How many centuries does Kotor count?

Kotor

How many centuries does Kotor’s age even count? I kept asking myself this question whenever I heard that annoying song by Galija, wondering why Kotor’s age was more important than the age of all other cities. I had never been to Kotor, so I didn’t have any personal impressions of it except for the foggy foreboding that it was a place more steeped in the past than the present and that it was better for it to just stay that way.

Kotor I found myself in Kotor by a mere wondrous chance on one occasion when I skipped my university classes and ran towards the Slavija Square to meet Ivana, the aforementioned victim of my projects and the partner in crime and an accomplice in my gallivants, before catching the last train to Bar. We got off the train in Podgorica, on our way to the premiere of some movie on bird protection, which was directed by some friend of ours. After the movie, as we loafed around the city we wistfully thought about the fact that the seaside was only two hours away and that it would be a shame not to go, as it must have missed us too, considering the fact that we hadn’t seen each other since our trip to Budva in 2007.

Kotor

It was winter then and we were curious about what the sea looked like out of season, out of tourists, out of the reach of the Sun and its colours. We didn’t dwell on it much, we just left Podgorica, which hadn’t been to appealing to us, and hitched a ride, not really knowing where we were going. We had decided to go to the seaside, but we let the fate decide which city we would end up in. The road we hitchhiked in was clearly leading to Budva, and so was the person who stopped to pick us up.

That’s how we found ourselves in this cold, grey, empty city. It was December and I was wearing black coat and boots. I was surprised to catch myself trying to assimilate in sand minerals as I was treading the beach, taking in the fragile rays of sunshine peeking through clouds. I tried to discern the places we had visited the previous summer, but the winter had done a good job camouflaging them and transforming them into something new. Everything had lost its distinctive points. “I cannot understand the Adriatic shore, as something like you and me is now there no more”, Galija broke into my mind again, and “Kotor” just continued from there, taking us to it.

Kotor

Everyone who stopped to give us a lift was evidently shocked by two Serbian gals languidly exploring the seaside and nonchalantly hitching rides from place to place without a final goal in mind. We didn’t know where we were going for a simple reason – we wanted to go everywhere. Whenever someone stopped and asked us where we were headed, we would simply answer “same place as you are”, and since the next person was going to Kotor, we jumped at the chance, or it jumped at us, whichever way you prefer to see it. In my world, it was us who opened our arms to Kotor and Kotor was opening its walls to draw us into its centuries and keep us there forever.

It was the evening when we reached it, and Kotor was acquiring that navy blue coloured by golden rays of moonlight and streetlamps. This stone-laden town stood proudly by the sea, shielding its citizens from sea beasts. The sea, on the other hand, lay flat and somewhat indifferent, as if it had already accepted the borders imposed by Kotor and stopped trying to capture it. At the same time, it was defending itself from human beasts. And so Kotor and the sea lived on in its symbiosis, resembling a womb in the Boka scenery with Lovcen and Orjen propping up their shoulders to protect them from the airborne beasts and frame this image.

Kotor

As soon as we passed the entrance into the city, a whole new world opened to us; a world long forgotten and the pulsating life of the city running through the narrow stone streets as if through arteries. This pulse still reverberates through the city and sometimes it feels as if you can hear it although it’s impossible to tell where it’s coming from. Each stone whispers through time and as you tread the hallways lined with these stones, you cannot help but feel a bit of magic even if you cannot recognize it.

It feels at times that not even the citizens of Kotor understand their own town and that they do not deserve to live in it. They will keep complaining about the rain and boredom! And I know I would never be bored in Kotor! Every street has a life of its own and I could spend hours hiding among those stones and observing them all! All those windows with their curtains and flowerpots and all those souvenir shops full of shells and handicrafts and not to mention all those cats in the streets you wish you could follow so that they’d show you yet another hidden street.

Kotor

Not until I actually scratched the surface of the town did I realise its hidden cinematic potential and that was when we realised we even knew one of the citizens there. We wanted a local to introduce us to Kotor. Like almost every Montenegrin, he wasn’t as willing to talk about the legends of Kotor, historical data and tourist attractions, but he took us instead to the most luxurious café in the old part of the city, where everyone knew him of course. We chatted about the weather, annual rainfall rates, and how Montenegrins dealt with winter blues, but I never found out how many centuries Kotor counted. I jealously observed these seemingly normal people of flesh and bone who had just become special to me – because they lived in this city. These people who lived in a fairy-tale and were failing to see it.

And then, a clumsy flick of a hand and my hot chocolate cup was topples and as the liquid was spilling over the whole table and towards the floor disappearing slowly, so did we from Kotor.

Kotor

And then, one spring, several years later the joint university trip took me to the Blue Horizons Beach. With all due respect to the beach and its wonderful rocks and shrubbery, we couldn’t sit still there. I escaped this village with my frivolous colleagues, admiring the name of the supermarket where we bought beer -“Love”. We reached the crossroads, which was a form between Tivat, Budva and Kotor. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to go – Kotor.

The town hadn’t changed much from my last visit, but I had. I had become even more sensitive and open to take this town in. The older I got, the more I appreciated the serenity and simplicity of small maritime towns and their innate elegance, unfettered by the onslaught of kitsch hurtled at them every summer.

We climbed to the top of the old fortress, admiring the horizon, which was expanding as we progressed upwards. The walls and streets were left behind us as we ascended the narrow stone paths towards the cypresses. We kept running into overloaded donkeys carrying their loads sadly, as they alternated between climbing and descending the hills with their head hung.

Kotor

There was a ship floating in the sea and I had a feeling I had already seen it somewhere. It seemed to me that this giant cruise ship had been there for a while and that it kept coming back for more whenever I did. I still had no idea whether I wanted to be, among the walls of this maritime town or on the sea, on a ship like that, coming and going, always returning to the shore, changed and full of new secrets it had accumulated around the world and yet the same.

Kotor

And then finally, several years later, owing to some business opportunities, or rather misfortunes, I found myself in Kotor again, greeted again by the same ship and the same dilemma. I had by that time already become a proud citizen of the maritime area, yet always feeling I would never truly belong there. “What could you Serbs even know about the sea? You grew up in the cornfields!” – they would mock me every time they asked why I had moved to Montenegro. And then during one of my attacks of dizziness and nausea on a bobbing ship, one of them even told me: “Instead of looking at the wavy sea, imagine it’s the corns from your Serbia and you’ll feel better”.

And yet I still felt I loved and understood the sea better than they did and that they envied me for that love, as they had long lost seeing the sea with that childish innocence, if they ever had. They saw the sea as the means of survival, the source of tourism and service industry and as such it stood for money. Sailors went to the sea or financial and hedonistic reasons, chasing money and ladies of the night around the docks. Few of them felt any connection to the sea and the shores they had visited.

Kotor

To me, the sea remained the pure entity, abstract and uncorrupted by pragmatic measures and they were jealous of that. They couldn’t even understand why I took the longer route between Tivat and Kotor instead of just going through the tunnel, because they all cursed the seas for going so deeply into their land that they had been forced to drive around the whole shore before the tunnels were made. To their pleasure, the tunnel and the ferry were built and their troubles taken away. And I would take the ferry back and forth several times a day just to admire the view, never really going anywhere. They thought I was mad.

Every time I took a stroll around Kotor, I let myself get lost among the souvenir shops, shells and pictures. I never learnt to find my way around the old part of the city. I would run in circles until I ran into whatever I was looking for. I remembered some used candles in shades of grey and their molten wax, which had started to resemble stalactites. I remembered tablecloths, tapestries and carpets hanging in shops. I remembered some nautilus shell in a shop window. I remembered the place where they made good pizza. The place where I spilt my hot chocolate. But I never remembered how to find all those hidden corners, and I kept wondering at my own lack of orientation. It felt so great being lost in Kotor and I didn’t want to learn all its streets.

Kotor

And finally, I think the last time I saw Kotor was from the Birdseye view, from the tall mountains surrounding it. I was walking up some hill marvelling at the tiny town and its steep sides. It was also the place from where I finally saw Boka Kotorska in its entirety. I remembered our geography lectures about it, and how the word “boka” means “mouth” in Italian. I remembered the picture of the mouth swallowing the sea from that book.

Then I saw the very same image for the first time, and I knew that all the small towns where I had been passing my life were scattered about the scenery. I remember thinking that Boka reminded me of some crab reaching out to the Adriatic sea with its claws. Then I thought it looked like some cow whose hors were jabbing at the sea. In the end I remembered anatomy classes and realised there was one image which I projected onto the view before my eyes – the shape of a womb.

Kotor

And so the secret of Kotor was out. It was small and my own. In its metaphor of motherhood, Boka could only give birth to lyrics and lines about itself. Some of these lines turned into images. Some of them into this essay

And finally, how many centuries of age does Kotor count? There is a city called Acruvium, which stood on the same place where Kotor is now and which is mentioned as early as the second century. Kotor got its current name only in the ninth century, and so we could tell that it counts 22 centuries of age. As the famous song by Galija came out in 1997, we could say that the girl would now be in her, not too forward, thirties and we certainly wish her the best.

She’s probably married now and might have three kids with a man who will never write her a poem. Maybe he himself hums those lyrics, completely unaware of the fact that they’d been devoted to his own wife as she smiles coyly and mysteriously. Maybe she herself doesn’t know it because she had never known the man who had written the song. She may have passed him by somewhere in Kotor, leaving him to look after her and breathe in the scent of her perfume. He may have never seen her again, but those several moments were enough to ignite his imagination and it did the rest.

So if anyone asks you, Kotor counts 22 centuries. As far as we’re concerned, it’s not Kotor that should measure itself in centuries. It’s centuries that should measure themselves in Kotor.

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Me in Perast, Perast in me

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