• The Road from Montenegro

    It’s raining in my hometown as my children and I are leaving it. Strada bagnata, strada fortunata, say the Italians. A good sign then.

    My ex-husband introduced me to that saying, long ago, when my mother told me not to worry because the first 20 years of marriage are always the hardest. It would get better later, she said, and it comforted me, even though I’d have to wait another 19 years. We were freshly married and traveling, constantly, without a home to return to, with more and more luggage in the trunk of every new car, because suitcases would outgrow the trunk of the old car and we would leave it to someone — a service center or someone in the previous city or country. We raised our son in ever-changing vehicles and hotels. I had no opinion on that. We were different than other married couples. We were abandoning our miserable home country, on the lookout for our true place in the world.

    But we had to hold onto something. Most of all, we held onto highways, the ones that pierced through the mountains or were flooded by merciless downpours. I also held onto the moments when my ex-husband would briefly turn to me, sitting in the back seat, with our son sleeping in my lap, and I knew that he was going to say those words — strada bagnata and fortunata — which was exactly what the road would then become. That phrase was one of the first ingredients of our marriage, one that gave it the specific taste of cinnamon, of warm plum jam, of wine from the New World.

    The phrase still comforts me as I leave Podgorica with my children, and heavy raindrops wash away the early traces of spring from cypress and pine trees in the courtyard of the Maksim Gorki school, and from the run down facades of the block buildings.

    It was not sunny and cheerful when we arrived in Montenegro, late at night. It takes at least three hours from Dubrovnik. There is always something to slow a traveler down. Whoever doesn’t pay tax on the bridge will pay it on the river crossing, another saying goes.

    This country of ours is a desert at night, with not even a breathtaking starry sky. I see it now, with my daughter’s eyes, as she tries to love her country of origin. I’ve told her a lot about the sun and the sea of Montenegro; she can’t see any of it now, but still she looks out of the car window, and, with her phone, takes pictures of the darkness through which, after a few turns, in the distance, emerge the lights of the Bay of Kotor. She knows about it from my stories, which even now seem mythological.

    “This is a land of extremes,” I say. The sun doesn’t shine; it boil-fries. The rain does not fall; it throws itself down like a suicide-bomber, or attacks like arrows carried by the north wind from the mountains — a wind that freezes your bones and haunts with its sound, the howl of transience.

    My childhood friend Mira wrote to me about that wind, when I complained to her about the dull climates of the foreign cities I found myself in.

    “Do not surrender to thunderstorms in London, in Zurich, in Zagreb,” she wrote, “or anywhere else. Remember the north wind of Titograd, which made Manja pile stones in her pockets, firmly resolved to cross the swinging bridge. Every day is a battle against some kind of weather, or, as my father would say to me, ‘For days like this, houses are built.’ Remember your father Loco’s advice, when you went to California. He told you, ‘Enter everywhere soles first,’ and I was there to hear it. But we didn’t listen to that advice, or any advice from our fathers, so at least remember it now, and defy the storm as only you can, never forgetting how much you’re loved by the sun…”

    My daughter is listening as I’m thinking out loud, murmuring how, in this land of extremes, sudden beauty can be breathtaking, though there is always the ugly mockery of it just around the corner. People here are like that, too: inexplicably beautiful, turned bitterly repellent. There’s excessive warmth or inhuman cruelty. No filters; nothing in between. The poisonous sting of the provincial mentality, or the openness of Soho. Primitivism or spirituality. And, all of this at the same time, in the same small cauldron, which alternately boils or stagnates.

    Now, I am writing about my hometown. Everyone is at the front door at once. They come in and out of rooms without knocking, loudly, with laughter out of nowhere — a stage play with a complicated setting and the intensity of a musical. Questions are asked, answers predicted and not heard, fears voiced. Everyone faces their fears, laughs in the face of fear, blowing up their egos like they blow cigarette smoke. In fact, many of my friends have quit smoking. Some miss it, others don’t.

    I don’t like that they stopped. I wanted my country just so, always on the thin line between life and death, in whose face they’d also laugh. “Sutjeska syndrome” — after the great WWII Partisan victory against the Axis powers — we surely have it, verified. I am not the one who identified it, but the sociologists and psychologists of Harvard and Oxford. It means we defy, bravely, all the worst, most dangerous situations, yet we are scared by superstition-induced traps and statistical errors. We fear our stomachs will explode from swallowing chewing gum. There is no such land or people anywhere else, I think to myself. Not in Europe, anyway. In Europe, there are villages that can be crazy like us, but not whole countries. It thrills me because I don’t live here anymore. At least that’s what my people tell me — hey, it’s easy for you, you don’t live here!

    But now they also travel, even though they need a visa for almost every country in the world. They go everywhere — not only London, Paris, Rome, New York, but to destinations like Brussels and Bruges. They even take organized tours to these places, places where I have never been. I had to start my life anew in the US, in Zagreb, in London, in Milan. But I was raising my children in those places. I have never experienced them as a tourist. So I feel that my fellow Montenegrians know all these towns better than I do. Truth be told, I really don’t want them to go anywhere. I would like everyone to stay here forever, in the corners of the Montenegro I left them in, with cigarettes in their hands, and those sudden peals of uncontrollable laughter.

    In my mother’s living room, in the midst of the tribal hustle and bustle that my kids enjoy, I remember moments of complete happiness: moments unrelated to that room, like a day spent in my Belgrade student apartment on Ranka Tajsića Street, when I realized, at the age of 18, that I would be living alone for the first time in my life; and one long drive in my then boyfriend’s convertible VW Golf, through the warm twilight of my hometown, as the summer-kissed strands of my hair were glittering with the dust of the stars and I felt as if I were going to a post-Oscar party; me, immersing my stomach into warm white sand in a Sardinian Cala; and the introductory meeting in the amphitheater of my postgraduate studies in London, when I first got to see the amazing faces of people who shared my passion. Complete happiness, never to be spoiled by anything that came before or after.

    My daughter says she wants all those with whom she spent time in Montenegro to live with us forever. That’s just what I wanted: to awaken that feeling in her. It’s even better that she doesn’t really have to live that way, but she’s become aware of the emotion and the place to connect it with. It is a place where she doesn’t have only her boring parents, who don’t even get along anymore, but a godmother and a godfather, a younger sister-cousin she can put some crazy makeup on, and a baby cousin-brother she can hold in her arms, an aunt with whom she can paint eggs without being rushed. In short, a place in the south, whose microclimate her mother tends to disturb with her every visit.

    My son says that everyone in Montenegro is hilarious, that he likes to listen to people talk, he laughs at whatever they say.

    I eat a lot of dough, both savory and sweet; I devour greasy pies and buns, help myself with second and third servings of devilishly salty ribs and sausages that go so well with Mediterranean cabbage raštan. I want to walk to my friends’ homes and work my bloated stomach off, but the weather gets worse when I arrive, the earth cold again, the sky made of aluminum, the stubborn, dark wet kind of north bura wind, which, as the rhyme claims, lasts for seven days. Bura scura sette giorni dura. It seems to me that my hometown’s become vindictive because I abandoned it, and have only used it occasionally ever since, when I want to warm up. It considers me a traitor.

    “Damn,” I tell my mother. “When I come back in July, warn the weather station to include my arrival in their forecasts.”

    She defends this town, from which she has never moved, and where I, too, most likely belong, however ambitious my dreams had once been. Only here can I speak naturally and be understood.

    Back in London, all I can see through the window of my room is a lonely teenager sitting on a riverside bench staring sadly at the muddy, slow Thames. He wants to be elsewhere, I conclude from the way he holds his back, his head, his chin and his hands. From beneath the layers of the London I know well, I scoop out a shy thought that this imposed, involuntary loneliness, this experience of being a sad young man in a big city deserves the most sincere sympathy, but here one always waits too long to receive it. So, the young man will get up and go to the right, and the tide will turn the Thames to the left. And I will divorce after 21 years of marriage, just when it was supposed to become easier.