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ROME RUN ON THE ORIENT-EXPRESS
I stood on the tracks
where Firenze-Campo Marte station ended holding a champagne flute emblazoned
with the monogram of the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express. There was a bottle
chilling in a bucket of ice I’d set on the concrete platform at the edge of
It was a quarter to one in
the afternoon and the sun shone from a sky so clear and blue it broke your
heart, and there was a light breeze that helped make you forget it was the
second of November and not a day in high summer on the flats of Tuscany on a
spur line between Venice and Rome.
I stood with my back to
the last Voiture-Lits car on the Orient-Express, and in front of me, beyond
the deserted rail yard where heat waves rippled from the tracks, was the
southern flank of Florence, pretending to be a butterfly in the distance. I
let myself be conned by this town that had conned Machiavelli and
Michelangelo, and Leonardo and Botticelli and had even in the end conned the
Medicis, because it was a magic vista, and it wasn't only me who felt it. In
the passageway outside the cabins, an American passenger overheard me having a
talk with Robard, our new cabin porter, who had replaced the beguiling Mario,
he of a thousand VSOE stories, at Santa Lucia Station in Venice for the
southbound run to Rome.
"This is the last Rome
run, isn't it?” asked the American. “That's why we're going this way."
I told him it wasn't the
last run. It was close to the last, but there would be more runs this season.
We were traveling off the main rail lines and on spur lines because the
Arlberg tunnel was closed. Rockslides, Bruno, our trainmaster, had told me.
The worst in years.
Still, it had been some
ride. Since barreling from the last of the many short rail tunnels that began
beyond the outskirts of Bologna and ended in the rolling, mountain-fringed
vintners’ fields near Viano, the Orient-Express had begun a slow crawl through
the back streets of Viano and Castello, past new condominium blocks, from
whose many balconies flew the lines of laundry that were Italy's true national
colors. At times we seemed to almost be sitting in the center of traffic
intersections, practically house guests of Florentines who, taking out the
garbage late on a sleepy Sunday morning, gaped wide-mouthed at the unexpected
sight of the Orient-Express paying call. We rolled at almost the pace of a
walk. And as we entered the outskirts of Florence, a city with several
satellite stations, we began the longest stretch of backyard-stealing glimpses
so far on this incredible crawl through Tuscany.
Then, as the VSOE slowed
to a halt outside Firenze-Campo Marte station with a final wheeze of its
engine, I looked at the American and he at me.
"You know what? I'm
"Me too," he said and we
both left the train, and the pair of us, two perfect strangers, stood there
captivated like all those Renaissance painters who’d painted more background
than foreground, and we understood what had made them paint as they’d done,
because there it was, right in front of us, too magical and too present to be
ignored. I drank in the view of Florence down the long, Giorgione-esque
vanishing point of this summer day in November, and I drank my champagne,
wind-freshened, ice cold, and neither of us paid any attention to Robard who
warned us it wasn't advised, that the train might leave any minute, because
the moment had us by the throat.
Besides, hadn't Bruno told
me, "We are the stage, you are the actors. If you play your parts well, you'll
enjoy the journey more?"
So I played the part of
jumping off the Orient-Express in the heat of the moment. I wasn’t lugging a
Lektor but I still had some Clos Du Mesnil ’95 left in the bottle. Now I
topped off my glass, and raised it high, and drained the last of it. Then I
yanked the bottle by its neck from its ice pellet nest, contemplated it a
moment, swung, and smashed it against the side of the Orient-Express,
rechristening it in the name of Florence and life and youth gone and still to
be experienced as the bottle shattered and vintage Krug splashed the flanks of
the old Voiture-Lits sleeper.
But now Robard had brought
in reinforcements; cabin stewards from adjoining cars. Their faces, glimpsed
through windows, showed consternation.
"We could leave any
minute," one repeated, pulling the door open. "You should really come inside."
"I'll take that risk.
Don't worry. If the train pulls out I'll use this hand-rail and climb onto the
"Please don't try that.
And please don't stay out here much longer."
Not that I really intended
to. I lingered until I heard two shrill whistle blasts, and the train lurched
forward. Now my fellow American innocent abroad (who'd already hopped back on)
and my lovely traveling companion, were both hysterically motioning me inside.
The last Voiture-Lits car had already rolled a good distance from where I
stood. I sprinted and grabbed the rail beside the step and hung on as the
train picked up speed. Then the door opened and hands pulled me in. Well, I'd
jumped off the Orient-Express and lived to tell about it. Blame Bruno, not me.
It was nearly five when we
neared Rome, and I knew it was Rome because of the unforgettable rank-sweet
smell of combustion engine smog that still marks it despite decades of
European greening. The car's passengers were out of their cabins now.
Hypnotized by the crawling pace, they were bored and edgy. And now we gathered
speed, and the rails sang sopranos, and the Belle Epoch cars groaned and
creaked. As the train galloped into the final tunnel before Rome we were back
in our cabin. Robard had gaffed all the cabin doors open. He told me a
passenger had complained about the closeness of the air. There was plenty air
now. The corridor felt like a wind tunnel.
It was already dark by the
time the Orient-Express pulled into Rome Central Station, the Roma Termini. We
caught a cab to the hotel, which was the Miami on Via Nazionale, which ran
from just west of the station to Piazza Venezia, home to Mussolini’s former
headquarters. From the 19th century ambience of the VSOE that had changed
little since Georges Nagelmackers originally conceived it, you realize you're
in the midst of one of the urban nuclei of 21st century globalization, as much
so as New York is, that in fact Rome is New York, albeit with somewhat
The cab driver spoke
pretty fair English. Too fair, in fact. I thought maybe I’d seen him somewhere
before. Like in high school. Also, I'd noticed he took the scenic route down
Via Cavour, with a turn onto Via dei Fori Imperiali; a roundabout course that
swung past the Vittoriano -- the national monument officially and
magniloquently called the Altar of the Fatherland but which Romans usually dub
"the Typewriter," “Zuppa Inglese,” and some other things -- spot-lit now that
darkness had fallen, instead of taking the shorter and more direct
straight-arrow run down Via Nazionale that would have put us there in half the
After we unpacked and got
our bearings we realized we were hungry. Two blocks away was a MacDonald’s
(one of only two nearby eateries, the other being a pizza place) which, in
Roman style, was down in a grotto, and which, in addition to a strangely
Italianate Ronald who looked somehow like a gigolo, was still hung for the
Halloween season with cut-out black cardboard bats and plastic pumpkins whose
hobgoblin faces resembled masks from a Goldoni opera buffa. Deeper into this
Roman catacomb beyond a neon sign reading "Playland” were more rooms. These
contained either extremely authentic copies of ancient Roman statuary or the
real McCoys. They seemed to portray either Claudius and Messalina or Nero and
Poppaea. Playland had no cute rides or jungle gyms. Just the statues.
The Roman Big Macs were
tasty, but you had to pay for extra packs of ketchup. A few blocks away was
the Colosseum and one of Rome's main Metro stops, where in space-age stations
that presage underground cities on Mars run identical twins to 1970s New York City
subway trains covered from stem to stern with graffiti not encountered in the
five boros since Led Zeppelin's farewell tour. These have to be seen to be
believed. Unlike the statues, their authenticity isnít in question. Latter-day
Giorgiones and Titians (both first seen painting graffiti on the wall of the
Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice) wielded spray cans like Renaissance artists
had once used brushes.
In need of a few
additional creature comforts after our burgers, we looked for a convenience
store. If this were Brooklyn Heights or the East Side, there’d be plenty. But
this was Rome, and at 9 PM on a Sunday night the only place open in this
chi-chi neighborhood was a superette that had the look and feel of its New
York City counterparts and which carried many of the same brands. Unlike the
Apple, though, it had a well-stocked wine cellar in its grotto-like depths.
Back in our room, I switched on the tube and there was good old Borat. Well, I
thought as I uncapped the bottle with the Gallo label, there's no place ...