He drew a picture of the Australian Kuala bear. “What is that?” Our dark guide asked.
“A Kuala,” we answered.
He poked the pad. “Kuala! That is how you say thank you in Montenegro. Just the same,” announced our tour guide. “Next question?”
“Your name? What does that mean?”
He peered down at his plastic name tag. “Dukan?” He shrugged. “It means nothing. Just a name. Now let’s make a tour!” He strolled off motioning us to follow. “Ask me any question you want.”
A lady in her sixties piped up. “Are you married?”
Everyone laughed. Dukan replied, “I’m 24. Too young for that!” The handsome bachelor then faced the group. “What do you know about Montenegro?”
“It’s the newest country in the world?” one tourist suggested.
“We have 608,000 inhabitants!” said Dukan. “But we only count those born and do not subtract for deaths.” Everyone chuckled. “It is the size of your Connecticut. The capital is Podgorica, but the old name was Titograd. It was one of the six parts of the old Yugoslavia, like Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania… Four years ago, we became independent. Montenegro is named after the dark forests. Eighty-three percent is mountains.”
“You use the Euro?”
“Our old currency was the dinar, but it was up and down and then the deutsch mark and now the Euro,” Dukan answered. “Tourism is our major industry and aluminum and wine. And, of course, we have good beer. The best beer in the world!”
“What is it called?” asked a thirsty member of the group.
“Nik Beer. Sit under the upside down umbrellas in the plaza; have one. You will agree.”
“Why are the umbrellas upside down?” asked a tourist as she spied the numerous, gargantuan white umbrellas.
“It funnels the heat up. When they face down, it traps the heat. Besides,” he shrugged and added, “they collect water to wash floors.”
He told us to notice the pink stones everywhere on the streets in Kotor and pointed out the iron bars to hold walls together and keep them from toppling during earthquakes. He pointed up the hill to a church from the 17th century. He told us we could climb up there, but he wasn’t about to. Dukan said it was built on the hill because of the plague, and it was called “Our Lady of Remedy.” He added, “It is only used three or four times a year.”
We approached a picturesque church, and Dukan mentioned again the earthquakes his country is subjected to. There was one in 1979. “The biggest one was in 1667. Seventy-five percent of the city fell including the bell towers of this church. The left side is smaller now. Not enough money to rebuild it as large.” Inside the cathedral dangled Turkish looking lamps. Dukan said that frescoes used to be everywhere, but they got destroyed by the earthquakes. He told us his country had many differences in topography for a small region. The walled city was protected by Unesco and 50 miles away was the beach and one hour away the lakes. Our guide said the sea gate by which we entered the walled city of Kotor at one time opened to the fjords and there was no land in front of it, different from now.
We stepped over a gypsy prostrate near the entrance her hand outstretched. “Don’t worry, dear guests, about the gypsies,” he said. “Our government supports them well. It is a tradition with some families to beg. There’s only 8 % unemployment. If they don’t work, it is because they choose not.” He said the squares used to be named: “Square of Milk,” “Square of Wood,” Square of Salad,” “Square of Weapons” when this was a trading city. He pointed out the 17th century clock tower and the pillory under it. “Since the 19th century, one family takes care of the clock and puts oil in the clock. Everybody here knows each other.” He showed us the pillory of shame. A wrong doer used to be tied to this obelisk under the clock and folks threw eggs and tomatoes at the sinner, but “Now, no one cares about shame,” he said. “Now, criminals go to prison. Let’s make one rock around the clock,” Dukan urged. He told us how the buildings must stay the same outside, but inside there are modern apartments, and he pointed out many beautiful palaces in Kotor of the educated families.
“This place was liberated from the Nazis on November 21, 1944,” he stated matter-of –factly. He pointed to the Coat of Arms of Yugoslavia above the sea gate and showed us a quotation of Tito which said: “We didn’t touch you. Don’t touch us.” The date 21-xi-1944.
When I stepped off our cruise ship in the tranquil bay at the gate of Kotor, I knew nothing of this quaint city or country or of the beautiful winding fjords that lead from picturesque bay to picturesque bay like a series of unfolding accordion postal cards one prettier than the other. Just as we neared the boat, women selling crocheted tablecloths with delicate flowers on them approached. I bought one; several more sellers swarmed me, and I bought another, which attracted a taxi cab driver who asked: “Want to see a beautiful walled city?”
“I just did!” pointing back to the city protected by Saint Tryphon and what’s left of him- his relics.
The cab driver waved his hands dismissing Kotor. “Budva! You need to cross the mountains and see Budva!”
“As pretty as this?”
“Yes. And I’ll take you to Sveti Stefan too. Beautiful!”
We hopped into the car of Boro, our driver who took us to see Jaz Beach and talked on a cell phone with his daughter Jasmine, who could translate if we needed it. The drive was spectacular. When we arrived back a couple of hours later, we took Dukan’s advice and sat on a terrace gazing at the Bay of Kotor while we drank Nik Beer under upside down umbrellas. Perfecto.
Oh, to be young at heart, open to adventure, and in Montenegro—with a Nik in hand! Happiness comes in the form of adventure, seeing sights you’ve never laid eyes on and talking with people you never even knew existed. (When I was a teen, I recall reading The Great Gatsby, and Gatsby said he’d been awarded a medal from Montenegro. I don’t think I even paused to locate on a globe where in the world that exotic place—Montenegro— was!)
Sometimes, the elusive butterfly of glee is captured when one explores beyond the familiar and mundane. Take risks. Pursue adventure. Find joy.