Text: Žikica Milošević
Living in such a vibrant place, at the crossroads of mighty empires and strong civilisations, must make you strong in culture, controversial in mind, and interesting as a whole. Montenegro had such luck and such misfortune to be at a crossroads, yet it stubbornly preserved its uniqueness in the cultural sense.
It is clearly easy to say that the culture of Montenegro is quite pluralist, especially in the coastal part of the country, while the more monolithical varieties of its culture are preserved in the mountains, where you can find tribal influences, clear Orthodox or clear Muslim traces that can be tracked all the way back to the Middle Ages. As its geographical position suggests, Montenegro’s culture has mainly drawn influences from Ancient Rome, Christianity, Islam, the Byzantine, Serbian and Ottoman empires, the Venetians, Austro-Hungarians and Yugoslavia. Now we have it all mixed up. Sometimes strange for outsiders to understand, like other Mediterranean clannish societies with mountainous traditions (Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Georgia, Caucasus, Albania, Dalmatia etc.), Montenegro offers us a wide diversity of cultural influences.
MENSCHKEIT… OR ČOJSTVO
For those engulfed in New York society, there is a famous expression of “being a proper and decent man”, which is the Yiddish word “Menschkeit”. “Manhood” or “being humane”. The exact, or almost exact, same idea exists among Montenegrins, and is called “čojstvo”, “being a man”. It is almost always connected to heroism or courage, so let’s read a definition of the whole idea: “A very important dimension of Montenegrin culture is the ethical ideal of Čojstvo i Junaštvo, roughly translated as “Dignity and Courage”. Another result of its centuries-long warrior history, it is the unwritten code of chivalry that stipulates that to deserve the true respect of their people, a person has to show virtues of integrity, dignity, humility, self-sacrifice for a just cause, respect for others, and rectitude along with bravery. In the old days of battle, this resulted in Montenegrins fighting to the death, with being captured considered the greatest shame.”
Marko Miljanov was the man frequently connected with the creation of this concept, but the idea that you should save someone by sacrificing yourself is deeply admirable. This code of conduct is still very much ingrained, to greater or lesser extent, in every Montenegrin’s ethical belief system and it is essential to keep this in mind when striving to truly understand them.
One of the basic things you can see in Montenegro is tolerance, especially in places where the population is mixed, like in Budva, the Bay of Kotor or Bar and Ulcinj. In Ulcinj the population is mixed with yet another language, Albanian, while the rest of Montenegro speaks one language that is essentially the same but now goes under several different names, so let us refrain from debating it. In the intoxicating atmosphere of Kotor, Herceg Novi or Budva, where the Orthodox and Catholic churches mix, processions of religious holidays are attended by everyone, which is one of the main qualities of Montenegrin culture that has been lost in some countries that exchanged populations (Greece-Turkey and Bulgaria became practically mono-ethnic states after the population exchanges of the 1920s) or forced assimilation; Montenegro preserved its true spirit, so that indeed few people know which religion is holding St. Tripun (Tryphon’s) Cathedral, Our Lady of Škrpjela or Sveti Đorđe islands. Even Ostrog Monastery is well known for its ecumenical spirit and is frequently visited by Muslim pilgrims. The mountainous part of Montenegrin, Sandžak, is also a puzzle of two religions and two languages interlacing, from Bijelo Polje and Petnjica to Plav and Gusinje.
Is there a single cuisine in Montenegro? Of course not. A country so sharply geographically divided must preserve its sharply divided cuisines. Websites say that Montenegro’s Adriatic coastal region has a distinctively Italian flavour, as demonstrated by the bread-making style, the way meat is cured and dried, cheese-making, wine and spirits, the soup and stew making style, polenta, stuffed bell peppers, meatballs, priganice, japraci, raštan, etc. However, even the heartland of Montenegro received a strong Venetian influence, while there is yet another strong influence, which is, naturally, Turkish and Levantine: like in the rest of the Balkans, sarma, moussaka, pilav, pita, burek, ćevapi, kebab, Turkish sweets like baklava and tulumba, etc., with a variety of spices. Living in the Middle Ages, where the connections with Hungary – which then held Bosnia, Croatia and half of Serbia and Montenegro – were much stronger, left us with goulash, satarash, and djuvech, which are also very common. When Napoleon left, the former Venetian possessions in Montenegro passed into the hands of Austria, and hence came the Viennese influence, which ensures that additionally crêpes, doughnuts, jams, myriad types of biscuits and cakes all make a contribution to the average Montenegrin’s waistline. Vienna-style bread is the most prevalent type of bread in the shops, but you cannot make any mistakes: seafood is typical for the south, while lamb is typical for the North!