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.
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.
It has been a few months since my last post. As you might know by now I just need a little inspiration to get me going. The other day I got it…
A couple of years ago my partner and I met a Montenegrin man who was in his mid twenties and gay. At the time, that combination seemed like a death sentence to him. He had not come out of the closet to anyone and was suffering for it in so many ways. He was even scared to come to our house for a visit; worried that the receptionist or someone would see him arriving and immediately label him as gay by association (something that happened a lot in the first few years; much less now as the local community has gotten used to us – the “only out gay men in the village”).
In the months that ensued our friendship grew and grew. Many of our conversations with our friend were about trying to empower him. We had to let him know that there was a different world beyond these borders; a world where he could be open about his orientation and not be living a life in secret.
Jump ahead 24 months.
Just over a year ago our friend moved to Switzerland; met the man of his dreams and is getting married this summer. Last weekend he came home to Montenegro and came out. Firstly to his sister and her husband. She was thrilled for him and only sad that he had suffered for so many years by not being able to tell anyone. Her husband was also very happy for him and extremely loving. He did not expect this as his brother-in-law comes from Niksić, a town which is not known for being open minded. On the contrary; it is a Northern mountain town where the men are known for being very tough. Not the place you can easily walk around it as an open gay man.
When our friend told us about this experience he was in shock. So happy and yet so surprised at the first reactions. He would have been happy with “OK, that’s your life, I don’t want to know anything about it”, but what he got was much greater.
His next meeting was going to be with his best friend. That went extremely well too.
He said that Pieter and I had been incredibly helpful in the process. Once he met us back in 2011, he realized that you could be gay, out and partnered and have a fulfilled life. It is nice to know that we served as role models in a country where he had none.
Since we moved here in 2009 there has been much positive transformation around us. This blog has attempted to document that. We have watched LGBT rights also slowly become more accepted. There is still much to be done. There are countless men and women who are still stuck, just as our friend was two years ago. I hope his story; his wedding and his coming out will be a catalyst for a more open and tolerant society in this little magical kingdom.