THE YAGHAN PEOPLE OF TIERRA DEL FUEGO & THEIR INSURMOUNTABLE LANGUAGE

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The Yaghan/Yámana lived in the lowlands, but spoke the Mount Everest of languages.

 

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Right down the bottom

 

 

The Yaghan people – or their remnants – are native to South America’s southernmost tip, the land of ice and fire called Tierra del Fuego. Research suggests they arrived about 6,000 years ago.

A 19th-century Anglican clergyman with the Patagonian Mission Society coined their name. He was the first to assume the herculean task of learning their language. (Defying all attempts to link it to other local languages, Yaghan is a language isolate: it has no demonstrable kinship with any other language, living or dead.)

The Yaghan called themselves Yámana, which as a noun meant human. Thus a hand with the suffix -yámana was a human hand, not an animal’s claw. Yámana as a verb meant to live, to breathe, to be happy, to recover from illness or to be sane.

 

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There’s more where this came from

 

Disease wreaked havoc as 19th-century immigrants – Slavs and Germans – displaced the natives and cleared their land for sheep-farming. Until then the Yaghan/Yámana had been incessant wanderers. A stationary Yaghan was an oxymoron: the men always hunting marine mammals from their canoes, the women relentlessly searching for crustaceans and fish . The Austrian missionary-anthropologist Martin Gusinde noted their restlessness, describing them as “fidgety birds of passage who feel happy … only when they are on the move”.

At first their language was assumed to be just as primitive as their lifestyle, for the Yaghan/Yámana people lived virtually naked, despite a chilly climate where summer snow flurries surprised nobody. Clothes just made you colder when they inevitably got wet. Smearing your body with seal fat was more effective. Their higher-than-average metabolisms and body temperatures did the rest.

Frequent cloud and fog prevented evaporation, keeping the ground permanently wet and intensifying the cold. Yet everyone slept in flimsy temporary seal-skin and sapling huts or behind rock shelters, or just in their canoes.

Fire was paramount. The Yaghan/Yámana could even start and maintain fires on rain-soaked bogs. Fire cooked their food and kept them warm when the seal fat needed help. They sent smoke signals warning of danger or alerting friends to sightings of marine mammals. Despite the risk, they even maintained fires in their canoes.

 

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Fire in the hole

 

The seasons governed their world. The appearance of the blue sea-anemones heralded spring. The first snipes brought in the canoe-building season. Their knowledge of nature was astonishing.

Two supernatural brothers with opposing views on everything dominated Yaghan/Yámana religious practices. Their myths involved a powerful sea lion and his human wife and stories about a giant albatross and sacred humming birds. Spirits, malicious and kindly, crowded their everyday world. Any shaman could control the weather (if he so desired). Tradition held that women were once the ruling class, but lost that role after the men rebelled. The nearby Ona/Selk’nam were their traditional enemies since, well, forever.

The first outsider to study their language was the British missionary Thomas Bridges (1842-1898). Abandoned as an infant and raised by a clergyman, Bridges was only 18 years old when he took over the Tierra del Fuego mission, beginning his life-long task of mastering their language for the transmission of Holy Scripture. At his death his dictionary-grammar of Yaghan/Yámana had over 30,000 definitions. But it was still nowhere near completion.

                    

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Dressed for the occasion

 

 

British explorer, Captain James Weddell, had encountered the Yaghan/Yámana back in 1822. He surmised their language was a debased form of Hebrew. Wedell’s report fueled speculation in Europe about Noah’s descendants after the Flood and about the Lost Tribe of Israel.

Barely a decade later, Captain Robert FitzRoy – who later commanded HMS Beagle on which young Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas germinated – abducted four young Yaghans to England. They were to be inculcated with the English language and some basic Scripture and returned to their desolate homeland to form the nucleus of a Christian community.

One soon succumbed to smallpox. The other three, El’leparu (“York Minster”), O’run-del’lico (“Jemmy [or Jimmy] Button”) and Yok’cushly (“Fuegia Basket”) survived the round trip, learning enough English to get by. They even met the King.

We know little of what eventually happened to “York” and “Fuegia”, but Jemmy Button’s experience is better documented. On their return to Tierra del Fuego Jemmy shocked everyone – especially himself – by discovering that he could no longer converse in Yaghan. Only English words came out. The British ship left them, promising to return in a year. But FitzRoy reluctantly conceded that Jemmy – the three survivors’ best English-speaker – would probably prove useless as an interpreter for future missionaries.

A year later the returning ship saw Jemmy had completely recovered his native language, married and reverted to the Yaghan/Yámana lifestyle. He refused to return to England. (He had, however, taught some English to a few Yaghan kids.)

Some 25 years later – his knowledge of English still robust despite sporadic chances to exercise it – Jemmy was implicated in a missionary’s murder. He emphatically denied involvement and escaped punishment.

He died in 1864, aged about 50. One of his sons, dubbed “Threeboy” by the missionaries, was whisked away to England, but probably soon returned to his people.

 

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Jemmy Button, before & after

 

Young Thomas Bridges firstly assumed – just like Charles Darwin who’d visited the region in HMS Beagle in the 1830’s – that these people occupied the bottom rung of humanity, along with the Tasmanian aborigines and the southern African Bushmen. So how difficult could their primitive language be? In any case, Christians are exhorted to gather all nations unto the Lord, so Bridges plunged into the Yaghan language.

His jaw dropped once he saw what this entailed.

 

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Looks aren’t everything

 

The language was so metaphor-dependent that finding the true meaning of a word was like peeling an onion.

“Monotony” was defined as the absence of male friends.

“Depression”  was represented by the single word describing the phase in a crab’s life-cycle between the time it sloughs off its old shell and the time its new shell has grown.

One spoke of adultery by using the name of a species of hawk able to hover over its intended victim.

The word for a fur seal could mean a fur seal, or could refer to the relatives of a murdered man.

The list was endless. But Bridges persisted.

He noticed the underlying logic of these metaphors was intimately bound up with the Yaghans’ lifestyle. For instance, “the thawing of snow” was synonymous with the word for scar and also for teaching. The connection was this: snow melts in patches and leaves a smooth, flat surface (a scar). And snow thaws in the spring, when the Yaghan/Yámana start a new wandering cycle and the children are taught the names of everything that swims, walks, crawls, floats, sprouts, flies, climbs and slithers.

They routinely applied observations of the natural  world to human affairs.

A hiccup was a tangle of fallen trees blocking the path forward.

Sleet (always a threat, the shaman’s powers notwithstanding) was the same word as fish scales.

Old age was easily identified by rough, wrinkly skin, or mussels out of season.

And the word for bog was the same as a mortal wound (or a mortally wounded man). The mossy, water-oozing bogs of Tierra del Fuego cover the valley floors, laid out flat like a wounded man. Their dull yellow and reddish-brown hues resemble the blood and pus from a suppurating wound.

 

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There was talk of the Lost Tribe of Israel

                                       

Interestingly, the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation envisaged a similar linguistic scenario. In Season 5, the Federation Starship Enterprise attempts contact with the remote Tamarian people. The Tamarians’ infrequent encounters with Federation starships in the previous century were mutually frustrating since even basic communication proved impossible. Despite the Federation’s arsenal of advanced linguistic software, Tamarian remained incomprehensible.

The Enterprise‘s captain is kidnapped and forced to cooperate with his Tamarian counterpart in fighting a monster on the planet’s surface. Gradually the captain deduces that the rules of Tamarian don’t allow straightforward declarative sentences. Every utterance is an allegory, simile or metaphor drawn from the Tamarians’ inexhaustible fund of mythology and folklore.

The name of a semi-mythical king combined with “on the ocean” means to be alone.

“His arms held wide” means friendship or cooperation. And so on.

As this fundamental feature of Tamarian becomes clearer, the Enterprise‘s officers explain it thus:

Imagine a linguistic community using English vocabulary and grammar but  communicating only in the Tamarian style. Somebody says Juliet on the balcony. If you didn’t know who this Juliet was, or why she was on the balcony, then this expression would be meaningless. Your ignorance of this image’s Shakespearean origin would prevent you understanding its reference to the first flushes of an ardent romance. It would still be English, of course, but its meaning would completely elude you.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men is another example. We understand this to describe a bad situation which cannot be remedied. But if you had no idea of who Humpty Dumpty was, what he sat on and what happened to him, then this utterance would confound you.

It’s therefore apparent that understanding the Tamarian language depends on learning the culture – the mythology, history and folklore.

Thus the normal learning sequence is inverted.

Normally we assume that mastering the language must precede understanding the culture. But with the Tamarians and the Yaghan/Yámana, an intimate knowledge of the culture is an absolute prerequisite for coming to grips with the target language.

This is the paradox Bridges faced in mastering Yaghan. Making sense of the language required an intimate knowledge of the culture. But that knowledge could only come from mastering the language.

It’s a wonder his brain didn’t explode.

 

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His sails unfurled = Full speed ahead

 

In his genre-bending travel book In Patagonia (1977) – from which some of these details come – Bruce Chatwin wrote that verbs dominated the Yaghan/Yámana language. Its verbs were astonishingly specific, like aiapi (to bring a special kind of spear and put it in a canoe ready for hunting). Or a compound verb meaning to let someone you dislike enter a dangerous situation without warning or stopping [him].

Chatwin explained:

The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. The verb  îya means ‘to moor your canoe to a streamer of  kelp’; ôkon ‘to sleep in a floating canoe’ (and quite different from sleeping in a hut, on the beach or with your wife); ukômona ‘to hurl your spear into a shoal of fish without aiming for a particular one’; wejna ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or a blade in a knife’ – ‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’ – ‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’ – ‘to swing, move or travel’ – or simply ‘to exist or be’.

 

And so it went. Peeling the onion’s layers took decades. European diseases ripped through the indigenous population. The survivors lost their traditions. The language shrunk. By the late 1900’s it entered the critically endangered category of languages.

At the moment only one Yaghan/Yámana native-speaker is left alive. She’s a 90-year-old woman living near Puerto Williams, Chile.

 

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THE CITY OF HYPHENS (OR THE DRUNKEN CORONER): TRIESTE

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Italy’s most unusual city is nagged by lost circumstance.

 

 

 

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But why are you in Trieste?” the woman asked.                                                   

The scene was a popular cafe in an obscure northern Italian port. If it were included in a list of Italian cities, this place would be in the etcetera section.

That’s no exaggeration. So remote is Trieste from the minds of many Italians that they have real problems pinning down its location. You’ll need to look closely when searching for this city on some maps. In my own atlas it’s located just on the crease separating two pages, with the Tri on one page and the este – slightly out of alignment – on the other.

That says something about this city of 205,000 people scrunched in between the Adriatic Sea and the Slovenian border. It’s in Italy – just barely – but has one foot in the Latin world and one foot in the Slavic world. So it’s not postcard Italian in the way that Venice and Florence are. This is because until 1918 Trieste was the main port of Austria-Hungary.

 

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The main port of landlocked Austria and even more landlocked Hungary. Landlocked now, of course, but until its defeat in the First World War Austria-Hungary/the Austro-Hungarian Empire/the Habsburg Empire (they’re all the same) owned big chunks of the Adriatic coast, meaning a slab of northeastern Italy and all of Slovenia and Croatia. Plus Bosnia was somewhere in there, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, some Romanian territory, bits of Poland, a slice of the Ukraine….

Some of the empire’s peoples (“nationalities”) were happy to be ruled by Vienna or Budapest (the actual distribution of power tended to complexity). But some – notably the Czechs and Bosnian Serbs – kept butting their heads against imperial rule, daubing pro-independence graffiti on the walls, agitating for this and demonstrating for that, all the while shaking their fists in the general direction of Vienna.

This is what you get with a ramshackle empire ruled by two capitals, its population comprising Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Germans, Magyars, Latins and Slavs speaking about a dozen languages, broken down into beer drinkers, slivovitz lovers, Muslim teetotalers, wine heads and vodka hounds. And for all of them Trieste was their gateway to the sea.

 

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Space? We have space.

                                   

 

The woman in this bar was mousy and middle-aged, a faded beauty with faded blonde hair. She wore a faded overcoat despite the mild weather. She must have already had a wine or three and was well into this glass she wafted in the air as she spoke. Emboldened by the wine she approached our table a little unsteadily and started speaking a kind of English whose grasp never quite matched its reach.

“Sorry to disturb…would like to take this opportunity…cannot…could not identify your English…not American…not Irish…interesting accents moreover…seldom have the opportunity to speak English…would you be so kind…” We obliged her by explaining ourselves, carefully avoiding any tedious details likely to challenge a drunk person’s attention span.

After more small talk she suddenly leaned forward with the urgent sincerity of the drinker who’s passed that evening’s point of no return, and asked: “But why are you in Trieste?”

The clear inference was that nobody hits Trieste without a pressing reason to do so. People pass through Trieste to and from Austria and the Balkans. They visit Trieste on business. But who spends hours and hours on planes to visit Trieste and nowhere else?

Before we could answer she announced she was a coroner, and that she was also a typical Triestina. In her case this meant she was half-Italian, a quarter Austrian and a quarter Slovenian.

                                                                       

How right she was about being typical. The ethnic mix in this city means that a civil marriage ceremony might be conducted by a magistrate named Emilio Brabich, who will intone something like, “Do you, Fabrizio Horvat, take Giovanna Plunck to be your lawfully wedded wife…?”

You might swing by the Museo Carlo Schmidl on the Piazza Gopcevich. Or you might pay a respectful visit to Italy’s only Nazi extermination camp for Jews, gays and leftwingers at Risiera di San Babba. Its commandant was a local boy, Trieste-born Odilo Lotario Globocnik (1904-1945).

At first this ethnic salad – all these hybridized, hyphenated Italians – surprises you. But with Google as your friend you find that where you’re sitting the next day – a table in the stately Caffè Tommaseo –  is closer by road to Salzburg than to Florence, closer to Zagreb than to Milan, closer to Budapest than to Rome and closer to Ljubljana than to Venice. So this isn’t the northern fringe of southern Europe. It’s the southern fringe of central Europe.

 

 

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Globocnik was no ordinary Triestino

                              

 

It’s easy to see where all this is leading. You know you’re in Italy, but the city keeps reminding that it almost isn’t. It swings your attention this way and that, from plus to minus and back again. You ponder what kind of Italy produces people with names like Globocnik, Horvat and Plunck, and you figure this place isn’t really all that Italian. Then a motor scooter zips past. It has all the automotive power of a sewing machine but emits the noise volume of a chainsaw and you think, Yep, this is Italy all right.

You remember reading how Trieste rivals Buenos Aires in the per capita number of psychoanalysts, but then you reflect on how uptight the people are not, with their pleasant manners and their easy charm. You recall the fact that your average Triestino consumes twice as much rocket-fuel coffee as your average Italian, but nobody seems wired up. Some people actually doze over their rocket-fuel coffee.

So why am I in Trieste?

 

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The wheels started to turn with a reading of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris (2001). As an 18-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, James Morris – she used to be a he – entered Trieste in the chaotic last days of World War Two. The remaining German troops refused to surrender to the snarling Yugoslav partisans surrounding them, knowing what kind of treatment they could expect. So the Western Allies moved in. Since then Morris has had a fond relationship with the city. She even speaks its distinctive dialect.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere opens with:

I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye. Who can? It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination. It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single name that everyone knows. It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.

Who could resist such a description? As for her claims:

  • No unforgettable landmark. Check. No Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House or anything resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

 

  • No universally familiar melody. Check. The composer Antonio Smareglia (1854-1929). No, I haven’t heard of him either. Going to Trieste for the music would be like going to Spain for the beer.

 

  • No unmistakable cuisine. Here I must take issue with Morris. Trieste has a unique and wickedly rich seafood dish, too thick to be a soup, too digestible to be a stew. But what was its name again?

 

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  • Hardly a single name that everyone knows. Check. James Joyce was an adopted Triestino when he taught for years at the local Berlitz School. He supposedly based the character of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses on a local Jewish student, also a novelist, Italo Svevo (born Aron Ettore Schmitz). But apart from Joyce, who else can we identify with Trieste?

 

  • Ethnically ambivalent. Check. This is clear when you walk its streets and look at all the blue eyes and Melania-Trump-cheekbones, and read the names on the signs in the shop windows…

 

  •  Historically confused. Check. Imagine an elderly Triestino who has lived his whole life in the city:

As the centenarian reviews his life he says: “I was born in 1915, during the Great War, as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When I was a toddler Trieste became Italian, and so did I. When I was 28 it became Küstenland, an official part of Germany, so that made me German. Then it became independent, a so-called Free City under United Nations control, so I was nothing. Now Trieste and I are Italian again and everywhere you look there are Romanian immigrants and Chinese traders and Bulgarian hookers and whatnot. So who needs to travel?”

 

 

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Trieste is haunted by history, and the Great War (1914-1918) haunts it the most. The city is trapped between the sea and a looming ring of limestone ridges called the Karst (Italian: Carso, Slovenian: Kras), straddling the Slovenian border. Today it looks green and inviting thanks to decades of tree-planting, but from 1915 to 1918 it was a bleak, barren plateau, like a petrified sponge five times the size of Manhattan.

One wartime reporter called it  “a howling wilderness of stone.”

The Italians and the Austro-Hungarians battled over this ghastly landscape for three and a half years. Their armies were like two one-armed midgets in a fight to the death. The Italians repeatedly charged uphill into the enemy machine guns, while the Austro-Hungarians on the higher ground rolled boulders down on them whenever their ammunition ran out.

A constant flow of sick and wounded Austro-Hungarian soldiers streamed into Trieste, carried down by exhausted mules. World wars are inherently unhealthy but both sides endured horrific conditions. Water had to be heaved up from the lowlands by whatever means available. But it was never enough, so kidneys failed and livers rotted.

Vicious winter winds whipped through the canyons and froze the troops huddling in caves or in crude rock shelters (how do you dig trenches in limestone?). Artillery shells bounced and skidded among the Karst’s boulders, shattering them into millions of fragments and ripping the eyeballs of any nearby soldiers. Avalanches and rock slides buried thousands of them alive.

Men were deafened by the monstrously amplified boom of artillery reverberating in the caverns and among the cliffs. The endless crashing and shaking could drive them insane. Some went mad from the all-pervading, nauseating stench of thousands of corpses because you simply can’t dig graves – or latrines – in limestone.

 

 

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Austro-Hungarian supply line

                                          

Neither army started the war in great shape. The Italian troops were often illiterate or semi-literate conscripts, poorly trained and under-equipped. They were there because Italian politicians were convinced that Trieste – most conscripts had never heard of the place – rightfully belonged to Italy. The politicians were also certain that once the Triestini saw how many brave Italian lads were shedding their blood for this noble cause everyone’s heart would swell with love for their true homeland and they’d rise up against their Austro-Hungarian masters. They could never understand why most Triestini – civilians and soldiers alike – stayed so fiercely loyal to Vienna.

Italian soldiers endured sadistic discipline. Before an “advance” they were issued a cup or two of grappa to stiffen their resolve. Their officers usually ordered the first wave of attackers  – “the first line” – to charge straight at the enemy positions, always uphill. They’d order the second line to lay down a line of fire – aiming at the ground –  just behind to prevent retreat by anyone developing doubts about the wisdom of charging into a solid wall of machine gun fire.

When the Italian second line troops charged the enemy position – their job made harder by having to scramble over the dead and wounded from the first line – the third line also had to lay down a similar line of fire to the second line’s rear in case they tried to fall back to safety.

One time an Italian officer ordered the decimation (the execution of every tenth man, randomly chosen) of his second line because he saw them firing over the heads of the poor sons of bitches in the first line instead of firing at the ground just behind them. The men assigned to the firing squads then got good and drunk on army rotgut wine and deliberately missed their targets, so they too were sentenced to execution.

It’s no wonder, then, that by the autumn of 1917 most Italians fighting in the bloodsoaked wasteland above Trieste had had enough. During yet another poorly planned pre-winter “advance” about 300,000 of them threw down their weapons and surrendered en masse. They marched joyfully into Austro-Hungarian captivity, shouting Viva Austria!. The Austro-Hungarians, on semi-starvation rations themselves, groaned at the knowledge that they now had almost a third of a million more mouths to feed.    

                                               

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Por noi la guerra è finita!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

The Austro-Hungarian forces were no world-beaters themselves, and as the war dragged on they lost whatever punch they had. Their economy couldn’t sustain prolonged warfare. Everyone was exhausted and hungry. In the war’s last months all they could do was try desperately to hang on.

The Austro-Hungarian one-armed midget ran out of breath just slightly ahead of the Italian one-armed midget, and the Habsburg Empire fragmented. The half-starved and war-weary army disintegrated and the war effort collapsed. After half a millennium of rule from Vienna, Trieste was now Italian.

 

 

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For the Italians it was always uphill

                                                                                                              

 

What do you do if you’re on the losing side in a war and you’re now a citizen of the old enemy? This question faced the Triestini in November 1918. There was nowhere to run. The old empire was kaput. This new political order turned everything on its head.

Meanwhile, Italy’s generals and politicians were jubilant. They popped champagne and threw their hats in the air. But it soon became clear that Trieste was a place they wanted but not a place they needed. Sure it used to be Austria-Hungary’s main port, and a good one too, but Venice was just as good, as were Genoa and Naples. So what was the point of Trieste?

What was the point indeed? Trieste was a fine place for novelists to ensconce themselves in cafes and commune with their muses, and few cities could beat its coffee and decadent Viennese desserts and its wunderbahr sausages. But what else could it offer? Centuries of prestige, sure, but no one seriously thought it had much of a future. And, like the drunken coroner, it faded.

When the next world war ended in 1945 Trieste was a major question mark. Europe’s borders shifted yet again, and Yugoslavia tried a little expansion. Trieste’s historic ties with Slovenia were strong, weren’t they? Slovenes and Croats had lived in its suburbs for generations, hadn’t they? But Italy clung tenaciously to Trieste, and a standoff developed. The U.N. stepped in and took control.

The Free Territory of Trieste mentioned earlier by our centenarian Triestino lasted seven years. The city became an Adriatic version of Vienna, West Berlin and Helsinki: a useful base from which western intelligence agencies snooped on regimes they didn’t like, such as Yugoslavia. But then Italy got the city back again just as Yugoslavia obligingly distanced itself from the Soviet Bloc. So Trieste lost whatever Cold War usefulness it offered. By the late 1960’s it was where Yugoslavian day-trippers bought denim jeans and Rolling Stones albums for re-sale back home.

 

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So here it is, the 21st century. The city’s now over 2,000 years old, even more faded than the drunken coroner. These thoughts remind you how time is so easily lost.

Jan Morris captures the elusive mood of Trieste, a city that is somehow “reliably second-tier”, when she says:

If it were not a port Trieste would have been nothing much, and the sense that it is nothing much, now that its great days seem to be gone, is what has made it feel so wistfully unfulfilled. Trieste is not exactly rankled by its disappointments, as a surgeon might be embittered by unfair dismissal from his hospital, but for nearly a century it has been nagged by lost circumstance.

“Wistfully unfulfilled.”

“Nagged by lost circumstance.”

That’s the thing. Trieste – an unwitting victim of history and geography – never reached its full height and fell short of its potential. It’s now a mere dot in a remote corner of Italy and even many Italians are barely aware of it. How often can we reflect on how our own lives never reached their full height, and how we fell short of our own potential? Reflect on how we could have been, should have been, something bigger and better, with more to show for our lives than amusing anecdotes and deteriorating bodies and jumbled memories?

We recall blown chances, crucial moments when we took our eye off the ball. We reflect on people we mistrusted but who turned out to be more honest than the people we did trust. We regret the money we mindlessly pissed away and all the squandered opportunities we hardly even thought about at the time. We could’ve become this, we might’ve done that, we should’ve chosen something else. Like Trieste we could’ve reached greater heights. Where did it all go?

 

 

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THE KANNIBAL CLUB: HOW TO SURVIVE A GULAG ESCAPE

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The gruesome details of a gruesome practice produced by gruesome circumstances.

 

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James Meeks haunting novel The People’s Act of Love opens in 1919 with a bedraggled escapee from a Siberian prison camp stumbling into a remote village. He tells his interrogators he’d not only escaped from an Arctic hell hole, but he’d narrowly avoided being eaten by his accomplice.

Reports of inmates escaping from remote prison camps then killing and then eating their fellow escapees first appeared in a Russian medical journal in 1895, although the practice must have existed long before then. (In the 1820’s an outlaw in Tasmania named Alexander Pearce boasted of eating his fellow escapees, claiming to prefer human meat to pork.) The practice continued in Russia well into the 20th century, by which time Czarist despotism gave way to Stalinist despotism.

This Russian practice involved the following:

Experienced prisoners would plan an escape which always included a recently arrived inmate. The naive newcomer, ignorant of the dog-eat-dog culture of the camps, would count himself lucky to be included in the escape. He would also be relatively healthy, having not yet suffered years of privation. He had plenty of meat on his bones. This was crucial. He was to be the korova (cow).

Jacques Rossi’s Gulag Handbook  (quoted in The People’s Act of Love) defines korova as: A person designated to be eaten; suspecting nothing, any novice criminal, invited by his elders to join them in an escape, is fit for this role…if, during their flight, the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted, without prospect of renewal, the “cow” will be slaughtered…

Rossi, who despite his name was a Pole, spent many years in the Gulag (the Soviet prison camp network in Siberia and the Arctic). But his statement “if the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted…” was disingenuous. Prisoners were on semi-starvation rations. Even the most iron-willed inmate could never hope to put aside enough morsels to sustain him throughout an escape. So of course the korova was going to be eaten. That was the sole reason for including him.

A political prisoner made the best korova. A thief or murderer had probably done time before and had developed an instinct about these things. He’d be among the eaters, not the eaten. A “political” was almost certainly not guilty of any crime at all, but had merely been caught up in one of Stalin’s senseless waves of mass arrests. He’d never done the backbreaking toil that half-killed most prisoners. Chances were his idea of a hard day’s work was the endless signing of papers (including, in some cases, arrest orders).

 

                                      

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Shall we dine?

 

In The People’s Act of Love the escapee is named Samarin, a leftist agitator from one of the Czar’s harshest and most isolated prison camps. In his testimony he claims he’d been “bought and sold” by a series of senior prisoners. As thieves and murderers they were figures of authority among the inmates. The camp’s aristocracy, in fact.

He’d become a camp aristocrat’s slave. The owner received food from other aristocrats in return for Samarin’s extra shifts working in the camp’s mine.

Samarin testified his final owner – a vile waste of carbon called The Mohican – suddenly started treating him humanely and used his considerable influence to reduce Samarin’s workload. And he suddenly started feeding Samarin.

One night a now healthier Samarin overhears a couple of aristocrats having a muffled argument with The Mohican. He’s too much for one. You’ve got to share him! he hears one of them whisper. Who is this him? And what does share mean? But all too soon the camp descends into chaos as the Civil War disrupts supplies.

The Mohican plans an escape. But in Samarin’s testimony only he and The Mohican are involved. Samarin soon discerns what kind of fate is in store for him and evades his partner. After months of wandering ever southward he arrives at the Siberian village of Yazyk.

From here the novel’s plot unfolds. Things get complicated. All is not as it seems. There are murders and betrayals, and lies within lies.

 

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The Mohican, said Samarin, had selected him and fattened him up for the escape. The supply of new prisoners had stopped as the Civil War raged, so there was no “new meat”. But by Stalin’s time this was never a problem. An endless stream of inmates entered the Gulag, so your average korova was already in good shape compared to the veteran prisoners. He looked good enough to eat.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps tells this grim story recounted by Edward Buca, another Polish survivor of the camps (from August 1939 many Soviet prison camps had no shortage of Poles):

Two prisoners arrested for murder and theft plotted an escape. They invited the obese camp cook to join them. A perfect plan: lots of meat, and it conveniently transports itself.

The two men duly killed and ate the cook. But their trek to freedom took longer than expected. Hunger set in and their korova had long been digested and excreted.

They now faced a dilemma. To split up and try to go it alone would be suicidal. But staying together was risky. Each escapee was under no illusions about the other’s intention. The first man to nod off would become several meals. Each tried desperately to stay awake. But finally one succumbed to sleep.

However, the last man standing never made it to freedom. He was caught two days later. Some of the survivor’s buddy was in his belly and the rest was still in his sack, waiting to be eaten. He wound up back in the Gulag system. There, we can be sure, his fellow prisoners treated him with a measure of respect, while never getting too close.

 

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GRAFFITISTAN

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How is it possible to raise inconvenience to an art form?

 

A dull March day at the Geneva Central Train Station. The main escalator was kaput. It had seemingly been cordoned off for ages, surrounded by signs warning everybody to stay out and gathering dust and cobwebs while arrangements were no doubt being made for its repair.

Several days later nothing had changed: it was still dusty and forlorn, a looming structure, silent with paralysis. People sighed with resignation and toted their luggage up and down the nearby stairs. The problem with their luggage appeared to be not so much its weight as its bulk. Were their wheeled suitcases and rucksacks filled with sandwiches and bananas?

Most of the arrivals were tourists – the station is linked directly with Geneva’s airport – and the internet and previous experience had warned them to avoid paying Swiss prices for snacks and stodgy meals whenever possible. And who would blame them?

But we are left with the question of why it should take so long to repair important equipment in the main train station of a major world city.

Even if their reputation as hoteliers is overblown, are the Swiss not renowned for their command of efficiency? Isn’t Switzerland supposed to be the country where the expression just like clockwork isn’t merely rhetorical? If it’s not exactly a nation of robots, it’s at least the kind of country where the general urge to do everything by the book leads the people in the next apartment to ring your doorbell and reproach you for putting your garbage in the wrong kind of bag. And yet a public disruption like this dragged on for ages. Why?

 

 

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                                                     Il ne marche pas!

 

 

Geography may answer that question. Switzerland is stuck in Europe. It’s surrounded, with no hope of escape. Sure Switzerland likes to be different, with its hardheaded neutrality and constant referendums. But it’s a victim of its own success. The Swiss occupy a small territory, but they wield inordinate purchasing power. Even Switzerland’s down-and-outs are rich. So the country can afford what ever it wants without having to bother making it.

They can buy whatever they need in the nearby countries where graffiti assaults the eyes without mercy. Where most buildings are covered in graffiti. Trains, too. And doorways, fountains and statues. And where even the signs prohibiting graffiti are covered in graffiti.

So the Swiss can rely on Germany, France and Italy (some of Graffitistan’s major members) for everything except bank management, watches and chocolate. But this is a double-edged sword. As anyone familiar with Graffitistan can attest, inconvenience has evolved into an art form.

Inconvenience as an art form? Maybe more accurately described as a way of life.

 

 

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Imagine a Sunday afternoon in Xvillestadtburgo, a medium-sized Graffitistani city. You wish to purchase a set of screwdrivers. A shop sells screwdrivers. But it’s closed. The sign on the window says:

OPEN 10:00 – 13:00 and 16:00 – 20:00 MON – FRI  and 10:00 – 13:00 SAT

CLOSED SUNDAY AND 1st AND 3rd MONDAY OF EACH MONTH

CLOSED ALL NATIONAL HOLIDAYS

CLOSED ALL AUGUST AND FIRST HALF OF JANUARY

CLOSED ON FEAST OF ST. SEBASTIAN

And so it goes. If you want to spend money in Xvillestadtburgo after Saturday lunchtime your options may be limited mainly to prostitutes and heroin.

 

 

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Which brings us back to Geneva’s central station’s dead escalator. The station’s management was no doubt mortified by this state of affairs. But what more could it do than call the nearest manufacturer’s agent in Graffitistan and ask for the problem to be rectified with all possible speed? We can imagine the manufacturer’s agent sitting in his office. Let’s say it’s in Milan. He is talking to Geneva.

MANUFACTURER’S AGENT: So, you have a slight problem over there in la belle Suisse, do you?

STATION MANAGER: I’d call it more than a slight problem. It’s the main escalator for passengers disembarking from the airport to reach street level. It’s totally kaput.

M.A. : I see. I see. One of life’s tribulations. A piccolo trial of everyone’s patience. I see.

S.M.: Ah! So you’ve read Marcus Aurelius too, have you?

M.A.: Who?

S.M.: Never mind. So…?

M.A.: So?

S.M.: So? When can you get the main escalator working again? The sooner the better, need I remind you?

M.A.: Well now, signore, a technician will have to take a look at it.

S.M.: Naturally. And as soon as you get cracking you can arrange that, correct?

M.A.: Cracking, signore? Is the escalator cracked?

S.M.: No, no. I’m asking if you’ll arrange this right away.

M.A.: Allora, you understand this means I must contact the manufacturer in Munich?

S.M.: Right, so kindly do so. When do you think they can send somebody?

M.A.: Hmmm. Hmmmm. Well, probabilmente in a week or two. Probabilmente.

S.M.: Did you say a week or two!?

M.A.: Si, about a week or two. Maybe sooner if I contact them today. Which I won’t, since it’s nearly lunch time.

                                                                                                                                       

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