Our Man in Montenegro…

Follow Tom’s amazing adventures in the poetic darklands of Montenegro as he tackles the complexities of literary life in the shadows of the recent conflicts…

Tom Phillips

Wednesday 22 June

It’s not yet high season on the Croatian coast, but Dubrovnik Old Town is packed. The three of us – Mary, Peter and I – are on our way to Niksic in Montenegro for a conference on writing and place, but after an early morning flight from a rain-soaked Bristol we’re sneaking a holiday into half a day: seafood lunch, swim, ice-cream. Like the famous bridge in Mostar, much of the Old Town is a reconstruction: sections of neater stonework like scar tissue attest to the destruction wrought by artillery shells lobbed onto the city from the surrounding higher ground. By the breakwater in whose lee people swim, a man and three boys are heaving loose stones from under the city wall and tossing them into the sea. The earnestness with which they do this suggests that this isn’t merely a game; they too are engaged in some form of reconstruction.

Nikola’s due to pick us up outside the West Gate in his dark-blue Audi. This is the most tenuous part of our travelling arrangements, relying on our remembering each other from two years before when Nikola drove a van full of delegates from another conference down the hair-raising hairpins lacing the cliff-face behind Kotor. Despite the odds, the rendezvous passes off without incident and we’re soon driving south along the coast road, high above the Adriatic, before turning inland for the first in a series of border crossings: from Croatia (and the EU) into Bosnia & Hercegovina and from Bosnia & Hercegovina into Montenegro. Each crossing entails two stops at passport control – leaving one country, traversing a strip of no man’s land and then entering the next. Unlike previous years, I only get one stamp in my passport – on the way into Montenegro.

There’s little sign of human activity in a landscape of bleached rocks and scrubby trees. The occasional restaurants at the roadside don’t look like they’ve seen much trade. The only town we skirt is Trebinje in southern Bosnia, a new road system swinging us through the suburbs of graffiti’d apartment blocks. Mist hangs in swags across a reservoir, the residue of an abrupt shift in the weather that afternoon when the temperature plummeted and a rainstorm broke. On the final leg down towards the plain on which Niksic sits surrounded by mountains, Nikola points out the island-spotted lake below. There are just enough vocabulary overlaps between his Montenegrin and my rudimentary Bulgarian for me to grasp that the lake isn’t natural, it’s another reservoir.
The Hotel Sindcel is directly opposite the university in Niksic. It’s where I stayed two years ago – only this time I get a room with a balcony. There’s hardly time to offload our bags before we’re off again, just down the road to a new cafe where Marija is waiting with her husband Neil. I’ve helped her out with this year’s conference, but she’s done most of the work. We sit drinking unfermented Niksicko beer and eating smoked Montenegrin ham but the 4.30am start is taking its toll – and we have two days of conferencing ahead. Reluctantly we bow out early.

Thursday 23 June

The conference is the follow-up to 2014’s ‘The Balkans in Travel Writing’. When Marija and I put round the call for papers we received more than 40 proposals from academics across Europe and America. Concerns about time and expense have halved that number, but we’ve still got a programme that runs from 9am to 6pm each day and papers that range from transnational identity to dystopian literature, notions of home and locative deixis. There are still quite a few delegates who haven’t shown up by the time we’re filing into the main seminar room but that is the kind of conference it’s going to be: people come and go. Some drive all night to get to Niksic from Serbia, Bosnia or Kosovo and when they’ve delivered their paper get back in their car and drive all night to go home. It’s a reminder that many of these academics have come here under their own steam, at their own expense.

The vice-dean of the University of Montenegro gives the official welcoming address and then I’m up, stumbling through an improvised introduction to Peter, the keynote speaker. He discusses his own poems in relation to the concept of ‘home’ and how writing and art are amongst the means by which we form attachments to places. It’s more than thirty years since we first met – when he taught me at university the first time round. I’ve known Mary for almost as long – since I taught her to use a UHER reel-to-reel tape recorder on a radio training course. It seems simultaneously strange and inevitable that the three of us should now be sitting together in a seminar room in Montenegro.

Back home, it’s EU referendum day. Most of the conference delegates are from countries aspiring to join the union. They’re slightly puzzled as to why the UK might want to leave. So are we.

I’ve slipped a joke about it into my own conference paper – although by the time I read it, the joke doesn’t seem all that funny.

Even by Balkan standards, the weather is unseasonably hot. When the conference wraps up for the day, Mary and I go in search of a supermarket, but even though I’ve been to Niksic before I lead us in completely the wrong direction and end up wandering along a suburban street of half-built houses with newly mown lawns. At the cigarette kiosk near the university, the woman behind the counter describes to Mary the differences between unfamiliar brands.

The official conference dinner is at a restaurant overlooking tennis courts whose popularity attests to the Djokovic effect. We’re right at the edge of town, shadowed by forest. Marija is explaining how, when she was researching DH Lawrence’s travel writing, there was only one copy of Twilight in Italy in the whole of Montenegro. Even now resources remain scarce: there’s a little library of English books in the room where we’ve been taking our coffee breaks but neither students nor staff are allowed to borrow them. Fortunately, the strong red Montenegrin wine dispels any sense of Brexit foreboding as we walk back along a leafy boulevard towards our hotel.

Fri 24 June

We may have spent yesterday discussing intercultural exchange and liminal hybridity, but now it’s dawn and I’m sitting on my tiny hotel balcony as post after post goes up on Facebook. Eventually I get a text from my wife, who’s sat up all night watching the referendum result come in: all it says is ‘I can’t speak’. Over breakfast I suggest burning our boarding passes: I’m only half-joking.

More new delegates arrive. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the two researchers from Kosova who are talking about locative deixis are, in fact, the two postgraduate students who showed me round when I first arrived at the University of Prishtina for an Albanology conference three years ago. This sort of thing seems to be par for the course – and never mind the chain of events that brought me to the Balkans in the first place.

At lunchtime, first Mary and then Peter slip away to find some time and space to try and make sense of the news from the UK. I stay on in the restaurant where, it turns out, Marija and Neil first met – she a Montenegrin lecturer, he a Native Canadian photographer. I tell a couple of Bosnians that Mostar is one of my children’s favourite places. ‘Mostar is hot,’ is all they say. It takes a while for me to realise that they are probably from the Republika Srpska whereas Mostar is in Bosnia’s other post-Dayton ‘entity’, the Bosnian Federation. Philipp, a Belgian professor, laughs politely at my efforts at post-Brexit gallows humour.

We bring the conference to a close at six that evening after Mary has played recordings of Native Americans and Afro-Caribbeans talking about their ideas of home. Marija and I agree that we have enough good papers for phase two: a book of critical essays. We walk back to the restaurant at the edge of the forest. Peter and I are doing a poetry reading with Amela – a Serbian poet from Novi Pazar. A good number of the conference delegates show up and seem to enjoy the reading, even if the latter stages are punctuated by a particularly yappy stray dog. To round off the evening, Marija and Neil have us all writing short poems based on random words delivered to us on folded pieces of paper. My word is ‘solace’. I can’t help wondering if that was deliberate. When there’s only a handful of us left, I take solace of a different kind: a glass of potent quince raki.

Sat 25 June

We’re off to the seaside. Marija has organised a conference excursion to Herceg Novi – a resort on the shores of the only fjord in Europe outside Norway. Nikola pilots the university minibus along the main road out of town and we head south towards the coast. Marija’s uttered dire warnings about the traffic, but there doesn’t seem to be much about – at least not until we’ve come down through the mountains and arrived on the coast road.

In Herceg Novi itself, the little beaches and bathing spots are crowded and there’s a steady drift of holidaymakers along the streets. Tower blocks built in the 60s and 70s to house workers in the local dockyards and factories flutter with multicoloured towels. Many of the tourists are Russian. The Montenegrin coast has yet to emerge as an alternative ‘costa’ for west Europeans.
Everyone seems desperate to swim – mainly because the temperature’s now up around the 40 degrees mark – but I don’t fancy it and sit on the pebbles in my long trousers and long-sleeve shirt like the archetypal reluctant Brit. Lunch, of course, is seafood – a three-hour buffet of mussels, squid and sea bass over which conversations fade in and out of focus, interrupted by forays outside to see if the heat shows any sign of abating. It doesn’t. Peter, Marija and I hole up in a beach bar where the steady stream of goodbyes begins: our colleagues disperse, some back to Niksic, some off on holiday, some to visit family. Walking back to our guesthouse along the front, fully exposed to the glare off the white concrete and the silvery fjord, it’s hard to find any shelter – or that word again: ‘solace’.

I wake up from a nap with stomach cramps. We’re to walk to the old town and have another seafood dinner in another restaurant at which Marija and Neil are regulars. Marija’s telling us about coming on holiday to Herceg Novi as a child, when it was still part of Yugoslavia, and staying with her grandmother and tripping down the old town steps to a corner of beach overlooked by a statue of a nymph or goddess. We pass it as we emerge from the tunnel that divides the town between the rambling verticals of the old and the concrete horizontals of the new. By the time we’ve assaulted a long and staggering staircase I realise that I’m coming down with something. Marija suggests the Balkan cure-all – raki – but I’ve tried that before and the results have never been pretty. I stick to Fanta as we take a breather in a square overlooked by a clock that might have come from a fairy tale illustration. I don’t want to turn in early on this, our last night, but have to admit defeat, wandering back through the upper town between luminous storefronts until dropping back down through a dark public garden to the lights laced on poles along the shore.

Sun 26 June

The imminence of departure inevitably brings with it a sense that I should have done more to catch up with the latest new writing in SE Europe, that there are plenty of conversations I should have had. As has happened before, what I’m coming away with is a naive sense of possibility – that, while the position of writers, artists and academics in the Balkans is no less precarious than it is anywhere else, there’s a lot going on here. The papers we’ve heard at the conference, the ideas about place and home and new writing spaces, have reignited thoughts about exchange and collaboration – and how translating and publishing contemporary Balkan literature isn’t simply about exposing it to English-speaking audiences, of – as it were – bringing ‘them’ to ‘us’.
My intestinal rebellion means that breakfast is orange juice by the fjord while the others tuck into something more substantial. The heat’s already building and the water’s dotted with bobbing heads. Somewhat inevitably, we’re reflecting on the incongruity of travelling days: waking in an unfamiliar country, going to bed at home – if that’s the word for the place we’re heading back to and for the moment can only glimpse through shrieking post-referendum headlines.

Waiting for the taxi that’ll take us to Dubrovnik airport, I’m looking again at the specific shades of grey and green across the water and the hills, the cotton wool scrub, the tatty apartment blocks and cottages hidden behind burgeoning oleanders, the fag butts and dust on the pavement. Marija and Neil are talking about how they’ll spend the rest of the day before driving back to Niksic: a reminder that the place won’t simply freeze the moment I leave and then magically reanimate itself the next time I fly out here. The urge to burn my boarding card momentarily resurfaces.

The only hold-up is when we’re crossing the Croatian border; we have to queue to get back into the EU. But it’s not a major delay and we’re soon at the airport, seeing Phillipp off on his flight to Belgrade and onwards to Brussels. We scrape together enough Croatian kuna to pay for a round of soft drinks and find a slab of shade in which to sit out the wait for our flight. It feels as if we’re a long way from home – but, of course, we aren’t. It’s 150 minutes in the air and already, on the bus from the terminal to the plane, a couple from Bristol are filling us in on the latest news: the resignations, the tumbling economy, the things we’ve missed and don’t miss. And, of course, there are clouds over western Europe and we jolt down through them to a Bristol that’s being lashed with rain and walk into the airport terminal with our conference folders and our notes and our intentions to read the authors whose work we’ve encountered for the first time and our photographs and our recordings and our memories of discussions, dinners and a poetry reading interrupted by a vociferous dog.

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