What is the best way to get to know a foreign country?
Over the last 30 years or so, Tim Parks has tried to understand Italy in every possible way. As a matter of fact, as Parks says, “Italy is not a country for beginners” and it takes some time to go beyond the surface and dive deeper into Italian culture and lifestyle, in order to understand certain behaviors and attitudes.
If you do not already know about him, let me just tell you that Tim Parks is a British novelist, translator, and teacher. He has moved to Italy in 1981 and has lived here ever since. He lives in Verona and has written a number of non-fiction works about Italy, which I do suggest you read – if you haven’t already.
Some of his best-known books about life in Italy are Italian Neighbors and An Italian Education, which are quite old now – they have been written in the 1990s – but still a very entertaining and interesting read about Italy.
He has also written A season with Verona, which is about the season Tim Parks has spent following Verona soccer team around Italy – I haven’t read this one, but I am sure it is fun.
In his last book, Italian Ways, Parks has decided to look at Italy from a different point of view: the train.
Teaching in Milan and living in Verona, traveling by train has always been the best way for Parks to commute between the two cities. He started working in Milan in 1992, which means years and years of experience on Italian trains – and a lot of knowledge of the Italian character and way of life.
As a matter of fact, the book is a result of years of note-taking because, as he says, “I began to think that if someone wanted to understand Italy, they might start by understanding how the train ticketing system works, or by listening to the platform announcements at Venezia Santa Lucia and Roma Termini, the strange emphasis given to certain names, the completely impractical order in which information is presented”.
Being the result of years of experience, the book is not only a description of Italian railways and of “the Italian ways of doing things”, but also a great way of learning how Italy has changed over the last twenty years or more.
In the first chapters of the book, Parks tells his adventures on the regional trains connecting Milan and Verona, then he moves to describe the coming of the high-speed trains, which have significantly changed Italian railways and the way people travel in the country.
He then closes his book with a section regarding a trip to the South of Italy, a place where time does not seem to have passed – both in terms of railways and of everyday life in general.
I really enjoyed reading this book, even if it gave me a lot of mixed feelings.
On the one side, I found the book really funny. Tim Parks has a great talent for describing weird situations. He has strong British humor, which makes all of his books a very enjoyable read – and this one was not an exception.
However, on the other side, the book made me really sad because all the crazy, unbelievable things he describes are true and they are part of what makes this awesome country lose so much of its potential. Tim Parks knows Italy very well, after all these years, and he wrote some very true things about Italians and Italy in general.
Here is a list of the things that struck me the most.
– when describing all sorts of weird paperwork he has to make for his teaching position in Milan, he says “a formality is like a dormant volcano. It might seem harmless for years, then suddenly blow your life away”. This couldn’t describe better the role that procedures and bureaucracy have in my country.
– speaking of the high number of people who commute for work and study, on a daily or on a weekly basis, he says: “even when it offers no work, your hometown is always the best town; a thick web of family ties and bureaucracy ties you there”. That is so true! When I was at university, I used to go back home every weekend, to see family and friends, and so did all the other girls who lived within a two-hour train ride from home. Your hometown offers you comfort, security, old friends, and family – something we Italians can’t do without.
– one of the saddest yet true things Tim Parks mentioned about Italy, is the fact that there’s always some kind of tolerance for those he calls furbi, using the English term sly as an explanation. Here’s what Parks has to say about it, while describing someone who skips the line at a ticket office: “there is a slow, simmering resentment, as if the people who have behaved properly are grimly pleased to get confirmation that good citizenship is always futile, a kind of martyrdom. This is an important Italian emotion: I am behaving well and I am suffering because of that. I am a martyr. Mi sto sacrificando. It is a feeling that will justify some bad behavior at the appropriate moment”.
– a thing that really made me smile, but in a positive way, is when he describes his encounter with one of his neighbors at Verona train station. This neighbor worked at the ticket counter there and, when Parks went there to purchase its ticket, the guy – without any concern for the long queue of passengers waiting to buy a ticket – started asking Parks about his family and wife. The author says “personal relationships come before civic sense” and that is so true, we would consider unpolite not to briefly chat with someone we know and ask about family – no matter which situation we are in.
– when he describes the behavior of a lady who, being on a train without a ticket, gets mad with the officer and starts saying that she should be forgiven because politicians steal a lot of money and get away with it, Parks says one of the cruelest yet truest things about Italians. He says that “as ever in Italy, the acknowledged lawlessness of the country’s ruling class offers an excellent alibi for smaller offenders. One of the reasons for endlessly voting for corrupt politicians is that your own misdemeanors seem trivial by comparison“. What a sharp view of a typical Italian way of thinking.
– speaking of laws, Parks describes them using the example of the crosswalk. Basically, if you are a pedestrian in Italy and want to cross the street, you must fiercely try to cross. If you just wait by the crosswalk waiting for cars to stop, you may end up being there forever. So he very wittily says “in a way it says everything about laws and rights in Italy. They exist, you have your rights, but you have to fight to have them, otherwise, people just ignore you“.
Therefore, if you are interested in learning more about Italy and going deeper into his culture, besides all those stereotyped images that are always used to describe the country to foreigners, this is the perfect book for you: it will definitely help you see Italy as it really is – without losing its undeniable charm though. After all, perfection is not of this world and there’s always a mixture of good and bad everywhere you go.
By the way, what do you guys think of what Tim Parks says about Italy in this book? I’d love to know!
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my brand-new program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up to Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, listen or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.