Italian Ways

For every moment that Italy annoys Tim Parks, there are two in which it delights him.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo, by Tim Parks W.W. Norton & Co., 261 pages

Can a country’s entire history and culture be understood by studying its railways? When it comes to Italy, argues Tim Parks, the answer is yes.

If you are an Italophile (or at least a Europhile), you probably need no introduction to Parks. An English author living in Italy for more than 30 years, Parks is best known for his 1992 bestseller “Italian Neighbors,” a humorous and insightful examination of his life as an expat in a small town near Verona. 

Now Parks is back with Italian Ways,  another look at his adopted country. This time he’s working on a smaller canvas and taking a narrower scope. Fortunately, however, Parks’s shrewd wit remains on display. As a chronicler of Italy, Parks is blessed with a welcome gift for treating his subject with the sort of bemused affection that allows for warmth and yet keeps sentimentality at arm’s length.

“The train arrived in Italy in 1839,” Parks tells us. The Italians lagged behind the English in adopting this new method of travel but, as the country became a nation in 1861, it strove mightily to catch up. Partly this was because train travel offered a path toward unity – something the fractured Italian peninsula badly needed – and partly due to a long-standing inferiority complex.

“The anxiety to compete with northen European rivals, a constant need to prove themselves equal if not superior to their neighbors, is still an important factor in Italian decision-making today,” Parks notes.

And really, it is contemporary Italy that interests Parks most. A resident of Verona, he teaches in Milan, a job which requires him to commute between the two cities (a distance of about 100 miles) two or three times a week by train. Doing so for many years, he’s become an accute observer of Italian train travel and travelers.

If he sees much of Italy’s past in his journeys (the “palatial railroad depots” that Mark Twain preferred to “Italy’s hundred galleries of priceless art treasures”), he notes even more of its present. There are the immigrants – the Indian immigrants who sell roses, the Chinese immigrants who sell jewelry, and the Slav immigrants who have learned to help Italian technophobes operate the electronic ticketing kiosks with frightening speed (for a fee, of course).

There are also the brand-new train lines, given English names – the Intercity, the Eurocity, and the Eurostar – in an effort to seem, as Parks explains, “serious and European, which is to say, un-Italian.”

But then there is much that is simply Italy as it always has been – and here is where Parks really shines.  He gives us a country that is as frustrating as it is endlessly fascinating.

He recounts his own altercation with an elderly capotraino (head conductor – a powerful post on an Italian train). Parks conjures the man in full detail – “deep dusty wrinkles and cobwebbed eyelashes, dry papery skin, a shrewd calculating look” – along with their absurd and Byzantine argument over the validity of Parks’s e-ticket.

Parks loses the quarrel on a point of honor, only to descend, reticket, and then land on a faster train. It doesn’t really matter, he says, and yet it does. To Parks it represents an Italian culture of “ambiguous rules, then heated argument about them without any clear-cut result,” creating “a mind-set of vendetta and resentment that saps energy from every other area of life.”

And yet, for every moment that Parks’s adopted country annoys him, there are at least two in which it delights him. In the last section of the book, in which Parks recounts his own solo train trip to Southern Italy, cranky passengers and antiquated transport methods are juxtaposed with with vibrant city centers, crumbling castles, and the ever-present ocean.

Ah, Italy.

And then there is the charm of the trains themselves, especially at night. “The hiss of metal on metal, the very slight swaying of the carriage, the feeling of being securely enclosed in a comfortable well-lighted space while the world is flung by in a glossy darkness outside, all this puts me in a mood to read.”

Well said, Professore Parks. Let’s do just that.

Marjorie Kehe is the books editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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