Thursday, March 22, 2007

Couchette to Sofia: Reservations in the Cold War Era

Alexandra S. recently published a delightful post in her blog, MaRveLouS MadNeSs, entitled "I SpY a VaCaTioN". Here's the last paragraph of her post:

"I want to go back to Luxembourg Gardens and have a twilight picnic, play UNO on the Orient Express (which used to pass right through my town in Bulgaria), and I'd love to do more trips that combine travel with volunteering. Maybe not another two year Peace Corps stint, at least not for awhile, but something that allowed me to discover a new part of the earth while also making a difference there, if even in some small way."

Her mention of the Orient Express and Bulgaria brought back memories, not of Eastern Europe, but of Bensenville, Illinois, and my stint as Rail Coordinator for CIT Tours. It was the fall of 1981, and I had abandoned my graduate studies in history to work in the travel business. After going through a 6-week travel training class, I landed a temporary job with French National Railroads in Chicago. I was really just a mailroom clerk, but because I knew how to read the Thomas Cook timetables, I was soon taking reservations for European travel. When the summer season ended, I was without a job. But my experience with European rail reservations stood me in good stead, and I was soon working for CIT (Compagnia Italiana Turismo) Tours, which was the official agency for the Italian State Railways, which then had its Midwestern office in Bensenville, Illinois.

Booking trains in Italy was tricky, to say the least. There were several classes of trains: TEE (Trans Europ Express), Rapido, Espresso, Diretto, and Locale. TEE and Rapido trains were all-reserved. But Espresso and Diretto trains could only be reserved from the origin station. Italian sleepers were handled by Wagons-Lits in Rome, which was still using paper diagrams instead of computers. Booking trains originating in other countries was problematic. No problem with France, West Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Ditto for the Benelux countries. Spain and Scandinavia were hit-and-miss. But there was simply no way to get a reservation originating in a Soviet-bloc country. And in at least one case, it was impossible to reserve into the Eastern bloc.

There was, and still is, a regular train called the Orient Express, which runs from Paris to Bucharest. (The Venice-Simplon Orient Express and the Nostalgic Orient Express are essentially cruise trains.) But the Direct Orient Express made its last run from Paris to Istanbul in 1977. There was, however, a rather sad remnant of the storied train, called the Venezia Express, which operated from Venice to Istanbul. It had none of the amenities of its predecessor. You could reserve regular first-and second-class seats, but if you wanted to sleep lying down, your only choice was a second-class couchette. There were actually two couchette cars on the train--one from Venice through to Istanbul, and a second which only went as far as Belgrade.

Couchettes don't exist in America. A lot of us wouldn't be comfortable with men and women sharing a six-person sleeping compartment. But the system works well in Europe. And one American, probably familiar with the train, wanted a couchette on the Venezia Express from Venice to Sofia.

This was either in late 1981 or 1982, not long after a man with a Bulgarian connection tried to kill the Pope. Italian-Bulgarian relations were at an all-time low. But that shouldn't have made any difference in the matter of booking a second-class couchette. I sent the request over the telex, a device that seemed obsolete even at the time. A few days later I got the reply. My client had a reservation from Venice to Belgrade only. I telexed back, requesting the couchette to Sofia. I don't know wheter I tried a third time, but eventually my boss made a phone call to Rome, and found out that the Bulgarian railways weren't cooperating. My client had to sit up from Belgrade to Sofia, unless he was able to purchase a couchette from the train crew. A petty incident in the Cold War, but then a lot of the Cold War was comprised of petty incidents.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Iowa Caucuses--A View from the Seventies

The Iowa caucuses aren't until January of next year, but the candidates are already making the rounds. John Edwards is virtually living there. But in spite of all the hype, only one candidate has ever parlayed a win in the Iowa caucuses into a win in November. And he didn't really win the caucuses, but came in second to Uncommitted. (I'm excluding incumbents here).

Until 1972 Iowa had virtually no influence on presidential nominations, especally on the Democratic side. But that year two things happened: Harold Hughes, the popular ex-governor and senator, was considering a run for the presidency, and the complicated McGovern Commission rules for selecting delegates went into effect. Iowa Democrats decided to hold their caucuses early that year to allow more time to work through the McGovern Commission rules, and to give Hughes a boost in his run for the White House.

Alas, Hughes bowed out of the race, saying he knew he could never push the button to fire our nuclear missles, even if the Soviets launched first. He endorsed Edmund Muskie, who won the caususes. George McGovern managed a strong showing.

It was not until four years later that the Iowa caucuses became the media spectacle they are today. I was living in Iowa City that year, and was working the precincts for Representative Morris K. (Mo) Udall of Arizona. He was one of about a dozen Democratic candidates in the Bicentennial Year. A bumper sticker that year, taking off on a McDonald's Big Mac commercial, read something like: "bayhbentsenbrowncarterchurchharrisjacksonsanfordshappshriverudallwallace...on a sesame seed bun!"

Birch Bayh of Indiana got into the race too late. Udall had the problem of telling too many jokes. He was a serious candidate, and his message of conservation was right for the time, but people didn't take him seriously because he couln't stop telling jokes. Instead, Iowans--even very liberal Iowans who had campaigned for Gene McCarthy in '68 and George McGovern in '72--seemed to be backing a one-term Georgia governor who had been a supporter of the Vietnam War.

I saw Jimmy Carter at a forum at the Iowa Memorial Union. I had a work-study job driving the campus bus (Cambus), and we drivers were in an adjacent room, signing up for shifts. While waiting for our names to be called, some of us looked in on the candidate. I thought he was boring. Of course, after seeing the trailer for the movie "Rocky," I said that the last thing this country needed or wanted was another fight film. My finger was not exactly on the national pulse that decade.

But I also remember walking around campus that winter, and seeing the chartered Greyhound buses parked by the Fieldhouse. The "H" in CHARTER had been taped over. Scores, perhaps hundreds of Georgians had left their subtropical world for the snows of Iowa. They did what the students for McCarthy had done in 1968: knock on doors and make personal contact with the voters. Even then, Carter was unable to win the caucuses. He came in second, to "Uncommitted." In the Iowa caucuses, you can beat somebody with nobody. And Carter's spin doctors (I'm not sure they used that term then, but there were people who did the same thing) persuaded the news media that coming in second to nobody was indeed a great victory. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary. In spite of the "Anybody but Carter" movement, in the West, where Frank Church and Jerry Brown beat the Georgian in several primaries, Carter's people held onto their lead and swept the 1976 convention.

Carter beat Gerald Ford in a very close election that year. Ford might very well have won, had it not been for Ronald Reagan, whose attacks on Ford during the Republican primaries weakened the president.

It was a bizarre campaign, with dozens of candidates, from Ronald Reagan and George Wallace on the right to Mo Udall and Fred Harris on the left. I had friends who wouldn't vote for Udall because he was a Mormon, and supported Harris, a populist from Oklahoma. Since then, the Iowa caucuses have been more important in winnowing out the weaker candidates or persuading the eventual winners to shake up their campaigns. But in 1976 the Iowa caucuses really did make a president.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Anne, Scott Simon, and Poke and Pour Cake.

I grew up in Iowa. Well, there was a seven-year interlude where I lived in Albuquerque. But culturally, I'm an Iowan. Or at least I thought so. I lived in Iowa City, a university town. So I had never heard of Poke and Pour Cake. Apparently it's an Iowa staple. You bake a basic yellow cake, poke holes in it with the handle of a wooden spoon, and pour gelatin, caramel, or cake frosting down the holes.

I mention this because my daughter Anne goes to school at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Last week she went to a talk by Scott Simon of NPR fame. In his lecture, Simon said he had read up about Iowa, but thought Poke and Pour Cake couldn't be real.

Anne didn't stay for the question and answer session, but went to a nearby coffee shop. And they were selling Poke and Pour Cake. She quickly bought a piece for takeout and ran back to the lecture hall. Simon was still there. The master of ceremonies recognized her and said to Simon: "I think Anne has something for you."

Simon put his arm around Anne's shoulders and admitted there was such a thing. It made me feel better about Simon. (I suspect he's changed his tune on Bush's war--see archives.) And Anne has a wonderful story to tell.