Standing on a seawall in Riva, Franz Kafka, the story’s protagonist, and Otto Brod, his friend, conclude their morning walk. They are on vacation from Prague and decide to finish their discussion over a beer. En route, their conversation turns from moving pictures to the modern, cubelike architecture of Riva. This style creates, in contrast to Prague’s older architecture, a sense not only of freedom but also of emptiness. As the two arrive at the cafe, they learn from Max Brod, Otto’s brother, that there will be an airshow at Brescia. The attraction of the new flying machines, and the possibility of seeing internationally recognized aviators, convinces the three vacationers to travel to Brescia.
On the first stage of their journey, the trio board an ancient steamboat which ferries them across the lake to Salo. More important, the miniature odyssey is a mental one: Kafka, recalling the previous evening’s conversation about the Wright brothers, falls into a daydream that mixes people, places, times, and themes. He wonders about what Orville and Wilbur’s plane looked like, imagines what they could see while flying above an American community, and thinks about their pragmatic study of previous pioneers of flight—Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Pierpont Langley. He considers also the influence of the brothers on each other, and he hints at a rivalry between the Wright brothers and another early American flyer, G.H. Curtiss.
More pessimistically, he thinks of the loneliness and monotony which could be inspired in modern classrooms. Unlike the Brods, who are "modern men" (Otto is comfortable with the "hollow thought of Ernst Mach," and Max dreams of a new Zionist state in Tel Aviv), Kafka is burdened by this modern sense of loneliness. Although he is becoming a successful lawyer, and although he can mentally create stories, he is deeply frustrated by his inability to put his ideas onto paper.
At Salo, the journey shifts from boat to train, and the three soon arrive in Brescia. There a comic interlude gently satirizes the bustle of this modern city. Newspapers are not read privately here, but are rather declaimed from the sidewalks; the militia has been called in to keep order in the restaurants; that night, several policemen frantically chase two individuals down a street outside the trio’s hotel. The three travelers also experience a similar distortion of reality: Their driver takes a convoluted path to a building where the airshow’s organizing committee assigns them to a dirty hotel; later, through a hole in the floor of their room, they observe a pizza being cut with such an enormous knife that it causes Otto to indulge in unexplained hysterical laughter.
Still, this surreal world has a darker side, as Kafka begins to realize. Spatially, the streets of Brescia seem to come together at one focal point. Temporally, the "Italian continuity of things" is one in which "accident and order were equally impossible." This is juxtaposed to Berlin and Vienna, where there is a facile dichotomy between the new and the old. Yet now Kafka is confused: He believes that any narrative produced in an Italian setting would be devoid of meaning—"gratuitous figures in an empty piazze" or "an empty room in an empty building in an empty novel." Thus, Kafka’s nightmare that evening, instead of providing insight, only further confuses him. In his dream he is alone (when he had expected to be in the company of statues of poets and statesmen), and Kafka hears Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reciting a poem in a language so alien that it is incomprehensible.
In the morning, however, the humorous tone returns. Resuming their train journey to the aerodrome, the three pass a comic melange of travelers: goggled automobile drivers desperately trying to maintain their composure in speeding cars, passengers in carriages swaying along the road, and a strange congregation of bicyclists. Others like these individuals have already created a carnival atmosphere at Brescia itself. All of Europe, apparently, has joined in the festivities. There are Gypsies and royalty, the obese Countess Carlotta Primoli Bonaparte; the musician Giacomo Puccini is there, as is the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The planes seem incongruously insignificant; the great Bleriot’s craft is "alarmingly small, scarcely more than a mosquito magnified to the size of a bicycle."
Counterpoised with this comic commotion is the composure of the aviators. Bleriot, the Frenchman who successfully overflew the English Channel after eighty unsuccessful attempts, has an "athlete’s sureness." Prior to the competition, the American Curtiss displays a "professional nonchalance" by remaining detached, with his feet propped on a gasoline tin, reading a newspaper. Even when mechanical problems frustrate Bleriot, the first flier, he simply removes himself from the aircraft until the plane is ready to be flown. Curtiss, in contrast, starts his engine on the first attempt and taxis smoothly across the field, becoming airborne almost effortlessly.
Yet if Otto is entranced with the ground operations, clearly it is Kafka who learns the most from the airshow. To be sure, Curtiss performs cleanly, almost magically, and looks, as he flies overhead, "peculiarly familiar and wildly strange" simultaneously. Indeed, his five circuits in less than fifty minutes virtually assures his victory in the Grand Prix de Brescia. His performance is important, yet it is two other fliers—Bleriot and another Frenchman, Rougier—who teach Kafka something more immediately relevant. In flying his ungainly machine, Bleriot appears to be dividing his attention equally among three activities simultaneously; to Kafka, he seems like a scholar working heroically at his desk. Rougier, who also has difficulty controlling the many levers and gears of his flying machine, manages successfully and seems, ultimately, "like a man for whom writing with both hands at once is natural." Still, Kafka’s understanding of what he has learned from these three aviators is imperfect at this stage; in the last line of the story, he tells Max that he does not know why he is quietly crying. The ending is thus problematic: It remains unclear, in this open-ended narrative structure, whether Kafka will return from the airshow, and from his vacation, with the ability to work as a writer in the modern world. If he can, then Kafka’s tears become tears of joy.