Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

  • Tim Parks
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 261 pp.

A British transplant offers his latest travel take on his adopted country.

Visiting Sicily while researching this book, author Tim Parks found himself trying to describe the project. “It’s not a book about Italy seen from train windows … Not a travel book. And it’s not a book about trains as such,” he said, while admitting it might have been easier to explain his vegetarianism. Parks kept trying: “I’m of the opinion that a culture … manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do.” That didn’t seem to work, either, so finally he said, “Okay, let’s just say I’m writing about the way trains sort of happen in Italy. You know?” When that effort also failed, he nervously added, “Or don’t happen.”

Parks, a Brit who’s lived in Verona for three decades, has written several books looking at Italy through different prisms. In this case, his material is based on just three train trips — one in northern Italy, another to the central part of the country and a third all the way to the bottom of the boot. That seems a little thin, and I suspect if Parks were a first-time author this book would not have been published.

Yet Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo has its charms. Parks loves Italy and trains, and his enthusiasm, despite his scattered approach, is contagious. He marvels at his adopted country’s remarkable achievements (including the 1871 construction of an eight-mile tunnel under the Alps) and revels in discovering feisty competitors to Trenitalia, the national network operated by the government. He’s amused by how strikes are commonplace (there’s a tab called “In case of strike” on Trenitalia’s website) but seldom make it difficult to ride the rails from point A to point B.

While delighted by today’s high-speed (190 mph) trains and onboard wi-fi networks, Parks clearly feels some things were better in the past. Making an advance reservation once guaranteed that a card with your name on it would be waiting over your seat when you arrived, alerting everyone else to which portions of the trip there was already a claim on the seat. Now, reserved seats aren’t always marked as such, which can make for unpleasant surprises. Meanwhile, once-ubiquitous compartments have nearly disappeared, replaced by rows of forward-looking seats, familiar to Americans, that make it easier for passengers to retreat into their phones, laptops and iPods.

Parks especially rues how once-palatial rail stations have declined: “Much of Milano Centrale is cluttered with cubicles and kiosks and nondescript cabins that seem to have been produced by a later and lesser civilization than the one that built the station, as if for the past thirty years we had merely been camping in the remnants of an older, nobler time. But that’s true of much of Italy.” Later, he doubles down on that thought:

“Modern Italian genius is largely about inhabiting the past in a way that makes sense and money.” Maybe, but sometimes modern Italy makes little sense and even less money, as Parks points out several times elsewhere in the book.

Interestingly, many of the Italians interviewed for the book claim they seldom or never ride trains. Some complain about government subsidies for the rails, while conveniently forgetting about subsidies for roads, and Parks editorializes, “one’s reminded of those Americans who object to paying a school tax because they don’t have children, as if we didn’t all have an interest in an educated younger generation.”

In the end, the most satisfying parts of Italian Ways are those — and there are several—where he talks about the joys of reading aboard a train. “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.”  

Quite possibly, that would be the best way to read this book. But if that just isn’t possible, one could do worse than to engage in some destination-free armchair travel with Italian Ways.

Randy Cepuch, author of A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures (Perseus,2007), has spent hundreds of happy hours riding the rails around Europe and was once aboard a train from Munich that stopped at the Italian border due to a strike. He was astonished when a half-hour later, another train pulled up and somehow got the passengers to Venice nearly an hour before the original train would have.

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