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The Orient Express

[Have a wonderful Passover, everybody…I thought I would re-reun this old LJ entry here then run off and get the seder table ready…]

A rainy, dreamy Monday…

One of the things I adore about writing historical fantasy is the research.  In LADY LAZARUS, one of the characters has occasion to take the fabled Orient Express from Budapest to Calais…

I found this first-person account in my Internet travels.  Every time I read this, stories start humming in my mind…

The First World War put an end to the Orient-Express; but by 1921 the service resumed and became increasingly popular. Europe, however, had become a much more suspicious and dangerous place. Only Turkey had required a passport in 1876, but now every country imposed its immigration and customs controls. There was always tension as officials in an array of different uniforms tramped through the train at every frontier crossing. This was a challenge to my mother who smuggled the white satin for her wedding dress into Rumania by sleeping on it beneath the customs officers’ eyes. In 1923 she brought a collection of silver in the bottom of a kit-bag on top of which she had packed numerous boxes of face powder with loose lids. The unfortunate officials got their uniforms covered in powder and looked no further.

There was great excitement at Cimpina before the train made its twice-weekly stop. Platforms were swept with long-handled straw brushes, the geraniums and petunias were watered and the stationmaster put on his best tunic. He then paced up and down, glancing at an enormous chronometer and would dart into his office to crank the handle of his telephone to speak to distant signal boxes. Smart horse-drawn carriages lined the approach roads while spectators crowded onto every vantage point to catch sight of the first wisp of smoke. I became familiar with this scene because from 1934 I was at a boarding school in England and passed through Cimpina up to six times a year.

The train’s arrival was followed by frantic activity to make sure not a second of the precious two minutes was wasted. The first problem was to find the blue Wagons-Lits coaches among the motley selection of other rolling stock. Then came the search for the correct coach. The sleeping cars seemed terribly high off the ground and porters preferred to load through open windows rather than to try to drag a school trunk up the steep steps while hanging onto a brass rail. Mother always delayed our departure, to the stationmaster’s despair and to my embarrassment, by inspecting my berth and checking whether there was paper in the WC. Then a shrill whistle blast, a loud hiss of steam, much spinning of engine wheels before they began to grip and we pulled away with handkerchiefs fluttering from every window until we disappeared into the Carpathian foothills.

Here’s the Orient Express’s route circa 1935:


Have a fantastic week….

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