A warm bowl of chopped chicken and mushrooms in a well-seasoned cream broth was placed on the coffee table in front of me as soon as I was invited to sit down on a comfortable couch. Twenty more seconds and then a dish of carefully sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers appeared alongside it. Another twenty seconds went by before a dish of homemade farmer’s cheese joined the table. I could get used to this pace.
Before I knew it, I was holding court at a feast apparently in my honor. There was delicious fatty, cured beef on another plate and a basket of soft bread. Anchoring the other end of the table was a mound of creamy, rich kaymak, begging for some sort of dipping vehicle.
“Freddy tell me you like beer?”
“Sure,” I said as I heard what turned out to be the twist of a plastic cap. Fiko poured the bright, fizzy brew (or WCL) into a glass and tightened the cap atop the plastic two-liter bottle it came in. Fiko’s beautiful wife, Emina, then served her husband and returned to the kitchen. Their two kids, Aila and Braho, sat in the room looking at me with smiles wrapped around their little faces as if waiting for a puppet show.
This puppet began to eat as if no one was pulling his strings. The meal was one of those much needed meals you didn’t know you needed. I was hungrier than I thought but more importantly, the meal had a homemade quality to it that ninety-nine percent of restaurants, on their finest days, can’t duplicate. I tasted the hands of the cook and the simple kitchen the food was cooked in. Emina had worked on it a good chunk of the day and, while it wasn’t complicated food, it was satisfying in that slightly imperfect way only something home-cooked can be. In the entire three weeks I would spend traveling, my brief stint in Podgorica was the only time I enjoyed meals made in someone’s home. Unsurprisingly, this was a touchstone for me.
“More beer?” Before I could even answer affirmatively, my glass was on its way to being full.
Fiko is the younger brother of Freddy, one of the all-around utility guys, in my former Brooklyn apartment building. When he heard I was going to Montenegro, he graciously set me up with his brother in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital city, because who the hell goes to Montenegro? At the most I was expecting a friendly chat over a drink and maybe some local intelligence on what I should see, eat, etc. When I arrived on a bus from Kotor, a more than welcoming smile greeted me at the station from a shortish, dark-haired guy with a small, brightly blonde boy at his knee.
“George!” he exclaimed as if we knew each other. Hardly another person was in the grubby bus station but Fiko knew that of all the people disembarking the bus, I was the one who didn’t really look like a local.
After a strong handshake with Fiko and a shy one with little Braho, we hopped in his car and pushed out through Podgorica’s shabby sprawl. Not even ten minutes and we were in what seemed to be a half-built suburb with a mix of dirt and paved roads. Fiko’s street was busy with children running around, racing against sunset. The car slowed down and Fiko carefully navigated around each group of kids. His two-story house was large and neighbored by structurally similar yet wildly different looking houses. He rolled back a gate to the driveway and some of the neighborhood kids gathered ’round to see the new stranger exit the car. Fiko led me in and showed me the large room where I was to sleep, hence my first clue that Freddy had provided me with much more than just someone to have a drink with.
I had shown up on a Monday which is when Fiko plays his weekly soccer match with some friends at a local field. While we ate, he invited me to come along to watch and I agreed. Just as we were about to pull out, Braho came running to the car, pleading with tears for his dad to take him along. Fiko began to gently dissuade him but it wasn’t long before he acquiesced and Braho climbed into the backseat. It wasn’t the last time during my stay I would see just how strong the bond between them is. Father and son were rarely apart. Braho, after all, was named for Fiko and Freddy’s father, a stoic picture of whom hung in my temporary room.
The night air was cool and the windows of Fiko’s small sedan, which doubled as a taxi during the day, were down. On the way to the game, he stopped to pick up some of his teammates from different spots in town. The car got incrementally louder with what I can only assume was soccer trash-talking.
The game was interesting to watch. It was less a casual pick-up game and more like an adult recreational league with referees and everything. Fiko was a hell of a striker and seemingly a natural leader on the field. Braho and I sat in the stands for a sliver of it. The rest of the time was spent trying to keep the four-year old off the field using a language he didn’t speak. When Fiko and his teammates were leading a charge I could only make panic noises as Braho ran towards his dad, running towards the goal. When he did stay near the bleachers, we only reached mutual understanding when I kept uttering the sole word I knew in Serbo-Croatian. Strangely, ćevapčići, the word for grilled meat sausages, didn’t breach the language gap as dramatically as I had hoped.
We drove back and the car’s volume got progressively lower as we dropped one trash-talker after another off till it was just the three of us. When we got home, Emina put Braho to bed and Fiko cleaned up a bit. He and I then got into the car and headed to the small center of Podgorica’s nightlife. Downtown resembled many of the downtowns I had seen in the Balkans; i.e. colorful flowers, blossoming in burned-out Stalinist hulls. Architecturally, new and old sat on top of each other haphazardly but Podgorica had far less of the grand historical buildings littering Belgrade and Sarajevo.
The young were out in packs surprisingly large for a Monday night. Fiko took me to a place he claimed made the best chicken salad rolls. His claim was built around the fact that he knew the guys who worked there and he was convinced their kitchen was clean. Can’t say I ever had a chicken salad roll up to that point (which looks just like it sounds), but so far, it’s the best one to ever cross my lips. Because Fiko is Muslim, as is about a fifth of Montenegro, he and his family abstain from the drink and the oink. He, although not his wife, also never touches coffee. So he had a Coke and I a bottle of the local sparkling water and we bonded over a mutual respect for the posteriors of Montenegrin women and chicken salad in this efficient delivery system.
While there, I was not allowed to spend any of my own pennies. Much the same with the people I spent time with in Serbia. While the faltering and defaulting economies of Greece and Spain are in the news at the moment, not one minute of airtime is spent on the arguably more tenuous Balkan economies. Many of the people I met on my travels didn’t have jobs and when they did, a few told me that they were making a mere 300 Euro a month, the equivalent of about 400 USD. Yet, their insistent, almost genetic, sense of hospitality ensured that the guest, no matter the contents of their wallet, was not to ever reach for it.
The next couple of days were spent hanging around the house. Fiko, also a professional musician, invited me to the top floor where his studio was and played me a medley of traditional Balkan folk songs on his keyboard. He could sing a number of tunes from every corner of the Slavic world. When I asked him if he knew any English songs, he paused.
“I know only one.”
His eyes took on a tinge of mischief. “Sex bomb, sex bomb, you are my sex bomb . . .” He encouraged me to sing along with him and, because I rarely back away from a microphone, I did.
When Fiko was off working, I would just sit out on their porch in the early summer heat and talk to Emina as she hung my clothes up in the slight Montenegrin breeze. My laundry was also apparently something they were determined to attend to. I was determined not to argue too forcefully. Emina, only twenty-five, was preganant with their third child. Yet, she moved around the house as if she wasn’t. Her English was considerably better than Fiko’s so the communication was easier. Naturally, she had plenty of questions about America and I answered as best I could, in between refusals for more beer or rakia.
When Fiko wasn’t working, he took me around a bit to see some of his relatives. His uncle and his wife were gracious hosts and we sat out on their modest front porch amidst plates of cookies, cheeses, cured meats and a sole serving of beer for me. The language was all in Serbo-Croat, of course, but sitting there I was reminded how small talk and catching up at least looked the same in any language.
Back on Fiko’s porch, I sat in the shade and kicked back, sans shoes, while watching Aila and Braho playing in the yard and expending the kind of energy that makes me shudder with disbelief that I ever had it myself. From time to time, Aila, truly a sweetheart, would come up to my wicker chair with a little friend or two from the block like I was an anthropological display. She would start off by saying ‘hallo’ and smile. Then her buddies would repeat it in unison. Over the course of my stay, I was greeted by a variety of neighborhood kids in the same way. All of these children, and presumably many of the children in Podgorica, smartly take English as a second language so having someone to practice with, or on, was probably a rare treat. Of course, the kids and I stuck mostly to courtesies like how we were doing, how old everyone was and expressing please and thanks. We really couldn’t get past this into more complex topics like what our favorite foods were or nuclear proliferation.
“Are you boring?” was one of the questions both Fiko and Emina would constantly ask me. While I admit to being a bit antsy and to having a slight feeling of being in the way, the truth was, I was actually enjoying this window into the real lives of average Joe Montenegrins. As a traveler, you live for just this. Veering off any kind of tourist path is actually harder than it sounds. So, I would assure them that, no, I wasn’t bored right before I would say ‘no, thank you’ to the other constant question that immediately followed, “You want beer, rakia?”
Fiko and Emina’s unceasing hospitality felt very Middle Eastern in nature, most likely a hand-me-down from centuries of Turkish domination. When visiting my Egyptian relatives, I was treated to the same overwhelming, yet exceedingly warm, treatment. It’s the way a family with meager means shows their love and reminds you that most times, having ample means proves meaningless. Sometimes you meet family members you never knew you had. Some of mine happen to live in Podgorica.
WHAT: A portrait of my incredibly loving Montenegrin hosts. Counter-clockwise from left: Fiko, little Braho, sweet Aila and Emina. Podgorica’s surrounding hills in the backdrop.
WHEN: June 11, 2012
WHERE: Podgorica, Montenegro