Before our recent visit to the city of Trieste I borrowed Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris from the library, meaning to give myself some feel for the place before we went. Time ran away with me and I didn't manage to read much before our trip. A few days ago I picked up the book again and fell in love with both her writing and Trieste itself. The deep understanding she brought to her account of a city she had known and loved for over fifty years gave perspective to the glimpses that I had seen in our short visit and left me determined to go back and get to know it better.
While we were in Trieste I knew I liked the place. Although it doesn't have the Renaissance beauty of many Italian cities, there was something about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, something attractive. I put it down to Trieste being a sea city - always a good thing for me - and the sense of it being slightly different to the rest of Italy. Trieste is in the far north east, round the coast from Venice and only a few miles from the Slovenian and Croatian borders. Although its population has always been largely Italian, and for most of the past century Trieste has been part of the Italian state, its glory days came in the nineteenth century when it was the chief port of the Austrian Empire. As a result the style of much of the city's architecture is more central European than Italian. Trieste was incorporated into Italy after the First World War, came briefly under direct Nazi rule as part of the Austrian province of the Reich, and was a stateless buffer zone city between Italy and Yugoslavia under Allied Control for several years after World War Two, before being returned to Italy in 1954. During the twentieth century the city was popular with writers. James Joyce wrote some of his greatest works while living in Trieste, and it boasts a number of well-known Italian authors including Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba. Another point in the Trieste's favour is that it is the centre of the Italian coffee trade!
Jan Morris also credits the city's present self as being the result of its unusual history but I think her conclusion nails what is special about Trieste; it is an extraordinarily nice city:
"The elusive flavour that I enjoy here is really only the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error. I have tried to get the hang of many cities, during a lifetime writing about them, and I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find, at the start of the twenty-first century. Honesty is still the norm here, manners are generally courteous, bigotries are usually held in check, people are generally good to each other, at least on the surface. Joyce said he had never met such kindness as he did in Trieste. Mahler just thought its people 'terribly nice'."
And yes, even in two days this was our experience. Everyone we spoke to was pleasant, friendly and helpful. One evening we ate in a restaurant where the owner saw us poring over the menu - usually I can manage to decipher Italian menus but the Slovene / Croatian influence had me beat - came out and translated the entire thing for us. It transpired that he was an enthusiastic Anglophile, a Manchester City supporter and with a passion for 1960s English music. The welcome could not have been warmer and when we left after our meal there was much handshaking. When we visited the Jewish Cemetery an Italian gentlemen (we later discovered he works in the synagogue office) who was guiding two French tourists there saw us struggling with the geography of the cemetery and helped us to locate M's uncle's grave. At the Jewish museum, the curator went above and beyond in finding confirmation that M's uncle had indeed been in Auschwitz and been liberated, having burial records checked for us, giving us leads to follow up, and filling in information about Trieste during the war. She could not have been more helpful, and again the help came with genuine warmth.
Jan Morris calls Trieste the "Capital of Nowhere", representative of all people of "humour and understanding" from wherever they may come:
"There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste."
I would like to think that I may be a member of this nation of nowhere and as such can claim a little part of Trieste for my own.