At the time of the creation of the Italian nation, the patriot Massimo d’Azeglio remarked, “We have made Italy, now we must make the Italians.” Even now, 150 years after unification, Italians maintain fierce parochial loyalties to their communities of birth. They want to stay where they were born and, in order to accomplish this goal, are willing to commute hundreds of miles between their homes and their jobs or schools. To accommodate these commutes, Italy has created an extensive railroad culture.
Tim Parks came to Italy 30 years ago and quickly joined the commuting life, travelling from Verona to Milan once a week to teach at a university. His fascination with Italian trains manifests itself in ITALIAN WAYS, an entertaining book that is part travelogue and part sociological study of a country whose rail system exemplifies the psyche of the contemporary Italian nation.
"Anyone who has visited Italy or will be venturing to this glorious land soon should take a nice slow train ride with Tim Parks to get acquainted with a country that has yet to decide if it wishes to become part of the modern world."
Parks began writing his book in 2005. In the first chapter, he recounts the details of his “commute” between Verona and Milan. It is perplexing to the author that, while the railway system seeks to present itself as a streamlined, efficient business entity, the Italian culture throws up impediment after impediment to efficiency. Lines at the railroad station move slowly because passengers seek information from ticket agents that they easily can obtain elsewhere in the station.
Typical of the Italian way is an experience during Parks’s early journeys to Milan. As the train slowed and came to a complete stop, Parks observed that the train line was blocked by cows on the tracks. He was told that Italian farmers were protesting against government policy, but the protest is part of an agreement among the government, police and farmers. The trains will only be blocked for 30 minutes. It was a well-organized protest complete with wine and food. Passengers soon became used to the whole affair and simply adjusted their travel plans to include the half-hour milk-quota delay.
ITALIAN WAYS then moves into a discussion of the history of the Italian railway system, a system that reflects the Italian view of government. Too many employees see their jobs as sinecures, coupled with countless regulations containing loopholes and ambiguities that seem to exist to stimulate Italians’ love for arguing. Readers might wonder how you can rely on this rail system to take you anywhere. There is just enough of a strong government hand to get the job done; Mussolini made the Italian trains run on time, and today they still do.
Parks concludes his book with a narrative of the ultimate Italian train trip: the journey from Milan to Sicily and back, nearly a thousand kilometers and almost the entire length of the Italian boot. In this section, he describes for readers how he occasionally leaves the train, visiting beaches or drinking wine in a piazza. Always, though, he returns to the railway he has grown to love.
Parks has lived in Italy for more than three decades. In addition to ITALIAN WAYS, he has written ITALIAN NEIGHBORS, AN ITALIAN EDUCATION and A SEASON WITH VERONA, books describing his life journey from English expatriate to faithful Italian. As he writes about his adopted homeland, the enigma that is Italy always seems to be close to his heart. Anyone who has visited Italy or will be venturing to this glorious land soon should take a nice slow train ride with Tim Parks to get acquainted with a country that has yet to decide if it wishes to become part of the modern world.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on July 11, 2013