The Peja to Podgorica to Kotor bus careens through the night, a corkscrew path on a narrow, snowy mountain asphalt road laid down in dynamited wadis, rock edge and tree branch seemingly inches from my window, an occasional car, to my astonishment, passing untouched between me and the rent earthen walls. My sleep is arrested by the spectral blue halo around the small television screen showing infernal Balkan techno music videos on loop, an indecipherable chorus of coo coo, coo-ya ticky, cooya crooch cooya ticky. Also, by thoughts of my Kosovar border guard. A disclosure: I felt sheepish when he asked God to bless me. He thanked all of America for helping his nation, his people, and after a hair-triggered response of warmth, of unconditional gratitude, I thought: what must it be like to fight for a country? Not for an idea, or a cause, or as a proxy or a prophylactic or for resources or religion or politics or freedom or any of the other entries on the unending and ever-growing list of Reasons a Man Has Ever Killed Another Man. I mean for a country. For a home, for a piece of land where you can be left alone, unbothered to pursue your God or no god or grow a family or simply to stand on a piece of earth and say this is mine and it belongs to me and I will not let you move me from it. What must go through a man’s head when he is threatened, when he hears the monsters coming and that he must decide, just one moment to decide, run or stay and fight.
The road straightens perceptibly, the mountain ranges backed up now and I stare at the ridgeline, the jet black mountain (Crna Gora, Montenegro, Black Mountain) discernible from the jet black night sky only by a burlap-thick blanket of stars, Orion so big and so low I think he might pounce rather than shoot. Slowly the stars recede, coo coo, coo-ya ticky, and now that middle-light, the grayness that closes in just before you pass out, revealing surreal soft edged, fragmented rock formations on the sides of the road, piles emerging from the ground like a stone prairie dog field. The bus drives over one last pass, darkness gone but the sun not quite out, and before me the translucent teal blue water in the Bay of Kotor. It fills an ancient riverine canyon; from the top the bay looks like a headless angel, wings spread slightly not in flight but in pronouncement, but from the shoreline the limestone scarred cliffs surround it so steep and high a claustrophobic would be searching for the exit door. The old town at the base of one side is Brothers Grimm handiwork, here in some form since two hundred years before Jesus died, and though it is still the center of community life, it is seven-thirty a.m. and I am told we are not open until nine. I walk, a mile or so, around the far peninsula and sit on a concrete pier, watching sunrays come over the ragged mountain like searchlights, dust in the morning sun. A single fisherman sits, untangling his nets, a single pink fish at his side.
On my walk back towards town a new Mitsubishi SUV pulls over, a youngish man in a baby-blue hooded sweatshirt and giant designer sunglasses offers me a ride into town. He is Bosko, a Business Tourism and Economics professor in the next town over, but here today for his other job as the president of Kotor’s Young Social Democratic Party. I ask about the economy (“the man is the sailor, the voman spends the money, there is nothing else”) and about his politics (“I am a Democrat, Social is for pocketbook only”). We park just outside the city walls and walk towards the five-hundred year old north city gate. Bosko is talkative and insanely kind, he has already promised me internet access, tea, and a phone call to his friend who owns a nice apartment for rent just outside the gates. I now notice his sunglasses are decorated with costume jewelry; his pants, crisp navy denim, are too tight for his prematurely pear-shaped body, and he carries what could never be mistaken for anything other than a purse. We walk through the gate and into the first courtyard, scattering one dog and forty or so cats like pigeons from a charging child. “She,” Bosko says in English and pointing to a woman hosing down a sidewalk in front of her store and feeding the felines, “is the Cat Voman.” They exchange hellos, Bosko shifting to his native tongue and then quickly back to me in English, speaking continuously, right hand flailing, making lefts and rights in narrow cobblestoned alleys, me following him like a May-December Charlie and Willy Wonka. I have no idea where I have come from nor where I am going.
Then, a magic door: A violin from an open window behind me (the music school), Bosko turns the keys and we are inside. A clean, red-heavy office that Bosko tells me is sinking, the whole town is sinking or sucking water up; pictures on a bulletin board of public service events Bosko and his fellow Young Social Democrats have sponsored; a giant flag of a rose, presumably their party logo. Bosko immediately brings me tea, handing me a small lemon I’m supposed to eat whole before taking a drink (me: “what do you call this little lemon?” Bosko: “we call it a little lemon”), then biscuits, then the internet. A woman sticks her scarf-covered head into the door, deferential; Bosko dismisses her, turning to me and saying “Gypsy voman, she makes too many children.” He then brings me a bottle, displaying it like a proud waiter, telling me it is Pelinkovac, a regional liquor that smells to me too much like Jagermeister, then pouring it into a dentist office spit cup. “This,” says Bosko, “is delicious,” and I think I might be either drunk or a skin shirt by noon.
Bosko directs me to the main square while he attends to party business, I sit in the sun and drink a coffee and contemplate the kindness of strangers. In Peru, a man and his young daughter picked up Mac and me, our thumbs extended on a whim upon our realization we were miles from where we needed to be and out in the heat of the sun. The man’s daughter had to roll down the window and open the door from the outside, balding tires and vinyl back seat cracked, speeding asphalt exposed through the rusted floor boards. America too: in Denver, a stranger gives two of us a late-night ride home when there are no taxis; in Tucson, a Honda CRX pulls over for us, two drunks walking, plus a guitar, plus a giant dog, a multi-species clown car. Kindness universal. Coo coo, coo-ya ticky.
The towering mountains immediately behind Kotor are nearly perpendicular and dominated by 9th century fortress walls; it, in turn, dominated by a closer to perpendicular mountain behind it. I want to climb to the top, and ask Bosko if it is possible. “You cannot do it,” he says, “the steps are wet and it is not safe.” But Bosko has a purse, and “it is not safe” is rarely a reason not to do something. The passageway from the Old Town is easy to find, and the next morning I begin my climb, walking first under a tightrope clothesline, shirts dangling in the shadows, then through an open wrought iron gate, then through a thick, waist-high stone channel. My Sub Pop t-shirt grants me entry past three modern-day Montenegrins, still guarding the fortress walls. All are smoking, two have the long stringy hair and despondent, black sheen of gothic youth, they share a forty ounce malt liquor.
“Are you from Sub Pop?,” the first asks. “I fucking love the Fleet Foxes!” I tell him I am not from Sub Pop, but that I too love Fleet Foxes, and we begin to swap bands. We both know Gomez, and Band of Horses; I tell him Seattle is a great city and that he could hear all sorts of incredible music there. He leaves me with The Middle East and I leave him with Visqueen, music an international language, along with math and football, the non-American kind, and love, of course, and this brief exchange has made up for all the awful discothèque house music I’ve been subjected to over the last week. I continue up the path, stopping now and again to take in the cloudless views of the Bay of Kotor. There are, I read, 1,350 steps leading to the San Giovanni castle at the top of the fortress walls, and I step on as many of them as I can find. The view from the top is spectacular, but checked by thoughts of men carrying rocks up earlier versions of the trail I just climbed. What man had a vision to create castle walls on perpendicular slopes, and what men built them? What forces were so dastardly, so fearsome, that it prompted a minor king to build a miracle to protect his kingdom? My Kosovar border guard again; this fortress so inconvenient, so cumbersome, and seemingly protective of so much nothing, that I think men must have built just to build, have attacked just to attack, defended simply to defend. There is a book titled War is a Force That Gives us Meaning and I think that yes, perhaps war is a force that gives us (some? most? men?) meaning, it allows us to say this is mine and it belongs to me and I will not let you move me from it. The ties that bond men during conflict, Chris Hedges writes, are so strong as to bestow upon those fighting a meaning for life; the communal feeling gained from shared violence, from the preparation for war to the threat of death is a power even bigger than living simply to live, and I think that I must be standing upon the manifestation of this idea. There seems to me no good reason to build a fortress here, and no good reason to attack it, yet these walls exchanged projectiles and changed hands from the 6th Century all the way until the end of World War I; this mountain upon which it sits ready, history tells us, to change hands once a man, again, decides here is where he would like to stand. Coo coo, coo-ya ticky, war on loop.