The Venice Simpson-Orient-Express (VSOE):  Memoirs of a most luxurious train of intrigue and coincidence

I recently fulfilled my life long dream of taking the VSOE. Although it had been on my mind to experience the VSOE, this journey came about purely by chance.  While looking for a flight to Munich for the start of our Danube River cruise invitational, I happen on a flight to Venice that matched what I was looking for – a business class upgrade!  I knew that I would be arriving before the start of the cruise and decided to review the VSOE schedule and as luck would have it there was a train departure precisely on the day I was landing in Venice and it was just long enough that I could enjoy a pre river cruise extension.  I checked availability and was able to reserve one of the last cabins from Venice to Prague.

Only  trouble was (or so I thought) I was traveling alone.  My partner was scheduled to meet me in Munich the day before the start of the river cruise and could not rearrange his schedule to join me on the last minute VSOE journey.  Ironically, I found myself having the same thoughts I often hear from some interested in a trip we offer but do not have a friend to travel with.  So, knowing full well the planets had aligned in my favor and this was too good of an opportunity to pass up, I decided to go at it alone.  

Fast forward to the day of departure and after landing I made my way to check in for the VSOE at the Venice Santa Lucia train station.  Not sure if it was jet lag, but I started hearing faintly echoing voices in my head sounding alarms; would I be the only single traveler onboard; will everyone be coupled off and not be interested in talking to me; would honeymooning couples ensconce themselves in their cabins celebrating recent nuptials; would the guests be snobby and not be interested in talking to a “commoner”; or worst yet, would I feel in any way discriminated against.  My mind was racing, and I was really nervous.  I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.  After all, it was just an overnight trip.  How bad could it be?  Spoiler alert!  It was every bit as fabulous as I had ever imagined.

Now back to those silly voices in my head.  Since I was the second person to check in I took a walk around the station until it was time to board.  As the time drew closer I kept my distance from the train, carefully surveying the crowd, wondering who was who.  From those gathered near the boarding platform, I notice a distinguished older woman with a much, much younger man (was he a gigolo or her stylist – he seemed gay or maybe he was English?); a slightly nerdy middle aged professor type with two very well dressed younger adults (was he a butler accompanying his two trustfund wards on a European jaunt?); an elegantly dressed Zebra couple (is this PC to say?);  four giddy English sounding ladies dressed as if they were heading over to Harry’s and Megan’s wedding wearing the type of festive English hats only English ladies (or a character from Dr Seuss) can pull off; A very American sounding couple (she looked like a more wholesome Jerry Hall and he like a much less weathered Mick Jagger); there was the daddy looking type and a younger man; two pretty ladies traveling together who looked like they could be models; a very Waspy looking couple with all the indicia of those who live in Greenwich, Connecticut and summer in the Hamptons in multi million dollar homes.  Well… I can go on and on.  These are just the few that stand out in my mind.  I would later meet all of them and be utterly surprised who they really were.  As they say … “never judge a book by the cover”.

As I boarded I clearly noticed two women wearing almost identical outfits.  What a coincidence!  The ladies and I later laughed a lot about this.  They bought the same dress on two different continents.  But that was quickly forgotten when I met my butler at the entrance of my train carriage; Andrea, an Italian young man from the Veneto region who was to become my vigilant keeper and pamperer-in-chief.  His translucent green eyes always attentive and his radiant smile always ready to shine.  

I settled into my cabin with a bottle of champagne, a welcome gift courtesy of the VSOE general manager.   The VSOE left the station exactly on time, neither a minute too early nor a second too late.  As we rolled past the Venice lagoons and into the Italian countryside towards the Swiss Dolomite Mountains, the Maitre D knocked on my door, introduced himself and made my dinner arrangements to dine with another solo traveler (per my request).

As you could imagine, I was exhausted from my overnight flight.  Nevertheless, I decided to take a stroll through the Lalique decorated dining car, the Oriental dining car, the champagne bar, past the plush grand piano bar car and back to my cabin for a well deserved 3 hour nap.  The effect of the champagne and rolling motion of the train swiftly put me to sleep.

I woke up to the call of dinner and quickly dressed in my finest tuxedo jacket and sparkly diamond ring.  I though I might be overdressed but was impressed with the festive attire all around me.  The “English sounding ladies”, as I called them, seated next to me and my Italian dining companion at dinner turned out to be Irish sisters and a niece on holiday unapologetically dressed head to toe like 1920s flappers.  They added an air of authenticity to the vintage VSOE cars that could not have been more appropriate.

Although I was initially concerned about having to make small talk with a total stranger the Maitre D has arranged for me to dine with, boy was I pleasantly surprised how smoothly our conversation flowed and how much we shared in common. We shared a lovely Sicilian bottle of wine.  It’s funny how easily and effortlessly one can open up to a total stranger.  We spoke about EVERYTHING!  It was truly a delightful evening of delicious food, fine wine and good conversation.  I have to say that is one of the wonderful things about those that travel solo on a Zoom Vacations – instant family and friends with no judgements.  

But I have to say the best part of the trip was the post dinner bar car revelry.  I finally got to meet so many of the “mystery guests” I had conjured up in my mind while sipping cocktails and listening to live piano music.  So, let me start by saying that I was very surprised to meet a neighbor onboard.  It turns out that older woman and younger man I earlier referred to were really mother and younger gay son on holiday who live about ten minutes away from me in Chicago!  It also turns out the gay son and I have 9 facebook friends in common.  What are the chances?  Like I said before, the VSOE is a luxury train of coincidences.

I was also impressed to learn that the ladies I thought were models were really two French lesbians on honeymoon, very much in love.  Turns out they were not the only lesbian or gay couple on board.  We are everywhere!  Then there was the father and son from Minneapolis celebrating the son’s birthday, whom I thought were a younger-older gay couple. The  son was clearly interested in a young woman onboard.  So, yeah I was wrong about them as well.  And the professor looking type with the teenagers was a father and two children from Japan traveling through Europe.  Turns out dad was also the intellectual property lawyer who patented the IPhone.  The “Zebra” couple I referred to were avid travelers from Connecticut who were lovely to chat with and full of life experiences.  There was also a lady from Belgium who swore I was a celebrity she recognized from television.  I wish!  We were up until 2:00 AM chatting, drinking, and singing. 

All in all my trip on the VSOE was loads of fun and my only intrigue was how easy it was to meet other guests even though I was traveling solo.  So, next time I have a conversation with someone who is considering traveling alone on a Zoom Vacations, I’ll remind them “if I can do it on the VSOE and have a blast, so can you on a Zoom Vacations!”

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