If cabin fever is setting in but you’re not quite ready to come out of hibernation, “Off the Rails” is the perfect remedy: You can hunker by the fire and ride the trains with Beppe Severgnini on a honeymoon trip on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1986 and a “farewell to Communism” tour from the Baltic to the Bosporus in 1989. You can take more recent journeys across Europe, cross the Outback, progress (slowly) from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to share your seat from Naples to London with a Donald Trump bobblehead, well, this may be your only chance to find out.
Severgnini is an excellent travel companion, witty — sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes slyly amusing — and perceptive, with a particular genius for the summative statement. At a San Diego Padres game, for example (“a ballpark full of Americans eating, drinking, chomping, sucking, rending, gnawing, and swallowing”), he sums it up: “The rhythmic working of jaw and epiglottis marks the passage of time in American sports.”
On American politics: “The super PACs … raise money that’s useful to their own candidate and information that’s harmful to his adversary.” Could any of us have explained it more succinctly? (Speculating with a friend who performs with Cirque de Soleil during the Obama-Romney election on what the candidates could do in the Cirque, they decide on contortionist and trapeze artist.)
Because several of his journeys are in the company of a journalist from Hamburg (Germany’s major cultural institute decided it would be interesting to pair up a German and an Italian journalist to travel across Europe), much is made of Italian-German stereotypes: German efficiency/Italian spontaneity (chaos), German machinery/Italian art, German reserve/Italian volubility. Severgnini gives up even trying to explain to his German companion that while the Palermo ferry departed at 10:35, they were not on the 10:35 ferry but on the 9:30 ferry running late.
While Severgnini finds much to admire in other cultures and is always willing to laugh at Italian foibles, he is also justifiably proud of his own nation’s cultural history and is aware of its impact on the present. “In Italy,” he notes, “we live in a double boiler of beauty and imagination. … The surrounding environment is a stimulus and a challenge: we are forced to gauge the things we do against what preceded us.”
In all areas of achievement (arts, literature, fashion, precision engineering, cooking, business) “good examples bring good results”: an idea worth pondering for Americans in the 21st century, where we readily acknowledge this in sports but have a bit shakier grasp of the concept in other arenas.
“Off the Rails” ends with a brief chapter of travel advice. The seven pages of advice on writing, while geared toward travel writing, are useful even for writers stationary at their desks. Trains are “gymnasiums of the imagination,” Severgnini proclaims, “stages, cafes, bazaars.” “Off the Rails” brings the stages, cafes and bazaars to us as we relax by the fire.
Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Off the Rails
By: Beppe Severgnini.
Publisher: Berkley, 208 pages, $26.