Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Thousand and One Nights in Trieste

The blue-booted man I met at the airport popped up in a jet-lagged dream I had at the Filoxenia hotel. In the dream, people from home mingled with Trieste natives. Before I’d set foot in the city center, I visited my own dream version. Like the real Trieste, it was full of caf├ęs and piazzas, sun-drenched sidewalks. But in my dream, the water was missing. And in Trieste, water is everywhere: on the coast, in canals, in shop windows, in the air—the damp chill breeze that rises at night.

In an article on Trieste, “A Shot in the Dark,” Alan Taylor quotes Jan Morris saying that “My Trieste has been a place of transience.” “In Trieste,” she says, “anything might be true.” In her book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Morris talked about the ever-shifting nature of Trieste and its people. Landing there after an 11-hour trip overseas, I fall into stride with the rest: travelers, nomads, diplomats, businesswomen, fast-talking school children. Old men look around, blinking and confused, as though moments earlier they lived in a different place entirely.

It takes a while to figure out how to be invisible in Trieste, how to blend in with the rest. Though its culture is varied and malleable, the influence of Milan and other cities of the North is not far. Those pale faceless mannequins with dramatic cheekbones and haughty expressions stare stone-quiet from the shop windows, bored with all things human and real. High heels are a must (the mannequins feel no pain, so why should you?) and large dark sunglasses. You should not dress like an extra on “Gidget Goes Hawaiian,” no matter how balmy and sun-soaked the day’s weather. Black is a good color choice. Dark blue jeans. If you want to wear flip-flops take the number 36 bus up the coast and flop around with the kids by the shore.

Dressed in my Trieste uniform (the black, the jeans, the heels), I set out in search of food. Here I am in Italy, prepared to relive the contorni – grilled zucchini, eggplant – of my days in Florence. Primi Piatti of pasta and secondi of fish. But no. My search for Italian food brings up Greek, Middle Eastern, Turkish—all with an Italian flair. I settle on a Middle Eastern restaurant: Mille et Una Notte. This after a so-so Greek meal on the first night, coconut gelato with delicious bits of coconut throughout, and a supermarket picnic lunch (the hours I could have spent at the supermarket, looking at all the shiny strange packages!).

Mille et Una Notte is tucked on a pedestrian street away from the water, sloping up towards the hills in a district full of students and narrow residential streets. Since tourists flock to the shore’s edge, to find a good meal for a reasonable price, it’s best to go inland. The street where Mille sits is all cobblestone and the center filled with tables and umbrellas for pursuing the main pass-time of the city: meeting friends for drinks/coffee/food outside preferably in a place so crowded you can hardly hear what anyone is saying. Both indoors and outdoors, Mille has cozy tables draped in brocaded Middle Eastern fabrics and seats stuffed with pillows. Kebab, rice, vegetables, broth, this is Middle Eastern food with no shortcuts and with hints of Italian influence: olive oil, thin noodles in the broth.

I chose the indoor seating option. My whole blending-in plan was going beautifully—an elderly woman even came in with her grandson and we had a whole conversation in Italian—until one of the waiters caught on to my ruse and addressed me in flat-accented English. When I stood up to leave, the elderly woman seized the chance to try her English:

“Where are you from?” she said.

“New York,” I said, since the New Haven answer often led to a longer conversation, possibly a map crudely drawn on a restaurant napkin.

“Lovely,” she said, and her smile was genuine. “Are you visiting?”

“Yes,” I said. “This is my first time in Trieste.”

“Enjoy my city,” she said.

And this fitted my impression of Trieste, that each person there felt they owned a tiny piece of the place and had a stake in the identity of this city on the shore.

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