Trieste (Part 2)

Our new housing development, Cologna Verniellis, was perched a couple of miles up on the barren karst mountain that rose abruptly from the outskirts of the city. A dozen duplexes had been constructed, stair-stepping down the hill, with labor provided by local Italian workers under contract with the U.S. Army. In this photograph, ours is the nearest unit in the second building from the top, the one with small white balconies at its upper corners. When we finally moved in in late August, with Quartermaster-supplied furniture, there was only one tree in the neighborhood more than an inch in diameter, and it didn’t have any leaves. Instead, rickety utility poles dotted the landscape.

From the balcony off our parents’ upstairs bedroom, the view stretched for miles over the Gulf of Trieste. The downstairs consisted of a living-dining room combination, the medium-sized kitchen, a tiny half bath, and a teensy, closet-sized maid’s room. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a white-tiled bathroom that also housed a washing machine.

Our new home was certainly adequate, but, at least to my mind, it paled in comparison with the sumptuous mansion we’d left behind on Im Dol Strasse in Berlin. No thick, brilliantly colored Persian rugs covered the floors. No plush red velvet draped the windows. There was no piano. The dining space held only a small table and four chairs, although a leaf or two could be added and extra chairs brought down from the upstairs bedrooms when Mommy and Daddy entertained. But there was no denying the view was spectacular!

Cologna Verniellis was reached by a winding road, Via Commerciale, but could also be accessed by a half-century-old combination funicular/tramway that climbed more than a thousand vertical feet from Piazza Oberdan in downtown Trieste up to the community of Villa Opicina, not far from the Yugoslav border. The tram’s sixth stop, Cologna Chiesetta, was less than a block from our new house.

At first the four of us rode the tram as a novelty, getting off at different stops to explore. Expansive windows on all sides afforded unobstructed views. The operator clanged a bell to announce each stop. In places the grade was so steep that the tram had to be pulled by heavy cables on the way up and braked by those same cables on the way down. It clattered and groaned and rattled, not unlike an old Ferris wheel.

Eleanor and I soon learned what a boon the tram represented for a couple of kids in a one-car family. Once our parents became convinced it was safe for their daughters to travel alone, for a few lira we could hop aboard and descend into the city to explore all by ourselves. Eleanor began taking piano lessons downtown, and sometimes we’d go to the outdoor market.

We could also hang our bicycles on big hooks attached at the rear of the tram and ride up the mountain to Opicina. Our favorite pastime there was to pedal out to the gate at the Yugoslav border, where armed, unsmiling guards paced back and forth in a precise drill, eyes locked forward. By now we knew that these were the enemy, the Communists—more often, the word we heard was “Commies”—and that Americans couldn’t go across that border. Of course, we never attempted to, but from thirty or forty feet away, we’d poke our thumbs into our ears and wag our hands in derision, all the while sticking out our tongues or hollering na-na-na-na-na-na! (Ugly little Americans indeed!) Sometimes the guards could be baited into responding. They’d jerk their rifles from their shoulders and wave them at us menacingly, whereupon we’d shriek in fear, jump on our bikes, and ride furiously back to Opicina. And, yes, there were quite a number of our adventures that we never, ever discussed with Mommy and Daddy!

Strangely, I remember very little about the school Eleanor and I attended in Trieste, only that we went with Daddy each morning and were dropped off on his way to work. I do remember the TRUST (TRieste United States Troops) Dependents’ School occupied an older building a few blocks beyond Piazza Unità on a street not far from San Giusto castle. The building had an elevated side garden, surrounded on three sides by chain-link fencing, which served as our recess playground. I don’t remember permanent swings or other play equipment, but we had no trouble amusing ourselves with favorite games like dodge ball and jump rope. We could also look down over the tall stone wall and watch the noisy throng of people and animals on the street below.

Because I was having trouble seeing the blackboard from my desk, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Klippel, suggested an eye examination, and for the first time I was prescribed glasses. I do remember the awful things: perfectly round lenses set in narrow, silvery-looking frames with flexible earpieces that bent easily and sometimes dug into the skin behind my ears, exactly the same glasses as were worn by the soldiers in the command. Though the new glasses put an end to the frequent headaches I’d been having, I looked just like an owl!

My third grade teacher was Mrs. Cahill, and for fourth grade I had Mrs. Dye. During all of third and fourth grades, I got A’s in every single subject except one B-plus in citizenship, accompanied by a note saying I needed to be more respectful of others. Probably talking when I should have been listening!