Driving south from Dubrovnik, we hit a border in less than an hour. In the next week, my punch-drunk passport will be stamped and stamped and stamped. While the unification of Europe has made most border crossings feel archaic, the break-up of Yugoslavia has kept them in vogue here. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia just a year ago. Presto! Another border. The poorer the country, it seems, the more ornate the border formalities.
By European standards, Montenegro is about as poor as it gets. They don’t even have their own coins. With just 620,000 people, they decided, heck, let’s just use euros. (And since it’s such a tiny place, the official Eurozone countries are willing to look the other way.)
Montenegro is pretty light on sights. But along its humble Adriatic coastline is the Bay of Kotor, with its delightful main town of Kotor. People love to call it “fjord-like.” (Too many people who say “fjord-like” have never really seen a fjord. If you’ve been to Norway, you know it’s rare that something routinely described as “fjord-like” is actually fjord-like. The Bay of Kotor, however, is worthy of the description.)
At the humble town of Perast, young Montenegrin swim-trunk-clad hunks riding little dinghies jockey to motor tourists out to the island in the middle of the bay. According to legend, fishermen saw Mary in the reef and began a ritual of dropping a stone on the spot every time they sailed by. Eventually the island we see today was created, and upon that island was built a fine little church.
Cameron and I hired a hunk, cruised out, and were met by an English-speaking young woman. (The language barrier is minimal here, as English is taught from first grade in school.) She gave us a fascinating tour.
In the sacristy hung a piece of embroidery — a 25-year-long labor of love made by a local parishioner. It was as exquisite as possible, lovingly made with silk and the woman’s own hair. We could trace her laborious progress through the cherubs that ornamented the border. As the years went by, both the hair of the angels and the hair of the devout artist turned from dark brown to white. Humble and anonymous as she was, she had faith that her work was worthwhile and would be appreciated — as it was today, two centuries later, by travelers from around the world.
I’ve been at my work for 25 years — hair’s doing fine so far. I also have a faith that it (my work, if not my hair) will be appreciated. That’s perhaps less humble than the woman, but, in that way…she reminded me of me.
I didn’t take a photograph of the embroidery. For some reason, I didn’t even take notes. At the moment, I didn’t recognize I was experiencing the highlight of my day. The impression of the woman’s loving embroidery needed — like a good red wine — to breathe. That was a lesson for me. I was already, mentally onto the next thing. When the power of the impression opened up, it was rich and full-bodied…but I was long gone. Hmmm.
Back in the town, I had a bijela kava (“white coffee,” as a latte is called here) and watched kids coming home from school. Two girls walked by happily spinning the same batons my sisters spun when I was a tyke. And then a sweet girl walked by all alone — lost in thought, carrying a tattered violin case.
Even in a country without its own currency, in a land where humble is everything’s middle name, parents can find an old violin and manage to give their little girls grace and culture. Letting that impression breathe, it made me happier than I imagined it would.