Saturday, March 18, 2006

"I was mesmerized by Montenegro" emailed Kellyn G. at the University of Oregon a few days ago before asking how my experience in Montenegro compared with my time in Serbia and Albania.

It's a good question and recent events there--last 12-15 years recent--have offered very different ways for people to react to foreigners generally and Americans in particular.

My contact has generally been good with people in all three countries. My favorite city is Krusevic in Serbia. A wonderful little town...neat and tidy...with friendly people and generally gracious encounters. The timing of my visits has been quite nice--pleasant weather and productive meetings add a nice touch to a visit. Belgrade, like most big cities, can be a bit cold in the encounters. But it's also large enough to walk the streets and blend in...thus giving you a chance to look at the people and events of their daily lives.

I've been on the streets in both cities, speaking English with Serbian colleagues, and have drawn curious looks--some clearly pleasant and others not.

In Montenegro, I've had only good experiences--though I am sure I could find some negative enounters if I put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Negative encounters are more likely to be because I'm viewed as a rich foreigner...poverty is an issue in Montenegro. I would say I have generally been well treated in Serbia and Montenegro.

My best personal experiences have probably been in Albania. Because of the NATO/US intervention in Kosovo--where the people are ethnic Albanians--visiting in Albania has drawn the warmest responses from people on the street--taxi drivers, clerks, restaurant workers. That may change as time moves along and discussions about Kosovo's future deepen. Some of the Albanians seem to imagine independence first and an eventual union with Albania. I understand their motives but Kosovo has deep historic prominence for the Serbs.

Television in Belgrade can be pretty sophisticated. My favorite TV station is B92 Television. They are respected for their news coverage. Pink TV is simply slick. Lots of nicely produced local programming, usually involving a variety show, with singers--usually young women--in short dresses. I don't like the programming but the production value--investment in sets, camera works, staging, etc....well done.

Albania TV is pretty good as least among the top three stations. Vizion Plus does the best job with balanced and fair news coverage. Top Channel spends excessively on program production--to the point of losing money on probably everything they do.

Monenegro TV is good, considering the situation. Readers should understand that the TV market in ALL of Montenegro consists of 675,000 persons...this includes the rich and poor. The poor outnumber the rich and there isn't much of a middle class. There are 8 TV stations in Podgorica, a city of about 170,000 and the capital city. That's a LOT of competition for not only viewers but advertising dollars. The 8 stations include two that are national/gov't owned. The other six struggle for viewers and advertisers. There are municipal stations in other cities in Montenegro as well.

Just as in the U.S., people watch TV and assume it can't be that hard to own and run a station. Little do they know... I know of a station that has not broke-even in five plus years on-air.

In all three countries, radio is not that important, except for breaking news or for mobile entertainment. Newspapers are important but some of the papers are so clearly partisan in their coverage as to only attract readers who back a particular party or candidate. There are some television stations that fit in this category as well.

Kellyn also mentioned the weathered faces of people seen when making a trip through the region. This is one of my favorite things to do anywhere I just look at faces, especially the old. Even someone as young as 50 has lived through some extraordinary events. I have also been surprised at how young looking people think I am...usually they guess I am 10 years younger than I am. Most people in the U.S. would say I look my age.... Again, it's a difference on how we live....(I'll also add that I don't participate in some activities that might make me look older....tanned skin, smoking, or other apsects of hard living--other than my travel adventures.)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Blogger’s Note: I've been traveling since Tuesday, 3 AM Central time. Reached my destination last night, Thursday, 11:15 PM. Here is an entry I prepared Wednesday but did not have access to post. Situation update is at the bottom.


Wednesday, 15 March:

My day could only get worse if I don’t make the 5:20 PM flight to Milan. Even if I do get there, I’m still stuck with an overnight there and a flight home tomorrow. It should have been easy to leave. Maybe if I had flown directly from Montenegro to another country, it would have been fine. But I didn’t….I did the normal, logical thing and came to Belgrade, where I was told that I needed an exit visa. This is absolutely contrary to what I had read and understood on the Serbia/Montenegro embassy site and what my US contacts told me.

I’m officially here for five months but if you stay for 90 days or less, you can come and go….all you need to do is leave and come back. If you do this, you'll never need a visa. And, you can just cross the border into Albania or Croatia…that’s fine. But, because I’m teaching at the university (engaged in scientific research and/or teaching), there’s a requirement that says I should get a temporary non-resident permit. Apparently this permit also requires a visa—even though I was looking to leave after being here only about 42 days. I received this news from a young woman Immigration officer in Belgrade who said, “I don’t think you will be traveling today.” I called the Consulate in Podgorica—actually the mobile number of the PAO. That was at 5:40AM this morning. Within the hour, I had the Duty Officer from the Embassy in Belgrade. By 10:00 AM, they had greased the wheels for me to see Petko Boskovic, THE headman in charge of all visa matters for Serbia.

I had one other bit of luck. I got as a taxi driver a fellow named Boban. His spoken English was fair but his understanding was great. He accompanied me and served as a translator/facilitator as I ran the Serbian gauntlet. My time with Mr. Boskovic was short—literally 2 minutes of conversation. He put a specific person in charge of my visa request….which involved getting permission from Montenegro to grant me the visa in Serbia. (Montenegro and Serbia are like two siblings, Serbia the older one. They sort of get along—well, they are supposed to—but they snipe at each other). Bottom line, by 1:20 PM, I had my visa. Now the challenge is to get a flight. I should also add that I paid an arm and leg to Boban—5,500 dinars, which is 55Euros or about $65. It was money well spent. We also spent nearly two hours just talking about life and circumstances. Very insightful. When he quoted me the price—based on something he said later when I asked for a receipt—he was under the impression that I would just expense the cost. That is of course what real business people often do. (He was really impressed that I could get an audience with THE head of the visa office and apparently was mistaken into thinking I really was somebody.) I explained, when I got the receipt, that the best I could do was deduct it from my taxes next year. I don’t know whether he worked any more today or not but he often won’t make that much money in a full 10 hours of work.

I did manage to make a call to Stephanie, where we both almost cried. Worst of all, she leaves Friday morning for a wedding. I am happy she is going. She needs the time and it will be a good weekend for me to bond with the children.

My Alitalia guy is working on my ticket to Milan right now. I am hoping that somewhere I will get a break on something. Maybe I have used my breaks up by getting the visa taken care of. I just want out of Belgrade. Maybe I have caught another break….a fellow just stopped by with a present of chocolates for the Alitalia man. The guy said he was allowed to board at the last minute for a flight to Milan, about a month ago, and my guy was the fellow nice enough to let him do that.

Remember that Tom Hanks movie about the guy who gets trapped in an airport because his Eastern European country declares independence or something? He no longer has a way to enter the U.S. and because he can’t enter, he can’t leave. My situation is not that bad—I don’t think.

I keep asking myself, did I do something wrong? I reviewed the email this morning that told me about the temporary stay non-resident permit. It said nothing about needing a visa. I don’t think I did. Should the low-level bureaucrat in Podgorica, who issued the temporary stay non-resident permit have know about the visa? Maybe she should have but I have no animosity in my heart for her. There’s a strong fatalism that people in this part of the world have. It’s almost as though they look forward to things going wrong. A common phrase I have heard people utter, “This is our reality.”

Why would you ever choose to live life this way? I can’t imagine but I know that in my na├»ve life, I did not live through the bombings the city took in the 1990s from NATO—deserved bombing because of their attacks in Muslim communities in Bosnia and most recently in Kosovo. I also did not live with the economic sanctions and hyperinflation that the Serbs encountered, where a wheelbarrow full of money would not buy a loaf of bread if you were paid in the morning and waited until the end of the day to buy the bread. And, I can only remember things I’ve read in history about World War II and the invasions by Germans and Italians and later the allies, including some U.S. troops, and of course the local partisans who were shifting to socialism for the country as they fought against the Germans. And, let’s not forget about 400 years of subjugation under the Turks. (The whole Kosovo issue is because Kosovo is the site where the Serb king was defeated by the Turks to begin their 400 years of rule. Rubbing salt in the Serbian wound, Kosovo is populated mostly by ethnic Albanians—who are Muslim—thanks to the Turks.

But all of these things I think would make me want to embrace some new point of view. Why live a life expecting the worst when sometimes just the act of living will mean you naturally receive the worst. Why not try for a better outlook in the hope that maybe things will work out just fine.

If I saw a glass sitting on a table with water filled to the halfway point in the container, I would absolutely declare the glass to be half-full. A Serb and some Americans would say it is half-empty. Life is challenging enough without making it any more difficult by expecting, indeed hoping, for the worse possible outcome. That is my reality.

Update: Prepared Friday, 17 March, 12 Noon, Central

I made the flight to Milan…had the last seat…got in by about 7:30PM. Spent the night in the Milan airport because there were no nearby hotel rooms available. The ride into Milan by bus was at least an hour…I needed to be back to talk with Delta at 7:30 AM...did not seem worth trying to find a room there. Slept pretty well, considering. Got a flight to Chicago and connection on American to Peoria that would put me home by 5:30 PM—four hours earlier than a Delta flight from Atlanta. Arrived in Chicago as snow started. Flight to Peoria was canceled. Took charter bus home…arrived by about 11 PM. Got up at 4:50 AM to see my wife off. Weather is now fine. Made pancakes for my children and took then to school. The glass is half full.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Green Market: When I’m home, I love
going to the grocery store. I like looking at the merchandise on the shelves—colors and smells, the packaging, product displays, merchandising approaches. Similarly, I enjoy going to the grocery store when I travel for the very same reasons. It’s also a good reality check on the quality of life for local people. What can they choose from in the grocery? How much do things cost? What U.S. products or European brands also sold in the
U.S. are sold here? When I see nice
packaging, I immediately see where the item was made. Sometimes I find something made at a local factory but perhaps there’s a logo for P&G, Unilever or Kraft discretely on the packaging. It is encouraging when I don’t find this because the product may be a true example of a local success story.

Many stores in transitional countries are very small—perhaps no more than 10 by 16 feet in size. Montenegrins stop at the market nearly every day to buy food for the evening meal and breakfast the next day. As automobile ownership increases, it is changing the way people shop. Automobiles, along with bigger refrigerators, allow people to buy in bulk,
once a week and store their purchases.

Saturday I had a real treat; I went to the local “green” market—similar to a farmer’s market. I love these. Produce is very fresh. It’s wonderfully arranged. There are vivid colors and intense smells. This market included live trout for purchase, truly fresh fish. I saw tubs of green and black olives, churns of soft white cheese in wooden churns, wheels of pungent hard cheese, specked on the outside with mold, and of course smoked meats. Besides produce, there were gardening tools, clothing and household
items—mostly stuff imported from China, and a few
locally made handicrafts, wooden spoons and some knitted items.

I’ll take some pictures on a future trip. This time, I just wanted to soak in the experience. I have included some pictures from a local market near my apartment. The young lady works the evening shift. She doesn’t speak English but she always has a smile. Notice the shelves behind her. They were filled with fresh bread this morning. Now, a few loaves sit, waiting for a customer. When you buy a loaf, the attendant picks up the loaf with an inverted plastic bag so that human hands don’t touch the loaf, that has been sitting in the open. Bread is very good. Nice texture and taste. In the meat cases, you’ll see some smoked sausages and other smoked meats. The plastic sleeves hold cold cuts—one is basically chopped ham for sandwiches (it’s pretty good). The price labels are usually the price for one kg, which is 2.2 pounds.

In the shot of the jams and jellies, you’ll notice Barilla pasta sauce just below. Beyond the paste sauce, on the same shelf, are jars of picked peppers and vegetables. Oh, and don’t forget to look at the packages of instant soups. I start with potatoes, onions and carrots but add a pack of instant soup to shortcut my preparations.

Next to the register are the snack foods, impulse purchases with high margins. The back shelf contains the selection of spirits. Fresh produce sits outside, next to the Coke cooler. The produce selection is limited—apples, kiwi, oranges, lemons, cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots and sometimes cauliflower. I’ve probably left out something but you get the idea.