Podgorica at dusk.

Because I love words, not people.

Dobro veče, šta radite?
Gledam kroz prozor. Kako je divna noć!
Zaista jeste. Pravi je momenat za veliku ljubav!
Ne mislim na ljubav, već na poeziju.
Na poeziju? Zašto ne na ljubav?
Zato što volim reči, a ne ljude.

When I speak English, the words dance through my mouth. Consonants create alliteration that taps off the tongue. Vowels make room for internal rhymes that round out my mouth. It’s smooth, it’s simple, and I never have to think about it.

Not so with crnogorski, aka Montenegrin. (Or srpski. Or Serbo-Croatian. Or vaš jeznik, or etc.). Consonants and vowels are mixed together in a way that I mash its otherwise lovely words like food I can’t chew. Syllables or entire words will be made from a mix of “hard” and “soft” consonants, and pronouncing them feels like I’m clunking more than dancing. Gospa od škrpjela. Brzi psi. Miš uz pušku miš niz pušku.

But in my new life in Montenegro, I surely will stumble not just through vocabulary words, but also into cross-cultural frustrations. Roughly six months ago I accepted an offer to teach English and serve as a citizen diplomat in Montenegro as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). I was over the moon. It’s always been a dream of mine to live in another country, and I’ve learned that working with students — whether in college organizations, in nonprofit education programs, or in refugee center classes — makes for my most fulfilling work experiences. And to sweeten an already delightful deal, my former roommate, Danka, and my current partner, Vasilije, would be waiting for me in Podgorica.

Day 1 in Montenegro: Me, Danka and Vasilje at the airport.

So I booked my plane ticket. I shared the news with my close friends and family (“Hey everyone: I’M NOT A HALF-BRIGHT!). I gave notice to my supervisor at my marketing job. I called my bank. I put down a deposit for an apartment. I packed my bags. And I flew to Podgorica.

I was so excited when I landed that I ran right through customs without grabbing my luggage. Luckily, Danka was there to talk to airport staff and have them bring my bags out to me. Then, my friend Casey arrived (and served as my American safety blanket for the next week)…and I promptly broke my washing machine, trapping Casey’s clothes in the process. Luckily, Vasilije was there to call half the repairmen in Podgorica until someone came to fix it. Then I got mild heat exhaustion. Then I got sunburnt, had a breakout, and needed to go to the doctor. Then I found out my bank only lets me withdraw a pitiful amount of money per day at an unfair exchange rate. A little thing here, a little thing there, with me stumbling at each roadblock as I mash out my Tarzan crnogorski.

Dobro jutro! Kako si?
Um, divno! Poznajem…uh…jedni profesorice na Gimnazija, um, večeras. I MEAN, jutros. [grimaces]
Casey and I at Lake Skadar, definitely not dying in 100 degree weather.

Those little, daily frustrations do build up quickly. Yet I don’t feel the culture shock yet. I’m fortunate to have the hospitality of Montenegrins to catch me any time I stumble. Danka, the US Embassy and especially Vasilije have been going above and beyond to help me. In fact, everyone I’ve met — friends, friends of friends, and family — has treated me like one of their own. And if all else fails, a trip to the coast, a hike through the mountains, or a stroll through the city center are enough to clear my mind. Living here still feels like a dream come true — and these little frustrations are just part of the package.

Bigger challenges await next week when my teaching responsibilities will be in full swing. I’ll be leading conversation classes to first and second year high school students at Gimnazija Slobodan Skerović. I’ll also be teaching 2–3 Contemporary English classes to translation students at the University of Montenegro. And finally, I’ll be helping out with TOEFL prep and other programs at American Corner Podgorica (a special shout out to American Corner UDP in Santiago!). Those first few roadblocks were just the settling-in stage, and now the real work begins. I know it will only get harder, and will require more patience and flexibility than I’ve ever needed. But I also know that I’ll cherish stumbling through it all.

I’ll keep practicing crnogorski as well, doing my best not to gnaw on words like overcooked meat. After all, it’s not like my language is so simple for foreigners. English letters can be tricky as well, inviting learners to trip on their multiple (or even disappearing) vowel and consonant sounds. Trying to express myself in their language will put me in the position of my students — and that, hopefully, will make me a better teacher and cultural ambassador.

I also want to keep my writing skills in check by writing a blog post every week. Through these posts, you’ll learn more about me and my fascination with Montenegro. Together we’ll learn about this country’s proud people, peculiar politics, and vast history and culture — and maybe you’ll even pick up some words in crnogorski.

Onda, vidimo se sledeće nedelje!


P.S. The dialogue at the top is a funny little exercise from my Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin language textbook. It goes something like: Good evening, what are you up to? / I’m looking through the window. What a wonderful night! / It really is. It’s a real moment for great love. / I’m not thinking about love, but poetry. / Poetry? Why not love? / Because I love words, not people.

BUT, to clarify: I do love words. And also people.