This is a transcription of Episode 21 — Trains: Better Than Planes and Cars. Fight Me”.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Hello, welcome to episode 21 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we’re getting curious about trains.
David: I love a train.
Melissa: I really love to ride the train, too.. Besides walking, it’s my favorite form of transportation.
David: Yeah. If given the choice between, say, a 90-minute flight and a five-hour train ride, I’m on the train.
Melissa: Same. We’ve been on some pretty memorable train rides, too. Do you favorite?
David: What came to mind was the train we took from Prague to Berlin because I really enjoy both of those cities. And halfway between those two cities is Dresden. And because of the way the train is set up here, you can get off in Dresden and have lunch and look around and get back on the train and it breaks everything up into two two-hour segments, and it’s really pleasant, the whole thing.
Melissa: One of my favorite train rides is a day when everything went wrong.
David: What was that?
Melissa: We were visiting Prague with plans to go to Lake in Slovenia and that’s a very long train ride. So again, we broke it up. And we went from Prague to Vienna, spent the night, got up the next morning. And the first thing we did — Do you remember what the first thing we did was>
David: We ate cake.
Melissa: We did.
David: Because we’re geniuses.
Melissa: And coffee with whipped cream on it. Yeah.
David: [laughing] Because we’d always heard that that cake and hot chocolate in Vienna is a thing. And yeah, we wanted to try it.
Melissa: But we had to get on the train at like 11:00 a.m. so we had cake for breakfast. So we got on the train super hopped-up on sugar. And I had a backpack in which I’d been saving little odds and ends of snacks from different picnics that we’d been on.
David: Yeah because Mel’s like a squirrel when we’re traveling, and she likes to take little bits of food and stash them away in case we need them later. And in this case —
Melissa: We did!
David: It paid off.
Melissa: Because when we got to a halfway point between Vienna and Lake Bled, where we had to change trains, our train was late arriving, and we missed the connecting train. And I think we sat there for about 90 minutes or two hours. And as I recall, like, no one else was in the train station, and the English was not so good for the people who worked in the train stations.
David: It’s the connecting train station in the middle of Austria.
Melissa: So we just hung out and ate our snacks. And then got on the next train. But that meant when we got to Lake Bleed, it was nighttime. And the many taxicabs that we expected to see at the train station were not there to take us into town to our hotel, which was right on the lake of Lake Bled.
David: Because all the tourists got the right train.
Melissa: Exactly. But it was a beautiful evening. It was the perfect temperature. And there’s a train station on one side of the street and a bar on the other side. And both of them were playing the same radio station. So when you stood in the middle of the street, it was like listening to music in stereo.
David: Do you remember what the song was?
Melissa: I do remember because you went into the bar to try to figure out how to get us transportation to the hotel. And I was just standing out in the middle of nowhere in a place I’d never been before in this beautiful evening. And Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ was playing.
[snippet of ‘True’]
Melissa: Then you came out and said that he remembered an old trick, which is, if you go to a bar, they can call you a cab. So you had arranged for a cab and in your hands you were holding a doner kabob, which I had always wanted to try and had not ever had. So it was really the most perfect experience. We hung out in this train station and ate snacks. And then I heard an awesome ’80s pop song and ate doner kabob. And then it got even better when we got to the hotel. Do you remember?
David: Yes, I do. I do. We got dropped off at this hotel on Lake Bled, and we were dropped off at the back of the hotel. You were staying with the bags, I think. That was the deal. And I was scouting. And I remember turning the corner of that hotel and seeing Lake Bled, which is just amazing, lit at night with lights everywhere. And it was just gorgeous.
Melissa: There’s a hill with a castle on it above the lake. And that’s lit up at night. I mean, it looks like fairyland. Really.
David: Yeah, that’s what it was. I walked into fairy land and I was like, I need to go back and get Mel now because fairyland. And then we sat down, we had more cake.
Melissa: We did. [laughing]
David: Because — what’s the name of that cake?
David: Yes, cremeschnitte is a huge thing in Slovenia. Yeah. And we sat on the lovely balcony they had and looked at the magic and ate cake.
Melissa: I feel like as a traveler, your biggest fear is that somehow your connections are going to get messed up, and you’re going to be stuck somewhere where people don’t speak English. And it’s going to be a horrible experience. And that is literally one of the best days I’ve had traveling and everything went wrong. And it was so much fun.
David: Yeah. Do you want to do the 101 on trains now?
Melissa: I do, but I’m taking a different approach today.
David: Are you?
Melissa: Well, the history of trains is long and complex, and I felt like I couldn’t do justice to the history of trains.
David: Yeah, the history of trains is different in every country.
Melissa: Yes, we don’t have time for that. And it might surprise you to know I am not an expert on train history.
David: Let’s start with the United Kingdom. [laughter] It’s 1805.
Melissa: But I will say is that trains have been around for a little more than 200 years. And they really dramatically changed industry and commerce, and were kind of the inspiration for a lot of innovations that have literally changed the world. Trains had a huge impact. If I could just be Captain Obvious for a moment. Trains opened up whole continents to commerce because they could deliver large, heavy, valuable stuff — for example, gold bars or cattle — much further distances than any other form of transportation at that time. And the other thing that was really impactful is that they could also deliver delicate perishables like fresh flowers and fruit and milk and newspapers.
Melissa: They could transport those things quickly enough that they were still fresh and new, which was a new phenomenon.
David: Yeah, they led the way for the 20th century.
Melissa: It also made the world smaller.
David: Yes, dramatically.
Melissa: Before railroads, most people had never traveled very far from their homes because you went on a horse or wagon. Basically, there weren’t cars or highways or planes.
David: One of the things that I read was that Caesar would recognize Thomas Jefferson’s world. There were very few changes between those two things. And then as soon as trains start going, the world starts evolving really quickly.
Melissa: And all of that obviously is really great and important. But what I really want to talk about today is why trains are the most romantic way to travel.
Melissa: And are so inspiring for stories. So one of my favorite books of all time. This is not a surprise to you, Dave. It might be news to our audience, although maybe not. One of my favorite books of all time is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. The characters in that book spend a lot of time on trains traveling all over Europe. Early in the book, the narrator who lives in Amsterdam convinces her father to take her with him on a trip to Croatia. She says, A train carried us to Vienna. My father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling.’ I 100-percent agree with that statement.
Melissa: I feel like that really sums up why trains are awesome in real life and also in stories: They put the travel back in traveling. I have to admit that whenever we fly somewhere, I feel like the adventures don’t really start until we get off the plane. We are particularly bad at air travel.
David: One of the reasons that landing bell is in the introduction music is because for me, the adventure doesn’t start until you hear that [ding sound] that says you can take off your seatbelt and get off the plane. And it’s different for trains.
Melissa: Yeah, with a train, the adventure starts as soon as you get on it. Partially because you are literally on track for your journey. You’re going from point A to point B. There is no question about it. That is the only way the train can go. But unlike the airplane, you can see your progress through the window. You’re moving through time and space in real time, like in a car, except that you can relax the whole time because someone else is driving.
David: And sometimes, like, magical things happen. I remember taking a train back from, I think Croatia and we went up into the mountains, and it was April or something and it started to snow.
Melissa: That was so much fun.
David: That’s fantastic.
Melissa: The other thing that I really love about train travel is that you’re in an enclosed environment with all kinds of people. Characters, if you will, because in my imagination, I’m always making up stories about the people around us. But unlike the plane where I feel like you strap into your seat and you try not to make eye contact or talk to anyone, the train kind of encourages you, if you give yourself over to it, the train encourages you to interact with other people. You could be in a compartment facing them. Or sitting at a table facing them. Or go into the dining car and there they are. Yeah, I mean, we’ve literally rubbed elbows with people having a picnic lunch on the train.
David: Well, and you can share space on a train, right? You can play cards with somebody on a train, which is very difficult to do on a plane.
Melissa: The other thing that’s really fun is that even though you’re traveling in a steel tube, potentially at kind of high speeds, you still have access to the outside. Air comes in through the space between the cars. You can open the windows. Some fancy trains have platforms on the back where you can actually go outside and look at the view.
David: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Melissa: That is bringing the environment you’re traveling through into your space.
David: And it’s so nice compared to a plane to where it feels kind of canned.
Melissa: Definitely canned. No fresh air. Can’t breathe.
David: You look so sad right now.
Melissa: The other thing that’s amazing that we kind of touched on already is that when trains were invented, they were the fastest way to travel. And now they’re kind of the leisurely way to travel right. They’re the transportation for people who want to make getting their part of the journey rather than just a means to an end.
David: Yeah. One of the things that I love most about traveling on trains is you get these little tiny glimpses into other people’s lives, potentially. You’ll be sort of rattling along on the train and look outside and see somebody in a car waiting for the train that you’re on to pass. Or you might go past somebody’s backyard and see their kids playing. Or maybe it’s night, and you can see the light of somebody’s TV. It’s just this little instant, just this little tick where you can actually see it. I find that it’s so nice. You know, it’s just so, trains are sort of human scale in a way that I don’t find planes to be. And that’s one of the reasons why — you haven’t lost connection with other people.
Melissa: You told me one time that you read in a book — I don’t remember what book it was — that when you flew your soul couldn’t keep up with your body. And I think about that all the time on the train because it does feel like your entire being is being transported at the same time.
David: Yeah, the whole thing was, is that your soul couldn’t keep up with your body on a plane, so your soul had to walk to where you were going. So it took a couple of days to get comfortable in your new spot because that’s your soul trying to catch up with you. So that was a lovely idea.
Melissa: So all of these things make train travel the best way to travel. I’m going to say it: Train travel is the best way to travel. But those are also elements that can be worked into a very compelling story. And without a doubt, the most famous stories that on a train is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. So I’m going to be speaking about Dame Agatha a little bit later in one of my books. But for right now, I’m going to take you on a virtual journey on the Orient Express.
Melissa: I want to take us back in time to 1928. It’s early fall, and we’ve been enjoying the sunshine in Constantinople. We’ve been relaxing at the Pera Palace Hotel.
David: The Pera Palace Hotel?
Melissa: The Pera Palace Hotel, which was the official hotel for people traveling on the Orient Express. It was the first building in Turkey to provide electricity, hot running water, and an elevator to its guests.
Melissa: Very posh. We’ve been staying here for a few days, relaxing.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: And we’ve been eyeballing our fellow passengers to see who will do and who will not.
Melissa: Our train departs tonight at 10:00 p.m., so we enjoy one last dinner of Turkish food, hand our bags over to the porter, and head to the station. And when we walk into the station, we see them: gleaming, majestic, dark blue and metallic gold rail cars. The Orient Express.
David: This was in a time when you could hand your bags over to somebody and —
Melissa: They would magically show up in your room and perhaps someone had put your stuff away.
Melissa: We make our way to a lovely teak paneled compartment with a private bathroom. Our beds have made up for the night with silk sheets, but tomorrow they’ll be tucked away and our cabin will magically be transformed into a carpeted sitting room with a cushy sofa and a table so we can write in our diaries. Our journey will take us next to Sofia, Bulgaria and Belgrade, Serbia. Perhaps we’ll share an afternoon tea with a mysterious stranger in the saloon car. And when we look out the window, we’ll see that the train tracks are going along the Danube River.
Melissa: Later at dinner in the dining car, the tablecloths are dazzling white and the light from the chandelier sparkles on crystal glasses of wine and champagne. We dine on oysters and beef fillet, and we make polite conversation and practice our Italian as the train passes through Venice and Milan.
__David:__I wonder if there’s music.
Melissa: Oh, there’s surely music. [piano music]
David: How would they do that?
Melissa: Magic? I actually saw a video with a piano player playing a grand piano in the dining car of the Orient Express.
Melissa: So kind of magic. In Switzerland, when we pass through Lausanne, Switzerland, we might catch a glimpse of snowy peaks that seem to rise directly out of the lake. And then, too soon, our journey will come to an end at the art deco station of the Gare du L’Est in Paris. And we’ll bid adieu to our train and our new acquaintances.
David: And then we’ll be in Paris.
Melissa: And then we’ll be in Paris.
David: That sounds great. When are we doing that?
Melissa: As soon as possible.
David: How many days did it take? Do you know?
Melissa: That particular route was three nights on the train.
David: Oh, that’s not bad at all.
Melissa: Today, you can take the full route of the Orient Express. I believe they run at once or twice a year. And I think it takes five days, which sounds amazing. I think you spend some time in some of the cities along the way. And they bring you croissants and coffee and orange juice in your cabin.
David: And maybe a newspaper.
Melissa: So we should book that immediately.
David: Yep. OK. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: If I get it correct, do I get to go on the Orient Express?
David: Sure, yeah.
Melissa: Then I’m ready.
David: I’m about to read three statements; two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which is the lie. Here we go. Statement one: Neil Young, the rock star, brought us a ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Harvest Moon’ is a huge train fan. He’s such a huge train fan that he bought a 20-mile loop of track, a 1920 Pullman passenger car, a dining car, and an electric engine. And now he uses the whole thing as a vacation home.
Melissa: That sounds like so much fun.
David: Statement two: Japanese trains are so punctual that if they’re five minutes late, the conductor will write you a note you can take to your boss.
David: And statement three: Early in train development, there was a concern that if the human body got above speeds of 50 miles an hour, it would melt to nothing.
Melissa: It would melt to nothing. [laughing] Do you feel like the people — if that is true — the people who thought that… their brains would explode if they knew about rockets or airplanes?
Melissa: I think it is true that if the train is late in Japan, they will write you a note.
David: That is true. The Japanese train system should be one of the wonders of the world. It’s amazing. The trains there are fast. There are bullet trains that can reach 200 miles an hour. That’s 320 kilometers an hour. And they’ve been doing that since 1964.
Melissa: Good for them.
David: They started for the Olympics that year and they just kept going. Japanese trains move a lot of people. The Shinjuku Station in Tokyo sees 3.4 million passengers every day. Which I think makes it one of the most visited structures in the world. For comparison, the busiest airport in the world, which is in Atlanta, sees about 300,000 people a day. This is ten times that.
David: Japanese trains are everywhere. There’s 19,000 miles of track in Japan. That’s 30,000 kilometers. The US has seven times as much traffic, but it’s also twenty nine times as big and they run on time. The average delay for one of the high speed trains is less than a minute a year.
Melissa: Wow. You do not want to mess around when you’re getting on and off that train, I’m guessing.
David: I would think not.
Melissa: Even here on our little Czech trains, you need to be ready with your bags.
David: And if you’re more than five minutes late on one of those trains, they will write you a hall pass. It’s called the Delay Certificate. You can take it to your boss or your teacher, and there’s even an app for it, in case you don’t have the time to wait.
Melissa: Very efficient and polite.
David: And powerful. If you have that many trains moving that many people and it’s that regular that changes everything.
Melissa: OK, that leaves us with you will melt into a puddle if you go faster than fifty miles an hour. And Neil Young.
Melissa: You’re not the only one who does research, David. I also found that tidbit about the fifty miles an hour. So I know that that was true. I always feel like I’ve cheated a little bit when my research leads me to the truth.
David: You won! Many Victorians in England found the newfangled fangled worrisome back in the mid-1800s.
Melissa: These are the same people who are willing to wear green clothing and use green wallpaper that was poisoning them just because they liked the way it looked. But sure, tell me how dangerous the trains are.
David: So according to Atlas Obscura, one of the things they were worried about was that the human body would melt. If the speed of the train got above 50 miles an hour, you would just turn into goo.
Melissa: If you went like thirty five miles an hour, can you just, like, melt off a little of your belly fat? Because that would be amazing.
David: Yes, it would be. They were also concerned about women traveling at that speed. Of course, one idea that made the rounds was that a woman’s uterus would fly out of her body at that speed.
Melissa: I’m really curious about what they think the mechanism for that was going to be. Would it drop? Would it come out her mouth? Would it shoot out of her lower abdomen like a bullet? How is this going to work?
David: I mean, you certainly don’t want to be in the car when it’s happening. Good God.
David: Which brings us to Neil Young. So, yeah, that’s a lie.
Melissa: That’s a really, really good lie. I want that to be true.
David: But the real story is even better. So Neil Young has been a model-train fan his entire life. He started when he was five. When he was an adult, his collection included a 3000 square foot display that’s 278 square metres, or roughly twice the amount of house we were living in Austin. He kept that in a separate structure on his property. In his adult years, he used his massive collection as a way to connect with his son, Ben. Ben has cerebral palsy, and it’s sometimes severe.
Melissa: Oh, that is really sweet.
David: Yeah. In a 1994 interview, Neil said. ‘When they started building the railroad, I built it so my son and I could have something to do together, especially when we found out how disabled Ben was physically.’ To make it easier for his son to operate the set, to give him a better sense of control, Neil invented a wireless remote control panel that Ben could operate with his head.
David: And then Neil got a patent for that.
Melissa: Wow, that’s super cool.
David: Because he’s a musician. Neil also developed a better sound system for his display so his trains would sound more realistic. He got a patent for that. Neil Young now has a total of seven US patents related to model trains.
Melissa: That is awesome.
David: Isn’t that great? He also owns about 20 percent of Lionel, the toy train manufacturer.
Melissa: I love that he’s taken his hobby and made it a tenet of his life. That’s really nice.
David: That’s Two Truths and a Lie. You ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: My first pick is The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lena White. It’s also sometimes published under the title The Lady Vanishes.
David: Oh, ure.
Melissa: Because it was turned into a Hitchcock film of that name. This is a thriller set in the 1930s aboard a train in Europe. So we meet our heroine Iris at a hotel in an unnamed Eastern European country. Everyone is pretty sure it’s Yugoslavia. Guests at the hotel, and later, passengers on the train, mention the town of Trieste, which is in the north of Italy near Croatia.
Melissa: But they speak an unnamed language that no one can understand. Slavic. So Iris is English. She’s young and very pretty and she’s an orphan, but she’s wealthy. And she’s with a group of friends who have essentially taken over the hotel, much to the chagrin of the other English guests. The young people are described as ‘vain, selfish and useless.’
David: Now as it ever was.
Melissa: They’re groping each other and drinking too much and being really loud and splashing around in the pool —
David: — and being young —
Melissa: — being young and attractive. And the other guests are looking down their noses at them.
Melissa: But then at one of their cocktail parties, Iris has a falling out with her friends, and they abruptly leave the hotel and she decides to stay behind because she’s really miffed at them, and she decides to stay. So she’s left with all of these other guests who really have nothing nice to say to her or about her. She is all alone. And the other guests are deliciously awful. They are just what you would expect from a golden age mystery. Through the opening section of the book, where we’re meeting Iris and exploring the hotel with her, there’s also this kind of sinister feeling. You can feel that something is coming. Things start to go wrong when she goes for a hike in the mountains and she gets lost.
Melissa: She’d gone on hikes with her friends, but she realizes that she’s just been following whoever was leading. And now here she is. She doesn’t really know how to get back to the hotel. She falls and tumbles down this steep ravine and gets banged up. And she eventually finds her way back to the hotel. But she’s really shook because she realizes she’s so alone, and this has not necessarily occurred to her before and she decides to get the heck out of there. So the next day, she packs her bags, she goes to the train station and something happens. And it’s unclear even to us as the reader what has happened.
Melissa: But she passes out, she loses consciousness and she wakes up and no one around her can tell her what happened because nobody speaks English. And again, it’s all feeling very sinister and threatening. She decides it must be sunstroke.
David: OK, sure. Yeah.
Melissa: And she just gets on the train. Iris is kind of being set up as maybe a little unreliable. We don’t really know what’s going on with her. So now she finds herself in a train compartment with more quirky characters and an English governess named Miss Froy. And Iris is now so relieved to find someone who speaks English that she agrees to go for tea with Miss Froy in the dining car. But Miss Froy is super chatty and mildly annoying. Iris is thinking very uncharitable thoughts about her.
Melissa: And Miss Froy is very, very nice. Iris has a headache. Miss Froy gives her an aspirin. She’s just trying to make the situation better. They go back to the compartment and Iris falls asleep. And when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone. And she finds this very shocking.
David: So she hasn’t just left the compartment? She’s gone-gone.
Melissa: Iris goes from like zero to 60 on her concern meter immediately. But yes, she does go to look for her and she can’t find her anywhere. But she immediately is in alarm mode when Miss Froy is gone. When Iris questions the other passengers about the nice English lady, including two gentlemen who speak English and the other English guests from the hotel, everyone denies that Miss Froy exists.
Melissa: And this is where the mystery really takes off.
Melissa: The author, Ethel Lena White, isn’t as familiar to us these days as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. But back in the day, she was one of the best-known crime novelists in the 1930s and ’40s. She wrote 17 novels and three of them have been adapted to film. She uses this train setting to great effect. She creates tons of suspense. And for most of the story, we really have no idea if something has actually happened or if this is all Iris suffering from delusions from her sunstroke or getting clonked on the head or whatever it is that happened to her at that train station. The other thing that’s really fun is that she describes the scenery outside the window, and they’re passing through Italy and France and mountains and lakes and rivers. And it’s really fun.
Melissa: The other thing that comes through really strongly on an emotional level is Iris’s feeling of isolation. She’s not entirely likable at first, but you would have to be made of really cold stuff to not feel some empathy for her. She is so scared. She doesn’t feel good — either she had sunstroke or she got hit on the head. But whatever it was, it was bad enough to knock her out. So physically she doesn’t feel well, she doesn’t speak the language. She’s trapped on this train. No one is supporting her or believing her or on her side. And she really begins to question her own sanity. For people who have traveled, I feel like that’s one of your nightmares, right? That you’ll be in a crisis situation and not be able to communicate with anyone. And the more anxious she gets, the less anybody wants to listen to her.
David: We’ve seen a couple of adaptations of this story. We saw Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, and then we saw a BBC version which felt more true to the book, based on what you’re saying.
Melissa: Yeah. The 2013 BBC is a pretty straight adaptation of the novel. And Alfred Hitchcock’s takes some liberties with the story.
David: The Hitchcock version of this story, while it varies significantly from the story that I think you are talking about, has some really nice moments in it. I really enjoyed watching it as just a classic old black and white film.
Melissa: I agree. I think, though definitely read the book version because as a written work, it’s great. And then The Lady Vanishes Alfred Hitchcock version is a fantastic film and you don’t have to worry that they don’t use the same story. The inspiration is there, but his film version works much better as a movie.
David: Yes, exactly, and that’s impressive, too, right?
Melissa: I should also mention that in addition to the two film versions that we talked about, there are also two really good radio adaptations.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Yeah, the BBC did one in 2000 and another one in 2006. The 2006 one is abridged, so you can listen to it, I think, in about 90 minutes. And it’s performed by the actress Brenda Blethyn. And the one from 2000 is a multipart radio drama. So I will put links to all of those things in the show notes. But do yourself a favor and read the book first. I really loved it. If you enjoy noir, you like black and white films, and you want to get the sense of tension that can be built on a train. This book is great for that. It’s by Ethel Lena White and you might find it as The Wheel Spins, or you might find it as The Lady Vanishes, depending on who the publisher is and where you’re getting your hands on it.
David: My first book is Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen E. Ambrose. You might know Stephen E. Ambrose from his book _Band of Brothers that was turned into a series for HBO by Tom Hanks and also wrote very popular biographies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. But this book is about the US Transcontinental Railroad, and it is an amazing story. One of the highlights for this book for me was the the second chapter where Ambrose describes what it took to cross the U.S. in the days before the train.
Melissa: I’m guessing it wasn’t easy.
David: No, there were two routes. Either you walked from one coast to the other.
Melissa: As one does. Why not?
David: Through all the weather, over all the terrain, eating what you could carry, hunt or find.
Melissa: We would be dead in a day and a half. [laughing]
David: Oh, yeah. Oh, no doubt. No doubt.
Melissa: My little squirreling away snacks probably wouldn’t help that much.
David: So that walk took six months, or you could get in a boat and sail around the Horn of South America and back, and that would put you at risk to pirates, weather, drowning, delay and disease.
Melissa: That also seems like a very long way to go.
David: It was 18000 miles at sea. And if you had goods that were too large for a horse or a stagecoach, that’s the way it had to go.
David: So in 1859, all of the pianos on the West Coast went past Argentina. [laughter] So in the second chapter, Ambriz follows people who did all that. And he talks about people who went the long way. The train took that six months of travel and cut it down to seven days.
Melissa: That’s amazing. That must have blown people’s mind.
David: Yeah, for sure.
Melissa: Until they melted. [laughter]
David: So there they are in the 1800s trying to figure out how this is going to work. To get from one coast to the other, so much work had to be done. They were short about 1700 miles of track so that’s 2800 kilometers. They had to cross rivers and gorges and tunnel through solid granite by hand. Basically they didn’t have power tools. And there was also the problem of altitude. Trains at the time could climb but just a little bit. They could go up what’s called a two percent grade or up 106 feet every mile or 32 meters, every kilometer a half, basically. And there are two mountain ranges between where the existing train ended in Iowa and the California coast. The rail would also have to go through areas that had no civilization, some of it desert, and there was no easy access to food or water. And the building would have to go on through all kinds of weather. Eventually, they had to build through snowstorms and fires.
David: And there was the politics. The project didn’t get started without the US government, both because of the money — they needed money from the US government to do i — and because of the land rights. Which means that Congress had to get involved, which means there are arguments about whether the trail goes north or south.
Melissa: And did people want the train to go through their territory or not?
David: Oh, for sure. But the drive was just huge to do it. People knew it would change the United States forever.
Melissa: So were there other long trains at this point that could be held up as a model or provided the impetus for why the United States thought this needed to happen?
David: The United States intercontinental train was the first effort of its kind. It would be another 30 years before, say, Russia or Canada did their huge lines.
Melissa: Two other amazing, romantic rail lines that I could talk about for a long time.
David: Yeah. So eventually this just shockingly competent bunch of people come together to do this thing. Some of them are frontiersmen looking for a path through the wilderness like Lewis and Clark and trying to figure out how to get the train through the mountains. Others are good with industry and trying to figure out how to manage the thousands of men they would need to build the line and how to supply them with food and lines and spikes and water and all of that. Some of the heroes are political. The guys who can go to Washington and motivate and reach consensus. And spoiler alert: they get it done. And at times they were laying track as fast as a man could walk.
Melissa: Oh, I would love to see that.
David: Me, too. The ceremonial golden last spike was driven on May 10th, 1869. As it was hammered, they sent out a message through the Telegraph simultaneously that they’d been building and it went out to every telegraph station all over the country and the message was ‘Done.’ It was the first ever live mass media event.
Melissa: Neat. That’s a very American message. No flowery language: Done.
David: And the railroad, together with the telegraph, like we said before, unlocks the 20th century in America. Here’s a quote from the book, ‘Together, the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph made modern America possible. Things that could not be imagined before the Civil War now became common. A nationwide stock market, for example. A continent-wide economy in which people, agricultural products, coal, and minerals moved wherever someone wanted to send them and did so cheaply and quickly. A continent-wide culture in which mail and popular magazines and books that used to cost dollars per ounce and had taken forever to get from the East to the West Coast, now cost pennies and go there in a few days. Entertainers could move from one city to another in a matter of hours.
Melissa: And circuses!
David: And circuses. Yeah, and blues musicians and ragtime and all of that. This book is a well-told version of that story, and it’s just a great story. The book, however, has a little bit of a controversy. There is a list online of errors in the book. It’s on a site called Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. It’s not a short list. It looks like the kind of thing you’d get back from an editor after your draft went to a fact checker. And I skimmed through that, and there was nothing that seemed really overly egregious to me. But I’m not a historian and I can imagine being upset when somebody labels that grainy black and white picture of a freight car as a passenger car. Or a date that should be 1855 is printed as 1853, that kind of thing.
David: I’m more on the side of a good story; this is a good story. But he’s a historian. And why can’t we have both? Rather cheekily, they they quote Ambrose himself about the importance of accuracy at the top of the document. He says, ‘Historians are obsessed with what it’s true. They have to prove what really happened. And quoting someone, they must demonstrate that person really did speak or write those exact words.’ And he has possibly failed to do that in parts in this book.
Melissa: Still a good story.
David: It is still a good story and it’s still a good book. If you’re curious about what the world was like before the Intercontinental Railroad and the people who came together to change the world and how they did it. This is a solid book that’s Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen E. Ambrose.
Melissa: I promised you some Dame Agatha Christie.
David: You did.
Melissa: I’m about to deliver.
David: Let’s go.
Melissa: My next book is The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsey Jane Ashford. This is a fictional biography of Agatha Christie’s real=life journey on the Orient Express. It’s a grand adventure story about three strong women who are all at crossroads in their lives and need to rise to the occasion.
David: How close to the truth is this, do we think?
Melissa: We’re going to talk about Agatha Christie’s real life before we get into the book.
Melissa: What I’m about to tell you is all true. In 1926, Agatha Christie’s husband, Archie, told her that he was in love with a younger woman, and by April of 1928, they were divorced.
David: And not particularly kindly, if I recall.
Melissa: No, it sounds like he was pretty mean. And then there was also that episode where she disappeared for a while.
David: Yes. Was that tied to this?
Melissa: Yes. Shortly after Archie made his announcement, Agatha Christie infamously disappeared for 11 days. Her car was found abandoned.
David: Now, was she a famous writer at this time?
Melissa: She was.
David: So this made news.
Melissa: It was a huge scandal. It was all over the newspapers.
David: This would be like if Taylor Swift suddenly disappeared for three days.
Melissa: Yes, the world went crazy wondering what was going on. They eventually found Agatha Christie in a hotel. She claims to not remember what happened. And even in her autobiography that she wrote later, she never talked about it.
David: So she carried that mystery to her grave.
Melissa: She did.
David: Wow. That seems fitting it does.
Melissa: It does. That happened shortly after Archie made his announcement. And then by 1928, they were divorced. In October of that year, Archie married his mistress. So as you might expect, Agatha Christie was reeling from this betrayal. She knows he’s getting married and that doesn’t feel good. So she decides that she needs to get out of London for a while. It’s been a rough couple of years for Agatha.
Melissa: And she originally planned a vacation to the Caribbean. But at a dinner party two days before she was supposed to leave, her friends were talking about how much they enjoyed Baghdad. And it sounded exotic and alluring and like just what she needed, so she cancelled her trip to the beach and she booked herself on the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express from London to Baghdad.
David: So that’s how close we were to having mystery on the Caribbean island.
Melissa: Yes. Which I’m pretty sure she did, too.
Melissa: So all of that is true. And in fact, her secretary, Carlo, was so worried about her traveling to the Middle East on her own, he said to him, ‘One must do things by oneself sometimes. Either I cling to everything that’s safe and that I know or else I develop more initiative, do things on my own.’
David: Good for you.
Melissa: Yeah, she very matter of factly pulled herself up by your bootstraps and she got on that train.
David: She split town.
Melissa: So this book is a novelization of Agatha’s experience on that trip.
David: Oh, awesome.
Melissa: And many of the people she meets on the train and, later in an archaeological dig in Ur in the desert of Syria, are real people.
David: These are people she actually knew that she made a little Belgian man with a fancy mustache. [laughing] That would be fantastic.
Melissa: She does not. It begins with her meeting two women on the Orient Express. One of them is real, and one of them is fictional, for the sake of the story. They are all keeping secrets, including Agatha.And due to some very dramatic circumstances, which I will not reveal because it would ruin the book, the three of them become fast friends. When the train gets to Baghdad, Agatha sets up a house there, and she gets back to work writing because she was a famous novelist at this point. But she takes a side trip to an archaeological dig in the desert of Ur, which is now part of Syria and was apparently very famous at the time. 1928. Everybody was talking about it. On the dig is where the three women are reunited. And now the secrets are out of the bag. There are shocking revelations and big plot developments and dangerous escapades.
David: Oh that sounds so good.
Melissa: It’s really fun. The tone of the book is a little bit like a soap opera, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I know that can have kind of negative connotations. It’s like a high-quality nighttime soap opera with really gorgeous production values and lots of drama. And even though it’s soapy, I got really invested in these characters. I might have had some sniffles and tears on a couple of parts, actually. I mean, some stuff happens to them. All three of them are dealing with the challenges of being a woman at that particular time and wanting more for themselves and not really being sure how to make that happen.
Melissa: nd they’re all at turning points where things could just be rubbish and stay rubbish or they can try to forge a new path. So they’re all experiencing some pretty serious stuff. There are romantic entanglements. There are betrayals. There are dastardly men. There are health issues, no self-doubt, which I think everyone can relate to an actual physical danger. I mean, they’re out in the desert. Stuff happens. The ending does a really, really nice job of wrapping everything up. It’s very satisfying and also a little bit wistful. And I really love this for Strong Sense of Place because the author goes all-in on descriptions of life on the train: the scenery, the food. In Damascus. Oh, they get to Damascus, and one of the women has been there before, so she plans this amazing girls’ day where they go to a public bath and they get a full spa treatment. But the book explains exactly what would happen if you did that in 1928. What would that experience be like? And then they go to a cafe in the souk and they have this amazing feast. And she describes all of the Greek and Turkish and Middle Eastern food that they have. They have rosewater almond ice cream for dessert with pistachios on top of it.
David: Oh, that sounds good.
Melissa: So as you might expect, I suppose real life experiences on the train inspired the novel Murder on the Orient Express. I listened to this book on audio. It’s narrated by an actress named Justin Eyre, and she has wonderful accents and she did a really nice job with the voices to differentiate all of the characters. I looked her up. She’s narrated more than 400 audio books.
Melissa: So she really knows what she’s doing. So if you like audio books, this is a really good one for that because the accents are just really lovely, but the language is really nice too. So you could also enjoy it on the page. That is The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsey Jane Ashford.
David: My second book is The Train Book: The Definitive Visual History from DK.
Melissa: I feel like they really pushed themselves for that title.
David: They have a number of books like that where it’s just like Cars: The Definitive Visual History.
Melissa: I mean, I do appreciate the clarity.
David: Yeah, this book doesn’t list an author, which seems a shame to me. I suspect it was put together by a team of people. DK is a British publishing house. They’re based in London. They specialize in illustrated reference books. Many of these books have the visual impact of a magazine. If you remember magazines from way back when, DK does an Eyewitness Travel line, which are photo heavy travel books, we have some of them.
Melissa: I’m looking at one on our bookshelf right now.
David: Yeah, I’d like them as photo reference. They’re fun to look at. I’m not entirely sure I would use that as a travel guide solely.
Melissa: But they’re really great for when you’re trying to get excited about where you’re going.
David: Yes. And to get a sense of what the things are to look for in a particular place that you’ve never visited before. And we’ve seen a picture of something and been, like, ‘Let’s go see that!’
David: Those are these are great for that. They also have a lot of licensing partners. So they publish books for Disney and Lego and such. For a while they had to deal with the Smithsonian where they teamed up and did books with tons of photography on a huge variety of educational subjects. Perhaps it will surprise you: I love those books.
Melissa: I am not surprised at all.
David: Yeah, there are Smithsonian books on everything from history to science to the arts. Therea re books on fashion. There’s a book called The History of the World in 1000 Objects. Oh, that’s really fun. Yeah. There’s another called The History of the World Map by Map, which is now my Christmas list. Most of these are fairly large books. They’re like 10X12 and usually a few hundred pages. The deal with the Smithsonian might have ended. I couldn’t find anything about it on either of their sites, DK or Smithsonian. But DK is still producing great visual reference books. Which brings us to _The Train Book,: The Definitive Visual History.’ This is a 300-page book loaded with pictures and maps and timelines. It starts with a pen and watercolor illustration of an early locomotive from the 1930s, and it runs into the future with prototype trains that might see service in 2035.
Melissa: That’s fun.
David: Yeah, and in between we had a dazzling history of trains. There are tons of pictures of engines and cars. You can use that as a catalog and decide what your favorite train area is. For me, it’s a bit of a toss-up between the early 1900s and the 1930s. The early 1990s trains are cute, but the ’30s are a bit more stylish. For some of the engines, they lay out the interiors for you so you can get to see the switches and dials and such. Because there are so many, you get a sense of how those have evolved over the decades and the difference between piloting a train in 1910 and now. There are also interiors of some cars. You can imagine what it’s like to ride on a train called the Palace on Wheels, which is a famous Indian luxury car.
Melissa: I’ve seen pictures of that one. It has a beautiful chandelier and fabrics.
David: Yeah, or maybe you’d prefer the 1920s style Pullman or the more modern bullet trains. They’re all they’re all in there.
Melissa: I have to admit that when you told me you were getting this book, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic, but I spent a bunch of time yesterday flipping through it. And it is super fun.
David: Yeah, it’s really, really pretty. It’s fun to look at.
Melissa: Your point about it being magazine is a really a good one because you could read it beginning to end. But it’s also one of those books you can just pick it up and flip to a page, and there’s something interesting or beautiful or fun to find on that page.
David: Very browsable. All of their stuff is very browsable.
Melissa: Feels like a good gift book even if people aren’t interested in trains.
David: Exactly that. It also it also has maps of famous train journeys, so you get to see where the Orient Express ran through Europe or the Trans-Siberian through Russia or the Blue Train through Africa. All these spreads have pictures of what you might see along the way, too, which is nice. There’s also a spread on where you can go to ride classic old steam trains. That page in particular brings up some lovely names like the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway in Colorado, or the Puffing Billy Railway near Melbourne, or the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which runs through West Bengal.
David: But I think my favorite part of the book is at the very end. It’s a section called The How Railways Work, and here they’ve illustrated how it all comes together, how the wheels set on the track and how the track is put together and how the railway signals work and how the different kinds of locomotive engines work. All of these books are primarily marketed to children, mostly as middle grade readers. I’ve said this before and I’ll doubtlessly say it again: I find this ageist. These are great books for anyone who wants to see high quality pictures of just fascinating things. I think bookstores should have a shelf for ageless reads.
David: This also might be a good time to punch up the idea that children’s books make excellent reference. If you’re interested in something and there’s a well-regarded children’s book on the topic, it’s worth a look. Children’s books tend to have the basics and they’re well laid out and they’re frequently illustrated and you can get through them in about an hour.
Melissa: And they don’t assume that you have any foundational knowledge, so they’re giving you the basics and then building on it, which I find really helpful, particularly for what we’re doing and particularly when you want to travel somewhere or better understand another part of the world or something specific, like how a train works.
David: Or if you’re just kind of interested. I remember a couple of years ago there was a children’s book that came out that on Josephine Baker, and I hadn’t really paid any attention to Josephine Baker, but we got that book and we read it together. And it was wonderful, was great. And now I know about Josephine Baker.
Melissa: I will also add that some of the nicest times we’ve had together are when we read children’s books to each other.
David: That’s true.
Melissa: They’re great for reading out loud and you don’t have to be a wee one to appreciate them.
David: Yeah, I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies a couple of years ago to get a master’s in cartooning, which I loved the experience. But one of the things that I love most about it was people would come by and because we were a class, they would read us their books. And frequently they were illustrated because it was a cartoon school. And it brought back to me how much of a sucker I am for somebody reading a story. To me, it’s really nice.
Melissa: It’s so nice.
David: You know, you’d sit there and drink a little coffee and hear the story and see the pictures. It’s great. It’s really lovely. If you are curious about trains and if you’re visually oriented or you know somebody who is, I highly recommend _The Train Book,: The Definitive Visual History from DK press.
Melissa: My final book is one of my all time favorites that I have been carting around for decades. It’s The Edge by Dick Francis. This is a mystery novel set in the world of horse racing by the one, the only, the master of mystery novels set in the world of horse racing. Dick Francis has written 42 crime novels, and I have read almost all of them.
Melissa: There are a few things that I love about his work, so I want to talk about it for just a minute. They always feature a stand up guy as the hero. He’s handsome but not too handsome. He’s resourceful and relentless. He is plagued by having too much integrity. He’s very decent, naturally charming, and he is gentlemanly to women and men alike.
David: Are these 42 different main characters?
Melissa: There are two recurring characters. One of them is in four books and one of them is in two, and then the rest are all new.
David: Wow. So there maybe, let’s say 35 copies of that character you just described. And they’re all men.
Melissa: And they they are different from each other, but they have those core shared characteristics. I suspect that Dick Francis was a very kind man.
David: I suspect that’s true because you wouldn’t be drawn to that if you weren’t. I just wonder if he could have saved himself some time by being like it’s the same as this other guy over here.
Melissa: Well, the thing that’s really fun is that they tend to be set in the world of steeplechase horse racing. So often the hero is a jockey. But he also explored other subcultures like the world of filmmaking and photography or art or journalism or banking. So sometimes we get that core character. But he’s a photographer, so that changes him slightly. It’s a really fun way to kind of peek into other people’s homes and lives. And his research is always really detailed, so there’s one that’s about a villain who’s been stealing expensive wine and replacing it with cheap wine in the vintage bottles.
Melissa: here was so much insider information about how the world of wine and alcohol distribution works. It’s really fascinating.
David: So he was subsidizing his curiosity about the world through his writing?
Melissa: I believe so, yes. Word on the street is that he and his wife were very good partners, both in being a married couple and in work, and that she did the research and he wrote the novels. And he said very often that he couldn’t do what he did without her and he actually wanted her to have a co-writing credit on his first novel. Very sweet. They seem like lovely people.
Melissa: In contrast, his villains are very, very bad. There is no gray with his villains. These men and sometimes women are terrible people and they 100-percent deserve what’s coming to them. And in a very satisfying way, they almost always get what’s coming to them. He sets the world right in his books. And finally, there is a reverence for a cup of tea that I find very reassuring. [laughter] You could have just gotten trampled by a horse. Yeah, you could have just gotten beaned in the head by a bad guy with a baseball bat or a cricket bat, I guess. But a very hot, sweet cup of tea will set you right.
David: Always, yeah.
Melissa: So in this book, our hero is Tor Kelsey and he’s an undercover investigator for the Jockey Club. He also happens to be very rich, and he works to keep himself occupied because he doesn’t want to be a spoiled, lazy, entitled rich person. But his familiarity with the upper crust kind of allows him to hobnob with all kinds of people. He has this gift where he can turn on his poshness and turn it off when he needs to. So he blends in really well with everyone. He’s been assigned to get the goods on a villain named Julius Apollo Filmer.
David: He sounds like a villain.
Melissa: He is suspected of murder, intimidating witnesses, blackmail, and malarky involving very expensive horses. So here’s the part of the book that makes it perfect for this episode. Tor is joining the villain on a luxury train ride across Canada. The other guests on the train are wealthy racehorse owners, and the train is going to stop at racecourses along the way. To entertain the guests while they’re on the train, the staff is being augmented with actors who are putting on a live murder mystery theater.
David: [laughing] Because one murder mystery is not enough.
Melissa: Exactly. You get a free one to go along with your main one. This whole extravaganza is called the Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train, and Tor poses as a waiter and goes undercover.
David: That’s a lot of story.
Melissa: He was originally going to just hobnob with the wealthy horse owners because he’s rich and he knows how to talk to people like that. But then he realizes that that might draw too much attention to himself. And because no one is sure who is an actor and who’s actually part of staff and who’s actually a guest on the train, he decides to pose as a waiter because he figures if he’s bad at being a waiter, they’ll just think he’s an actor.
Melissa: It’s fantastic. This story has everything. It’s got romance and flirtatious banter, which is adorable, spoiled rich people who get their comeuppance. I live for spoiled rich people getting their comeuppance.
Melissa: Really nice camaraderie between the acting troupe members and the staff on the train. It’s really fun for me — I think we talked about this in the restaurant episode — to kind of have workplace stories where the people are nice to each other and they work hard and they like each other. It’s really fun to hang out with these people except for Julius Apollo Filmer, of course. I have to say that Tor, true to Dick Francis, is very nice and smart and good with a capital G and reading about people with integrity right now feels so comforting.
Melissa: It’s just nice to be around nice people.
David: It is nice to be around nice people.
Melissa: It’s also really perfect for a strong sense of place because the train is barreling through the wilderness from Montreal on the east to Vancouver on the west, it’s traveling through the Canadian Rockies.
David: If I had to take a train trip anywhere, that’s the one I would pick.
Melissa: I agree. It seems really lovely. The passengers in the book go into the glass dome observation car, so we’re seeing what they’re seeing. Yeah. And they have a stopover at Lake Louise. I’m urging everyone, if you don’t know what Lake Louise looks like, please Google it. I will put a picture and show notes. It’s a perfectly turquoise glacier-fed lake in Banff National Park.
David: From everything I’ve heard, it looks Photoshopped when you’re there in person. It’s just too blue and too pretty.
Melissa: Darn those places that are too pretty. So I recommend all of the Dick Francis novels. They are very comforting. They’re super entertaining and you get to peek inside, behind the scenes of all kinds of subcultures and careers. But this one is definitely among my favorites because the live mystery party on the train where there’s a real mystery is just too much fun. That is The Edge by Dick Francis.
David: Those are five books we love, all set on a train. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. This may be a good time to mention that we are going on a little holiday break. Normally, there are two weeks between each Strong Sense of Place episode. This time there will be three. We will be back on January 4th.
David: Mel, can you talk about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: When you were talking about the photos of steam trains in the train book, I got really excited because when we went to visit the Bronte parsonage in Haworth, England, we took a vintage steam train from the town of Keighley to Howarth.
David: We did.
Melissa: It was really, really fun. And we may have gotten a little tipsy because we drank some wine on the very short ride. It’s only about 25 minutes. Yeah, but we’re going to share photos and stories from that day when we rode the steam train from Keighley to Haworth.
David: One of the things that I loved about that is they put you on this little steam train and they take you down to the Haworth. And we were having such a good time that we said, ‘Would you mind if we rode to the end of the line and back to Haworth?’ I asked how much it would be and the conductor was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Melissa: We were riding the rails like tramps.
David: Yeah, we were.
Melissa: Yeah, it was fun. I’ve also put together a collection of videos that you can take a virtual trip aboard some of the trains from around the world. We can’t do it in real life right now. We will let the wonder of video take us across India and Russia and from London to Baghdad. And finally, for Food and Fiction, we’re showing a recipe inspired by the novel The Dining Car, which I also loved and I’ve written about on our website, but did not have time to talk about in the podcast today. And the recipe we’re sharing is for homemade English muffins.
David: Oh, what a good idea that is.
Melissa: Holidays are here — perfect for a weekend breakfast. Cuddle up with your book and a nice crunchy English muffin.
David: Little butter, maybe some jam.
Melissa: Definitely. That will all be on the website over the next two weeks.
David: Plus, you get your house to smell like baked goods.
Melissa: Which is never a bad idea.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. Mel and I want to wish you a very happy holiday season. I hope it brings you everything that you’re looking for. Thank you so much for listening, and we will talk to you in January. Mel, where are we going to be then?
Melissa: We’re going to Vietnam.
David: I’m ready. Thanks for listening. And we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Ashley Richards.
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