In the Comfort Zone

In the Comfort Zone

Home, Sweet

It has been two and a half years since my last post here.

Since 2009 we had lived here permanently (my first blog post is here), but we moved to London in the summer of 2015 to work on new projects. Since then, our ‘life in Montenegro’ has, unfortunately, been sporatic. London work and family matters got in the way of anything more than a short annual check in on our house that was feeling, and looking, more and more neglected (that has since been remediated with a top to bottom renovation).

Kotor from the water

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

Last week I returned for a more extended stay, and fell in love with the place and its people all over again –  as I did in the summer of 2009. I am spending the summer season here getting reacquainted with friends, places and traditions like the annual family patron saint slava celebration found in the region. It’s not quite summer yet, but the temperature is already in the mid-20s celsius, so after three London winters it definitely feels like summer, even in April. Tomorrow is going to be a brilliant 27 degrees!

“The sea air, the sunshine and warm weather combined with a slower pace of life have been the perfect
post-London-winter tonic.”

Returning after this extended break has been wonderful. The sea air, the sunshine and warm weather combined with a slower pace of life have been the perfect post-London-winter tonic. With old friends it feels like no time at all has gone by.

Steps to our first apartment in Kotor

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

No caption needed

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

There seems to have been lots of progress in the past couple of years: new roads; new entrepreneurial ventures; new hotels; new investors and much more. Thankfully, the place still retains its charm with the general absence of global brands. I will have the summer to explore and report back to you.

I do know that a lot has changed since that September 6th morning when I walked up these steps to my accommodations in Kotor and started a whole new life in the country.

Some things have stayed the same… like tobacco brands ability to advertise in public.

I plan to open up this blog to other local contributors who would like to tell the story of their experiences in this beautiful little country on the Adriatic. As it settles into NATO membership and continues with the EU accession process, there are many more expats here than when we first arrived. It would be great if they also told the story of their road from culture shock to comfort zone.

What’s it [Montenegro] Like?

What’s it [Montenegro] Like?

So Central, Yet Still So Undiscovered

I recently attended the Annual Luxury Real Estate Symposium in Venice Italy.
There were real estate colleagues from Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, the United States, France and Italy discussing the latest trends in our industry.

Almost everyone there asked me “what is [Montenegro] like?”

There were a few people that had very defined preconceptions, like they thought of it as a place where people hid their money; a place like somewhere in Africa full super rich and very poor people; others didn’t know where it was on a map; some wondered if the people were friendly, and others asked about things like security or regional conflict.

Needless to say Montenegro was on their radar screens, but the destination was very much an unknown to them. The general sentiment amongst these luxury real estate professionals was one of great curiosity about this young Mediterranean nation in the middle of Europe. So central, yet still so undiscovered.

I was a bit surprised about the tax dodging question. I don’t see Montenegro as a tax haven. As for the question about super rich and very poor, I think this comes from the fact that the country has become well known for the yachting season as the Adriatic Sea becomes more and more popular as a sailing destination. This might give people the impression that it is just for the super rich, but I don’t believe it is. Yes, there are some substantial yachts in the various marinas and a few spectacular villas along the coast; there are also very humble locals, and life can still be hard for many. It is a land of contrast, yes, but also of caring. For example, you don’t see homeless people in the streets—here they take care of each other.

The People: I told everyone that our experience has been wonderful. From the moment we arrived we found the local community to be very embracing of us, even if we were a same-sex, openly out, couple. Pretty impressive for a country that still had riots at last year’s Pride parade and where coming out—or any kind of diversity —is not readily understood.

Security and Stability: I told my colleagues that Montenegro uses the Euro; is a member of the World Bank and the IRBD. The country begun the process to enter Europe and is actively seeking membership in Nato. It feels safe and secure. Of course, you can at times sense tensions that have deep roots in the history of the region, and you have to be respectful of this. They gained independence only in 2006 and the Balkan War is not a far distant memory.

Infrastructure: In the almost 6 years since we arrived, we have seen progress. Water, electricity and the internet are working, and things have changed slowly. There is a lot to be done here in many areas from animal protection to economic prosperity. But recently a highway construction project was announced, another signs of a country in steady transformation.

Health: I think living in Montenegro is very healthy. I have written a couple posts on the subject like these:  In Praise of Slow and Community or  What does Montenegro do to You. Most of the food is local and the menu comfortingly simple. Health care on the other hand is a different story. I do not believe that the public health care system ranks within the world’s top 100.

Geography: Many of my colleagues at the symposium (#lreven) had been to Croatia in the past. They asked me if Montenegro was similar. Well, I told them the geography changes to the south of Dubrovnik. Montenegro does not have the 1,000 islands that the Dalmatian Coast does. What it does have is almost 300 kilometres of stunning coastline, secluded beaches; and clean waters. Inland is as spectacular as the coast, with incredible natural parks and the second deepest canyon in the world. Roadtrip 1 and Roadtrip 2 inland were incredible.

“Montenegro does not have the 1,000 islands that the Dalmatian Coast does. What it does have is almost 300 kilometres of stunning coastline, secluded beaches; and clean waters. ”

I addressed some of the more practical questions in my recent post about living here in Montenegro. These are of course, very personal perceptions and just my opinion. I am sure others with similar experiences have different perspectives.

Traveling here is one thing. Retiring here is another. Working here is yet another. The coast is different than inland. The north bordering Croatia is different than the south which borders Albania. All different angles on Life in Montenegro. I for certain, love it here and have since day one.

I think after meeting new friends at the symposium we will soon have a new round of visitors to show around our Secret Garden!

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

P.S. I love it!

P.S. I love it!

It’s still love at first sight

I got a message from one of my local friends last night (he is one of my best friends here, except when he is my trainer at the gym). He said: “do you like being here or not, I can’t figure it out from your (last) post?”

I apologize for any ambiguity. I love it here. I have since I first landed in the summer of 2009. It was, love at first sight, and that has not changed.

There is something magical in the air, that makes you yearn for it when you are away and fills you with joy when you step foot on the tarmac and walk back into the airport across the airfield.

I am glad that it is not Canada or Switzerland, the places where I grew up. Yes, there are things that still frustrate me: the rather aggressive drivers; the billboards everywhere (even though I use them in my work now too); the lack of protection for animals; the challenges facing special needs people or people of diversity; the lack of recycling… all things that are evidence of a land in transition.

“There is something magical in the air, that makes you yearn for it when you are away and fills you with joy when you step foot on the tarmac”

Yes, there are things that I miss from Vancouver or Zurich. Friends obviously; diversity in dining options; all the conveniences of a modern city. I miss trivial things like being able to phone for home delivery of almost any type of international food you can imagine. But then you think of the cost of living in Vancouver or Lugano and compare it to how much further your Euro goes here, and you forget all those cravings!

So Milos, to answer your question: I love this place; the friends I have made; their welcoming nature; the incredible Wild Beauty from seaside to mountain ranges that I never get used to; the amazing summers at the beach or on the water; the simple, yet wholesome real food and my favorite locales; the simple, slower, life. The incredibly tall people (thanks for reminding me Zaga). It is less stressful here, but we work very hard – building, marketing and selling new communities in this emerging market that is still remote, with its storied past, is no easy endeavor. That challenge is an invigorating and exciting one!

The Office Stray (well loved and fed) Dog

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

A Dukley Billboard

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

Summer fun with friends at Almara Beach

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

Mountain Fun with the Girls in Kolasin

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

Working with Jovan

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

I hope this post has cleared things up!

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

Living in Montenegro: Practical Things Beyond the Culture Shock

Living in Montenegro: Practical Things Beyond the Culture Shock

I recently got an email from someone who had read this blog and wanted to know more about day-to-day live here in Montenegro. I thought it might be useful to write a bit more about the practical side of living here.

Some of her questions included: Does the Internet work there? What is the social life like? What about culture? Is it difficult to meeting people there? Do they speak English? Over the years I have had many conversations with international media and people applying for jobs here, so let me try and tackle some of those questions:

1. Does the Internet Work?

Yes, and in urban centers the internet is fast; I think they skipped a generation and installed the latest technology once things opened up after Montenegro independence in 2006.

“Life here seems more focused on what is really important: friends, family, community, health. ”

2. Is Accommodation Comfortable?

Accommodation is a bit more hit and miss. If you are coming to live here permanently – or at least over a period that is longer than 12 months, you need to find somewhere newer that does not have potential water/moisture issues. So much of the construction in the past was holiday related; builders and landlords did not care too much if the places got a bit damp in the winter. If you are living here full time though that really matters! Basically, I would avoid the romantic stone house idea (yes, I live in one; but it is dry), even though it is very appealing. If you are set on something historic (which is hard to resist), just make sure it is nice and dry over the winter months.

Finding a place – for an annual lease – is still harder than in the rest of Europe. There isn’t anything like Craigslist here yet, so you need to rely a lot more on personal connections. Some agencies are popping up and they are usually connected to the local real estate companies. You cannot look past the months of April/May though. This is when landlords are more concerned about summer rentals. Of course, holiday rental is easy and there are a plethora of websites to find great short term accommodation to match any taste and budget.

As for the other comforts of life, things like heating/AC are all fine and modern. You can also find handymen really easily when you need to get things fixed.

Sunset over Budva

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

3. How is the Social Life?

This really depends on your work community and how embracing they are. When we first moved to Montenegro, there was virtually nobody as the rush of 2006-2008 had ended, and the first people at Porto Montenegro created a real community of kindred spirits. That has eroded over the years; many people came for a few years and now have left to pursue other adventures. There is no longer that feeling of “we are all in this together and lets make it work.” New people are coming though, and we are trying to make an effort to be more social; but that feeling of “we are all here making a difference and helping each other” is harder to find. Today new friendships form around the workplace, so it is important to get along with your colleagues if you are new to town.

4. How is the Cultural Life?

Cultural life is very very limited – at least for foreigners like us; for locals there is a lot on offer. If you exclude the small theatre in Kotor, there is only one movie theatre in the country and it is in Podgorica, the capital city. There is some theatre / concerts here (and wonderful things like KotorArt in the summer), but I am afraid the cultural offering is – naturally – much more for the locals (given the language and cultural references). Summer is buzzing with concerts and outdoor parties though, and those are great fun. Generally though life here is about being more laid back (at least for those of us in our 40s): it is more about sports, yoga, boating and swimming; more about healthy local food and such.

5. What about Shopping?

There is definitely no shopping if you are referring to anything like what you would find on London’s Regent or Oxford Streets; there are really no big brands represented here, but there are some great multibrand stores. For food, you need to bring all that you crave from home when you travel (cheddar cheese, Nespresso capsules, salt and vinegar potato chips for example). Here you can find the essentials; great greens and meat markets and pretty well stocked food stores. However, there is nowhere near the variety that you have in big European cities. Simplicity, organic, local are the key ingredients here.

Saturday morning outdoor market in Kotor

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

6. How are the Travel Connections?

Tivat, the airport on the coast, is very seasonal. In the winter there are only flights to Belgrade and Moscow. Belgrade is only 40 minutes away though and that is a big, vibrant, city with decent flight connections and lots to offer.
Podgorica is the airport in the capital and about 1.5 hours drive from Tivat and has flights to many European countries. Driving through Croatia from Italy or Germany has gotten better but there still not a highway all the way yet. I am afraid we are a bit remote, especially in the winter. Driving here and around just takes time and patience.

We are certainly a hot topic for travel – Forbes just said we are one of the top 3 places to visit in 2015. It just takes a bit of planning!

7. Do they Speak English?

English is spoken almost everywhere; especially on the coast and in the capital city Podgorica. That is not a problem at all. It is surprising how many people speak it here. That is a blessing!

8. Is it Easy to Learn the Local Language?

I have never been able to really grasp it. The grammar is very complex, and frankly I have never gotten a teacher or tried – other than a few words (coffee, beer, thank you etc). Even when I have tried, people begin to speak English with me. [Milos: see next story; just told me this sounds very lazy. He is right. I really have not tried. Well into my 6th year here and I should have picked up Montengrin by now. I am a little embarrased by this, but it is certainly hope it does not look like a sign of disrespect.]

9. Getting over the Culture Shock

If you are new to this part of the Balkans, especially coming from places like Germany, it takes a lot of getting used to; this is my sixth winter here in Montenegro and the first few were really tough. As you can see from my early posts, I have gotten quite used to our new life in the country (I just changed the sub-title of this blog from “A New Life in the Country” to “From Culture Shock to Comfort Zone”). We travel a lot, so that makes for nice balance. If you are accustomed to Europe and all that its cities and towns have to offer, you can feel very stranded here at times. All that being said, it is a very peaceful, healthy place. Summers are wonderful; full of energy, warm water, boating and sailing and sunny skies. I love the fact that it is slower paced. It feels more healthy than the big cities that I travel to often. Life here seems more focused on what is really important: friends, family, community, health.

Kotor Old Town

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

It is a place in transition and changing all the time, but not as fast as I thought it would when we arrived in 2009. It is interesting to observe that and be a part of it. You have to be a bit of an adventurous explorer though.

It feels far away from capitalism and consumerism. Our recent trip to Vancouver reminded me of this. When I was visiting I was overwhelmed by the constant messages about financial stability, retirement savings and the incredible abundance on offer. Here people seem to live much more in the now. I have been told that this is because they had to; the last couple of generations did not know what was happening next. In the recent past there was a lot of instability in the region and this made people more present; living for today and not some future time.

I am sure there are 100 other questions: currencies, human and social rights, driving, dining, children, schools, LGBT, travel, yachting and sailing around Montenegro … the list could go on and on. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions and I will try to give you some personal insight into this Life in Montenegro!

PS – please see my next blog post. My friend Milos said this one sounded like I did not like living here (but I have edited it a bit now).

PSS – my colleague and good friend Milena said this post sounded a bit negative. That was certainly not my intention. I just wanted to be frank with anyone contemplating a move here from Western European cities. It takes some adjusting, but I love it here!

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

Check Please!

Check Please!

Life in Montenegro can be, for someone arriving from the West, full of quirkiness. Your day can sometimes be full of little things that make you slightly crazy . . .

. . .  things that, even many years later, you never really get used to; lingering leftovers from a bygone era (remember carbon copy paper?), or new inventions of a bureaucrat who has too much time on his or her hands. If you come for a visit, here is one example of local quirky you will like to know in advance:

Getting your bill at a restaurant

Each time you order something from the menu, a fiscal receipt has to be printed. This means, that over the course of a long dinner or drinks with friends, the server has to bring a bill for what you just ordered and leave it on the table… and this happens every time you ask for something. There is no such thing as getting a nice clean check at the end. As drinks or your meal evolves, all of these little receipts, typically get stuffed into a small shot glass on the table or under an ashtray (yes, you can still smoke inside in many locales).

I’ll take the check  . . . I mean the handful of receipts

Photograph by Colin Kingsmill

At the end of your bar or restaurant experience, your server has to manually add up all the little receipts to give you your total due. It is especially fun when you have to save these for office expenses! It may be a great way to ensure that fiscal crime is being fought, but if any receipts fall on the floor (or someone takes a few and puts them in their pocket), the server has to make up for the difference.

Recently, while brunching at one of my favorite spots, Restaurant ONE, I was sitting beside a couple of Americans where were having their first “fighting fiscal crime, one chit at a time” moment. The, polite and thorough, explanation by the server did not go very far in helping them understand why the corner of their table was full of little paper chit receipts for each of the vodka martinis they had ordered over the past couple hours. There was confusion on both sides (and it was not just because they were drunk) and they left their first Montenegrin hospitality experience scratching their heads.

I am still getting used to “quirky”, one day at a time…

 

TRAVEL

The Essential Montenegro

LIVING HERE

The Ultimate Guide to Living in Montenegro

DOING BUSINESS

Business Development in Montenegro

Roundabouts, Ketchup and Patience

Roundabouts, Ketchup and Patience

The Bay of Kotor

The Bay of Kotor from Drazen Vert

I am heading into my fifth winter here in Montenegro ( “winter” seems a bit too strong to describe the season given I was outside in the sun for brunch this past Sunday and it felt more like early September than mid November). Who would have thought, back in the summer of 2009, that I would still be here writing, Instagramming and Facebooking (are those real verbs?) to the world about this, not so anymore, secret garden.

In fact, I am more than just here with you and this blog. This month we purchased an old stone house in Tivat, so it looks like this is going to be home for while longer. You will have to put up with my chronicle of this new life in the country for some time to come. I guess it’s not that new, but I certainly feel like I am still adjusting.

I never would have imagined that this part of the Adriatic would be my new home, so far from Vancouver and Lugano. I am thoroughly enjoying being a new local, no longer living behind the gates of a luxury marina with security guards ensuring the place remains exclusive and slightly insular; I had gotten into the lazy habit of not leaving for social activities; suggesting to friends that they always come to me. Now, I am getting in the habit of exploring the little local cafés and restaurants of Tivat and getting to know the community even better than before. I am officially out of the “bubble.”

So much has changed…

When I got here, there was one major international resort development happening, and I worked on that project for over three years. Today there are no less than five major developments within a 10 kilometer radius of each other comprising multiple hotels, four marinas, golf courses and hundreds of apartments and villas. Major players like the Qatari Diar Group and the Azerbaijan Oil and Gas Company’s One&Only Resort as well as the Abu Dhabi Royal Group are investing in coastal Montenegro. Recently a Turkish company, Global Ports Holdings, bought 62% of the country’s only commercial marina in Bar.

There is evidence all around that the transformation, which began with the country’s independence in 2006, is now accelerating. Some changes are small. Like Heinz Ketchup arriving in food stores. Others are more significant. For example, while not in Montenegro, it is close (and I like the example): JAT Airways, the rather rundown national airline of Serbia was recently bought by Etihad and rebranded as Air Serbia with new jets, a new attitude and bold plans for the future of the region.

Roundabouts (yes, the ones you drive around) are new to the country and most, but not all, drivers seem to have adapted well to their arrival. The first French bakery on the coast has opened in Tivat. I can now buy a real croissant and a loaf of sourdough bread. These little things in life are so cherished when you can’t have them. Until now, there was only a couple types of bread here. Nothing like the vast variety and options available back in Vancouver.

So much hasn’t changed…

I still have not gotten used to the economic disparity of the country. Even on the coast, whose affluence is driven by yachting and beach resort hospitality, there is still a lot of people challenged to make ends meet for their families. New projects are planning to hire thousands of people in 2014, so this should go a long way to mending that problem.

I have not gotten used to the driving, even now after so many years. I used to wonder why people were in such a hurry and passing all the time seemingly without regard for safety. Things are slower here. There is nowhere to rush to. Then I realized that is it more of a “get out of my way” approach to driving. I suspect that attitude is somewhere deeply rooted in the culture; the root of which I have yet to discover. If you have been reading for a while, this whole journey is about discovery. In any case, you probably don’t want to be biking on the main roads; save that for the national parks.

I have not gotten used to not having everything being at my fingertips. In any given supermarket in London or Vancouver you find an, almost embarrassing, cornucopia of foods and conveniences. Not here yet. Just recently a large new food store opened nearby. Unfortunately, the limited variety did not change, there is just lots of more the same things. They have introduced a few convenience items though. Nothing as grand as a deli counter or as overflowing as the aisles of a Sainsbury store, but you can pick up a roast chicken and some pre-washed coleslaw. This is a place where there is still someone at home making breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch for the whole family. Anything pre-made, pre-prepared is virtually non-existent here (think prewashed varieties of mixed salad). It forces you to take time for things and make dinners from scratch. I had almost forgotten about that back in Canada.

I have gotten used to the fact that there are no international brands here (yet). There was one, Costa Coffee, but all the locations closed abruptly recently. Big brands are still not here; so be prepared to live without any of the comforts – emotional or actual – that those bring you. Here, it is all about exploration (and sometimes in Cyrillic). There are no big brands to help you feel closer to home.

Take away…

The transformation is slower than I expected when I first arrived. I was probably naive to think things would move faster. Established resort communities in the Western Mediterranean took decades to authentically come into being. Now I know it will take a generation before the impact of international investment permeates the social fabric through and through. This is the best part of living and working in a place where everything is not pre-made, finished, regulated and done. Being part of the steady slow transformation; working creatively to understand the market and how relates to the “adventurous” ones who are investing and living here gives me great satisfaction.

This is a fascinating complex country in slow evolution, not revolution.