We’re leaving, it’s pouring rain. Italians say: Strada bagnata, strada fortunata. My husband introduced me to this proverb, long ago, in the beginning of our marriage, when we were constantly traveling, arguing, making up, suitcases piled up in the trunk of a car, our son raised in transport and hotels.We had to hold on to something, and we mostly held on to those wet roads of happiness. They turned out to be fine, it seems. The same proverb comforts me now, when children and I are leaving Podgorica.Large drops of rain fall heavily on pine and cypress trees in ‘Maksim Gorki’ schoolyard, and beat against the shabby block-buildings’ facades.
It wasn’t a happy picture, either, when we arrived in Montenegro.
By night, we always travel this road by night, from Čilipi airport to Podgorica, or Niksic.People tell me – why do I even ask when I’m the most experience one at this?- that via Trebinje or Risan it takes ‘an hour, or so.’ It’s a deceit. It always takes three honest hours from Dubrovnik to the continental Montenegro. Something always slows one down. ‘If you avoid the bridge fare, you will pay the road fare,’ a Balkan proverb.
This country of ours is like a desert at night, even the sky is not lovely.I see it through the eyes of my daughter, even though she’s decided to fall in love with the country of her origin.I told her about the sun and sea of Montenegro, none of which she can see now, but still, she is looking through the car window, taking the photographs of the darkness through which, after a curve, and in the distance, a rare cluster of the Bay of Kotor lights break a-shining.
One day, I will tell her that this is the country of extremes. The sun does not shine, but burns;rain doesn’t fall, it pours; and the northern wind howls, freezing your bones with its chill, true, but freezing them even more with that noise, the howl, the sound of our transience.The sudden beauty is breathtaking;around the corner lurks utter ugliness.People are like that too: inexplicably beautiful or self-destructive. With excessive warmth or cruelty. Poor or with the manners of the old-money. With the poisonous sting of provincialism, or the openness, the tolerance of a metropolis. Primitive or spiritual. And all of that at the same time, in the same cauldron, a rather small one, which in turn either boils or stales to stink.
Here I write about my city. Everyone is at the door at the same time. They enter and exit the rooms without knocking, laugh loudly, and without a reason – a theatre with the intensity of a musical – they ask questions, do not wait for answers, they pronounce fears, everyone agrees on fears, they laugh them off, they smoke. In fact – many of my friends quit smoking.Some miss it, some don’t.I hate it when they quit smoking. I want my country like that, always on the verge of life and death, laughing at death.’Sutjeska syndrome’ that’s what we have, it’s not my discovery, it’s a certified conclusion by the professors and researchers from Harvard, or Oxford: we defy the worst, but fear the statistical errors, for example, the explosion of the stomach after swallowing a chewing gum.It thrills me because I do not live there. They always remind me of that. Easy for you, you don’t live here.They still love our desperate neighborhoods.They travel, come back, share the experience. They even go to Brussels as tourists, it is inconceivable to me, even head to Bruges, I haven’t been to those places, I had to start new lives in Zagreb, in London, I did not get to be a tourist with a local agency, the tours, with the starting point, the points of destination and return. And as to them, my MNE-B.C. fatesharers, I don’t want them to go anywhere, I’d like everyone to stay there forever, in those rooms in the neighborhood, with cigarettes in their hands, laughing loudly and without a reason.
Suddenly, in the living room of my mother’s flat, in the midst of the tribal jam which my children enjoy, I remember the moments of complete happiness, moments that are not attached to that room, they only pass through it while I’m sitting on the sofa on which everyone falls asleep, as if hypnotised.Before my eyes, a day in Belgrade, in Ranka Tajsića street, a garconiere, its window and a small balcony, where I realized, at eighteen, that I would, for the first time in my life, live alone, be the empress of my own space; before my eyes, another moment, a warm dusk and an old cabriolet driving me somewhere unspecified but me, with stardust in my hair, feeling like going to the Oscars; then, immersing in a large, saline pool in one Cala; then, entering the amphitheater of my postgraduate studies, for the first time seeing the faces of the young people who shared my passion.These scenes are independently raised over the periods in which they happened, because at that moment, or immediately before or after, nothing worth remembering had spoiled them. Complete happiness.
Then, this April in Podgorica, at the new club a little outside the town, at the Pejovics, one such moment of complete happiness, with friends that I have not seen for years, and to whom I had to recount the same story five times in a row, I think, about how a couple of days prior to that night, I misunderstood the situation when my mother was interviewed on the aforementioned sofa in her living room, on which the interviewing team then invited me to sit as well, and the young woman, the interviewer, asked me the same question she had asked my mother, that is – what I remembered from my high school graduation year. Thinking I was ‘on camera’, I changed my dialect into a more proper one, and, hiding my shoeless feet under the coffee table in front of me, I started giving her a very long answer that had no sense, methodology or logic, but still ended somehow, after which I turned to the cameraman with the intention of blinding him and his camera with one of my best signature smiles, only to see the cameraman just completing the act of packing the camera in its case with compartments for legs and other parts, and I concluded that no one was even listening to me and that the young woman, the programme editor had only asked me a question about my Senior year because I was sitting around my mother’s living room anyway.
That ‘imaginary’ interview, and that evening at my friend’s club, will also remain as the moments of complete happiness because that is, I think, how my children will remember them as well, and, either before or after, nothing bad has happened, nor was I in my mind elsewhere, no other plan, no major commitments.
My daughter says she wants all those with whom she spent time in Montenegro to live together with us forever.That’s what I wanted, to awaken that feeling in her.And even better, she doesn’t have to live like that, but she’s now aware of these emotions and of the place to which these emotions can be attached. It’s where she has all those people that her school friends have in London, which she envied. Now she can talk with confidence about her Godmother, Godsister, her Godbrother, her baby cousin she can carry in her arms, her creative aunt with whom she can paint Easter eggs without anyone getting nervous and rushing her – a place in the south, whose microclimate I always disrupt with my arrival.
My son says that in Montenegro everyone is funny, he likes to listen to people when they speak, they immediately make him laugh.
However, something happens when we want to provide a form for that wit, when we want to formalise it in some way – something misfires. The rhythm, perhaps, we change the rhythm of truth, we bury the humour in too deep a context, into correct grammar, people feel that they need to philosophise at lengths.Lengths are not our destiny, we do not live long, nor deep, nor high, we live from day to day, we have a short form, in chamber and on the streets, we make little ripples on surface, we hear death approaching, with clatter or with a hiss, and we are not some privileged people who occasionally play with transience, no;we have authentic pieces of death all around us, and when we accept this, we will be more successful.
I eat a lot of pasta, pies, rolls, sweet and savoury, oversalted meat, and smoked lake fish, ukljeve. I walk around bloated, having lost the habit of eating such food. I don’t go out much, the weather deteriorated when I arrived, the soil again hard, the aluminum skies, the north wind blowing but not chasing the clouds away. I feel like my hometown considers me a traitor because I use it only occasionally, when I want to warm up my bones, and the town just won’t accept that.
‘Unbelievable,’ I say to my mother. ‘This is a conspiracy.When I come again in July, tell the weather station to alert people of the sudden weather change.’
She is defending our hometown, she always does that, says that this is the warm kind of rain and anyway it will pass soon. The rain does not stop, but it doesn’t matter, my town is always inside me, only here do I speak naturally, in my own dialect, with its dramatically-lazy accent, which one of my Belgrade friends has described as ‘the French sounding version of the Serbian language.’ My heart and my voice, like crazy runaways, somehow always drag themselves back to these streets and their kind-of-assumed-but-ridiculed, planetary completely irrelevant, deaths at every corner.
And my reunion with London?All I see of this city through the window, as I write, is one teenager, sitting alone on a bench, sadly looking at the muddy, slow Thames.Beneath the layers of London that I know well, underneath all the layers through which the picture of a lonely teenager sinks and transforms its meaning, at the hard base of the symbiosis of London and me, I find the thought that the imposed rather than chosen loneliness deserves the most sincere sympathy and help.