A cavernous grey building, it had all the hallmarks of Soviet Bloc architecture, functional and ugly, without a hint of personality and not the least bit friendly. I noticed a definite architectural pattern in the Balkans, grey and grotesque. The bus terminal in downtown Podgorica was no different. I’d just arrived from Budva, a three hour bus ride. My hostel, and in addition my reserved single room, were not nearly as close to the bus station as I initially thought. Five miles outside of town. My choices were either to pay for an expensive cab to get there and back, or walk, in which case I would lose a big chunk of my time to check out the city. It felt disingenuous, to arrive into a new town and immediately head away from the city center without any idea of what it was like. I didn’t want to rush out to the hostel, and I didn’t feel like getting a cab. So I decided to walk, not to the hostel, but to the heart of Podgorica.
Unlike Croatia, or even Budva, I had a feeling of desertion in Podgorica. Croatia was busy enough even when it was relaxed, and Budva was little different. I had barely been in the city for half an hour, but felt like I was the only one there, wandering until I found an internet cafe with only a few people. Only five or so and yet enough to make me feel I wasn’t the only one alive in the city.
I was now six miles from my hostel and had no interested in walking back in the direction I’d come from. My only other realistic option was a place that I did not see listed beforehand, but soon discovered sitting in the cafe. Half the price of my booked room, it was attractive because I was trying to save money any way I could. “Hostel Nice Place” it was called, only a short walk further in the direction I had been going. I arrived in half an hour, passing through parks and past open air restaurants. The hostel was located on a street called Decembar, potholed to the point of being mostly gravel, coming to a dead-end against low rolling hills across the street from the national stadium. The hostel itself was a depressed and dying house. Wood slats and crumbling plasterboard leaned against walls, placed on the ground below where they had fallen, leaving holes in the exterior. Gutters slumped off the roof, covered in a thick fuzz of rust. The most noticeable thing about the entire place was a bright red sign hanging next to an open corridor leading to an interior courtyard. Hostel Nice Place. The letters were sloppy, but the logo was unmistakably the same one that I had seen online. I could tell this wasn’t the best part of town.
I walked inside and was greeted by Boshko, the owner. He was maybe 30, reserved and polite. He was smaller than average for a Montenegrin man- though still larger than me- and had his hair buzzed short like so many of the men I’d seen in the country. The day was still young and I asked him what I should visit. Flattered by the question, Boshko walked inside and came back out scribbling a map onto a paper napkin. He was happy to adopt the position of deputy ambassador of Podgorica just for my benefit. Complete with street names, he gave me a route through the city that he said was the best way to see all the best of Podgorica.
It was an empty city. I had trouble believing at first that he had given me the best route to see everything, as there seemed to be no one anywhere. No different than my walk to the cafe earlier in the morning. But his map did lead me past elegant facades. A beautiful single suspension bridge, and a towering stone Eastern Orthodox Church with bright golden cupolas. The domes of the church were expansive and beaming, casting an enchanting glare on all other buildings. For all its beauty however, the place of worship sat in the middle of a dirt lot, surrounded by construction materials without any sign of actual work, and no hint of anyone at all. No people, no tractors or signs, just dirt, dust and a pretty church behind a chain link fence.
When I arrived back at Boshko’s I was no longer the lone tenant. In the small central courtyard were five guys about my age, sitting around a table, laughing and drinking from several bottles of tequila and beer. One of them yelled as soon as he saw me, “You must be the American! Come and join us!” Boshko had done my introductions for me. I sat on the only open spot of two couches and two chairs that surrounded a scratched wooden table. I caught a few loose words from their conversation, enough to know they were Serbian. They spoke with equal parts gesture, tone, and wording, throwing their body into every nuanced phrase. I hadn’t met any Serbians yet, so I didn’t know if that was their culture or the alcohol talking.
“Where are you from?” one of them asked. He looked maybe thirty.
“California…Sacramento” I responded, and they nearly cut me off in excitement.
“Sacramento?! Like the Sacramento Kings?? Vlade and Peja!” And just that easily I was their best friend, with all the tequila and beer I wanted. Nikola, who I’d learned was the oldest of the five at twenty-nine, told me they had placed several successful bets on Red Star Belgrade’s soccer match the day before and pooled their winnings into alcohol. They were all from Belgrade, staying in Podgorica for a few days to get away from school and relax.
I was trying my best to fit in, and did at least enough to earn the nickname Gringo. Their idea of the perfect combination of comedic and cool. We sat and drank for hours as the sun slowly dipped from the sky and night approached. I relaxed as my buzz grew, and I enjoyed their company, talking about soccer and basketball with the Serbian boys. At one point from somewhere behind me, a deep muffled boom a good distance away interrupted someone’s drunken sentence. I had no idea what it was, but it sounded like a dumpster had dropped from a second- story balcony. The five boys around me cocked their heads like bloodhounds in a hunt. As the echo of the boom faded, I could hear an increasing rush of yells. The yells of what seemed to be hundreds of boys and men screaming and running in primal fear for their life. And getting louder, as if they were approaching. One of the most terrifying things I had ever heard. Taking a second to understand what it might be, I looked back at my company. Their mood had now shifted to bizarre euphoria. They all jumped and ran towards the street like children leaping over each other for the first present of Christmas morning. Boshko was barely behind them. He ran out to the street, stopping only to lock eyes with me, making sure I heard every word he spoke.
“Dawson, go inside”, he said calmly and quickly, yet with a strong insistence. He then passed me and yelled at the Serbian boys. The screeching madness was right outside. The sound was unmistakable, hundreds of men yelling, screaming, cursing, fighting, making any sounds as loud as they could. I couldn’t help but wander outside to see for myself.
Hundreds of, if not a thousand, men attacked each other with bats, clubs, fists, rocks. How nothing came flying my way, I don’t know. That I was still holding a beer made even less sense. I stood there and watched for what must have been two minutes, not making a sound, only moving my head from side to side. I couldn’t even focus on any one thing. Everywhere I looked, ten feet in front of me, two hundred feet away, men and boys swung anything they had to do damage. Rocks sliced through the air, striking people who bled and fell as if struck by a bullet. Men crumpled to the ground and my eyes, not lingering, were pulled away as something else caught my gaze. Only when a man stumbled heavily past me towards the hostel did I fully realize how exposed I was. His eyes were wide and glassy, as if he were stuck in a daze and unaware how to get out. His right hand firmly pressed on the back of his neck while blood coursed through his hair and oozed down his forehead and over his eyelids, filling his mouth and staining his shirt. Then I heard the sirens, coming from the city center. The sirens rose and fell louder as the police quickly approached. The adrenaline and raw hatred in the body language of all the men was suddenly replaced by pure fear. Hundreds of men who had just been fighting one another with anything they had now fled in any direction they could, away from the closing lights and sirens. Boshko, stressed and rattled, but unhurt, found me and, this time, he yelled.
“DAWSON! GO INSIDE NOW”. This time I listened. I turned and walked back towards the hostel and found the man I had just seen a minute earlier, sitting on the couch where I’d been not five minutes before, dripping blood on the cushions and dirty wooden table, breathing hard and shallow. He propped his head on his forearms, evidently fighting the desire to fall to the ground. I walked inside and heard the Serbian boys rushing up behind me. Boshko came just after us and closed the doors when all seven of us were inside. Once the bloodied man realized what was happening he yelled at Boshko with what strength he had left. Boshko paused for only a second before letting the man inside. He collapsed on the kitchen floor as the Serbians and I took a seat on chairs surrounding a table in the large open kitchen. Boshko locked the door. The screams outside were now not as loud, but yet were strangely more piercing, as if individuals were being singled out and attacked. A minute passed, followed by a cracking bang on the door and a shout I didn’t understand. Boshko cringed, then opened the door. Three police officers walked in with full riot gear, their plastic visors and shields fogged with steam and sweat from the chase. There was no doubt they were looking to hit anyone or anything they could. Boshko argued with them too fast for me to pick out more than an occasional word. The Serbian boys sat quietly, unmoving, as if they had been called into a principal’s office to be disciplined. I mentally prepared myself to be beaten. Boshko then said one thing that brought the argument to a halt.
“On je Amerikanac,” he yelled, pointing at me. He is American. Boshko repeated himself to be perfectly clear. The cops scoffed at first, as if calling his bluff, and then focused on me without saying a word. I knew I’d been dragged in to a point where I had to intervene for all our safety. The tension nearly erupted as I calmly stood up, walked to my room, and grabbed my passport to show everyone. The cops examined it for an agonizing handful of seconds. Everyone stood still for a painful moment. One of the cops, without speaking, flipped through to the end of my passport, closed it, and handed it back to me. He then diplomatically apologized to Bocko, and the three of them turned to leave, not saying another word.
I woke the next morning at eight while all of the Serbian boys slept off their hangover. I walked through the kitchen to leave. The bloody stain left on the floor the night before had just been wiped and the tile reeked of cleaner. A pot was slowly working its way to a boil on the stove, and I realized Boshko sat silent and motionless in the corner behind me. He offered to make me a cup of Turkish coffee, and I accepted. We quietly sat and waited for the water to boil, then poured some coffee and walked outside to sit in the courtyard, avoiding the blood- stained couch. I could see his body deflate into the padding as if he was letting his stress seep out towards the ground. He was still so fatigued from the night before. He took a sip, as did I. I hadn’t noticed that he put in some brandy. I studied his face for a moment and could tell he was preparing to speak, taking time to carefully choose his words.
“Thank you, Dawson. I am very sorry about last night.” I didn’t really know how to respond, and replied that it was not a problem. I didn’t know what kind of stand I could or should take on the events of the night before. I still had no idea what I had really witnessed. He apologized again.
“I’m sorry I pointed you out, but you being American saved us all from getting beat up last night”. That was probably the one thing I did understand from the night. And I did not begrudge him in anyway for putting me in that position. I let him know. I could tell the only other reality was us all getting painfully attacked by the police. Boshko then continued.
“Montenegro is very different from America,” he paused, thinking through his explanation.
“My country was born on war. We know what war is, what it does, what it feels like. Every war that has ever happened with my people has happened here. In America you don’t know this way of life, because war is always “over there”, away from where you live, in lands far away. We grow up knowing what war is, and in America you only grow up knowing what war looks like on television. You don’t really know the difference between when war begins and when it ends. My people do, and war ended without any new beginnings a few generations ago. But it is always in our blood because it’s all we’ve known until now. We grow up as warriors without a war and do not know what to do until our blood explodes and we create our own wars. Neighborhoods in Montenegro like to fight each other. Men will march into neighborhoods they do not live in just to make a small war. The police are no different than the boys who like to fight; they just have bigger weapons and heavy shields that the government buys for them. We fight each other not to kill, but to get the warrior out of our blood. This is a part of our culture that is very different from yours. The cops would still have hit the Serbian boys because we Montenegrins and Serbians are one and the same, but they would not hit any of us once they knew you were American.”
I didn’t say anything in return. I wasn’t going to pretend to have some worthwhile insight, or try to provide an American perspective. I truly couldn’t provide any perspective; it was unlike anything I had ever known. He and I sat there for maybe half an hour. We had trouble finding a place to take our conversation, but I asked him how to best go about heading south towards Albania. After I finished my cup I left, thanking Boshko for both his hospitality as well as teaching me about his city and culture. That was the first time he smiled all morning.
“Come back, Dawson” he responded, “You are welcome, always”.