This story was written in a notebook received as a gift in Mantua, with a ballpoint pen pilfered in Melbourne, under the eyes of eight Australian retirees, in the presence of a double for Bill Clinton, while surrounded by emus, eagles, and kangaroos. Here I should be specific, because you see a great many kangaroos aboard the Indian Pacific. Many of them are stylized, reproduced, emblazoned on doors, menus, and napkins. Others, real but dead, along the tracks; a few living ones, glimpsed in the distance, with that stunned expression that you will find only on the face of a kangaroo at the sight of a train (or on the face of an Italian member of parliament who’s been caught with an offshore bank account).
So, how does an ostensibly normal 50-year-old make plans and reservations, move heaven and earth, struggle, argue, and fly around the world to board a train that then proceeds to travel in an almost unvaryingly straight line? The trip, 2,704 miles, lasts three days and three nights. The departure is from Sydney on Saturday; the arrival is in Perth on Tuesday. Average speed of 53 miles per hour, hitting high points of 70 miles per hour. The most exciting stretch is the Nullarbor Plain, crossed by the longest straightaway of rail track in the world (297 miles). “Nullarbor” comes from the Latin and it means “no trees.” Let’s say that it’s a precise, laconic, and optimistic description.
But nothingness has its allure for an Italian who comes from the land of too much.
Saturday, First Day
Tourist offices, travel agencies, and young ladies on the phone had assured me that there was no room on the train as far as Perth; at Adelaide, I was going to have to catch a plane. But Italian travelers don’t argue; they simply remain skeptical. They don’t complain; they investigate. At Sydney Central Station I ask: “Is there room?” Answer: “We’ve just had a cancellation. There’s a place available in Red Kangaroo.” Unaware of the chromatic implications of the marsupials in question, I reply, “I’ll take it.”
I discover that Red Kangaroo means second class. No problem: the Indian Pacific is one of the great railway journeys on the planet. The line was built to persuade the colonies of Western Australia to join the federation. Inaugurated in 1917, it had been constructed in five years using picks, shovels, carts, and camels. There remained the problem of the different gauges: to go from Sydney to Perth, you had to change trains six times. I only have to change my sleeping compartment in Adelaide. That seems doable.
Boarding an old train is a ceremony full of joy and apprehension, like boarding a new boat. Tonight, and only for tonight, I’m a guest in Gold Kangaroo, the first class. The sleeping compartment is wood paneled, with two bunks perpendicular to the tracks. I see a tiny bathroom, with a shower designed for Smurfs. Everywhere are secret caches, cubbyholes, and curious mechanisms. At 2:55 p.m., as I’m studying the retractable sink, the train moves. At 3:05 it suddenly brakes, and I bang my shin against the open door. That’s my fault: I should have followed the Train Safe recommendations published in the onboard magazine, and done my exercises. (“Push your bottom backward against your seat. Raise one butt cheek. Repeat three times per side.”)
After an hour I move into the lounge car, currently occupied by a group of retirees from Bega, New South Wales. They aren’t looking out the window at the Blue Mountains. They’re busy applauding the conductor as he explains life aboard the train. The man resembles Bill Clinton, and he knows it. Like the former president, he loves to seduce his audience. He explains that the sign dress codes apply basically means “flip-flops prohibited.” Apparently, at least one person has lost a big toe while moving from one carriage to another.
I continue my explorations. I walk through restaurant cars, galleys, baggage cars, second class (I mean Red Kangaroo, where I’ll fetch up tomorrow). Toward the end of the train—isolated, magnificent, and empty—is the Vice Royal Lounge Car, the carriage that carried the representative of the British Crown during the opening ceremonies of the Trans-Australian Railway. I am informed that it is used only on special occasions. On this trip, it’s empty and off-limits. I smile and make a mental note for later.
I return to Gold Kangaroo, among the giddy retirees from New South Wales. Some of them know all about trains, and they trade esoteric books. Their driver-companion is called Malcom, and he invites me to his table for dinner. He’s 50 years old, and he resembles the eldest Dalton brother: tall, gangly, lantern jaw, a fiercely amiable grin. This evening he’s decided he needs to tend to my railway education. “Until recently,” he explains, “off-road cars and trail bikes could ride along next to the tracks. But every time a vehicle broke down, the driver would flag down the Indian Pacific to avoid roasting to death in the outback. So it’s now illegal to ride along the tracks.”
Also sharing our table are Bill—Australian, 70 years old, he went to school with the former prime minister John Howard—and Carl, English, 40. He was let go by the pharmaceutical company where he worked: with his severance pay he decided to do some traveling. He tells us about his teenage son who’s obsessed with opals and explains the difference between singlet, doublet, and triplet opals. The cook, who’s from Liverpool, comes to say hello. We drink Shiraz wine and set our watches ahead by 30 minutes. Malcom/Dalton tells me: “You and I are the same. Bus drivers and travel writers work on holiday.” I say good night and retire to my compartment. I’ll have something to think about in my bunk.
Sunday, Second Day
There’s a sadistic streak in conductors. At 6:10 a.m. Clinton’s look-alike announces that at 6:30 he’ll announce breakfast service, first and second shifts (6:45 and 7:15). He uses a distinctly emphatic English: “Breakfast will commence,” he says. Then he informs us that passengers will be able to detrain (get out, I translate to myself) at Broken Hill, again in two shifts. The Indian Pacific—25 cars, two locomotives, 2,255 feet long—is too long for the little platform.
It isn’t easy to follow this line of thought at dawn, but Broken Hill is worth it: Australia’s longest-running mining town, in the middle of nowhere, in the far west of outback New South Wales. If only we could go and see it. The tour of the city has been canceled, but from the train we see straight streets, the legacy of miners and gamblers. Many Italians came here to work, over the course of the 20th century. Even more went to Adelaide, 300 miles away, where we arrive at 3 p.m. and depart at 6:40 p.m. I go for a quick sightseeing tour of the city, meet the Italian consul, drink a beer with some of my local readers, and make a discovery. There are 120 Italian regional clubs in Australia, 25 of which have their own offices. Italians love Italy, when they are far away.
Adelaide brings back memories. In 1983, when I first visited Australia, I was 26. My first assignment as a foreign correspondent, actually. The day before my flight back to Europe, I met a girl from Växjö, Sweden—Annica was her name—and I fell madly in love, canceled my flight, and from here—Adelaide, South Australia—I sent a telegram to my editor-in-chief (no e-mail, back then). “Missing in action. Everything’s great. See you in a month.” He should have fired me, but he didn’t. When I finally got back, he told me: “Jumping ship while away on your first assignment! You are nuts. Good. You need to be a little crazy to be a good journalist. Welcome back.”I see a tiny bathroom, with a shower designed for Smurfs. Everywhere are secret caches, cubbyholes, and curious mechanisms.
I get back aboard, and the train pulls out again. The retirees from New South Wales are excited. The Indian Pacific shakes them from side to side as if they were dolls, but it’s almost time for drinks and then dinner; their children are far away: what more could they ask for? While the train approaches the lights of Port Augusta—the last supermarket before Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia—Malcom/ Dalton asks the attendant where she comes from. Her name is Gabrielle. She sits down with us and smiles the way only nurses, kindergarten teachers, and young women on trains know how to do. “Norfolk Island,” she replies. He says: “Norfolk Island? They called it the ‘Inferno in the Pacific’! That’s where they sent the worst criminals. The present-day inhabitants are their descendants.” Gabrielle stops smiling, stands up, and walks away. Malcom admits that he often seems to say the wrong thing to girls.
Night in Red Kangaroo. Shared bathroom. The corridor, narrow and undulating, necessarily becomes an alternating one-way passageway. The bunk runs parallel to the rails, allowing you to fall asleep while looking out at the South Australia desert as it streams past. We second-class passengers know how to settle for what we get.
Monday, Third Day
In the southern darkness, the Indian Pacific has passed through Bookaloo, Wirraminna, Kultanaby, and Kingoonya: places that might be of interest to new parents, who are always in search of original names for their kids. At dawn we pull into Tarcoola, founded by gold prospectors in 1901. The place once had 2,000 inhabitants; now it has 2, but it still remains the meeting point between the Indian Pacific (east–west, Perth–Sydney) and the Ghan (north–south, Darwin–Adelaide).
We enter the Nullarbor, the straightaway of straightaways. We pass Ooldea; twenty miles to the north is Maralinga, where the English tested their atom bombs from 1956 to 1963, after evicting the Aboriginals. A short while later, we stop at Cook. We get out to take pictures of the signs. My favorites: our hospital needs your help: get sick and if you’re a crook / come to cook. But not even crooks want to live here. Officially, Cook has a population of four, but no one is in sight. Probably they’re hiding so we can’t take their pictures.
On the ground I find a screw as big as a bottle, and I take it as a souvenir (if I forget to remove it from my carry-on luggage at the airport, I’ll be arrested). The train pulls out again. I head for the next-to-last carriage, the exclusive and off-limits Vice Royal Lounge Car. I get comfortable in one of the seats and for two hours I look out at the red earth, the blue sky, and the big wedge-tailed eagles that climb to 6,000 feet, ignoring the train of which they are the emblem. Every so often someone in uniform comes by and courteously asks me what I’m doing there. I smile and reply: “I’m Italian.” The explanation always seems to work, so I remain to admire the sunset over the Nullarbor. Soon, an aperitif with the retirees, then an early dinner, and a new round of gaffes by the Dalton brother. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.
The train stops at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. There’s time for a little sightseeing. The taxi driver points out the apocalyptic Super Pit, an open-cut gold mine, brightly lit up. The trucks, down at the bottom of the mine, look like toys. Then he decides that since I’m Italian, I need to get to know the traditions that my compatriots brought so successfully to the antipodes. We arrive at 133 Hay Street. The neon sign reads, in Italian: questa casa. Literally, “This House.” Underneath, in English, the only historical brothel in Australia. I explain to the young woman at the door that I’m a writer, and that I’m interested in finding out more about the history of this brothel. She looks at me, she smiles, and she doesn’t believe me.
Interesting place, Kalgoorlie. A city of mines, brisk, no-nonsense people, straight streets, and bars where young women in panties and bras—skimpies, as they’re called here—serve beer to strong men wearing the jumpsuits they work in. In my pocket I have a small book I’ve brought with me from Italy: Diario australiano, written by Rodolfo Sonego (1921–2000), the screenwriter, who worked regularly with Alberto Sordi, one of the most popular Italian actors of the 20th century. They are the notes, newly published, of the location scouting he did for the movie Bello, onesto, emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata (A Girl in Australia), which came out in 1971. It’s the story of a poor emigrant who marries a beautiful compatriot by correspondence; it is not, however, until she lands in Australia that he discovers she is a prostitute; he accepts her anyway.
I learn from my reading that Rodolfo Sonego, charmed by the location, got off his train here, in Kalgoorlie of all places. The Railway Hotel still stands on the square across from the railway station, but you can no longer find Frank, the Sardinian immigrant, who told Sonego, “Yes, it’s all gold here: right behind the courtyard there’s a gold mine.” Also long gone is Mr. Recchia, who woke up every day at noon; Pietro, the miner from Bergamo, according to whom “taking an Australian girl to bed is like drinking a barrel of beer.” No more immigrants gambling away the gold they’ve found playing Two-Up (a heads or tails coin-toss game, with a twist); instead of gambling it away, they might give their gold to a young Sicilian girl because “they wanted to make love in Italian.” Still, something remains in the air from those days: don’t ask me why.
Tuesday, Fourth Day
My third night on the Indian Pacific would have been peaceful if it hadn’t been for my cell phone, which suddenly got reception and started working again. It was a call from the producer of an Italian television program; she didn’t believe I was really on a train in the Australian desert, and she wouldn’t let me go.
Bright blue spring morning, big sky. It’s my son’s birthday on the other side of the world. I get out at Perth, Western Australia, on the Indian Ocean. I find that this city has only two shortcomings: not enough taxis and a few too many flies. Otherwise, the air is clear: everything lit up brightly. John Kinder, a professor of Italian Studies at the University of Western Australia, tells me: “Perth is a frontier city, and people take initiatives. If you don’t do things for yourself, no one will do them for you.” Perth—the name is Scottish—is the most isolated metropolis on earth. The closest big city is on Bali, in Indonesia.
The combination of glass and green spaces, river and ocean; the neatly tended neighborhoods; a general air of prosperity, in part due to a thriving mining industry, with eager Chinese customers—the place is humming so efficiently you start to feel vaguely suspicious: can it all be true? The many Italian expatriates I talk to all confirm. A few of them suggest an explanation: the immigration policies. Realistic or pitiless: take your choice. It’s no longer a “White Australia” policy, the way it used to be: what counts now isn’t your skin color, but your level of education, your skills, your age, your state of health, and what you can contribute to society. A student can stay for several months on a working holiday visa; for adults, the rules are far tougher. The program includes three streams of immigrants: qualified immigrants (skilled stream); family unification (family stream); political refugees and victims of persecution (humanitarian stream). Applicants are selected through use of a point system: they must be younger than 45 (unless they’re bringing a business with them) and they must meet certain legal and medical standards. (The same is true in New Zealand; I know a successful Italian professional who was required to trim down from 300 pounds to 230 before he could be issued a visa.) In other words, Australia has a plan, pursued for years, even at the cost of considerable hardships, by conservative and liberal administrations alike.
We Italians arrived in Australia in waves, and each wave left its mark: at the turn of the 20th century, from northern Italy, to work in the mines; under Fascism, only to find ourselves labeled enemy aliens during the war and being interned. After the restoration of diplomatic relations (1948), Italians poured into Australia, especially from southern Italy, after a month-long voyage by ship. Italian immigrants were second in number only to those from Great Britain: 360,000 people from 1947 to 1974. Italian immigrants would take any work that was available: they were miners in the west, sugarcane harvesters in the northeast, bricklayers and blue-collar workers everywhere. Some of the immigrants made their fortunes. In a restaurant here in Perth, I was introduced to Tom D’Orsogna, born in 1918, who produces cold cuts and salami, and who dresses just like Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby. In Canberra, I spoke to Signor Pastrello, originally from Brescia, who now manages racehorses and soccer players, but certainly remembers where he started: “We weren’t afraid of snakes, in the plantations of Queensland. We were so pissed off that as soon as the snakes saw us, they turned tail to get away.”After the restoration of diplomatic relations, Italians poured into Australia, especially from southern Italy, after a month-long voyage by ship.
I see lots of young Australians of Italian heritage here in Perth. I’ve seen plenty more in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide as well. The impression I get is that they live in a sort of limbo: sort of Italian in Australia, decidedly very Australian when they go back to Italy on vacation or to visit family. In contrast with their parents—who tended to marry other sons and daughters of Italian immigrants—they find husbands and wives anywhere in Australian society. Australia’s multicultural immigration policy helped a great deal, and nowadays Italian Australians constitute a model minority. A minority, nonetheless, with some issues of identity. This is no longer the old Australia that looked askance at Italians born anywhere south of Livorno, but the national identity remains white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. You can find excellent soccer and cappuccino here, by now, but rugby and beer carry greater weight.
While their Italian parents and grandparents worry about their pensions, the new Italian Australians seem well-disposed toward Italy, and vice versa. Loretta Baldassar, an anthropologist at the University of Western Australia and the author of a history of Veneto migrants to Australia (From Paesani to Global Italians, 2005), tells me about it (in English): “The prejudices associated with the first immigrants (dark, dirty, unreliable) have been replaced by positive connotations. These days, Italy is viewed as a cultivated nation, sophisticated, well-dressed, well-nourished. Today there’s a considerable symbolic social capital in being Italian.” This view is confirmed by Maria Di Giambattista, who appears at a public conference in a black dress, with her hair up in a bun: “At school, fifty years ago, my classmates made fun of me because I ate bread that wasn’t square and that dripped olive oil. Now, in any good restaurant, that’s exactly what they’re ordering.”
Northbridge, Perth’s old Italian neighborhood, is now full of Asian bars and parking structures, and membership in the WA Italian Club on Fitzgerald Street, founded in 1934, has declined from 7,000 to 1,300. The tenor Beppe Bertinazzo and his recollections of La Scala aren’t enough to draw in the children of the children of the Italians. The club has to employ skimpies, or scantily clad barmaids, for Friday night shifts. Those skimpies are serving tonight, as well, and they shake their hips fetchingly as they move from table to table. Signora Christine Madaschi, a member of the club’s board, disapproves but is willing to tolerate.
All the same, Italy—blurred, magical, idealized—is still there, like an island on the horizon. Everyone at the club was highly amused that I had arrived from Sydney by train. Surrounded by billiards tables and faded photographs, they talk about soccer. In English, true, but still, soccer is what they’re talking about. During the World Cup, they almost all rooted for Italy. The only time their conscience bothered them was when the Italian Azzurri played the Australian Socceroos. Then someone in the crowd pointed out that, after all, having two teams you feel passionate about was an ideal situation: “We can’t lose!”
You can’t get any more Italian than that.
From Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life by Beppe Severgnini, to be published on February 12, 2019 by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright 2019 by Beppe Severgnini