There is an old phrase that says if you want to experience all that life has to offer, you should get out of your comfort zone and do some traveling. Travelling opens the eyes and mind in a way that few experiences do. It’s not just about seeing new places and taking in culture, history, new cuisine or picking up a new language. Sometimes it’s also about getting to know the intrinsic character of the people who define the nation and what sets them apart and makes them unique.
In thinking about this, I am reminded of a trip to Kotor to visit relatives two years ago. I was traveling with my Canadian friend Dorothy and we had briefly separated in the heart of the old city while she went to do some shopping for relatives back home. We regrouped a few hours later in the town square and Dorothy proceeded to show me her loot. She had purchased a Montenegro national soccer team scarf, postcards, a beach bag with the word Kotor on it, some jams and candles and finally, refrigerator magnets referencing the 10 Montenegrin Commandments. For those of you reading this and unfamiliar with the Commandments, they are 10 rules which ostensibly set out to define the Montenegrin national character, which, over the centuries has been known as one consisting of sloth and a natural inclination towards procrastination. If you haven’t yet encountered the Montenegrin 10 Commandments, allow me to sum them up briefly below:
1. Man is born tired and lives to rest.
2. Love thy bed as you love thyself.
3. Rest during the day, so you can sleep at night.
4. Do not work. Work kills.
5. If you see someone resting, help them out.
6. Work as little as you can and transfer all the work you can to another.
7. There is salvation in shade. Nobody died from resting.
8. Work causes illness. Do not pass away young.
9. If you feel the urge to work, sit down, wait and you’ll see it will pass.
10. When you see people eating and drinking, approach them. When you see them working, turn back and do not trouble them.
Not being from Montenegro, Dorothy found the Commandments to be absolutely hilarious and asked me if there was any truth to what was written about them. I sighed heavily wondering how to begin this conversation with someone who was not native to Montenegro and whether I should even try. I say this because as someone who is part Dalmatian and part Montenegrin, I’ve always been at the receiving end of funny jests and comments whenever someone from the former Yugoslavia discovers that I just happen to have the genetic makeup of two peoples who were notoriously portrayed in the former country as being lazy, deliberately slow of movement and great lovers of sleep and relaxation. In the end, I decided I had to explain some of the contexts in the Commandments so that she would understand.
First and foremost, let me say that Montenegrins are not a lazy nation at all. Most of the people I know – both friends and family alike, are hard-working and industrious. It’s not quite clear to me how this idea of a foot-dragging national character got created, but I would imagine it had something to do with geography. Why? Usually, people from Mediterranean countries are characterized as slower and lazier than their counterparts in northern Europe. Now while that generalization probably dates to Luther’s Protestant work ethic at the expense of the Catholics, the Montenegrin Commandments most likely entered national consciousness during the period of Yugoslavia. Back then, both Montenegrins and Dalmatians (who also employ a modified version of the Montenegrin Commandments) were subject to the same characterizations – a southern republic and region where people were fortunate enough to bask in the sunlight, enjoy a warm dip in the sea, and overall a more relaxed way of life than their counterparts in Belgrade and Zagreb. Somehow this got mistaken for laziness. When I was 15 a classmate of mine named Ivan whose family originated from the region called Lika, would rage on and on about how unfair it was that the peasants in his region worked their asses off at the expense of us Dalmatians and Montenegrins. I was terribly offended and asked him how he could say such a thing. ‘Oh come on,’ he retorted. ‘While the rest of us are sowing and reaping crops, you people lie under the sun all day doing very little.’ That was the first time I had ever heard anyone allude to these regional differences. In my 20s I recall a favorite joke that was circulating about involving a Dalmatian and Montenegrin male. They are lying under a palm tree enjoying the sun, neither saying a word. At one point the Montenegrin turns to the Dalmatian and says, “look at us living the life, eh? Sun, sea, sand and beautiful women all around. We really have it great.” Without even opening his eyes the Dalmatian responds: “How do you even have the desire to talk.”
The idea that Montenegrins and Dalmatians share similar characteristics is a well-known fact by people living on both sides of the border. Both groups have a fantastic sense of humor which can be characterized as sarcastic and on point. They are both tall and good-natured with a fondness for jokes, endless amounts of coffee sipping and time spent outdoors with friends and family. Nothing wrong with that right?
In stating the above, I’d also like to add that the 10 Montenegrin Commandments are not entirely false either. Who wouldn’t want to rest most of the day if they were given the choice? In examining my own genetic make-up as a reflection of both cultures, I can truly state I like nothing better than an afternoon nap (Fjaka in Dalmatia-land) and crave a good night’s sleep as much as I cherish the mattress upon which to partake in such slumber (Commandment #2). In fact, as far as Commandment #2 goes (my all-time personal favorite), I’ve been known to cancel foreign travel if I discover the hotel or Airbnb bed is not to my liking. No need to leave home to find comforts abroad when I am perfectly fine with a staycation, or should I say ‘sleepcation’ in my own dear bed.
To me, the rest of the Commandments are just reflections of old folklore idioms which someone cunningly wrote down as a means to market through the tourist trade. Smart thinking whoever it was. To me, the Commandments no more describe the Montenegrin character than they do Dalmatians or Bosnians for that matter. Ironically enough, when describing ourselves to foreigners, I know many Montenegrins who will point out the 10 Commandments within the first hour of conversation, thereby giving someone a mental sketch of the sort of country they have just arrived in. I tend to not do this until day three or four with a tourist or unless specifically asked. Not sure if its because I find the Commandments to be derogatory or because I’d rather just show them the country and let them decide for themselves. Most people will get back to me with wonderful stories of the interesting people they met along the coast and the interior, while others may allude to an unpleasant experience involving the post office having closed earlier than outlined or a restaurant not serving gluten-free meals. When and if that happens, I tell them to take a step back, relax, and perhaps sleep on it. They’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep and if I could pen Commandment #11: Don’t stress. What will happen will happen, just make sure it doesn’t happen to you. Spoken like a true Montenegrin.