The Orient Express, this elegant rolling anachronism, simply cannot be enjoyed to its fullest without transporting oneself from present reality into a romanticized, cinematic, but not necessarily realistic, version of the past.
While it was the most preferred choice for travel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is no longer. Airplanes and modern high-speed trains get you there faster and a lot cheaper.
Passengers on the early Orient Express donned their best apparel for their journey while today’s travelers on fast modern conveyances dress for comfort.
Therefore, when boarding the 21st-century version, a mindful shift in attitude is required. Time must slow down, better yet, the clock must be turned back, disbelief suspended, and imagination turned to high. We are, for the next 36 hours or so, acting in a fantasy of our own making.
Our destination is Venice, but for now, we are in a moment from a time long ago.
I lounged on the lower bunk, while the countess finished brushing her hair. When she was finally ready, I stood up and slipped on my tux jacket. She straightened my tie.
“After you, my dear,” I said, allowing her to squeeze by me to exit our cabin. Although the tiny mirror over the equally tiny cabin sink didn’t offer much of a view, I thought we looked pretty spiffy as we strolled toward the Orient Express bar car for a before-dinner cocktail.
The train, restored to its early 20th-century elegance, is like a palace on wheels, all polished brass and chrome, etched glass, gleaming marquetry and plush fabrics.
The bar car was crowded with women in cocktail dresses and men in black tie. We found some standing space just in front of the grand piano.
There was a guy in a white dinner jacket telling the piano player, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…”
“Excuse me sir,” I said. “I think you’re in the wrong movie.”
The man ignored me, and the woman with him turned to the pianist and said “Play it again for me, Sam.”
The piano player’s name tag read “Siegfried.”
Giving up, I ordered a martini, “Shaken, not stirred.”
We can be whoever we want to be, whenever we want to be, for this evening.
Later that evening, as the Orient Express shook and stirred us in our bunks on creaking vintage train shock absorbers, I dreamed I was back in the Navy, but Sean Connery was our captain and we were riding out a storm on the South China Sea.
It wasn’t the most restful night’s sleep I’ve ever had, but as the morning sun’s first rays hit our cabin, we were greeted by the magnificent view of the Alps rising steeply on both sides of us. Then our cabin steward brought us steaming coffee and fresh croissants on a silver tray and we sipped and munched our way as the trained wound its way along a very trouty-looking, glacier fed river that tumbled down the steep pass toward which we were climbing.
“I bet there are some nice trout in that river,” I said to the countess.
“Hmn,” she responded, her thoughts clearly not connected to my fantasy at all.