The Magazine

Down the Boot

Understanding Italy, one train at a time.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By THOMAS SWICK
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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. 

Railroad through the Cilento region, 2012

Railroad through the Cilento region, 2012

cosimo Di giacomo

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.

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