Training for an Italian experience
By Tim Parks Random House, 288pp, $34.95
‘ THE Italians have made wonderful roads and railways,’’ DH Lawrence proclaimed in Sea and Sardinia. Almost 100 years on, the convenience, efficiency and pleasure offered by the latter is wryly examined and evaluated by writer and translator Tim Parks. Italian Ways is a chronicle of Parks’s many travels with la ferrovie italiane since swapping Manchester for Verona 32 years ago. We accompany him on his commute from Verona to his work in Milan, and then on holidays south through the country, ending up in Sicily. Parks concurs with Lawrence in the main, his journeys particularly wonderful when he is left undisturbed with a good book; but Italian Ways is at its best when its author is fault-finding, sidelining breezy trips for bumpy rides and railing against the more farcical components that make up modern Italian life.
The first part is a perfect blend of the rough and the smooth. Parks speeds through stunning scenery in relative comfort but also must wrestle with poorly designed stations, customer-unfriendly rail staff and the labyrinthine complexities of ticket buying. PA systems announce delays per un periodo indeterminato. Fines are doled out for travelling on cheaper Intercity trains with a more expensive Eurostar ticket. We share Parks’s vexation and at times don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Part two takes us to Florence
is interlarded with more historical facts than personal anecdotes. Choice nuggets reveal it was from Verona — indeed from the platforms Parks routinely uses — that Jews were shipped to Auschwitz; and that in 1840 Pope Gregory XVI condemned the railways as the work of Satan. At times the decorative incidental detail is as fascinating as the main picture being described: Milan’s Stazione Centrale contains Fascist friezes; cheaper, slower, badly serviced night trains go by the poetic moniker treni di speranza (trains of hope).
Until this point Parks has used train travel as a means to explore everything from Italy’s byzantine bureaucracy to its many social problems (stepping over and around the hordes of dispossessed hawkers and beggars to board a first-class carriage). It is a travel book but one that is more concerned with the actual travelling than the destinations. However, in the third and final part Parks veers off, switches track and gives us a travelogue on the south, what is for him virgin country. That he has never visited before is, he admits, a ‘‘ disgrace’’, adding it was ‘‘ a conspiracy of the north that had held me back’’. Italy’s heel and his chug around Sicily yield one unanticipated delight after another and Parks’s clear-eyed observations and witty commentaries help pull local colour into sharp focus.
Italian Ways resembles other titles in Parks’s nonfiction for its ability to transcend its subject matter (trains) and tap into the Italian psyche — if not to rationalise it, then at least to scrutinise it. In earlier books such as Italian Neighbours (1992), An Italian Education (1996) and A Season with Verona (2002), Parks dealt with, respectively, settling down in Italy, grappling with its school system and following its football — but not solely. For