Monday, June 18, 2007

Triste Trieste

Venice was the first Italian city I saw to truly enchant me, the way Paris did the first time (so far the only time) I ventured there. The architecture is fantastic, and the ubiquity of water is both mesmerizing and ominous (you can almost see the city sinking in real time), but what I think is actually the most substantive component of its magic is the total absence of cars. Suddenly to remember that streets were once for human beings first and last--albeit in this case human beings with digital cameras, wearing tasteless T-shirts and talking in loud American accents that make you suddenly wish to be Croatian, a New Zealander, anything but a countryman to such crudeness. Ultimately what I think I'll rememember and love best about my brief time there (aside from getting lost, as Split Foster suggested) is the Biennale: after total immersion in Roman and Renaissance art, it's a relief to be confronted with the shock of the contemporary. We saw too many remarkable things to itemize here, but we were both impressed by the high quality of such an enormous volume of sculpture, paintings, videos, and installations from all over the world. One especially nice thing about the Bienniale is that not everything is concentrated in the tail of the fish that is Venice (at the Giardini and the Arsenale)--just wandering around the city you can't help bumping into a few exhibitions. For example, yesterday before leaving (and at this point I was quite weary of the crowds, heat, and humidity) I found myself in the Mexican pavilion, in which the most hi-tech possible artwork by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer had been tucked into a crumbling palazzo; I also stumbled upon new work by Brit bad boy Damien Hirst (a rather underwhelming and obvious allegory, I thought, of pharmaceuticals as the "new religion" of our day--seems like a tone-deaf choice given how powerfully we are all in the grip of the old religion right now.

Emily and I parted ways yesterday: she's off to Crete to study artmaking and I'm wandering through the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yesterdays wanderings wound up on the tiny island that composed the original ghetto--the only island in Venice in which there are no doorways opening out onto the canals. It's shockingly small for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews who once lived there. There are a few living Jews visible, clearly religious types, and a stark Holocaust memorial put up by the city. After that I was quite tired of Venice, but it took some doing to get away from it all--two hot and crowded boat rides before I could gather up my things and make it to the station. Caugh the 4:10 train to Trieste, on which I had the great good fortune to be seated next to Mario e Michaela, a young Italian couple who live there, with whom I conversed in broken English and Italian for the entire two-plus hour ride. She's a PhD candidate at the universtiy here, studying chemistry and pharmaceuticals; he's a civil engineer. They were incredibly sweet and generous with me--after we got off the train they helped me find a hotel (their intentions there at least were good--more on that in a minute) and I have a date to meet them for dinner at 8 tonight. It's nice to have that to look forward to and not to feel as alone as one sometimes can when traveling.

Trieste is a beautiful and melancholy city, gracefully arched against the Adriatic Sea on a narrow margin of land between Italy and Slovenia, which is visible from anyplace you can see the sea. It's strange to be in Mediterranean weather and surrounded by Italian speakers where the buidlings are all quite Austrian in style--Mario says when I get to Vienna I'll find the architectural style familiar. My little pensione is just off Trieste's own Canale Grand, which is not a Venetian canal but just a ribbon of water that runs through a rectangular plaza in which some small boats are moored, with a gigantic church at the end that looks surprisingly like a nineteenth-century version of the Pantheon. Had pizza for dinner and tried to retire early, but I quickly discovered the evils of the last available 45 euro room, namely a single window through which a lot of noise (dishes crashing and clattering from the restaurant below) and mosquitoes, but no air, traveled. No fan, either. So I was up all night practically, getting bitten all over and trying to relieve the stuffiness by applying wet towels to my body. It got so bad at one point that I got up and found the manager, who nodded understandingly, clapped me on the back, and said, "Yes, that's the only room without a fan," then sent me groaning back to bed. This morning I was prepared to move on, but they say they're going to put me in a room with two windows and a fan tonight for just ten euros more. Let's hope for a better night's sleep tonight because I'm getting up early to catch the train to Vienna.

But, Trieste. Today I wandered hither and yon in perfect, though hot weather for most of the day. Said hello to the charming little statue of James Joyce that they've placed on a bridge over the Canale--a life-sized bronze with a book under his arm and a pensive expression on his face, looks as though he'd bid you buon giorno as you pass. Took what I think is the last tram or streetcar--Joyce loved those--in Trieste up into the hills for some spectacular views of the city and harbor and then down again. Then caught a bus over to Miramare, the palace built in 1860 by the unfortunate Archduke Maximillian, brother to the emperor, who made the fatal mistake of agreeing to be named "Emperor of Mexico" in a failed scheme to turn Mexico into an Austrian colony, an adventure which ended up with him being executed by firing squad before he ever got properly to enjoy the place. The palace is a beautiful carved cube of the local white stone, karst, perched on a promontory over the sea with a splendid view of the city in the distance. There's also a nice park that Maximilian had put in which I wandered through, footsore at this point. Finally caught the bus back into town and walked along the sea road (another Via Cavour) before ending up at the fabulous Piazza of Italian Unity where there's this crazy fountain and many cafes of considerable vintage, in one of which I am typing this now.

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