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  • Merrilee MacLean

Rubbing Shoulders on the Orient Express

Turning 50 can be traumatic and has been the butt of many jokes regarding mid-life crises. As I approached that milestone a few years ago, I decided the best way to do it would be on an extended sabbatical, and with style. So, I made reservations on the Orient Express.

We all think of the Orient Express in Agatha Christie terms, with Hercule Poirot and his mustache, traveling from London to Istanbul, with a murder on the way. In today's world, there are a number of other options, from a simple overnight trip between Venice and Paris to a more extended trip, involving more exotic locales. Just check out My friend and I chose something in between - a trip from Venice to Prague, a stopover in Prague for two days, then overnight to Paris, continuing on to London. It was everything we hoped for.

We started out at the special Venice-Simplon Orient Express desk at the Venice train station. You could tell this wasn't an ordinary trip - there were big machines washing the green-and-gold rail cars, men in white gloves handling the luggage, and the arriving passengers were all dressed in a style one doesn't see anymore. We had been warned in advance that one didn't wear "trainers" (read athletic shoes) or jeans on the train, and one "dressed" for dinner. It seemed everyone had gotten the memo.

As we found our assigned carriage, we were greeted by Richard, our personal steward. The interiors of the compartments are gorgeous, with polished inlaid hardwood, fresh flowers and cushy upholstery. As we left the station, the women that had checked us in stood in a line and waved goodbye, while a four-piece band played festive music. We all waved back, watching the people left behind gaze at us with envy.

Rolling through the Italian countryside, we decided to explore the train, making our way through the three dining cars - each decorated in a different style - to the bar car, where we could rub shoulders with the other passengers while listening to the gentleman in tails playing tunes from the 30's on the baby grand piano. I kept expecting Cole Porter to walk by.

After dressing for dinner (not easy when your suitcase turns into a backpack), we joined the other diners for lobster with champagne and white truffle risotto, and an amazing chocolate dessert I still dream about. We watched in amazement as the waiters were able to pour and serve on the rocking train, without spilling a drop.

More than half the men were in black tie and we shared the table with a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary. It seemed most people were there for a special occasion and enjoying every bit of the indulgence this train ride represented. Following dinner, we returned to the bar car for an after-dinner drink, allowing Richard time to convert our compartment into a bedroom. When we returned, the beds were made with extra mattresses and sheets, robes and slippers laid out, and the lights turned low. Alas, sleep was difficult, since these trains were built in the 30's and tend to rattle and sway.

We arrived in Vienna in the morning and were served breakfast (fresh fruit, in crystal glasses, with warm croissants) in our compartment, before traveling on to Prague, where the train was to stay for two days while we explored the Bohemian capital. We soon were back on the train, now old pros at the process. We asked Richard for some ice for the large bottle of Diet Coke we had brought on board out of habit; he returned with a silver tray and ice bucket, with crystal highball glasses.

As this was the last night on the train, the atmosphere was even more festive, and the bar car filled quickly. One couple walked by - he in white tie and tales, she in something long, shiny and red. Most of our fellow passengers were British, it seemed, and I felt I was in a 1940's movie set, no more so than when the piano started playing what I know to be "Pomp and Circumstance," but to the Brits was the patriotic "Hope and Glory." The entire car seemed to come alive, with arms linked and the song sung with fervor, while my friend and I looked around for our caps and gowns.

After arriving in Paris in the morning, the train continued on to the coast, where we transferred to luxury coaches for the quick trip through the Chunnel. On the other side, we were again met by a band and British Pullman train cars, each with its own name, for champagne and a full English tea en route to London, and a return to "real life."

The Orient Express indeed conjures up "glamour, opulence and extravagance" as noted in its website. How better to treat oneself on a sabbatical, where you've earned the right to treat yourself a bit.

A version of this story was first printed in the August 2007 King County Bar Bulletin, Seattle Washington.

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