In 2001 I was working and splitting my time between Croatia and Belgium, or more precisely between Zagreb and Brussels. I had been living in Europe at this point for almost three years working for NATO in building out a program that would eventually see Croatia go from being a PfP member to a full-fledged NATO member country. I made many friends in Belgium, among them representatives of other NATO countries, young men, and women who like myself had gone abroad to do something positive for their country and gain some working exposure.
While at NATO, it became customary for representatives of the NATO states to organize partnership conferences in their home country. Thus, it so happened that during my three years on the job, I was fortunate and privileged enough to have visited the following states: Ireland, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Estonia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Each visit was very unique and special and further cemented the bonds which all of us had made. They say that working for the military is like working for a family and I can attest to the truth of this, having never had closer friends in my life. Looking back on this period of my life, I can truly say it was the most memorable, not just because I was a young person just starting out in life, but because the world as I knew it, as we knew it back then, had yet to be turned upside down by the terrible events of terrorism and the wars that followed which we now all know as 9-11.
After visiting more than twelve countries, the NATO directorate office which I was supporting at the time had requested that I begin planning a trip to Croatia for the 350+ NATO members and joint operational logistic staff members. It was a daunting feat and it would require about 8 months of lead time, but I had to do it and more so I was very much happy to do it. After all, had not my fellow NATO colleagues hosted me in the same way?
After consulting with my superiors in Zagreb, we all agreed that the best thing to do would be to organize the conference in Dubrovnik. After all, it was the most significant tourism town Croatia had to offer and the one most associated with Croatia from a foreigners perspective. It was agreed to rent out the Hotel Exelcsior during the third week of August and host all our foreign guests in the same premise which had just undergone a lengthy restoration just a few months earlier.
I was happy to undertake the task but quickly noticed that less than four months into the planning, there was not much I could do with 350 people in Dubrovnik for more than 4 nights. The entire city takes about 3 days to see (actually less, but that was stretching it) and even an island excursion would still keep us to about 4 – 5 days in total and most people were staying a full ten. What else could be done?
I made the bold initiative and request to host the partners as part of a Dubrovnik, Croatia and Kotor, Montenegro trip. I thought it was a great way for most people to see both countries and enjoy the lovely coastline between the two, but more so, I knew that some of the trip participants, especially the Americans, had already made private tour bookings of Montenegro, and this had elicited a lot of questions from those who had not about whether or not they too could see something of Montenegro, during the 10 days that they were in Dubrovnik. Why not I thought. After all, wasn’t I always the person who was pushing for stronger economic and tourism ties between the two states? I telephoned Zagreb and Brussels and was given the green light.
When the time came for the conference, everything went off with a hitch. Everything that is except the conference itself. By day two of the conference, the Americans and Canadians were so mesmerized by the terrace view and the swimming deck of the Exelcsior (which was a 1930s style tiled cabana at the time that plunged right into the sea) that they couldn’t pay attention to the powerpoint slides and full day program we had prepared for them. Everyone was extremely restless and nobody seemed to care much about NATO Airborne Resistance activity (at least that’s what I think was the nominal title of the conference).
I looked around the room and as it was only 10:30 am and we had an entire day packed until 4:30 pm asked the participants who numbered about 150, what they would like to do – proceed with the powerpoint and take a ten minute break first OR, go back to their rooms, don their bathing suits and spend the rest of the day at the beach. Before I could even finish, the majority of them bolted for the door. Forty-five minutes later we were at the beach enjoying the hot August sun and everyone but me seemed to have no care in the world. I was panicking wondering how I was going to explain this should the Secretary General of NATO somehow find out how taxpayers money was being spent. In my defense it was mid-August and the sea was piping hot. The look of sheer delight on the faces of the members of partner countries was hard to miss. We were all the there nominally supporting a program called ‘Partnership for Peace (PfP)’ which one of the Americans had now coined ‘Party for Peace.’ This was starting to turn into a PR disaster.
By day four of the conference, the conference rooms were all but empty and it took all my willpower to try to assemble members in the evening on the Exelcsior’s terrace so I could recap what the few of us who actually attended the presentations could recap for those who hadn’t. About this time one of the American officers present began relaying to me the restlessness many at the beach were starting to feel. They complained the water was too hot and swimming did not provide much of a respite.
I asked if they would like to go to Montenegro the very next day versus three days later as the water would be cooler there. “How do you figure?” asked my American colleague. “Well, we will be swimming in the Boka Kotorska,” I responded. “It’s southern Europe’s only real fjord and it’s a real phenomenon because the warm water of the Adriatic mixes with the inner waters of the fjord, trust me, it’s always just a bit cooler there than on the open sea. At least you will get some respite.” I said. They all nodded in excitement and I told them to be ready early the next morning as we were going with six or seven vehicles.
The next morning, we left bright and early and crossed the border within the first 45 minutes, no line ups at all. It was 2001 and looking back I can say we were probably the largest convoy of cars that day and possibly the entire week. By the time we reached Kotor it was around high noon. We ate lunch, explored a bit on foot and bought a few trinkets. I recall many of the shopkeepers asking me how many in the group I had brought over and excitedly asking me to bring more people over the course of the next few days. For some reason that stuck in my head. As the afternoon sun began to sting I gathered my troops (literally) and suggested a swimming area further down the road between Kotor and Perast. We hopped in our vehicles and headed in that direction. By the time we made it to the area which I had remembered from childhood, a few families had already laid their towels down. We parked and walked over to where they were. Let me describe the oohs and ahhs as they came out of the mouths of my coworkers so you can feel a sense of Montenegrin pride. At the spot where we had stopped and parked the car, we were sandwiched with Kotor behind us, Perast a little bit further down the road in front, and, if you have driven to it, the point in the Boka Kotorska road where the sheer drop of the mountain face past Perast looks as if a rock wall had either emerged from or plunged deep into the sea. The effect was mesmerizing and from the look on everyone’s faces, they had never seen anything like it before. When they were done taking photos, they surveyed the strange phenomena of the water, which, just as I had told them, was unique in that it blended in with the sea but had the calm look and feel of a man-made lake.
Naturally, many members of my group dove right in and were surprised to find the water was not as salty as it was in Dubrovnik. They were even happier to discover it was cooler. One Belgian woman described it as being as cool as a lake. The others couldn’t quite get over the fact that the algae near the shore, the tall grasses or the translucent effect of it. I hadn’t swum in the Boka for such a long time that I too was getting reoriented to it. Part of its charm has always been that its somewhere between an ocean and a lake but with the cooling effect of the latter. We spent a glorious afternoon swimming right there along a concrete beach with some pensioners looking after their grandchildren and marveling at the fact we were swimming in a real live fjord. Not many people can say that and the look of awe on the faces of my guests still stays with me all these long years later. To this day, even when I am alone, swimming in the Boka has an altogether different feeling and is still impacted by that beautiful day almost 20 years ago with wonderful friends who saw it and experienced it for the first time in their lives. I hope wherever they are in the world that they managed to come back and enjoy another swim in the Boka for there is surely nothing like it anywhere else in the world.