Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

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Authors: Jan Morris
out to sea.
    ARISTOTLE, I have been told, believed that every interesting man possessed a streak of melancholy. I feel the same about cities, and in this respect Trieste is a winner. Melancholy is Trieste’s chief rapture. In almost everything I read about this city, by writers down the centuries, melancholy is evoked. It is not a stabbing sort of disconsolation, the sort that makes you pine for death (although Trieste’s suicide rate, as a matter of fact, is notoriously high). In my own experience it is more like our Welsh hiraeth , expressing itself in bitter-sweetness and a yearning for we know not what.
    Even Marcel Proust, who never visited Trieste, has his Narrator think of it as “a delicious place in which the people were pensive, the sunsets golden, the church bells melancholy.” Um-berto Saba, the Trieste poet in excelsis , seems to have been habitually melancholic in the city he loved: he thought the street called Lazaretto Vecchio “mirrors me in my long days of closed sorrow,” on the Molo San Barlo he could “dream my days were almost happy,” and when in exile he remembered a time in Trieste when he was happy, even then he felt obliged to add “God forgive me that great tremendous word.” The German novelist Ricarda Huch said the melancholy of Trieste affected her more than its beauty, so that only when she went home did she remember “the way the crest of the Karst disappeared in a shimmering of violet into the horizon.” Even Italo Svevo’s great Trieste novel La Coscienza di Zeno , which is often very funny, is infused with a haunting sense of unfulfilment.
    The very sea of Trieste, although it lies very beautifully beneath the hills, seldom seems to me a laughing sea. Some seas are different in character every day, with the light, the tide and the ripples, but Trieste’s sea invariably strikes me as brooding . In winter it can suggest somewhere cruel, on the Black Sea, or in the Baltic. On a hot summer day it can acquire an unearthly stillness; the sky merges metallically with the water, ships stand leaden on the horizon and one can’t quite make out where the hull of a moored boat ends, and its reflection begins. Nowhere can be much more peaceful than the bay at dead of night, with only a few motionless lights of fishing-boats about, a faint insomniac hum from the city, and a tinny clang when Michez and Jachez wake up to clash the passing of another hour; yet somehow or other, through it all, the sea of Trieste broods away the aeons, rain or shine, light or dark.
    Trieste makes one ask sad questions of oneself. What am I here for? Where am I going? It had this effect upon me when I was in my teens; now that I am in my seventies, in my jejune way I feel it still.
    HISTORY is one source of these sensations— men are we, and must grieve when even the shade of that which once was great has passed away . Isolation is another. Trieste still stands out on a limb, and even in the age of the web and the television, its young people in particular often feel cut off from the life of the great world: at the start of the twenty-first century Munich was the only city outside Italy which had direct scheduled flights to Trieste.
    More directly, though, an uneasy climate is probably the cause. Summer is seldom decorative here, but more often hangs heavy and sullen on the city, malignantly bronzing the sun-bathers who lie in their hundreds on the corniche of Barcola, between the city and Miramare. “The damned monotonous summer,” Joyce called it, and I remember with horror the mosquitoes which, high on San Giusto’s hill, used to hurl themselves at the mosquito nets of my youth. But the winter’s the thing. In particular it is given a baleful excitement by the terrific Trieste phenomenon called the bora (a dialect variant of the Latin boreas , the north wind). This ferocious wind from the east-north-east long ago became fundamental to Trieste’s self-image. There is a street named after it in the Old

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