Dreaming of Agatha: When East Meet West
By Alexandra Kinias
Article published in Kalimat Magazine
To avenge the death of three year old Daisy Armstrong, twelve people took it upon themselves to bring her justice. On board the Orient Express, the twelve passengers affected by her death stabbed Mr. Rachett, Daisy’s kidnapper, who had killed her three years earlier despite having received her ransom. It was the perfect crime. Had the shrewd Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, not boarded the Orient Express in Istanbul at the last minute, the mystery of the murder would never have been solved.
Murder on the Orient Express was one of the first of Agatha Christie’s books I read. Her own experience travelling on board the lavish train inspired the setting and some of the characters of this thriller. Ms. Christie’s magic spellbound me; enchanted by the plot, I travelled along with her characters. In my imagination, I walked through the compartments, savoured the buffet of desserts in the dining car, and followed Monsieur Poirot. As an eight year old child, arriving in Istanbul on board the Orient Express became my ultimate dream.
Some dreams are engraved in our memories, waiting for the right circumstances to be brought to life. Many decades later, and after spending a weekend in Thessaloniki, Greece, I knew that the chance to recreate my childhood dream was knocking on my door; after all, Istanbul was just next door. I grabbed this opportunity without hesitation and convinced my husband that the fourteen-hour train ride would be a memorable experience. Before he knew it, we were sitting in Thessaloniki train station waiting for the evening train to Constantinople. In that part of the world, the name Istanbul is taboo since Constantinople had been the capital of the Byzantine Empire before it fell into the hands of the Ottomans who not only changed the name, but also converted the church of the Agia Sophia, the Byzantine crown jewel, to a mosque. After the formation of the Turkish republic in 1923, the name of the city was formally changed to Istanbul, but the Greeks never acknowledged this name given to their precious city by their adversaries.
Thessaloniki is the hub for passengers travelling to East European countries. While waiting inside the coffee shop of the train station, I nibbled my hot, melted Kasseri cheese sandwich and watched “Meet the Kardashians” playing on the television screen. Algerian Raï music played in the background. I love globalisation.
On 5th June, 1883, the first “Express d’Orient” left Paris for Vienna and in 1891 was officially renamed “Orient Express”. Though the route changed many times, Istanbul remained a destination until 1977 when the train stopped operating. After this, the city continued to be in the limelight through movies, books and songs. Since Turkey is outside the Eurozone, commuting back and forth between Turkey and Greece depends on local trains. The train we were waiting for arrived on time. Crescents were printed all over it, an indication that it was Turkish. After we boarded, three shaggy men in grey uniforms appeared at the compartment door. The first one counted the passengers, the second handed us bed sheets and the third was pillowcase custodian.
The compartment had a sink and two beds, the upper bed dangling from the ceiling by leather straps attached to each side. Overwhelmed with excitement, I wandered around to explore my dream train. Two cars were taken over by Japanese tourists who transformed the night into day with their camera flashes and another car was crammed with excited backpackers. I imagined the chefs on board the train’s maiden journey preparing dinner: oysters, soup with Italian pasta, turbot with green sauce, chicken “à la chasseur”, fillet of beef with “château” potatoes, “chaud-froid” of game animals, chocolate pudding and a buffet of desserts. I wondered how big their kitchen was.
However, my dinner fantasies evaporated when, to my dismay, I found that the train didn’t even have a dining car. The three shaggy conductors showed up again. The first one pushed a shopping cart loaded with soft drinks down the compartments, yelling to sell his merchandise as if he was in a bazar. The second conductor followed holding a tray to serve the passengers the drinks they ordered. Both men were tailed by their supervisor who collected the money; a live demonstration of what bureaucracy means. The mobile cafeteria closed at midnight with no food to offer the starving passengers. As the voice of the yelling conductor faded into the night, the sounds of the excited backpackers partying on board blended with the rattling of the train and I wondered how such a group of loud young people would have inspired Agatha Christie had she been on that trip.
In spite of the uncomfortable vibration of the train as it raced on its tracks, I eventually fell asleep while trying to figure out a survival plan, should the supporting straps of the upper berth break. My sleep was soon interrupted by the conductor’s continuous knocking on the doors at three in the morning calling for passports. An hour later, the train stopped. We had no idea where we were, the sign being hidden by another train on the opposite track. A sleep deprived, unshaven passport officer in a blue shirt, buttons struggling to contain his bulging beer belly, showed up in the doorway and collected our passports to register them. The train on the opposite tracks left and in the dim street light, I read the sign of Pythion, a small border village a few kilometres north of the border city of Alexandroupolis. The faint streetlight reflected off peeling grey paint on the wooden shacks forming the police station and passport control offices. The Greek flag fluttered on a pole on the platform. A middle-aged officer walked out of the passport control office and whistled. A brown dog came running, lunged at him and wagged his tail. After they shared a sandwich, the officer returned to his office. I was immersed in a scene from a black and white, Eastern European movie when the train roared away from the station.
Fifteen minutes later, the conductor knocked on our door, announcing that it was passport control, again. Amidst our confusion, we discovered that we had already crossed the border into Turkey. At the first stop, we had checked out of Greece and now it was time to check into Turkey. The train braked in the town of Uzunkopru and I was overcome with a sense of déjà vu; the dim street light, wooden shacks with peeling paint, a police station with the Turkish flag hanging on a pole and another shaggy, sleep deprived passport control officer collecting passports. However, before he disappeared he instructed us to follow him to buy entry visas – fifteen Euros each. In no time, the train was filled with mosquitos.
In spite of the military aid Turkey receives from the United States, American citizens are required to have a visa to enter the country, a practice that European passport holders are exempted from. While waiting for the passport control officers to finish their procedures, the customs control officer in civilian clothes boarded the train to inspect the luggage. Dawn was already crawling over the horizon and all the passengers were up and on full alert. The flashes of the Japanese tourists’ cameras glowed in the dark and the backpackers were loud and bubbly. Unexpectedly, the dawn prayer call echoed in the sky of the little village in the middle of nowhere. It sounded like it came from another planet and, for a brief moment, I was disoriented.
Finally, we were given back our passports with their visa stamps and the train thundered on towards its destination. Voices had faded, eyes were red and passengers were worn out. Istanbul was still six hours away. In a delirious state of mind and with a stomach growling from hunger, I yearned for sleep and collapsed, but in less than half an hour, the conductor’s loud voice accompanied by extra knocking on the doors woke everybody up again. He wished passengers a good morning in multiple languages and asked if anyone wanted coffee or tea in his multilingual tongues. The situation was anything but humorous, but all I could do was laugh because the alternative would have been deadly. At this point, other passengers were also ready for bloody revenge. It was easy to read their body language and it wouldn’t have been hard even for Monsieur Poirot to solve this murder case. Before too long, we found out that the coffee and tea operation was a ruse; the real motive behind waking up the passengers was to collect the bed sheets and pillowcases before they left the train. At any rate, the sun was already out and sleep was no longer possible attainable. The Turkish countryside was pretty with miles of cheerful sunflowers, their faces swivelled towards the sun. When we reached the outskirts of Istanbul, the conductor tucked in the beds, removed the sheets and pillowcases and took them away. He checked the cupboards and counted the three plastic hangers on the wall. I watched him in amusement and wondered how I had ended up on this train.
In Istanbul, the Orient Express restaurant, as well as the statue of Ataturk, welcomed us as we stepped out of the train. In desperate need of a meal and coffee, we walked into the restaurant that was opened in the late 19th century to serve passengers arriving on the lavish train. In order to enjoy the moment, I pretended the previous fourteen hours hadn’t happened. I also made a mental note not to think of the return journey for the following days.
I had promised my husband a memorable journey and indeed it was, even though I will not attempt to repeat it or recommend it to anyone. The trip was triggered by nostalgia for the belle époque, an era long gone. This fascination must have been induced by the simplicity, elegance, romance and dialogues of black and white movies. However, after actually having travelled for fourteen hours in the sleeping compartment of a train, I no longer wished to live in any time but the present. I will not trade the Internet, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, iPods and Kindles to relive the era of telegrams. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to have breakfast in the place where Agatha Christie had sat and ate. As I sipped my coffee, I wondered if future generations, who will travel in flying trains, will ever look back at our times with nostalgia too. It is unfortunate that I won’t be around to find out.