by Paolo Mattei
Tim Parks first set foot in Italy about forty years ago. He got off the InterRail train, one summer morning in 1974, and set eyes on the seaside he had seen go by from the window just minutes earlier, waking up from a few hours’ nap.
Born in Manchester in 1954, Tim Parks is now a well known writer and journalist, and has been teaching at Milan’s IULM University for twenty years.
His life in Italy, between his home in Verona and his job in Milan, is dotted with frequent train rides for business as well as for pleasure. At one point in his endless sequence of train stations, platforms, and compartments, he started taking notes. He believed a story about Italy could be told through its train tickets and the announcements of arrivals and departures on the tracks.
In 2013, his notes turned into a book titled “Italian Ways” – like our online magazine, by coincidence. “Coincidenze” (literally, “coincidences”) is the title of the Italian translation that has recently been published by Bompiani.
Tim Park’s railroad adventures between Milan and Palermo paint a picture of the Bel Paese that is both funny and dramatic. And while this “Englishman in Italy” does not hold back on well-deserved criticism, we sense a strong love for this country embedded in his stories… though he may not agree.
As the great Latin poet Catullus (born in Verona: another coincidence?) once wrote, feelings are not always coherent with merits:
Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I most need it.
We had the opportunity to ask Parks a few questions.
When did your passion for Italian trains and railroads begin?
I’m not sure “passion” is the right word. When you are forced to live an experience, you might as well develop an interest for it. I had to commute between Verona and Milan for twenty years, and after protesting at length against this sad destiny, I understood I might as well embrace it. The more you are interested in something, the more passionate you become about it…
Your book is full of fun, ironic, sometimes ruthless comments and opinions about Italian habits. Over the past thirty years, do you feel like you have contracted any of our country’s most common “anthropologic pathologies”?
It would be very odd – or “pathologic”, to use your same expression – if I had not somewhat adapted to the reality surrounding me. I wouldn’t call myself “ruthless” though… I am just a simple observer, who tries to laugh rather than to cry. I can say I’ve become more Italian because I am now less naive than I used to be. When I hear of an upcoming strike, I now know it might play out in different ways. When I hear that tickets must be purchased before boarding, I know it’s not always true. Everything is relative, everything can be negotiated, and I have learned to negotiate…
Reading your book, we had the impression you were particularly harsh and uncompromising with faults in the railway system in the North, while you were implicitly more indulgent in the South.
The reason is very simple. The long trip in Southern Italy I recorded in the end of my book was a holiday. I didn’t care much about trains being or time or not, and could go to the beach between one leg of the trip and the next. I was in a great mood. Not to mention the fact that criticizing the trains in Southern Italy would be like taking candy from a baby…
Is living “between two cultures” a burden for you? In your book, you mention being recognized as English but not feeling like a real Englishman anymore. Have you come to terms with it now? Do you see any benefits in your situation?
It’s a burden when people ask me to express opinions I simply do not have – on the British royals, for example – or want me to comment on topics I am not interested in, such as Italian people’s flaws and virtues. People never really take foreigners seriously, so I am considered an outsider, even after thirty years here. This has also brought me great benefits though. Not to mention the fact that living in a foreign country offers a clear-cut, cheap personal identity.
Italian paradoxes: being far and nearsighted at the same time; generous and small-minded; rational and superstitious… A number of antinomies have coexisted for centuries in our country, which happens to also be very beautiful. Have you given yourself an explanation for this?
As I just said, I steer clear of any concise definitions for Italian people’s character – supposing there is one. Here’s what I can say: a sense of belonging always seems important in Italy, and Italians seem very attached to their families, their cities, their region or even their professional associations. But they never seem to be attached to their nation. Hence their life is a constant battle between opposite groups…
How have Italian readers reacted to “Coincidenze”? And how did foreigners react to “Italian Ways”?
For now I have to say the Italian readership has expressed oddly positive reactions. I am slightly surprised, because all I did was describe a reality they know very well… The British, American, German and Dutch people have all been very generous. I’ve been lucky…
“Italian Ways” – and I mean our online magazine, not your book – strives to present Italian beauty in all of its aspects. No other media aspires to be as complete. Do you think we’ve embarked on a “mission: impossible”?
Italy is by no means a small country. Whenever I visit a new region, I am surprised to discover new beautiful things I had never even heard about. But worrying about being “complete” is pointless: you should be happy there will always be something to write about…