Mother on the Orient Express: Part Five (The Train)

We only had one night on the Orient Express. You could go longer. You could start in Rome and have two nights on the train (and if I could do this again, and had much more money, this would be it.) You can go Venice to Prague to London (but, you know,done that.), or you could just go ahead and travel cruise to Myanmar. But we were going from Venice to Paris, per the suggestion of the travel agent.

Our journey had us boarding the train in Venice during the late morning, arriving in Paris early the next morning. If you go from Paris to Venice, however, your afternoon tea will coincide with the Swiss Alps outside your window. So, you know. Decisions, decisions.

There are rules about attire on the train. The answer to any question is“You’re never too dressed for the Orient Express.” But you could technically attempt to be too dressed, which is why there are also rules about how much onboard luggage you can have. I’d managed to stuff four outfits (boarding outfit, dinner attire, sleeping clothes, Paris arrival clothes), my laptop, and half my life (Kindle, iPhone, Mino, camera, journal, backup paperback, a few surprises for Mom, eight million chargers, curling iron, makeup) into two bags. Then we had our giant suitcases that contained our things for the other nine days of the trip.

I got up extra early that morning, anxious. Mom was already up because she never really sleeps unless she’s completely at ease. What time is it where you are right now? Trust me; Mom’s up.

We decided to wait to pack and get ready for the train until we’d had breakfast, enjoying our last chances to use the word Prego, the only Italian we’d learned during our time in Venice. We wandered through the castle a little, taking a few pictures. We leisurely went back to the room to pack, take our showers in the enormous bathroom, do our hair just so, apply makeup. Tra-la-la, easy-breezy, plenty of time before the water taxi picks us up at 9:30. It was only 8:15!

When we’d come in the night before from late-night gelato and flirty waiters, the front desk reminded us of our morning reservation. I remember looking at a piece of paper on the desk and confirming a 9:30 pick up.

But listen, I don’t understand military time. I mean, I get it, but my brain refuses to acknowledge it. Like the metric system. It’s just numbers that I have to translate into real numbers. I don’t have that kind of time — just tell me what you mean when you’re trying to tell me the time. We are not in the military, so please use the same clock everybody else is using, and stop making me count forward or backward from twelve.

Military time messes me up so much that I’m wiling to take the blame here, even though I think we had a piece of paper in the room given to us by the OE travel agent who picked us up at the airport that said something differently from what the front desk had said, but I’m not one hundred percent sure. I just know that everything was in military time, and having a full hour to get ready made me think that something must be wrong. Which is why I obsessively re-checked the boarding schedule as Mom went into the bathroom and I ended up screaming at a closed bathroom door: “MOM! THE TAXI IS HERE IN TEN MINUTES! WE WERE WRONG! TEN MINUTES! WE HAVE TO GO WE HAVE TO GO WE HAVE TO GO!”

I was going through the kind of panic-shock worse than any “I think we might miss our flight” I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen if we missed the train. Our train. THE train. It’s not like you just grab the one an hour later. This thing only happens a few times a month. And even then, only certain months. This is no normal train.

We threw on our clothes, lying to each other that we looked decent enough to board the classy express. If you’d eavesdropped from outside our door you would have heard such memorable screeches as: “We will do makeup as soon as we step foot on the train! Promise me!” and “Where are shoes I actually want?” and “This hair! This hair! THIS HAIR!”

I couldn’t find the electricity converter I’d borrowed from Jason, the one thing that he asked me to keep track of, the one thing I borrowed and needed everywhere we had been and were going. I called the front desk, trying to sound like I wasn’t panicking when I said, “I’m sure someone didn’t mean to steal it, but can you look around?”

They were a little offended.

Time was running out. The water taxi was coming. We couldn’t swim to the train station. We had to leave the room. I was forced into making the tough decision. I picked up my things, abandoning this piece of technology I so desperately needed to keep my laptop/camera/curling iron working.

And there it was, hiding under my suitcase.

“Go, go, go!”

European elevators, if you haven’t been inside of one, apparently have some kind of law that keeps them restricted to a space precisely two feet by one foot wide. We realized it was going to take two trips to get all of our luggage down to the lobby.

This is when I shouted, “Mom! You go! If the taxi won’t wait for me, you go without me!” And you guys, I mean it. I would have just let her go. Let her have the train all to herself and met her somehow in Paris.

… I might’ve had to have found that Italian waiter in order to deal with the grief, but who could blame me?

But when I got down to the lobby, Mom was standing there with a sheepish grin. We were an hour early for the taxi.

Military Time, I blame you.

We went back upstairs (two trips). Unpacked. Repacked. Did our hair, put on makeup. I tried to fit all of my Orient Express clothes into my carry-on, but my shoes were giving me problems.

“I have extra room,” Mom said.

“Oh good, because I can’t figure out where to put these boots. I think I’m going to wear the boots and put the other pairs of shoes in the carry-on.”

“Well, I have room for all those shoes.” Yes, judgy reader, I brought more than one pair of shoes to a less-than-twenty-four-hour-long event.NEVER TOO DRESSED!

Fifty-five minutes later we strolled into the lobby to find quite a number of people waiting for the water taxi, all dressed for the Orient Express. One tall, thin blonde woman had only a delightful little handbag, miraculously containing all of the things she would need before we reached Paris the next morning. How was everybody else so damn classy? Where was she keeping her toothbrush and her backup paperback?

As we boarded the water taxi, I asked Mom where the suitcase was that held my shoes. “Oh, I gave it to them for the steerage section,” she said.

“What? What, the suitcase is in the luggage that’s going under the train?”

“Well, yes. Why, did you want that in our cabin?”


I was wearing a pair of knee-high brown boots. These would not match the dress I’d brought for dinner, nor would my current outfit — a brown tweed skirt in a horse print — be appropriate for the dining car. I began my second panic attack of the morning. This one had hyperventilation involved.

We all crammed into the seating area, coupled off, tantalizingly close to the front of the boat, where we could see a tower of all our luggage. I watched the driver toss my laptop suitcase into the pile, as if it held nothing more than pillows and shatter-worthy hateables.

Gasp. Wheeze. Gasp. Sigh. I was going to be barefoot on the Orient Express with a broken laptop.

Mom patted my hand. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “You’ll get your shoes.”

“I don’t know, Mom,” I said, unable to pull back from full drama. “I just don’t know.”

Other people quietly stared at me as I freaked out. “That poor mother,”they must’ve thought. “Having to deal with that shoe girl on such a nice day.”

We pulled up to the train station, and then some Italian shit hit the fan. The boat-driver didn’t want to pull the taxi all the way up to the dock and was tossing our luggage. Our travel guide was yelling at him that he needed to dock properly and let us off, because we had to be checked in for the train. I watched the driver mime how easily it is to jump from the boat to the dock and walk around the stack of luggage as the travel agent yelled in a million syllables a second that he was being unreasonable and that we weren’t suitcases and some of us were wearing fancy shoes (NOT ME). He starts gesturing for us to get the heck off of his taxi, prego, and we all start our way off the boat.

Flip! There goes another suitcase, hitting the wooden dock, right at the water’s edge.

Flip! There goes my suitcase that doesn’t have my laptop, but it could. It just so easily could.

Flip! There goes the fancy lady’s impressively compact carry-all. And there it goes right into the water.

Oh, so much yelling! Oh, so much Italian! The tall woman’s traveling partner deftly swept the carry-on out of the canal before it sank, and they were whisked away to file some kind of report.

At this point I grabbed every suitcase that had anything to do with my mother or me. Porters dressed in Orient Express outfits tried to explain to me that they could take my suitcases but no, I was not going to let them out of my grip. I dropped to the ground, unzipped my mom’s suitcase, in there in the middle of all the chaos, grabbed every shoe I could see.

By the way, the woman whose entire outfit was now ruined was veryc’est la vie. “It will dry, or it will not,” she said, as if her dinner plans were nothing more than heading out to Whataburger. I was out of my mind on her behalf, carrying my shoes in my hands like a lost cobbler girl. Mom was nowhere to be seen, as it had just dawned on her that she’d be riding a non-stop train for many, many, many hours in a row, and that meant her ability to have a cigarette whenever she wanted was about to be over.

Things calmed down as we stood in line to check in. From this point on, everything fancy is kicked up a billion notches. You’re standing on a special carpet, you have special boarding passes. “Your items will be in your car when you board.” There was even a film crew in front of us, adding to the excitement. We got our luggage tags and boarding passes, showed them which items went on the train and which ones went under it, until we had nothing left to do but wait.

And then there it was. The Orient Express. Big and blue and shiny, stretching out for so long you cannot see where it ends. It is stunning. I took lots of pictures as Mom continued smoking like the prison guards were calling her back in from break.

It’s not just the bathrobe and slippers, the champagne waiting for you in your room when you arrive. The Orient Express is amazing wherever you look. It’s in the fantastic woodwork, the amazing restoration of the original Art Deco design. It’s in the delicate orchid in your window. The bar of soap. The shaving mirror. Venice outside your window. Someone shouting “All aboard!”

And it was happening, it was really happening. All these years, all these plans, all this running and saving and hoping and wishing, the train was leaving the station and WE WERE ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS!

I handed Mom a new copy of Murder on the Orient Express, but it was the smallest of the surprises I’d had planned for her birthday trip. I’d reserved us a cabin suite, meaning she had her own cabin, her own room, her own sink, and our rooms connected into one large room (click that link to see a 3D rendition of the cabin). I offer you this advice: if you go on this trip with someone who’s not someone you have sex with, splurge for the joined rooms.

And then I got to take this photo, which I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Next time: One amazing day and one unforgettable night aboard the Orient Express.

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  1. Shawna McClure

    I love this story so much! But, ack! Where is the “next time”?! Did I miss it?

    1. pamie

      No, you haven’t missed it, Shawna. I’ve been pretty busy and haven’t had the time to write up the next chapter. Thanks for your patience!

  2. jill

    tears. streaming. AND, this is the second time I’ve read each entry!!

    That photo kills me.

  3. Helen Jane

    Glorious. And inspiring. Thank you so much for writing this up for us!

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