Thursday, September 20, 2007

A city of true civility

20 Sep 2007, ST

Writer Jan Morris finds Trieste in Italy to be populated by people of a special breed

By Hong Xinyi

WRITER Jan Morris was born James Morris in England in 1926 to Welsh parents, and worked as an intelligence officer and a journalist before becoming a travel writer.

It is for this last designation that she will most likely be remembered, despite an arguably dramatic personal life.

Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949 and the couple had five children before he had sex reassignment surgery in 1972. The couple continued living together.

Morris adopted the name Jan, and documented this journey in the book Conundrum in 1974.

As a travel writer, she combines meticulous historical research with a lyrical style that paints vivid, often melancholic portraits of cities all over the world, from Hong Kong to Venice.

Below is an extract from Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere, published in 2001, a meditation on one of her favourite cities, Trieste in north-eastern Italy.

'THERE are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours.

They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor.

They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.

When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically.

They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness.

They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.

The elusive flavour that I enjoy here is really only the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error.

I have tried to get the hang of many cities, during a lifetime writing about them, and I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find, at the start of the twenty-first century.

Honesty is still the norm here, manners are generally courteous, bigotries are usually held in check, people are generally good to each other, at least on the surface. Joyce (writer James Joyce) said he had never met such kindness as he did in Trieste. Mahler (composer Gustav Mahler) just thought its people 'terribly nice'.

So do I. I am only an outsider here, and my responses may be naive, but I am constantly struck by the public empathy of this city, expressed in small, everyday matters - a comradely wiggle of the fingers from one driver to the other, when the funicular engine is hitched on to the Opicina tram, or the smiles women offer to perfect strangers when they join the queue for postage stamps.

Time and again in Trieste I have made some casual contact, told somebody the time, asked the way to somewhere, to find the encounter develop into a conversation full of delight.

A man once noticed I had an antique Baedeker in my hand (The Mediterranean, 1911), and stopping dead in his tracks, there in the street, he engaged me in warm dialogue about the particular pleasures of old guidebooks.

I much admired the reception Triestini gave to a couple of Romany musicians from Slovakia, who turned up one day to play sultry music in Via San Lazzaro: as the citizens walked up to place their lire in the open violin cases they laughed, sang, jiggled their heads to the music or warmly thanked the players, and some looked as though they would like to break into gypsy dance themselves, if they were not a little afraid of making fools of themselves.'

# Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere ($23.54) is available from Books Kinokuniya.

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