“This is a dying city,” says Matteo. We have been sitting for hours at a pizzeria in one of Trieste’s hidden squares, a labyrinth of turns away from the waterfront that dwarfs the city’s western edge.
Matteo has had an apertivo, another spritz, some wine. Now, he is ready to talk. He does not trust the Italian government to take care of the city, he says. He does not trust the burgeoning Triestine independence movement either.
“There’s only one institution I trust,” he says, crossing his arms, picking prosciutto from his pizza. “The Austro-Hungarian Empire. Once, we were a great city. An Austro-Hungarian port. We had a reason to exist. Now?” He shrugs. “We are dying. Our city has no meaning any longer. But I will never leave. I was born in Trieste. I will die here.” Matteo is 30 years old. “All the same,” he says, “I quite like it here.”
Melancholy, after all, is a way of life in this city. Trieste’s literary locals, no less than the exiles – James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke, Richard Francis Burton – who have washed up along the city’s Grand Canal, have written so often on the connection between Trieste and tristesse that the words have all but lost their meaning. It is the eternal border-city, culturally Austrian, Italian, Slovene, a once-Habsburgian trading crossroads that became the Adriatic hinterland of the Iron Curtain: a liminal space between worlds.
The bodies of the assassinated Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were brought here in 1914 en route from Sarajevo; for residents such as Matteo, time stopped then.