(Added November, 2017)
The following is an accurate account of a train trip I took in the summer of 1967 with my sister, Beth. I was fifteen, she was four years older, and we were traveling alone through Europe on an eight-week summer vacation.
It seems odd my parents allowed this, but having previously lived near Montreux, Switzerland, and having become somewhat of an expert on European trains during that time, they knew I could move around the continent easily. The fact that—because of our time in Switzerland—we both spoke French at least marginally, was useful as well. English hadn’t yet become the universal language it is today. Beth was in college and served as the “adult.” I was the train expert. Between the two of us, it wasn’t unreasonable to think we could handle the challenge.
I’d spent most of my high-school sophomore year planning this trip—which included Luxembourg, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Austria (originally), Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Holland and England. Our route included the exotic-sounding Istanbul Express to Vienna, although I’d have preferred the more famous and supposedly glamorous Orient Express, from the Agatha Christie novel. As it turned out I got my wish. Be careful what you wish for.
Certainly I never anticipated any murders or adventurous activity on the train, but I was much less prepared for the opposite: a dull, tiring trip, marked by numerous difficulties, annoyances, and even physical hardship. For some reason—despite what might once have been the case—the Orient Express in 1967 contained no meal car. Very occasionally a food vendor would walk through the train, but in general passengers were expected to get off at various stops and buy food locally at stations. So we spent much of the three days hungry, thirsty, and hot—no air conditioning either. It was not a pleasant experience.
It seems a waste to think of it in those terms, however, and I much prefer this version which recounts the story through a different lens; specifically, how a paranoid traveler might interpret the various challenges and difficulties.
On July 22, the day we left Istanbul by train, neither Beth nor I could explain the almost desperate frenzy that descended on us to leave the city immediately. Our itinerary had us departing the following day. But we’d already made adjustments during the trip and our schedule wasn’t fixed. Even so, we were having fun in Istanbul and there should have been no urgency to get out. Yet we both noticed it, and commented on the fact to each other. We were inexplicably frantic to leave. That’s why, in the story, when we found we couldn’t go by train to Austria (we missed it), we considered flying. When that proved too expensive we simply abandoned the Austrian section of the trip entirely and barely—just in time—caught the Orient Express to Switzerland. (The train itself continued to Paris.)
We thought no more about this eerie need to leave Istanbul until we finally reached Montreux and found a message at our hotel to call home immediately. We could only imagine something horrible had happened. In 1967 neither cell phones nor email existed, and on the train we’d been isolated.
Finding a pay phone we managed to make the transatlantic call and our parents answered. They were deliriously happy to discover we were alive and safe.
“Of course we’re alive, what do you mean?”
“We’ve spent three days in agony, not being able to reach you. You didn’t turn up at the hotel in Austria that you were supposed to. We thought you might have been killed in the earthquake.
“You don’t know? It’s been all over the news, everywhere.”
“We’ve been on a train for three days.”
“An Earthquake hit Istanbul apparently the night you left. Many people were killed, buildings demolished. When you didn’t show up in Austria on schedule, well, you can understand…”
We’d put our parents through hell. But suddenly the desperate, almost psychic urgency we’d both experienced, about the need to leave Turkey that very night, could be interpreted differently. I don’t believe the human brain has a mechanism that anticipates earthquake disasters and can somehow warn the subconscious of danger. On the other hand, I’ve never felt such a strange, almost palpable, desire to leave a city, either before or since. Nor have I ever departed a place mere hours before a major earthquake. I suppose it was just coincidence.
In the story there is a point where we must go to a bank and obtain cash via a “letter of credit.” 21st century readers might find this puzzling, but in 1967 credit cards didn’t exist. Our parents had arranged for us to replenish cash as needed via a letter of credit arrangement with local correspondent banks throughout Europe. They felt this was safer than carrying large quantities of cash or travelers checks, and would also be a good learning experience, interacting with bankers in foreign countries and such. No doubt it was, but in this case the delay almost caused us to miss the train. Note to file: a larger supply of travelers checks might have made more sense.
At the time, the route of the train went from Turkey to Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and then Italy, with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia being Iron Curtain, communist-controlled countries. Today Yugoslavia no longer exists, nor does the Iron Curtain for that matter. So today the same trip would cross Bulgaria, Serbia (Belgrade), Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia (Ljubljana), before reaching Italy. Obviously, in the story the area is referred to as Yugoslavia
The true Orient Express does not travel from Istanbul to Paris, as Agatha Christie would have it. It travels from Budapest to Paris, through Vienna. The Agatha Christie train is technically called the Direct Orient Express. She used artistic license to call it the Orient Express. For our purposes, I’ve followed her lead and all references to the Direct Orient Express are replaced with the more simple term “Orient Express.” As a European train dilettante I find this an almost unforgiveable sin, but I hope others will view the crime with tolerance.
Also, today Orient Express is a trademarked term, and there are luxurious, pricey Orient Express train trips all over the world, even in places like Peru. But naming conventions aside, I have no doubt you can still hop on a train in Istanbul and get off in Paris (or Switzerland).
And if you do so, you can always pretend you’re riding the original Orient Express. Because you kind of are.
A PARANOID’S GUIDE TO THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Or: How To Leave Istanbul Without Really Dying
Imagine yourself stranded in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, while your passport, money, and suitcases are on a train to Austria.
Or imagine yourself driven crazy by a drunk Arab wanting to argue politics in a second class compartment of a second class train in a second class European country.
Imagine a beautiful blonde secret agent being sent—not to seduce you, more’s the pity—but to befriend you warmly, and thus ensure you will fall deeply into unrequited adolescent love, which scientists have determined is the highest form of stress in the human brain.
These events are not only common occurrences for many unfortunate travelers, but they, and others, are carefully planned in advance by those whom I choose to call the Conspiracy.
Simply stated, the Conspirators are a group of well-trained agents working for the Turkish Government and working against tourists who have decided to leave Turkey. While most countries are eager to allow tourists to leave, the Government of Turkey, for reasons known only to them, try to prevent successful departures.
It is for this purpose that the Conspirators have been trained. Their network of terror stretches from Istanbul itself, to the border of Switzerland.
Imagine yourself as a tourist wanting to leave Istanbul. You might realistically expect the following.
By the time you are ready to leave, having sampled all the city’s delights or tried to, you will probably be on a limited budget. A limited budget necessitates that you leave by train, rail transportation being the cheapest. If you have had any previous experience with Turkish trains you will arrive at the station at least an hour before departure time, carrying sixty dollars in Turkish Lire.
The lire is to purchase second class tickets to Vienna, the nearest outpost of civilization. The hour in advance is for correctly anticipated difficulties. As you approach the ticket window and ask, in your high-school Turkish, for tickets, the agent becomes highly emotional and starts waving his arms in the air, pointing in a direction that seems to change frequently. After a few minutes of arm waving he realizes that you don’t understand what the problem is.
Taking you angrily by the arm he leads you to an English-speaking ‘agent’ who regrets to inform you that your cash must be accompanied by a receipt saying that the money was not exchanged on the black market.
This you obviously don’t have, since most of your money was changed on the black market, but you have the option of exchanging more money and obtaining the receipt. Since you have run out of travelers checks you must use your letter of credit. Fortunately, there are three banks within walking distance that can accommodate you. Unfortunately, the first one closes, the second one refuses, and the third one agrees to help but does not agree to help quickly. As you arrive back at the train station with your receipt three minutes after the Istanbul Express to Vienna has pulled away you begin to sense the presence of the plot to keep you in the country.
You realize, now, that you must leave Istanbul as fast as possible. You head to a nearby travel office to make reservations on the next flight to Vienna. The travel office, however, is ready for you and you are informed that the next flight doesn’t leave until morning and the cost of tickets is nearly equivalent to the price of the airplane. Both these facts are probably false but you have no choice but to accept them.
Your anger has now changed to a kind of fright as you realize the effectiveness of the Conspirators’ web. Your only remaining option is to take the Orient Express to Switzerland. Of course your receipt for legal currency is no longer enough since it will cost more to go to Switzerland. Needing to avoid the red tape of another letter of credit withdrawal you head to an American Express office hoping you can trade Turkish Lire into travelers checks which are accepted at the train station.
American Express closes as you arrive.
You frantically head for the British tourist agency Wagon-Lits/Cook’s which also closes as you arrive.
You start to panic, and take a taxi back to the train station on the slim chance that you can leave the country somehow. Fortunately the ticket agent agrees to accept the additional money without a receipt (the Conspiracy probably hadn’t paid him enough) and you board the train just as the Orient Express slowly pulls away from the station.
You cross the border into communist Bulgaria sometime in the night. You’re now behind the Iron Curtain and will be until you reach Italy. If you reach Italy. The train goes slowest here and every few minutes your compartment door is opened by a passport official, a ticket collector, or anyone else the Conspirators can send around to make your night miserable. When you wake up in the morning, that is when you look out the window for the thousandth time and realize it’s light out, you are exceedingly tired and hungry.
Of course no restaurant car is provided and, as the morning continues, hunger overrides all other considerations.
The Orient Express arrives in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, at 11:56 A.M. for a forty minute stop. The terminal contains one cafe and the cafe contains one waitress.
As the waitresses’ only virtue is that she speaks fluent Bulgarian, she is hard put to handle the mass of foreign travelers descending on her modest cafe at 11:56.
Several things prevent you from ever leaving Sofia, all carefully planned by the Conspirators.
1) You will not be able to attract the waitress’s attention for 15 minutes.
2) You will not be brought your food for 20 minutes.
3) You will spend at least 5 minutes eating your food.
4) You will spend at least 10 minutes standing in line to exchange your Turkish Lire for Bulgarian currency to pay for the meal.
5) You will be unable to catch the train in the negative 10 minutes remaining.
As far as I know, no tourist has ever survived being stranded in Bulgaria.
If, however, you resisted the craving to eat you will be rewarded by a sandwich vendor who begins his rounds after the train leaves Sofia. The Conspirators are merely trying to keep the survivors alive for the next obstacle: Yugoslavia.
If you succeed in reaching Yugoslavia you should be prepared. The Conspirators realize that only the most enduring tourists are left and the obstacles have been raised accordingly. To understand the complexities of the trap they have laid, a short look at the train itself is required.
The Orient Express technically goes from Belgrade to Paris, and vice versa, but unofficially it conveys cars from Istanbul to Belgrade, under the name of ‘Marmara Express’; Athens to Belgrade known as the ‘Athens Express’ and Belgrade to Munich as the ‘Taurn-Orient’. It is obvious that Belgrade is the center of all these which is why the Conspirators chose it for your destruction.
Since you are coming from Istanbul we can forget about the ‘Athens Express’ and look directly to the separation of the ‘Marmara’ into the ‘Orient” and the ‘Taurn-Orient’. Your problem is this: in Istanbul you accidentally got on one of the Istanbul-Munich cars instead of an Istanbul-Paris car.
Since the town of Zagreb in northern Yugoslavia is the logical separation point geographically, you assume the split will occur there. Based on this assumption, you decide there is no immediate urgency in switching yourself and your suitcases. However, just to insure a seat in the other car you instruct your sister to find an Orient Express car, transfer as many bags to it as possible, and save two seats. Meanwhile you jump off to buy sandwiches.
Upon returning you find that the entire train has disappeared. The logical implication, of course, is that your sister, suitcases, and passport are on their way to Zagreb.
Suicidal tendencies flash through your mind. Then, on the other side of the tracks you notice the Taurn-Orient express with all other cars disconnected. The thought again enters your mind that your sister is on her way to Zagreb but that only half of the suitcases are with her.
A Yugoslavian family, sitting forlornly on their suitcases, appears to offer a possible explanation, since you remember them as being on the train. Mustering your total knowledge of Yugoslavian you ask where the train went. When they sadly point down the tracks you ask, almost demand, if it will return. When they sadly shake their heads you assume they just don’t understand.
Suddenly, from your memory archives, you recall that the train actually splits at Belgrade and the Orient Express leaves fifteen minutes after the Taurn Orient. Panic ebbs as you realize the search that awaits you for the Orient Express which must be around here somewhere.
Twenty minutes before departure time you spot the train on a distant platform. Your sister is hanging out the window wailing “Something terrible has happened. The rest of the train and our suitcases are gone!”
You run back the long way to the Taurn Orient, find your car, find your compartment, grab your suitcases, jump off, run back to the Orient, and collapse in a seat. Two precious minutes slip by before you realize that your coat is not in the compartment. A panic-fringed dialogue establishes the fact that neither of you brought it.
You race back down the terminal. As you finally jump off the Taurn Orient with your coat, the train is already moving out of the station.
You have beaten the Conspiracy again but you are only half way through Yugoslavia and you must now prepare yourself for your second night on the train. The Conspiracy has chosen this nighttime ride through Northern Yugoslavia for the most torturous experience yet. Their strategy consists of destroying the mind of the tourist from within. Reducing him to complete apathy and finally rendering the crushing physical blow when the train reaches Italy.
The crowded, smoke-filled, second-class compartment in which you now find yourself is the perfect place for the destruction of the soul to begin.
The Conspirators have planned a series of incidents occuring all through the night that will leave you in the wretched state I described above.
By 11:00 P.M. everyone in your compartment is struggling to get to sleep. They have succeeded only in obtaining a sort of half-conscious state in which they are awakened every few minutes by a shift of feet or an opening of the door.
Thirst is your main enemy and you decide you must find something to drink. Leaving the compartment you head down the aisle for three cars, all in the same condition as your own. (The Conspirators see to it that the Orient Express is composed of 13 cars.)
As you enter the fourth car however, the scene changes. Although second class, it is less crowded, more comfortable. The lights have been dimmed and as you softly walk down the corridor you notice passengers, only two or three to a compartment, stretched out and sound asleep. If only you could stay in this car!
You continue down the corridor until you are blocked by a conductor, communist by the red star on his cap, standing half in and half out of a compartment filled with a beautiful young blonde and two older women. There are also two men, in various stages of amorous activity with the older women. The scene is not exactly an orgy but it’s likely moving in that direction.
The pretty girl is sitting quietly near the door, not participating in the activities, but not sleeping either. As you try to pass, the conductor stops you, sprays you with a torrent of friendly Yugoslavian, and motions to the girl, suggestively.
You spray back a torrent of unfriendly French, reproaching him for assuming everyone speaks Yugoslavian, saying that unless he speaks a civilized language no one will ever understand him, and commenting how few people in the world speak Yugoslavian.
He appears unmarred by the display of resistance and instead points again to the girl. Realizing what is happening, she looks up curiously, steps out into the corridor, and engages you in a conversation which will last hours through the middle of the night. You decide to stay and make the best of it—out of fear of being impolite and also of angering the six foot 200 pound conductor on your left.
Also, there are worse ways to spend a night on a train than carrying on a warm and lively conversation with a vivacious and beautiful girl who seems to enjoy you. But it’s very stressful.
You talk to her in broken French and it’s OK that it’s broken because it’s not her first language either. She’s only 17, but you talk about politics, about geography, about history, about the fact that the other two women are her mother and aunt, and about the shameful things going on back in the orgy compartment, which makes you both laugh. She’s very friendly and smiles a lot. Adolescent instincts bubble to the surface and you find yourself wanting to touch her, even hold her; in a perfect world maybe kiss her, even though you’ve never kissed a girl and have no idea how to do it. And…what comes after that? As a fifteen year old, now involved with an older woman, you’re totally out of your league.
Of course, being an agent of the Conspirators, she knows perfectly well you’re quietly falling in love with her. How could you not? And obviously that’s her goal, to drive you crazy with unfulfilled desires.
The orgy continues, the conversation continues, the conductor continues. The strategy is working—you can’t take much more.
Back in your own compartment, Conspiracy agents are working on your sister who is herself a pretty, young blonde. Starting from around midnight, a steady stream of experts come in: two boys asking her to get off the train and have coffee with them, a woman with five screaming kids, two drunk Arabs wanting to argue Middle East politics, and so on. Italy is still hours away.
In the orgy compartment, the others have fallen asleep. You’re flirting desperately with the Conspiracy agent who seeks your destruction. The two of you are sitting close together now and you wonder if you’re brave enough to reach out and maybe touch her hand. But you’ve never done such a thing. Is a night-time ride on the Orient Express, as it travels behind the Iron Curtain, really the place to learn about romance? Your stress level is off the charts.
Suddenly your sister stumbles in, barely alive after her last ordeal, followed by one of the drunk Arabs. Obviously he’s only pretending to be drunk and is actually a highly-skilled Conspiracy agent sent to finish you off.
Positioning himself between your sister and the door so that no one can escape, he looks at you, looks at the young girl, looks back at you, and comes up with the profound observation “Elle est belle.” (She is beautiful.) As an Arab, of course he speaks French.
You ponder what could have prompted such a display of genius, arrive at no conclusion, and dumbly agree. He ignores your answer and after a few more seconds repeats “Elle est belle.”
You start to panic as you realize he will keep repeating this statement until you are driven mad. You strengthen your defense and try the same trick used on the conductor: a torrent of irrelevant French. This disarms him momentarily as he had not expected such resistance after two nights and a day on the train.
Collecting his wits again, he presses on with his determination to convince you of the obvious:
“Elle est belle.”
You again counter with irrelevant French.
After 15 minutes of verbal combat the expert shows signs of weakening. You press on harder and faster and when he finally breaks he stumbles out of the compartment mumbling:
“Mais, elle est si belle, si belle.” (But, she is so beautiful, so beautiful.)
The girl herself leaves the train at Ljubljana. She looks back, waves, and gives a parting smile which needs no translation but which you immediately translate as:
“I really loved talking to you. If we’d had a bottle of wine, and a compartment to ourselves, who knows what might have happened between us?”
But of course, knowing she’s a skilled Conspiracy agent, you should translate her smile as: “Your memory of me, and the missed opportunity, will haunt you for years. You should never have tried to leave Turkey. This is your punishment.”
In truth your soul dies, realizing you failed to even get a phone number or mailing address so you could look her up next time you’re in Ljubljana. The Conspiracy has broken your very heart.
The Orient Express crosses into Italy and comes to a stop at Venice. You have survived the destruction of the mind, and outlasted the physical hardships, but it’s not over.
You begin to realize that the Venice train station, in July is perhaps the hottest place on Earth. Everything you encountered before—lack of food, thirst, heat, cold, psychological challenges—all pale before your present situation. You are extremely tired, and the only food you’ve had since Belgrade was a sandwich and a warm bottle of mineral water—now long gone.
You cling to the hope of cool air blowing through the window when the train begins to move. This is shattered by a Conspiracy agent who comes in, closes the window permanently, and locks it.
The long trip through Italy becomes a test of physical endurance. Weak from hunger and thirst, you lie in a semi-conscious state gazing out the window but seeing—nothing. You are on the very brink of death.
Then, with a last look out the window, far in the distance, the Alps.
Cool, refreshing air seeps into the carriage. As the train climbs higher, refreshments are served. The Conspiracy is becoming weaker.
Familiar towns flash by: Domadossala, Stresa, Iselle. Friendly Italian customs officials come through and readily stamp your passports. It’s your third night on the Orient Express.
The Simplon tunnel carries the train under the mountains and when you emerge you’re in Switzerland. The Conspirators have no power here. This is your home, or once was.
The train proceeds down the Rhone Valley and your spirits soar as both body and soul return to life. The mountains of the Bernese Overland to the north are illuminated at regular intervals by spectacular flashes of lightning, supplemented by sparks flying from the electric SBB-CFF Swiss engine. Lake Geneva comes into view and the castle of Chillon, illuminated with flood lights, flashes by. This is your old neighborhood.
The Orient Express comes to a stop at Montreux and you’re assaulted by a thousand memories as you stumble off the carriage and onto the platform. The first task is to find a hotel but your eyes focus on a wooden bench that looks like the most comfortable thing you’ve ever seen. You collapse on the hard wood and fall instantly asleep.
The train blows its whistle and heads out of the station on its final leg to Paris.
But you have escaped Istanbul and foiled the Conspiracy. Congratulations.
Few make it this far.