Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is a joke that goes:
HEAVEN is where: The police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French, and it's all organised by the Swiss
HELL is where: The police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it's all organised by the Italians!!
In Italy the trains are right in line with those stereotypes too. It is a country of fine foods, beautiful countryside, strong coffee and exasperating bureaucracy
Park is very familiar with this as he commutes frequently from Verona to Milan. The journey is a delightful as it is stressful, letting the train take the strain after struggling through the minefield of purchasing a ticket. It is full of detail too, you feel you are sharing the same view as he writes about the vineyards and orchards and the bleak industrial landscapes outside the towns and you stand alongside him admiring the soaring heights of the central stations. He is a careful observer of his fellow passengers too, noting as people rush to grab their morning coffee before snatching a seat and talking loudly to strangers unlike The UK where everyone cocoons themselves in their own little world.
His travels take him down through Italy and onto the island of Sicily. This has suffered decades of almost no investment in its railways, and the locals cannot believe that he wants to use them. He has some fairly strong opinions on the current state of the rail system, including the money spent of the fast links between towns and cities at the expense of sorting out the other problems including the most complicated ticket system going. But somehow it still functions.
As an outsider who has lived there for a number of years he is ideally placed to make these observations of his adopted country and it was a real pleasure to read too. He manages to convey just the right amount of detail coupled with a razor sharp wit, without it becoming too much.
Just like an expresso really.
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