Letter from Europe

A tangle of detail on the rails

Issue no. 3018/7

Picture above: Sicily seen from the window of the slow train, with Mount Etna in the background (photo © Serjio74 / dreamstime.com).


The art of travel writing is not about giving an overview of a country in a recitation of bland generalities. It's about capturing the essence of a place through attention to detail. Tim Parks' book Italian Ways does this wonderfully.

Dear fellow travellers

When the author Tim Parks turned up in Sicily by train, some of those he met asked him why he had not flown to the island. Sicilians evidently all fly between Sicily and the cities of northern Italy. Some expressed mild surprise that the trains still ran at all.

"The railways are full of mysteries," said Parks to his Sicilian hosts. "Let's not try and explain it." And in those few words, he captured something of the appeal of rail travel. Long journeys across Europe by train, especially in winter, inevitably have something of a mystery about them. We travelled a few days ago from Berlin to Glenelg in north-west Scotland. The journey involved a dozen trains, not to mention an overnight boat and two short hops on a bus. Things did work out just as we expected (although this was not a journey which had been planned in any detail). But there could have been hitches, delays and diversions.

The beauty of this kind of journey is that one cannot really plan too precisely, and that brings a peculiar liberation. Too rarely these days do people take time to dawdle rather than dash. When we dawdle we spot things which we would otherwise miss.

Tim Parks' book Italian Ways, in which he describes his explorations by train of the country where he has lived for almost four decades, is an easy and enjoyable read. It is about far more than trains. Parks is a writer who has a passion for Italy, and that informs his writing. He takes time, and gives beautifully crafted cameo accounts of his encounters along the way. "You don't want to write generally about a whole country," Parks explains to the bemused Sicilians who have invited him to dinner. "The secret is always in the details, and the way one detail calls to another in a kind of tangle," he adds.

That, in a way, seems to capture very nicely the art of travel writing. It's not about giving an overview of a country in a recitation of bland generalities. It's about capturing the essence of a place through attention to detail. For Tim Parks, the way that Italians negotiate pedestrian crossings differs from other parts of Europe, just as the conversations between train passengers and the capotreno have a different quality. "To see the country by train," the author suggests, "is to consider the crux of the essential Italian dilemma: Is Italy part of the modern world or not?"

The beauty of a long train journey is that it promotes contemplation and reflection. We get to know ourselves, and through myriad encounters along the way, we come to a clearer understanding of the countries through which we travel. But that understanding takes time to develop. Because every long train journey yields a tangle of detail. And the process of mentally sieving all that detail takes time.

A journey by plane or by car may be perfectly enjoyable, but it just doesn't have the same potential for reflection. Once done and dusted, it rarely returns to the imagination. But trains are different; they produce their own enduring narratives, often laced with a dose of mystery. We often never really understand the miracle which secured an on-time arrival or the improbable mishaps which meant we arrived days later than we expected. It is the uncertainty of the long journey by train which offers narrative potential.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

A paperback edition of Tim Parks' 'Italian Ways: On and off the Rails from Milan to Palermo' was published by Vintage in 2014.

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