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.

Leaping into the 21st Century Montenegro Style

Leaping into the 21st Century Montenegro Style

This collection of thoughts on “paper” is intended to record my experiences as a foreigner living and working here in Montenegro, one of the newest countries in the world. Emerging or developing is something I have never experienced; camping on a Gulf Island did not count I guess!

After being cut from the world by the conflict in the Balkans for so many years and being under the rule of Tito’s Communism before that, this tiny newly independent nation (as of 2006) is full of fascinating contradictions!

On the one hand you have, as my dear friend Jeff coined it, the “slow food” of bureaucracy which can drive you mental, and on the other you can see change barrelling towards you. One example is the arrival of new found wealth. In a country where the average national income is less than 800 Canadian dollars a month, shiny new luxury cars are beginning to pop up; overshadowing the pre-independence monopolies of Lada, Skoda and the populist Fiat 600.

The duality and contradictions can be found everywhere. In less than a moment you can find yourself in absolute awe as you walk through the UN protected World Heritage Sites of Kotor and Perast and then cringe as you drive past an abandoned factory right next door. You can be sitting in your 300 year old stone house cherishing its history, and then whinge when you have to take out the garbage because they have not adopted recycling yet (that will come with closer integration to the European Union). Old and new are also vividly contrasted during the outdoor markets on Saturdays where you have simple farmer women in their black dresses selling you their fruit and vegetables and home made goods and only a few minutes walk away you can go the new Panto market and find every kind of packaged food you can imagine. Nestle and Kraft have already got their grasp on this emerging marketing. Unfortunately, convenience foods have made it here, but somebody forgot to bring in the health food section. Whole Foods, Capers and the like are completely absent from the equation.

Very Old and New, Newly Rich and Happily Poor, Beauty and Ugly, Fast and Slow, Easy and Hard… this is an experience of great contrasts!