Everybody sees what a horse is like. In 1746 Benedykt Chmielowski compiled the first encyclopedia in Polish called “Nowe Ateny”. He had to describe a horse that had been on Noah’s Ark in the section on animals. The encyclopedic article began as follows: “Koń jaki jest, każdy widzi”. It was so obvious that the encyclopedist did not consider it necessary to describe the horse at that time.
I recalled this story since I had doubts about whether it was worth writing about Trieste. Because everybody knows it and has seen it! It is a large and important port, a beautiful gigantic city where roads, railways and air traffic flock and where Italy begins. So do I have to tell anything else about it?
I do because where Italy begins, the Balkans end. This country is the westernmost point of the Balkan Peninsula. Although no one in the city and its suburbs would agree that it is in fact a real Balkan city. Just as drunk people deny that they are drunk, the Balkan people deny their Balkanness.
May Italians forgive me but Trieste is not an Italian city. Nor is it Slovenian, as the Slovenians say, calling it Trst. Nor is it Austrian, even though it used to be the biggest port in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even Croats have a claim on Trieste, only for kicks though – like if everybody does so, why do we have to stand aside?
Trieste, however, doesn’t fit into all those narrow national frameworks. Atmosphere-wise Trieste is an ancient city-state, so it doesn’t need anyone. This port is located in such a way that it is protected by the mountains on one side of it, and on the other two sides, it is embraced by a high coastline forming a closed lowland. And ahead of it, here is the only exit to the world – the sea. The ethnic composition here has always been diverse. This city belongs to everyone, just as an open port does: the more there are different people from all over the world, the richer it is.
Eventually, even after World War II, it could not have immediately been given to some state. Trieste had the status of a free city and was divided into zones until 1954. Only later was the city passed to Italy, and the surrounding areas and highlands were transferred to socialist Yugoslavia (and were included into the Republic of Slovenia). Slovenians still have a grudge against the Italians and demonstrate of the last century: the majority of the population here has always been Slovenian. There have been enough Italians here as well though.
Although the city has a majority of Italians, one can always hear Slovenian language on the streets of Trieste. There is a living testimony to the fact that Trieste is to some extent still Trst (at least while I am writing these lines): it is the oldest Slovenian writer Boris Pahor who was born in this city 105 years ago. Men of letters love Triest: James Joyce used to live here; now there is such a good statue of him that you cannot but take a picture of yourself with. Claudio Magris, one of the main experts on Central Europe, now lives here. Due to his efforts, in particular, Trieste is still more associated with Vienna or Prague than with the Balkans.
A steep road takes you from the Balkan Slovenia to Italian Trieste. It looks as if you are just falling from a mountain onto the seacoast without any parachute or insurance. The only thing worse is the road back when the engine roars and the wheels can barely pull a car forward. They say cars just slip on the wet asphalt and can’t go up the hill when it’s raining.
The most beautiful and large square in the city is dedicated to the unification of Italy. It is so grand, and so much money and effort were invested in it that it becomes clear there are some problems with unification here. That is why it must be emphasized in every possible way so that everyone can see and have no second thoughts.
And Trieste slips out of those arms. It doesn’t want to be in Italy as well as it didn’t want to be in Yugoslavia. It doesn’t consider itself Balkan and doesn’t deny that it belongs to Central Europe. When you stand on this square and look at the sea you realize that each port belongs to the sea more than to the land since it is so difficult for it to fit into the coordinates of the land.
This is where the Balkans end but if we turn our back to the west, the whole view of Istria, Slovenia and Croatia will open in front of us. So with the same share of truth, we can affirm that the Balkans begin here.