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The wind screamed like Chewbacca passing gallstones.
“It’s the Bora,” Chiara said.
The Bora – not the name of some seventies Maserati but an unpredictable weather phenomenon that consists of strong winds during the winter months.
We were in Trieste, Italy, for a romantic weekend break and had arrived by train from Venice. However, the TV weather report consisted of an explosion of exclamation marks lacerating the northeastern extremity of the country. Hundred mile-per-hour gusts had ruined our vacation. The Adriatic was frozen. I didn’t think moving water could freeze.
I lost my hat, then the map. We were traveling blind. A woman with pigtails that sprouted like antennae from the sides of her head pointed us in the direction of the main square and made the sign of the cross.
The wind caught a scatter of people. Couldn’t speak to Chiara. Words ripped from my mouth. I progressed, ridiculously stooped, waddling like a Russian folk dancer. This wasn’t the Italy I had imagined, a country of year round Mediterranean sunshine.
Why would someone want to live here? I don’t get it. The only good thing the wind has ever done is embarrass Marilyn Monroe.
A side street funneled a gust into the devil’s breath and I fell. Instinctively, I grabbed for something and found a chain link handrail that had been placed there on purpose. Worn smooth as porcelain, it had stopped me from keeling over. Handrails had been strategically placed throughout the city because of the Bora.
Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia is a vast square that opens onto the harbor, bounded on three sides by 19th century buildings more overdesigned and decorated than boxy wedding cakes. Trieste has a population of 200,000 but I stood in the center of the city, alone and isolated, like I had wandered onto a discarded movie set. Vehicles snuffled along the frozen road. Church bells tolled.
We sheltered in Caffè degli Specchi. The bell above the door jangled like spurs. The café was stuffed tighter than a rush hour subway car. A writhing mass of people talked and laughed. Trieste, border town and capital of the autonomous Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, is quadrilingual: Italian, Slovene, Ladin and German. People spoke and gesticulated like old friends at a high school reunion.
Eyes needled me, the outsider, the blow-in.
The café of the mirrors, here since 1839, is the last of four original cafés to have formed the square. Important historical facts had once been engraved onto various mirrors and windowpanes. During WW2, it was used as barracks and headquarters by the British Navy. Only three original engraved mirrors survived their tenure.
I wanted to blend in, disappear into the background; enforced intimacy made me uncomfortable. I had to permesso and mi scusi my way through the crowd to get to the bar. Next to me stood a man with a fresh saving nick on his chin. Weirdly, he had a five o’clock shadow. All the men here were hairy, maybe the espresso came with Rogaine.
“I will have a cappuccino, please,” I said in my best Italian.
Anna, the barista, looked at me like I had sprouted horns. Others turned to stare.
Had I butchered the words? Did I insult someone?
Feeling this exposed, I considered a colonoscopy would have been more comfortable and less invasive.
Anna smiled. “You are a tourist.”
I understood this.
However, I did not understand the follow-up paragraph – my experience of Italians was that they never spoke in sentences, never single words, but always in a long explanation. That she trusted me enough to speak in paragraphs was comforting and harrowing, considering how woeful my language skills were. Chiara translated for me: she’s Italian and from Treviso, a place where confused Ryanair passengers land believing they are in Venice, which is actually about 30 miles away.
Triestini tend to do things a little different from the rest of Italy. Cappuccino is called cafelate and an espresso is a nero.
“But if you ask for a nero in the rest of the Friuli region,” Anna said, “you get served a glass of wine.”
A ‘capo in b’ is an espresso with a small amount of foamed milk which is served in a glass.
Why the capo in b is served in a clear glass, instead of the usual ceramic cup, has no definitive answer:
Because the coffee can be better evaluated,
Glass disperses heat faster without losing the aroma,
The coffee gets colder quicker, so you don’t burn your lips,
Glass is more hygienic because ceramic is porous,
It’s fashionable, or
My mouth is habituated to drinking from glass, why would I change now?
“There are those who say it was the Turks that brought the tradition here,” Anna said, “but it also could have been the Jews.”
This city has one of Europe’s largest synagogues, the Israelite Temple.
“I love the Bora,” the guy with the shaving nick said. His name is Matteo Furlan. He works as a quality control manager in an industrial plant for processing green coffee for the company Pacorini, which was founded in Trieste. “We Triestini love the Bora. It makes you feel like you belong.”
I doubted that very much. It was like saying the Irish loved the rain.
“How long does the Bora last?”
“Always an odd number of days,” Matteo said. “One, three, maybe five.”
There were no free tables but there were some chairs. I asked permission from a man wearing the kind of flat cap that belonged to the captain of a tuna boat. He didn’t smile, simply nodded at the two vacant chairs. The man spoke in Triestine, the local dialect, which developed from a form of Venetian dialect and is a stew of all the languages spoken by the city’s Greek, Illyrian, Slovenian, German and Jewish immigrants. Chiara could not understand him. Then the man spoke in German – still not understandable to us.
“Sorry,” Signor Federico Vascotto said in standard Italian. “I thought you might have been from the mountains, or a German tourist from the way you were dressed.”
This guy was funny. I had a beard, a wispy sort of thing I was now regretting, and my footwear was so inappropriate I could have been one of those German tourists you saw wearing socks with sandals.
He asked where I was from. I said Ireland.
“James Joyce drank coffee here,” Signor Vascotto said.
Throughout the day I heard a lot about James Joyce, maybe because I am Irish and a writer.
Joyce was arrested the day he came to Trieste in 1904.
“He found himself interpreting for a group of British soldiers, who were having an argument with Italian police.” Signor Vascotto said. “And he spent the first night here in jail.”
Joyce had moved to the city to work in the Berlitz School and teach English to immigrants, staying in Trieste until 1914, and working on his masterpiece, Ulysses.
Giada, our hotel receptionist, had declared, “This building is a former apartment house where James Joyce once lived.”
Mila, another café conversationalist, had said, “He lived all over, moving constantly, usually whenever the rent was due.” She had spoken like he was a current character still inhabiting the city.
Outside, again. Cold hit like a fist. Way below zero, too far below to even guess at a number. The Bora bullied us. Fighting was futile. There was no itinerary, no plan, just acquiescence and subservience. We stumbled toward the harbor.
At the waterfront, the salty sea brack was dense and hard and sad like every March sea always was. Sentences of orange-hued buoys were encased in crystallized water. A mess of coiled ropes, thick as black snakes. Tiny fishing vessels bewildered in the frozen wake. Boats like floating logs. Here was the crossroads of East and West, a port held in turn by the Romans, Venetians, Austrians, Germans, Slavs and Italians. It is the capital of nowhere. An exile home, an exiled city. The fat aroma of coffee drifted in from the hundreds of coffee warehouses flanking the port. In the distance, a gas tower looked like a discarded cigarette, bent and crumpled and distinctly dirty white.
Before WW1, Trieste had one of the most important naval and commercial ports in the continent.
“Once the 4th port of the Mediterranean, now the 12th port of Italy!” Jan Morris wrote. “No wonder Trieste is sometimes fretful, even bitter.”
In a survey of its rate of alcoholism and emigration, the Italian psychoanalyst E Jogan said that “if by ‘neurotic’ we mean someone who lives in the uneasiness of a past which conditions his present, then Trieste is neurotic.”
Like the Bora.
And the dormant harbor where few ships ventured anymore.
The sea was a tincture of melancholy. A crumb of light trailed across a stone harbor the grey color of an old church, and the sky blackened; it would soon storm again. Looking out on the sea, in this isolation, a brief silence in the wind, I thought of how the old ways were now gone, and I got the sensation of being incredibly small, a little man teetering on the edge of the world. And the air became hard to breath, dense with exhaust from vehicles, until the Bora returned.
The days of elegant schooners flanking the Grand Canal were also gone; instead, moored in the murky waters, a double row of battered motorboats. Rafts of vehicles lined the pedestrian lanes. A centipede of fallen scooters stiffly hugged each other. The relentless wind cut like knapped flint. The Grand Canal, a manicured version of Dublin’s River Liffey, had been docked a third of its length over the years. Its tail clipped, the old low bars along the waterfront that Joyce frequented had folded long ago and been replaced by others, newer and more modern. Palm trees’ fronds knifed the air.
We followed the warren of streets in the medieval quarter. Latticework avenues of cobblestone more suited to donkeys than cars. Walls as tight fitting as a casket. The dull cataract of sky barely lit its depths. Streets like umbilical cords christened with German names. Art nouveau doorways scarred with graffiti. Posters and bills on rusted garage-sized shutters and, where they had peeled away, it looked like an excavation slicing back through time. A mishmash of buildings constructed by centuries of immigrants, buildings that still wore the many coats of their conquerors. The housing, densely packed in part because of the severe winds, had stones on their roofs to prevent the roof tiles from being blown off. The wind, although blunted by the twisting streets, chilled this place enough to make you think you were in the presence of a ghost. Scaffolding was wedged into these medieval streets and construction was under way to convert the tall, anorexic white stone buildings into chic urban apartments, an exercise in erasing the past, creating the future, an unending flux, like the Bora itself bulldozing history, a history that if not weighted down like a roof tile, is blown away.
Trieste is a mosaic of broken images. The old train that wheezed into the central station had smelled like cloves. Wind panicking the glass panes of cafes that pulsed like lighthouse beacons. People bundled up in layers of clothes, shapeless as oil. An ice-fissured Adriatic. The anemic Carso hills. The corner Svevo had written in. The table Claudio Magris created his masterpiece, Danube. The sweet wet smell of kerosene from chicken heaters. A phalanx of street vendors taking an early lunch. The hiss of an old steam radiator connected with fat pipes. Cauldrons of brine bubbled pork. Supercooled air, snowplows and salt spreaders. A city of literary greats like Joyce, Svevo and Saba. The gaudy sophistication of an antiquated Viennese café. A yellowed book with a worn cover that contained no name and smelled faintly of a melon left too long in the sun in which Saba had written in 1910, “Trieste has a prickly grace.”
The wind blew for a solid minute. People clung to handrails. A man and woman were standing either side of an elderly woman, ensuring she was safe. The wind stopped and all three parted company. They hadn’t known each other. The wind had brought them together. In reaction to an external event, people revert to instinct; façade is stripped; true character is illuminated. People were forced together like the waves of the sea that might crash against a harbor breakwall, meshing and tangling, always surging, to become one only to split again. Trieste, like the Bora, had been ripped apart, then reformed.
We were in Caffè Tommaseo and it was dark outside. The Bora is angry. It wants to go to the sea but the Alps block its way and it is forced through the fissures. Today is the Bora scura because it is a cloudy day; it is the Bora chiara when the sky is clear.
“The wind is good,” Rosa said, her voice all throat. “The constant cold is like being on a diet.”
“How do you deal with the wind?”
“I don’t deal with it. It deals with me. Eventually, it goes away.”
The pleasant sea breeze in summer that became a winter rage monster.
Signor Coslovich told me that a lot of people came here to trace the past, but history is a dead thing, and the thing you seek is often not there, noting but the merest hint of the thing you are searching for. He wore a lapel pin in the shape of a halberd, a two-handed pole weapon of German origin and the symbol of the city.
“People come to see the death camp,” Signor Coslovich said. “San Sabba’s an industrial slum now but back then it was the only death camp in Italy. The SS ran it as a rice-processing plant from 1943. They come to see it but there is nothing left. An allied air raid destroyed it in 1945. But still the people come. They want a history. They want a past. I was nine in 1945 and there was a row of armored cars from New Zealand down at the port that had come to liberate the city. Trieste became a pawn after the war.”
Because of the volatile political situation, 20,000 Triestini fled the city to other countries.
Chiara tapped the windowpane with her finger and decided that we should explore the nighttime city. We went outside and turned toward the wind like an open sail. The Bora scura growled. And in the darkening night, I sensed my soul shiver as I listened to the snow stutter slowly through the universe and slowly stuttering, it stumbled and tumbled, bleaching the city, as I departed into the lightening dark of the screaming wind.