Sixty-two years is a long time to wait to reunite with a one-time soul mate, now living worlds apart. Yet thanks to Gate 1 Travel Tour Manager Bine Augustin, Gate 1 tour guest Benjamin Wells did just that.
It was at the start of his 12 day tour of Croatia and Slovenia, April 13, 2016, that Benjamin related his story to Bine. It was 1954. Benjamin was a student traveling through Europe, earning travel money by taking odd jobs and washing dishes in hotels and restaurants. It was during that sojourn in 1954 where he met Yugoslavian Franc Zupan, a student himself working as a hiking guide at the same resort. The two struck up a friendship and traveled together through the Slovenian Alps and Franc’s hometown of Ljubljana.
Benjamin tells the story best, as relayed to his family and friends upon his return just a few weeks ago:
I had a reunion in Ljubljana, Slovenia with an old friend with whom I lost touch 62 years ago. In 1954 when I was hitch-hiking around Europe I met in a Paris hostel a great guy — one Franc Zupan from Ljubljana in what was then called Yugoslavia. Franc, three years my senior, was a newly-minted graduate of an art history curriculum and an experienced mountain climber. He had just guided (for a fee) two French school teachers to the summit of Mt. Blanc (at 15,777 ft. the highest mountain in the Alps). I had only two years of college and knew bloody nothing – certainly nothing about art and its history. So, as we wandered through the museums of Paris he taught me a lot, on which I have built a life-long interest in art history.
Franc also invited me to visit him in Yugoslavia, which I did even though it was a communist block nation. While most of those nations were closed to western tourists in those days Yugoslavia was different because Tito had recently pushed back against the Soviets and initiated limited, independent relations with the West. Franc had an independent and rebellious soul. In 1947-48 when Tito had mobilized all teenagers to collectively build the autoway between Zagreb and Belgrade Franc refused to be regimented and the authorities denied him the rest of his high school education. He used the idle time to master mountain climbing in the Julian Alps which fill the northwestern corner of the country.
You’re probably wondering how this reunion happened? Over breakfast one day I told our tour guide about my long-ago visit to Ljubljana and my old friend. He immediately whipped out one of those remarkable Apple gadgets and found several Franc Zupans in a digital phone book. Over the next two days after our daily touring he called each of them and found my old friend and arranged a meeting. It was bloody marvelous! Others in my tour group were charmed by it all as I jokingly told them how after we each (Franc, at 87 and me, at 84) decided in which ear to hear each other we got on famously.
Tour Manager Bine, after hearing the story, made it his mission to locate Franc before the end of Benjamin’s 12 day tour, which was scheduled to end in Franc’s former home, Slovenia. As noted by Benjamin, Bine made lists of all phone listings for the name Zupan, unfortunately a common Slovenian name, and each evening at the end of the day’s touring, called a handful of them. He had no success until the last day before leaving for Bled and Ljubljana, he found Franc, who was skeptical and asked to speak with Ben (as Franc referred to his friend). Not wanting to ruin the surprise meeting, Bine related to Franc as much of the story as he knew, until Franc was convinced that the man was indeed Ben, his one-time friend from their student days.
Bine and Franc proceeded to make plans for the surprise encounter at Ljubljana’s main marketplace. Bine briefed the rest of the tour group what to expect. And precisely at the appointed time, Franc rode up on his bicycle (yes, at 80+ years old!) Needless to say, Benjamin was ecstatic, shocked and speechless. The two men and all group members were wiping away tears, and as Bine related, “it was one of the most emotional moments I have ever experienced during my guiding career”. It is said that travel is something you pay for that makes you richer. We are all richer for having been part of this touching story.