As I stepped out onto a charming terrace adorned in grapevines, the glistening expanse of Lake Skadar stretched before me.
After a hot and sweaty walk from the rural train station in Virpazar, I had reached what was possibly the most peaceful place in all of Montenegro. With relief I discarded my backpack and slumped into the nearest chair I could find.
I had finally arrived.
As if on cue, a round, beaming woman bustled over, arms outstretched with the warmth of a loving grandmother. Wisps of white hair danced around her moon-shaped face as she began babbling in a series of unfamiliar sounds, gesturing wildly with that warm smile still fixed on her face. In response to my look of polite confusion, she produced an unmarked bottle and two large glasses as if from nowhere.
‘My rakija,’ she said with a triumphant flourish of the bottle. ‘You try!’
Without waiting for confirmation she poured two generous glasses, delivered an extra large beam and a little bow of the head, and bustled off before I could stammer out the only Montenegrin phrase I knew, “Hvala.”
She didn’t need to tell me twice.
As I took a tentative sip of the potent homemade liqueur, the subtle notes of honey and cinnamon tickled the tip of my tongue before a warm burn traveled down the back of my throat. Rakija is a fruit brandy popular throughout southeastern Europe, and I’ve discovered that no matter how small the village, there is a baba somewhere brewing up her own secret recipe she claims is the best.
Encased in a warm cocoon of afternoon bliss beneath the leafy canopy, I slumped a little lower in my chair and sipped my way slowly to the bottom of the glass. This baba may very well be right.
In the distance I could just make out the opposite side of the lake and the jagged peaks that marked Albania. Tiny boats buzzed back and forth across the lake, like bees returning to a hive. The vibrant green wetlands were alive with the feeding rituals of water birds.
Perhaps it was just the rakija talking, but I immediately felt completely at home, like a long lost child returning to the family nest.
I’d come to realize that these grand welcomes are almost a ritualistic event in Montenegro. The hosts in every new place, no matter how modern or remote, had greeted me with familial warmth and hospitality, inevitably waving a bottle of homemade rakija at some point or another. Some even brought cakes. It was like these hearty women had all taken notes from the same handbook and executed these steps perfectly in order to charm and make me feel so at home I never wanted to leave.
Though the language barrier meant few words were ever exchanged, their tender smiles and genuine warmth represented a type of communication I could understand implicitly.
On my first night in Montenegro, it was a mother-daughter pair from Meljine who offered up a smorgasbord of coffee, juice, cake, popcorn, and fruit picked right from their tree when I arrived, once again hot and sweaty after taking one too many wrong turns to reach them. Though we knew only a handful of words in each other’s languages, we gestured wildly, smiled enthusiastically, and waited curiously for replies to questions I am fairly sure neither of us understood.
Later in Kolašin, a pair of children took it upon themselves to guide me to my guesthouse where I was greeted with more rakija, freshly whipped berry juice, and hours of conversation. The owner had lived in America for several years and, now that he had returned to live in his small home village, he was eager to share the immense beauty of his country.
When I arrived on the coast, I was invited nightly to watch the best show in town from the balcony – the magnificent sunset over the Adriatic – and entertained with stories of escaping the Balkan wars to find work in Austria.
My mind wandered back to my seat on the terrace. The mountains flushed pink in the late afternoon sun, and a fiery glow spread across the surface of the lake.
I had been on the road for a while now, and it had become easy to feel completely unattached. Though we may not have understood each other’s words, these small gestures of kindness and warmth allowed me to rekindle a feeling of familiarity I sorely missed. Though I knew I was only there for a few days, I allowed myself to curl up in my chair and indulge in this fleeting moment of home.