Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Onboard the Orient Express

Tenth in a series from Europe…

OE 1[Paris] – I understand perfectly what Proust meant when he referred to ‘‘the most intoxicating of romance novels, the railway timetable.’’

And what more exotic destination than Istanbul or, better yet, Constantinople. From the 1880’s until the 1970’s you could head for the exotic city that straddles Europe and Asia onboard a train, perhaps the most famous train of all, the Orient Express.

From its earliest days until after World War II the Orient Express was a gleaming luxury train, all cut glass and mahogany. For a few weeks this summer the Orient Express, at least four cars and one of the original locomotives, is back on rails in Paris. Because I love trains and figuring this might be my one chance to actually be onboard the train that sparked a thousand stories I trotted down to the World Arab Institute in Paris one recent rainy day to have a look. It was stunning.

In an age when travel has been reduced to walking around in your socks in an airport security line and jockeying for half the arm rest in a packed Boeing 737, the beautifully restored lounge, sleeper and restaurant cars of the Orient Express offer a envious reminder of what luxury travel once looked like.

A hundred or so curious history and train buffs stood with me in a pouring rain to get a glimpse inside. The exhibit and a fascinating OE 2companion display of Orient Express artifacts and curiosities, including some spectacular travel posters of the era, has proven to be one of the hit shows of the summer in Paris. The gorgeous blue and cream colored rail cars and the shiny black locomotive are displayed in the vast courtyard of the Arab Institute just steps from the Seine in downtown Paris. The exhibit is the brainchild of former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, who now heads the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the French national railway system that owns the name of the fabled train.

As CNN reported in one “compartment identical to the one in scenes from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, the movie is projected onto a screen. With wall panels in precious wood and door handles in gilded brass, each compartment had a matching washbasin and a built-in toiletries cabinet.” To visit the train in Paris is to imagine that it has stopped on a 1930’s journey from London to Istanbul and all the passengers have stepped off to stretch their legs leaving behind newspapers, passports, cigarettes, books and, of course, drinks.

Writing in the most recent issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker reminds us that once-upon-a-time the 20th Century Limited, a great U.S. passenger train, “rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

“The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon,” Baker wrote. “It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.”

OE 3By 1970 all those great trains and all that travel pleasure had vanished and now, even as high-speed intercity train travel is expanding in most of the world, the United States can’t – or won’t – summon the political will to build a world-class rail passenger system. Heck, I’d settle for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Portland.

As I stood in the bar car of the Orient Express recently it was impossible not to think of Agatha Christie’s most popular novel – Murder on the Orient Express – or smile at the memory of James Bond romancing Tatiana Romanova in an Orient Express sleeper car in the film From Russia With Love. It was also impossible not to think of a very dry martini and whether that handsome woman over there wasn’t a Countess.

When the original Orient Express eventually extended its run from Istanbul to Baghdad and ultimately all the way to Egypt, you could make the entire trip in early 20th Century luxury. The restaurant car, the Train Bleu, offered extraordinary food and the railroad featured its own French wine label. The visionary Belgian businessman George Nagelmackers – yes, that was his name – who “invented” the Orient Express came to the United States in the 1870’s to study train travel here. Although rebuffed when he suggested to American railroad sleeping car inventor George Pullman that they jointly develop luxury trains in Europe, Nagelmackers came home and built his own wagon-lits – sleeping cars – and adopted one of Pullman’s innovations, the sleeping car attendant, as one of the features on his trains. The rest, they say, is history and romance and, sadly, only memory now in an exhibit.

I have to be careful how I say it since I haven’t exactly traveled on the Orient Express, but I can say I have been onboard the Orient Express and, like the real journey a hundred years ago, the memories are very pleasant. On second thought, make mine a double.

Georges Nagelmackers

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Georges Nagelmackers

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Copyright © artdaily.org
Georges Nagelmackers

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Nothing Easy About It

StrikeFourth in a series from Europe…

[Milan] – Over the weekend the newspapers in France were reporting on one of the worst national rail strikes in memory. The strike was precipitated, it was reported, by a more radical element in the rail union that distrusts the “reform agenda” of the Socialist government of the wimpy President Francois Hollande. You may recall that he’s the guy who reportedly snuck out of the Elysee Palace on a motor scooter a while back to have a tryst with his actress girl friend. Meanwhile the very beautiful and talented “first lady of France,” to whom Hollande was not married, ended up in hospital – I like how the French say “in hospital” – as a result of the president’s boorish behavior, which of course was spread all over the papers.

But enough, I’m letting French politics and sex get me away from the rail strike.

To put all this an American context, the dispute in France between the radical element in the rail union and the left-wing government would be a little like the ultra-right wing Tea Party in the United States deciding that the very conservative House majority leader was so much of a political squish that he needed to be sacked in a primary election. Radicals around the world simply don’t put up with their own who are just not radical enough.

Give them this much – the striking French rail workers picked a dandy time to strike. Not only is the tourist season gaining full strength, but this is the period in France when many students need to travel for final exams. The strike was, how you say, timed for maximum impact.

In any event, the French rail strike reminds me of two things one should never underestimate: the unpredictable nature of travel, perhaps particularly in France, and the absurd nature of most discount airline travel, as opposed to rail travel, these days. In fact, I have an alternative explanation for the chaos that spread rapidly across France as a result of the rail strike, but more on that in a moment.

I have been climbing on and off of airplanes on a regular basis now for more than 30 years. I belong to a half-dozen frequent flyer clubs and pride myself on knowing my way around airports from Montevideo to Heathrow, from Portland to Milan. I long ago gave up the anger that almost everyone feels when a flight is cancelled or a connection is missed because fog has grounded everything in the Pacific Northwest. I never worry about lost luggage because I never check a bag, even on an international flight. I’m of the school that says travel disruption is as common as political dysfunction and any one of us is just about powerless to affect better outcomes when the travel gods decide this is your day.

So, my mantra – in travel and politics – is to try and remain relentlessly optimistic. What else can you do? Turn off the outrage, have a beer and chill.

I did have to invoke the relentless optimism mantra early Sunday when the big train schedule in Milan’s Garibaldi rail station flashed “cancelled” next to the TGV to Paris. The French rail strike had struck the unsuspecting American.

By my best count I spent most of the rest of Sunday standing in 12 different lines often to be told when I reached the head of the line that I was in the wrong line and needed to go stand for a long time in the right line. Five lines later, and with the rail option from Milan to Paris no longer even as appealing as yesterday’s cold pasta, I discovered easyJet.

Can’t take the train to Paris then why not fly? The British “discount” airline was offering flights from Milan to Paris, so what the heck – book it. While waiting for a train – the Italian trains were running – from downtown Milan to the distant Malpensa airport, I went online and found a flight, booked it, paid for it and started standing in line. Many airline analysts have compared easyJet – and, yes, that is how they spell it – to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. Low cost, no frills, we’ll get you there with little fuss and bother…except easyJet is Southwest with none of the charm or service.

I’ve been a fan of Southwest for a long time. Great customer service, good value, an airline with a sense of purpose and sense of humor. First thing to know about easyJet is you can’t bring normal sized carry-on luggage onto one of the company’s large Airbus aircraft. My no carry-on policy cost me 70 Euros, even though there was ample overhead bin space for those of us who “never” check. I had to stand in three lines to figure out that checking my normal carry-on bag would cost me the equivalent of a good bottle of Champagne. Second thing to know is the Brit discounter wants you to interact with them almost exclusively on the Internet. There is no way in the airport to print a boarding pass. That’s what your easyJet app is for, unless you stupidly neglect to check your normal carry on bags by using the easyJet app and find that when you get to the airport you need to, well, check your bag. That requires standing in a line and getting a form that says you need to check your bag and then going to another line and paying a fellow who is all too happy to take your 70 Euros for a bag that always fits in the overhead bin – except on easyJet.

Once on board my profitably packed easyJet flight to Paris I discovered that I was really inside a flying convenience store. Everything you can imagine was for sale. No free peanuts and a soft drink as on Southwest. On easyJet everything comes with a transaction of a few Euros. You can chose from the largest liquor selection this side of a Paris Hilton party, for a price. Want a sandwich? We have choices. How about some tea or coffee? Hand over the credit card. Some perfume perhaps for the little woman at home? Gotcha covered and we do take cash.

The easyJet business model is clearly to make you pay through the nose for taking two changes of underwear on your discount flight and, oh by the way, if you’re thirsty that will cost you, too.

I will say this for easyJet, whose CEO says in the most recent in-flight magazine that her focus is “on making travel easier for everyone,” that the airline did get me Paris and on time and, not surprisingly, they are making money for shareholders while doing so. Standing in a dozen lines has nothing to do with making travel easier for anyone, but what the heck I got to Paris and today even thwarted the radical French rail unions by actually traveling by train during the strike! Take that you radicals.

Now, back to my alternative theory about why the rail workers went on strike just when they did. As you know if you read an earlier post in this series, rail travel in Europe – notwithstanding the French troubles of the moment – is, in my view, a dream. Fast, clean, convenient, comfortable and affordable. Millions of French citizens and a few of us Americans were reminded this week, thanks to striking French railroad workers. that a train beats an airplane nearly every time. And, yes, carrying my bag on the train today didn’t cost a thing.

Thank you easyJet for saving one leg of a wonderful trip. I hope to never darken your baggage line again.

 

Roman Holiday

Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerThis is the first of a series…

In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.

And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.

On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.

The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.

On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.

The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.

The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.

I still wonder how they got that on film.

Railing Against Rail

trainThe Politics of Trains

I’m going to admit my obvious bias right up front: I love trains. I love travel by train. I collect visits to train stations. I am enamoured with the rails.

I’ve ridden the overnight Red Star from St. Petersburg (Leningrad in those days) to Moscow. I’ve taken the train from London’s Victorian-era Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh. I vividly remember a warm day in Italy and the leisurely train ride from Milan to Florence and on to Lucca. I once flew to Los Angels purely for the pleasure of riding what may be Amtrak’s best train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Seattle. I shared a cigar break on the platform in Eugene with the sleeping car attendant. In New York, I go to Grand Central Station just to watch the people and have a drink at the famous Oyster Bar.

One of my earliest memories – I must have been about four years old – is of an overnight train trip with my brother and mom and dad. We had a double sleeper compartment and, while I would have liked the upper berth, my older brother got it. Still, when dad took my Buster Browns and sat them in the passage outside the compartment and informed me that the sleeping car porter would shine them and return before breakfast, I thought this is what the good life must look like.

As a junior high schooler growing up in the old railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, I loved to go downtown – the Union Pacific mainline actually divides the heart of Rock Springs – and watch trains, particularly passenger trains, whistle through. In the late 1960’s American long distance train travel was in its last gasp, but the wonderful City of Portland still ran through Rock Springs and the romantic sounding Portland Rose made the daily run from Denver to the Rose City.

Now intercity passenger trains in the United States are about as scarce as the American manufacturing sector. The once great network of trains that existed to carry the mail and people has essentially shrunk to a few routes between major cities. Amtrak limps along with regular threats to its budget and often second-class service. The rest of the world is leaving us in the dust.

Spain has now become the world’s leader in high speed rail. King Juan Carlos opened the new Madrid – Valencia line over the weekend. The 219-mile trip will take 90 minutes.

China – big surprise – is investing billions in its intercity trains and has entered into agreements with GE to manufacture equipment. The Chinese have a plan in place to link, by high speed rail, China with Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the USA, we can merely watch as the strategic Chinese leadership comes to dominate the world market for rail equipment and then uses that dominance to economically rule all of southeast Asia, in part, thanks to a modern, high speed rail system.

The universally hated Obama stimulus package contained $8 billion for high speed rail construction, but newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused the money that had been set aside for new routes in those states. Even as congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are talking about reducing the commitment to rail, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has re-directed the Wisconsin and Ohio money to developing rail systems in Florida, California and a few other states. Conservative media voices are almost unanimous in opposition to this type of rail development and the safe betting is that even maintaining existing rail funding in the new Congress will set off a major fight.

The administration has sold high speed rail development a a jobs initiative than as a long-term transportation investment. And, while it is difficult to argue with the jobs that rail construction will create – Wisconsin is already facing job losses from the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build equipment – the real issue here is a long-term transportation strategy for the country.

Here’s a question for American policymakers: why is the rest of the world investing in this technology, even at a time of severe fiscal constraint, while we can’t arrive at any consensus about rail?

I think the answer rests in a different way of thinking in Europe and Asia about transportation. For economic and environmental reasons, countries like Spain, France, China and India are de-emphasizing the automobile and seeking other strategies. While the rest of the world is getting on with the work of finding new ways to get along entirely, or almost entirely, without a car, the U.S. can’t even come together on a strategy to streamline big city to big city transportation.

This may present a pivotal moment, ironically not unlike the moment in the 1950’s when Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to a comprehensive interstate highway system. That decision, unfolding over years of planning and construction, transformed the country, uniting the nation with a modern surface transportation system. For good and bad – mostly good – we are living with that big highway legacy today. Secretary LaHood, a Republican and respected former Illinois Congressman, makes a compelling case that a new, national high speed rail network is this generation’s legacy transportation and infrastructure project. But, given our lack of ability to create a national vision about almost anything, can we possibly seize the moment?

Gov-elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin based some of his opposition to high speed rail on the on-going costs to the state of maintaining the system that was to connect Milwaukee with Madison and eventually Minneapolis. That is a legitimate long-term planning issue, but no different than the cost every state now incurs to maintain Ike’s interstates. The point is that 60 some years ago, the country made a strategic, long-term investment in transportation and, of course, the interstate highway system was incredibly costly. The federal share alone, not to mention on-going maintenance was close to $120 billion, but that cost pales in comparison to the jobs created, the people moved and the commerce facilitated. What will we do for transportation in 2050? China and Spain may be sending us a clue if we are smart enough to listen.

One of the great train stations in the world is the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the terminus of the French high speed trains that connect the heart of Paris with France’s second largest city, Lyon, and the great port city of Marseille. A high speed rail trip on the sleek and comfortable TGV from Lyon to Paris takes about 2 hours, intercity to intercity the 250 miles is covered in comfort and safety. Trust me, arriving at the Gare de Lyon, home to the fabulous Le Train Bleu restaurant, and grabbing a cab at the station beats the heck out of battling the crowds and traffic at Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris. When I made the trip a few years ago, the Paris bound passengers were a mixture of day trippers, business people and tourists. There were as many laptops and cell phones as backpacks and cameras. It was a first-class trip at a fraction of the time and cost to fly or drive.

I’m nostalgic about that first rail trip from Alliance, Nebraska to Omaha more than 50 years ago, but fond memories aside, I can’t escape the thought that Americans would come to value quality intercity train service if our policymakers could get their heads around the idea that we really can go back to the future.

On the Road – Still

francisWaiting for Godot…or Delta

The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them.

There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis’s poignant piece about her life and work:

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.”

Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life – former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci - are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls “the year of the crook.” At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic.

A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a “crippling” one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I’m assured, when all returns to “normal.” I have faith.

Still, I couldn’t help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: “I don’t seem to be able… (long hesitation) to depart.”

I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to “normal.” I just know it.

On the Road

salmaChanging Planes on the Way to…

There’s an old story that if you’re headed for hell you’re going to have to change planes in Atlanta. True, except when its snowing. When that happens you can’t get there from here.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport claims to be the “world’s busiest” and, in the main, it seems a remarkably well run place. Vast, imposing, but well planned and operated, that is until the rare inch or two of snow arrives in north Georgia. Apparently snow was on the ground in 49 states on Friday. Only Hawaii was the holdout, but unfortunately I wasn’t headed in that direction.

A little bit of the white stuff, about the amount that would barely freshen up a ski slope in the northwest, virtually shut down ATL on Friday. Sitting around considering your fate during a “weather delay” provides LOTS of time to consider the human condition. Mostly that condition can be humorous, even amid a thousand cancelled flights. OK, so you have to look for the humor.

A Scotsman in the bar, awaiting his flight to Amsterdam and on to Glasgow – my guess, he’s still waiting – asked a young woman on a nearby stool if anyone had ever told her she looked like the actress Salma Hayak. She wisely didn’t respond. She also didn’t look like Salma Hayak.

During a stop at one of those typical airport shops – one of those places that carries watches, jewelry, etc. – a woman enters talking on her cell: “I’ve found something cheap,” she says, “I think this is what I’m looking for – cheap.” The salesperson glances over a with a smile and mouths under her breath, “cheap, not in this place.”

I’ve long ago quit checking luggage on any flight. I’m a straight on, carry on kind of guy. I figure given all the things that can – and often do – go wrong with air travel, why not eliminate at least one complication. I never check. The folks who did check on Friday wished they hadn’t. One guy sees my rolling bag and asks how I’d managed to retrieve it in and around all the delayed and cancelled flights. He looked absolutely envious when I told him. Maybe I should have offered him a clean pair of socks.

I saw most of the world in Atlanta on Friday. Most folks were pretty well mannered, a little stressed, tired and confused, but rolling with the travel punches. There was lots to see in Atlanta on Friday, but no Salma Hayak sitings – darn. Bet she doesn’t check either.