So here’s what my mother didn’t know: that months ago I’d asked the Orient Express travel agent if she could help me make even more of Mom’s dreams come true. If you don’t remember, Mom wanted to sit in the bar car of the Orient Express, drinking a pink squirrel while listening to them play “Sentimental Journey.”
“I think we can try to figure that out,” said the agent, understandably hesitantly. Just in case, I emailed her two YouTube links to the song, plus a link to purchase the sheet music, and eBay’ed my own sheet music, which was nestled next to my laptop in my cabin. I emailed the recipe for a Pink Squirrel, which I found on the Mad Men website, of all places (go ahead and read it; it’s gross), and had a print-out of the thing in my notebook. In short: I dorked out.
I’m just like my mom in a lot of ways, but one of them that might be frustrating to others is that when I have a secret, particularly one that will resort in a nice surprise, I get antsy. I ask a lot of questions. I look around a lot. I start talking like I’m surrounded in children. “Is everybody having fun? Isn’t the weather nice? Do you want to go and get a drink? Maybe you’ll have a drink and listen to music? Let’s go to the Bar Car! Whatever will happen next?”
Once we’d gotten to the bottom of our champagne glasses I’d loosened up enough to realize we were definitely on the train and not going to miss it, which gave me time to start remembering the night before.
You may recall we were given a room in Venice with only one bed, some kind of lover’s suite. Mom took those words too literally, because I woke up at one point to find her spooning me.
Fans of Why Moms Are Weird may know that this is not the only time I’ve opened my eyes to discover my mother curled around my body in a warm, loving embrace. If you’re curious: no, it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. It only brings up more questions.
Have I told you guys how my mom talks in her sleep? She does. She doesn’t do it in a charming, sweet, mumbly way where you’re like, “Oh, what an angel.” My mom sounds like she’s in the middle of an episode of Law and Order: SVU. The night of the spooning, she said this quite loudly, and near my ear: “We know the boy was murdered, but we still don’t know where the body is.”
So I was extra glad we had two different cabins for the night.
The Orient Express is a quarter-mile long, so when you decide to go get a drink, you’re in for a bit of a walk. We passed room after room, most of them with their doors closed, but a few open to reveal couples sitting next to each other, holding hands, enjoying the view. We passed the couple who’d had their suitcase fall into the canal. “I’m sure it’ll all work out,” she still said, so cool and collected. We passed a room filled with Smurfs.
It really was. Smurf stuffed animals, all over the table and couch and shelves. Our cabin steward gave us a shrug. “Everybody’s different,” he said.
So you’re walking and walking and passing cabins and storage cars and you’re surrounded by this beautiful, shiny wood. The cool air is blasting through the window and the scenery is breathtaking. It’s hard not to keep staring out every window, as it is gorgeous everywhere. The temptation to constantly take a picture is overwhelming. You can lower the windows almost all the way and let the air blast right into your face. However, I almost lost my head when an oncoming train passed us, seemingly inches away. Mom yanked me back by the shirt and grounded me.
As we approached the bar car I had another moment where I realized we were actually going to see the thing my mom’s been waiting all these years go see. The Bar Car is famous, we’d traveled all this way just to be in this one room for this one night and as I straddled two cars and opened the door, I was hit with a wave of warmth and piano sounds and it hit me right in the center of my heart.
It is a rare moment when reality exceeds your wildest expectations, that you can achieve a dream without an ounce of disappointment.
I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my face, as I knew I was about to see my mom have this moment and all I could say as I turned to watch her walk through the door was, “Oh, Mommy…”
And there it was. There she was. Standing at the top of this slender, elegant room. To her left a full bar. In front of her a baby grand piano. Behind that, rows of seating. We stood there, causing a small backup of travelers as we held each other for a moment, weeping.
By the end of this trip, I promise you a few of these people must have thought we were on this train because one of us was dying.
The Bar Car was mostly empty at this point, as the majority of the guests were at lunch. Our reservations weren’t for another half hour, so we sat to have a drink. The piano man was playing away, and Mom sat down right next to him. A room filled with empty seats, but Mom sat down inches away like he’d asked us to come to this recital in his living room.
I’m not kidding.
They’d brought over light snacks and glasses at this point. Mom loved the attention to detail, how the insignia for the Orient Express was on everything we touched.
I went to the bartender to ask for napkins for our tears, and to order drinks. Mom wanted amaretto, which means she’s about to classy party. I was about to order a martini when I noticed they carried a Japanese scotch. Not the Yamakazi, which I’d had before, but one with a very similar label. This was called Nikka. I asked him briefly about it and he poured me a glass. I sat back down with Mom.
The piano man finished his rendition of “Fur Elise” with a flourish. My mother applauded. He turned, gave her a knowing smile and a nod, turned back around and immediately launched into “Sentimental Journey.”
Mom looked like this:
And then all of my pictures after that are blurry because we were both crying, and I filmed some of it but I was shaking and accidentally held my camera sideways because I was busy giving my mom a hug and we were trying not to cry too much but still. “Did you do this?” she asked me.
And for a second, I wasn’t sure. It seemed in line with all of the other songs he was playing, and it was in the middle of the afternoon and I thought for sure it would happen at night when she had her pink squirrel, but this was probably my doing. Probably. I opted for a nod.
“I love you,” I said.
“Oh, I know you do.”
After the song was over, I went back to the bartender to ask for more napkins. In his thick accent he asked, “When do you want the song?”
“The song, your mother’s song. He will play it, but I wanted to know when we should do it.”
“He just did it! He just played it. That’s why she’s crying.”
“No! Oh, no! It should happen later, after you eat, with drinking.”
“I know, I thought so, but this still worked. She’s really happy.”
“Maybe we can make it happen again, yes?”
“Maybe. Okay. Thank you.”
Lunch was soon after. They try to seat you in a different car for each meal because the rooms are all different, each one breathtakingly beautiful.
And the food. The food!
Fresh artichoke soup with sundried tomatoes and pan-fried duck foie gras shavings with puff pastry parcels
Sauteed Jon Dory over a shellfish and–
“Oh, I’m not going to like anything on this menu.”
Mom ordered a la carte. Chef Christian Bodiguel came by our table at one point to make sure everything was okay. (He’s this guy this at minute 0:45, and if you keep watching, the piano guy is playing at 1:34. That whole video is in French, but it’s a good depiction of what it’s like.)
The film crew approached the couple to our right, the kind of wealthy where they just looked exhausted at how luxurious their lives were. It simply bored them to eat this food, hold up these earrings with their wealthy earlobes, to taste this extravagance.
“Why aren’t they interviewing us?” I asked Mom.
“Because you’re here with your mother,” she answered. “I don’t think that’s a sexy story.”
“I could tell them about the spooning.”
“Watch it, little girl.”
It did seem I was the youngest person on the train by at least fifteen years.
After we were so stuffed we thought we were going to fall asleep at the table, we made our way back toward our room. We entered the bar car and —
The piano man began playing “Sentimental Journey.” Mom cried again and sat down to listen to the entire thing. We made our own long journey back to our room, where Mom napped. I filled out the postcards they leave on your table and mail for you. I wanted to nap — Mom looked so peaceful — but everywhere there was something to take in and this train costs a paycheck a minute, so I propped my eyelids up. Somehow people had heard that I’m a writer, so the steward offered to show me around. He pointed out the wood-burning stoves the trains use. There are no showers on the train, just single toilets at the end of each car. (More on that later)
The train takes you over the Brenner Pass, which only gets more and more beautiful as it goes on. It also has a bend where you can see almost the entire length of the train.
I keep reading until tea time. Mom wakes up for her tea and then it’s time to prep for dinner.
It seems impossible that it’s already time to eat again; we are still so full from lunch. We try to get dressed in our small spaces, attempt to work the curling iron. It’s dark and raining and the train is rumbling and it’s possibly one of the most romantic moments of my life and I’m with my mother.
(This is getting long and the dinner part is its own story, really, so when you’re ready, continue on to Part Seven)
(oh, and more photos here)