Italy’s most unusual city is nagged by lost circumstance.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
- 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?