By Colin Graham
PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO, 30
NOVEMBER 2007 When discussing laziness, their most salient national
characteristic, so they say, Montenegrins do so with a self-parodying air
of lethargy. "Get up at noon and do nothing but sit in a café and watch the world
go by," is the advice they most commonly hand out
to the visitor, who then wonders how any world can go by
if the whole population is so keen on loafing around.
That said, on any given Monday afternoon the evidence is there before
your eyes: dozens languidly contemplating nothing in particular from cafes
which seemingly owe their very existence to the work-shy. And yet, banging
and drilling resound from every corner of the capital, Podgorica, as new
office buildings and the citys first modern shopping mall go up by the
If this co-existence of sloth
and industry evokes a sense of heady transition albeit one that not all the
locals have bought intothe observation is right on the money. As the newest
country in the world, having only gained independence from Serbia in
May 2006, Montenegro is genuinely in a state of legislative, economic
and cultural flux. The ramifications of a new law can drop in your lap at
a moments notice, the adoption of the Euro back in 2002strangely when the country
was still in union with Serbiais by the day making Montenegro one of the most
expensive nations of the former Yugoslavia, and while Podgoricas Cyrillic
street signs fade and rust, those in the Roman alphabet look bold and full
However, venture down to the coast and the Cyrillic resurrects itself
with a vengeance, though here the script broadcasts in Russian rather than
Roadside adverts call on those looking to invest in property to contact
recently-established real estate agencies. The languages and flags printed
on them show clearly that most of the foreign clientele acquiring seaside
homes in towns such as Budva are British and Russian.
Though they have had a couple of write-ups in the UK press, the former
set of investors have been spending their cash with a lot more stealth
than the latter, whose propensity for understatement when it comes to
splashing out is notoriously non-existent.
Photo: Dale Kiehl
Most Montenegrins will express surprise that the Brits are just as
keenly interloping on their territory as the Russians, who rather than
just add a cottage here or house there to their portfolios, will go ahead
and buy a whole hill.
There are plenty of locals who bemoan this trend, particularly as
prices of all kinds have shot up beyond their means as a result, but they
do so with a disarming lack of militancy. Given that a sizeable minority
did not see any reason for the split with Serbia in the first place, it is
hardly surprising that there is no real clamor to bang on the nationalist
drum, though it could be that the Montenegrins are just not really that
bothered one way or the other. Jingoism is too much like hard work.
This indifference to the Protestant work ethic is also
a traitone among manythat the South-Eastern Slavs share with their brethren from
the North. For both, making money is worthy of the deepest respect but
employing thrift and rigorous labor to that end is seen as an occasional
and unpleasant necessity, rather than some kind of virtue.
In Montenegroand other former Yugoslavian states - there
seem to be more betting shops per square mile than there are ATMs. It
is in these that the idle often make their money. Indeed, for
the normal fan, sitting in a bar to watch a football match can
be an infuriating experience, as the regulars given free reign over the remote
controlswitch back and forth between Serie A and the Premier League to check on
the scores, rather than pay any heed to the action.
Photo: Dale Kiehl
So when some of the 700,000 Montenegrins say that they are in danger of
being colonized by the Russians they do so with a tone of resignation that
is almost cheerful. One reason for this is that they and the new
invaders go way back, having been aligned with one another during the
war against Japan in 1905. True to form, Montenegro only got round to
agreeing an official end to hostilities with Tokyo shortly after declaring
its independence in 2006. This, after playing a not insignificant role in
the conflict on its own doorstep just over a decade earlier. Inverse logic
lives a charmed existence in these parts.
By night, buses from Budva to Podgorica feel almost airborne. Winding
around mountain roads, whose contours have been erased by the dark, the
passenger peers down at towns that look for a moment like galaxies fallen
from the sky. Only the throb of the bus as it climbs and turns reminds one
that terra firma is holding true and all is right with the world.
A British journalist
based in Podgorica, Colin Graham writes on culture in Eastern
Europe. He has written on the The Wielgus
Scandal in the Polish Church, Trendy Clubs in St. Petersburg, Russia,
as well as Borat: Cultural
Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of
Kazakhstan for Culturekiosque.com.
Kosovo: The Russian