And so it begins…It all started with a picture, and next thing you know we were planning our new life in Montenegro. When we told people, most of them didn’t even know where one of the world’s newest countries is. After we told them where Montenegro is, exactly, we got varying degrees of anxious-sounding “awesome” (often followed by a question mark) and an awful lot of “why” (always followed by a question mark).
Of course, then you show people a picture and everything sort of changes in their heads. Think of yourself making twists on a Rubik’s Cube. Except instead of a cube, there’s a head between your hands. And the questions come piling in.
Most Americans primarily associate the Balkans with Eastern European stereotypes and “those wars back in the 90s or whatever.” (Classy, right?) When they see a picture, they change into some sort of maniacal freak in tandem pursuit with jealous rage. “I had no idea it was so beautiful.” I was thinking about that last night as we downed too many peach schnapps and various other delicious treats with our landlord and our neighbors, and one of them was talking about how much she loves Italy. This, as we’re sitting under palm trees, just 100 meters from the beach.
Mostly, I was thinking about how every place is beautiful in its own way. I do not like to compare countries too much, because there are always things to love and dis-love (to avoid using “hate”) about a particular place.
Anyway, we flew into Dubrovnik from Stuttgart, as the former is the closest airport to where we now reside. Our flight was an hour late, we were tired and hungry, but I couldn’t have been more excited to come face to face with my first Montenegrin. No, not like that. What I mean is that I could finally talk to a local in person, pepper him with questions, learn as much as possible, and more or less prepare for our new life in a country that’s only six years old. It was 11pm, but I could still see the silhouettes of the mountains, and the lights of all the villages as we drove from the airport, through the two border crossings (which still retain a no-man’s-land and featured a line of mostly Albanian cars about 200 deep, waiting to get into Croatia), and into our new nation.
Our driver didn’t have the best English, but we managed to have a great talk about our new city of Herceg Novi, and what we might expect once we arrived. And then we arrived…
Our landlord was waiting for us. A jolly guy in his late 50s, he owns the whole building, comprised of his family’s house on two floors and five apartments above. Everything is a hill or a mountain around here, and the 45-degree slant of their garden contains Japanese apple trees, pomegranates, olive trees, fig trees, and more or less everything you can think of when you start to ponder the Mediterranean climate.
And off we went, into our new apartment. For what had to be less than five minutes. “Here is your apartment. Now, we go drink.” And out came the loza (grape schnapps/grappa that tastes like very clean vodka). We sat on his family’s patio with him and his lovely wife for over three hours. The conversation was something else.
You probably won’t question why we didn’t wake up early the next morning, although our landlord gave us shit for not joining him early for a morning coffee.
Already scalding hot outside at 11am (it’s hot and it hasn’t properly rained for three months), we made our way down a zillion stairs and very sloped walkways (this will be a recurring theme) to the promenade in Herceg Novi to check out the pebble beaches, which run mostly uninterrupted for as far as the eye can see. After walking for a mile or so, we headed up into the base of Stari Grad (Old Town). Trekking back through the hills and narrow walkways, we landed at the first seaside restaurant we saw.
Our waiter was a friendly guy, twisting my arm when I asked for the bathroom (“Bathroom? We no have.”) and giving me looks of disappointment (“You surrender?”) all for not finishing my plate of what was clearly enough shrimp for all of us. Big beer, big seafood, and big coffee. Once again, we were off.
Exhausted from the heat, we headed back to our flat and later made our way east, to a neighboring village, in search of a grocery store that no longer exists. Walking along crumbling sidewalks and historic buildings in need of repair, we found another store that served us well. And off we were yet again, past the locals at the beach and unfinished houses that, no doubt, belong to some money-tossing rich folks from another country.
I wish I could properly explain how, while this country was part of Serbia for a long time and Yugoslavia before that and part of various other nations before that, it still retains many areas that are dilapidated and underdeveloped. There is a stark contrast between the ritzy hotels that host partying vacationers and the underserved villages that are still finding their way. And in between the crumbling history and upcoming tourist mecca, you have proud locals, immigrants, and what appears to be your average citizen, doing citizen things and working toward a bright future.
All of this walking, stair climbing, hill traversing, and hot weather put us in dire need of more sustenance. After a quick Google search (more on the lack of such easy access in another post), we found a place not too far away. It was claimed as an Italian restaurant frequented by locals and tourists alike. Reasonable prices, good food. Done deal.
We gorged a bit. Can’t lie there. But the local cheeses were divine: One was semi-hard with a stronger taste, and the other felt like a cross between mozzarella and feta. I never asked what it was, because our five words of Montenegrin* just weren’t cutting it yet. Then I ordered a double espresso with milk, Ang a cappuccino. It cost €1. It was fantastic. And we were happy.
*All future mentions of the language will be “Mother Tongue,” to avoid confusion between what amounts to one single language called five different things in this region of the world. I thank our landlord for that term.
It was once again late at night, 24 hours after our arrival in Montenegro. We made the trek back to our flat, in the pitch black darkness and down winding roads that feature fast drivers and on-again, off-again sidewalks. Down the hill, down the stairs, and back up some other stairs. Reflecting on the day from our balcony, it was quite nice. And interesting. I already like this place, and know that I will learn a lot about myself as I learn much more about the country and the people around us. We certainly have an adventure ahead of us with this one.
At this point, I could also tell that it would take longer for me to get my bearings here than it would most other places. While I only write about our first 24 hours here, you’ll find our next 24 to be filled with more adventures, and I will still be trying to find those elusive bearings.
Want to see more pictures from our life in Montenegro? Check out the photos on our Facebook page.
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