Letter from Trieste

Piazza-dell'Unita-d'Italia - Lunch time rush across Europe's largest waterfront square - even at the tale end of summer, the seaside city is bereft of the usual tourist hordes that congest other Italian cities.

The modern day meaning of ‘mongrel’ is somewhat misplaced: etymologically, ‘mong’ means ‘mixture’ while the Old English ‘gemong’ means to ‘mingle’. The contemporary pejorative association comes with the suffix ‘rel’, and shifts the connotative meaning to ‘mixed race’ or ‘person not of pure blood’.

Can there be a ‘mongrel’ city? Perhaps you could say Australia is a ‘mongrel’ country, but in a nice way, given the multicultural mingling of our peoples.

But as for a mongrel city, Trieste might lay reasonable claim. Wedged on the north eastern edge of Italy, along a narrow sliver of land between the Adriatic Sea and limestone karst hills of Slovenia, it is essentially an Austro-Hungarian city with an Italian-speaking majority. But listen carefully in the cafes and piazzas, in buses and bars, and you hear a ‘mixture’ of languages spoken by locals whose heritage could have originated in Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Turkey or even Greece.

This ‘mingling’ of languages is evident in the local dialect, Triestine; at once recognisable to Venetians (a mere 110 kilometers away), is jarring to linguistic purists of Tuscany and Roma further south. The historical hodgepodge is also on display in many buffet menus; buffets being Trieste’s culinary specialty. Pork knuckle and sauerkraut listed alongside trans-Danubian dumplings alongside Slavic veal steaks alongside Austrian strudel. But this is Italy don’t forget, so you can start with antipasto and finish with gelato. And at the fruit and veg market, bananas are less than 1 euro per kilo.

As for political parentage, Trieste certainly has a ‘mixed’ history. It began life as a Roman colony, became a Byzantine military outpost, and following Lombard and Venetian invasions, sought voluntary protection under Austrian rule. It soon became a maritime epicentre for the Hapsburg empire (being their sole outlet to the sea), before being ceded to Italy in the aftermath of World War 1. With World War II came German occupation. Post war saw a semi-autonomous city-state emerge before ‘returning’ to Italy in 1954. Which partly explains why this ‘orphan’ city feels a bit unloved, even slightly isolated, an anomalous legacy of ‘Mittleleuropa’ in a type of ‘no man’s land’ between West and East.

This multi-national melting pot of rulers and ruled arguably explains the city’s reputation as a haven for distinguished exiles, misfits and eccentrics, notably writers and thinkers, of whom Trieste has hosted its fair share. Casanova’s memoirs end in Trieste; Stendahl was consul here; Sigmund Freud studied here; Rainer Maria Rilke composed the Duino Elegies here; James Joyce accomplished most of his life’s work here; and Italo Svevo was born and raised here. Travel essayist Jan Morris suggests Trieste might be “The Meaning of Nowhere”, a cryptic city that “offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that anyone knows”.

As befitting this culture of tolerance, I noticed the few African immigrants, men as dark as the night selling trinkets on the street, were never admonished or dismissed by locals as they were elsewhere in Italy, often with vehement rancour. Here, a courteous wave and a polite “no grazie” was the standard response.

And tolerance is not restricted to race or nationality. Residents need to be tolerant of the weather too. It’s a land of fierce winds, year-round, yet the built landscape is mitigated by the muted splendour of its ‘mixed’ architectural comforts, especially the grand cafe houses, like San Marco and Tommaseo. Franseco Illy (of Hungarian heritage) invented modern espresso technology here in 1935, and coffee processing remains the city’s main industry. With the majority of cafes using the local brew, this is heaven for coffee snobs. The Illy company is still based in Trieste; grandson Riccardo Illy has twice been elected mayor, and, according to Jan Morris, “never wears a tie with his beautiful modish suits”.

Trieste is small (pop. 200,000). Even at the tail end of summer, when I first arrived, it was uncrowded, unhurried, unspoiled. Much of the meandering alleyways and piazzas are pedestrian only, meaning there is oodles of room to move. Edmund Wilson (bon vivant, author, literary critic and noted flaneur) would love it here. It’s a city for wandering aimlessly, for poking around, ambling ‘nowhere’ in particular; the sort of atmosphere and accommodating culture where literary misfits might feel at home. This could explain how James Joyce found himself holed up here for a decade before World War I. He completed ‘Dubliners’ and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ while teaching English at the local Berlitz language school. A pupil in Joyce’s class, Italo Svevo, became the model for Leopold Bloom, as the expat Irishman drafted the early chapters of Ulysses before war forced him to relocate to Zurich in 1915.

Almost a century later, I’m staying in an apartment above Caffe San Marco, one of Joyce’s choice hangouts. I download the International Herald Tribune and Crikey’s daily mail each morning using the free Wi-Fi in the apartment before decamping downstairs each day for breakfasts of brioche and multiple macchiatos that sometimes last well past lunch. Outside, people come and go, chattering in various languages, while inside, a handful of regulars and early 20th century photos on the walls hint at the cafe’s glorious heyday.

Not much seems to have changed since Joyce lingered in San Marco. Dark parquet floors and wooden furniture carry scratch marks and stains from decades past. The chocolate-coloured leather banquettes are cracking and peeling, and the impossibly high ceiling needs its ornate plaster touched up. Yet it doesn’t feel rundown or unkept. This grand dame of a salon has a rarified dignity that no modern-day minimalist fit out could ever match. Towering windows along two sides let in loads of light, which is filtered by sheer curtains on brass rods at head height that hide gawking passers by.  Book cases full of bric a brac attest to the cafe’s literary legacy while a grand piano and chandeliers down one end suggest stylish nights from a bygone era. The gents toilet is of the old ‘squat’ style. In a cordoned off alcove lined with plush velvet drapes, a local travel agency conducts an offsite staff meeting. There’s probably room for 150 seated customers or more, and at least 50 standing at the long sinuous bar, yet I never saw more than twenty patrons at any one time, and most of these were tourists touting guide books, perhaps in search of‘fin de siecle‘ nostalgia or a late-night glass of Fernet Branca.

Down on the concrete waterfront boulevard one weekend, leathered, languid bodies of all ages, many voluptuous in idleness, made the most of the season’s remaining tanning weather. After some small talk and a few large beers, I asked a few about the proposed austerity measures being imposed from Rome. They expressed ridicule, embarrassment and disgust in various degrees of their political leaders. And this came from both genders. The consensus of those I spoke to was that the proposals would have minimal impact, mainly because most of the locals were part of the 80% of national public servants who have lifetime tenure. So the public service hiring freeze and Work Choices like amendments as part of the legislative changes making it easier to hire and fire, don’t apply. Nor too does the retirement age for women being raised, because this only impacts private sector employees. About the most notable impost these public servant pre-retirees see will be a 1% increase in the VAT.

You get the feeling that many Triestines in this ‘nowhere land’ of theirs, like the bulk of financial analysts quoted at length in the nation’s press, might conclude the government’s ‘mixed’ bag of measures constitute a ‘mongrel’ piece of legislation. And that would be right, etymologically speaking at least. And I still can’t believe bananas are less than 1 euro per kilo.