Exile from Zubrowka


Dear M,

It has been a little over two years now since you were shot at the Zubrowka border, and I feel that it is time to write you this letter.  Although there is a great deal I want to tell you, more than can be expressed perhaps in words, I think that the essence of what I want to say to you is this: thank you.

I would not like to think that you did not know how much your friendship and guidance was appreciated over the years that we knew each other.  Although I am sure that sometimes my boredom showed through as you entered the second hour of your lectures on the history and workings of the Grand Budapest funicular (completed 1930), or the changing aesthetic of the klubeck,  I would like you to rest assured that these were minor irritations when compared to the great boon your affection and friendship were to me.

Although we knew each other for a short time – which seems to grow shorter as I grow older – the magnitude of your influence on me has not diminished.  Although it sounds a little egotistical to say it, one of your great gifts to me was your confidence in me.  Whatever doubts you harboured internally about my abilities you never expressed them.  What you expressed to me, either in words or in a glance or in a few lines in a card, was your certitude that I had talents and abilities that it was only a matter of time before the world discovered.  It was a faith in me that I miss in a largely faithless and cynical world.

I also miss our adventures.

An adventure with you was often like a wonderful dream that could unexpectedly dip its toe into a feeling of unease.  You always had such ease that you appeared perfectly at home striding past the doormen of exclusive clubs in London, or ordering a Bellini from the waiter at Harry’s Bar, or sampling wines in restaurants almost anywhere.  It was part joy and part terror to follow in your wake.  As you strode past the doorman I felt painfully how under-dressed and out-of-place I was both walking past the doorman, and sitting in the bar for an hour afterwards while you pressed the flesh and ordered cocktails.  While you conducted your elaborate rituals of aerating the wine on your palette by seeming to gargle for an eternity in front of startled, bemused or admiring (in Japan) wine waiters we – your guests – felt so painfully stricken with embarrassment that we had to look anywhere but at you; perhaps at our shoelace that needed to be tied (it didn’t), or at page five of the menu (which was blank).

For us your failures were as celebrated in stories as your unquestioned successes.  In an effort to impress you once took D and I to a posh restaurant and insisted we rent tuxedos and wear bow ties.  Neither of us did so because neither of us had money, and our delight was probably too obvious to you as we smirked at you in the hotel bathroom mirror as you tried and failed to tie your own bow tie.  You may have caught our eye or just the air of poorly concealed mirth because you gave up and left the bow tie dangling down your shirt front: “if this is good enough for Jack Nicholson it’s good enough for me” you snapped before stalking out of the bathroom, across the lobby and into the restaurant to confirm your booking.  The less we say about golf at the Chateau the better.

And then there were your successes: arriving by water taxi to Venice; standing in the cool of a wine cellar on the ile de cite picking a bottle for lunch, or coming home late at night and finding a five course meal with wine to match all ahead of us.

And then there were your rescues.  Your loyalty.  Dumped at a bus stop at the end of a bad day we called you in the failing light feeling sorry for ourselves and you came, of course, straight away, though you had work the next day, and took us out for oysters (of all things) and champagne (naturally), and set the world to rights again.  Thank you.

You could tolerate my asceticism and celebrate my aestheticism.  I could talk to you about the beauty of an exquisite chocolate box with hand-painted interior and lovely ribbon that slips sensuously across the palm of your hand, or the beautiful lining of a Paul Smith jacket only hinted at by the conservative outer and – perhaps – a flash of handkerchief in the pocket.  But we also sometimes felt the urge to clean ourselves, and start again, and so it made sense to walk with you through the trees of the ancient cemetery of Koyasan, after rising early to see the monks perform the fire ceremony, as it made sense for us to plan – in letters, and tapes – our holiday to Spain where we would walk the pilgrim trails together.

But we will never walk the pilgrim trails in Spain together.  When I last saw you M. you were attempting to perform another rescue.  And it was me you were trying to rescue as I sat glumly across from you in the rail car refusing to share a drink, sulking over your attentions to others, so that when the soldiers stopped the train, and came to our carriage, and reached to take me, I hardly noticed as you stood and made them take you instead.  They took you instead of me when it should have been neither of us who had to go.

I have never been back to Zubrowka.  I’m not sure that I will, or that it will be possible.  Some places you leave you can never return to even if they are still there, and you buy the ticket.  Other people will order a Bellini in Harry’s bar, other people will study the funicular, other people will opine with vulgarity and cultivation on the royal family at 2am in a bar somewhere, and when they do I will think of you and Zubrowka my dearest M.

Thank you,



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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō