Akhil Sharma reflects on Trieste, Italy

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The pier at Miramare Castle in Trieste, a city of “gentility and kindness.” Chiara Goia / The New York Times-Redux

For almost a century now, people have been saying that you are dying, Trieste.

They say: Yes, you made sense when you were the main seaport for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now that you are part of Italy, with its thousands of miles of coast, though, there is no reason for you. They see your quiet tree-shaded streets and say you are fading. They hear the stereotype that people from Trieste subscribe to musical theater and not soccer clubs (a stereotype that is true) and call you effete. They say all this because they are jealous, because they don’t want to believe in your goodness, they don’t want to believe that gentility and kindness can be as strong as greed or aggression.

I don’t know if you noticed me on my last visit?

It is OK if you did not. I immediately begin feeling ghostly when I visit you. I woke on this visit, as I always do, in the Savoia Excelsior, the hotel that was built to honor your preeminence by giving your guests a residence as grand as any in Vienna or Paris. I was jet-lagged. The clock by my bed said one time, the one on the TV blinked another, and the large room whose spaciousness does not feel contemporary joined the out-of-sync clocks in making me feel lost in time.

When I left my hotel and walked out into the sunshine, cars stopped as soon as I entered the crosswalk. What other Italian city has drivers following rules?

I wandered your streets, the best way of loving you and also the activity that makes me feel most ghostly. Walking down your boulevards with their grand art nouveau buildings, I feel I am not worthy of their attention, and so I feel unseen. Maybe this is another reason people feel you cannot last? You hurt their feelings by making them feel unimportant.

On this trip also, I visited Miramare Castle. I took the road by the sea. Did you know the semicircular balconies that jut out over the beach are called Mickey Mouse ears? The children, when they make appointments, tell their friends they will meet on “ear 16” or “ear 11.” Each ear has been taken over by a different age group.

After leaving this castle that was lived in for such few years (Ferdinand Maximilian, the builder of Miramare, gave up Trieste to become emperor of Mexico—a move that strikes me as one of the stupidest decisions anyone could make), I walked down to the parking lot. I used the bathroom near the lot. There was a table with a basket and a sign asking for donations for the bathroom’s maintenance. I looked in the basket, and it was full of change. Tell me if you think there is another Italian city where money could be left unattended and not be stolen? Many a time, I have walked into the secondhand shops near the old Jewish ghetto and found that the doors were open and nobody was inside—and the open doors made me feel that your citizens are innocent. Maybe this is another reason why nobody expects you to last?

The Italians don’t recognize you, and the German speakers become confused. When these latter people visit—and they come by the tens of thousands—at first they feel at home, and then they begin saying your gnocchi with goulash is strange. They visit the Illy coffee factory and recognize the amazing efficiency of the magnetized conveyor belts. They look, though, at the paper caps with brims that the workers have to wear, and they think this is too chic, too Italian.

I kept wandering your streets because that is the best part of visiting you. Every few magnificent blocks I saw a sign on an apartment building indicating that James Joyce had lived there (he was quite peripatetic). Didn’t anyone warn the landlords not to trust this Irish scoundrel? I saw a statue of Italo Svevo, whose Zeno’s Conscience is so great that it almost feels the equal of Ulysses. I recited from Rilke’s Duino Elegies as I walked. “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?” He too was inspired by you and began these, his greatest poems, while visiting. I went into a café. The large corner tables had reserved signs because discussion groups meet there. Poets, historians, construction workers, retired women—all come to cafés the way that in the rest of the world there are “meet up” groups. With so much culture, how could anybody expect you to survive the hurly-burly of the real world?

I love you, Trieste, and I want you to go on and on. You are too important to me to disappear.

Akhil Sharma is an assistant professor in the department of English at Rutgers-Newark.

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