Thursday, October 29, 2020

Montenegro: Arrival

"Where ya heading today?" the check-in clerk asked.

"I'm going to Montenegro," the man answered.  "It's about the only place accepting travelers now."

As he placed his passport on the counter, the airline representative did a double take.

"Wait... are you two traveling together?" she asked him.

I had been in line before this guy, also heading to Montenegro, but there was a small issue with my booking.  The desk agent had asked me to stand aside while she waited for clarification on my situation, and had called up the next passenger, this guy who was heading the same way.

This guy had little flag stickers on his suitcase, presumably to show which countries he had visited, and by my count, Montenegro would be number 46.

When he learned we were going to the same place, we had a bonding moment, not unlike in the Parent Trap when Hayley Mills discovers that she has a twin sister while at summer camp.

"What are the odds!" he gushed.  "Two people on the same flights from Nashville to Washington to Vienna to Montenegro!"

He seemed reluctant to say the name of the city, Podgorica, instead always saying Montenegro.

While I too appreciated the novelty of this coincidence, my interest sparked and vanished like the flame on a match.  We chatted briefly, and then the check-in agent took his bag and gave him his boarding pass.

He stopped as he headed for security and turned back to me.

"I'm flying business class," he told me.  "Look me up in Vienna if you want me to get you into the lounge."

"Thanks, I'll do that," I told him, knowing full well I wouldn't be doing that.

Not long after he left, the agent finished processing me, and I started my journey.

By the time I reached Dulles Airport, it was around 4:30 PM.  I found my connecting gate to Vienna, and then I looked around the terminal.  Due to the lull in travel caused by COVID-19, nearly everything in the terminal was closed.  Other than a newsstand here and there and a gift shop, I found only two places serving food: a Wendy's fast-food stand and a sit-down restaurant called The Bracket.  I decided to go for the later option, and when I rolled up, it was five 'til five.

"We close at five o'clock," the waitress told me, "so you'll have to order quick."

Not two minutes later, another guy walked up, and he was unceremoniously turned away.  I would be the last man served.

I ordered a drink and some chicken wings, and they came out in a jiffy.  The waitress had seated me on the fringe of the restaurant, practically in the main corridor of the terminal, and as I sat there eating my wings, I drew in passengers like a lighthouse guiding in ships.  Probably 20 people asked to be seated and got referred to Wendy's.  Had the waitress buried me at a table further inside and out of view, I doubt as many people would have assumed The Bracket was still open.

My flight from Nashville to Dulles had been nearly full, but the one from Dulles to Vienna was only half full.  Many people scrambled around after take-off to secure themselves a whole row, in which they could lie down, but not me.  I avoid sleeping on flights, to ward off jet lag, so I had no need for an empty row.

The crew gave the usual safety presentation, and then they made a big to-do about masks.  Masks were required at all times, including while eating and drinking.  We were expected to take a bite or a sip, and mask up while we chewed and swallowed.  The flight attendants also warned us not to fall asleep unmasked because they would not hesitate to wake up anyone caught sleeping with his or her disgusting mouth and nose exposed.

I had my dinner with my glass always hoovering around my lips to ward off the mask police, watched a few films, and mid-flight, I went to the bathroom.  Remembering all the mask warnings, I was surprised to see so many people sleeping with masks cupping their chins or hanging loose from one ear.  I guess the crew was not prepared to wake people after all.

The flight was fine, though, and we reached Vienna no worse for the wear.

Deplaning was exceptionally slow, as we had to go row by row in an attempt to keep us socially distanced, but as soon as we got into the terminal, everyone got bunched up again at passport control.  Luckily, as a transit passenger, I got to peel off from this mob and made my way upstairs for my connection.

Upstairs, I spotted my travel twin from Nashville.  He was a hundred yards ahead of me, heading to the lounge, I suppose, but he stopped walking and looked back in my direction.

I also stopped and pretended to take a phone call.  Going into a lounge as a stranger's plus-one does not appeal to me.

I whiled away a few hours with sudoku, and soon enough, it was time for my last flight.

There were about twelve people on the flight, and I was halfway back on an aisle.

As I sat and waited, a young man stopped at my row.

"I'm over there," he said, pointing to the window seat.

He got situated, but I couldn't figure out any logic to this seating configuration.  Masks were mandatory again, of course, and I was seated adjacent to another passenger while the plane was basically empty.

The flight was only an hour and change, though, and I didn't bother moving.

When we landed in Podgorica, the mountains were there to greet us as we walked from the plane to the terminal, and once inside, my bags were the first off the belt.

Hi, Mountains!

My sponsor, one of my colleagues from the Embassy, had told me he would meet me outside the terminal, so I scanned the area when I exited the building.  There were two people standing with names written on signs, and neither name was mine.  There was a handful of other people milling around, plus some taxi drivers, security folks, and cleaners, but I didn't recognize any of them and no one approached me.

This wasn't my first rodeo, though, so I continued to the parking lot and found a van with diplomatic plates.

"Are you from the U.S. Embassy?" I asked the driver.

"Yes," he answered, "but where is PJ?  He was waiting for you."

The driver and I walked back to the terminal, and PJ and I made our awkward COVID introductions, socially distanced and masked.

"Sorry I missed you," PJ said as we walked back to the van.  "You don't look like your passport photo."

He didn't mention in what way I had diverged from my passport photo - Was it weight?  Age?  Hair? - and I didn't ask.  Still, I felt like I was being accused of catfishing.

In reality, I'm sure the mask was the biggest issue.  Identifying someone you've never met with most of his face covered is not so easy.

I've also heard it said, though, that when you do start looking like the photo on your ID, that's the time to be concerned.  So, in that sense, maybe PJ was paying me a compliment.  Yes, let's go with that.

My new "permanent" apartment wasn't quite ready when I arrived, so PJ took me to a temporary apartment where I would spend my 14 days of self-isolation.

As always, the temp apartment was stocked with enough basic supplies to live a normal(ish) life, and I occupy my time exercising, eating, cooking, teleworking, playing music, and sitting on my balcony in the sun, sometimes listening to a distant train or looking at the mountains.  Even with the mandatory quarantine, from preparing meals with a much-abused loaner cutting board to listening to my neighbors speaking Montenegrin in the hallway, it's all exciting somehow.  Now I just need to step out the front door.


Geoff M said...

Congrats on arriving at your new post! I hope it's a great tour :)

Eleanor White said...

Chris, here's to a wonderful 3 (?) years! I'm looking forward to earning a lot about Montenegro through your blog. Barry and I are celebrating the results of the election, as you may imagine, and welcoming the return of respect and admiration that career foreign service officers and State Dept staff so deserve. The US rose to the occasion! Love, Eleanor

P atty said...

I was almost certain your travel “companion” was going to end up at the Embassy as well! Enjoy your new posting.

Unknown said...

Chris, congrats on your new assignment. Please continue to add me to your blog,I do enjoy reading about your adventures.

Pia said...

Nice story!! Enjoyed reading it!! Good luck 🍀 in your new assignment’n
We will try to visit you 😊

Anonymous said...

Congrats on your new assignment. Hope you will enjoy your tour. Nice to hear from you. I always enjoy your story.

Take care, and stay healthy.

Rena said...

Hey Chris - I had the chance to visit Montenegro a few years ago when we were on the Olmsted Scholar program in Germany. We are good friends with the scholars who were studying in Montenegro. They lived in Embassy housing there too. If you’d ever like to talk to them about what their time was like there, please let me know and I will be more than happy to connect you with them. They’re lovely people and would probably be a wealth of information for you regarding things to do in Montenegro and in the neighboring countries. I hope you enjoy your new assignment and can’t wait to hear about your adventures there. ❤️, Rena