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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 city’s first modern shopping mall go up by the minute.

If this co-existence of sloth and industry evokes a sense of heady transition —albeit one that not all the locals have bought into—the 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 moment’s notice, the adoption of the Euro back in 2002—strangely when the country was still in union with Serbia—is by the day making Montenegro one of the most expensive nations of the former Yugoslavia, and while Podgorica’s Cyrillic street signs fade and rust, those in the Roman alphabet look bold and full of luster.

Kotor, Montenegro
Photo: Dale Kiehl

However, venture down to the coast and the Cyrillic resurrects itself with a vengeance, though here the script broadcasts in Russian rather than Serbian.

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.

Kotor, Montenegro
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 trait—one among many—that 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 Montenegro—and 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 control—switch back and forth between Serie A and the Premier League to check on the scores, rather than pay any heed to the action.

Bar, Montenegro
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  

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