However, Montenegro welcomed us with a thick patch of clouds, in many shades of grey, through which the plane had to dive nose first. My terrified girlfriend buried her face in my chest. Under the clouds, we discovered the rain that would drench us for the rest of the holiday.
We decided to make the best of it. They had just built the most expensive A1 motorway in the world, which defied the mountains by simply towering over them. We just had to take it.
Sadly, the torrential rain obscured our view and the motorway ascended to such heights that we entered the clouds from below this time, whereafter we were instructed by illuminated traffic signs to follow this crazy road at a sensible 50 kilometres an hour.
We took the exit at the village of Kolašin, where I wanted to treat my girlfriend to the traditional Montenegrin breakfast dish kačamak. It is made and served at its best in a humble wooden cabin in this village. After running towards the cabin in the pouring rain, it turned out to be closed. A Turkish coffee from a nearby café had to suffice.
My girlfriend expressed her gratitude, but I had never experienced Montenegro as so intractable. I was annoyed by it. Through my uncle and as a surprise for my girlfriend, I had arranged for us to shadow a paediatric surgeon, a friend of his.
Together with my uncle and my father, we drove to the children’s hospital that same evening. It was such as nondescript communist-style building that my girlfriend only recognised where we were when she saw the worn-out dull blue hospital floor.
She was pleasantly surprised, but the fiercely white fluorescent lighting carved deep shadows into her face.
We waited in the clinic. Next to us there was a family of three, draped in Adidas. The youngest family member had buried his head in his father’s belly, a bit like my girlfriend had done with me. His neck looked very pale.
We waited fifteen minutes for the paediatric surgeon to arrive. He wore a green medical suit and a necklace with a chunky gold cross that dangled over his shirt.
Speaking in a mix of Montenegrin and English, he showed us around the building, with me half-translating. He was on duty and in a bit of a hurry. The heat was suffocating.
At the outpatient clinic, I saw sterile packaged bone marrow needles, which I quickly shielded from my girlfriend’s view. The fact that they used the same brand of insufflator for abdominal operations as we use in the Netherlands felt like a small victory.
We entered one of the bunker-like rooms in the ward, where we watched as an emaciated child and her mother tried to catch some sleep. Without the fluorescent light, the scene was intimate. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the wall, where the painted monkeys had largely peeled off.
We ended the tour in the paediatrician’s office, where he pulled a bottle of rakia from a drawer. He raised a glass with my father and uncle and asked if I wanted one too. My girlfriend looked at me, and I looked at the ground.
I felt a complete sense of disillusionment. After downing the small amount of alcohol, it was time to leave. For the first time that holiday it had stopped raining, so I was finally able to see that the Montenegrin cypress tree, although brown and standing proud, was shedding its leaves in autumn.