I had one of the more interesting evenings of the year in Zagreb this week with a man who I met the first time the previous evening, and a man who - truth be told - I had absolutely nothing in common with, apart from a friendship with his wife.
Not for the first time this year I found myself in the company of people talking about something about which I had little interest and knew less about, but as I listened, my interest levels increased, and I realised what it was that had me intrigued.
The previous week I had interviewed Split's first barista coffee expert, and the greatest impression he had left on me was not so much the coffee he was talking about, but the passion with which he talked about a subject that he was almost obsessive about.
And so it was in Zagreb. No coffee here, but LEGO.
I first became aware of Mario's extraordinary creations some months ago after his wife posted the lead picture above on Facebook, advertising a LEGO oil platform for sale. It looked stunning in the photograph, and she told me I would meet Mario when I came to Zagreb.
As luck would have it, he was with a fellow LEGO enthusiast, and while the plan was to have a little communal chat before leaving them to their LEGO, the more I listened, the more I got intrigued. Perhaps it is the start of my mid-life crisis, but I find myself seeking out and enthusing about other people's passions these days. I like a beer and I love to write, but a passion? I have yet to find one, and yet here were two fully grown men discussing LEGO with such enthusiasm that I found myself profoundly envious.
"You seem really interested. Would you like to see my two creations tomorrow night?"
"That would be great," I found myself answering, not even thinking if I had any prior commitments.
And that is when the real fascination started...
Mario, such a different man to me - quietly spoken, considered, precise, analytical, very gentle - took me with his LEGO friend to an empty apartment on the edge of the city. He bought beers, took me in and then opened the living room door. And there they were - two exceptional pieces of creativity.
The first, the oil platform I had seen on Facebook all those months ago, was all the more magnificent in the flesh, and I was invited to sit next to it. I had no words, it was simply sensational. I sensed Mario's concern at my silence, but it was due to total admiration of a thing of exceptional creativity.
"How long did it take you?" was my obvious question.
"A year and a half."
It turned out that there were no less than 69 THOUSAND pieces in the construction, but that was just part of the story. I had assumed that Mario had built the platform based on some plans, but the platform was unique. It incroporated features of existing platforms, but was a copy of none. He sat across the room from me, looking at both me and his creation, explaining that although the project had taken 18 months to build, most of that time was spent thinking, planning, calculating - that brilliant analytical and precise mind that I for one did not possess.
Take the sea below the platform, for example. Four layers of carefully created sea to create choppy waters, each LEGO piece a small individual unit. Extraordinary patience.
We were joined by a third LEGO enthusiast, and it was a genuine pleasure to sit back and watch them converse and argue the technical merits of Mario's creations, and their admiration was obvious and genuine. Three men in an empty apartment in southern Zagreb were bonding over a passion. That slight jealousy again. But not for long.
LEGO forum users have rightly paid tribute to Mario's creative genius:
Amazing creation, very eye catching.
Wow! We´re not worthy... ;-)
Who needs a TV with that sitting in the room? I could look at this for hours! Incredible!
Wowee, is this impressive. Yet another creation that blows my mind--there's so much to look at here it would take forever to soak it all in. Once again, you've outdone yourself on the size, too. Keep building, man; you're extremely talented.
Me and my wife looked deeply in every piece of this masterpiece and we are amazed. You Sir, have our bows.
Of course, that was not the only creation in the room...
Next to it was a concert stage, with such extraordinary detail that once more I fell silent, once more to Mario's mild concern.
"It is simply amazaing." Inadequate words, but how to put into words something so spectacular.
Mario has told the story of the creation of the concert stage in pictures here - truly stupendous - check it out.
"Which one is your favourite?" I seemed to be specialising in the obvious questions that evening.
"You have two daughters. Which one is your favourite?"
Great answer and no further questions from me...
Mario is itching to do a new project, he does not know what yet, but it will not be long before he comes up with something special. The two that he has built deserve a much wider audience than the occasional fat blogger visiting an empty flat in southern Zagreb, and so both creations are now for sale, so that Mario can focus on his next project.
And thank you Mario, for letting me experience a little of your passion and your world. It was a genuine pleasure.