I began this essay in Montenegro where people speak a local Serbian dialect they defiantly call Montenegrin, and finished writing it in Wales, where Welsh is defiantly visible on every signpost, yet English is undeniably dominant.  Such is the language of empire.

And no language is more dominant than English. These last five months, living in countries that speak idioms foreign to me, I have become aware of the immense privilege associated with my language. Everywhere I find English on signs, in transport stations, on the radio.

 I can hear Dolly or Beyonce plead or threaten Jolene, nearly anywhere in the world. 

But shared language can also be an essential bulwark against violence and elite power. One realizes this while traveling in the former Yugoslavia where nationalism is tempered by shared language.  Andre Nikolaidis in an interview. With Tarık Günersel September 12, 2023, put it this way:

In the former Yugoslavia, we think, read, and write in one language that has four names, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. It is fair to name it like that, but it is not fair to insist that it is not the same language. It obviously is…. Political elites in the former Yugoslavia wanted us to build walls.  They weren’t able to do that because of the language, no matter how hard they tried. And they really tried hard.”

Montenegro is the southwestern corner of the former Yugoslavia. The word Montenegro is not a Montenegrin or Serbian word. It is Italian and harkens back to a period when the Venetians dominated this land. The local word for the country is Crne Gora, which also means Black Mountain referring to the range that surrounds the capital city Podgorica — once Titograd— where we started our one-month stay.

Funny, South Wales, also has a Black Mountain. Mountains probably don’t care what people call them. And these mountains don’t always look black. From our Podgorica apartment, we watched them dominate the landscape, visibly transformed in color and shape as, sun, moon, and clouds played on their surfaces. These peaks hem in cities, limiting demographic change. Like my hometown of Minneapolis, a beautiful river runs through Podgorica, but we don’t have mountains in Minnesota.  Mountains in Montenegro are natural barriers impeding local mill, mine, and timber moguls from realizing the kind of profits that Minnesota elites have wrought from the Mississippi.

We spent three nights in Podgorica in one of those Tito-era apartment buildings emblematic of Brutalist architecture. Brutalism was initiated in the United Kingdom and can be found all over the global north. The building where we stayed in Portugal was Brutalist. US public housing constructed in the 1950s was part of that building trend. Yet “Westerners” associate the design with the Soviet Bloc, and when they visit they like to crow about it  using words like, “monstrous.”

In Albania, Dave and I had many discussions about these buildings, ubiquitous and crumbling all over Tirana.   Certainly when neglected they are ugly, with dark grey soot covering light grey cement, and windows covered with dirty awnings. We wondered if the new hi rises replacing them all over Tirana, will be any better after a few years.  

Unlike Tirana, there is not a massive construction boom going on in Podgorica. Few of the old buildings are coming down. Some are falling apart, others have bright new coats of paint. Ours had been repainted white. It was, our host told us, the first Tito had built. Over the decades its tenants have included movie stars and mafia.

Our space was rectangular— long, narrow —with full-length windows on two sides. Below one side were the ruins of prewar houses with their picturesque red roofs. Out the other, Tito-era apartments. and a balcony for clothes drying and visiting with neighbors. The ceilings were high, making it feel more spacious. The stairs leading up to the apartment (no elevator) stretched longways, the length of the apartments, so climbing them was like walking a labyrinth.

I am sure the Tito apartments, even when new,  were never as pleasing to the eye as a row of two-story tan stone buildings with slanted red roofs. But can the whole world fit in single homes? We need livable hi-rises, public green spaces, and preserved wild places, so that all can be housed, have access to gardens, trees and playgrounds, and the natural world can flourish. How do you make a hi-rise livable and attractive?

Podgorica is a capital city not expecting, or catering to tourists, and that is reason enough for you to visit! The city is rich in public amenities: gorgeous parks, and river walks.


These two facts are not unrelated. In Dobrota, Montenegro where we spent the bulk of our month here,  the entire economy is based on tourism, and public space is slim. There is too much profit to be made from every inch of waterfront. (We heard tell that in Dobrota, much of the land was owned by the former President, Milo Đukanović, and his family and friends, until a few months ago. Since then his former properties have been under construction, redeveloping into prime tourist destinations.  

We had lunch at the Podgorica Hotel, a transport back in time. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the green river and park viewing ancient ruins of the Ottoman Empire,  imagining it was the 1950, and all around us clientele sipped coffee, ate blackened rice, grilled eggplant, and milk-soaked lamb, smoked endless cigarettes, and planned a new world for Yugoslavia.  Another day we went to a coffee shop underneath the main road, down on one of the creeks emptying into the river. We sat outside with the young clientele, all of us side-eyeing a drama of three dogs in heat, sipping Moroccan tea from a carafe. The natural view was gorgeous, only marred by garbage along the water. Plastic bags hanging from bushes were like little flags signaling that while Podgorica’s legacy of public amenities was great, its current public services were not.  


In some ways, the culture of Podgorica was similar to Tirana. The coffee, cigarette, and conversation culture was the same. Strikingly different from Tirana was the lack of an informal economy. This is a good thing for Podgorica. Not a rich city like Madrid, but certainly there was less poverty than in Tirana. We noticed it because it made life more difficult for us.  We had become dependent on street sellers for our fresh, cheap, accessible food in Tirana, and we balked at the lack of fresh produce and higher prices in Podgorica grocery stores. Our host recommended a restaurant with local food, and it was indeed delightful, not expensive, and filled with locals. The menu was similar but for one important difference: the lack of olive oil. Butter was on the table and canola oil was provided for the salad. Though olive trees grow well in Montenegro, it seemed that, culturally speaking,  we had taken a step across Europe’s olive/butter curtain. 

I got my hair trimmed in Podgorica. The man who cut it was watched by a woman – his boss? She and I exchanged a series of smiles and shoulder shrugs and eyebrow lifts – a whole conversation in mime. 

On day three in Podgorica, we were to meet our grown-child Emily at the airport. We heard it was possible to take a train to a station a mile outside of the airport and walk, and that is what we planned to do.  (It is part of our trip ethos to take as much public transit as possible). Finding the train station was not hard. It was behind the bus station and just .5 miles from our apartment. The woman’s toilet at the station was a porcelain hole in the floor. I feared getting my pants wet while completing my deposit, so I decided to wait. Perhaps they were made for the days when women all wore skirts?

Woman’s restroom, train station, Podgorica

The train was old and preserved with compartments, doors, and velvet seats on each side.  We shared a compartment with a couple, our age, dressed like they could have been from the era when the train was new. I had an entire relationship with the woman during the ten-minute ride. We built our friendship and solidarity on a series of smiles which we began to exchange after it was clear verbal language was not an option. We squeezed each other’s hands as Dave and I got up to leave.

We made our way with our backpacks and Dave’s guitar to the train door. Dave began stepping out when the train lurched. A porter, tall as men grow in this mountain country, unable to get Dave to stop with his Serbian tongue, grabbed him like he was a small boy, and pulled him back inside.

We stayed by the door and got out at the next stop. Now we were 2.5 miles from the airport. I was enjoying our predicament. We had plenty of time before Emily’s plane arrived. The train had dropped us off in a rural community that was interesting to see, and my phone mapped out a way to walk to the airport. Dave was not so sanguine. He began fiddling with his phone to find a taxi. I walked ahead, not in any mood to stand on a corner and wait. He followed. After walking about a mile, a car with taxi sign stopped and picked us up. I didn’t want to get in but Dave was already loading his guitar in the trunk. We didn’t ask how much, just climbed in.

The man looked nervous. He pointed out surveillance cameras on the road into the airport.  When we got out Dave gave him ten Euros—the cost of a taxi from Podgorica.

He demanded $20.

Dave gave it to him.

“How do we tell Emily about this,” I said when we had settled in the only coffee shop at the airport to wait for our child.

We DON’T, David said. “They want to know that we are being safe.”

We admitted to each other then, that we were nervous about how we would measure up to someone —especially our most beloved — seeing how we were doing up close, on this Aging on the Run adventure. We became conscious of how we looked. Our backpacks were ripped. We were now shlepping seven books with us.  Our clothes were worn and not all rational, and, as the last hours proved neither was our decision making.

It was about fifteen minutes after they got off the plane, as we waited for our ride to Dobrota, (we were told—wrongly—that buses only go to Kotor once a day) that I spilled the beans about our train fiasco.  Emily was not surprised.  

train station Podgorica

Montenegro is small in acres and population, but If you flattened it out it might be as large as the whole of former Yugoslavia, To Dobrota, from Podgorica, is 25 miles by crow, 58 by car.  Our driver was a refugee from Russia. He had been in Montenegro for a year. He had a 40 hour job working for a foreign company and he spent the weekends driving. He had no time to learn Serbian. He had worked in the US years ago and learned English. He had two kids ages 3 and 11. He said there was money for refugees from Ukraine but nothing for Russians who fled the war.

We spent one more night in Podgorica when it was time for Emily to leave us. Now savvy about bus schedules, we walked to the bus station in Kotor 2.5 miles. Emily was relieved to be in a city. Rural areas in any country are more uncomfortable if you are GLBTQ.

(On this front, Montenegro took a step backward in the last year. In his interview with Tarık Günersel,  Nikolaidis talked about the political rise of the Serbian Orthodox Church since the last election. Its socially and economically conservative agenda is setting the nation back. The author has become a target of the new regime, and his books are being banned, yet he refuses to leave. Instead he is living in his garden in the town of Ulcinj on the Adriatic Sea,  thinking, walking, reading and writing.  We looked for Nikolaidis’ books in Podgorica bookstores. Not able to read Serbian, we hoped to find one translated into English. Some stores had all his volumes prominently displayed,  others had none, each making a political statement. Unfortunately for us, no one had any English translations. )

With Emily, we explored the city again through their eyes. When we were tired we retreated to our hotel.  Emily found an Indian restaurant that delivered and Dave and I had the first spicy meal in months. Was it so superb, sweetened by the company and the complementary wine the hotel provided. We ate on the floor using a low table in the hotel.

The next morning Emily left before 6AM, doing the reasonable thing: taking a taxi to the airport. 

We decided to take two buses back to Dobrota and stop for a few hours in Cetinje, a town whose name we mangled so thoroughly that bus clerks could not conceal an exchange of smirks. I wanted to go to the National History Museum there. It promised a complete history of the 20th century.  The website said it was open every day of the year. We tried every door of the history museum twice. It was seriously closed.

English language message in cafe in Cetinje

The visit was not futile. The entire city was a museum, with its pristine 19th century architecture. The president’s house is still is there. We spent four hours in Cetinje, a city probably similar to how Podgorica looked before World War II. Podgorica was carpet-bombed, while Cetinje— high in a remote mountain plateau—was untouched. In 2024 it looked much like it did in 1919.We had lunch at a charming café, took many photos, got on the bus and went “home,” to our apartment in Dobrota, which felt empty without Emily.

An old military barracks that is now a sports center for youth. Swords into recreation.

Language creates connection, and the lack of it creates borders. Perhaps that is why Xenophobia is so rampant in the United States, a country where English-as-first-language speakers, rarely know a second one. We were better at picking up Albanian than Montenegrin because we watched public television in Tirana.  In Montenegro,  we never learned more than Dobar Dan, and Hvala.

Most of the people we met, knew as much English as we knew Serbian. Though there are exceptions (the woman in the hair salon, the woman on the train), you generally can’t build a relationship on Good day and Thank you. We did make friends with certain cats, who joined us daily for portions of our walks. We learned how to greet them: Zrdavo Macka.

Other than our feline friends, Montenegro was, after Emily left, more than any other place, just the two of us.