Author NIALL GRIFFITHS continues his occasional series of adventures across the continent, remembering the guardian angel who kept him out of trouble on a trip to Croatia
We should all have our own personal Nened to appear at our shoulders in times of need, like the spectral ‘Third Man’ who would materialise at the peripherals of the Arctic explorers when in extremis. A bit like that, except my Nened is very much a solidity. Let me introduce him:
There’s a big feller with my name on a card on the runway. Large-boned and beaming, he is, wearing glasses and a heavy green coat. The vibes coming off him are instantly, tangibly good. He steadies me with a bear-paw when I slip on the ice and he steers me through the press-pack with whispered advice on which journalists are worth talking to. He explains why I need to give the uniformed man my passport and he sources slivovitz for me whilst we wait for its return. He drives me into the city and checks me into the hotel and is still there, in the foyer, after I’ve unpacked. I know a good bar, he says.
His crew are in the bar, his buddies, who quickly become my buddies too. Most have good English but, for those who don’t, Nened translates. His interest in, and patience with, my demotic are endearing and impressive. If he leaves my side, it is only to ferry drinks from the bar until the early hours when he asks if I’m hungry; what would you want, he says, if you were back home now? It’s cold outside and I’m beery so I’m thinking of stodge and salt and grease so I tell him that I’m hankering for a cheese-and-onion sarnie with a swipe of mayo and some vinegary chips but I doubt that downtown Zagreb will offer such treasures, but I should’ve known that, minutes later, Nened would appear with exactly those items.
The cheese is cheddar, even, and the onions are red, and the chips are not fries but the carby canoes of loveliness that my local chippy serves up. Nened is apologetic that the cheese is on a roll and not between sliced bread and I tell him it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, because it is. I ask him where he procured such delights and he tells me that he knows a man. Of course he does; the Nened always knows a man. As dawn glows pale behind the windows he tells me that I must be at the school in two hours and suggests that I should get some sleep.
And then we’re at the school. Nened’s driven me there through the snow-choked city in his snug car. He pilots me through the meet-and-greet and then onto the stage in the hall where the other two guest writers are already sitting and who have also been up drinking and are pallid and bloodshot of eye and clammy of brow. The pupils file in. Nened asks us (as I’ve realised by now is his wonderful wont) if we need anything and we agree that a hair of the dog might be in order just to straighten us out, like, but this is a school at 8am so no doubt we’ll have to settle for coffee and water until we, oh wait, look here’s Nened with a tray of Ozujsko beer and my favourite carob rakia. We’re in a secondary school at morning assembly, I say to Nened; where on earth did you find booze? I know a man, he says, all a-twinkle. Of course.
And Nened it is who is with me in the speakeasy and the church. It is Nened who explains to the police that I’m a foreigner and ignorant of Croatian ways. It is the splendid Nened who extricates me from an altercation with Dinamo fans after I’d rashly expressed a preference for Hajduk Split. It is Nened who chaperones me into the subterranean chamber that serves only Croatian wine and cheese and which is one of the best drinking dens in Europe. Nened it is who takes me to the bear’s den in the woods and watches proudly as I stand awestruck in the rooty reek of the sleeping beast. It is he who makes sure I’m on time in the studio and lecture theatre and newspaper office. He it is who gets me on the plane home with mere minutes to spare.
And it is Nened with whom, alas, I have lost touch. Emails to him bounce back; text and WhatsApp messages go undelivered. Such is often the way with selfless people; when the time comes to give back a little of the care and generosity they have given out, they are elusive. I hope he’s okay; I hope, indeed, that he, himself, has his own personal Nened. In this world and at this time, even Neneds need Neneds. Luck and love to you, my man. Hvala.