Trieste: Any Port in a Storm

When you were born and raised in a city whose ownership is certain to change hands within your lifetime, you find yourself thinking a lot about identity, and what nationality means. Jan Morris identified Trieste as the ‘capital of nowhere’ and, with its unique historical circumstances, it has become something of a symbol for the flux, uncertainty and strangeness experienced by anyone from a disputed borderland. Being sensitively positioned at the foot of the iron curtain, until 1954 Trieste was run as a separate city-state by America and Britain, no-one knowing to whom it really belonged. This becomes heightened if you go there, and discover what an uncanny, ethereal feeling the town has. Although a busy city of over 200,000, with its giant purposeless edifices from a vanished empire, it feels deserted and eerie even when there are people about. A famous wind called the bora blasts through Trieste on its way from the Alps to the Adriatic, and at its strongest (as it is when we visit) it delivers gusts of up to 90mph. Its strength and its effect on the body are absurd, like living inside a permanent hurricane. It is as if the contents of your head were a carefully segmented filing system, which has been chucked into an industrial-sized tumble dryer turned on to full power. Maybe its habit of mixing everything up has contributed to the fluid feel of this hybrid city, on the border of the Austrian, Italian and Slavic worlds.

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Rome Pt. 4

“This mark of apostasy, over all others, applies to the Roman Pontiff. Nor is the required burden of proof difficult to establish. For the Pope, as the head and founder of this catholic apostasy, has verily defected from the faith of Christ: partly through errors and innumerable heresies introduced in dogma; partly through superstitions ordained in rites; partly through idolatry firmly established in cult worship.”

-Francis Turretin, Whether it can be proven that the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist

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Rome Pt. 3

“I fairly egged him on, as far as my powers in Italian permitted, so keen was I to see with my novelist’s curiosity how far he would go. The tenant had to be an American, he said. I was a Scot, I informed him, and I doubted that he would find an American to pour capital into his property with a tenure of only one year. He replied that the apartment was in a famous 15th-century building in which many famous lords had lived, which was true enough. So he went on, while I looked out the window, watching the baroque fountain playing in the fine October light of Rome. The theatrical figure representing the Nile, his great hand held up as if to ward off some falling masonry, seemed apt to my situation. ”Speak to me,” Michelangelo is said to have challenged his Roman statue of Moses; and indeed, the sculptures of Rome do speak.”

-Muriel Spark, The New York Times

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Rome Pt. 2

“In Rome I’m quite different, I said. There I don’t get so excited, so out of control, and I’m more predictable. Rome calms me down- Wolfsegg works me up. Rome has a soothing effect on the nerves, even though it’s the most exciting city in the world, but at Wolfsegg I’m always agitated, even though it’s so peaceful here. I’m a victim of this paradox, I said. In Rome I express myself quite differently, I talk to everyone quite differently. Gambetti once told me, I said, that whenever I returned from Wolfsegg I talked in a very agitated manner, but only when I’d been to Wolfsegg. On that occasion I had told Gambetti that my family was to blame, He said my thinking had got out of phase with its normal rhythm, what might be called its Roman rhythm.”

-Thomas Bernhard, Extinction

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Rome Pt. 1

“He looked at Ervin, full of expectation; then, when he said nothing, asked:
‘Have you thought about what I should do?’
‘Yes, Mihály,’ Ervin said quietly. ‘I think you should go to Rome.’
‘To Rome?’ he blurted out in astonishment. ‘Why? How did you arrive at that?’
‘Last night in the choir… I can’t really explain this to you, you’re not familiar with this type of meditation… I do know that you must go to Rome.’
‘But why, Ervin, why?’
‘So many pilgrims, exiles, refugees have gone to Rome, over the course of centuries, and so much has happened there… really, everything has always happened in Rome. That’s why they say, “All roads lead to Rome”. Go to Rome, Mihály, and you’ll see. I can’t say anything more at present.’
‘But what shall I do in Rome?’
‘What you do doesn’t matter. Perhaps visit the four great basilicas of Christendom. Go to the catacombs. Whatever you feel like. It’s impossible to be bored in Rome. And above all, do nothing. Trust yourself to chance. Surrender yourself completely, don’t plan things… can you do that?’
‘Yes, Ervin, if you say so.’
‘Then go immediately. Today you don’t have that hunted look on your face that you had yesterday. Use this auspicious day for setting forth. Go. God be with you.’
Without waiting for a reply he embraced Mihály, offered the priestly left cheek and right cheek, and hurried away. Mihály stood for a while in astonishment, then gathered up his pilgrim’s bundle and set off down the mountain.”

-Antal Szerb, Journey in Moonlight

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Birmingham: This is What She’s Like

For a city of its importance, Birmingham is terribly good at hiding in plain sight. A show of hands amongst a randomly selected group of people from SE England would probably show that most had been to Amsterdam or Barcelona, but how many would have spent time in Birmingham? It has an abundance of quality Victorian architecture, yet it is Glasgow or Belfast that come to mind when we think of Victorian cities. It was the ‘city of a thousand trades’ at the start of the Industrial Revolution, but we are likelier to think of Manchester or Sheffield when we think of the coming of the factory age. Even in terms of pop music, having given us Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners, ELO and Denim, Birmingham somehow lags behind Liverpool and Manchester as a pilgrimage point for music fans. Holidaymakers go for the Lake District, York, Bath or Oxford, and Brum keeps a low profile. We all know that it is the second largest city in the UK, and that it has more canals than Venice, but do we know Birmingham?

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Vienna Innerestadt: Show of Strength

I once saw a quote somewhere by one of Austria’s post-war chancellors that “Austria has retired from world history, and is very happy about that”. Austria is not a particularly large country, but its erstwhile empire was very large and Vienna was a cultural metropolis and mixing-pot on the scale of London or Paris, and it has the buildings to match. The empire was finished by the age of the Manhattan skyscraper, but the buildings Vienna does have reflect the neo-classical ideology of Empire; everyone wanted to steal the clothes Greece/Rome, but as German-speakers the Viennese were also inheritors of the Gothic. The architecture, particularly around the lavish Ringstrasse that replaced the old city walls, is like a five-year-old unleashed on a pick ‘n’ mix with an unlimited budget. The familiar Hapsburg look of Herculean caryatids and green domes of oxidised copper is turned up to 11 in their capital; they were building a city for giants, on a heroic scale that seems almost comical to our eyes. But this city built for titans is now the capital to a small-to-middling country, and compared to our pressure-cooker global cities it has a paradoxically unpretentious, slightly soporific appeal that I find very appealing. It no longer asks to dominate world affairs; it is happy to rest on its laurels, and so it should be.

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