Translating places

I had not seen Alan for many years. I could remember the last time we met, in ominous circumstances, immediately before the Balkan wars. Eva and I had booked a holiday in the then Yugoslav Republic of Croatia, and though we thought about cancelling, we couldn’t, without losing our investment. So we went, and found a semi-empty hotel, with most of the others already closed down. “Yes, there will be war,” said everyone we spoke to.

Anxiety was palpable, fear had not yet arrived, but some locals whose hotel jobs had disappeared had already left for Italy. But people were not depressed – unlike the weather that early summer. And the stories came out about how the peoples were so very different, how one was so much worse than another, how they couldn’t be expected to stick together, given their history. And so it was to be.

Alan came down from Ljubljana. We met in a small seaside town, enjoyed a meal and a drink together, and chatted about old times. Old times pre-1989. Old times when he’d come to Maastricht. Old times when he’d voiced prophetic words about the then Eastern Europe. Words that in no time at all turned out to be correct. A translator sees between the lines, further than the words.

Alan had been a translator in Ljubljana for a number of years, and during the war played a key role in interpreting for the Slovenes and the JNA (the then Yugoslav National Army) with the international media. A challenging role. Now I was surprised he had aged. But what was I thinking? Hadn’t I? Sometimes you expect to see the person just like the image you have retained of them from almost 20 years before.

Stick in hand, Alan guided me through the centre of Ljubljana, pointing out how it had been smartened up, pedestrianized, since he had lived there. The banks of the Ljubljanica, the river through the city, had become the much sought-after places to be, to eat and to drink with friends, the elegant covered market a delight on a Saturday morning, crowded with locals, buying and selling. Such a market right in the centre of a capital city. Wonderful. The heart of the city, the Tri Mosty, the three bridges, all pedestrian, right next to each other. But more than the city, we chatted about life and the past, and about writing.

Alan in front of Ljubljana market

I knew Alan had been interested in literature. After all, he written books about teaching it, and how to bring it alive. I hadn’t known he had won prizes for his short stories and poems years ago. The spark of genius was there, but then as he said, work got in the way. Work became the way to earn his living, to survive. And so he wrote about teaching and about translating. And he translated and translated. He would make other people’s work known. But I sensed a regret that he had not pursued his writing dream. He looked out of the window, staring at the ever so peaceful tree-lined street below, at the Ljubljanica. We were silent for a while, a silence that does not need breaking between friends.

He went over to a bookcase and withdrew some sheets of paper. He gave them to me. He had not stopped writing.

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