The other day we went to Bajova Kula in Drazin Vert, a beautiful beach club in the Bay of Kotor on the road between Perast and Ljuta. On the way there in a boat with friends I could not help but to be hit by the overwhelming by the beauty around me. You know those moments when you stop and realize how incredible life is.
That day, after a few hazy days from the forest fires in the mountains, the sun was bright; the skies were crisp and clear and there was a refreshing breeze in the air. I looked around in awe, and said to myself I cannot believe that this is where I live!
The amateur photos I take of this place and post on Pinterest, Facebook or here never do it justice. All of our visitors comment on the fact that this place is always much more stunning in real life. Hopefully these pictures capture some of the essence of these historic, UNESCO protected, surroundings which are illuminated by the bright summer sun that radiates down over Montenegro for at least 240 days a year.
Speeding past Perast
Perast is a very special place. Once part of the Republic of Venice, it even became part of the Kingdom of Italy under Mussolini. With less than 400 people living there permanently and over 30 palaces and churches, it is a breathtaking site at any time of year. Stone houses; pedestrian streets, small boats that take visitors to the Island of Saint George or to the iconic Our Lady of the Rock will enchant you. There is also a great little place called “Pirate Bar” at the North end of the town; perfect for an afternoon beer as the sun sets over the mountains across the bay.
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The other day we received an inspired letter from a recent Canadian visitor to Porto Montenegro. The fresh perspective reminded me of the work at hand and how much has already happened in the last two years. I thought I would share a paragraph of that letter with you:
“…I am not sure what any of us anticipated when we arrived at the marina but what we saw was truly an awesome place. We all concluded that it must be very satisfying for you that your dreams do not exceed your grasp. The project is extraordinary. The site is perfect. The entire layout is going to make your marina one of the great marinas in the world. The people you have working for you are wonderful. They took us around the entire place. We were not surprised to know that your vision would be as grand as it is but, nonetheless, we just cannot say enough about what you are creating in Montenegro.
You have to be very proud of what you have accomplished. The foresightedness you have shown will, undoubtedly, make this marina one of the great places to go in the world…”
That foresight which Mr. Peter Munk had has laid the groundwork for developers like the Orascom Group, the Quatari Diar Group and others like the Aman and Banyon Tree Resorts to plan and build visions of their own in this beautiful secret garden we now call home.
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.
In the past ten days I have driven from this beautiful fiord to the equally beautiful Swiss alps and back again. Before I left on the business trip, I had this idea for a blog posting that spoke about cultural identity and how every where you go you observe a piece of that place’s unique flavour through the “look” and habits of the locals. Thinking back, I was going to comment on the conformity of the locals in my environment here. The road trip through Zagreb, Milan, Lugano, Gstaad and Trieste brought everything together and underlined how conformity is everywhere, not just in this hidden garden of a land.
In the past, I thought we are all individuals, but when you live in and observe a metropolis you have all sorts of neighbourhoods that define themselves by their own certain style, individuality becomes more of a blur. In Vancouver, you had scenes like The Drive, South Main, Point Grey and West Vancouver. Each neighbourhood had its own cultural characteristics that you could spot a mile away… that certain hairstyle, attire, car, posture or other small details would give away someone’s provenance. I always found it kind of fun and oddly reassuring to know exactly where someone was from. Perhaps conformity is simply a device to give everyone a sense of place and security. I don’t know why the idea of conformity seemed to be so prominent here that it would inspire a blog posting; it is something I have observed for a while.
Here in Montenegro, it is harder to tell where anyone is from because we don’t have the variety of neighbourhoods or the population of where I came from. For each generation across the country, there is a specific look for men and a look for women. The men have decided that a track suit, runners, man bag and a cell phone is the “look”. The girls have a similar thing with knee high black boots, tight jeans, a short leather jacket and hair pulled back into a pony tail. Whether you are in the capital or the port town of Bar, the aesthetic is pretty much the same. I have heard that in the capital of Podgorica, they “try harder” (sorry Avis) but I have not been there enough to comment.
You could criticize the locals and say there was a lack of style here, but I ran into precisely the same conformity in every city I visited in this road trip. Milan had a look that was equally as consistent; Gstaad was even more defined, but that might have just been the -13 degree temperature. Trieste and Zagreb had theirs too.
So, what started out as a look at the local lack of variety has turned into another observation point about how, in our differences, we are all much more the same than we like to think!
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.
I could go on and on about what is missing here in this developing country, but I think I have hammered that point home enough. As you have witnessed the absence of familiar things periodically induces cravings for everything from sushi to Home Depot and even Starbucks coffee. However, this “absence” does present some other interesting side effects.
Silence, Slow & Community…
View from Muo House
At night there are no sirens; no speeding cars; no noise from bars as they close their doors. In fact, the silence is almost eerie. You can hear a dog barking on the other side of the bay a kilometre away, you can hear the boats splashing in the waves on the roadside docks below, you can hear seagulls talking amongst themselves as they circle the Bay of Kotor. Recently, the only thing that has woken me up at night has been the winter wind storms that rattle the wooden shutters and pound the stone walls of the house. Occasionally a car will race by our door within a couple of feet (watch out when you leave the house), but other than a few of these louder exceptions, this is a very quiet land. I imagine summertime will be a different story as boaters and tourists return to a warm version of this beautiful place.
As much as slow bureaucracy, service and response times could make you crazy, it can also make you slow down in a good way. Coming from a place of instant gratification, this takes a little getting used to. Nothing is particularly quick or easy, but perhaps there lays something to be learned. Being forced to slow down lets you appreciate other things you may have missed while rushing around and finishing a to do list. Learning to slow down takes away the stress of every day life. Once you know that the pot-holed roads will make your trip longer (metaphorically and literally), you slow down and poke your head around corners that you would have otherwise missed.
Here there are no fast food restaurants, no drive throughs, no express check outs, no pay-by-phone parking meters, no delivery services, no express lanes on the (one) highway. It is the perfect venue to practice the teachings in Carl Honore’s book “In Praise of Slow”.
There is also an absence of shiny glass condo towers (gritty grey low rises and stone homes are more the norm), but that brings something else to the equation: community. I had forgotten what it was like to have a real dialogue with your neighbours; to borrow tools and share a glass of home brewed schnapps. I had completely forgotten what it was like for friends to ring your door bell to say “hello” because they saw the lights on. The first time it happens you run to the phone to “buzz” them in… but then you realize that they are not 28 floors down waiting to pass through all the layers of security and anonymity that condo dwelling provides.
So, as we collectively embark on 2010, a respectful celebration of the New Year and all the good things that turning back time brin