Neither Martin nor I say goodbye. We don’t like them. The farthest we go in getting sentimental is him saying, “How will I sleep now that you’re gone?” and me responding, “I know. I’m sorry.”
It’s not even dawn yet, and I’m on a bus heading to the Nyköping airport one hour outside of Stockholm. I’m sleepy and full of transition blues. I’m already missing the peace that domes over Sweden like its gigantic sky. I’m missing the easy routine of living as a part of Pontus’s family. I’m missing the wolf pack den comforts of home I felt with Martin. In straight opposition to all that I’m excited. I’m on my way to Croatia, of all places, to see my best ship friend Josko, and to meet his family. But now, not in the mood for emotions, I ignore both excitement and melancholy by falling asleep with my head against the bus window.
A week ago, when I was packing up to leave Motala and head into Stockholm, I warned him once again that I was set to arrive soon.
“Oho, my favourite spy is alive,” he wrote back. “We are waiting for you next week.”
And so it was all planned.
I catch a cat nap in the plane and wake up as we land. The flight attendant’s voice crackles over the intercom, “Thank you for flying Ryanair. For the Swedish passengers, enjoy your vacation. For the Croatian passengers, welcome home.”
Hey, I think, what about me? But I grin. I feel like a spy. Traveling incognito, under the shadowy banner of some other country’s flag. I just wish I knew all languages. Why can’t I be Jason Bourne except without the amnesia? I’ve got my fifteen words of Swedish down just in time to try and learn the same expressions all over again--this time in Croatian.
I take the bus from the airport in Krk to Rijeka. Croatian reality is more beautiful than Josko’s pictures. Mountains. Water. Cities built up the hillsides. Old Roman walls. Tall buildings adorned with intricate statues. Not for the first time--and definitely not for the last--I marvel at the unexpected and incredible adventure that is my life. Printed out directions in hand, and stopping only twice to ask locals if I’m on the right path, I walk from the bus stop to my hostel. After I get checked in I send an email to Josko to let him know I’m there. He replies with: “Ok, we are going to my parents on lunch, when kids fall asleep I will contact you. C U.”
Modern technology is great. I love having connection to the world through the internet, but I occasionally, like now, rue the fact that I don’t have an internationally working phone. I’m in a new place and I don’t want to sit tied to a computer screen waiting when I could be out exploring. Oh for the simple ease of having text and calling capabilities from a small mobile device (or set meeting times). But it was get a fancy phone or have a couple extra weeks’ worth of money to travel. I chose the travel.
The sun is out and it’s warm. I’ve found summer once again and it’s glorious.
I see Josko right before he catches sight of me. He’s easy to spot. He’s six foot five. He’s dressed in his normal black. He’s hand in hand with his wife, Marina. They’re natural together. Like puzzle pieces joined at the fingers. I like her immediately; even before we’ve said a word to each other. Then he sees me, says something to his wife and they make their way my direction as if all along he knew exactly where I’d be. (Later I find the email he’d sent: “We will go soon to city, we can meet at square near your hotel. Do you have some number to reach you or only on email?” I’d inadvertently been in the right place at the right time.)
We shake hands hello like the old pals we are. Josko introduces me to Marina and she and I exchange “So nice to meet yous.”
“You want to take walk?” Josko asks.
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
“Marina needs to get her glasses fixed at a shop near. Then we can take coffee.”
“Sounds good,” I say.
We haven’t gone more than a hundred feet when Josko asks, “Where is Swedish guy?”
“What?” I ask.
“You stay in Sweden for one month—where is guy?”
I laugh. Raise my eyebrows. Yeah. Right.
Marina elbows him. “You don’t have to know everything,” she tells him.
“He didn’t fit in my luggage,” I say jokingly. “So I left him behind.”
We grin at each other. We’re used to him teasing me.
We walk past the old Roman arch. Past the wheel fountain (why reinvent it?). Down a maze of streets and around a corner. The glasses shop is closed for lunch. “I can get them fixed tomorrow,” Marina says after she and Josko check the hours written on the door. On our way to “take” coffee, we continue our walking tour around the city center. “I was baptized in this church,” Josko tells me at one place. “Marina went to school here,” he says at another. He’s full of facts and history. I’ve missed his stories. I’m glad to be in his company again.
After coffee, we go by car to the new shopping mall that’s recently opened. “He shops more than me,” Marina says in a whispered aside to me. Josko goes to look at something and Marina takes the moment to tell me, “When he told his parents and our neighbors that you were coming he had a big grin.”
That’s exactly what I’d had every time I’d thought about coming to Croatia and seeing Josko again. Some friendships are great in their happenstance. It makes me happy that the feeling is reciprocated.
We complete the tour of the shopping mall and it’s time for them to collect their kids from Josko’s parents. After a brief conference they decide to take me along and to get a pizza for dinner. We stop first at his parents’ apartment. His parents are very friendly. His dad speaks a little English, but doesn’t understand much when I respond. His mother and I exchange kind smiles and kind words in our own languages. His grandfather is there too. “He can’t hear anything anymore,” Josko had said. “You have to talk loud like hell for him to understand.” So he and I wave at each other, smile.
It’s companionable. Familial. Pleasant.
His bike is supposed to be repaired by the morning, but I know too well from my own car repair experience just how those estimates can be.
The next morning I go to the outdoor market and buy fruit for breakfast. I get a macchiato from a café and sit in the patio, eat my breakfast, drink my coffee and feel lucky and European. When I mosey back to the hostel, I have a message from Josko: “I will pick up car from my parents and I will come to your hotel to pick you up.”
I go wait by the fountain. I don’t have to wait long before a little red car pulls up near the curb and Josko calls out my name. I jump in and we drive off before anyone can complain about him parking in a non-parking zone.
“We go to Devil Church?” he asks.
“Yeah!” I say. I’d wanted to go from the moment he’d told me about it. He tells me Rijeka, Croatian, and Yugoslavian history as we go. I stare out the window as he talks and ogle the landscape. It’s so picture perfect it seems fake. I start to think in clichés: I can’t believe I’m here. This is too good to be true. It’s a wonderful life. To my writerly relief, I stop that pedestrian train of thought when we park alongside the road. We get out, head up some steps, and then we’re there at the Devil Church.
“Tell me the story of why it’s called the Devil Church again,” I say as we walk down the pathway, past a statue of the pope, and toward the church’s entrance. I remember the gist, but have forgotten the details.
Details are my favorite.
Josko doesn’t mind retelling. “Ah, yes,” he says. “When they built the church no one came because there were no steps up the mountain. But there was a pub nearby. So the church made a pact with the devil for him to build steps up to the pub. When the stairs were finished, the church demolished the pub and kept the church.”
Those churchers, I think, they’re tricky. The devil should have known better than to make a pact with them.
It’s a special church besides its devily history because it’s the church dedicated to seamen’s protection. Josko, chief engineer and seaman, takes me through the apse (he touches his fingers in the dish of holy water and makes the sign of the cross when we go inside), through the nave, out through the outside patio with plaques of thank yous dedicated to the blessed mother of healing, and into the special room with all the pictures and thank yous from seamen who’d survived wrecks, storms, dangers, perils and plight.
He’d told me about this room too.
When I sat in the chair in the living room of his cabin on the DALIAN I didn’t imagine that I’d find myself in the places of his stories. Sometimes real life exceeds even my own imagination.
Josko points out the dates on some of the pictures. They date from the fourteen hundreds up to the current time. They’re pictures of wrecks and storms that the seamen who survived made or had made in order to honor the God or Holy Mother they believed saved them. The walls are covered with them. So many disasters. So many survivors.
From the Devil Church we go across the road to the castle. We sit on a ledge overlooking the entire city. “From here,” Josko says, “you can see the river that gives Rijeka its name.”
Josko snaps my picture, “So you can prove to your family you were here,” he says. I blink the moment away and then we go to the touristy and rich town, Opatija, which was built up by the Austro-Hungarians as a getaway some time ago in the past.
“What,” I ask to clarify, “in a couple hours?”
“No, no,” he says. “Sooner than that.”
I’m waiting by the fountain when he arrives, this time by motorcycle. He gives me a riding jacket and the helmet.
“You’ve ridden before so you know how.” It’s a statement, not a question. I had a boyfriend who had a bike. He’d drilled into me that the passenger never moves with the bike’s motions—that’s a sure-fire way to dump the bike. Josko knows this. “I’m the driver not you,” he goes on though. I smile. I know. I remember.
I zip up the jacket and tighten the helmet strap under my chin. When he’s on the bike, I climb up behind him and settle my feet on the pegs. I put my hands lightly against his sides, the way my old boyfriend had had me ride.
“Not like that,” Josko says. “You’ll blow off. Find a spot up against me,” he instructs, “that’s comfortable and don’t move from it.”
Okay. Forget personal space. Forget old pal handshakes. It’s a moment of two bodies melding into one on this motorcycle. Now, and for the remainder of the ride, I’m an extension of his body. I feel his breath as my breath, the movement of his foot, his leg, to shift gears as if I were shifting. I don’t have any movement of my own anymore. I’m only his motion. For a nanosecond I’m sorry Josko is Josko and I’m me. If we were other people and not just and only ever friends, this would be a sexy as hell ride. But Josko is Josko. I am me. And in reality, I’m glad.
Boys complicate things.
Josko weaves us out of the city and onto the open road. The view, the ride, the speed, the wind strong enough to blow me away if I wasn’t pressed up tight--everything is perfect. Even the pain in my neck from the awkward position of my helmet against Josko’s shoulder ties me to the moment. Life is impermanent. Pain is temporary. Happiness is fleeting. The two together—pain and happiness—that’s the paradox of life. My only regret is I don’t get a single picture. I try to capture the trip up the mountain in my head. Castles, trees, rivers, old crumbling walls and small towns. I hope I can keep the images forever. But I’m afraid they’ll fade.
Eons later, we pull into a parking lot. I step off and take off my helmet. Josko does the same.
“You want pancakes?” he asks.
“Yeah, alright,” I say. I’m always down for food.
We cross the street to a restaurant with outside seating--my favorite. We order macchiatos and pancakes with fresh raspberry filling. Croatian pancakes are what I’d call crepes and they’re good. I enjoy every bite with the stories that Josko tells of his family as we eat.
“Tomorrow I have to take my grandfather back to his town,” he tells me over the last drops of our coffees. Their daughter’s baptism had been held the day before I arrived and his grandfather had come to town for that. Josko’s father had planned to return him home, but got called into work so the trip got passed to Josko.
What that means, and doesn’t dawn on me until he shakes my hand after he’s taken me down the mountain, past those incredible views, and back to my hostel, is that this is it until we meet again on some other shore, in some other time, at some other place.
“Thank you,” I tell him, returning the jacket and helmet. I think I say something as trite as, “That was an amazing ride.” But it’s true. It was.
“Thanks for inviting me to your country,” I say. I hate goodbyes.
Maybe we say, “Until next time.” I don’t know. I do say, “Tell your family I enjoyed meeting them and hope to see them again.” Our words are exchanged. There’s nothing left to be said. Take care. See you later. All the best. These phrases hover in the air. I step back and watch him ride away.
Then I turn and look around. Hello, Rijeka, I think, you’re beautiful. I love you. Let’s be friends forever.