With Montenegro in the news of late, I thought I’d share a little nugget from a recent visit there. A little background first. The nation of Montenegro is on the Adriatic coast of the Balkan peninsula, just southeast of Croatia and northwest of Albania. It was one of the republics in Yugoslavia until the federation dissolved in 1992. For some time after that, Montenegro was part of greater Serbia until 2006 when the nation voted for independence. The ‘YES’ vote won by a mere 2300 votes, a result that suggested a schism among Montenegrins over the future course of their nation.
Independence did not exactly sooth the troubled waters of democracy. In 2016, a failed coup attempt exposed just how fractious were in Montenegro. The plot’s cast of characters included opposition groups, Serbian nationalists, a former commander of an elite Serbian police unit, and Russian agents. The episode was a reminder of earlier Balkan intrigues from the 19th and 20th centuries and had echoes of Cold War rivalries. Here’s the story in Politico:
Before I share my little Montenegrin adventure, it’s important to say that I really loved the country, both the people and the place. In fact, the people were generous, straight up and easy going in a way I don’t always find in more affluent western European nations that shall remain unnamed. My little tale here is hardly representative of the nation as a whole.
That said, here goes. I was heading back to the place I’d rented on the Bay of Kotor after a day spent driving around Montenegro, both along the coast and inland to its one-time royal capital, Cetinje. As I neared the coastal resort town of Budva, the traffic got heavier. Two lanes suddenly became three, and my position in the far right lane was a problem as it was now a ‘turn lane only.’ Turning right would have taken me in the wrong direction, so I tried to get back in the center lane.
But, there was so much traffic that I arrived at the intersection before I could merge. The light was red, so, as I’d done in other such spots, I rolled down my window and waved at the car next to me in the middle lane, gesturing to see if he’d let me in. The other driver seemed to understand, and, when the light changed, I drove straight through the intersection instead of turning right.
Now, I knew this was a bit of a shaky move, but… who among us has not gotten stuck in the wrong lane at one time or another and appealed to the goodwill of a fellow driver to let them into the right one?
In any event, no sooner had I cleared the intersection when I saw a policeman standing in my lane up ahead with a whistle and a hand-held red sign. He was looking at me and, with his other arm, he waved me into a small parking area fronting a convenience store. I pulled into a spot right next to another car where a different cop was leaning into a car that he’d pulled over.
With my window down, I waited as the officer approached, hoping he’d be charitable to the clueless foreigner. He stepped up to my window and began speaking in what I took to be Montenegrin. I shook my head and shrugged in a way that said, ‘I don’t understand.’ His expression changed and he began speaking English with a cadence and accent that reminded me of Boris Badenov from the old ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ cartoons.
He asked for my license, rental documents and passport and, as he looked them over, started muttering, ‘Oh yes, ahh….this is bad…very bad…ahh…I don’t know…’ while shaking his head and squeaking an odd sound though one corner of his mouth.
His manner grew serious, almost somber as he told me I’d just made ‘two serious violations’, with emphasis on the ‘two’, and I’d have to go to the judge to sort this out.
Well, I’ve had my share of highway shakedowns by police and military in foreign countries and was pretty sure I could see where this was going. Experience suggested I keep my mouth shut. If a transaction was going to happen, let him initiate it. Not every cop or soldier that stops you is looking to line their pocket. Many perhaps, but not all.
I apologized and played the ‘dumb foreigner’ card, explaining that I got trapped in the wrong lane and asked the car next to me if I could get in, etc. His demeanor and tone suggested this ‘I’m your pal but gotta uphold the law’ message while he mumbled his concern that I was looking at about 250 euros worth of fines and a mandatory court appearance.
He paused and calmly flipped the pages of my passport, waiting for things to sink in. I still wanted him to ‘make the ask’ so I explained that my flight was in a couple days and I couldn’t wait around for a court appearance. I thought it a gentle nudge in the direction he was angling in. And yet, he wasn’t easy to read and began making that sound from the corner of his mouth again while looking off as if in thought. A minute or so later, he muttered something about the possibility of ‘mailing the fine in’. Okay, now we were getting somewhere, I thought.
Then he surprised me by adding that the post office wouldn’t be open until tomorrow, letting it trail off so as to suggest the obvious dilemma—what to do with me until then? Detention seemed a little severe just for using the wrong lane. In my younger days I might have started to imagine some ‘Midnight Express’ kind of foreign jail nightmare, but I’ve reached the age where reason isn’t as scarce as it was then, and felt confident this was only a matter of money.
My hunch was that this was a tactical move, an attempt to establish a price range, a way to impress upon me the fact that this wasn’t just some two dollar traffic ticket. No, I was going to have dig deep. Just how deep was the question. This was now a dance, a ‘pas de deux’ with Officer Friendly leading.
While this was going on, I noticed at least two or three other cars come and go as his partner worked his share of the load, transacting business and sending them on their way. These looked like locals who understood the ground rules and quietly paid up. Probably not as much as it began to look like I was going to have to pay. I was going to get the foreigner surcharge.
“Shit,” he exclaimed, startling me. Swearing in English was not expected. He was looking off into distance again, fidgeting and concerned, like someone who just realized they left the bathtub running this morning. “This is bad…” he went on, then, “This is shit…” a couple more times. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, whether he was trying to impress upon me how serious this was or just expressing his frustration that it was taking so long. He began shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck, peppering these gestures with random mumbles of ‘Shit…’ or ‘I don’t know…’.
In what was surely a strange little twist, I realized he was playing a solo kind of ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ with me. It was as if he felt bad about being in this position, but I had boxed him into a corner with my ‘two violations.’ If I had only been wise enough to have kept it to one violation, how relieved he would be! Because then, he could do what his nature told him he should do: let me go with a warning.
Before I knew it, a half hour or so had passed in this ‘Montenegrin Standoff’ as I began to calculate a price range in my mind. He had muttered the figure ‘250 euros’ several times now, and I took that to be his starting point. While that number offended my sense of proportion, it was also an amount I didn’t have. I couldn’t even meet him in the middle at 125 euros. I had about 60 euros in my wallet and that was my starting point.
So, I decided to play my gambit: “Is it possible I could just pay some kind of fine tonight and settle this?” I asked. That was the opening he wanted. Almost instantly the tension in his face lifted. We were beginning to understand each other and the kabuki was no longer needed. “Yes, okay, I think so,” he said.
“Forty?” I suggested, hoping to keep my last twenty. Forty euros, the equivalent of forty-six US dollars. He straightened up and nodded. “Place in your rental papers and I take it to the van.” So I slid two 20 euro notes into the rental car folder he’d already looked over and handed it to him again.
When he returned a couple minutes later he was a changed man. All smiles and light. He had my passport open to the first page, still looking at it before handing it back. “You are born in New York it says?” I nodded agreeably knowing there’s little point trying to explain that there’s a state attached to the city.
“I would like to visit some day,” he continued. “Very nice city.”
“Very nice,” I replied. “Great part of the world. Lots of police there.”
“Yes, NYPD!” he said, smiling. “How much to visit New York? To fly there?”
“Depends,” I suggested now, like we were a couple old friends just catching up. “More expensive than Montenegro!” I added. He then extended his hand and said, “Okay, thank you.” As we shook hands, I wondered what his daily take here might have been, how much went into his pocket and how much he actually reported.
“You seem like a good guy,” I said. “I hope you get to New York someday—just watch out for those traffic cops!” And with that, I drove off.