Montenegro, or Crna Gora as I learned to call it, is not subtle. Mountains rise straight up out of the Adriatic Sea and then fall into Lake Skadar just as quickly as they appeared. The Prokletije range (which translates into "Accursed Mountains") near the Albanian border is so inhospitable that it was able to shield the locals from the Ottoman army for several hundred years. The landscape of this place gets in your face and shouts, "Here I am! Look at me!"
Last year I was fortunate to be able to take a sabbatical in Montenegro, a small Balkan country that declared its independence from Serbia about seven years ago. While the environment of Montenegro is conspicuously beautiful, I discovered that not much else there is obvious. This region of the world is filled with complexity and mystery, and it pulled me in.
Since returning, I have struggled. Of course, there were the normal issues of reintegration and reverse culture shock but perhaps the most difficult thing for me has been trying to answer the question, "What did I learn?"
A land without justice
My language tutor and friend, Sandra, lives a good life by Montenegrin standards. She and her husband both have good jobs and own a small but pleasant apartment in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Yet, Sandra has often had a difficult time paying her bills and more than once had to borrow money from her American friends to make it until the next payday. She is also trying to get a loan to buy a larger apartment with a small yard to accommodate her rambunctious daughter Nikolina, but she has been frustrated at every turn by the bureaucracy and corruption of the banking system. Nevertheless, Sandra was quick to bring us gifts for "our" Christmas or drop everything in her life to help her American friends.
My experiences with people like Sandra—or Neno, the tour guide who lived in his basement for four years during the siege of Sarajevo—or Radovan, our landlord who works for the Ministry of Finance but longs for the days of Tito's rule—raised many more questions than they answered. Why can't Montenegro pull its economy up to European standards so that Sandra can have the same opportunities I do? How did Montenegrins saddle themselves with a government that is so corrupt and insensitive? How could the same good people who showed us so much hospitality and generosity ruthlessly massacre each other in places like Mostar, Srebenica and Sarajevo? Milovan Djilas aptly called Montenegro "a land without justice."
The gift of experience
Reading about the Balkans has been helpful, but I have found that other people's descriptions and explanations always fail to capture the entire truth of what I saw. There is no substitute for being there.
I returned to campus this fall to much discussion about online learning and many other changes taking place in higher education. I have no doubt that these changes are important and will make my children's college experience much different than mine.
But I also believe, more than ever, that the most valuable educational experiences will always be just that—experiences. Travel, internships, service learning and perhaps the late night arguments over a cold pizza, often leave our heads spinning. But as many Luther students who have already learned this lesson have reminded me, these periods of disorientation can be life changing.
Maybe that is what I learned last year.