Live Long Enough to Cringe

“A good place to retire,” my fiancé said that afternoon as he pointed at a “For Lease” sign on one of the charming whitewashed houses here in Perast, a small village facing the Bay of Kotor, in Montenegro.

Although we were decades away from quitting our jobs, I imagined living in this town: half-naked under the sun, lazily reading by the lake, the crystal waters stretching for miles that made you believe it was the sea.

Perast, a charming town inhabited by around 200 people, by the Bay of Kotor

It was appealing, I thought, the idea of a never-ending vacation—but I also told myself that was probably because I still found all of this new and wonderful after being cooped up for months inside my studio in Makati.

“Yes,” I said, “But what will we eat?”

I wanted to pretend it was bad idea, except he’s already seen me gorge on bruschettas, pizzas, pasta, and stuffed peppers every day since I arrived. (And yes, even the complimentary sourdough breads.)

Sure, it’s not the greasy Beyond Meat sausages or Superscoops ice cream kind of good, but the fresh Mediterranean fare opened me up to a world of flavors, and a newfound appreciation for the transformative magic that is real balsamic vinegar (straight from Modena) on plain bread.

The Western Balkans has the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted

“Just wait until we get to the old town in Kotor,” he told me. “Are you excited for pizza with vegan cheese?”

Excited was an understatement. I was already starving and the mention of “vegan pizza” triggered a Pavlovian reaction, flooding my mind with memories of Crosta Pizzeria’s Shroomed Out.

Somehow I felt that I’ve turned my back on my whole life in exchange for this. I couldn’t shake off that feeling of displacement slowly creeping in, together with survivor’s guilt: right now, Manila is still swinging between strict lockdowns.

Meanwhile, here I am, walking around as if COVID was a bad dream that I had woken up from many years ago.

It’s only been a few days since I took that almost-twenty-hour flight from Manila to Podgorica, but the distance has seemingly amplified the time. It’s true: time flies away when you’re having fun.

During the three-hour layover in Istanbul on the way here, I video-called my friends Norman and Jox. The two of them had just gotten up that morning in Manila.

“Grabe, nakaalis ka na talaga!” Jox exclaimed.

“Hindi naman ako mawawala,” I replied.

“Nakatakas na talaga,” Norman insisted.

Was it really escaping though? Stressful as Manila was, I had left a relatively comfortable life: I had a home, I had good friends. I also had a job, and a business I owned with people I liked.

And while my friends are now thousands of miles away, we still talk to each other over chat and video calls. I still have my job. I didn’t give up being part of our business.

What I did barely counted as an escape.

But the lockdowns in the city did chip away hope, little by little. The days blended into each other and the nights became this consuming blankness. There was nothing to look forward to outside of work, and the survivor’s guilt hounded everyone: how dare you complain when you were still alive?

It was a quicksand of anger and anxiety, and I desperately wanted out.

My fiancé was excited about the move that he meticulously planned my welcome party/our long overdue vacation together. We looked at Google Maps and he showed me what he had organized for us: we’d rent out a car and head out of the Montenegrin capital, stopping by Ulcinj for a day and finally crossing the border to Albania, where we would take a few stops across different cities then go as far as Gjirokaster, an Ottoman town and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Midday at Ostrog Monastery

Admittedly the Balkans was a vague part of the world that I knew so little about.

I know a few things: World War 1 started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Albania is in Florante at Laura, and Bulgaria is where Durmstrang was in Harry Potter.

But that was much about it.

The trip became an education of some sort. Not the serious academic type, but he filled me in on some interesting details as we headed out to Ostrog Monastery, a Serbian Orthodox church high up at the cliff of Ostroška Greda. For one, a lot of Russian tourists visited the country every summer: about 30% of the tourists that came in Montenegro before the pandemic were Russians.

The second thing I found out was that some people were still touchy with their country’s independence from Serbia in 2006. “Look at the signs: if it’s in Cyrillic, that’s their way of passive-aggressively expressing that they’re frustrated,” he said as he pointed at the store sign we saw along the way.

Up in Ostrog, we saw two women who were trying to take a photo with the monastery in the background. Like us, they were also waiting for the crowd of tourists to thin out. My fiancé chatted them up.

“Where are you from?”

“Germany,” one of the women answered with a smile.

“You’ve come a long way!”

“Yes, just here on a vacation. And you?”

“We’re on a vacation too, just passing by here, and then we’re off for a road trip.”

“I came all the way from Manila,” I said.

“Quite a trip!” One of them quipped.

And they went ahead to take their photo, as my fiancé grabbed my hand.

On the way back to the car, we found a rosemary bush growing along the path. He plucked a sprig and handed it to me. “Smell it,” he said, as I took it from him, sniffing it and then putting it inside my card holder as a souvenir.

I didn’t realize that he was looking at me the whole time I was hiding it away. He smirked, teasing me.

He likes to joke that I’m a hoarder. He says I’m scared of letting go of so many things, from the random stuff I’ve kept all these years (like receipts from a restaurant I’ve eaten in that are almost a decade old) to all those e-mails I still refuse to delete (“Don’t you know the climate cost of all those e-mails you keep in your inbox?”)

But I’d like to believe that it wasn’t so much as an attachment to possessing material things, but a fear of forgetting. These objects help me reify the feelings that I want preserved.

This tendency for sentimentality has been so tragically manipulated by the capitalist/consumerist system that otherwise inconsequential products are differentiated in the consumer’s mind by its intangible, emotional associations. They’ve even coined one of the hacks to bond a consumer closer with the product: the IKEA effect describes our cognitive bias that makes us value things we create with our own hands.

Our storytelling minds trap us. And we willingly get ourselves trapped in fairytales and fantasies we’ve spun for ourselves.

Inside the old town of Kotor

Just before sunset that day, we decided to go up to St. John’s Fortress at the old town of Kotor, a steep 1,350-step climb. I was feeling a bit competitive and raced up the steps, a sudden burst of energy from the late lunch we had at Ombra.

Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, built in 1166

On the way, an old white man had passed out, surrounded by his wife and children. Meanwhile, a Chinese couple was having a fight: the woman was begrudgingly trailing behind her partner, rolling her eyes as the man would stop every now and then just to make sure she’d catch up. (Judging by how high her heels were, she probably had no idea they were doing this.)

Halfway to the peak

We made it to the top, with just enough time to enjoy the view of the village by the lake that had turned like liquid gold under the Montenegrin sun. From here the world and all its problems seemed inconsequential.

Golden hour

“Worth the climb,” I said.

“Wait until you see Dubrovnik,” my fiancé replied. “We’ll go there soon. More adventures together.”

I smiled at him, at the thought of this future, at the promise of something better always just waiting tomorrow. It felt like a Home TV Shopping infomercial: “But wait, there’s more!”

There’s time for that later: what I really wanted to do at the moment was just enjoy everything we were experiencing.

He clung to my arm and said it was time to go: we needed to leave before it got dark. On the way down we decided to pause for a bit, sitting in front of the small store selling water and Coca-Cola to exhausted tourists. I inched closer to him as I looked at the shopkeeper fanning herself. Right on cue, her radio began to play Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me”.

I thought to myself, twenty, thirty years from now, when I try to wistfully reminisce about this beautiful trip with him, this cheesy song will play in my head, the way the corniest soundtracks would blare out during reunions and anniversaries. Memories to cringe over are a small price we pay for living long enough.

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