There is a reason famed travel writer Jan Morris wrote a book entitled “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.” Trieste, a mid-sized city in the extreme northeastern portion of Italy occupies a netherworld for both Italians and tourists. It is not a destination or stop over. It is so close to the Slovenian border that anyone headed to that beautiful Balkan nation will likely skip Trieste. The city is set on the Adriatic, but it has not been much of a port of call since the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved almost a century ago. Cruise ships rarely make use of the port, while domestic visitation is miniscule at best. In a 1999 survey, 90% of Italians had no idea that Trieste was even a part of Italy. After visiting the city I have developed my own reasons why Trieste is almost entirely unknown in the realm of European travel. Chief among these, the city is both irritating and baffling in equal measure.
Multiple Personality Disorders – A City Unto Itself
The best description I could give of Trieste is that of a city with multiple personality disorders. The essence of this historical schizophrenia is that for all the empires and ideologies, for all the scars and imprints, impressions and depressions each left on the face of this faceless city, Trieste always remained elusive. It was a city that could be occupied, but never owned. A place that always has been and always will be on the way to somewhere else. The kind of place that was part of history, yet never made any worth mentioning. A city that seems to stand outside of Italy and yet still be considered part of it. Not that anyone would care. Over the last hundred years Trieste has been under the rule of five distinct political entities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, a Free State and at present the Republic of Italy. A little bit of everything and in the end, a whole lot of nothing.
Trieste is a city unto itself that shed the shackles of imperialism, fascism and internationalism without anyone much noticing. Instead of nervous breakdowns, this was the setting for nerveless breakdowns. The city is like a child whose character was formed by an upbringing where both parents went through multiple divorces, and in the process forgot all about their child. An orphan, a bastard, a stepchild all rolled into one. Trieste straddles both political and natural borders, close to Slovenia on one side and washed by the Adriatic on another. A city defined in part by the sea, with lots of water and hardly any beach. A port full of empty warehouses where large ships still arrive, with what looks like a cargo of nothing in particular.
A Permanent Exile – The Trieste Effect
Its people are largely Italian, living and working in an urban core made grand by Imperial Habsburg architecture. It feels entirely artificial, but somehow not quite shallow, like it was born to baffle. I stayed for a few days and did not feel welcomed, but was not treated rudely either. The only logic I could discern was the logic of indifference. Trieste replies to frustration with a shrug. On a visit to Italy’s lone World War II concentration camp I found myself serenaded by rhythmic singing from a football stadium. Was this modern Dada or latter day surrealism? Could it have been an eerie echo of a pre-World War II political rally? No, it was just a soccer match with thousands of voices screaming and singing, pleading for a victory by a bad team. Triestinos filled with passion for a B league match. I was left with the impression that history was sometimes horrible, but the stadium cried “on with the day.”
There was the beautifully eclectic train station with its dizzying domed ceiling. As I stared upward at it, a lost world began to spin round my head. I recovered my balance just in time to sidestep a tiny dog pissing on the floor. In front of the station I spied the Hapsburg Empress Elisabeth turned to bronze. She has been waiting here for over a century, haunting the Piazza Della Liberta. Her beauty and status resisting a century’s worth of upheaval, no one dares to move her. If only she could move herself. I felt an extreme and penetrating sadness that she was stuck in Trieste, ghost of an empire’s past. The dead do not deserve this kind of exile. For the first time in Elisabeth’s life and death, she is anonymous. This city could do that to anyone.
Land of Limbo
The restaurants do not open until seven. A kebab stand does a slow drip business for the hungry. A Turk behind the grill, the one who moved here only for the money, looks bored. I am lost and afraid. How horrible it would be to live in this land of limbo. Suddenly, a madman comes running out of a bar, storms into the street, challenging a driver hidden behind the tinted windows of a BMW. The madman raises his fists, arms flailing. His voice roars louder than any engine and with faux machismo challenges the driver to a knock down drag out. There is no response, the light changes, the car slowly pulls away. The madman raises his arms in mock victory, walks back across the road, into the bar and high fives a lounge whore. It is 3:30 in the afternoon, I am in Trieste.