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Authors: John Dos Passos

Orient Express

BOOK: Orient Express
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Orient Express

A Travel Memoir

John Dos Passos

With illustrations in color from paintings by the author




























Cha de noite

Sea's still high

An' sky's all doity

they sang as they propped themselves against the bar and fought seasickness with madeira. On the bench opposite the other passengers sat in a row with green faces. Every long roll of the Mormugaõ ended in a lurch and a nasty rattling of busted clockwork from the direction of the engineroom. Outside, the wind yelled and the spray flew as the boat wallowed deeper and deeper in the trough of the sea; inside, the madeira got lower and lower in the dark amber bottle and the eastbound Americans sang louder and louder into the twitching pea-green faces of the other passengers propped in a row

Sea's still high

An' sky's all doity

Later we are driving along over a huge easy gradual swell with a moist west wind behind us. The madeira is all drunk up. Sky and sea are blurred in a great sweeping scud, silver as thistledown in the hidden moonlight. In that scud the shoving wetnosed wind is carrying spring eastward to fall in rain on Lisbon, San Vicente, Madrid, to beat against windows in Marseilles and Rome, to quicken the thrusting sprouts in weedy cemeteries in Stamboul. Now and then the scud breaks and a tiny round moon shows through among whorls and spirals of speeding mist that thickens into sagging clots and thins into long spaces bright and crinkly as tinfoil.

The bow quivers as it nuzzles deep into each new lunging hill. A squall hides the moon and spatters my head nervously with rain and rushes on leaving some streaks of clear moonlight eastward where the islands are. Then we are driving along muffled in thistledown mist again. I have fallen asleep huddled in the V of the bow.

When I open my eyes the wind has stopped. Only a few patches of scud swirl eastward overhead. The huge swells are bright and heavy like mercury in the still moonlight. It isn't a sound coming across the water, it's a smell, a growing fragrance beating against my face on a burst of warm air out of the east, a smell of roses and dung burnt by the sun, a rankness like skunk-cabbage overlaid with hyacinth, pungence of musk, chilly sweetness of violets. Hours later, eastward we made out, wrapped in clouds, the dark cone of Pico.

Terminus Maritime

At Ostend the boat for the Continent lands alongside of a tall black hotel. After they have gone through the customs and had their passports stamped the passengers for Central Europe and the Orient file through the tall tragic black doorway into a vast restaurant thinly sprinkled with round tables. They sit at the tables and a sound of talk in various languages drifts up into the high coffered ceiling and out over the dark squares of the rainlashed harbor. People order food and eat it hurriedly with an occasional nervous glance at the clock. Having eaten they take their places, which they have previously reserved with pieces of baggage, in the various trains. The trains are rather empty, all the lean windows of the hotel are closed with dark grey shutters, the great squares of the harbor are empty. A conductor with gold braid on his cap paces back and forth on the platform, occasionally stroking the bristles of a rusty moustache.

At the other end of the platform beside a slot machine is a large thermometer constructed, so it announces in red letters, by Monsieur Guépratte, that gives you the chilliness in Centigrade, Fahrenheit, and Réaumur degrees and adds little informatory mottoes such as that 60° is the mean temperature of Pondichéry, that 35° is best for an ordinary bath, that silkworms are happiest at 25°, and also sickrooms.

It is not traintime yet. The eastbound American goes back through the portals of doom into the empty restaurant where in the arctic stillness a lone waiter stands beside a table teetering like a penguin. He sits down beside the waiter and orders a brandy and soda, telling himself with passionate melancholy that 60° is the mean temperature of Pondichéry. If it's sixty in the shade in Pondichéry how cold does it have to be to freeze vodka in Nijni Novgorod? Answer me that Michel Strogoff.

Through the doorway I can read the bronze letters on the wet side of the sleeping car,
Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits et des Grands Expresses Européens. A
gust of wet air slaps me in the face from time to time, bringing a smell of varnish and axlegrease and couplings, a smell of departure and distance that evokes a very small boy being coaxed trembling onto a new huge shining train in a shed somewhere. A train fresh painted fresh varnished that smells like new rubber balls, like tin toys, like sewing machines, a train that is going to start but that never starts. We're going to move. The engine whistles long. We're off. No it's only the walls moving, towns and mountains and trees and rivers moving: Panorama of the Trans-Siberian.

En voiture messieurs, mesdames.… The eastbound American is yanked to his feet, spills money for his drink onto the table, runs out through the tall portal down the wet platform, boards the train that has begun very slowly to move.


Dinner alone beside a pink and yellow lampshade (categoria de lusso), out of the window the colored postcard of San Giorgio Maggiore. Venice the Coney Island of Coney Islands, the Midway of history built for goggle-eyed westerners out of the gaudy claptrap of the east, and through it all the smell of tidewater, rotting piles, mudflats, a gruff bodysmell under the lipstick and perfume and ricepowder, a smell desolately amorous like chestnut blooms, like datura, like trodden cabbages. Women passing on the quai wear their hair fluffed up the way the prostitutes in Carpaccio's pictures do, and long black silk shawls with fringes longer than the fringes of the shawls of the women of Seville; their skin is a firm yellowish color and they have straight ivory noses. An occasional flicker of lightning behind the dome and tapering tower of San Giorgio reveals the fact that it is merely a cutout, that the water is an excellently contrived effect, that the people on the quai are an opera chorus intermingled with a few supers, that the moon is a baby spot.

I hustle out of the restaurant for fear the act will be over, walk hastily along overhung streets, over humped bridges, down alleys where through tavern doorways you can see people drinking at long varnished tables. Red-haired girls behind bars, drunken men playing guitars in front of a cathouse by the waterside, clanging smells of wine and garlic; in every direction spaghetti-tenors singing in boats. In the piazza an orchestra playing William Tell for all it's worth, on the Grand Canal Santa Lucia carried high by a soprano above a croaking of fat basses. In the sky the electrician has killed the moon. I can make out the big and the little Dipper in a spangled black cyclorama. In the canals the ripple of water would be as excellently imitated as in the Nile scene from “Aida,” if it weren't for the inexorable smell of the tide creeping up slimecovered steps, of mudflats and waterlogged barges, chilly hands of the Adriatic groping for your throat.

Florian's; broad shirtfronts of waiters, icecream-colored parasols, women in fluffy summer clothes, white flannels, under a grey sky that someone at the top of the Campanile has suddenly filled with fluttering green, pink, yellow papers that ultimately light among the tables announcing Lulli's toilet articles. Young men swagger in fours and fives through the crowds singing Giovanezza, giovanezza. Somewhere behind the ornate facades, in alleys hidden away so as not to scare the tourists, there is fighting going on. There is something in the air that makes you uncomfortable in the aviary twitter of Florian's. On every bare wall there are signs VV LENIN or M LENIN. I wander irresolutely about over the marble pavements through the dying light of a yellow sunset. A boat with an ochre sail that has a great crimson patch in the middle of it proceeds slowly across the daffodil water, a black barge with four men rowing in effortless unison crawls away towards the Lido. Under an archway behind me some people are looking at a pasquinade scrawled in black chalk. The words are in English in thick rounded letters:


Aha, says the stiffwhiskered gentleman in a straw hat addressing the crowd, That means in English, Death to the Socialisti.


Joggling three times a day in a dining car. First through the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, then through Bulgaria and a slice of Greece. There's the lady from Wellesley who writes for the Atlantic Monthly; an egg-shaped Armenian from New York who was brought up at the monastery of San Lazzaro in Venice, studied painting in Asolo, hates priests, clergymen and Balkan cookery and talks plaintively of Tiffany's and old Martin's restaurant on 28th Street; there's another Armenian whose mother, father and three sisters were cut up into little pieces before his eyes by the Turks in Trebizond; there's a tall iron-grey Standard Oil man, very tall with a little pot belly the shape of half a football. He says he can size up people at a glance and he sits all day writing doggerel descriptive of his travels to his favorite niece. Then there's a man with many seals on his watch who looks like a 14th Street auctioneer, and two scrawny colonial Englishwomen; all these against a changing background of sallow Balkan people with big noses and dark rings under their eyes.

Between meals I sit in the privacy of my little green compartment full of nickel knobs and fixings reading Diehl, who is very dull, occasionally interrupted by passport men, customs agents, detectives, secret police or by the porter, an elderly Belgian who breathes heavily like a locomotive, a man irrevocably exhausted by too many miles of railroad, by too many telegraph poles counted, by too many cinders brushed off green plush seats. At stations I walk up and down with a brittle Frenchman smoking the local cigarettes; he talks knowingly about Bucharest, love, assassination, triangular marriage and diplomacy. He knows everything and his collars and cuffs are always spotless. His great phrase is Aller dans le luxe … Il faut toujours aller dans le luxe.

Day by day the hills get scrawnier and dryer and the train goes more and more slowly and the stationmasters have longer and longer moustaches and seedier and seedier uniforms until at last we are winding between a bright-green sea and yellow sunburned capes. Suddenly the train is trapped between mustard-colored crumbling walls, the line runs among rubbish heaps and cypresses. The train is hardly moving at all, it stops imperceptibly as if on a siding. Is it? No, yes, it must be … Constantinople.


Pera Palace

Under my window a dusty rutted road with here and there a solitary pavingstone over which carts jolt and jingle continually, climbing jerkily to Pera, rumbling down towards the old bridge, all day long from dawn to dusk; beyond, tall houses closer-packed than New York houses even, a flat roof where a barelegged girl hangs out laundry, and across red tiles the dusty cypresses of a cemetery, masts, and the Golden Horn, steel-colored, with steamers at anchor; and, further, against the cloudy sky, Stamboul, domes, brown-black houses, bright minarets set about everywhere like the little ivory men on a cribbage board. Up the road where it curves round the cemetery of the Petits Champs—more dusty cypresses, stone posts with turbans carved on them tilting this way and that—carts are dumping rubbish down the hill, ashes, rags, papers, things that glitter in the sunlight; as fast as they are dumped women with sacks on their backs, scrambling and elbowing each other, pick among the refuse with lean hands. A faint rasping of querulous voices drifts up from them amid the cries of vegetable-sellers and the indeterminate swarming rumor of many lives packed into narrow streets.

BOOK: Orient Express
8.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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