The Key

Shannon Wardell
In March, we had already begun to muse about summer. Just the three of us this time, my son and daughter were already inclined towards something casual. I had actually been craving something a little edgy, like a graffiti spray tour through various European cities. But that would be too – what’s the word – illegal.
They looked at each other over the Sunday breakfast leftovers and soon burst out laughing. “How about we just drive down to the Croatian coast and chill for a while, ok Pops?”
So in time for the dog days of Lough, we packed the station wagon with camping gear and headed for a spot that we had in mind. 5 hours later, we found the small back road about 300 m from the coast that we remembered from last year. Soon we did find an idyllic spot: 15 m from the water beneath a cover of olive trees with a natural sleeping space which former visitors had upgraded with a low stone wall and thick log benches. We hauled down the necessities before flopping on the stones to read and heat up for a nice cool swim. Lying in the sun with my kids and the waves lapping near, I realized that this was gorgeous and, yes, I could enjoy this as much as any “adventurous” trip that I had dreamed about earlier.
An hour later, after stashing my glasses in my shoe and the car key on the inner hook of my backpack, I splashed into the sea to join my kids who were already enjoying the water and waves. Cooled down and ready for another dry-out in the sun, I retrieved my glasses and checked on the car key. Surprisingly, the car key was not on the inner hook of my backpack. Dumbfounded, I started to inspect the entire backpack, then the surrounding area. You, dear reader, can imagine now where my search was headed.
A half-hour later, my daughter came up, curious to know what I was doing. Laughing and not yet believing our fate, I told her. We dissected the vicinity thoroughly. Nothing. By this time, it was shortly after 6.00 pm. Time to assess our situation. We were somewhere north of Fazana in a region clearly regulated as illegal for overnight camping. Fortunately, we had food, nearly 3l of drinking water, sleeping bags, the gas burner with a pot, my cell phone, which was fairly full of charge and indicated reception, and my billfold. Unfortunately, our maps, passports, extra water, extra food, extra everything were still in the locked car. It was time to get some external advice.
“Options?” said the nice lady in Vienna. “We can tow your car to a nearby mechanic, request a spare key to be delivered in 5-6 days if everything goes well.” My dream of the yellow angel appearing out of nowhere to save us popped audibly. “But, do you have a spare key?”
Of course, Mike has my extra key! We have an informal car sharing agreement: I pay his speeding tickets and he buys the vignette and gas. It works out somehow. After several unanswered calls to build suspense, I finally reached him. Hearing me out, he then remembered that a colleague of his was actually driving with family to Croatia the next day and possibly … He would call me back.
We enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It was truly glorious there, the lapping of waves on the rocks as the sun dipped lower towards the gleaming Mediterranean. It would have been ideal – had it not been for that tedious missing car key. My cell rang: yes, Mike’s friend Ingo would be driving my way tomorrow. If I could be in Opatija at 2.00 pm, I could pick up the spare key from him – prima, right?
I thanked Mike gratefully, and wondered how I could ever reach Opatija at all. We were far away from everywhere; Opatija was two hours away by car, and I had no idea at all how long it would take to walk to Fazana. But I was not in a position to complain. His work schedule didn’t allow him to drive down. So the road trip would be mine.
The night added to the suspense. At one point, a ship with coast guard numbers patrolled the coast with a strong spotlight. Later, to the north in the woods a group with a bright flashlight seemed to be searching for something. Yet, they did not come farther south our way.
At dawn, I cooked up a hearty oatmeal porridge for breakfast, and we discussed our options. Perhaps Ingo could, from Opatija, send us the car key to the post office in Fazana. I wanted to check that out. Otherwise, hitchhike?
All I knew was that I had to march down the coast to Fazana and my kids would have to take care of themselves meanwhile. 20 and 17 years old, that should be no problem, right? They had water, food, money and, 20 minutes to the south, a restaurant in case of emergencies. Their cell phones had no reception, so we would simply have to trust that I would return at some point.
After an hour’s march to Fazana, I found out at a tourist office that: it was a national holiday, all post offices were closed, bus services were reduced. But – if I rushed, I would still be able to catch the local bus to Pula, and from there possibly find another bus to Opatija. To build up the suspense even more, the bus stops were all spread out like a treasure hunt.
It wasn’t until up in the mountains halfway to Opatija that I could loosen up. The nightmare of losing the key metamorphosed into the unscripted adventure that I was now in the very process of discovering. I felt the weight of uncertainty lift from my spirit, even though my remaining journey was still as unknown as before. Looking out of the window at the passing mountains, seeing the name “Tito” spelled out in white stones like graffiti across one peak while hearing the various languages of the fellow passengers, I realized that the adventure that I had wanted was all around me, if I could just open myself to it, to break out of the obsession with my own ego and its relatively trivial trials and tribulations. My spirit became imbued with a special kind of lightness or ease that was finally able to laugh at my predicament and look around at the surrounding world and people with all their own challenges with interest. And that was when the fun started to begin.
After the hour-long march from Fazana back to our camp, I arrived at dusk shortly after sunset with food and water from Pula. My kids were fine, fed and relaxed, though they had made plans about what they would have done had I not shown up soon. We enjoyed the last light of day with the waves lapping nearby, and I told of a few of the encounters that I had had during and after the bus ride to Opatija: the wacky, extraordinary people I had encountered, including Santa Claus in the park; the flock of sitting pigeons sporting their poop above a park bench; the group of gaffers and actresses taking a break by the sea; and the recognition that I had truly lost a small, yet utterly important key, one that in its recovery had taught me yet another lesson in how to live, with lightness.
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