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J U L Y   1 9 7 5
Fiction
Misery on the Orient Express

by Paul Theroux

IT goes without saying that the Orient Express is the most famous train in the world. Like the the Trans-Siberian, it links Europe with Asia, which accounts for some of its romance. But it has also been hallowed by fiction: Lady Chatterley's husband took it; so did Hercule Poirot and James Bond; Graham Greene sent some of his prowling unbelievers on it, even before he took it himself ("As I couldn't take a train to Istanbul the best I could do was buy a record of Honegger's Pacific 231," Greene writes in the introduction to Stamboul Train).

In the end I stopped wondering why so many writers had used this train as a setting for criminal intrigues, since in most respects the Orient Express really is murder.

My compartment was a cramped two-berth closet with an intruding ladder. I swung my suitcase in, and when I had done this there was no room for me. The conductor showed me how to kick my suitcase under the lower berth. He hesitated, hoping to be tipped.

"Anybody else in here?" It had not occurred to me that I would have company; the conceit of the long-distance traveler is the belief that he is going so far that he will be alone.
Return to the Interview with Paul Theroux

Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

See other travel essays and short stories by Paul Theroux published in The Atlantic:

  • The Imperial Icehouse,
    April, 1979.


  • A Circuit of Corsica,
    November, 1978.


  • Greene,
    April, 1978.


  • The Johore Murders,
    March, 1977.


  • The Odd-Job Man,
    April, 1976.


  • The Last Mohican Between Khabarovsk and Moscow,
    August, 1975.


  • Pretend I'm not Here by Paul Theroux
    February, 1974.


  • Burma,
    November, 1971.


  • Two in the Bush,
    July, 1968.
  • The conductor shrugged, perhaps yes, perhaps no. His vagueness made me withhold my tip. I took a stroll down the car: a Japanese couple in a double couchette -- it was the first and last time I saw them; an elderly American couple next to them: a fat French mother breathing suspicion on her lovely daughter; a Belgian girl of extraordinary size -- well over six feet tall, wearing enormous shoes -- traveling with a chic Frenchwoman; and (the door was shutting) either a nun or a plump diabolist. At the far end of the car, a man wearing a turtleneck, a seaman's cap, and a monocle was setting up bottles on the windowsill: three wine bottles, Perrier water, a broad-shouldered bottle of gin -- he was obviously going some distance.

    An old man was standing outside my compartment. He was out of breath; he had had trouble finding the right car, he said, because his French was rusty. He took a deep breath and slid off his gabardine coat and hung that and his cap on the hook next to mine.

    "I'm up here," he said, patting the upper berth. He was a small man, but I noticed that as soon as he stepped into the compartment he filled it. His name, he said, was Duffill.

    "How far are you going?" I asked gamely, and even though I knew his reply, when I heard it I cringed. I was counting on having the compartment to myself. This was unwelcome news. He saw I was taking it badly.

    He said, "I won't get in your way." His parcels were on the floor. "I just have to find a home for these."

    "I'll leave you to it," I said. The others were in the corridor waiting for the train to start. The Americans rubbed the window until they realized that the dirt was on the outside; the man with the monocle peered and drank; the Frenchwoman was saying, " -- Switzerland."

    "Istanbul," said the Belgian girl. She had a broad face which a large pair of glasses only complicated, and she was a head taller than I. "My first time.''

    "I am in Istanbul two years before." said the Frenchwoman, wincing the way the French do before lapsing into their own language.

    "What is it like?" asked the Belgian girl. She waited. I waited. She helped the woman. "Very nice?"

    The Frenchwoman smiled at each of us. She shook her head and said, "Trés sale."

    The train had started to move, and at the end of the car the man in the seaman's cap was braced at his door, drinking and watching our progress. After several minutes the rest of the passengers went into their compartments; from my own I heard the smashing of paper parcels being stuffed into corners. This left the drinker, whom I had started to think of as The Captain, and myself alone in the passage. He looked my way and said, "Istanbul?"

    "Yes."

    "Have a drink."

    "I've been drinking all day," I said. "Do you have any mineral water?"

    "I do," he said. "But I keep it for my teeth. I never touch water on trains. Have a real drink. Go on. What will it be?"

    "A beer would be nice."

    "I never drink beer," he said. "Have some of this." He showed me his glass and then went to his shelf and poured me some, saying, "It's a very drinkable Chablis, not at all chalky -- the ones they export often are, you know."

    We clinked glasses. The train was now moving fast.

    "Istanbul."

    "Istanbul! Right you are."

    His name was Molesworth, but he said it so distinctly that the first time I heard it I thought it was a double-barreled name. There was something military in his posture and the promptness of his speech, and at the same time this flair could have been an actor's. He was in his indignant late fifties, and I could see him cutting a junior officer at the club, either at Aldershot or in the third act of a Rattigan play. The small glass disk he wore around his neck on a chain was not, I saw, a monocle but a magnifying glass. He had used it to find the bottle of Chablis.

    "I'm an actors' agent," he said. "I've got my own firm in London. It's a smallish firm, but we always have more than we can handle."

    "Any actors I might know?"

    He named several famous actors.

    I said, "I thought you might be army."

    "Did you?" He said that he had been in the Indian army -- Poona, Simla, Madras -- and his duties there were of a theatrical nature, organizing shows for the troops. He had arranged Noel Coward's tour of India in 1946. He had loved the army, and he said that there were many Indians who were so well-bred you could treat them as absolute equals.

    We talked about Indian trains. Molesworth said they were magnificent: "They have showers and there's always a little man who brings you what you need. At mealtime they telegraph ahead to the next station for hampers."

    Molesworth surveyed the car. "This train isn't what it was. Pity. It used to be one of the best, a train de luxe. Royalty took it. Now, I'm not sure, but I don't think we have a dining car, which is going to be a terrible bore if it's true. Have you got a hamper?"

    I said I hadn't, though I had been advised to bring one.

    "That was good advice," Molesworth said. "I don't have a hamper myself, but then I don't eat much. I like the thought of food, but I much prefer drinking. How do you like your Chablis? Will you have more?" He inserted his eyeglass and found the bottle, and pouring, said. "These French wines take an awful lot of beating."

    A half-hour later I went into my compartment. The lights were blazing, and in his upper berth Duffill was sleeping. The expression on his face was one of agony; his features were fixed and his head moved as the train did. I turned out the lights and crawled into my berth.


    In the morning Duffill was gone. I lay in bed and worked the window curtain up with my foot; after a few inches it shot up on its roller, revealing a sunny mountainside, the Alps dappled with light and moving past the window.

    Duffill came back in time to admire my rechargeable electric razor. He said that he used a blade, and on trains always cut himself to pieces; he showed me a nick on his throat. He'd be spending two months in Turkey, he told me, but didn't say what he'd be doing. In the bright sunlight he looked about seventy. But he was not in the least spry, and I could not imagine why anyone except a fleeing embezzler would spend two months in Turkey.

    He looked out at the Alps. He said, "They say if the Swiss had designed these mountains, um, they'd be rather flatter."

    I decided to have breakfast, but I walked to both ends of the Direct-Orient and saw no dining car, nothing except more sleeping cars and people dozing in their second-class seats. On the way back to my car, I was followed by three Swiss boys who at each compartment door tried the handle; if it responded they slid the door open and looked in, presumably at people dressing or lounging in bed. Then the boys called out, "Pardon, Madame!" "Pardon, Monsieur!" as the occupants hastily covered themselves.

    The door to the Americans' compartment opened. The man was out first, swinging the knot of his tie, and then the woman, feebly balancing on a cane, tottered out and followed after, bumping the windows as she went. The Alps were rising, and in the sheerest places wide-roofed chalets were planted, as close to the ground as mushrooms and clustered in the same way, at various distances from gravity-defying churches. Many of the valleys were dark, the sun showing only farther up on cliff faces and at the summits. At ground level the train passed fruit farms and clean villages and Swiss cycling in kerchiefs -- calendar scenes that you admire for a moment before feeling an urge to move on to a new month.

    The American couple returned. The man looked in my direction and said, "Did you find it?"

    "What?"

    "The dining car."

    "There isn't one." I said. "I looked."

    "Then why the hell," the man said, only now releasing his anger, "why the hell did they call us for breakfast?"

    The Swiss boys, yelling and sliding open the compartment doors, had preceded the Americans' appearance: this commotion had been interpreted as a summons to breakfast. Hunger's ear is not finely tuned.


    Duffill was eating the last of his salami. He offered me some, but I said that I was planning to buy my breakfast at an Italian station. Duffill lifted the piece of salami and brought it to his mouth, but just as he bit into it we entered a tunnel and everything went black.

    "Try the lights," he said. "I can't eat in the dark. I can't taste it."

    I groped for the light switch and flicked it, but we stayed in darkness.

    Duffill said, "Maybe they're trying to save electricity."

    His voice in the darkness sounded very near to my face. I moved to the window and tried to see the tunnel walls, but I saw only blackness. The sound of the wheels drumming seemed louder in the dark and the train itself was gathering speed, the motion and the dark producing in me a suffocating feeling of claustrophobia and an acute awareness of the smell of the room, the salami, Duffill's woolens, and bread crusts. Minutes had passed and we were still in the tunnel; we might be dropping down a well, a great sinkhole in the Alps that would land us in the clockwork interior of Switzerland, glacial cogs and ratchets and frostbitten cuckoos.

    Duffill said. "This must be the Simplon."

    I said, "I wish they'd turn the lights on."

    I heard Duffill wrapping his uneaten salami and punching the parcel into a corner.

    I said, "What do you aim to do in Turkey?"

    "Me?" Duffill said, as if the compartment was crammed with old men bound for Turkey, each waiting to state a reason. He paused, then said, "I'll be in Istanbul for a while. After that I'll be traveling around the country."

    "Business or pleasure?" I was dying to know and, in the confessional darkness, did not feel so bad about badgering him; he could not see the eagerness on my face. On the other hand, I could hear the tremulous hesitation in his replies.

    "A little of both," he said.

    This was not helpful. I waited for him to say more, but when he added nothing further, I said. "What exactly do you do, Mr. Duffill?"

    "Me?" he said again, but before I could reply with the sarcasm he was pleading for, the train left the tunnel and the compartment filled with sunlight, and Duffill said, "This must be Italy." He dug out his parcel of salami and resumed the meal the Simplon tunnel had interrupted.

    At 9:35 we stopped at the Italian station of Domodossola, where a man poured cups of coffee from a jug and sold food from a heavily laden pushcart. He had fruit, loaves of bread and rolls, various kinds of salami, and lunch bags which, he said, contained "tance belle cose." He also had a stock of wine. Molesworth bought a Bardolino and ("just in case") three bottles of Chianti; I bought an Orvieto and a Chianti, and Duffill had his hand on a bottle of claret.

    Molesworth said, "I'll take these back to the compartment. Get me a lunch bag, will you?"

    I bought two lunch bags and some apples.

    Duffill said, "English money, I only have English money."

    The Italian snatched a pound from the old man and gave him change in lire.

    Molesworth came back and said. "Those apples want washing. There's cholera here." He looked again at the pushcart and said, "I think two lunch bags, just to be safe."

    "How long are we staying here?" I asked.

    No one knew. Molesworth called out to the train guard, "I say, George, how long are we stopping for?"

    The guard shrugged, and as he did so the train began to back up.

    "Do you think we should board?" I asked.

    "It's going backwards," said Molesworth. "I expect they're shunting."

    The train guard said, "Andiamo."

    "The Italians love wearing uniforms," said Molesworth. "Look at him, will you? And the uniforms are always so wretched. They really are like overgrown schoolboys. Are you talking to us, George?"

    "I think he wants us to board," I said. The train stopped going backwards. I hopped aboard and looked down. Molesworth and Duffill were at the bottom of the stairs.

    "You've got parcels," said Duffill. "You go first."

    "I'm quite all right," said Molesworth. "Up you go."

    "But you've got parcels," said Duffill. He produced a pipe from his coat and began sucking on the stem. "Carry on." He moved back and gave Molesworth room.

    Molesworth stepped aboard and climbed up, slowly, because he was carrying a bottle of wine and his second lunch bag. Duffill grasped the rails beside the door, and as he did so the train began to move and he let go. He dropped his arms. Two train guards rushed behind him and held his arms and hustled him along the platform to the moving stairs of the car. Duffill, feeling the Italians' hands, resisted the embrace, went feeble, and stepped back; he made a half-turn to smile wanly at the fugitive door. He looked a hundred years old. The train was moving swiftly past his face.

    "George!" cried Molesworth. "Stop the train!"

    I was leaning out of the door. I said, "He's still on the platform."

    There were two Italians beside us, the conductor and a bedmaker. Their shoulders were poised, preparing to shrug.

    "Pull the emergency cord!" said Molesworth.

    "No, no, no, no," said the conductor. "If I pull that I must pay five thousand lire. Don't touch!"

    "Is there another train?" I asked.

    "Si," said the bedmaker in a tone of irritation. "He can catch us in Milano."

    "What time does the next train get to Milano?" I asked.

    "Two o'clock."

    "When do we get to Milano?"

    "One o'clock," said the conductor. "We leave at two."

    "Well, how the hell -- "

    "The old man can take a car," explained the bedmaker. "Don't worry. He hires a taxi at Domodossola, the taxi goes varooom! He's in Milano before us!"

    Molesworth said, "These chaps could use a few lessons in how to run a railroad."


    The meal that followed the abandoning of Duffill only made that point plainer. It was a picnic in Molesworth's compartment; we were joined by the Belgian girl, Monique, who brought her own cheese.

    "I wasn't quite prepared for this,'' said Molesworth. "I think each country should have its own dining car. Shunt it on at the frontier and serve slap-up meals." He nibbled a hard-boiled egg and said, "Perhaps we should get together and write a letter to Cook's."

    The Orient Express, once unique for its service, is now unique among trains for its lack of it. The Indian Rajdhani Express serves curries in its dining car, and so does the Pakistani Khyber Mail; the Meshed Express serves Iranian chicken kebab, and the train to Sapporo, in northern Japan, smoked fish and glutinous rice. Box lunches are sold at the station in Rangoon, and Malaysian Railways always include a dining car that resembles a noodle stall, where you can buy mee-hoon soup. And Amtrak, which I had always thought to be the worst railway in the world, serves hamburgers on "The James Whitcomb Riley" (Washington-Chicago). Starvation takes the fun out of travel, and from this point of view the Orient Express is more inadequate than the poorest Madrassi train, where you exchange stained lunch coupons for a tin tray of vegetables and a quart of rice.

    Monique said, "I hope he takes a taxi."

    "Poor old chap," said Molesworth. "If he's got any sense at all he'll sit down and have a drink. Then he'll get a taxi to Milan. It's not far, but if he panics again, he's lost."

    It was after one o'clock when we arrived at Milan. There was no sign of Duffill, either on the platform or in the crowded waiting room. The station, modeled on a cathedral, had high vaulted ceilings, and simple signs like USCITA gained the metaphorical quality of religious mottos from their size and dramatic position on the walls; balconies served no further purpose than to provide roosts for fat brooding stone eagles. We bought more lunch bags, another bottle of wine, and the Herald-Tribune.

    "Poor old chap," said Molesworth, looking around for Duffill.

    "Doesn't look as if he's going to make it."

    "They warn you about that, don't they? Missing the train. You think it's shunting, but really it's on its way. The Orient Express especially. There was something in the Observer about it. Everyone misses it. It's famous for that."

    Now, as we traveled to Venice, there was no hope for him. There wasn't the slightest chance of his catching up with us. We finished another bottle of wine and I went to my compartment. Duffill's suitcase, shopping bag, and paper parcels were piled in a corner. I sat down and looked out the window. resisting the urge to rummage through Duffill's effects for a clue to his going to Turkey. It had grown hotter; the cornfields were baked yellow and strewn with shucks and stubble. Beyond Brescia, the shattered windows in a row of houses gave me a headache. Moments later, drugged by the Italian heat, I was asleep.


    Venice, a drawing room in a gas station, is approached through a vast apron of infertile industrial flatlands, crisscrossed with black sewer troughs and stinking of oil, the gigantic sinks and stoves of refineries and factories, all intimidating the delicate, dwarfed city beyond. The graffiti along the way are as professionally executed as the names of the firms on the billboards: MOTTA GELATI, LOTTA COMMUNISTA, AGIP, NOI SIAMO TUTTI ASSASSINI, RENAULT, UNITÁ. The lagoon with its luminous patches of oil slick, as if hopelessly retouched by Canaletto, has a yard-wide wrack of rubble, plastic bottles, broken toilet seats, raw sewage, and that bone-white factory froth the wind beats into drifts of foam. The edges of the city have succumbed to industry's erosion, and what shows are the cracked back windows and derelict posterns of waterlogged villas, a few brittle Venetian steeples, and farther in, but low and almost visibly sinking, walls of spaghetti-colored stucco and red roofs, over which flocks of soaring swallows are teaching pigeons to fly.

    I handed Duffill's abandoned belongings over to the Venetian controllare and asked him to contact Milan and reassure Duffill. He said he would, but spoke with the kind of Italianate carelessness that mocks trust. I demanded a receipt. This he provided, showing me his sour resignation as he slowly and distastefully itemized Duflfill's parcels on the chit. As soon as we left Venice, I clawed it to pieces and threw it out the window. I had asked for it only to chasten him.

    At Sezana, on the Yugoslav border, Yugoslav policemen with puffy faces and crossed black belts on their chests crowded the train corridor and examined passports. I showed mine. The policeman pawed it, licked his thumb, and wiped at pages, leaving damp smudges until he found my visa. He passed it back to me. I tried to step by him to retrieve my wineglass from Molesworth's compartment. The policeman spread his fingers on my chest and gave me a shove; seeing me stumble backward he smiled, lifting his lips over his terrible teeth.

    "You can imagine how these Jug policemen behave in third class," said Molesworth, in a rare display of social conscience.

    "'And still she cried, and still the world pursues,'" I said, "'"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.' Who says The Wasteland's irrelevant?"

    "Jug" seemed uncannily exact, for outside the train little Jugs frolicked on the tracks, big parental Jugs crouched in rows, balanced on suitcases, and uniformed Jugs with leather pouches and truncheons strolled, smoking evil-smelling cigarettes with the apt brand name Stop!

    More passengers had installed themselves in our car at Venice: an Armenian lady from Turkey who was traveling with her son (each time I talked to this pretty woman the boy burst into tears, until I got the message and went away); an Italian nun with the face of a Roman emperor and traces of a moustache; Enrico, the nun's brother, who was now in Duffill's berth; three Turkish men, who somehow managed to sleep in two berths; and a doctor from Verona.

    I was shaving the next morning, amazing Enrico as I had Duffill with my portable electric razor, when we pulled level with a train which bore an enameled plate on its side inscribed MOSKVA-BEOGRAD. The Direct-Orient halted, making its couplings grunt, and Enrico dashed out of the door. This was Belgrade, calling attention to the fact with acronyms, CENTRO-COOP, ATEKS, RAD, and one I loved, TRANSJUG. It was here, at Belgrade station, that I thought I would try out my camera. I found a group of Yugoslav peasants, Mama Jug, Papa Jug, Granny Jug, and a lot of little Jugs; the men had Halloween moustaches, and one of the women wore a green satin dress over a pair of men's trousers; the granny, wearing a shawl which hid everything but her enormous nose, carried a battered Gladstone bag. Migrants in Belgrade: a poignant portrait of futility. I focused and prepared to snap, but in my viewfinder I saw the granny muttering to the man, who whipped around and made a threatening gesture at me. After that I took my pictures with more stealth.

    Molesworth saw me idling on the platform and said, "I think I shall board. I don't trust this train anymore."

    But everyone was on the platform; indeed, all the platforms at Belgrade station were filled with travelers, leaving with me the unforgettable image of Belgrade as a terminal where people wait for trains that will never arrive, watching locomotives endlessly shunting. I pointed this out to Molesworth.

    He said, "I think of it now as getting Duffilled. I don't want to get Duffilled." He hoisted himself into our car and called out, "Don't you get Duffilled!"


    The Belgrade outskirts were leafy and pleasant, and as it was noon by the time we had left the station, the laborers we passed had downed their tools and were sitting cross-legged in shady spots by the railway line having lunch. The train was going so slowly one could see the plates of sodden cabbage and could count the black olives in the chipped bowls. These groups of eaters passed loaves of bread the size of footballs, reducing the loaves by hunks and scrubbing their plates with them.

    The landscape was low and uneven, barely supporting in its dust a few farm animals, five motionless cows, and a herdsman leaning on a stick watching them starve in the same way the scarecrow, two plastic bags on a bony crosspiece, watched the unharvested fields of cabbages and peppers. And beyond the rows of blue cabbage, a pink pig butted the splintery fence of his small pen and a cow lay under a goal of saplings in a disused football field. Red peppers, as crimson and pointed as clusters of poinsettias, dried in the sun outside farm cottages in districts where farming consists of a man stumbling after oxen dragging wooden plows and harrows.

    A woman paused to tip a water bottle to her mouth; she swallowed and bent from the waist to continue tying up cornstalks. I saw large ocher squashes sitting plumply in fields of withering vines; people priming pumps and swinging buckets out of wells on long poles; tall narrow haystacks, and pepper fields in so many stages of ripeness I first took them for flower gardens. It was a feeling of utter quietness, deep rural isolation which the train briefly penetrated. It went on without a change for hours this afternoon in Yugoslavia, and then all people disappeared and the effect was eerie: roads without cars or bicycles, cottages with empty windows at the fringes of empty fields; trees heavy with apples and no one picking them. Perhaps it was the wrong time -- 3:30; perhaps it was too hot. But where were the people who stacked that hay and set those peppers so carefully to dry? The train passed on -- that's the beauty of a train, that heedless movement -- but it passed on to more of the same: six neat beehives; a derelict steam engine with wildflowers garlanding its smokestack; a stalled ox at a level crossing. At each river and bridge there were square brick emplacements, like Croatian copies of Martello towers, pocked by bombs. Then I saw a man, bent over in a field, camouflaged by cornstalks which were taller than he; I wondered if I had missed all the others because they were made so tiny by their crops.

    "I hate sightseeing," said Molesworth. We were at the corridor window and I had just been reprimanded by a Yugoslav policeman for snapping a picture of a steam locomotive. In the late afternoon sun, and the whirling dust the thousands of homeward-bound commuters had raised crossing the railway lines, it stood amidst a magnificent exhalation of blue vapors mingled with clouds of gold gnats. Now we were in a rocky gorge outside Nis, on the way to Dimitrovgrad, the cliffs rising as we moved and holding occasional symmetries, like remainders of belligerent brickwork in the battlements of a ruined castle. The sight of this seemed to tire Molesworth, and I think he felt called upon to explain his fatigue. "All that tramping around with guidebooks," he said after a moment. "In those horrible crocodiles of tourists, in and out of churches, museums, and mosques. No, no, no. I just like to be still, find a comfortable chair. Do you see what I mean? I like to absorb a country."

    He was drinking. We were both drinking, but drink made him reflective and it made me hungry. All I had had to eat during the day was a cheese bun in Belgrade, an envelope of pretzels, and a sour apple. The sight of Bulgaria, with its decrepit houses and skinny goats, did not make me hopeful of a good meal at Sofia station.

    I found the Bulgarian conductor and asked him to describe for me a typical Bulgarian meal. Then I wrote down the Bulgarian words for the delicacies he had mentioned: cheese, potatoes, bread, sausages, salad with beans, and so forth. He assured me that there would be food in Sofia.

    It was after eleven at night when we pulled in, and as Molesworth and I leaped off the train the conductor told us to hurry: "Fifteen minutes, maybe ten."

    "You said we'd have a half-hour!"

    "But we are running late now. Don't talk -- hurry!"

    We quick-marched down the platform, searching for food. There was a cafeteria with a mob at the counter and then nothing more until, at the far end of the platform, a man with a steaming metal pushcart. He was bald; he held a small paper bag in one hand, and with the other he flipped open the several tabernacles of his pushcart and stabbed at white buns and red, dripping sausages the size of bananas, with pink meat showing in slightly burst seams. There were three customers ahead of us. He served them, taking his time, urging buns and sausages into the bags with his busy fork. When my turn came I showed him two fingers, changed my mind, three fingers. He bagged three of each.

    "The same again," said Molesworth and handed him a thousand-lire note.

    "No, no," said the man; he pushed my dollar away and at the same time took my bag from me and put it on the pushcart.

    "He won't take our money," said Molesworth.

    "Banka, banka," said the man. We ran in the direction his finger was pointing and found a teller's cage where a long line of disconsolate people stood clutching pieces of paper and kicking their luggage as the line inched forward.

    "I think we'll have to give this up as a bad job," said Molesworth.

    "I'm dying for one of those sausages."

    "Unless you want to get Duffilled," said Molesworth, "you should get back on the train. I think I shall."

    We did, and minutes later the whistle blew and the Bulgarian darkness swallowed Sofia. Enrico, seeing us empty-handed, got Italian crackers from his sister, the nun, and gave them to us; the Armenian lady presented a slab of cheese, and even sat with us and had a drink.

    "It's usually a good rule to drink the wine of the country you're passing through," said Molesworth. He glanced out the window into the blackness. "I suppose that's still Bulgaria. What a great pity."


    Large gray dogs, a pack of seven, presumably wild, were chasing across the harsh steppes of northwestern Turkey, barking at the train. They had awakened me in Thrace, and when they slackened their pace and fell behind the fleeng train, there was little to see but a dreary monotony of unambitious hills. The occasional army posts, the men shoveling sugar beets caked with dirt into steel hoppers, and the absence of trees made its dreariness emphatic. And I couldn't bear those hairless hills. Edirne was to the north, Istanbul still four hours away; but we traveled over the steppes stopping at only the smallest stations, an unremarkable journey across a barren landscape. Featurelessness is the steppes' single attribute, and having said that, and assigned it a shade of brown, there is nothing more to say.

    The great express from Paris became a doubtful and irritating Turkish local once it got to Istanbul's outskirts, stopping at every station simply to give conductors a chance to fool with notebooks in the Turkish Clapham Junctions and Scarsdales.

    On the right-hand side of the train was the Sea of Marmara, where freighters with rusty hulls and fishing boats with the contours of scimitars lay surrounded by caiques in the glittering water; on our left the suburbs were passing, altering every fifty yards. Scattered tent settlements and fishing villages gave way to highrise apartment houses with shacks at their ankles; then a shantytown on an outcrop of rock, bungalows where the terrain leveled out, and an uneven terrace of wooden houses toppling grandly from a cliff. It takes a while to realize that it's not social classes which are represented in these vastly different building styles, but rather centuries (Istanbul has been a city for twenty-seven centuries), each style an example of its own age and getting older and more solid (shingle to timber, timber to brick. brick to stone) as you get closer to the Seraglio.

    Istanbul begins as the train passes the city wall at the Golden Gate, the Arch of Triumph of Theodosius, built in 380 but not appreciably more decrepit than the strings of laundry that flap at its base. Here, for no apparent reason, the train picked up speed and rushed east along Istanbul's snout, past the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Sarayi. and then circled to the Golden Horn. Sirkeci Station is nothing compared to its sister station, Haydarpasa, just across the Bosporus, but its nearness to the busy Eminonu Square and to one of the oldest mosques in the city, Yenicami, not to mention the Galata Bridge (which accommodates a whole community of hawkers, fish stalls, shops, restaurants, and pickpockets disguised as peddlers and touts), gives to one's arrival in Istanbul by the Direct-Orient Express the combined shock and exhilaration of being pitched headfirst into a bazaar.

    "It all looks absolutely hideous," said Molesworth. But he was smiling. "I think I'm going to like it." He was off to the high-priced fishing village of Tarabya. He gave me his telephone number and said I should ring if I got bored. We were still on the platform at Sirkeci. Molesworth turned to the train. I must say I'm not sad to see the back of that train, are you?" But he said it in a tone of fussy endearment, in the way a person who calls himself a fool really means the opposite.


    Copyright © 1975 by Paul Theroux. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1975; "Misery on the Orient Express"; Volume 236, No. 1; pages 30-36.

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