Trieste (Part 1)

As we approached the city from the north, to our right stretched the Gulf of Trieste, blue and serene as far as the eye could see, while on our left bare limestone hills rose to meet an azure sky. The people of Trieste considered them mountains. We were from California, though, and had camped at Yosemite. We had also just driven through the majestic Alps of Germany and Switzerland. We knew better. These were hills, and not especially tall ones at that.

A few miles from our destination, on a rugged point jutting out into the gulf, Daddy pointed out the beautiful Miramare castle, shimmering in the sunshine. He explained it had once been the private residence of Austrian-born Archduke Maximilian and his wife Carlota, who in 1864 had been sent by Napoleon III, Emperor of France, to rule Mexico. Since the end of World War II, the castle had been serving as the headquarters of the American occupation forces in Trieste.

Now this was something interesting! Eleanor and I begged to stop and explore, but Daddy said we needed to check in at the hotel where we’d be living until August, when construction of our new quarters was complete. Miramare would have to wait.

The plain, boxlike Grande hotel, five stories tall and built of quarried limestone, filled a corner along Riva Tre Novembre, the busy avenue separating the hotel from the sprawling Trieste waterfront, where commercial ships from international ports were tethered at half a dozen ancient piers, spreading like fingers out into the sea. Again, Eleanor and I exchanged knowing glances, for only six months earlier we had crossed the vast Atlantic Ocean aboard a converted American troop ship just as big as any of these.

Our family occupied two adjoining rooms on the second floor of the hotel, toward the back. The rooms were drab and had no view, only the windowless wall of another boxlike building across the side street. But Daddy had chosen these rooms on purpose. The Grande didn’t allow pets, so we had to keep Bozo a secret and sneak him in under our coats through a side door and up a narrow stairway to the second floor. Eleanor and I had the smaller room, but it had two fluffy beds, plenty of room for us, and for Bozo too.

Mommy and Daddy fibbed their way out of any questions raised by his occasional noises: “A dog? Oh no, that was just the children playing!” or “Oh no, that was only the radio you heard.” But it was an iffy undertaking. We had to make certain we had Bozo out of the hotel before the maids came to clean each day, and that any evidence of his presence—food, bowls, a leash—was hidden away. The hotel personnel never caught on, or, if they did, they decided against making a fuss. After all, we were Americans, the victorious occupiers of their city, it was just a puppy, and the whole pesky lot of us would be gone soon.

On our very first weekend, Daddy hired a small launch to take us on an hour-long tour of the Gulf of Trieste. The day was windy and quite chilly, so Eleanor and I wore our brown coats with the zip-out linings that Mommy had sewn for us back in Berkeley, and we all—all except Daddy, of course—wrapped our hair in scarves. We motored north as far as Miramar castle and then circled back past the waterfront and beyond. Daddy kept shouting and pointing to indicate important landmarks, but the wind was so loud that we didn’t hear a word. We couldn’t keep from giggling at him moving his lips and waving his arms, like a silent scarecrow buffeted about in a hurricane .

During the six weeks we lived in the Grande hotel, downtown Trieste became our neighborhood. We explored every nook and cranny.

A block north of the hotel, the Canal Grande—just about everything in Trieste, it seemed, was called Grande something-or-other—cut its way inland for several blocks, ending abruptly at an impressive domed cathedral. The buildings housed cafés and shops below the homes of Trieste’s more well-to-do. Along both sides of the canal, brightly colored small boats bobbed gently on their mooring lines in the late afternoon, packed as tightly as sardines in a can, for protection from larger ships and the sometimes ferocious waves that slammed the waterfront when high winds—the Bora—blew in off the Gulf of Trieste.

A couple of blocks in the opposite direction was the Piazza Unità d’Italia, the horseshoe-shaped main square of Trieste, its north end open to Riva Tre Novembre, the waterfront, and the sea. A pyramid-shaped fountain, covered all over with strange carved stone figures, rose at its center. Water trickled from the top of the pyramid into a shallow pool below, where in the late afternoons the locals sometimes removed their shoes and soothed their feet in its coolness while their children played nearby.

Looking inland from the sea, the ornate white building that housed Daddy’s office was located on the right side of the square. Inset on the far corners of the front façade, arched alcoves protected marble statues of ten-foot-tall, bare-breasted women. Eleanor and I were already familiar with the replica of Michelangelo’s David that stood in the bombed-out rubble across the street from our house in Berlin, but at least that naked man had a fig leaf you couldn’t peek under. These women were completely bare from the waist up. We first gawked at their perfect marble breasts, then giggled, then finally looked away, embarrassed.

On the opposite side of Piazza Unità sat another huge limestone building, and at the back of the square Trieste’s municipal offices occupied the most ornate building of all. In between were a fancy hotel, more shops, and several sidewalk cafés, where Daddy often bought us gelato to enjoy as we sat at wrought-iron tables and watched the people and the pigeons. I always shared the last of my cone with Bozo.

The piazza itself was paved in twenty-foot-square concrete sections set on the diagonal. Watching the Italian kids playing, Eleanor and I quickly picked up on their game. Groups of a dozen or more would trot closely behind one another, their arms spread wide like soaring eagles as they zigzagged their way across the piazza, scattering pigeons, careful that every footfall landed on a crack separating the paving sections. If you missed the crack and got caught, you had to go back to the end. Being first in line when you reached the far side of the piazza meant winning! Bozo always whined and strained at his leash. He wanted to play too, so before long we’d join in. Bozo always had a great time, but he wasn’t very good at keeping his feet on the cracks.

Mommy became a regular at the fascinating antique shops tucked away on side streets and down the narrow alleys of Trieste. Her favorite was Milazzi’s, where she bought the nineteenth century Capo di Monte porcelain trinket box that would sit centered on her dresser for the next half century. I loved Milazzi’s so I sometimes went along, but the lady in charge always watched me like a hawk to be sure I didn’t break anything. Or maybe she thought I’d slip something into my pocket without paying.

One day, after a snack and a good romp at the Piazza Unità, Daddy led us up the hill to San Giusto, the ruins of a castle dating back to the Roman Empire. Rows of once-grand marble columns marched across the terrace in front of the main ruin, but they were now jagged, of different heights, as though a diabolical giant had stormed through, swinging his destructive mallet in all directions. We inspected the beautiful gold mosaics inside the cathedral and the ancient stone artifacts inside the castle museum—Daddy droning on and on like a teacher, telling us all about the Romans. In the coming months, we sometimes returned to hear operatic arias at the outdoor amphitheater next to San Giusto.

Back down the hill, Daddy decided to show us another ancient cathedral that was supposed to house some famous paintings. Mommy tied Bozo’s leash to an iron bench near the front entrance, and we stepped inside the dark foyer. But immediately he began to whimper, then yip, and finally to howl at the top of his puppy lungs. Soon people were staring and clucking among themselves. It was a very short tour, and we left in a hurry, without seeing a single painting.

After trudging the six long blocks back to the Grande hotel, Mommy wrapped Bozo in her jacket and we sneaked up the narrow back stairs to our rooms. He didn’t make a peep. I gave him a drink of water from the sink in the corner, boosted him up onto my bed, and we all settled down for an afternoon nap, Bozo snoring his soft puppy snores.

When we awoke, we showered, dressed for dinner, sneaked Bozo back down the stairs, and walked a couple of blocks to our favorite restaurant. Leaving him alone in our room was out of the question. He would have made a terrible ruckus. And besides, this was Europe! Well-trained doggies may not have been allowed in hotels or cathedrals, but they were welcome in all but the fanciest restaurants. Bozo generally behaved himself, and after a half dozen choice tidbits from my plate, he’d snooze peacefully under the table until we finished our meal.

After dinner each evening, we’d stroll up and down the waterfront until well after dark, watching as the moon rose, a million stars appeared, and the lights from the piers and the tethered ships danced on the inky water.

At the end of six weeks, Trieste truly felt like home, but we were tired of sneaking in and out of the Grande hotel and were anxious to move into our own house.