Sunday, July 5, 2009

How to lose yourself in a city far from home

The Hotel Filoxenia is not one of those places where you’re tempted to squirrel away all the toiletries—the miniature soaps, shampoos, and lotions—because they’re so luxurious. It’s a place where you stay because all other rooms in town are booked due to a UN G8 summit and the Frommer’s guidebook recommended it as a value in an overpriced town. You’ll want shower shoes to wear in and out of the shower, and your own shampoos because the free packets smell like bad men’s cologne. The only reason to stay in the room at any time of the day is for Wi-fi access or sleep. Otherwise stick to the streets.

And whatever you do, don’t ask for directions at the front desk. In search of the James Joyce museum, I asked the woman for the Via Madonna del Mare. We perused the map and neither of us saw it. The woman recruited the cleaning lady in on the hunt. Si! Si! Via Madonna del Mare. She pointed to a spot on the map though none of the roads had this name. Perhaps, I thought, it was a tiny slip of a road that the map missed. In Rome, whole streets were lost to cartography. The unruly cities of Italy refuse to cooperate with precise forms of measurement.

So I set off in search of this street. After much winding and circuitous detours, I found a large sign that looked promising: Farmacia Madonna del Mare. The street couldn’t be far. I looked to the right and the left of the Farmacia. Around the corner, up the way, down a winding route to one side. No sign of the street. Several large yellow apartment buildings looked like the museum picture I saw on the web site, but none were the museum devoted to Joyce.

This wasn’t a personal pilgrimage. Joyce’s works remain distant to me and I’ve never attended marathon readings of Ulysses or toasted Joyce at an Irish pub on his birthday. I’m not a James Joyce groupie. But I wanted to know his Trieste, the one where he wandered while considering lines to his books.

In the course of my search for his museum, I found the house of one of his muses, Annie at 10 via Cesare Battisti. A small plaque with an etching of Joyce read: Casa Schleimer dove diede lezioni ad Annie, tra le ispiratrici di Giacomo Joyce. I found “Pam,” the supermarket chain of Trieste. The rows of pristine air-conditioned food in shiny packages mesmerized me more than a collection of Joyce notes and historical sketches would. I crossed through the train station and saw the people coming and going. I returned to the Filoxenia by the wide sea-side road.

“Did you find?” the woman at the front desk asked when I walked in.

“No,” I said and she covered her face in embarrassment. “Va bene, va bene,” I said.

In my wandering, I may have found Joyce’s Trieste more than I would have inside a museum with glass-enclosed exhibit cases and directional arrows. By losing myself in Trieste, I visited his original peripatetic home by the sea.

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