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.

Kotor Night Out: Dinner & Dustbusters

Kotor Night Out: Dinner & Dustbusters

We had visitors from Vancouver this weekend. We took them to our usual favourite places: Sveti Stefan, Budva, Perast, Kotor and everywhere in between.

On their last night we took them to, what is considered, one of the best restaurants in the Bay of Kotor. Sitting right over the water, it is a truly stunning location.

Dinner was sublime. Local delicious white wine from the producer Plantaze; fresh grilled fish; risotto with saffron and shrimp; black squid ink risotto; local organic vegetables. The weather was not on our side, but the pitter patter of rain on the glass was relaxing and created a dramatic evening picture-frame for the ancient fortress walls of Kotor.

Ken had just remarked on how “Western” he found the establishment. The menu, place settings, linens, wine list and so forth all seemed much more “international” than he had expected. Certainly, there are lots of other venues that are considerably more Montenegrin, but we thought this might be a nice last supper. Next time they come we can explore the 300-year old mill house restaurants and all the local other culinary offerings. However, moments after Ken’s remark, the server arrived to ask us if we wanted coffee or dessert which we all declined. Not only did he have the menus in hand, but a hand-held vacuum cleaner. At first I thought someone on the next table had dropped something and made a mess of themselves, or he was on his way to tidy up some small mess.

Before we knew it, our server was vacuuming our table. You know that tradition when the server brushes away your bread crumbs with a small purpose-made blade? Well, this was the local interpretation of that tradition.

Our dear guests quickly realized that our “new life in the country” was still full of these kinds of stories that make you smile and appreciate this secret garden and its amazing hospitality, hand-held vacuums at the dining table and all.

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The Search

We just returned from an incredible 4000 kilometer road trip through Italy, Switzerland, The Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia. Throughout the journey we got to enjoy not only the breathtaking historical sites, but also the gourmet foods, vast selection and variety that fine provisioners like Globus in Zurich have to offer. The culinary possibilities were endless and we ate as much Sushi, Mexican and anything foreign as you could. I felt like a kid in a candy store on more than one occasion. I think at every stop along the way, we filled the car trunk with all those comestibles we miss and cannot find on the shelves of groceries here in Montenegro.

Returning home to our friends meant a dinner was in order and we thought we would treat the gang to something that you cannot find on any menu in the country; a fondue dinner. We had picked some up in Switzerland. It is the perfect cold weather food to share with friends, and given winter here lasts only about two weeks, we better use this opportunity before it turns 15 or 20 degrees again soon.

The only challenge was that we needed to find another fondue set. And here begins the oddysey. We searched, what felt like, the entire country for a fondue pot. It was nowhere to be found. Some time ago we had seen them at Kips, the only Home Depot stye store on the coast, so that was the first stop of the day. No luck. Not only were none in stock, but they had no idea what we were talking about even with the assistance of photographs (yes, my language skills have not progressed at all). Next stop was Voli, one of the two large supermarket chains and our only source of the brand of food our cats eat. Again, out of luck. No fondue pots in the homewares section and no cat food in stock either. Pickled onions were also on our shopping list, but those were equally impossible to find.

Our luck was diminishing rapidly, patience was dwindling and that “poor me I am in a foreign land” anxiety was on the rise. A shot of local Rakia was in order! Being away for a few weeks in cities of infinite abundance had re-spoiled me. Now I must get re-accustomed to what is here and what’s not. A mini-culture shock ala 2009 was happening all over again.

Good friends (all of whom live with these same little daily expat challenges), a few more shots of local Rakia and fondue improvised on hot plates made it all better. So begins 2012 in Montenegro. More transformation, internal and external, to observe and record. A couple days ago we announced the doubling of the marina, the construction of a 5-star hotel and a superyacht refit and maintenance facility. No doubt there will be lots to talk about again this year.