Giuliana’s favorite spot in all of Pola was on Largo dei Gladiatori, the broad stretch of street that ran behind the Arena, where the Roman amphitheater’s colossal arches framed the turquoise Adriatic Sea in all its moods. But that evening in late February, she couldn’t see her cherished Arena from where she stood on Molo Carbon, the only dock in the small war-weary city’s industrial waterfront large enough to accommodate the steamship, Toscana. Black as night and built to transport 198 passengers, upwards of 1000 refugees were cramming their way onboard for the crossing to the docks in Venice before the city would be handed over to Tito’s communist Yugoslavs. Her sister, Esther, was among them.
“You can still change your mind,” Giuliana said.
“I’m not staying.”
A knot formed in Giuliana’s throat when she caressed her sister’s cheek. “I’m going to miss you.”
“For the last time. Please. Come,” Esther said, as she reached for her suitcase.
“I can’t leave Tony.”
“If you won’t think of yourself, think of Simonetta.”
“I can’t leave him.”
Giuliana’s face had lost its color and the deep dark circles under her eyes vanquished any trace of resilience. She unfastened the crucifix she wore every day since she was thirteen years old and latched it around her sister’s neck while they were jostled by families lugging suitcases filled with the unimaginables refugees take when they abandon their homes. She pressed herself against her sister under the shadow of the huge metal hull that was about to separate them for the first time in their lives. The tears she struggled to hold back streamed down her face as she felt Esther pull away.
“Write to me as soon as you can,” Giuliana said.
Esther slowly climbed the ramp and disappeared into the main deck.
It was dinnertime and Giuliana had to make her way home to feed Tony and Simonetta. Her husband would be ravenous by now. It was likely Piero, their elderly neighbor, would be there too. He had become a constant presence in their home since Pola’s exodus began. Snow, in her shoes, and freezing, she pushed her way through the next wave of families carting their lives in loaded wheelbarrows, trunks and suitcases.
Giuliana met Tony during the Italian social ritual, the evening passeggiata, in Giardini square. She was young, pretty and came from an ambitious family with a small string of shops. She strolled among the well-heeled by Porta Ercole, the ancient Roman gate. Everyone else, including Tony, strolled in a parallel row along Via Carrara. She noticed how he maneuvered his way over to her. She could see he was smitten. Their marriage was a quick affair. Simonetta was born soon after and they settled into a traditional lifestyle with the help of her father who purchased their apartment and a barber shop for Tony.
The war and the exodus changed everything. Their apartment was on Via Tartini, near one of Pola’s seven hills, in one of the only two stately six-story buildings that had been built in the city. Theirs survived the Allied bombardments but the twin edifice’s rubble still cluttered the adjacent lot. The concierge responsible for the building’s upkeep was among the first to leave the city and the wear and tear was starting to show. The switch that turned on the stairwell lights no longer worked, so she climbed the few steps to her first-floor apartment feeling her way in the dark and fighting back more tears. She paused on the landing just outside their apartment to compose herself. She didn’t want her daughter to see she had been crying.
“She’s gone. My sister is gone,” Giuliana said, when she walked through the door.
Tony shook his head. “I hope she knows what she’s doing. I hear those refugee camps are horrific.”
Giuliana, who had good reason for fearing the incoming regime, knew it wasn’t folly that drove the locals or her sister out. She just bit her lips. During one of the communists’ early incursions into the city, they were forced to attend a pro-Tito rally. Tito’s men, the Titini, ordered Tony to pin a red star to his jacket. Knowing their reputation for violence, she begged him to do it. But Tony resisted. “I’m not wearing that damn red star,” he said, pushing past the Yugoslav comrade. The thug grabbed him and dragged him away to join others waiting for deportation to labor camps. After a few days, Tony returned to the city, thanks to her cousin’s intervention. She was too frightened at the time to be angry.
“Dr Bilucaglia left today,” old Piero said. “And did you know that the Scamperlis exhumed their mother’s body and carted her bones with them? I could never do that to my dear Nives. May she rest in peace,” he said, making the sign of the cross.
“Tony, did you hear that?”
“I had two new customers in the shop, today. One fellow crossed town all the way from Monte Castagner. He said the barber shop on Via Centuriazione Romana was boarded up. When he tried the one on Via Erbabella, it was closed too. The other fellow used to go to Bepe’s, but he’s gone now,” he said.
“Two new customers in how long?” Giuliana said.
“Piero, whenever you need a haircut, you’ll come to my shop, too. Deal?”
“Don’t pay attention to him, Piero. Let him talk.”
“I’m trying to drum up a little more business. What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s a fool’s errand,” Giuliana said.
The goulash Giuliana was warming up started to boil over. “Dinner is ready,” she said. “Simonetta, set the table, please. It’s time to eat.”
The next morning Giuliana began her day as she always did, and as her grandmother and mother before her did, with a walk to the city’s central market to shop for the day’s groceries. The market was a towering glass and metal structure, a holdover from Pola’s days as Austria-Hungary’s main naval base. Her grandmother had witnessed the Austrians construct it, glass plate, by glass late, steel rod by steel rod. “You know sweetheart, it was the first building of its kind,” she would say each time they walked passed it. Until the Austrians arrived, the city’s urban center was defined by its ancient Roman and Venetian architecture .
As the Venetian architecture survived, so did its language. Her grandmother and mother never haggled with the vendors in German or Italian, the wrangling was always in their local Veneto. While her grandmother often interjected Croatian words into the negotiations when the farmers hailed from the Slavic back country, Giuliana never managed to add them to her lexicon. What she did learn from her was to be nice and humble when she bargained – a lesson she never forgot. “Remember, it’s a two-way street. You get a good price and they make a sale.” When their mesh bags were filled with their purchases, they’d walk to Café Verde where many of the housewives met for coffee and local gossip before returning home to cook for their families.
Those ladies were mostly gone now. Some had passed on from illness, others were too elderly to shop anymore, and others joined the exodus to Italy. Her grandmother, who lived well into her 80s, died after the Empire disintegrated. By then Pola had become part of Italy. She never witnessed the hardships that would eventually befall her beloved city years later. Giuliana’s mother, still vibrant, was killed during one of the Allied bombing raids. Their stone house had been reduced to rubble. Though neighbors rushed in and pulled her body out, the injuries she suffered were fatal. She avoided that street on her trips to and from the market.
Usually there wasn’t much produce on offer at the market in February, but that morning all Giuliana needed was some potatoes. She planned to make gnocchi di susini for lunch even though plums were out of season since mid-October. She had stored enough dried ones, which, once she soaked them in sugar water, made a very tasty filling for her plum-filled dumplings treat.
Ivana was one of the chattier vendors. And she liked to gossip. She enthusiastically shared tidbits about Tony’s cousins who were her neighbors in Sikici in the far outskirts of Pola.
“Good morning, Ivana.” Giuliana was glad to still see a familiar face in town.
But all she got in return was an uncharacteristic grunt.
“Can you give me two kilos of potatoes. I’m making gnocchi today – Simonetta’s favorite.”
Again, another grunt.
Hankering for a good chin-wag and a little gossip, Giuliana tried to engage her. “I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?”
“I thought you left,” she said, dryly.
“Tony wants us to stay.”
“Your compatriots are fleeing like mice from a burning house,” she said, without as much as a glance toward Giuliana, whose face flushed a steamy bright red. “Long live Tito,” she declared, adding to Giuliana’s discomfort as flashbacks of Tito’s revolutionary tactics rushed through her head.
“Be careful of what you wish for, Ivana. He’s no prize.”
“He will make life better.”
“You’ll see. So, will your Simonetta.”
“Here. Take your bag,” she said, practically tossing it. “That’s a thousand lire.”
Giuliana paid the money she owed and as she walked away from the stand she heard her yell in Croatian, “Italian fascist!” When she turned to look she was shocked to see the other vendors stare in her direction. What was she saying? She wasn’t a fascist. She never abided Mussolini. She walked home as quickly as she could along the quasi-deserted streets, passed the boarded-up doors and shuttered windows, up the stairs to her apartment.
She rinsed her face with cold water and with trembling hands rinsed and peeled the potatoes sitting on table in front of her when there was a knock on the door. She was relieved at the sight of old Piero. He sank his hefty frame into the cratered straw chair, belly out, legs spread apart and his hand resting on his cane. She told him what happened at the marketplace.
“What do you expect,” he said.
“Giuliana?” he continued, but now with an uneasy tone which made her flinch.
“What is it?”
“I know who attacked Simonetta.”
“Who?” Giuliana said, as she reached for her necklace. When she felt her naked breastbone instead, her chest tightened. She had warned her daughter to avoid the political rallies that mushroomed around town when Pola’s territorial question was still unsettled. That particular day the British Brigadier General arrived in town because the Allied Military Government was deciding where to draw the new border between Italy and the Yugoslav east. His visit prompted a spontaneous march across the city by 20,000 Polesani, including Simonetta, who wanted their city to remain Italian. When the pro-Tito contingent got wind of it, the demonstration turned violent.
“Tony’s cousins in Sikici? Those Dudichs?”
“Marko and Josip?” Giuliana said. “No! They all played together when they were children.”
The sound of a key sliding into the door caught Giuliana off guard. Tony was home earlier than expected. But she was too distressed to ask him why. Piero struggled to push himself up from his chair and quickly limped his way out of their apartment.
“What’s wrong now?” he said, starring at her ashen face. As she recounted what she learned, he looked away and kept his back toward her while he removed his jacket. “Is that what Piero told you?”
She was stunned. “That’s all you have to say?” She grabbed his elbow and spun him around so she could read the expression on his face. When you’ve lived with someone for fifteen years, all you need is one look at that person’s face to know if something is wrong. She didn’t like what she saw.
“I wish that old man would mind his own business for once,” he said, pulling his arm from
Images of her daughter, Marko, Josip and Ivana, all swirled in her head. A sick feeling started in the pit of her stomach and worked its way up to her throat. “You knew!”
“They didn’t mean to hurt her. The crowd got out of control,” Tony said.
“Those boys physically attacked our daughter! Are you defending them?”
“No. Of course, not.”
Giuliana’s mind raced back to that day when Simonetta walked through the door bloodied and bruised. They were shocked at the sight of her. Pola was no longer safe. They said she would have to go to the Sisters of Mercy in Padua – prompting Simonetta to sob hysterically. Giuliana rushed to get a clean cloth to tend to her wounds, and left her and Tony alone. When she returned, Simonetta had stopped her crying. Tony had promised she could stay at home. When Giuliana asked her who attacked her, she said she couldn’t see who it was.
Giuliana now realized Simonetta hid the truth. Her wounds were on her face and forearm. She couldn’t possibly have been attacked from behind as she claimed. She had to have seen her attackers.
“Tony, tell me. And be honest. You’ve known all along she wasn’t yours.”
Tony didn’t answer. And he stormed out.
Giuliana married Tony but her heart had belonged to the tall, handsome naval officer from Rome, until the day came when he left town without a word. “Some things are best left unsaid,” her mother advised as she expeditiously planned her daughter’s and Tony’s wedding.
Giuliana collapsed in her chair with her head crouched between her knees.
There was no welcoming aroma of the dumpling’s cinnamon sauce wafting through the apartment when Simonetta arrived home for lunch. “Mamma, what’s wrong?”
Giuliana slowly raised her head. “I know what happened, Simonetta. You shouldn’t have lied to me.”
“When did I lie to you?”
“Marko and Josip?”
Simonetta froze until the sound of furious pounding compelled her to see who was at the door. Piero was back. This time, breathless and shaking.
“The Titini! They were at Tony’s shop.”
“They wanted money. They said his cash register was their cash register. Something like that,” he said, flustered and anxious to recount all he knew. “And you know Tony. He told them to go ‘F’ themselves and gave them the Italian salute.”
“He told them to leave the shop. But they didn’t. They smashed the place. They wrote slogans all over his walls. “W Tito” in big black letters. They drew huge red stars.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s at the shop. Aldo and Miro are helping him clean up.”
“Simonetta, get your coat! If we’re lucky, we can still make the last crossing,” Giuliana said, hoping her daughter wouldn’t resist. Simonetta turned, hugged old Piero, grabbed her coat and the two women made a beeline for the door.
Louise Belulovich practices law in New York City. She is the daughter of an Italian refugee, one of the so-called the “profughi Giuliani” or “esuli Istriani”, who was born in Pola, Italy, now, Pula, Croatia. Pursuant to the Paris Treaty of 1947 the family was compelled to choose whether to remain Italian, which meant leaving Pola as refugees, or to remain in Pola/Pula and become Yugoslavs. Her family joined the mass exodus from the entire region of Istria and they left for Turin. With her writing, she explores issues of cultural identity, immigration and exile.