Journey

06.23.13

‘Stupid Enough to Pay’: Tim Parks’s Italian Rail Adventures

To understand Italy, you must ride its trains. Tim Parks tells the story of when his first-class ticket turned out to be anything but—and what this incident reveals about the Italian way of life.

Verona Porta Vescovo, a tiny station in a sleepy cul-de-sac on my side of town, is the kind of station where you hear a bell ring out before a train comes. It’s a lovely sound, urgent and old-fashioned as a black-and-white movie. The platforms are very long, very narrow, and generally deserted. To get to platform four, where trains depart for Verona and very occasionally Milan, where I teach, you have to walk across the lines. I love doing this. It gives a pleasant sense of transgression, of really being in the nitty-gritty.

There is no ticket office in Porta Vescovo, but in the waiting room you have to pass through from road to platform there is one ancient gray machine issuing regional tickets only, that is, for destinations within a range of something less than a hundred miles. There’s no touch-sensitive screen here, just a few sticky old buttons. Everything is coded in numbers. In particular, each station, and there are hundreds of them, is represented by three digits that you have to check on an interminable list to the side of the machine and then punch in with the buttons. Not to worry, though: five days out of seven this machine is not working. In which case you can buy your ticket in the station café.

But on Sunday the café is closed. And on Sunday the ticket machine never works. Sunday afternoon is when I now travel to Milan, to be there on time for a lesson Monday morning. The malfunctioning machine is a problem.

There is no one to tell you what you’re supposed to do when you can’t buy a ticket. I can’t remember this ever happening to me before. I suppose I must head straight to the capotreno and confess. However, if you are to enjoy the luxury of a seat on the always crowded Sunday evening train to Milan, you must grab one when people get off and on at Verona. Porta Nuova, Verona’s main station and that is only three minutes from Porta Vescovo. If you’re still looking for the capotreno after Porta Nuova, you’ll be standing for two hours. If you sit before finding him, he’ll find you and fine you because you haven’t bothered to find him.

“Someone is always stupid enough to pay, even when they don’t get a service.”

Officially, a capotreno hangs out at the front of the train; that’s where he keeps his stuff, his little travel bag and official papers and personal belongings, so I position myself way up the platform. The train is long. As it grinds to a halt, I wait a moment and look along the carriages to see where he will pop out with his peaked cap and the green flag he waves to tell the driver, who presumably watches in a mirror, that he can close the doors and leave. But of course as soon as people start getting off, it’s hard to see where the man has appeared. Certainly not at the front of the train. A number of people have jumped off, lighting cigarettes as they do so to get a few desperately needed puffs before the train departs.

The capotreno is getting impatient and blows his whistle. Where is he? The shrill sound is coming from far away—the other end of the train, no less. I’m done. I’ll be standing all the way.

This situation couldn’t go on. Since tickets for regional trains are valid for two months, the only sensible answer seemed to be to buy a bunch of tickets at once, whenever I was near a ticket window in any station, so as never to be without. It was January when I came to this conclusion. Carnival was around the corner. At carnival time the trains returning from Venice are packed with masked ladies and tiny penguins and D’Artagnans. The worst season to travel. I decided not to be miserly for once and bought first-class tickets to be sure of a seat.

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“Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo.” By Tim Parks. $26; W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; 288 pages. ()

The truth is I have always thought of myself as a second-class passenger. No doubt this is something that comes from early infancy when my carless parents rarely had the price of a train at all, let alone a first-class ticket. Later, when I had the cash to travel how I liked, I decided that people were more interesting for a novelist in second class. What basis I had for thinking this, I do not know. Perhaps it was a question of the kind of novels I was writing. In any case the second-class ticket to Milan was €9, the first €15. I lashed out and bought six tickets, imagining I was treating myself.

You cross the rails to platform four. There are about ten people spread along a platform of a couple of hundred yards. The first-class carriages are toward but not actually at the front. Other passengers on the platform can see you’re standing in the first-class area. You’re the only one. It’s simultaneously embarrassing and gratifying. The bell begins to ring out with its urgent, insistent tone. The train hoves into view from the Venice direction. The big, filthy blue locomotive squeals and labors along the rails. The old rolling stock is smothered with graffiti. The windows show that the carriages are packed. People are standing, many of them masked in the silliest outfits. How smart of you, you think, to have bought a first-class ticket!

As the train finally grinds to a halt, you move to the nearest door, pleased to be an insider who knows exactly where his carriage will be. The door opens and a group of Australians begins to climb down. “Wrong station, mate, you want the next,” you tell a strapping boy in a cavalier cloak. “This is just a provincial watering hole.” They laugh and climb back up. So now you’ve done a good deed on top of all your other smart decisions. You hurry after them, your stamped first-class ticket all legal and correct in your pocket and ...

First class is full. It’s packed. It’s asphyxiating. There’s not a seat to be had. People are standing all down the aisle. The heat is on maximum and the air is unbreathable. Dismayed, there’s nothing you can do but push your way to the middle of the carriage and laugh at yourself for having thrown away the cash.

I stand and try to read. There are people who, however packed a train is, always believe that it is worth moving along from one carriage to the next, even if other people are moving in the other direction in the same vain hope. I try to make myself very slim as backpacks push behind me. The train does not empty at Verona Porta Nuova as I hoped it might. Nobody gets off at Peschiera fifteen minutes later. Rather, there are more getting on, families who’ve taken advantage of a bright cold day to go to Gardaland.

Then just before Desenzano there’s a sudden stirring. People are standing up. People are pushing down the carriage toward the door behind me. How odd, I think, that so many people would be getting off at the small lake station of Desenzano. There must be some event on, some carnival occasion.

No, it’s the ticket inspector. The man with the green cap has just appeared up the aisle.

Two minutes later, I’m sitting comfortably in a half-empty carriage. “Passengers are advised to check,” runs one regular recorded announcement, “that the class indicated on their documento di viaggio corresponds to the class of seats they are actually occupying.” The appearance of the inspector has inspired a good fifty people to take that advice and flee.

If ever smug self-righteousness were tangible, it is now. There is a grim satisfaction on the faces of those who remain, the faces of the good citizens who have actually paid for their first-class ticket. For myself, I’m relieved to be sitting and able to work, but not sure that I’m entirely happy with the spirit of this. The rest of the train will now be even more packed and asphyxiating. Those who fled included the aged and infirm. Now I’m feeling guilty for the luxury I have paid for. However, some minutes after the inspector has gone, people begin to drift back from second class. It’s a scandal, an elderly lady remarks complacently as she settles herself beside me, to leave these seats empty while people are standing.

This scenario was repeated on three of the five remaining occasions when I used my first-class tickets. On the other two, the ticket inspector never passed by and I stood the whole way.

On one trip I met someone who had an interesting take on the situation. Having bagged a seat at Verona Porta Nuova, I offered to help the girl opposite me put her big bag up on the rack, since it was occupying the space between us, preventing us from stretching our legs. She shook her head. “Hardly worth it,” she says. She doesn’t have a first-class ticket, she explains, so will probably have to move on soon. “Just that there’s nowhere else to sit in the entire train.” She says this as if she had checked every single carriage herself. In the meantime other people around us are standing, some of whom perhaps do have first-class tickets. But the girl is pleasant and I choose not to comment.

“They should have more of these Interregionali,” she goes on, not by way of justification; she’s merely remarking that the demand is there and should be satisfied. “The Intercity costs twice as much,” she explains, as if someone with a trace of foreign accent could not know that.

“The reason they don’t have more,” I point out, “is that they wouldn’t make any money at all if everybody traveled to Milan for nine euros.”

“That’s true,” she says equably.

“I suppose that’s why people pay a bit extra for first class,” I observe, pointedly, I hope. “To sit.”

“If they can afford first class,” she says, “I can’t see why they don’t get the faster train.”

“Maybe it doesn’t stop at their station. It doesn’t stop where I get on, for example.”

“Right, it must be that,” she agrees. Nothing I say seems to undermine her confidence in what she originally said, despite her acknowledgment that I have a point.

The inspector appears, but the girl doesn’t get up and hurry off with the others. Very calmly and naturally she shows the inspector her ticket.

“This is a second-class ticket, signorina,” he observes, “and you are in first class.”

The girl looks around with an air of vague surprise.

“Is it?”

But she isn’t really trying to fool him. The naive gesture is sketched; it’s just enough to allow the inspector to act as if she hadn’t understood.

“Well, signorina, you’ll have to move,” he says. He likes calling her signorina. The girl half stands and the inspector moves on down the now pleasantly free carriage. All those remaining are handing him regular first-class tickets with affable smiles. The girl continues to fuss with her bags, pulling things out and putting them back in and arranging this and that until quite suddenly she sits down again, slumps low in the seat so her blond head is beneath the top of the backrest, and closes her eyes.

“He’s gone,” I tell her after another minute. She opens one eye, smiles, opens the other, laughs, pushes a hand through her lovely hair, then fusses in her bag and brings out an economics textbook. She has to study.

I ask, “What will you do when he comes back?”

She frowns. “It’ll take him a while to get down the train. It’s very crowded.”

“He’ll have his assistant working up from the other end.”

“We’ll see,” she says.

“Theoretically he could get nasty.”

“Theoretically,” she agrees. “But I don’t think so.”

I realize that I’m dealing with someone more integrated in this society than I can ever hope to be.

“Why not?”

“They’re not serious about first class, are they?”

I raise an eyebrow.

“When you travel on a bus without a ticket, what happens? If an inspector gets on, he blocks the doors of the bus and anyone freeloading is fined. That’s serious. They could easily get the two inspectors to arrive at the opposite doors of first class and fine everyone with a second-class ticket.”

“They could.” I had never thought of this.

“If I went into first class in a Eurostar, they’d fine me at once.”

“But not here.”

“They’re not serious.”

“But why not?”

She frowns. Clearly she is a serious student.

“I think they would rather all these people paying for first class moved to the faster trains. The poveretti here and the benestanti there.”

Poor and rich.

I ask, “So why offer first class at all?”

“They have the carriages. Someone is always stupid enough to pay, even when they don’t get a service.”

“Grazie.”

Prego,” she says with a laugh.

Excerpted from Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks. Copyright © 2013 by Tim Parks. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.