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.

1 comment:

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Steve! I don't think much has changed in Bulgaria! When my husband and I went to visit Alexandra there some years ago, we found the surliest "service" of our travel experience. Also our only Soviet Bloc experience outside of tourist-savvy Prague. We did take the couchette from Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, to Istanbul, and the Bulgarian portion was fine, but the middle-of-the-night border crossing was harrowing. The Turks have about a million tests for counterfeit passports, and we were sure they were trying to find a reason to detain us! it was a weird intro to Turkey, which turned out to be one of the easiest and friendliest places we've ever been! As for Italian trains, for all their strikes and habitual lateness and petty thieves who make their livelihood robbing sleeping Americans, I adore them.

And I have to agree with the comment you left on my blog about the dullness of American insults. The Deadwood word of choice is a bit more foul than SOB, but not any more creative. When I read Zora Neale Hurston in college I was particularly struck by how incredibly inventive black vernacular was by comparison. Sicilian, too, I'm sure!