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…



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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.

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.

Boiled or Roasted Kid?

Today I had a quick, but lovely, lunch outside by the water here in the Bay of Kotor. With the exception of “spaghetti bolognese” and a couple of other items, the Montenegrin menu was difficult to decipher. Yes, I know. I should be farther ahead than I am today. The kind and attentive server, aware of the selection challenge I was having, brought me the English menu. I ordered a dish which I knew had chicken in it, but I was not sure what else was coming. It ended up being a delicious spicy pasta dish with chicken and vegitables. Perfectly wonderful. I am just glad that I did not select from the Appetyre section of the menu… chewy and bitter come to mind!

I thought you might enjoy a couple of the other menu items I came across recently. How about Roast or Boiled Kid?

Ever been puzzled about what do to on your next holiday?

 Each day in this amazing life experience I am reminded of how quickly this little nation on the Balkan peninsula has been launched into 21st century Europe and the Anglo-Saxon dominated world. I greatly respect how they are catching up so quickly. Little signs like these are great, and slightly comic, reminders of the great diversity of the world we live in and how important it is to respect that diversity.

365 days and Counting!

When I first started this journal it was called “365 Days of Culture Shock – a New Life in a New Country”. Well, the original title seems out of date now. We have been in Montenegro since August of 2009 so the 365 days have come and gone. The “new” country is now in its 5th year, and growing up quickly. In November it became the first Balkan state in that many years to become an official European Union candidate.

Tatler Travel Guide

The change in the last year and a half has been amazing to watch. There is a brand new round-about at one of the busiest intersections on the coast; communist apartments have been painted bright new colors and given a new lease on life; new bars and restaurants have opened and there are more on their way. While I still cannot buy soy milk at the biggest supermarket, the other day I found lactose-free milk, so you know more selection is coming soon. You can quite literally see the market opening up one baby step at a time.
The evolution of Porto Montenegro set the pace of the changes in the country. When we arrived, the project had 85 berths which it was giving away for free for the first season and we were selling some off plan apartments. Today, we have created the new Porto Montenegro Yacht Club, a Sports Club for crew, built a fuel bunkering facility and become an official port of entry, so you just pull up to the marina in your boat and clear customs on the jetties. This summer we will be opening our 65 meter over-water Lido Mar pool and our maritime museum as well as handing over the next 45 apartments in two buildings. In the fall another 9 will be available. This means that by the end of the year we will have almost 80 waterfront properties finished with 20 retail stores and services on the pedestrian walks. The reassuring part is that most of the apartments are already sold and the commercial spaces leased out! Now we also have 200 berths open to paying customers. You should join Montenegro Yachting on Facebook to see all the latest events and photos from in and around the marina.
The first month of the new year has flow by with the team out and about at the London and Dusseldorf Boat Shows. Stay tuned for more chronicles of life at Porto Montenegro!