Some time ago I flew from London to Tivat on Montenegro Airlines. Curiously, I departed from almost the same gate that I had departed form 11 months earlier although on the prior occasion I was bound for Rhodes for a rather different purpose – a mash out holiday with Club 18-30. I had never heard of this airline. I sat beside a British couple who were in their 60s – at a guess. This slender pair visited the country regularly. Almost every seat was taken that sunny afternoon.
I had a leaf through the in flight magazine. Withing three hours we were decnding over the azure Adriatic. The craggy cliffs of Montenegro were there to greet us. The small plane landed smoothly and we disgorged. I do not think there was a blanket on board to pinch.
Hills stood around the miniature airport. The bus at the terminal building emptied us out into the heat of a summer afternoon. A large sign greeted us in English, Russian and Montenegrin. I deduced that Russians were the main tourists in this country. I read the Montenegrin words. I knew the language to be a Slavonic one though written in the Latin alphabet. I saw the name of the country was ”Crno Gore” in the Montenegrin language. That translates as ”Black Mountain”. Montenegro means black mountain in I am not quite sure which language since ”monte” is a mountain in Italian and ”negro” is an Italian word. How did we put these two together to make the English word?
I was out of the airport fairly quick as the border police stamped the passports with a businesslike briskness. There were plenty of taxis around. I was called Daria as I was supposed to be. She was the Russian mother whose sons I was to tutor. I spoke to her briefly to confirm I had arrived and found that my phone had been relieved of 10 pounds of credit for this brief conversation. The land beyond the car park was arid with a few stumpy and crooked trees stooping down, plenty of scrubby bushes and strongly aromatic flowers.
I haggled with a taxi driver or two. I knew the man I made a deal with was a taxi driver since his cab was yellow and had a taxi sign on it. We struck a deal for 20 Euros. Montenegro does not have its own currency and uses the Euro. Previous to that it used the deutschmark. During the wars in the former Yugoslavia Montenegro was united with Serbia. The Serb dinar lost most of its value and virtually no one outside of Serbia and Montenegro was willing to take it. Therefore Montenegro unofficially adopted the deutschmark.
The car buzzed down the road. The muscular young man behind the wheel worried me a little. If there was a dispute over the fare would there be fisticuffs? Where was he taking me/ The road was only one lane in either direction. The landscape was the same – dry with plenty of trees but all of them short. The hills tapered up rapidly with ample amounts of bare stone – pink and dun in hue.
In about 20 minutes we came out from a very narrow canyon and out onto a flat coastal area overlooking a gorgeous bay. The deep blue of this cove was surmounted by very tall rounded hills. A low rise town beckoned. We pulled up by a stone building. This was the place. A diminutive bearded Serb met me. He was the man deputised by Daria to welcome me. I handed over the money and asked for a receipt. He would not give me a receipt but handed me 5 Euros back. The Serb revealed that the cabbie was illegal. But his can was painted in the livery and had the word taxi on it?
This English speaking urbane Serb of 20 something showed me my room. I forked over the cash for my two nights stay. He was gone. I glimpsed the people in the next room: a porcine middle aged Russian of the female persuasion and her prepubescent son. I greeted her in Russian but it turned out she spoke good English since she taught the language.
My en suite room had a kitchenette and a verandah. From the verandah I could see the round bay. I was on the outskirts of Kotor. After ablutions I head out. I walked down some steps and onto a seaside road. A stone cemented wall was the only barrier between that and the shore.
I strode along the littoral road keeping the tranquil sea on my left. The occasional car whirred past. I passed countless houses most of them small. It was evident that they were mostly for holiday lets. There were restaurants and bars but none of them were raucous. Russian conversation twittered from many tables but incongruously I caught no whiff of vodka or caviar. This was a destination chiefly for middle class Russian rather than the stinking rich.
The road curved with the bay. After a good 20 minutes on shank’s mare I was more or less at the centre of Kotor. There was a swimming pool filled with sea water in which a faught water polo match was contested as the audience sat on terraces transfixed.
I ate some junk food at a fast food joint where the electricity kept cutting out. I had a good stroll around Kotor. I saw some large and luxurious yacht docked in the marina. I also found that every Montenegrin I exchanged words with spoke at least passable British. I was prepared to and even eager to attempt communication in my infantile Russian but their linguisitic capabilities deprive me of the opportunity. I reckoned that Russian and Montenegrin must be cousin languages. Seeing ”dobre yotrom” on a bottle of milk confirmed my conjecture.
I found a bar just beyond the old city – in through an ancient stone gateway and by a theatre. I was able to use the internet there for a few minutes. As I waited for a computer to become free I had the chance to chat to a group of half a dozen French boys. They had driven from France. They were all a bit bohemian with long hair, numerous tattoos, faded T shirts and ripped jeans. I told them what I was doing there and they inquired if I spoke Russian. I revealed that I know a spot of that language. One of them remarked ”je crois que ton passion est les langues”. I correct them – it is History. They played darts intermittently. I also learnt that smoking is permitted indoors in this little land.
Then for the way back. The crickets were abuzz. The bars were half busy. I walked and walked. I tried to recognise my building. Beyond the church I knew that much – but before the bridge. I overshot and backtracked. I walked forward again and backward again. I went into a pub and inquired. I was boasting a T shirt with Margaret Thatcher in the guise of Margaret Thatcher. A white bearded Dublin man spoke to the barman about another Irish drinker. ”He is used to thinking in sterling because he comes from the occupied part”. The OCCUPIED part – what a tart allusion to Northern Ireland. I hope this epithet was jocular. He espied my T shirt and perceptively inquired ”Is dat Maggie Tatcher?” I affirmed. ”Dat’s an insult to Che Guevara.” I considered asking if he was a Thatcherite but I could already guess the answer. I was in need of assistance and judged it injudicious to alienate people. I was tempted to quip that any likening of the Iron Lady to Che Guevara was a grosss insult to the former. She was a valiant freedom fighter and he was a savagely oppressive, ruthlessly exploitative and violently anti-democratic, homophobic racist megalomaniac narcissist.
Later a Serb at an outdoor table helped me. Finally I located the place and was able to take a kip.
Next morning I headed to the shore. Over the rough stone wall. I found a way to clamber down onto the sharp pebbles. There were several private jetties and my respect for property forfended trespassing. The Russian tourists would not take kindly to me setting foot on their jetties. Communists are very possessive about their private property you know.
I swam in the Adriatic – it was cooler than I had anticipated. The sea was pacific that day and through the translucent water I caught sight of a few minnows. I did not immerse my head because I get water trapped in my lugholes and ear infections swiftly ensue.
I then made my way to my local corner shop for milk, bread and margarine. I was pleased and almost discomposed to find that the frumpy woman behind the till spoke not a syllable of English. At last – an excuse to roadtest my Russian in a country that does not speak Russian! We blundered through the simple transaction in a language that neither of us spoke.
I sat on a stone wall where the road swerved. I munched my way through a bread with shiny brown crust – dipping it into the creamy white margarine. Cars pootled past as I gazed across the placid bay towards the yachts serenely sailing out to the open sea. Soon I had had my fill.
I had to return to my room – fetch my laptop and hea d into the internet cafe. I carried it in the knapsack and was soon perspiring liberally. I had to speak to an educational consultancy in Chelsea. I recorded an online video for them for my next gig. It worked as I was later offered more work. I shall tell you about that on another occasion.
I strode about the old city. A moat surrounds its thick dark grey walls. Tourists walked about sedately – necks craned to admire the centuries old edifices that lines the many lanes. The place was pristine but somehow not fascinating. I saw a stone walkway leading steeply up towards a fortress further up the mountain that soared above the town.
I went back to my room and read some more before taking another dip. I had been working in a language school in London teaching adults. The work agreed with me but I disagreed with the miserable remuneration. I was determined not to shell out more shekels that necessary to keep body and spirit united. Yes, I deliberately rewrote the idiom.
Next morn there was time for another paddle around in the brine. Then I showered off the salt and hopped into my half decent garb. I wheeled my Turkish Airlines supplied black four wheeled suitcase along the road. Pushing a huge case is a good way to take notice how uneven the road surface in. Soon I was glowing – to put it courteously. I grew irritated as the sun pummelled me. I was sure that when I met the family they would complain about the state of me. Well how else was I to appear after wheeling a hefty case along for 3 miles. Splash out on a cab was the answer but I was keeping a tight fist on my farthings.
I spent some time surfing the web gleaning information as I am fixated with acquiring more facts and words. Pretty soon it was the appointed hour to meet the family. I texted the captain of the yacht. I was told his name was Marc. Was he French I wondered?
I wheeled my case along the marine towards the biggest white yacth. I saw the name of it – I shall call it Sun. A minivan hummed by and out hopped four adults and two children. Sailors in white polo shirts and beiege shirts loaded the cases onto the yacht with dazzling efficiency. A skinny woman turned to me and asked my name. It was Daria who was greeting me – talk about perfect timing. That had just flown in from Russia.
How odd that I should have forgotten names already. I shall invent those I do not recall. Daria’s husband was a very short man named Gary. Gary’s brother Yevgeny was there with his young wife Lara. Gary and Yevgeny were in their 40s. Daria was 40 – she told me. Lara looked about 25 and was almost painfully thin.
The older boy was named Alexandr but known by the standard Russian diminutive Sasha. His brother was named Genrikh.
I saw the captain and said ”permission to come on board sir”. The amiable capatin said of course and told me to call him Marc. I was later to learn it was Mark. He was British and said foreigners often misspelt his Christian name.
The crew consisted of the captain, the first mate an Aussie, a British sailor, a Swedish engineer named Roly, A French chef called Cedric, an Australian head stewardess called Stacey and a Polish second stewardess named Asia.
The yacht was 40 metres long and was the most splendid vessel I had ever seen. Everything was of the highest standard and not a smudge was to be found on the place. I was ushered to my en suite cabin. I handed my passport to the captain.
Up to the back of the main deck – the open section with a dining table. Boxes of wine had been carried aboard. Under the middday sun the parents sat quaffing champagne and offered me a flute of it. It would be discourteous to decline so I partook with gusto. Not a bad start to a job.
In a moment the yacht slipped its mooring and eased out into the harbour. We were departing Montenegro and there were no more formalities. Mark has slipped the harbourmaster 40 Euros and a one off exception was made – and made routinely he said.
We turned the corner in the bay and I admired the magnificent mountains towering above us. We picked up a little speed and came out along the fjord. We met the current of the open sea. There was mild turbulence and at last I felt the undulating motion of being at sea.
We cruised to Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar, Mljet and lastly Split. There are a couple of islets I have missed on the 9 day itinerary.
The boys were a tad diffident at first but that is becoming. Sasha was 13 and Genrikh was 10. It turned out that they were step brothers. Mum and dad had both been previously married and divorced. These boys had no other siblings. They got along splendidly.
We looked in at some pretty Croat town just beyond the maritime border. A stunning yachting agent in a pencil skirt and tight blouse walked up to the gangplank as we docked. There were formalities with the documents and then we weighed anchor.
I wandered around the boat. The captain welcomed me into the bridge and said to come in any time. The crew were all personable. Roly had been a submariner in the Swedish Navy. He was the shortest Swede I ever saw and so it must have suited to him to serve on these submersibles where space is in short supply. Like every Swede I ever met he spoke near perfect English. He told me his wife was Canadian but was unable to master the Swedish language not least because every Swede whom she addressed in Swedish replied in flawless English. His goatee did not add height as he must have surmised it would. The Ruskies ribbed him as Lenin. Roly took it in good spirit. He would have made anyone a Suecophile.
I was told not to tutor the boys formally – just to hang around the tutor them. It seemed like the easiest job I had ever landed. The children were agreeable and courteous without being too distant.
Soon I was engaged in endless chess matches. I did not play Sasha so much. He was an able player and bested me. I lost to the little one deliberately. After Genrikh had wiped the floor with me thrice he thought about it. He smelt a rat and realised I was losing to him on purpose. His mother had a word with me and told me to play with all my virtuosity and that is not ample in my case. I defeated him a few times but he raised his game. Even when I played my level best he could outsmart me.
Our first morning we were anchored off some gorgeous cove. A few hundred metres offshore I could still hear the chorus of crickets sing. The thin soiled island was covered in countless low trees with deep green waxy needles. The loam was clay coloured and meagre.
I awoke at 8.40 and had breakfast, Daria sat there in a bikini with something like a negligee thrown over to lend her a modicum of modesty. She took luxuriant drags on a stick thin cigarettes and quipped about how late I was in rising. I took the hint and thereafter always struggled out of the sack at 8 bells.
The red faced uncle sat there. His florid face was surmounted by messy grey hair. He downed champagne like water and looked as happy as a paedophile in a playground. He was a smiley sort and he had a lot to beam about. More alcohol than a whale could drink, a Barbie bride, a bank account fatter than Pavarotti. This was the way each morning – they had champagne as part of their repast. That is the life!
I would dive into croissants and sometimes order scrambled eggs. These are the best I have ever munched. I would pop into the kitchen and pass the time of day with Cedric. I was the only other one aboard who spoke French. The 50 something Frenchman, like most people of his nation, was only to happy to speak his own language. People of other European nationalities will often insist on speaking English even when I speak to them in their mother tongue.
Genrikh arose at six before anyone was up. Once he kayaked across to an island a couple of hundred yards yonder.
In mid morning we would begin some activities. We swam in the salty Adriatic. I was introduced to a tremendous piece of kit called a seadoo. This invention allows one to hold on and press a button and it pulls you through the water. The sea was always almost flat calm. I saw no spume on the whole voyage.
I went sea kayaking with Genrikh once. The shoreline was covered in myriad sea urchins. I recalled how my mother had stood on one here in what was then Yugoslavia nigh 40 years in arrear.
The water seemed as clean as can be. There were a few other stately yachts anchored nearby.
Some days the dipsomaniac uncle never emerged from his cabin. His sexy and youthful wife always had either and electronic or a real cigarette in her tempting lips. She was a smiley doll but had little to say for herself. A barely there bikini would cover a tiny portion of her honey brown skin. Daria’s main preoccupation was changing her bikini five times a day.
Sometimes our discussions turned to politics. I was glad to engage in such dialogues but was circumspect in case I upset them. There spoke nostalgically of the Soviet Union. They were critical but not vituperative about the United States. They spoke gleefully of the embarrassment that Edward Snowden has caused the USA. Uncle Sam had egg on his face and this caused them endless smirks. They remarked acidly that the United States was supposed to be the Land of the Free. American gratingly lectured Russia on human rights yet an American who revealed how much America spied on its own people had to find asylum in Russia.
They deprecated the United States for liberating Iraq and Afghanistan. They inquired what I made of British participation. I am an ardent supporter of both of these righteous missions. I decided to voice my view somewhat without going so far as to provoke their wrath. I temporised by saying that the United Kingdom was right to take military action in Afghanistan but not in Iraq. I think that is the middle ground position in the United Kingdom. I told them how I had met Cameron and what I made of them. I was seeking a long term role as a private tutor so I underlined the fact that Cameron had been as privileged as to attend the same school and university as me. I calculated that such a fact could only redound to my credit.
They spoke about Syria and how it was ironic that the US Government was assisting the same sort of hideous religious extremists as had wreaked havoc in New York not so many years before.
Between drags on their flavoured cigarettes and swigs of strong waters Daria asked me about coming to Moscow. I said I was keen to and stated a price. ”It is not so small”, she giggled. She would think over my suggested salary. I had jobs in the bag and so I was far from desperate. It is pleasant to negotiate from a position of strength.
The sun blazed and I my glasses were breaking. These were cheap shit ones I got in Turkey for 3 nicker.
In Korcula we went ashore. We were met by a minivan taxi. I was hesitant about stepping into the passenger seat. I wished to leave the position of honour for one of the men. But they hastily piled into the bad and so I found myself seated up front. The inept and elderly taxi driver spoke English and wore a dopey cap. He foolishly tried to engage us in conversation and the family were having none of it.
Russians are thought by Occidentals to be morose and unsmiling. In my experience of them this is not so – especially after they get to know you. An American in Moscow remarked that the Russians do not crack a smile too frequently but when they do so it is utterly earnest.
Korucla is the putative birthplace of Marco Polo. Let me call him by the English translation of his name: Mark Chicken. Mark Chicken is not such an impressive moniker.
The road wound up between pine forests and stretches of sand into the rumpled hills of this narrow island. Bare boulders marked the way. We turned off the main road and quickly found ourselves in an unpaved car park. This was a small restaurant. A hulking grey bearded man was the maitre d’ . He spoke terrific English. His sons were similarly muscular and the elder one had an ursine beard. They family had regularly dined here. The son of the manager spoke to us of his elation that a Croat general had been acquitted by the International Court in the Hague. This man had returned to a hero’s welcome. The Russian family congratulated the waiter on this good news. I had not the heart nor the foolhardiness to the expose the irony of this. This same family had been telling me how just the Serb cause was in this war because Serbs were Orthodox Christians and needed to be supported against the wicked machinations of the fascist Westerners.
The lamb we had requested was not ready. That part of the order had not got through. We had some other filling meal.
Back to the yacht for a few hours down time. I read a lot and surfed the internet.
That evening we returned to the same restaurant. We supped on that exquisite lamb that had been slowed roasted for hours. The succulent flesh melted in my rapacious mouth.
In the evening the sailors would change into a darker uniform with trousers. The stewardesses had a black evening uniform. The fine bodied Asia would lightly make herself up. She had lived in Italy for ten years and had gone to university there. She was too smart to do this job. I noticed my cabin was cleaned a few times a day. The service was impossible to fault.
Mark the captain had been in this line of work for 25 years. He never wished to be domiciled in England again he said. Between voyages he lived on St Bart – a French island in the Caribbean. I would like to see that demi-paradise.
I wondered how the mariners lived without nookie as they could not even go ashore too often. I do not think the stewardesses serviced the hormonal needs of these 5 males. Perhaps the sailors took turns in the barrel. I considered cracking this joke but did not wish to be keel hauled.
It was odd that we did not put ashore at Dubrovnik. The family had done this voyage several times in both directions. If I had more money than accountant could calculate I would not be going up and down the same narrow sea every time but each to their own.
The brothers had been to military school and now ran an aviation business. I wondered if this was a bit like the Lord of War. I did not question them on this as I might be thrown overboard. I thought as savage bullying is rife in the Russian Army it must have been extra tough for the undersized dad. Consequently he must be has hard as nails to compensate for his paucity of stature.
They all spoke English. Daria spoke it best being a lawyer educated at Moscow STate University of Foreign Languages. I was not to let on to the boys that I can speak Russian like a two year old. It is trickier than you might think to produce an impression of incomprehension. Sasha told Genrikh – ”we will not swim today but tomorrow”. Sasha read the expression of understanding on my face and noticed the slight nod of agreement. I spoke to the adults in Russian when the boys were away.
We would go out on the banana. This is a three metre yellow inflatable toy. It was towed behind the tender. At high speed and pulling some sharp turns the sailors dunked us into the drink many times. It was good fun. I sat right at the back as the sailors advised me to put the mass towards the rear. If the weight was in the van then the banana would nosedive. It was exhilirating but climbing back onto the banana was a bitch. I wouldd keep slipping off the smooth rubber and back into the sea. I found the trick was to get my head up as it is the heaviest part of the body and the rest will follow. Do not pull your body up with the head leaning back – that is a sure way to fall back in. It was exhausting.
I began thinking about sharks. It was ridiculous I know. I made the mistake of looking them up on wikipedia and therefor thought even more about them. I noted that the last fatality from a shark attack in Europe was 1989.