Nostalgia on the Orient Express

When I was a child, I had an insatiable passion for trains. I pestered my father for train books at every opportunity and whenever friends of ours traveled and asked if I wanted them to bring anything back, it was always train-related; I’d settle for their ticket stubs if nothing else, and went ballistic over route maps. My train obsession bordered on the singleminded at times, and I would rattle off endless statistics at the slightest provocation[1. And sometimes without any provocation at all; I was infamous for turning any conversation, anywhere, at any time, back around to trains if I possibly could get away with it.]. Every time I had an opportunity to ride a train, I would become dizzy with pleasure and would spend the ride alternately glued to the window and racing through the aisles. Once, the engineer let me ride in the cabin and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my young life, zipping across the German countryside with a bunch of gruff old men who weren’t about to let a language barrier get in the way of mutual enjoyment of the rails.

I cannot remember the first time someone told me about the Orient Express, but I quickly became captivated by it. I’d been to both Istanbul and Paris, of course, which definitely helped feed my interest, and I had even toured the baroque surroundings of some of Istanbul’s landmarks and had ample opportunity to compare them with the less salubrious subway system. The idea of taking the Orient Express became an enduring goal and one I never attained, and I was heartbroken when the official service stopped running, although evidently it’s been taken up by another railway with vintage cars, to keep the spirit alive.

Friends who had opportunities to take the Orient Express in the original form have informed me that in its final years, the route was a far cry from the heady days immortalised in so many books and films. The cars were shabby, the rails frail, the surroundings somewhat less deluxe than one might have been led to believe from the brochures. Perhaps it turned out to be a good twist of fate that I was never able to ride it, because I might have been crushed by the ways the reality didn’t match up to my fantasies of proceeding in a stately fashion along one of the most famous routes in the world, drinking champagne and eating caviar in the dining car and marveling at jewel-toned rugs underfoot.

I would have had a plethora of authors to choose from when it came to selecting books for the journey. Agatha Christie, of course. Graham Greene, Bram Stoker, Ian Fleming. Paul Theroux, if I felt like balancing things out with a little nonfiction. Bringing movies would spoil the illusion of stepping back in time, but no less than three feature films have been named for the Orient Express, and four, really, if you want to count Istanbul Express. Which some do, evidently.

The Orient Express was an icon and I’m sure they had all sorts of good reasons for shutting it down. Something about routes and budgeting and high speed rail and efficiency and all those things people hold so dear these days, but it’s left me bitter than I missed my chance to ride the original. I would have rounded up a band of fellow train geeks, and we might have taken over a whole sleeping car if I’d had my way. We could have played murder mystery games and engaged in intrigue and skulduggery! It just wouldn’t feel the same on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, I don’t care what they say.

I’m not as into trains as I once was; I develop interests and I drink them up in full, plunging head deep to read as much as I can and talk to people who have some kind of connection to them, collecting all the paraphernalia I can, and then I develop a sense of distance and lose interest, floating into something else new to become deeply fascinated and intrigued by. Presumably my brain still has all those neat statistics locked away somewhere but I can’t recall them now; I’ve got the files, but I have apparently lost the index, and it’s unlikely I will be able to dig them up again[2. If I may digress for a moment, the tremendous amounts of interesting things locked away in my head where I can’t get them are a source of great frustration to me. If there was a way to somehow restore all the interesting knowledge I lost and then set up a better recall system to keep track of it so I wouldn’t lose it again, I would be all for it. I’ve got entire languages inaccessibly squirreled away and it’s simply unfair. I realise the neurology field probably has bigger priorities, I’m just saying, it would be cool.].

Despite not being a certified train lover with the walls of books to prove it, I still dabble in trains, and one of my missions has always been to take the train cross-country when I have the time and the money. I like the idea of seeing the United States from the ground, of drifting through various places and getting a snapshot of life I don’t see when I am winging high about the earth in an airplane. I suspect the food is dire and the sleeping accommodations are horrid and the experience will be profoundly frustrating in many ways, but there’s a part of me that longs to do it anyway, to go shooting up and down the aisles again to make sure I didn’t miss a thing, to quiz the conductor in exhaustive detail before surrendering my ticket for inspection.

I’d travel with a natty little valise and it would be oh so much fun.