Happy Brsday!

Happy Birthday, Michael!  I turned 16 on May 23.




Celebrating a birthday away from home can be an interesting experience, ask my sister, Laura with the summer birthday, she knows.  In the Surbatovic household you get to be “King for a Day”.  I got to choose my favorite meals, pick the board games to play and no one could say “no” to me.  So for breakfast Mom made her special cinnamon rolls, and then for lunch–our big meal of the day– we had paninis, Mrs. Surbatovic’s Italian pressed sandwiches.  As a side dish we had some really rich and creamy onion dip.  Mmmm.  Then for dinner we had cheesecake as the main coarse.  Not too painful!


The local Montenegrin culture has their own “Brsday” tradition.  This interesting tradition began with someone telling me this: “I’m sorry, I hate this tradition.”  I was curious, but when people started singing “Happy Birthday”, I agreed.  I feel awkward when people sing to me for my birthday.  There isn’t anything you can do.  If you sing along, you look like a dork. If you try to look serious, the volcanos in your cheeks give you away. (I come from a family of easy blushers).  If you sit there and smile, you are back to square one.  After the dreaded singing was over, three of the singers ran over to me (should I tell you which three?) and pulled my ears out of my head and stomped on my feet. Now I know what Jelena was trying to tell me. Thank you. Enough of this, back to the delightful subject of food.

I got to pick these meals, since it was my birthday, but I am not good at choosing things like this, so I grabbed some help from Josiah. The cheesecake was delicious and homemade. Thank you to Mrs. Surbatovic for making the cake! I got some chocolate from the Surbatovic’s and turkish delight from my roommate, Nemanja. All in all, it was a great day, even though I woke up with a sore throat. Other than that, I had fun and felt pampered all day long.
Thanks everybody for the birthday wishes!

Wild Life at the Vrtic

The Lord gives great opportunities EVERYDAY for us to reach out with ordinary things.  Today it came in the form of a toad, actually, 3 toads.  Richard was moving some old wood   beside the house, when he uncovered a family of toads.  I was just getting ready to go to the vrtic (pre-school) to bring some animal puppets Milijana had found.  They were some puppets Michael Saruwatari had sent with us last summer for the VBS here in Niksic. So I grabbed a bucket and put the toads in for an outing to school.

Richard built a puppet theater and I installed it at the school last week, the puppets were the perfect go-with.  And now the toads became the inspiration for the puppet show.

Putting on a show with Zaba the toad.

The children greeted me at the door with welcoming shouts of “Djulie, Djulie”, along with hugs and now even kisses!  So we gathered around a table and I introduced our toad family.  The kids squealed and chattered away about the Zaba (pronounced like the french “je”).  And when the big one jumped out of the bucket, they jumped and screamed too!

Here's the local domestic toad of Montenegro.

Then I showed them each of the animal puppets I brought and handed them out to students to play with at the puppet theater.  The teachers used the teachable moment to ask them questions and talk about the animals.  The children took turns “on the stage”, and then when I began taking photos, they each wanted me to take a photo of them.

Moje prijatelji vrtici!

What a delight it is to serve here at the school.  (If you recall from a previous post, Rada, a mature believer in the church body here, invited me to come to her school.)  While I don’t have the freedom to tell them Bible stories or teach them Bible songs in this setting,  I can love them with kindness, joy, time and attention.  And the teachers are equally receptive, they welcome me with smiles, thanks and curiosity, along with kafa and cookies.  I feel richly blessed. It is a good work the Lord is doing through Rada’s ministry here.




Lake Krupac

Stopping at the bridge on the Zeta River near Krupac.

This Saturday was another sightseeing day. Along the way to Lake Krupac we stopped at a cemetery (we were with my Mom). Anytime we go anywhere there is usually a sepulcher experience, sometime with snakes, sometimes without. I prefer the ones without. This cemetery was at an old church called Saint Nikola. Basically, it was an old building, with spiderwebs and little patches of grass growing off the side, and a big spire at the top that looked suspiciously like a tv antenna.

On the way to Krupac, (pronounced Crew-pots), we meandered down a long driveway and the nice farmer helped turn around at his barn. He pointed us in the right direction and chuckled when he saw the California license plate. He had a nice little area on the top of a hill overlooking vast expanses of green farmland.

Lake Krupac was pretty large, considering it is not the largest lake in Montenegro.   The water was crystal clear and you could see all the minnows in the water, ranging from one or two inches long, to maybe a foot or a foot and a half. We had some pizza at the little Krupac Restoran that was nearby, overlooking the lake. We had a nice view and even saw some American tourists! I don’t think we fully understand how much we stand out in a foreign country.

This looks like a great place to go fishing.

The Coast of Montenegro and Croatia

Walked the entire perimeter of the Old Town wall at Dubrovnik, Croatia

We have had the pleasure of visiting the Montenegro and Croatian coast twice and both times we were overwhelmed with the beauty of the Mountains, Beaches and Sea. Last month Milan, our neighbor and operator of the European Tonewood business (see previous post), was our guide to the coastal city of Budva. Budva is one of the oldest cities on the entire coast, with history dating back 2500 years. The current Old Town of Budva has fortress-type walls that encircle a pedestrian-only city dating back 1000 years. All of the streets are narrow and the stone sidewalks are smooth from age and wear. It was a fun place to visit, lots of shops, resturants, churches and homes. It’s like a maze, walking through the narrow streets with the buildings on all sides 3 and 4 stories high.

This is in the Old Town of Budva, pedestrian only streets

The beach areas at Budva are “The” place to go in the summer. Called the Budva Riviera, thousands of tourists flock to the pebble sand beaches increasing the density of the city exponentially. It’s Montenegro’s Miami Beach. Fortunately for us, we were there on a slightly rainy early spring day and had the place to ourselves. At lunch time we walked the path along the harbor past numerous restaurants and stopped to read the posted menus. The maitre’d  would come out in the rain and tell us about his restaurant, very politely, no pressure sales. We finally just picked Jadran (Adriatic) and had a great lunch much to Mike’s delight.

In Budva, Mike found a centuries old Entry but no one was home

About 10 minutes south of Budva is Sveti Stefan and the Villa Milocer. God’s paintbrush is manifested here as the azure blue Adriatic Sea meets the almost pink pebble sand. The mountains rise up immediately with a thick forest of olive trees. As we walked along the Queen’s Beach Mike asked if this is what Heaven is like. (It had something to do with the scent of wisteria.) We found an area of beach that had perfectly flat, fist sized pink stones and skipped quite a few across a perfectly flat ocean.

Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

Queen's Beach & Bay, Villa Milocer, Montenegro

The entire island of Sveti Sefan and the Villa Milocer are part of the Aman Resort and has no problem living up to its 5-star rating. Intricate stone work and wisteria surrounds the Villa and the fragrance can be noticed right down to the water’s edge.

Wisteria surrounds the Villa Milocer

Typical walks and walls around the Villa

On our trip to Croatia, the giant walled-city of Dubrovnik, it was a crystal clear day.  I thought it was overcrowded with tourists. I’ve since been corrected. Apparently it wasn’t even tourist season yet! Around 800 cruise ships visit the Croatian coast each year….most of them stop at Dubrovnik. It’s practically indescribable. It has an Old Town like Budva but is gigantic. It is a completely walled-in fortress city. We spent about 3 hours just walking on the perimeter walls.

Up high in a guard tower looking over just part of Dubrovnik

This city, like Old Town Budva, is a pedestrian-only city with hundreds of shops, cafes, restaurants, I think there are 5 churches, art galleries…..it would take you at least 2 days and evenings to discover Old Town Dubrovnik completely. It makes me wonder what it was like to live here centuries ago

Live music and dancing on the main street in Dubrovnik

Milans daughter, Jovana, a second year university student majoring in journalism had never seen Dubrovnik, so she came along and was a big help at the border crossings. She speaks English very well. And she enjoyed all the picture taking, she wasn’t embarrassed to be a tourist.

Jovana helped to interpret when needed

Walled fortress of Dubrovnik meets the Sea

Mike relaxing next to a typical Dubrovnik street wall

Stone is the ubiquitous building material on the Balkan Peninsula.  It is seen in an amazing variety of patterns, textures and configurations.  The limestone streets of Dubrovnik are honed to a smooth patina by years of foot traffic.  The wall behind Mike had a beautiful warm glow.  Some of the rough stone walls have become home to plants.


May Day Montenegro Style

May first in Montenegro is the laborer’s day off.  They celebrate it in many ways.  We were invited to join in an annual hike hosted by the steel mill, beer brewery, alpine club and army veterans.  We were attempting to summit Vojnik, “Soldier Mountain”, a 6500-foot high mountain of limestone in the  Dinaric Alps.  From the base it has an elevation change of 2700 feet.  Oh, yeah, bring it on!

So, we assembled in town at the old military headquarters (now abandoned) and caravanned up the highway north about 40 minutes to the trailhead.

Danica, Jelena V and Richard at the start of the hike.

Excitement was high as we assembled in the large, grassy meadow.  There were people of all ages and abilities.  The organizer, who leads the alpine club and has a rustic restaurant/cafe in town, supplied fresh breakfast rolls for everyone.  And after a brief speech we were all off.  I think the key message was “Follow someone who knows where they’re going, don’t get lost and there will be beer afterwards”.

We initially followed an old logging road, direction UPWARD.  We took a couple rest stops at little meadows which serve as “camps” for shepherds during their summer season grazing.  (Think “Heidi”.)  The second of these stops was to become the site of our post-hike celebration picnic.

There is no shortage of rocks in Montenegro.  To say the terrain was rocky is  an understatement.  We walked up, over and through every manner of rock imaginable, some even covered in grass, leaves and snow.

This was a little "Heidi" meadow in the shadow of the peak, it was our destination point.


After an hour or so, the parties divided, and we went with the “easier” trail.  It looked easier for awhile and then we went vertical.  We started seeing snow along the side of the trail, and eventually had to trek through it.  This is wild country, no one comes along and trims the shrubs or berry vines back for you.  We reached what looked like the top only to find that there were three more ridges to traverse before we came to the summit. We followed what seemed like a deer trail along a very steep slope. Soon, it became no trail at all, just a general direction toward the peak.  It was breath-taking, meaning we were out of breath and wondering if we dared continue up.  That’s about the time that the little alpine meadow below began to look so inviting.

So, along with Stan and Vicki and some other “mid-achievers” we rested in the “Heidi” meadow.  We filled our water bottles at the well, and made some new friends.  A foursome of university students came over to us, unfortunately they were not English majors at the university. One of the girls said she knew Spanish from watching “peliculas”and soap operas. I was surprised how quickly my Spanish came back to me, and we were able to talk about a number of things.  Soon the other three students joined in with English, which was much better than my Serbian, and we had some good conversations.  We even exchanged Facebook identities.  Their acquaintance was the highlight of our expedition, seeing the opportunities God gives us to connect with special people here.


We watched the many “high-achiever” hikers (from a distance) as they crossed the ridges and reached the summit.  Those who conquered the mountain got to enter their names on a ledger at the top.  We turned and began our descent on the old logging road. It was a long trip down, and quite steep.  What a relief to finally arrive at the meadow with the three 4-wheel drive vehicles and the little “camp” set up for lunch.

Ah, picnic Montenegro style!  Real dishes, real food, really tasty!  The army cook provided a tank of hot navy bean soup with big chunks of ham.  The brewery provided the kegs of cool beer, Niksic’s claim to fame, and the alpine club provided the inch-thick slices of fresh bread.  There was also a well at the site for fresh water and washing up.  I was impressed that it was all done by the men, the ladies got the day off, how nice.

What goes up, must come down.

Our extended group was one of the last ones to return.  They had all been victorious in conquering the summit, we were proud of them!  Lunch was in progress, and everyone seemed to have hearty appetites

Thirsty hikers lining up at the beer keg.



Meat-eaters Paradise

Hello, Mike here. On Monday it was a major construction event at the house.  Josiah, Mili and I had to vacate the school room and Vicki was crowded out of the kitchen for the day too.  It happened to be Mom and Dad’s anniversary and so they declared it was an out-to-lunch day.  Lunch is the big dinner meal of the day here, served in the early to mid-afternoon.  So, we went to the Rio Rostilj Dva!

It’s my favorite food place from our visit last summer with the “team”.  The name basically means Rio Grill Two (“Two” because there is another one in Niksic.) Since the people here don’t use street names very often, they can’t say, “Hey! I’ll meet you on the Jack in the Box on the corner of Las Posas”. Things don’t work that way here. So, if there is a chain of restaurants, they call one the first one, and the other, the second and so on. The food is delicious. It’s grilled meat, with fries and grilled onions. There was one kind of sausage that had cheese in the middle and that was SO delicious! I’ve never had anything like it in the states. Very tender meats, and the bacon was about a half-inch thick.

The coke here comes in little glass bottles, but this time they served from cans. It was a short lived bummer, because then we got the main course. The mixed grill plate:  pork tenderloins, sausages, chicken. The fries are soaked through with oil, and better tasting than any fries I’ve had anywhere else. We also had a couple vegetable salads:  cabbage and tomato with cucumber, because the moms were with us.  

Incidentally, this is also the day of my parents anniversary. So, we had a double special lunch day!




University Scouting Trip

High school graduation is drawing near and Josiah, the son of our host missionaries, is looking at colleges.  The typical “college view weekend” takes on gargantuan proportions when you live 8 time zones away from the center of the US.  Stan and Josiah packed for the 12-day, 6-university excursion with a flurry of activity.

Josiah was particularly glad to get to the states for Dr. Pepper and Costco hot dogs, or at least those were his delights at the lunch table before departure on Monday.  The first stop was to be London overnight with the British parents of a Niksic church leader, Peter Stonelake.  No university under scrutiny there, just a horizontal place to sleep.

First stop, Los Angeles, then many criss-crosses and hop-scotches to include visits with brother Christian in Fresno, and sister Anna Marie in New York City.  Josiah has been sending updates back home, and it seems he is having a very good, informative time.  We are all praying that these visits will help him decide which of these universities to choose, since they have each accepted him.  We pray that the Lord would lead him to the one where he will grow most spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

Post script:  Josiah accepted Rochester Institute of Technology’s 5-year Physician’s Assistant program.  We are all excited for him, and he is wearing the bright orange t-shirt of his new home-away-from-home.

At the Frizerski

As you know from some of the pictures, I (Mike) have been getting extremely long hair. So, we asked my helpful roommate, and Dad’s right hand man, Nemanje (Neh-man-yah) for some tips on where to get a haircut. He drove us to this nice little uncrowded place to get the job done. The speakers were cranking out English techno music. The ladies there knew a little English, but didn’t let us know until we were done. When asked if we were tourists and where we were from, we replied “yes”, and that we were from California. One of the ladies made a fainting expression as if that’s her dream, to go to California.

Dad says his haircut is better than the ones he gets back home. Cheaper too. The haircut is only 2 euros, and that is less than $3.00.  Since Nemanje was busy after driving us, we walked home from the barber shop. Everything in Niksic is walking distance. On the way home, we picked up some chocolate ice cream bars. They were so delicious, we almost turned around and got more. The haircut was done really well, exactly how I usually have it done at home. I’m beginning to miss California and I realize that there is nowhere I can think of that could replace it.