“I’m not sure I want to do anything about this”
I overheard this at the check-in counter for my connecting flight in Belgrade on my return to Pont-Aven. A British tourist was going ballistic over the apparent loss of her luggage and the JAT flight attendant’s apparent gaffe (or deliberate affirmation) with “want” versus “can do anything…” offered a delightful summation of my time in Cetijne, Montenegro.
In 2005 during my first stay and appointment at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art, one of our nine Post-bac students, Milena Martinovic, met and fell in love with the son of my fellow faculty member, Sam Walsh, when he, Tady, was visiting his dad.
An international, long distance, four-year romance ensued and became a matrimonial legality with celebrations in Budvah, Montengro. It was a beautiful ceremony linking hearts, cultures and families and it was an honor to witness the union.
Milena had earlier passed on my “Tournament (lumens)” catalog to the director, Mirjana of the Atelier Dado (contemporary venue of the National Museum of Montenegro) in Cetijne and she had asked me to come and put together an exhibition with the opening occurring the night before the wedding.
So here I was with facets of my life strangely coalescing and merging in a small town in Montenegro.
But I’m still ahead of myself…..
A week before the opening and wedding, I was in the bus with this semester’s students on the way to Paris to see them off to their homes and/or all points international. They were a great, talented group that made my last semester session an absolute joy.
A night in a hotel at Roissy and then off to a country that I have to admit until a month before I had no real idea where it was……..US-centric and shameful, yes, I know.
For those who also won’t admit not knowing… if Italy was a cowboy boot, the spur would be pointing directly at Montenegro.
Paris to Belgrade went without a hitch but the departure time from Belgrade to Podgorica was pushed back three times over the course of two days. By the time I rolled my bags into the airport, I was looking at a seven-hour layover. It was spent with Zorica, one of this session’s Post-bac students over coffee and snacks with a large, traveling missionary group loudly serenading us all with earnest anthems and committed hymns until airport security shut them down.
I got into Podgorica at about midnight and was driven to Cetijne by the curator’s husband Lazar. He gave me an informative history lesson and generous description of the region and I was very excited to immerse myself into this unknown.
The Atelier Dado is right in the middle of the main pedestrian plaza in the heart of Cetijne and as I lugged my giant bag filled with exhibition bits, sandals, suit jackets and gift galletes to my front door, I felt the last of the end of term tensions slip away. I was meeting with Mirjana first thing in the morning so I curled up in my bed in the small apartment that was part of the gallery and collapsed.
I though that the French had dominance and mastery over café culture’s blissful acceptance and agenda free embrace of simply passing time but if there was an international tournament to dedicated leisure, my bets are on the good citizens of Cetijne. I swung open my doors the following morning and was greeted by a sea of outdoor seating, umbrellas and apron clad folks bringing round the next tray of espressos and cappuccinos that were delicious, dark and highly caffeinated.
They were also 1.10 euros! A refreshing change from the overpriced, agitated brown water in Pont-Aven.
They had surprisingly set me up with an open tab at a small restaurant across the plaza from the gallery and I met Mirjana there to have my first two euro ham and cheese omelette that was the size of a folded Sunday New York Times. Must unpack the running shoes….
After a lovely discussion about how the week would proceed, we were back on the road to Podgorica to have the large format vinyl banners printed for the exhibition.
Thumb drive in pocket we were off only to be stopped by the road construction that would randomly close the main road for extended periods of time making it a crapshoot getting in or out of town. Here I first witnessed the rather free-form, cavalier driving habits of the region which would later in the week have me suppressing shrieks of terror in a cab tearing through and around the high mountain roads on the way to the wedding.
It’s amazing how fast you can sweat through a suit.
We completed this errand with an obligatory stop for coffee and a snack and were back in Cetinje were I met the gentleman who was to be my “assistant” for the week.
If by assistant one means opening the door, asking if I was cold and then disappearing for the day, then he was tops in the field. His invisibility, I found out, was an ongoing issue that unfortunately came to an ugly head during my stay and I was rolled into the drama simply by association. By mid-week, my attempts at “hello” on the street were met with a disdainful snub.
Great……cue international incident.
The other gentleman helping me out had their own, varying conceptions of “task”, “completion” and “focus” and each executed them seemingly independent of my needs or desires or in any recognizable cooperative way with each other.
Before I continue, let me paste in the Montenegro “Ten Commandments” that were widely available in the souvenir shops circling the plaza.
Let it be the contextual bracket for my following rant….
Any suggestions or request would be met with a plea for the necessity of checking with a “colleague”. This would involve leaving the gallery and if it was a good day, a return before nightfall with an answer or the needed tool. More often than not, it meant finding the cluster of “colleagues” two cafes down enjoying a beverage. Three would eventually return and between them would have a hammer and a drill. Of course the colleague with the drill was not the holder of the drill’s battery and a different colleague had the bits and wouldn’t it really be better tomorrow what with the road construction and all…….?
Guy behavior seems to transcend international boundaries and I realized I could have been working anywhere when after understanding and then finally proceeding with the task I clearly recognized similar strategies:
1. Push really hard
2. Step back
4. Push again
5. Wiggle and/or rotate object of attention
6. Step out to have a smoke
7. Claim it can’t be done
8. Scratch (different place)
9. Reschedule for tomorrow
I had to take a really deep breath and try not to be even more of a privileged, “why isn’t everything available to me?” irritating prick.
“NO, not a prick, …just American” my French “colleagues” pointed out to me when I was sharing these stories upon my return.
Morning runs through the town and out into the surrounding region kept the tensions down and the delicious red wine and obscene cakes at a caloric stand-off. Time was going by very rapidly and I realized that with all I had to do with the exhibition, my parallel mini-vacation was going to be rather limited so my morning runs exposed me to the landscape, architecture and character of the region.
We had darkened the gallery early in the week and the tomb-like quality had me pawing at the shuttered doors so by mid-week I was daily joining colleagues in the afternoon for a beverage or two. When in Rome……
The exhibition was progressing fine and I ended up doing a great deal of work after the sun went down. As always, these things progress exponentially so I began to allow myself strolls, promenades and drawn out aperitifs in and around the central plaza. Here is where the town really defined itself for me. From about 5:00 until 8:00 PM families took over the streets with kids riding bikes, kicking balls, snagging cotton candy or popcorn from the vendors who would set up nightly, plugging into bases of lampposts, storefronts and any other “available” outlet.
I was fascinated by a game played nightly by a group of young girls. They would take a large hoop of broken, repaired, broken again, re-knotted elastic, hook it to various points in the plaza (tree, post, door) and then play an elaborate game whose rules I could never consistently identify but involved jumping over, under, occasionally on and around this stretched parameter line. A breach of the collectively understood protocol would be met with aggressive shouts and the pure, damning disdain of determined children at play.
After 8:00, the streets were turned over to the older crowd who saw the boulevards and cafes as their personal catwalks and they rose to the occasion. The young women were dressed in what can only be described as “background extras in an 80’s music video” fashion. Skin tight jeans with the obligatory bleached areas mottled throughout: thighs, waist, backside and t-shirts festooned with glittered proclamations of party decadence. My favorite was “Dance Pop, Can’t Stop” in encrusted silver glitter on a flaming pink shirt with the bottom cut into thin strips in a way I haven’t seen since participating in some hilarious drag shows in Chicago…
Big hair and even bigger, platter sized sunglasses completed the look and it was nearly impossible to identify the age.
Mature 12? Desperate 52?
The men hit the streets in sleek variations of the track-suit. Not in an ironic, Williamsburg, neo-Run DMC way but with a rather aggressive, masculinity affirming swagger. This stance was strangely countered by bold displays of affection that sent confounding mixed signals that I… resisted pursuing. Men would walk with linked arms and when talking face to face, a hand would rest gently on the companion’s shoulder.
Greetings were with a kiss on the cheek and a lingering handshake.
Brutal “accessory dogs” (Dobermans, Rottweilers) extended the swagger and provided an object of attention and conversation between the passing cliques of Cetinje residents.
Visited the local market where an amazing assortment of products, produce and procured items overwhelmed the senses. Discs of local cheese were nudged up against zinc buckets filled with brooms and axes. Plastic wrapped bales of cheap souvenirs, toys and kitchen accessories were draped with clothing and garden hoses. A corridor between two open plazas was where the fresh fish were, kicking and bouncing about in the long gray trays.
Adjusted lights, added more charcoal, tweaked video color and then the show was done and it was opening night.
My French colleagues, past students and my new Montenegro friends showed up and it was an absolute delight to have their support. Students from the Art academy were projecting their video projects on the exterior of the building and it was a perfect accent to the evening’s festivities.
Many glasses of delicious Vranac wine were raised and emptied and I stood back and soaked up the beauty and energy of the evening and the generosity of the community that graciously welcomed me.
A mini one day vacation the following Sunday had me strolling the beaches of Budva and then off early that following Monday to return to Pont-Aven…..for the next act.