Culture and Customs


I cannot resist inserting a note or two on cultural attitudes.

Visitors to the Balkans generally will note that most people are heavy smokers, and underneath non-smoking signs in restaurants there will probably be an ashtray over-flowing with butt-ends.

Another aspect for northern European visitors is the volume of conversation. A quiet discussion between friends will be held so that anyone within a 25m radius can listen in. A more heated discussion, say about football, could reach up to 50m or more. Music is of course loved by everyone, so that what one person plays has to be heard by as many people as possible. This is especially true of weddings, where the noise radius can reach up to several kilometres; with the natural amphitheatre created by Risan’s geography, this is particularly true here.

Mobile Phones
Montenegrins are wedded to their mobile phones, and God did them an injustice by not giving them 3 hands. There are about 2 mobile phones per head of the population (Bloomberg gives 2.1 as at 2011, Wikipedia 1.8 as at 2015). Either way, there are a lot. If ever the police start stopping motorists for using a mobile phone while driving, they will be causing major traffic jams. To see a motorist NOT use a mobile phone while driving is something to remark on! Especially negotiating some of the narrow hair-pinned roads away from the main highways!

The other aspect of their use of a mobile is that they don’t really need to. The person at the other end can probably heard them without a phone, as they speak, or more accurately shout, at high volume. Possibly it has something to do with their being a mountain people used historically to communicating across mountain valleys.

A further note on cultural attitudes is about driving. Cars are, as in many places, a symbol of macho pride. So the first rule of Montenegro driving is to overtake the vehicle in front at any cost and preferably on a blind corner. The second rule is that if you meet a friend, you stop and chat. The winner of this rule is the one with the longest queue behind him when the conversation ends. The third rule is of course to be speaking on your mobile phone at all times.

Christmas (Božić) customs:
As with other southern Slavs, as far I can find from sources such as Wikipedia, the main customs are to do with Badnjak, or Christmas Eve. This being Orthodox Christmas, Badnajk is the 6th January. This is also the name for the ‘Yule log’, a piece of oak. Our former landlord cuts 10 small logs which he then decorates with small laurel, mistletoe and olive branches. The logs are placed at the front door of the old stone family house where we lived. They join an eleventh log which has remained there from the previous Badnjak. James asked him why 11 logs when there were 12 Apostles, but he doesn’t know why. Anyway, after the lamb is roasted on Badnjak, we had to burn 3 of the logs in our stove. The remaining ones are then burnt when we felt like it – but we had to keep one at the front door all year.
Goran also places an orange with a small olive branch stuck into it at each of the entrances to the courtyard. Again, he cannot explain why – it is simply custom.

When we were in Tivat, we noticed that the other apartments in the block had oak leaves placed at their doors. It was the same in Skopje in Macedonia. Additionally we see many cars with oak branches on their front bumpers/ radiators. We assume that this is because they do not the facility to perform the full Badnjak or yule log rites.

Wedding Parties:
When we were in Macedonia, we went to a number of weddings, both Macedonian (ie per Slav custom) and Albanian. In practice, there is no difference in the proceedings. All the guests file in to the dining area, being greeted by the bridal couple and parents, and sit at pre-determined tables. The music starts early and continues for the whole of the evening. After the arrival of all the guests, the bridal couple make their formal entrance and go to the high table where the groom gives a welcome speech. After that, meal, dancing, drinking and the usual jollifications. The dances are almost identical and for a foreigner fairly simple to join in, as they consist of a line of people holding hands and kicking or shuffling their legs forwards, backwards and sideways while the line gradually processes sideways anti-clockwise.