Pleasant Surprises

Living here in Montenegro means your life is full of surprises. Some of them are pleasant, like when you discover the only cinema in the country is being renovated and, some of them less, like when the supermarket forgets to stock up on your cat’s favourite food.

Last evening was one of those pleasant ones.

It turns out we have a group of locals and expats who have set up a blues band which plays on the weekend in a small warehouse which by day is an olive oil mill, and by night on certain weekends turns into a jam session venue.

I had no idea what to expect, and I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical about driving up into the hills to this thing. It turned out to be very well organized. The entry fee is €20, which could be considered steep by local standards, but it includes beer and wine at the open bar. Rakia, the local equivalent of Grappa, is €1 a shot. Your drinks are served up by the owner’s son (I think), who would not be allowed anywhere near a drinking establishment back at home, but here, they are less hung up about that kind of thing.

Open Bar and Protected Ears
If you happen to have olive trees on your property here, you can bring them to Zoran, the owner of the mill, who (probably with the help of his son) will press your olives into oil for you. Kind of like those do-it-yourself breweries for wine and beer that you find back home. He is, I am told, very careful about not mixing up people’s batches, so you can be sure the olive oil for your salad or grilled fish is 100% yours.

Here’s to pleasant surprises.

In Praise of Slow and Community

In Praise of Slow and Community

I visited Vancouver for the first time in over two years this month. It made me appreciate Montenegro for a couple of its unique traits.

The first being the incredible sense of community that is present there.

When I was walking the streets of Vancouver, considered one of the cities with the highest “quality of living” in the world, you cannot help but notice the homelessness and panhandling.

In Montenegro you see non of that. So even though the country has a relatively low average per capita income and very few social institutions to protect those in need, there is nobody left out on the street at night; nobody begging for food or money. No matter how little anyone has, there is always room to help a neighbour, family member, friend or stranger. The only apparent exceptions to begging are the Roma people.

Peter Block has written an excellent book entitled “Community” about how modern society is plagued by fragmentation. The people of Montenegro seem to have taken some positive lessons from his book.

The other thing you notice in Vancouver are the vast numbers of people walking around (often quickly) with big paper cups full of coffee. With the exception of the Costa Coffee shops at the airports, you never see Montenegrins walking around with their coffee in throw away cups.

They always take the time to sit with friends, have a conversation, and enjoy their coffee.

As I sit in my London hotel room about to continue my journey back to Tivat, I look forward with anticipation to the sense of community, respect of time and the slower pace of life that Montenegro has to offer.

Sweet Neighbours and Fast Trucks

Sweet Neighbours and Fast Trucks

Summer has arrived. Most days now are around 30 degrees. So we decided to put some large pots with plants outside our front door, as the door quite literally opens on to the narrow street that separates our house from the sea. Those extra 30 centimetres somehow add a modicum of assurance that the little cars and bigger trucks whizzing by won’t run you down as you step out for the day. We also placed some planters in the driveway and filled them with fresh summer herbs.

Nobody expected that a truck would smash into one of the pots within a day of having placed them outside our door for “protection” from just that kind of (fast and distracted) driver.

The pleasant surprise was that the young driver came back to the scene to claim responsibility. In such a tight knit community, there is virtually no crime, and this was not going to be a random act of negligence. All the neighbours got involved in cleaning, fixing and solving. Within no time he had gone back to the garden supply store and replaced the large concrete pot which we thought was so invincible.

The second pleasant surprise was that we found some geraniums anonymously planted in the driveway planters the next day. Another reminder of the kind and modest nature of our neighbours.

Lil-Fudge, Smoke, Tiger, Blotch and Two-More

Those are the names of just a few of our new “friends”. What does not lack here is an abundance of stray dogs and cats, some of which we have practically adopted. There does to appear to be anything resembling the SPCA here, or at least I have not seen them yet.

Kitten in Courtyard

From the number of animals around it looks like they don’t need a society for the protection of animals. This crowd is very much self protecting (mmm, maybe they resemble more their armed countrymen then I thought). Driving your car here becomes a challenge for the simple reason that you are not only having to be very attentive about other (fast) drivers, but you have to make sure you are not creating road kill on your way to and from the office. Dogs and cats are everywhere and they are quite accustomed to running around in packs and thinking they have the right of way!

Anyway, one day soon I will have to tell you about some of the facts about the natural beauty and history of this last amazing land. For the time being though, I can’t help but be intrigued by more pedestrian observations.

It looks like we are not the only one adopting animals. My colleague Max might even be taking one of these dogs home. She hangs out at one of the security gates to our marina, but wont for much longer. She looks like a miniature version of Lassie, just a lot more scruffy. We decided to call her Two-More because she had a funny little growth on her forehead. Needless to say these sweet little street animals have not seen the vet lately.

So there you go. We are now feeding seven cats instead of just our (spoiled) two that we brought over from Canada. I just hope that they don’t figure out which house the food is coming from, otherwise the band of brothers will migrate from the garbage dumpsters by the parking lot to our front door!

I already have my next blog posting in mind, so you will hear from me soon. This past week we had a bank visit our offices and the before the meeting could get started the president had to go and make tea for one of her (male) staff members. She smiled when she got back to the conference room and said, “one of the benefits of having a woman for a boss”. What a different world. Behind that small gesture is a whole conversation about social practices that are still in place here.

No Ice Cream, Guns or Dogs

Living back in Europe makes one draw comparisons to the last time I lived on the old continent. At that time I was in Switzerland. Today, we live just a few hundred kilometres to the South, and the dichotomies are fascinating as these two places are almost exact opposites from a social cultural perspective. Switzerland, being one of the oldest democracies in the world, is now a highly regulated civil state. There, there is almost nothing that isn’t written into some form of legislation. At the same time though, the Swiss are a very progressive, open minded and liberal society (think of famous Needle Park in Zurich).

Warning at Hotel Cattaro

Here, we have the other side of the coin. Montenegro, being only three years old, is one of the youngest democracies in the world and is only in its infancy from a regulatory perspective. Many laws are new and have still not flowed down to all levels of authority. If you want something to get changed, you can actually participate in the transformation. Remember, there are only 650’000 citizens here, so we are dealing with a country the size of a small town in Canada. Almost everyone knows someone at in a “high’ government position. Progressive, open minded and liberal they are not… that is in its infancy here.

However, the countries are not opposites in everything. Oddly enough, they share an abundance of firearms. On the one hand, the Swiss have a gun in every household where there is an individual eligible for military service. I used to have one in the closet and (reluctantly) drag it out every time I was called into service. I never really thought much about it as I knew everyone else had a gun too. You even kept your ammunition at home in case you were ever called up in an emergency.

I had heard that there were lots of guns in Montenegro too. Here though, the fact that many people carry them around seems more disconcerting; perhaps because they are not part of a strict state apparatus. You can hear them being fired on New Year’s Eve, at weddings and other celebrations. They seem to get carried around even if there isn’t a celebration, and we got a first hand account of that last weekend.

Remember my last posting about community? Well, during a dinner party last weekend neighbours from a few doors down came knocking to join in (what they must of considered) the fun. We welcomed them in with their bottles of local Grappa (called Rakia) and they quickly integrated into the expatriate group, even with their limited English. Turns out one of them had a nice little hand gun tucked into his jeans which I only noticed by chance as he sat down beside me. The stories about the abundance of arms abruptly became reality.

Needless to say, I asked him to take it and put it in a safe place (outside of our house). He did, and as if nothing happened, returned for more of their Rakia and community building (sans firearm).

Two worlds, separated by a few hours of driving. One old, one new. Sharing common attributes. Perhaps we are not that different at all.