Monday 27 April 2020

1994 Trieste, Ljubljana

30.9.94 Venice, Trieste

Not in Venice, alas, but in the station, having arrived from Brescia.  On the way to Trieste, then Ljubljana.   But already a sense of being on the edge: the train half empty (overflowing to Verona), the land about to become undiscovered territory for me.  Reading "Trieste" – Magris – rather dry, but giving a good sense of that smarrimento.  Fine pale blue sky outside, hurtling towards the edge.

Note how each art has its peak when form and content match.  Architecture – the Romans, when engineering meets art; painting in the Renaissance, man the measure; music – eighteenth-century Austria.  Only literature has many – because language is arbitrary and changeable.  Other arts – architecture, sculpture (Greece), music, painting – all have an obvious measure, that of reality, harmony, representation…  Words are different (only poetry has non-arbitrary structures – sonnet the peak of these in some sense).

Trieste – in the Piazza Unità d'Italia.  Entering it I had the strange sensation that the fourth side was a huge white wall (clouds – though the sun is quite strong now through the clouds).  Hotel Roma (couldn't find the bathroom – behind a curtain of what looked like a windows).  Changed money into Tolars – confused by the rates, but I think 1T is about a halfpenny (that is 5000T = £25).  Delighted to hear the hotel receptionists talking in Slovenian – which I recognised from its similarity to Czech (and just why do we spell it that way?)

Cappuccino here – plus water and sweets: L.4000. - civilised.  I sit, of course, in the Caffè degli Specchi.  Miramare glimpsed on the way in (and Duino – thus Rilke – nearby).  To the Teatro Romano, - reminds me of Alexandria – not very moving, bricks mostly.  Sun very watery.  Sitting now (5pm) on the superbly-named Molo Audace.  Very strange – everything very strange.  Huge rucked sky above, very high clouds; sun recognisably that of Venice.  Air cool and full of the smells of water.  Men and boys fishing (can't helping thinking of that short story I wrote decades ago…).  A huge wharf being rebuilt – the sound of a man hammering carries so clearly across the water.  The aspect of the city strange as if falling into the sea – it doesn't stop.  Very long front.  To my right I may have seen the Miramare out in the haze.  Fish (small and round) in the (deep) water by us.

Before, spent a couple of hours in the bookshops here.  Aptly for Joyce's sometime city, there are many, both for new and – especially – for old (bells clang tinnily, a boat putters by).  Wandering in and out of the worlds held in these bookshops (old pornography, manuals – in Italian – for the Sinclair ZX80, poems in dialect, German literature in 50 volumes, 2000L each – alas, Grillparzer incomplete) I suddenly realise that this is precisely what the Internet is like: a huge warehouse of barely-ordered books.  Hence the excitement (mine) and the frustrations (of most people).  Next to me, two old men chatter in something that seems to hover between heavy dialect (alla Veneziana) and Slovene.  Doubtless the latter has heavily influenced the former.  People beginning to take their promenades now.  Light on the water like pale gold.

Bought: Slapater "Il Mio Carso" and Sabra – selection of poetry - plus book on Trieste and northern writers (Rilke, Joyce, etc, and Magris – all my heroes, well, almost).  Certainly this sense of the edge, a cavallo various lands and cultures, makes this my kind of place. I've not ever bothered "doing" the city such as it is: just being here, drinking coffee, roaming around in bookshop is enough.  I'll perhaps rise early and go for a morning stroll before leaving tomorrow.

Along the front, practically every large building has pillars or pilasters stuck on, purely as ornament.  To the Sala Tripcovich – right by the station, and so by my hotel – for a concert – Sibelius (Swan of Tuonela"_ and Bruckner #2.  Strange edifice: modern, shell-like – perhaps while they're restoring the Teatro Verdi.  Bloody pilasters again.  Probably sold out (few seats when I booked – 30,000L.), violins desperately practising.  Very well turned-out audience – I feared I'd be the only tie-less one.  The ushers very flash in their black uniforms and brass buttons.

1.10.94 Slovenia

Just inside the border.  A long passage – it began to feel quite menacing, a mistake.  That sudden sense of no longer understanding the language (though its links to Czech are clear).  Outside rolling green hills, neat houses, cheap cars.  It is very strange to be in a country I barely knew existed.  Ljubljana is wonderful – but closed: 1pm is the witching hour here.  Now, in Gostilna, near the Shoemaker's Bridge.  Gorgeous autumn day: warm sun, stiff breeze, the trees turning, leaves falling as the branches shiver.

Hotel (Grand Union) looks excellent value for about £40 – big room, clean, view of Miklošičev park.  Young women quite swish here – relaxed and sophisticated-looking.  [Music in the distance – saw ZDF van – the Germans invading already.]  German tourists, Italians, Japanese.  Flash Ferrari parked nearby – there is money here, it seems.   Rushed around madly, looking for two things: toothbrush and film.  The former found, but not the latter.  I have decided to speak in Italian here – seems generally understood.  

On the train, families laden with consumer goods – but the customs not too nosy – probably good for the country.  You know you crossed some invisible line when you're not only allowed to traverse the railway lines – but have to, in order to leave.  Ljubljanica the river here.  Fine Baroque facades everywhere.  A kind of Balkan Dublin (Ljubljanica ~ Liffey).  How far away that city seems… Once again, I have that schizophrenic sense of being in Ljubljana – and not being here, because this is clearly impossible.

A nice trout, heavily garnished with garrr-lic.  Two decilitres of white wine, patate all'Istria – what more could one ask…?  [The music last night variable: the conductor (American?) rather stiff – except in the last movement of the Bruckner 2 – the best I've heard.]  One thing: small noses are rare here.  With the coffee, a tiny chocolate – Croat – whose flavour is pure Mallorca of 30 years ago.  2050 Tolars all told (there's that contingent onomatopoeia again) about £10 – not that cheap – but least they take Visa.

Walking along the chestnut alley of Tomšičeva ulica – a rain of conkers – are they 56ers or 45ers – what is the magic number?  Beside the opera house – wild Empire style – playing "Die Fledermaus" tonight – I think, since it is in Slovenian.  But passing to Cankarjev dom, I see a sign advertising Pogorelić – tonight...hmm. After the National Gallery (the usual nth-rate Italians and Germans – touching in their own way), across the Ljubljanica to Stari trg – and a bookshop/gallery that is open.  Škuc galerija – typical over-excited young people's stuff – nice.

Well, I didn't go to the concert (I don't even know if there were tickets…)  I'd like to have seen old Igo (lovely waistcoat), but the concert (Tchaikovsky – 1812, Piano Concerto #1, Symphony #4) would hardly have shown him off at his best.  Instead I watch the news on RTL (why do female German newsreaders all have this blonde Nazi look?), and then wander the city (under the castle, which seems the happening place in  Ljubljana, although small).  I sit, horror of horrors, in the Pizzeria Ljubljana Dvor – not really hungry, but I want to be near the river.  I can see the castle tower from here.  Interesting (though hardly surprising) that Italian is often given as language #2 on menus etc.

Walking around the city – including dank cathedral alleys – it felt very safe – old ladies doing the same.  In many ways, Slovenia looks to be one of the most successful "new" countries of the Eastern Bloc.  It must have been pretty exciting as it broke away from what the Balkan Times (published in Greece) insisted on calling FRYugoslavia (along with FYROM – Macedonia to you and me – ah, these children…).  A lovely city to stroll through, of course, with the river, the castle, the Baroque facades casting deep shadows, the bridges… Reminds me of Budapest, or rather of Buda, the back streets…

One thing that is increasingly clear to me are the cognitive spheres of influence.  For example, if you want to know what is happening in Eastern Europe, you read German newspapers.  For the Middle East, French; for South America, Spanish.  For Japan and Far East I suppose the US press is more alert – though less so than the others, aforementioned.  Which begs the question: why read UK press?  For the ex-Empire, perhaps – India, South Africa (doesn't sound very convincing…). Walking around the National Gallery, the sense of how difficult it is to start from so little. I/we take so much for granted in terms of cultural assumptions – how much is a given.  [For some reason, this restaurant brought back memories of the café by the Pergamon Museum…]

2.10.94 Ljubljana

In the Gallery of Modern Art.  Rather less depressing than that of the National Gallery: after all, creating great modern art is (theoretically) open to all.  And even though the exhibition here is pretty weak, I wonder whether Slovenia in a sense is a hope for the future.  After all, it has only two million inhabitants, but has an opera house, various museums, theatre, etc. - that is, is functional.  If the world does split into thousands of "nations", perhaps they can survive and thrive. Note that the great galleries – in London, Paris, New York – are all built on power – empire/money etc.  - but not here.

Large if not wonderful breakfast.  Then to the market – to find that today there is no flea market – perhaps because of a bloody ZDF concert (the strains of sickly-sweet Bavarian sentimentality fill the air).  Also a few spots of rain initially, but these soon pass.  Sky clearing, sun trying to emerge.  On the way here, passed some kind of French cultural institution.  Stuff on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Must read his books: the ones on flying across the desert et al. Look tremendous – the prose carries an exactitude but also a tremendous sense of being spent – French culture guttering in a century that it is extrinsic to (the Magris effect).  

At the top of the Castle Tower – hazy air, but fine view.  Unfortunately, the ghastly music comes up too.  No café here, and I'm starving.  I see that the café on the "skyscraper" is open, so I may slog back there.  Hills everywhere.  Very strange place: even though the castle itself is undergoing renovation, and therefore dead, buried deep in its bowels is this trendy bar (no food, alas).  Thumping bass line, gaudy neons, rough iron walls – feels very New York. All the young trendies here.

The National Museum had the usual Roman tombstones and stuffed birds – plus a rather fine display of bronze age stuff, including a stunning ceremonial cup/bucket with interesting scenes.  Among which a man playing the pan pipes...ah, to hear that music.  Unreasonably, I like it here.  Basically, inside a gutted castle building, lots of polished marble, grainy wood, metal (fine double staircase).  Stone walls of the castle evident.  Well stocked bar.

Afterwards, to the hotel for an apple, then to the 12th floor of the skyscraper.  Worrying coming up here: rickety old lift, and when I got to the kavarna – it wouldn't let me out.  Also slight put off by appalling pix of the strip-tease that apparently takes places here at night.  These poor 30+ women looking ridiculous as only sex performers can, with bored customers sitting around.  Fine view here (sun casting shadows in the right places).  The triple bridge just visible – what a great symbol for a nation: three bridges.  It's impressive: from here I can see the Dragons' Bridge, the three bridges and the Shoemaker's Bridge. 

Finishing the day in Tivoli Park.  A wonderfully autumnal feel – the smell of deciduous leaves, that chill in the dusk air.  The end of the weekend, of my trip, and of the season.  Into the church of Franciscans: very dark and gloomy.  Outside, the bloody ZDF Germans are nearly gone, leaving a focal point for the city.  I have noticed: no beggars in Ljubljana (though a few semi down and outs) and few signs of "dog dirt".  Prague felt far more oppressively ex-communist, and poor.  Perhaps the Tito years of later alternative communism bore some sweet fruit (the current war in Bosnia being its bitter crop).

As so often, I am back for my last meal where I had my first: in the riverside restaurant – having "Ljubljana schnitzel", and half a litre of wine (I didn't think I asked for so much, but it's good, so…).  Air cooling, but lovely to sit out in a jacket.  "My" pizzeria (pizzeria moja?) opposite.  Italians behind, Germans to my right.  Also opposite me, on the rather ugly concrete wall by the river, is the phrase: "Muki je moj, jaz ga ne dam…"  The wine has an almost flowery taste – rather drinkable…

Good to see the pages filling up these past few days – shows my brain has been loosened up – as I hoped.  I need these selfish solo trips to think hard about things I too rarely have time for – novels/ideas etc.  The countries in Europe still to "do": Sweden, Iceland, Luxembourg, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria...I might give Ukraine a miss.

And another thing: last night, while wandering the streets, I came across a group of itinerant Andean musicians – they really do get bloody everywhere.  But what a theme: musicians from so many thousands of miles away, so far from home, do gigs around Europe…  Excellent escalope.  Mad guitarist has just played "House of the Rising Sun" – I've no idea what the song's about, but it goes to the roots of my childhood memories. I've drunk nearly half a litre of wine – too/not enough...

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