Under the partial shade of a tree there sat an old plastic garden chair.
Many years ago, the yellowish chair had probably been white and, more likely than not, each of its legs had connected to the ground in a reassuringly simultaneous and sturdy manner. On this day, those properties were lost to time.
The chair’s occupant seemed unperturbed.
He did not smile, yet he exuded a calm air of relaxed contentment. Dark and heavily etched by the sun of anywhere between 60 and 80 summers, the skin of his face clung tightly to high cheekbones from where it cascaded in leathery, wrinkled curtains to a mouth of randomly remaining teeth. The shadows cast by deeply-set sockets were illuminated by impossibly blue eyes.
When he stood, his physique, although the years had taken their inevitable toll, betrayed the history of a strong, formidable man. Standing close to six feet tall, his now slightly hunched posture could not disguise the broad shoulders and sinewy, powerful arms that must once have stretched his clothes. This was not a man you would have wanted to see on an opposing side.
I found myself inventing a history for him.
Perhaps he was a hero of the struggle that forged his country’s independence, while what remained of its wider republic plunged into civil war. Perhaps, decades before, he was a young witness as his homeland was consumed by a mighty aggressor that threatened to overrun a continent. Perhaps he and his family were complicit in the horrific acts of both conflicts. Perhaps he was a pacifist.
But, as I couldn’t identify a Slovenian accent if it slapped me in the face, there is the distinct possibility that he wasn’t even from this place at all.
Whatever his story, today he was sitting in a Ljubljana car park.
As I approached him for the first time, the actual need for his presence was a little difficult to comprehend. All I knew is that his chair was placed next to an automated ticket machine, leading to which an early morning queue was beginning to form.
As I took my place at its end, I sensed a growing agitation among those in line in front of me.
After a minute or two, the queue started to move, but only because it had now compressed into a crowd gathering around the ticket machine. Voices were being raised. Fingers were being pointed.
My immediate reaction was to contemptuously ridicule the ignorance of tourists unable to navigate a simple parking ticket machine and to politely, but with the pointed efficiency of a seasoned global traveler, show everyone how these things work.
As I moved closer, however, the nature of the problem became apparent.
The ticket machine was only designed to accept cash, or credit card payment via either Diners Club or Mastercard. There were a few problems with this.
To start with, the cash option wasn’t working.
Well, as is a frequent tendency with automated ticket machines, it didn’t actually state that it wasn’t working. Instead, each input of a banknote was unceremoniously returned, with an accompanying derisory sound intended to highlight the ineptitude of its inputter. No matter how much one tried to flatten the note or unfold the tiniest of folded corners, the derision repeated.
For the credit card options, and with all due respect, Diners Club is not exactly the credit card of choice across the European continent. And I doubt its issuer would dispute that Mastercard is a significantly more ubiquitous solution.
Irrespective of the options, I had a dilemma.
I only had a Visa card and, to further complicate my personal situation, I had given all of my banknotes to my wife and daughter in order that they could purchase a supply of sustaining, road-trip worthy snacks from the Mercator supermarket on the edge of the central Ljubljana pedestrian area – half a mile away down the hill up which I had just hauled our luggage.
What happened next answered my earlier question about why he was there in the first place.
Rising from his seat with the exasperated, eye-rolling expression of someone despairing of the human condition, he pointed to the Mastercard symbol and ushered forward those able to use that option. The first customer completed the transaction with an ease that defied the crowd’s recent, collective problems and, as he turned, dropped a few unbidden coins into the attendant’s hand. A dozen others followed that trend.
Those paying with cash entered their parking tickets into the machine and, based on the amount displayed, gave their money directly to the attendant – often with instructions to keep the change.
This new-found liberation of others, however, did not change my own reality. I had neither cash nor card with which to buy my car’s release. My access to cash, whether from family or ATM, was at least a mile’s roundtrip away.
I did have some loose change in my pocket – including an unexpectedly significant quantity of two-euro coins that brought me close to the requisite fee – which I offered to the attendant. With the faintest of acknowledgements, he gratefully added my contribution to his now bulging pockets.
Yet, with problem one resolved, problem two arrived.
I, along with everyone else who had paid with cash, didn’t have a validated ticket able to operate the exit gate.
Enter, once more, our fearless car park attendant.
Carefully choosing his moment, immediately after a Mastercard-paying, exit-ticket-wielding patron departed, he placed himself in front of the beam of light that, once unbroken, would cause the gate to descend behind the departing car. He had clearly done this before.
Waving extravagantly to the queue of cars now waiting to leave, he stood his ground as the exit gate remained raised and watched with evident pride as a stream of grateful customers rushed to their freedom.
I was among the last to leave, catching his gaze as I passed. We exchanged knowing smiles that suggested a connection deeper than our brief acquaintance. A few seconds later, my rear-view mirror showed him walking back to his chair in the shade.
It has been over two years since that day but, once in a while, I think about that man.
I will never know the story of his life or what sequence of events caused him to be sitting in the shade of that tree on that day. Whatever he was before, on that day he was an opportunist; an entrepreneur.
I wonder where he is now. Perhaps a summer’s worth of similar days had allowed him to retire to a villa overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Perhaps he is still sitting under that tree.
If he is still there, I hope he has at least invested in a new chair.
5th February 2022