Down the Boot
Understanding Italy, one train at a time.
Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By THOMAS SWICK
Unfortunately, it takes him half the book to do so. And when he eventually does, he is still frustratingly (for himself, his fellow passengers, his faithful readers) trying to shut out the material world. On the 11:39 to Palermo, a man tries to engage him in conversation, and Parks’s response is to wonder why he’s become an object of interest. He, of all people, should know by now that if he wanted quiet and solitude, he chose the wrong country—and the wrong means of transportation. He is not writing a travel book, as he will tell some people in Sicily, but he is writing a book and is traveling to do so—hence, a little openness would help it along. But Parks sits in his compartment observing his fellow passengers—e.g., “the permed woman, who appeared to be studying her magazines as if for an exam”—and recording their trite conversations, remaining, for the most part, magisterially aloof. He possesses Paul Theroux’s gimlet eye, but not his gift for socializing with strangers.
Yet he professes an affection for the train compartment, which still exists on southern trains. “It will be a sad day when it is truly extinct,” he writes. “Arranging passengers face to face, three on three, with barely enough space for legs between, it militates against all those gadgets we use to isolate ourselves, the phones, the mp3s, the computer screens.” He omits, you may have noticed, books from the list. What did he say about “ideal and real,” the national inability to recognize “the contradiction between rhetoric and behavior”? For all his dismay that Italians can always tell he’s not one of them before he even opens his mouth, it would appear that he has become hopelessly Italian in at least one respect.
In Sicily, the unpopularity of trains does not deter him; in fact, it seems to give him new life. He studies the schedules and rejoices at his successes. (Even though sometimes he’s reduced to riding a bus.) In Modica, he eats dinner with the friends of his hotelier, none of whom is impressed by the idea behind his book. Back on the mainland, he quotes George Gissing and Norman Douglas, two great chroniclers of Italy who had their own complaints. Watching family scenes on station platforms, he wonders if the “asphyxiating” emotionalism of the south is part of what drives its sons and daughters northward.
Parks becomes happy in his discovery of a land that he, like many northerners, had long dismissed. “My adopted country was bigger than I had thought. . . . I had traveled a long way and still hadn’t left home.” It is a statement that expresses a newfound appreciation for Italy’s richness, as well as an unbegrudging acceptance of his connection to it.
Walking through the labyrinthine streets of Crotone, he finds them full of life, some of it unchanged from ancient times—like the man sharpening knives on a grindstone. The antiquities in the town’s archeological museum, he opines, make “nonsense of concepts of progress in human achievement, at least in the fields of art and craftsmanship. We may acquire more and more technology, but the ability to conjure ideas and visions of every kind from the most ordinary materials was as powerful thousands of years ago as it ever can be.”
His only quibble is with the museums’ information, provided in writing that is comprehensive but dry and long-winded. It reminds him of what he calls “Italy’s eternal dilemma: how to be equal to such a rich tradition on a daily basis, how to preserve beauty without becoming prisoner to the past, how not to kill it with the dullness of a school-trip atmosphere.” It’s a difficult challenge, but the country has had help in meeting it from writers like Gissing, Douglas, and Parks.
Thomas Swick is the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.