Dateline: July 19, 2014 – Grahovo, Montenegro
I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in Grahovo – Anka’s village. I had heard stories for years, and now, via an unlikely path, I was standing there.
On the outskirts of Grahovo, Montenegro.
Anka was born between the wars, in a small village in what was then Yugoslavia. A pretty girl with dark hair and big, hazel eyes, she worked on her family’s farm from a very young age. She loved animals, and could talk to them much better than Dr. Doolittle, because Dr. Doolittle didn’t speak Serbian.
Grahovo was a desperately poor place, but it was quiet and out of the way, and the family made do through the depression. Anything extra went to poorer villages nearby.
In April of 1941, the Germans came. There was heavy fighting on the approaches to the village, but the Wermacht pushed their way through the town and began four years of occupation. The unexpectedly hard fight in Yugoslavia delayed the German invasion of Russia by five critical weeks. A campaign that might have captured Moscow in the fall of 1941 teetered into a snowy stalemate, and then into a relentless, red tide westward, paid for with millions of Russian lives, that would end in the ruins of Berlin on May 8, 1945.
That same year, the communists took over, and the purges that followed dwarfed the barbarism of the Nazis. Tito’s men murdered a number of Anka’s relatives – her father, her uncle, her cousins. Anka spent her early adult years in various compulsory state jobs – working on railroad and highway crews, then in a factory, and finally in a state sawmill. She worked long hours quietly, too proud to complain. In 1958, she married and uprooted to California, where Anka had five children. The youngest of these children, an adorable but mischievous sandy blond girl, was born in 1965. Thirty-nine years later, through a complex series of coincidences, I met that mischievous little girl.
The little girl’s name is Marta. Anka from Grahovo is her Mother, and so has been my de-facto Mother-in-Law for something like 10 years. And I found myself standing in the village were it all started.
Of course, this somehow involves fishing. It was high summer and I had a business trip to Europe, so I called Marc Inoue, the fabled tuna guide based out of Slovenia who has led me to a number of countries and species, despite horrible luck with the weather. (See “The Minefield.”) Marc has also given 1000fish one of our most treasured photos – the one of him struggling out of bed at 4am after a particularly exuberant night in Serbia.
The photo is almost as good as the one of my brother-in-law being seasick.
Marc had suggested that we go troll for big bluefin tuna in central Croatia. Ever on the lookout for adding countries and species, I noted that Montenegro was quite close to our starting port of Dubrovnik, and we added one day on the itinerary for me to make the short drive and catch a fish just across the border. I asked Marc if he could get directions to Grahovo – he said he would figure it out. This guy goes way above the call of duty as a fishing guide, and has become quite a buddy.
Stefan Molnar, German fishing buddy and inventor of the fabled “Five Gram Rule,” joined me for the expedition. Hopefully he would finally have that epic trip I have been promising for years. We flew to Dubrovnik on a Friday night, and it was great to catch up with Marc. I confess that that we made something of a late night of it.
We struggled out of bed the next morning at the crack of noon, and assembled some Red Bull and cheese from a local shop. (Important safety tip – this is a guaranteed recipe for constipation.) We then drove to Montenegro. It’s a quick hop, driving along the coast on a clear, beautiful summer day.
The Croatian Coast south of Dubrovnik.
We enter Montenegro.
The first town across the border is a good-sized port, Herceg Novi, and Marc figured it was here I could scrape up some sort of small fish and add Montenegro to the country list.
Looking up the mountain from Herceg Novi.
Marc wrangled a parking spot – no mean feat this time of year in a seaside town – and we all raced down to the breakwater.
Steve investigates the harbor.
It was one of the rare times that the Fish Gods smiled on me. I had planned to use two rods – one with a larger bait on the off chance that something reasonable would bite, and one with sabikis to make sure I caught something. I cast the larger rig and set it up in the rocks. Just as I turned around to get the sabiki rod, the clicker on the big rod sounded with a short, sharp run. Amazed, I grabbed the rod, reeled out the slack, and went through that nervous moment where we figure out if the fish is still there. For a breathless second, I waited, then the fish took off and I reflexively set the hook. It was a solid fight, and it took me a minute or two to get it close. It was a gilthead bream, relatively small, but as I swung it up onto the rocks, I recognized that it was over a pound, and so, on the 12 pound line I was using, it was actually a world record.
The only world record set in Montenegro to date.
I got a few other small fish, but basically, my work there was done.
Molnar tries his luck on the breakwall.
It was a lot earlier than I thought it would be, and I had sort of been thinking all night about making a quick side trip to Grahovo. I broached the idea over lunch in the harbor; Stefan and Marc both seemed up for it, and we headed off to cover what looked like only 25 miles on the map.
I’m not sure we went any faster than the Germans did in 1941, and no one was shooting at us. It was a beautiful drive, a sublime drive, full of mountains and ocean and rural scenery, but it was not a fast drive. The roads are winding and full of Russian tourists who apparently just had a bottle of vodka for lunch.
We had scenery like this pretty much the whole drive.
Marc was sure he knew where he was going, but the signage was less than optimal. The more lost we seemed, the more determined I was to see the place where Anka was born. The guys never wavered, and about two hours later, we finally saw a sign for Grahovo. It was later in the afternoon, maybe three, which meant it was early in California, but I texted a few pictures. Marta is not prone to text abbreviations, but I think OMFG about covered it.
The village cannot be 200 yards long and comprise of more than a few hundred souls. We drove the length of the main street, turned around, and parked. I got out, not knowing what to expect.
Main street, Grahovo.
One of the houses in town.
I certainly wasn’t going to announce who my girlfriend was, because the hospitality here would dictate that we stay for days. So I just wandered and took in the village. Much of it was in ruins – maybe a third of the homes were abandoned.
This was once the house of a leading citizen.
Another ruin, interspersed among people going about their daily lives.
The cars were old – and mostly Yugos. Here and there, someone would wave a hello. These were Marta’s people, and undoubtedly, many of them were relatives.
A sign for a general store, closed years ago.
I didn’t need to look far to find some evidence of Marta’s family, even after all this time.
A statue honoring Marta’s great uncle, who was killed in the closing days of the war.
Improbably, there was a small cafe – really, just a few chairs outside of a porch – at the end of town. We sat down and ordered a beer.
The group has a beer in Montenegro.
Texts started coming in from Marta – “We have spent HOURS at that cafe. Looks like the same chairs as 1983. The waitress is a cousin.” There were a few guys at the other table. They raised their glasses; we raised ours.
Marc and Steve in Grahovo’s hotspot.
Marta texted me “Buy them a round.” So we did. But then they bought us a round, and whatever they were drinking would scare a Hungarian. (Details HERE. It’s ugly.)
The local boys pass a Saturday afternoon.
We passed a couple of hours this way. It seemed a bit of a shame not to announce myself, but Marc had the same thing to say. “If these people think you’re even a distant in-law, you’ll be here three days.” It was such a small place, quiet, proud, poor – but these were Marta’s people. We finished a final round – which was quietly a Coke for Marc as he was driving – and we took a final look around. The check was a total written on a napkin – perhaps eight Euros for the whole afternoon. I tipped her another 20, and gave her 10 more to keep the guys at the other table in turpentine for the rest of the night. I said “A gift from Anka in California,” but of course, the waitress didn’t speak English.
The drive back to Dubrovnik went quickly; we discussed the giant tuna we were going to catch the rest of the week.
Heading back to Dubrovnik.
A few days after I came back from Europe, Marta and I went to see Anka and show her the pictures. Anka is 83 now. She has slowed down a bit, but still manages the household with cheerful ruthlessness. She is too old to make a visit back to the “old country,” as she calls it, but I felt a bit like I had done it for her. Of course, she would not look at anything until we had been fed within an inch of our lives, because this is how guests are treated in the old country.
We looked at the photos on my laptop – a 21st century device to show photos of a 19th century village. Marta had been there in the 1980s, and they both recognized much of the landscape. They spoke for a good while in Serbian. Anka was fascinated but sad, her mind and memory still sharp, but the place itself had faded so very much.
Anka went through the photos again, slowly. She identified old houses, once occupied by neighbors, friends and relatives long since dead. She recognized farms and roads, and even the face of the cafe waitress. On one particular photo, a long, concrete building with a collapsed roof, she paused a long time.
“That was the sawmill.” she said. “I worked hard there.” Her eyes were very far away. It had been over 60 years since she had worked there, time well-passed raising five children and living a new life in the US, but to see the place still brought her a terrible sadness.