The Strange Tea of Rijeka

Perhaps it was the tea, strangely coloured, with an unknown spice that evoked the ‘east’. After one sip, I paused, drew in my breath and retreated from my immediate involvement in the world. I raised my eyes after a moment and saw it in very different way: my retreat and abstraction from the world now meant that I was intensely aware of the moment, sensing all that was going on around me.

A portly middle-aged man sauntered past, with pointy shiny shoes off to do some business, whatever that might be. Two women in impossibly high heels puffed on their cigarettes and walked in the opposite direction. An older woman, with dyed red hair curled in a tight frizz, sat at the next table, smoking a long thin cigarette and sipping on her first of many coffees for the day. Her formula for keeping her slim figure was obviously one would ensure she remained so in her soon to be occupied coffin.

The tea belonged to the old square in the middle of a town called Rijeka, a forgotten place in today’s world, a place we had not imagined we would visit. But this was our time, which stretched out to infinity and yet would not be repeated.

We had not planned to spend a day in Rijeka, but our ship had arrived in the morning and our overnight train left in the evening. The ship was old but serviceable, for it was still to catch up with the emerging tourist appeal of the Dalmatian Coast of the new country of Croatia. It sported streaks of rust and a massive image of a leering Pope John Paul II. After some searching, we had boarded at the walled town of Dubrovnik further south. Many slept in open spaces and on the lounges scattered about the deck, although we had opted for a cabin at little extra cost. The food had been cooked long before and kept in a warmer for meal times – at least it meant one did not have to wait longer than 60 seconds for the meal to appear on the table. Two days later, at first light, we arrived in the port of Rijeka, with its old fishing boats and a few cargo ships.

The town had not always been forgotten, since for long had it been at a cultural crossroads. First settlements were by Celts and Liburnians, well before the ancient Greeks took notice in the fourth century BCE. Since then, the place has been the site of fierce struggles, given its deep-water port and strategic position. Romans, Italians, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Avars, Hungarians, French, Yugoslavs and Croats have claimed the town as their own. Needless to say, it has also changed its name time and again: Tharsatica, Vitopolis or Flumen by the Romans; Terra Fluminis Sancti Viti (after dedication to St. Vitus in the 4th century CE); Sankt Veit am Pflaum by the Germans; Fiume in Italian (which was also adopted by the Hungarians); and initially Rika svetoga Vida in Croatian after Croats began to settle there in the 7th century CE. Eventually, it became simply Rijeka after it was made part of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century.

Once upon a time, it may have rivalled Venice in power and wealth, especially when Frederick III, Archduke of Austria, purchased it in 1466 – the beginning of 450 years as the main port of the Habsburg Empire. But these days, after the devastation of the NATO led breakup of Yugoslavia, it is far less ostentatious. The walk up from the harbour revealed a town that had been in better condition under the communist government of Yugoslavia. Footpaths  and roads and stairs need constant maintenance by active local and national governments. The liking for cement rendering on buildings may work well when the rendering is maintained and painted. Without such attention, money and time, it soon begins to look cracked, tattered and broken.

But for us at this moment, the town had a distinct appeal. No matter how tough times may have been in the last two or three decades, no matter how ‘informal’ the economy, men and women made sure they dressed as well as they could. Not a few years before we arrived, the new state of Croatia had staked its elusive search for prosperity on tourist euros. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit, and prayers were uttered in parliament that the tourists would still come. Not so many did while we were there, so we felt as though we had the town to ourselves.

So we sat on old wicker chairs, sipping evocative tea in the town square. Our cups seemed to fill of their own accord, no matter how often we tried to empty them. Eventually, the lanes of the town beckoned and our legs needed to stretch. So we left the tea to for others to finish if they could and disappeared into a lane. Out of nowhere a Roman Arch appeared. It remained part of the house structures on either side, with it worn hand-cut stones still tightly bound overhead. I stood beneath, imagining the slaves’ hands at work on the stone, the ancient scaffolding needed to place one stone upon another until the last slid into place at the crown. The Greeks did not know the arch as an architectural feature, for the Romans had conjured it up from somewhere. For two millennia it had stood here, its original function now forgotten. How many more millennia would it hold, until the stone finally wore away?

A narrow door appeared with the word ‘Biblioteka’. Our desire to sit quietly and read drew us inside and up the stairs. Two chairs were free. The rest were filled with quiet readers. I perused the books, journals and newspapers on display. But not being able to read the new ‘language’ of Croatian (invented after the 1990s when Serbo-Croatian ceased to ‘exist’), I sat and opened one of my own books. I read little, for the tall windows drew my gaze outside and into the town.

A taste of eternity remains a taste, for we became conscious of the fact that our train would leave soon. We found the railway station but could not find the train. The station bore the dust of its former Austro-Hungarian glory, with a carefully constructed main building to give the impression of power and importance. Stone work and arched windows featured in the three stories. But it was also festooned with graffiti and rust. The tracks could barely be seen for the grass that grew around them. It was a long time since a train had run here. Were we in the right place?

Eventually a conductor appeared and we asked, having determined by now that German was the old lingua franca of these parts. He pointed to a siding in a corner we had missed. There sat a new train run by Deutschebahn. This was our train and this was our sleeper for the journey north, taking us eventually to Copenhagen.

We boarded and immediately knew we had at that moment left Rijeka, with its past and present, not quite sure now if it is part of Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia or Croatia.

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