We kept on being amazed at the mildness of half-September while we were waiting to board the ferry, which would have taken us in one night from Helsinki to Stockholm.
The sky was clear and transparent as only northern sky can be, when it’s serene.
In the restaurant of the ferry there were only round tables for six people each.
My mother and I shared a table with other four unknown passengers, joined together by the casualty of the chance.
I remember there were two totally silent Swedish middle-aged ladies who filled their plate with something from the huge and gorgeous buffet and greeted the table companions with a sober nod and left a few minutes later.
There was an Italian photographer, who, on the opposite seemed to be eager to speak and involved my mother, who can speak Italian, in a very wordy conversation, which rather sounded like a monologue.
Then there was, sitting by me a Japanese young man, very slim and smiling, who spoke perfectly fluent English.
After the two silent ladies' departures, we all started commenting the excellent quality of the food and its unusual- for us - features, tasting with delightful little exclamations marinated elk, reindeer stew and some worrying and mysterious sauces.
All was included in the buffet, and the passengers were allowed to fill their plates and their glasses a number of time limited only by their stomach capacity.
When my mother decided to go to our cabin
( “I want to get up early tomorrow morning to see Stockholm from the see when we approach it”)
the Italian moved to one of the bars, where very serious and phlegmatic big Swedish men got methodically and calmly drunk, glass after glass.
I remained with the young Japanese, and soon we got totally absorbed in a very entertaining and interesting conversation, which was sporadically interrupted only when he went to take another glass of free beer on draught for both of us, until a kind but firm and determined waitress, who towered about 20 centimetres over the head of the Japanese, told him that the beer was freely available only during the meals and the restaurant would have already been closed for 20 minutes, so we had to leave it and to move somewhere else.
We decided a noisy bar was not a good alternative and we found two comfortable seats in a corner of a covered deck.
It was one of the most enjoyable and various conversations I have ever had with a perfect stranger and I had a chance to learn more on Japan during that night than during all the rest of my life.
I knew only the first name of my interlocutor, Kei.
Without feeling any tiredness suddenly we realized that morning was breaking and we decided to go out to the upper deck to see the sunrise and the arrival through the fiords.
I won’t bore my two (being optimist I suppose they will be two) readers with a mannered description of the beauty of that Nordic marine landscape, the small islands covered with trees, the gulls…It’s not the topic of this little tale.
The sun climbed higher in the sky when we approached Stockholm.
My mother found me on the upper deck – after looking for me, absent from the cabin – all over the ferry - and she invited me with a mixture or reliefs and reproach to go quickly down to the cabin to collect my stuff and to be ready to land in Stockholm.
Also Kei said he had to go to look for his baggage and he bowed lightly a cuple of times to my mother and went downstairs.
Only when we were already in Stockholm on the taxi taking us to our hotel I realized I had not asked Kei for his address and I had not told him “Good bye”, but my temporary a little sorry mood was immediately cancelled by the excitement of a new place to discover.
The weather in that September was still so mild.
The following day, my mother and I decided to go to visit the impressive museum dedicated to the warship Vasa , sank on her maiden voyage in Stockholm in 1628 and salvages 333 years later. A splendidly preserved 17th century ship, the only one in the world, they said…
While we were reaching the entry of the museum, my mother , who is always a better observer than me, since I’m too often lost in my own thoughts, not necessarily deep, touched my arm to make me stop and told me :
“Look, look at that Japanese man, he looks like the one who was on the ferry. Look he’s staring at us; it must be definitely the same person”
I was not sure, he was dressed in a different way and I had not heard his voice yet and then, you know most of Japanese look all the same (I was going to receive a very good lesson of humility on this point).
The Japanese approached and he spoke and it was really Kei and he asked politely with a little bow:
“I’m sorry, but are you the person I had that so enjoyable conversation with, on the ferry, two nights ago?”
“Of course it’s me! It’s so pleasant to find you again by chance. I’m so glad you could recognize me, I was not sure…”
“ Oh – Kei replied – and I’m so happy you are wearing the same red shoes you had on the ferry, they are a bit peculiar and I could recognize you from them and from the fact you were in company of an old lady ( my mother started liking him a little less for that, since she was not exactly enthusiastic to be labelled as old lady, without knowing that in Japanese culture it’s nearly a compliment, since old people deserve all respects) if you had changed your shoes I would have never been able to guess you were the same person , since you look all the same to me.”
The rest of the story is simple.
We visited the museum with Kei and this time I didn’t forget to exchange our addresses and full names.
It was the last time I met him.
When I came back home I didn’t expect to remain in touch with him, but he wrote to me from Japan (a real letter, there was not the time of Internet yet, at least not for me).
It was 1999.
We started writing each other, not very often, but regularly, he kept me informed about the main events of his life, he told me about his girlfriend, they got married and had their first child.
We had switched to email and then I changed computer, provider.
I didn’t export my data properly. I don’t know.
Things happen. Things change.
I don’t know if he had other children after this first one.
Life is like a combination of many streams which can drag people to different directions, without any apparent reasons.
We have not given each other news for maybe 4 or 5 years and I had forgotten him.
Our mind is such a complicate little universe with rules and laws we cannot fully identify.
We think to have forgotten something, then, as if a neglected drawer became open again by chance, all come out intact, all the exact details.
I have been deeply touched by the disasters which have struck Japan, maybe because it’s impossible to hide oneself behind the superficial and selfish relieved thought that “luckily we live far from that”.
Wars, which provoke so much tragedy, pain and unhappiness too, are maybe inevitable in some cases-as some say – but they have always a human origin and as human beings we all have to take the responsibilities for that.
But natural catastrophes and all their consequences are totally independent from us, nevertheless they upset our life and obliged us to think over about all the ephemeralness of what we are used to consider steady and sure.
I’ll spare you my personal more or less philosophical deductions.
This is not the topic of this story.
The forgotten drawer in my mind which contained the memory of that trip by ferry and that day in Stockholm suddenly displayed its contents and all was there, also the name I was persuaded to not remember anymore.
I went to look for an old album and I found out the three photos taken by my mother.
Kei and I on the top deck of the ferry, playing merrily in the morning pretending to be in the famous scene of the film “Titanic” and then the last photo, taken near the Vasa museum, when we met Kei by chance once again.
Kei Watanabe, with a wife and at least one child, somewhere in Japan.
Key Watababe who tried patiently to explain me at least the rudiments of modern Japanese writing systems and I told him joking:
” Your children must be the most intelligent children of the world to learn all that”
And he answered
And then he explained me that Japanese, if it’s possible, never answer shortly only either “yes” or “no” it might sound a bit rude…
Key Watanabe, who today should be nearly 40, with a wife and at least one child, somewhere in Japan.
I have thought of him during the last days.
I hope they are all well.
I’m sorry I lost his address.
But the only important thing now is that they are well.
It doesn’t matter if I cannot know that.
I need to believe that Kei Watanabe and his family are well.