Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Russia, A Real Place -- Hinterlands

I have no way of proving this, but I think that if you asked the majority of Americans to describe Serbia and Montenegro, they would describe a gray, dreary industrial landscape. Kind of like Utica, with a Central European accent. And of course they would be wrong. Ryan and Natasha recently took a holiday in Montenegro:

Apparently the youngest independent republics in the world are Montenegro and Serbia, having been born on the same day in June 2006, indicating, perhaps, that a conjunction can’t hold a nation together. I’ve never been to Serbia, but having now visited its former other-half, I pity its citizens for the loss of their Adriatic coast, though they retained the more interesting capital. Tourism in the neon-lit town of Budva had a refreshingly local feel with most people carrying themselves as natives or once-natives, though I resided with the Russians. Natasha and I also enjoyed a high level of linguistic comfort, speaking both Russian and English with the hotel staff, waiters and hawkers of beach inflatables. Serbian itself often comes across like Russian with an Italian swagger.

Though we did find one restaurant serving what any Russian would identify as a “business lunch” (pronounced, beezniece lanch), meaning chicken soup, shredded cabbage salad, a meat and starch combination, and a beverage for three euro, Montenegrin cuisine happily failed to resemble the things we eat back “home.”

Once you travel beyond the sickly luminance of Budva’s strip and the hum of its blown out club speakers, your attention can play between the very blue sea and the arid mountains, beyond which diligent people are running vineyards and harvesting the honey that the locals dab on their donuts. We stayed in a dinky town called Rafaelovich, something like Budva’s half-corrupted, but still honest cousin. In the mornings I jogged along the water past stacked beach chairs and umbrellas and more than one cafĂ© advertising pizza dressed with ketchup. The final outpost was a little bar being built by an old man with a hammer and an axe. After that, the beach got rockier and the ruins of some early-twentieth century resort (cement slabs and a few aquamarine tiles) peeked out amongst the shrubs. On the second morning, I noticed a doorway set in the foliage and a sign that read, “Zoff’s Fish Bar.” Natasha and I returned that evening, armed for hunger and disappointment.

The set up was simple with no more than four tables under a palm-leaf roof and an open kitchen. A cement patio went right to the water where an old woman, who turned out to be Zoff’s mother, was lounging in topless repose. Our waiter (a guy in swim trunks) helped us through the menu and we ended up with calamari and some kind of white fish that was never translated. The seafood was seasoned simply with garlic and served with eggplant, all of which were grilled by Zoff himself, who stood in his unbuttoned tropical shirt, blowing kisses to Natasha throughout most of our meal.

We came back twice after that, treating ourselves to the lobster and the sea bass, with the latter winning Natasha’s vote for best meal of trip. At the end of our final visit, Zoff joined our table and provided his abridged life story in labored English and some homemade wine that must’ve scored an alcohol content of around twenty percent. Though he was openly cozy with Natasha, I liked Zoff. For eleven years, he’s only been serving fish that he or the two Bosnian refugees that he employs have caught themselves. He believes a good dinner should span several hours and considers all of his customers personal friends. I’ve never been to a better restaurant.

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