Living with Russian Roommates in Bijela, Montenegro

Posted on Posted in Lessons, Travel

Montenegro was not where I planned on living for a month. During a brain blip, I booked a plane ticket to Dubrovnik, Croatia and rented a room a few hours south in the small town of Bijela, Montenegro. You know; in an entirely different country…

I decided to keep the booking and worked with the owner of the house to find a private driver to take me across the border.

Once I rolled up to the house and recovered from the extra fee I had to hand over before the driver would open the trunk to retrieve my bag, I realized that my porch was a dock on the Bay of Kotor. The place was startlingly beautiful. My host said that I would have everything to myself for two weeks before my roommates showed up.

Bijela was incredibly quiet, as it is a holiday town whose busy season had not started. It provided the respite I needed as I crammed my mouth full of as much chocolate as it took to ease the pain of my massive international breakup. (It was A LOT of chocolate, y’all.)

I found homeostasis through my routine of going on two-mile walks along the bay in the afternoons, taking photos of crystal clear water, and searching for sea glass in front of the house at dusk. When I opened the bedroom windows, the sound of the water lapping onto the rocky shore relaxed me to sleep.

After two weeks, my Russian roommates (who are sisters) arrived with their spirited daughters. After a month of seclusion in Ukraine and the serenity of Bijela, it was too much to handle.

My stress-relief haven was filled with crying children and a language barrier. The women said that they could barely speak English, so I shyly smiled and did not speak to them except for the odd, “Hello!” Their girls eventually started saying the word back in their lovely thick Russian accents.

One sister would return my awkward smiles with warm smiles of her own, while the other looked at me behind what seemed like skeptical and mistrusting eyes.

Honestly, I felt like a weird fifth wheel encroaching on a family vacation. I started waiting for the sisters and their girls to leave the house before coming outside to cook or sit on the dock. It had been a long time since I had shared a small space with that many people and my introversion got the best of me. Unfortunately, I have since realized that my social awkwardness and attempts at being polite probably came across as unfriendly.

On the rare event that the family came home while I was cooking or eating on the deck, they would quickly clear away all of the girls’ toys and stay inside until I was finished. I tried to let them know that they did not bother me, but they were quick to mirror the behavior that I exhibited towards them. I am cringing just thinking about how awkward it was.

To top the experience off, we were all in the house during the exposure of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election. I kept close tabs on the situation from my laptop and worried that my roommates might have a grudge because of the situation.

Everything changed the day I left Bijela.

The skeptical, intimidating sister asked if I was leaving as I packed a box to send home, and I told her yes. I was trying to put an aggravating morning at the post office behind me that resulted in dumpster diving to find a box to ship home. The last thing I expected was to have a conversation while I was trying to rush to a city down the coast. Nevertheless, the sister and I spent the next two hours talking about life, travel, and the U.S. and Russia.

The fact that I was leaving seemed to embolden both of us to have the conversation we had not dared to before.

After I recovered from the shock of her fluency in the English language, she told me that her name is Marsha and her sister’s is Lena. We had barely started talking when she asked abruptly, “Does everyone hate Russians in America?”

My heart sank as I quickly explained that U.S. citizens do not hate Russians, but that in my experience, most do not like its government.

Marsha informed me that her family does not support the Russian government. In fact, she will not let her family watch television because of the immense amount of propaganda that rolls across the screen. She hates Putin and repeatedly called their prime minister a clown.

She went on to describe what life is like in Russia for the average person. Unless you work and live in St. Petersburg or Moscow, buying good food to feed your family is nearly impossible. It is too hard to make money and people struggle. Both of the sisters’ husbands work in different cities in order to make more money. One works in Ukraine.

I asked her about the Russian meddling in the U.S. election, but she did not seem to be aware of the situation. Marsha explained that it is hard for citizens to know what is going on. They have little access to information aside from propaganda. They have no idea what is going on in Crimea. She had question after question about what was going on in the world and I instantly wished we had talked sooner.

She asked why I was in Bijela and I explained my travels to her. Her eyes went wide with shock and she could not imagine being able to do anything like it. I realized how fortunate and lucky I have been and I wished I could help her family and others like it in so many ways.

Finally, I had to leave to make it to the post office and walk a few hours to Kotor before the sun set. As I left Bijela, the sisters gave me hugs and asked for my name. We parted as new friends after living together for a few weeks.

I have often thought of Marsha and Lena since the stay in Bijela. My takeaway from the situation is that I should have made an effort to make friends earlier on. Overcoming my shyness would have been worth the risk of establishing a friendship and having deep conversations. There would have been such a rich exchange of information and cultures. We could have shared meals, recipes, ideas, and memories.

While I may never see Marsha, Lena, and their girls again, I will remember them the next time I hesitate to strike up a conversation. I am so grateful that Marsha broke the ice and shared a piece of her life with me, even if it was as I prepared to leave town.

Have you ever had a similar encounter? Share it with everyone in the comments!


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