Où sont les frontières d’antan



By Francesco BIanchini



I grew up in a world of borders. The trains of my youth went to Belgrade, to Athens, to Lisbon. On the platform I’d daydream about the foreign names – Warszawa, København, Ljubljana – that I read on the white metal plates affixed to the carriages. The trains stopped in places that nowadays mean nothing to anyone: Villa Opicina, Chiasso, Modane, Irun, Port Bou. These were the frontier crossings where traffic stopped to allow passports to be checked. Often located at the bottom of gloomy valleys, these towns had an unkempt appearance, perpetually out-of-season, almost as if their respective countries neglected their extremities a bit like a closet that no one ever tidies. Here the journey underwent a spatial-temporal narrowing, a stagnation that the fan of dead-end tracks formed. Stopped in such places – at the mercy of the border guards – you became a nobody; risked losing your identity without the certainty of acquiring a new one. 

‘Vienna by the Sea’ – Trieste


In my imagination the police were intransigent Nazis, or no less fearsome guards than those of the Soviet bloc. During my university years in Trieste, on the shore of the Adriatic opposite Venice, the world divided into two opposing views. Trieste was lively and joyous, resounding with the muted echoes of Viennese waltzes. On the other side of the border, then Yugoslavia, on the Karst plateau and along the coast of Istria, the villages – anciently part of the Venetian Republic – had street names written in Cyrillic on blue plaques. Women looked like matryoshkas; battered blue buses arrived and departed in hangars built in brutalist socialist style. In those years of the Cold War, Trieste played its full role as a strategic point – but it also did its best to encourage and take advantage of economies that seemed irreconcilable. From the window of my darkened compartment, while waiting to leave on a night train, I sometimes observed groups of women exchanging the day’s purchases – jeans bought in the many city stores – for their voluminous and puffy pants before boarding the trains that would take them back to the villages of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.

Now abandoned, a cold war era frontier check point


I spent a lot of time on trains, something I’ve always loved. On one journey, unable to concentrate in the noisy compartment, I took the book I was reading and switched carriages. When I returned to my seat hours later, I discovered that the cash in my wallet, my monthly allowance from my father that I’d left in my coat pocket, was gone. The thief, some kind of gentleman I suppose, had left me a ten thousand lire note so I’d not find myself completely penniless. It was a hard but necessary lesson, teaching me respect for money, especially money earned by others. I didn’t have the heart to ask my father for more. Back in Trieste, I pawned two gold sovereigns that my grandmother had given me for a christening present and got by. To ‘celebrate’ my fall into poverty I took the trenovia that climbs out of the barren hills of Trieste – where the Bora wind sweeps everything it encounters – and got off at the end of the line, walking between sad-looking chalets, stony ground and sparse woods, just a stone’s throw from the crossing barrier. I found a good place, a trattoria in Villa Opicina called the Diana, a Sunday lunch destination for the townspeople but for me a luxury which I allowed myself only on rare occasions. I ordered a magnificent saddle of venison with currants, red cabbage and apples, and an authentic strudel: warm, spicy, and dusted with powdered sugar like an early frost. 

Sadly now demolished, the trattoria Diana at the Italian/Slovenian frontier

The disappearance of European borders marked the end of civilised train travel: gone were the sleeping cars with faux-wood compartments, and the restaurant cars found on most long-distance trains. They weren’t the Orient Express, but there were thick white tablecloths, waiters with gravitas serving penne, cutlets, and green salads, and diners who ate without putting their elbows on the table. As the son of an employee of the Ministry of Education, I was entitled to a reduction in fares and enjoyed comforts otherwise unthinkable. Of those lengthy journeys, I especially liked the excitement of the night trains. These were usually composed of many carriages that were ultimately shunted off to intermediate hubs; my Trieste-bound line, for example, branched off to Zagreb, Budapest, and Moscow. 

A touch of class – 1980’s Ferrovie dello Stato (FS) dining car


Once on board I’d find my compartment with one or two beds already prepared for the night. The sheets, stamped in green with the State Railway logo, usually had not been smoothed properly and the blankets needed tucking in. All that remained was to turn on the reading light, undress, and get into bed with a good book to read, and abandon myself to the rhythmic pulse of the train; muffled footsteps on the plush carpet beyond the door, the mournful whistle of other trains. At dawn an attendant knocked at the door with a cup of coffee and a croissant. The latter, in its cellophane wrapping, invariably arrived as if someone had sat on it, and had the spongy consistency of pastries baked days before. I tried eating it slowly to make breakfast last for all the fifteen minutes before we entered the station. It was dark out the window but I could guess from the swaying of the carriage that the train had taken the soft curves of the coast and was rumbling through the tunnels and along the rocky walls of the line. I barely could distinguish the jagged mass of Duino, but when the train skimmed the spur of Miramare during the last kilometers of the run, the castle emerged from the night, rosy and projecting its towers towards me like a ghost in flight.

The castle of Miramar at the very top of the Adriatic Sea