One of my dreams, which I hope someday soon will become a reality, is to take a trip on the Orient Express. There has always been something appealing about long train trips for me, but the Orient Express combines my love of many other things: the unsettling process of travel, the promise of solitude, time for contemplation, historical enquiry and an abiding appreciation of quality.
The Orient Express has been the silent participant and witness of history. It has seen the signing of Germany's surrender in World War One, and in turn, France's signing of defeat by Hitler in World War Two. It has heard Josephine Baker sing a tune in the aftermath of its bombing and read Agatha Christie's literary homage in Murder on the Orient Express. It experienced famous Art Deco artists lovingly decorate its interiors with a quality, attention to detail and love for the arts which is lacking today in our bland and cost-effective trains. Its routes were halted during a divided Cold War Era, and yet it became a symbol of transcendence of borders and unity as Communist Europe came crumbling down.
The Orient Express is also a symbol of other forms of transcendence. Historically, it has put all manner of people from different social classes, nationalities and backgrounds together within its confined space, compelling a movement beyond social and personal borders. In its cosy rooms and sparkling dinning areas, I picture conversations that would otherwise have never occurred, secret romances between strangers who were never to meet again and intrigue facilitated by the throwing together of people.
The Orient Express is like a time capsule of history, but a changing and malleable one. Its history is not preserved behind inaccessible glass in a museum, but is constantly moving. It's a symbol of productive nostalgia: a nostalgia that doesn't seek to freeze the past as a single image or data, but rather one that highlights that history is constantly changing.
The sensation of the train rocking the many bodies it carried as it lulled them to sleep reminds us that their bodies too carried traces of history which they left behind in each compartment. History is embodied, not abstract fact. I imagine myself sitting within the train's interior and reenacting the same feelings experienced by all the lovers, people and travellers of the past. We will share something across the expanse of a moving history, and they will impart me with fragments and traces of the past via our common sensations.
But the most alluring aspect of the Orient Express is its introspective space. Within its interiors, you can imagine a process of closing-in on yourself, removing the mundane borders of everyday life, and being given the gift of doing nothing. It's like a movement within, into yourself; an elaborate process of contemplation that is inaccessible in the busy hum of work, grocery shopping and to-do lists. The Orient Express is like a small encapsulation of the process of travel itself: the freedom to interact with the world and with yourself without reminders of productivity. There's only pleasure.
Image credits: all images are from here and here, by Hotze Eisma photography.