No. 24: “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” by Jan Morris

Travel Blog  •  Michael Shapiro  •  05.08.06 | 8:50 AM ET


To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 2001
Territory covered: Trieste, Italy (and Jan Morris’ imagination)
A student at a writing seminar once asked Welsh author Jan Morris when she planned on writing her autobiography. She smiled and said that every one of her books about place was autobiographical, none more so than her “final” book, written on the eve of the millennium, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Morris said that she saw herself in Trieste, in its melancholy and moodiness, and its isolation. Once a major port city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Trieste in the 20th century, as a consequence of war, became part of Italy. But some 70 percent of Italians aren’t aware that its a part of their country, according to a 1999 poll. It’s this sense of displacement that resonates with Morris, born James Morris to a Welsh father and English mother. Morris never felt at home in her male body and culminated her transition to a woman in Casablanca in the early 1970s. She has traveled the world for half a century, enraptured by great cities and penning classic works about them. Morris visited Trieste as a soldier at the end of World War II. Revisiting in the 1990s, she sees in Trieste, which sounds much like the Italian word for sadness, the ideal city on which to project her memories, hopes, and disillusionments. She comes across an open-air concert in a piazza where a few hundred Trieste elders are assembled. “They were singing their own songs, in their own language, out of their own past,” she writes. “I noticed that some of their eyes were full of tears, and I almost wept a little myself: because of their age, because of mine, because of the hard times they had lived through…because of the sweet songs, because I feared nobody would be singing them much longer…and because—well, because of the Trieste effect.” Ultimately, Morris evokes hiraeth, the Welsh idea of longing for something but not knowing what. But “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” is far from depressing. It sparkles with insights and universal truths, always infused with Morris’s trademark charm, more like a wink than a smile. And as she does in every city, Morris finds hope, and cause for celebration.

Outtake from Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere:

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own….They share with each other, across all the nations, the common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented…they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean…They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it.

For more about Jan Morris check out her Wikipedia page and profiles in Salon and the BBC.

Michael Shapiro interviewed top travel writers, including Jan Morris, for his book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration. His Web site has details on the book and his other work.

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