The train station in Trieste is a stately, if not time-worn, structure, resplendent with the high ceilings and windows of a bygone era, when railroads and steamships provided the main means of transport. When my shuttle bus dropped me off at the curb, the bustle that once flowed from the building had been reduced to a whisper from decades past. Being a Sunday, all of the booths and storefronts were shuttered. So too, were the grocery stores and corner shops, the pharmacies and the cafes.
Trieste is located on Italy’s northeast coast, a stone’s throw from the ocean. Due to its history as a major port of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until the mid-twentieth century, Austrian and Italian architecture comingle in the town center. As I wound my way through the town, the wheels of my suitcase clattered alternately on concrete, asphalt, and cobblestone-lined sidewalks. My lodgings were situated in a small set of side streets, a few blocks away from the administrative buildings and five star hotels. The main indications that I had arrived were a set of ornate glass-and-wood double doors and the curtain-clad windows of the single-room lobby, tucked into a street of mostly private entrances.
This was the kind of small hotel where you handed over the key and its one pound key fob to the receptionist when you departed from your room for the day, then picked it up again when you returned for the evening; this was how they knew whether you were out so that they could discreetly tidy your room. An extremely narrow elevator could transport me upstairs if I displayed enough patience, but the much wider staircase was the preferable option. On the first flight, the grand marble steps were lined with a heavy burgundy rug, held in place by thin metal rods at the junctions between each step. This extravagance was in contrast to the barren nature of the first landing, which was adorned by just two objects: a frameless wall-length mirror and a fluorescent light strip that turned off too early in the morning and too late in the evening, so that the few moments of dawn and dusk that filtered from the lobby enshrouded the entire first flight of stairs in near-complete darkness.
The next flight of stairs led to a landing that was wholly more welcoming. Windows stretched from the stairwell and down the hallway, connecting indoors and out. Summer had settled comfortably, unrelentingly bright and humid, and so the windows were often left open in place of air conditioning. There wasn’t much of a view, other than the adjacent apartment building pushed up alongside, but compared to a view of the sea or a distant hillside, this one was a reminder of the people who lived here. Laundry lines (a common feature, as I would soon learn), were strung up in the intervening space. Many were empty, but a few were crowded with assorted articles of summery clothing, limp and unmoving in the absence of a breeze to stir them. Most of the windows on the building across were shuttered, but in some cases, they were cracked open to let in the outdoors. In the early hours, the sounds of morning preparations floated across the gap. Water rushed from sink taps, punctuated by the clamor of pots banging on stove burners and pans sizzling over the heat. Sometimes, the unintelligible murmur of a radio or television hung in the background. Other times, men and women and children called to each other, perhaps over breakfast. These sounds were a welcome way to break the silence of my single-occupancy hotel room, and a reminder that while all of this may have been new to a tourist, this was everyday life for someone else.
On the other side of the building, from inside my room, two windows opened to a main street below. One window was wedged into the corner of the bathroom, and the other was cut asymmetrically on the right side of the bedroom wall. As is typical in many regions in Italy, large shutters, not drapes, were the preferred window dressing. These were made of heavy wooden planks, and manipulated by cranks on the windowsill; turn one handle, and the shutter slats tilted up or down for privacy; turn the other handle, and the panels folded open so that I could look out across the street. Directly across was a multi-level office building or school building, displaying a grid of glass panes that allowed me to look through and observe the rows of tables and chairs inside. Posters, rolled into tubes, leaned against the walls, and on one level, stickers and decals dotted the glass like decorations in an elementary school classroom. I could imagine people clustered around a table discussing a project, or a roomful of children fidgeting during a presentation, but no matter what day of the week or time of the day, I never did see anyone inside. Below, cars and scooters buzzed alongside a loose stream of pedestrians, indifferent to the lack of occupants in the building. Occasionally, the mechanical sing-song of a siren or the smoke-clogged growl of a motorbike would echo down the block. In the evenings, the chatter and laughter of restaurant patrons dining al fresco would rise beneath the moon, animated by bellies filled with good food and the heady effects of alcohol.