The first time I visited Montenegro, I was still a toddler, and my Dad carried me piggyback on his shoulders while climbing to the Lovcen. I don’t remember much, but I can still recall the smell of my Dad’s cologne, endless stairs leading to the top of the hill where Petar II Petrovic Njegos’ Mausoleum was, and hot rays of sunshine on my face. Growing up, I read and heard that Montenegrins are very proud and honorable people, and there are countless stories filled with their heroic braveries going back to the times when they were under the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
This story portrays one of the most beautiful countries in the Balkans and Luka, whom my family was lucky to meet under the most unusual circumstances and form the bond that will last our lifetime. One day, my daughter came home from school very excited and said she had met a boy who spoke my native language. For those who don’t know my background, I come from the Balkans, and for more than 40 years, Montenegro and Bosnia were part of the same country once known as Yugoslavia. Luka came on the football (soccer) scholarship to the US, and he didn’t know anyone. Just by chance, he happened to be standing in a line in the school cafeteria next to my daughter, and they started to talk. To his surprise, she spoke the words he understood, and Luka would later say that it felt like a stroke of God’s will to hear the familiar words he so nostalgically missed. In the months that followed, Luka was a permanent visitor in our house, eating the traditional Balkan food I cooked, playing a big brother to my children, and he connected with my ailing Dad in a way that still brings tears to my eyes. My Dad left our country when the war started, and there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t miss it. In Luka, he found an eager young listener while talking about sports, politics, and people from our homeland. Luka became a missing thread that connected him to home. I was a mother figure to Luka while he was away from his Mom, but I saw and treated Luka like he was my own child. While playing a soccer tournament, Luka suffered an injury, his meniscus was torn and he needed a surgery. Never mentioning his distress and worry about being operated on in the foreign country where he spoke enough English to get by, I instantly knew I had to step up and be by his side. Thankfully, Luka was fit and young and surgery went well. I still see his trusting eyes looking at me before the anesthesia kicked in. Needless to say I didn’t care how radicicolous I looked in surgical scrubs wearing green plastic head cover over my hair, the only thing that matted was calling Luka’s parents on Skype and letting his Mom know that I will be by his side when he wakes up. Luka’s recovery entailed him hopping on the crutches around our guest room and copious amount of Tiramisu. Soon enough he was ready to get back on the football pitch and play. Time went by quickly. My family listened to Luka’s senior speech at school, and he made me cry when he mentioned that he wouldn’t have lasted in America if he didn’t have his other Mom by his side. We celebrated his Graduation and spent hours hunting for a perfect prom suit. And before we knew it, the school year was over, and Luka was heading back to Montenegro. Before he left, he made me promise that I would come to visit and meet his family. Finally, this summer, I was able to do it.
Montenegro is even more beautiful that the travel books describe it. The map places it in the western Balkans but Montenegro offers so much more than just being a small dot in geography of Europe. Even legendary English Romantic poet Lord Byron wrote: “At the birth of the planet, the most beautiful encounter between land and sea must have been on the Montenegrin coast.”
It truly is a place where sea and land embrace. Stretched not even 300 km (160 miles) from tip to toe, Montenegro’s coastline has one of the most spectacular seaside scenery. Green and plush mountains jut sharply from crystal-clear waters in such a way that takes your breath away. Ancient walled cities cling to the rocks and dip their feet in the water. In summer, the whole scene is bathed in the scent of wild herbs, conifers, and Mediterranean blossoms.
The highlight of my trip was finally meeting Luka’s family. Luka wasn’t the young teenager anymore I saw off at the airport. Since the last time I saw him, Luka matured and was now a husband and a father. It was a very emotional visit. Everything Luca became was a tribute to his parent’s love, tradition, and the environment he grew up in. Family life and values, and national identity are among the things highly regarded in Montenegro. His family welcomed me and opened the doors of their beautiful seaside home like I was one of their own. Their hospitality, kindness, and heartfelt embraces touched me profoundly. It felt like entering the safe harbor in a paradise. They were the embodiment of greatness and humility, yet as stoically proud as I knew Montenegrins are. I was taken by their colorful and undeniably traditional way of life where love for each other, love for their family, country and religion so vividly steep in everything they do and represent everything they are.
I am partial when describing Montenegro. Be it because of the people I met that I can identify as my lifetime friends, be it because of the bond and special place in my heart that Luka will always have, be it because of my childhood memory of the trip to Montenegro that is still engraved in my mind, be it because I witnessed the beauty of the country bursting at the seams with majestic mountains, breathtaking beaches, and larger-than-life locals, minuscule Montenegro proves once and for all that good things do indeed come in small packages.