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

Living in Montenegro: Four Summers later

Living in Montenegro: Four Summers later

Living in Montenegro has been an amazing experience. This month marks a milestone; it is our fourth summer living here in Montenegro. My love affair with this country has only continued to grow since we first landed here on that hot summer August day in 2009.

When we arrived from ultra modern Vancouver, it was like stepping back in time. The 40 stories I have written since then are testimony to the country in transformation and the cultural differences I have experienced and continue to cherish. However, as time went, on I noticed less and less the differences between my old life and this new one.

It is only now though that I realize that I was protected by a team of incredible colleagues who worked through all the idiosyncrasies of living here; they made my life as easy as possible.

I was recently sent back to those early days here… when I went to get my car registered. This was, of course, after I extended my residency permit because I was not able to register it past the expiry date of my work permit. This would have been fine – register and insure the car up until the day my permit expired; you know, pro-rata from now until that day. The only problem is that here you cannot do that. No matter when you register your car, you must pay a full year of registration and insurance. Then when you renew your work permit you have to pay that full amount again. So, whether you are registering or insuring for a month or 12, you pay the same amount.

With residency recently extended through to January 2013, I went to get my car registered. It is a second car, so it had been sitting in the garage since last November. I had to do ten separate payments, payable to various entities and through various offices, ranging in size between 4 and 300 Euros to complete the “transaction”. I had to take off my license plate and give it back. It was an iconic plate, Tivat “007” which perfectly suited the 1999 BMW Z3 which it was attached to. Now the car has Tivat “009”, and it just does not seem as fun. Payments and paperwork completed, I had to wait a full week to get my registration card before I could drive the car.

Anyone back home in British Columbia would have done the whole operation in less than 15 minutes. Nothing happens too quickly here, and that is one of the things I love about it.

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Of course, not everyday am I able to hone my Erkhart Tolle skills and be completely in the “now”. This week I needed to get new mobile phone number; not one of those pre-pay things that you get when you are travelling, but a regular contract where they send you the bill at the end of the month. On Monday morning I went in to the local telecom store and they told me I had to go in to Kotor. It is only 15 minutes away, but I found out immediately after that I really did not need to go to the neighbouring town. So, I went back to the store and was told to come back in 20 minutes as there was someone who spoke better English who was coming in to work. In the end it took 5 trips to the store – an international telecom giant – to get my new SIM card. It was supposed to be activated by 6pm on Tuesday. Well, it took until Friday morning to start working.

There is something beneficial about being forced to slow down. It really did not matter if I got the phone activated on Monday or on Friday; the urgency, of course, was self-fabricated.

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So, as we begin our fourth year here, one must note that some things have not changed at all and a few things have. This past week reminded me of my first posting: “Coffee, Cigarettes and Ink Jet Printers“. There is still lots of instant coffee around, but the “Illy” brand has also arrived on the scene from Italy. Cigarettes are still smoked here more than any other place I have lived, but there are now government sponsored anti-smoking campaigns and laws against smoking inside (not always respected, but we are getting there). I have not seen ink-jet printers in a while, but I did see carbon copy paper getting used the other day at City Hall.

Old and new. The lovely essence of this little country in the centre of the Mediterranean.

There are exciting changes on the horizon. New projects and new challenges ahead as this life in an emerging market proves to be as interesting, exhilarating, rewarding and fascinating as the first days when we arrived.

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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.

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.