Tim Parks has followed in that predominantly British literary tradition of making another country one’s home and then making that home one’s principal subject. Gerald Brenan chose Spain; Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor shared Greece; William Dalrymple has claimed India. For the last three decades, Parks—with books like Italian Neighbors, A Season with Verona, Medici Money, and a number of novels—has taken it upon himself to explain Italy to the English-speaking world. And he has done this in an age when the field has been crowded by sybaritic short-timers, whose books appeal more to people dreaming of idyllic retirements than to readers wishing to learn about another culture.
So it’s a pleasure to pick up Italian Ways and, from the first sentence, feel informed in a way one never does after reading rhapsodies on Tuscan vegetables. “Italians commute,” Parks begins, explaining that personal connections are so essential for getting anything accomplished in Italy that people tend to stay where they have them, i.e., in their hometowns, even when they find work in other cities. And for the unmarried, Mamma’s there to do their laundry.
Parks himself commutes, from his home in Verona to his university in Milan. He does this—and has been doing this for years—by train. He’s not a fan of the automobile, and trains give him time to read.
Sometimes I think I should have kept a list of all the books I have read on trains. Certainly most of the books that have been important to me would be there. Perhaps I just read better on rails. A book has a better chance of getting through to me, particularly when I’m in a compartment, and at night. This 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 glossy darkness outside, all this puts me in a mood to read, as if the material world had been suspended and I were entirely in the realm of the mind.
Italian Ways has rhapsodies, but it mixes them with rants; Parks’s love of trains is far from blind. “You can’t smoke on the trains anymore,” he writes while sitting on the 6:40 from Verona, “but the smell lingers. There are smudgy neon lights that offend the eyes without illuminating a book.”
And people are always plopping down near him, disturbing his concentration, even when there are empty seats elsewhere. Usually, something other than their unwelcome proximity irks him: “Her Discman is tinkling, she wears a sickly perfume. . . . His hair sprouts unkempt from a baseball cap, his whole body exudes discomfort and stickiness.” This is far from the bella Italia of contemporary travel memoirs.
Parks’s exasperation with the byzantine ticketing system (and its enforcers) takes up large portions of the first few chapters. His learned dissection of the system’s inconsistencies is part of his plan to explain the country through its trains, but it’s far too involved to be of much interest to anyone other than fellow Trenitalia riders. Though it does elicit this cautionary note for romanticizing foreigners: “Italy is not a country for beginners.”
The 6:40 passes Custoza, where, in 1866, the Austrians defeated troops led by Victor Emmanuel II. The place reminds Parks that many of the soldiers fighting on the Austrian side were Italians unmoved by the idea of national unity, and he quotes anti-southern graffiti he reads from his window. (Another beauty of train travel, or of movement in general, is its ability to set the mind wandering.) Unlike many outside observers, the seasoned expatriate—who sees his neighbors heading to Puglia for vacation—doesn’t take separatist sentiments all that seriously: “In every aspect of Italian life,” he writes, “one of the key characteristics to get to grips with is that this is a nation at ease with the distance between ideal and real. They are beyond what we call hypocrisy. Quite simply they do not register the contradiction between rhetoric and behavior. It’s an enviable mind-set.”
Such illuminating compliments, however oblique or sarcastic, pop up periodically and help relieve the persistent tone of complaint. You begin to suspect that Parks’s love affair with his adopted country has turned sour. But then you realize that most commuters, if asked to write about their years in transit, would produce an equally cranky (and far less insightful) screed. You yearn for the author to finally board a train for southern Italy.