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Posts Tagged ‘Trieste’

An Antique Utopia

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is Jan Morris‘s melancholy love letter to a city that, one hundred years ago, was one of the most bustling ports in Europe but is now largely forgotten. Though Trieste is the capital of the Italian province also named Trieste, 70 percent of Italians polled in 1999 didn’t even know it was in Italy! So what happened? And why write a travel book about a fading outpost of the long dead Austro-Hungarian Empire? For Morris, the transience of Trieste’s glory is a metaphor for the impermanence of life itself.

Morris has a long, complicated relationship with the city. She first landed in Trieste during World War II, as a soldier in the British Army, when she was a man (she had a sex change operation in 1972). She returned periodically throughout the second half of the twentieth century, always finding there a terrestrial limbo, a place of indefinable hiatus between more substantial destinations and activities.

The city is simultaneously cosmopolitan and solitary. Cradled in a crook of land that borders Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, Trieste is an easy drive from Austria and within steamboat distance of Greece, yet Morris finds that the very concept of nationality seems alien to the city. Formed by a dozen different civilizations over the course of four thousand years, Trieste’s character is shaped more by the cultural mementos of those past eras than by any present distinction.

Trieste sits on a plateau of karst (flinty limestone) above the Adriatic Sea, and the plateau is so formidable that, before modern roads and railways, the only people who ventured into the surrounding countryside were bandits and beggars. The land is essentially unarable, so large-scale agriculture is impossible, and hidden caverns and underground streams pock-mark the landscape: Trieste has therefore always been a port city that relies on trade. The Indo-Europeans known as Illyrians founded the city, then the Romans took it, the city-state of Venice colonized it, the Habsburgs occupied it, and finally the modern state of Italy got it after World War I. They gave it up briefly after the Axis defeat in World War II, but it returned to Italian control in 1954 and remains nominally Italian to the present day.

In each incarnation, Trieste’s role as a trading port was most prominent, and the Austro-Hungarians, by connecting railroads across central Europe to the terminus of Trieste, built the city into a commercial powerhouse. However, the ease of transport that made goods from Trieste so valuable continued only as long as the Austro-Hungarians controlled their vast territory, connecting Russia to France and Italy to Poland. When the Empire broke up after the First World War and dozens of international borders cut Trieste off from Central Europe, the city reverted to its older and more natural status as an out-of-the-way port disconnected from its neighbors by geological barriers, with no characteristic products of its own.

Jan Morris in 2008 and in the 1960s, when she was James Morris.

Today, with a population of just over 200,000, Trieste retains some commercial importance. It’s the headquarters of Italian coffee giant Illy, and its shipbuilding industry is still strong. And it still has a whiff of romance about it, at least for Morris: James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there, and its architecture reflects its cosmopolitan past. But Morris is interested in Trieste mainly as a utopia: she conceives of it as the capital city of a people who form a secret worldwide diaspora, a people who don’t feel at home in the countries of their birth and are always longing for something at the edge of definition.

“They share with each other, across all nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you will not be mocked or resented. . . 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.”

The desire for a place to call home remains after imperial glories fade. For Morris, Trieste is the eternal center of that nation of people whose unfulfilled longings are as important to them as their grandest accomplishments.

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