On my second day in Paris, and the beginning of my 32d year, I stood among six or seven million skeletons as strangers sang "Happy Birthday" to me. There in the catacombs, 65 feet and 130 stone steps below the 14th arrondissement, I began my journey.
It was last October, and Paris was the jumping-off point. From Gare L'Est, one of the city's oldest stations, I was to board the first of a series of trains that would take me across the waistline of Europe, tracing the original Orient Express through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Turkey. I would be alone, nine days in the company of my novels and a notebook, my only concern the bottom of each wine bottle.
The train picked up speed and shot through the early morning fog of the French countryside, sea swells of wheat lined with metal-wired fences. It took almost 12 hours to get through the lower half of Germany, with a brief stopover in Frankfurt. In Vienna, I dined on carpaccio and wiener schnitzel at the Palmenhaus Café, a glass-enclosed brasserie of palm trees that doubled as a tropical butterfly sanctuary. It was so beautiful that I fell down the stairs.
The next morning, nursing a bourbon hangover credited to time spent with Viennese mixologist Heinz Kaiser of Dino's American Bar, I hopped a packed train to Budapest and promptly fell in love with a dark-haired girl across the aisle. I promised myself that if she were to rise and take me by the hand, I'd follow, but I never said a word, and she left me at a town called Gyor, Hungary.
In Budapest, on the Pest side, I sampled goulash and duck and met two Palestinian girls from Dubai who had recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. We ran into each other again at Café Gerbeaud the next morning, but I was on my way to ride a funicular and see a torture chamber that once held Count Dracula.
From there, it was an overnight train to Bucharest, where at 2 in the morning we were roused from our bunks by Romanian border guards. I hadn't done anything wrong, but it's always tense standing in your underwear in front of a machine gun-toting woman. Only hours later, I would be seated at the Artist, considered one of the best restaurants in the country. The rest of my time in Bucharest was spent politely declining prostitutes and trying not to get murdered.
Istanbul, to me, is the Pera Palace, a luxury hotel originally built for passengers of the Orient Express and still awash in Belle Époque elegance. Plush, red velvet furniture, ornate chandeliers, tuxedoed servers - I spent almost the entirety of my final three days either on my balcony overlooking the Golden Horn, or tucked into the oak library, sipping on double bourbons to the soundtrack of hushed whispers and the distant clacking of heels on marble.
But Istanbul is not what it was, now choked by capri-clad cruise ship tourists, and in the shadow of majestic mosques, the pale overweight onslaught of commercialism has turned the once mysterious east into a suburban shopping mall.
My last night, I sat overlooking Taksim Square having drinks with a retired professor from Berkeley as we waited for the riot to begin. ISIS had just captured a town near the Syrian-Turkish border, and hundreds of guards lined the streets with shields and batons. My conversation with the professor was cut short by tear gas, and I made my way half-running back to the hotel through cobblestoned side streets of choking, crying residents.
The next morning I caught a flight to London, then a flight to Philadelphia, then one final train back to my apartment.