that the stranger wasn't there for the match. He, along with his friends, had come from the same island as us that very same day and were only staying in Split that night as a layover before catching their flight back home from holiday the next morning. He had just gone out for a beer on his own as he didn't like the crappy hotel they had chosen for the night, he told me. So, are you a hotel snob then, I asked him. Yes, he said. I couldn't help laughing. My unhappiness with slumming it on the islands we had visited, staying in cheap accomodation with few facilites, was the main reason B. and I had parted with the others and ended up in Split for as long as three nights. Who would have thought I'd meet my hotel snob soulmate by chance just by picking that particular one of the huge number of bars and cafés that were showing the match?
He lived in a European city, but came from another continent. As it happened, he was from a country I had visited and knew quite well, and our conversation revolved around that. Half an hour later, having finished his beer, he left, saying he had to go back to his friends at the hotel. We said our goodbyes. Somehow, however, my intuition told me I hadn't seen the last of him.
Sometime during the first half, he was back. I wasn't surprised at all. He now took a seat at our table. As B. had caught a bit of a holiday cold she was kind of tired and very quiet, and I was more than happy with finding someone to talk to. We really hit it off. When the match finally ended my newfound friend and I had long since lost track of the score. B. wanted to call it a night and left us on our own. So did eventually all the other guests at the café. A little past midnight, the two of us were the last ones left, alone in the dark with the candle at our table as the only light.
By that time, our conversation had reached a very personal and intimate level. He knew I was struggling with cancer for the second time. And I had come to find out that his seemingly placid exterior was disguising a soul in complete turmoil, torn between his ambitions and the desire to continue the great career he had built up during his years in Europe, and the feeling of duty to and love of his family, who had called on him to come back to his home country. The dice was already cast, and he was leaving Europe in a few short weeks. Tears welled up in his eyes as he told me. Clearly he was hurting inside, having to leave a city he loved, all his friends and a position he was very proud of having achieved through education and hard work.
The last waitress at work came over to us, telling us she was closing for the night. She had changed out of her uniform, and was dressed in a sexy little black dress and heels. We commented on her goodlooking appearance, and she told us she was going out, clubbing. Clubbing? None of us had given that a single thought. However, not wanting to part ways just yet, it suddenly seemed like a great idea. So we headed for the taxi rank, and told the driver we wanted to be taken to a nightclub. He measured us up, then said he knew just the right place for us to go.
Driving along in the middle of the night in a strange city, we had no idea where we were going. Eventually we ended up outside a very posh looking entrance, with doormen clad in black suits and a line of beautifully dressed locals and tourists alike. When we entered, we went through an indoor bar, only to come out on a huge outdoor terrace with several seating groups and bars. Crystal chandeliers were hanging from their ceilings, and soap bubble machines blew beautiful bubbles that came floating down from over their roofs. The place was called Hemingway.
Spending the warm, tropical night with this man who now no longer felt like a stranger, feeling the breeze from the Adriatic sea, sipping pink Champagne and eagerly chasing the soap bubbles that came across the dance floor, I had this feeling that I was just dreaming. What had started out as an ordinary day had turned into something almost surreal. Like being inside a gigantic soap bubble ourselves. And in some ways, maybe we were...
As night turned to day, we caught a taxi back to our respective hotels - saying goodbye again. This time for good. I was so tired I didn't think much of it when I saw his car drive away. I only hoped he would still have time to catch his flight.
It was only later the next night I came to realize how much I missed his company. B. and I had sided with Spain and watched them go on to win the championship. We followed all the Spanish supporters from the café which we had chosen to see the match to a quayside disco where the music was all Spanish pop hits. It was lively and great fun to be part of their celebration. We also ended up finding some other tourists to talk to. When the disco closed and it would be time to go on to a club, however, I decided I would follow B., still struggling with her cold, back to the hotel. I could have gone on with the others. I knew for certain though, it would never be the same as the magical night I had experienced the previous evening.
Even if I had wanted to hold on to it for just a little longer, the soap bubble was well and truly burst.
(Photos by photographer Richard Heeks, via blog DamnCoolPics)