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Italian Ways

On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo

Tim Parks

(New York Times)

The British author Tim Parks has lived in Italy since 1981, commuting on his adopted country's vast, various and ever changing networks of trains from Verona (where he first made his home) to Milan (where he now lives and still teaches). Parks was for many years married to an Italian and has three children, all born in Italy. He has written more than a dozen novels and 10 other books, including a handful of funny, appreciative and grousing memoirs about the particolari of daily life, Italian style. In the first of these, "Italian Neighbors," he asked the reader to picture him as a busy but inexpert fellow dashing about the narrow confines of his territory waving a net on the end of a long stick. A huge net, he added. What did he hope to catch? National character, a sense of place, the feeling people, place and weather generate. In his new ­memoir-cum-travelogue, Italian Ways, Parks enlarges this net to fantastical dimensions in order to bag Italy's sprawling, convoluted and (in a way) stupendous railway system and subject it to his scrutiny - on the theory, he explains to skeptics who don't share his train mania, that any culture manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do.

It was through the window of a train that Parks caught his first glimpse of Italy, back in 1974, when he was a 19-year-old student. On a platform in Florence, while chatting with two young German travelers, he bought a bottle of spiked Chianti, got back on the train, passed out and eventually woke up in a daze on a patch of grass outside Rome's main station. His shoulder bag had been razored away while he slept. In the days that followed, as he wrangled with Italian authorities, he began the first of many bureaucratic odysseys in this country that years later would become my home.

Rather than let rules-spouting sticklers - pignoli, Italians call them - get him down, Parks accepted the hassle as one of those Italian situations that are so character-forming. Precociously, he intuited the only strategy that would work with Italian officials: Quiet refusal to go away. He writes, not without pride, These were rites of passage; I had been delivered into my Italian future by train.

Trains - sparkling, speedy and colorful as they may sometimes be - hardly radiate the endearing attributes that have been the stalwarts of Parks's previous memoirs: demented, corpulent villagers; Cornetto-munching carabinieri; water-fearing beachgoers; doting grandparents and belli bambini. But he humanizes the treni by focusing on their quirks and failings as well as on their capricious employees - with such Basil Fawlty-like intensity that sometimes you want to thrash them and other times to hug them. Parks began writing about Italy's railways in 2005 for a Granta magazine story and returned to the subject in 2012, after an energetic spate of Italian rail improvements had so altered his steel-clad family that he felt a nostalgic need to preserve what he remembered from earlier years. This was coupled with an anxious compulsion to update his scrapbook with mental snapshots of the continuing makeover of the railway and acquaint himself with distant branches of its family tree while there was still time.

In pursuit of these aims, Parks traveled farther afield, taking trains from east to west and north to south - regional trains and interregional trains, the high-speed Italo trains and the regular Trenitalia trains, even the occasional connecting bus. When he reached Reggio Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot, he crossed over to Sicily (the train was split in two and ferried across the Strait of Messina). Then he doubled back to the mainland and dipped down to Otranto, at the southern tip of Italy's heel, on a rackety old line called Ferrovie Sud Est. The carriages of F.S.E. dated back to 1936, he was told. Furnished with orange curtains and ancient brown seats bolted to the floor, they might as well have been drawn by horses.

Italy's locomotive history is long, Parks tells us. It burst forth from the shadow of Vesuvius in 1839, when the construction of the lines was almost always politically motivated (still the case, he suggests) and contentious (ditto). Pope Gregory XVI, who presided over the Vatican in the mid-19th century, condemned the railways as the work of Satan. Although Parks has often been annoyed by perverse ticketing systems, labyrinthine connections and sudden cancellations (which prompt loudspeakers to blare 'Soppresso!' with brutal glee, he finds), he would not go so far. He sees the Italian trains as an expression of a national obsession with image - the bella figura transferred to iron, steel and glittering showpiece stazioni, and laid across the landscape as an enviable technological bas-relief: It's important for the Italians to seem serious in the eyes of their French and Austrian neighbors.

Then again, Parks concedes, the railway's appeal isn't merely cosmetic: hundreds of thousands of Italians commute great distances to work or school, and go home to their parents every weekend. Who cares if Trenitalia (Italy's primary train operator) is billions of euros in debt if that means every Milanese who wants to can zip down to Puglia on Saturday afternoon for spaghetti with Mamma? Certainly not an Italian. To truly understand the logic behind the rails, Parks writes, would be to understand Italian politics and social policy since the Second World War. Thankfully, he ducks that weighty goal, setting himself the lighter, more entertaining task of writing about the way trains sort of happen in Italy - or, he adds, in the interest of veracity, don't happen.

Once, during a brief rest from his railway adventures in Sicily, Parks was relaxing over dinner with friends on a terrace in Modica, where the sea air was warm over hills and dunes, the walls were giving back the day's heat, and bats, bougainvillea, June bugs and crickets rustled in the breeze. Parks's companions tried to dissuade him from bothering with trains at all. One of the ladies present announced gravely, 'I never travel by train.' Another guest backed her up: 'Nor do I.' 'Never,' emphasized his host. 'Not once.' But Parks defended his passion. Reluctant to drive, sentimental about rail travel, he clung to his foreigner's love of a tradition many of his adopted countrymen had outgrown. ('I like trains,' he had confided, earlier in his travels. 'I live in a country that has trains, and at the highest level people are working hard to make those trains easier for us all. I salute them.') The next day, when he arrived (by train) in Crotone, on the mainland, the proprietor of his hotel made a gesture of distaste when he learned of Parks's mode of transport. 'I treni fanno schifo,' he declared. 'The trains stink.' Happily for us, and for armchair travelers everywhere (except, perhaps Italy), Parks disagrees.

His storytelling alternates between paean and grievance, and he deploys his anecdotes like a garrulous seatmate you might find in a train compartment, many of whom interrupted his contemplation during decades of commuting. Parks admits that he prefers to travel in silence, and a sleepy commuter train is his favorite place to indulge his passion for reading: "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."

This reverie is so inviting you might find yourself tempted to give the experience a whirl and ride the Italian rails yourself, book in hand. If you do, good luck figuring out the elaborate online Trenitalia schedules and tickets. "Italy," Parks warns, "is not a country for beginners."

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