The Joy of Not Seeing a Starbucks — Not One!

There is little I — nor any of us — could have predicted about 2021. Had you told me at the height of the pandemic that my first plane trip post-vaccine would be to one of Europe’s smallest countries, Montenegro, I would have thought you mad. After a year solo in my New York apartment, working from my dining room table, talking to my lamp (“Larry”), and trying to keep insanity at bay by reading, watching Netflix, and pondering the state of our nation and the world, I boarded a plane last week to the former Yugoslavia. I just re-read that sentence and laughed. Life is nothing if not funny. The full story is best saved for another time (I will write it; I promise), but suffice it to say I came on a personal matter: love.

Late fall, I met a Montenegrin guy who was visiting New York City. The odd chaos of the pandemic brought him within 100 feet of me (a dating app told me so), and we met up for a masked hello. What followed was two months of dinner dates and contact-free Seamless; hibernating together from a dark, cold, and strangely quiet city; and a snowy pre-Christmas drive to the airport, as he returned home to take an unexpected job in his hometown. When we left each other at JFK, bags in his hand and Zipcar keys in mine, we decided to “see what happens.”

Well, hello from Montenegro. What happened was four months of daily video chatting on WhatsApp (wifi is truly world-changing) and a really cheap flight to one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. He got me through the hellish winter; I got him through a rocky return home. We thought it was well worth exploring. Plus, the pandemic has deleted my “give a fuck” button. So here I am, having coffee on the Adriatic. I won’t post pictures. I know how obnoxious that is — as was that last sentence — but for those who care to follow my post-vaccine travelogue here on Medium, here is what I have learned so far, my friends: everyone here is thin and beautiful; they walk everywhere; and there is at least one country in the world that doesn’t have a Starbucks. For real, not one.

What a true joy — in fact, a total fucking pleasure — to walk overseas streets and see so few American brands. Yes, there are some. The coastal city, Tivat, is yacht-parking for the mega-rich, so the Marc Jacobs store is dead center in the retail space of the newly developed post-Yugo coastline. But, with the exception of the requisite high-end lux brands that make up the small billionaire’s-boutique row, I have not seen a McDonald’s, a Tommy Hilfiger, or an Apple store. Not one GAP, Home Depot nor bag of Doritos. And no Starbucks. It’s heaven. In the country’s capital, Podgorica, there is no Uber, no Dunkin’ and no Applebee’s. (It’s America that runs on Dunkin’. Apparently Montenegro runs on Nutella, olives, and a lot of prosciutto.) And in Kotor, the fully functional 2,000-year-old seaside village, the only glimpse of the modern world is the Coca-Cola logo on the draped awning of the local pizzeria.

There is no escaping Coca-Cola. Europe loves Coca-Cola. But, here, it comes in tiny bottles and is savored as an after-work cocktail, instead of a replacement for water and love for all of America’s children.* Same for coffee, which is served in a small (not “tall”) cup, with a thin glass of water beside it to balance the acid in your stomach. It is tacky to order another. I have made that mistake every single day of my trip. I am used to (addicted to) my grandes and ventis. I have mastered only about ten words in Serbian in less than a week, but “One more coffee, please” are four of them (Još jednu kafu, molim).

* Is it hateful of me to be judgmental of my country from 4,500 miles away? Sure. But I am just as critical when I’m on my own turf. America is strong. She can handle it.

To be fair, it is worth noting that while our major brick-and-mortar brands seem to be absent, our digital ones are everywhere. WhatsApp is a Facebook brand. iPhones and Samsungs (South Korea) seem to come in-hand in equal proportions. And Google is just as much a verb here as it is at home. The feeling, though, as you walk through the streets is that you are truly somewhere else. And maybe it is because of the pandemic and the year at home talking to Larry, and maybe it is because my purpose in being here is to explore a romantic relationship, but I appreciate this feeling in a whole new way. Yes, there are masks. And plexiglass. And sidewalk stickers that remind you to socijalna distanca. But it all feels…foreign. And for that, today, I am grateful. At the very least, it is good to get away.

PS, when I asked my “new friend” — as my 95-year-old grandmother calls him — why there are no Starbucks in Montenegro, his reply was simple: “People here would never pay that much for coffee.”

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store