My flights had been duly pre-booked. The hotel, centrally located, affordable, with free Wi-Fi AND excellent reviews was cherry-picked after a day's worth of market screening. Hiking and sailing tours in Hong Kong's stunning harbour, outlying islands and national parks had been arranged. Equipped with my Timeout guide, I could hardly wait to set off. One amazing long-haul getaway was finally approaching.
And then it all came to naught. After years of drowsy silence, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano must have felt a little forgotten – and burst out angrily, spitting steam and ashes high into the atmosphere. The ashes penetrated the UK airspace within hours; the Air Traffic Control Service chickened out and imposed a blanket no-fly zone all over the country. All airports were gradually shut – including Heathrow. All flights were gradually cancelled – including my Virgin Atlantic epic journey to Hong Kong. Bye-bye, Hong Kong, I mourned, bracing for a dull working week in London instead.
Little did I know. Minutes after the flight cancellation was announced, a bright idea shone on my horizon. Oliver Dragojević – Croatia's equivalent of Frank Sinatra – was coming to London the week I was meant to be away, to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. Many of my ex-Yugoslavian colleagues were going, but I had opted out knowing I would be in Hong Kong. With the volcano saga, I obviously wouldn’t anymore – and the circumstances were lining up in my favour, too. Dozens of Oliver’s fans from Croatia were forced to stay behind due to the prevailing ash cloud, and the previously "sold out" event began showing comfortable ticket availability. I booked a seat with a joyous heart. Dragojević was near!
Wait a minute, I hear you say. By that time, two-thirds of the European airspace had been shut, UK remaining the main recipient of volcanic stuff flying all over the place. Not even the late Frank Sinatra – let alone his Croatian version – would have been able to make it through the dust. Wasn't the concert going to be scrapped, like most of the European flights?
You may be clever, but so was the maestro Dragojević. Seeing little hope for flights to resume, he packed his entire band on a coach and set off for the UK last Friday – reserving plenty of time to make it to the performance. Problem solved! On Monday, 19 April, Dragojević's dream to follow in the footsteps of his idols and perform at London's Royal Albert Hall came true.
And so did my own dream to see the Croatian maestro sing live. I need not have known all his songs – the performance was outstanding all the same. Having started with newer pieces, Dragojević continued, after a break, with his better known classics. "Što učinila si ti", "Bez tebe", "U ljubav vjere nemam", “Nedostaješ mi ti” – all followed in succession, instantly recognised by the doting audience. Initially banned from using flash photography or recording mini videos, the public eventually relaxed – and the staff seemed to have turned a blind eye on the restrictions alike. Royal Albert Hall got up and danced away. I will never forget the priceless sight of my colleagues all belting out, the best they could, into unison "Starim ja, a u ljubav vjere neeeeeeemam" and, eventually, nearly breaking into tears at the first sounds of the one and only, long-awaited, unrepeatable "Cesarica". The experience of a lifetime!
The only person I felt sorry for was the Serbian ambassador we accidentally spotted in the audience. Visibly constrained behaviourally (ambassadors cannot just get up and chant away in public like that), he sat there motionless, amid the dancing audience – his wife occasionally moving her hand left-right to the melody. Or perhaps neither of them really liked Oliver’s music all that much.
After managing to regain Dragojević for a brief comeback at the end of the concert, we finally lost him for the night. For one good night, too! Unreserved thanks to the maestro for making his way to London by coach. And – from my side only – unreserved thanks to the most generous volcano in Europe for changing my plans beyond recognition and helping me to see one of my favourite living composers perform live. I hope that, by next week, the flight connections in Europe will be back to normal – so that I could use my existing ticket to Iceland and pay homage to Eyjafjallajökull in person. Takk fyrir!