Overheard on the Orient Express: A mystery (Part 1 of 2)

By Robert Sweetow

Having a hearing loss is no joke. But having a sense of humor about hearing loss is often very helpful. Similarly, being able to laugh about our profession can provide relief from what is sometimes an overwhelming, albeit satisfying, occupation. 

Recently, the editors of hearinghealthmatters.org invited me to contribute to their blog. Given the plethora of serious scientists and business professionals who are regular contributors, they asked me to take a look at the lighter side of our field. So, with that in mind, I offer you this amazing, albeit hard to believe, tale.


I’ve been an audiologist for 30 years, so what do I know about gangsters or spies? Yet here I was, traveling on the Orient Express from Vienna to a speaking engagement in Bucharest. Suddenly, I began to overhear fragments of a conversation between two well-dressed men seated in the adjacent compartment. What they said sent chills up my spine and haunts my memories to this day.

The older man, a large, hulking person with a shaved head, did most of the talking. I heard him say, “We’ve decided to put a hit on the diva. The plan is to get her into a state of zen, and then lace her drink. We will do whatever is necessary, including bringing in the delta force, or even Atlas or Noah, or, as a last resort, DaVinci, who used to be a bionic sumo wrestler

“To be certain of success, we need to synchronize our watches and make sure we have an accurate compass. If necessary, we can alter your passport to put our plan into motion.”

With all the noise on the train, the men’s words weren’t entirely clear. In fact, their speech was muddled and distorted, as if the frequencies had been transposed and the intensity compressed. Many of the phrases seemed to have dual meanings, leading to some confusion. Yet, both men clearly brought great passion to their mission, whatever it was.

Occasionally, they reverted to a foreign language, possibly Spanish or Italian. The younger man, who sported a thin scar from his left eye to the corner of his mouth and wore a gray fedora over his thick, dark hair, said, “Amigo, is my meaning perfectly clear?” His large companion nodded his head and answered, “Claro, mamma mia.”

It was obvious that these were no amateurs. Each was a high pro in this mysterious business.

The older man continued: “Our plan is very high-tec, with many elements. And, as Luigi, our colleague in Milan, told us, if our first attempt fails, we have contingency plans from ‘una’ to ‘quattro’ to fall back on. We must be prepared to go the extra mile. We must be bright and connect all the dots. But if we shift gears and lose focus, we will fail. What do you think of the plan?”

His young listener smiled and said, “Bravo, truly bravissimo.”

Shaved head went on: “We are entering a new epoch, one in which we must be open and stay in touch with the real essence of life. What we do next will have great impact, it will change human destiny.”

The listener exclaimed, “You have planned this to the max! You inspire me and set my pulse into pure motion!”

The old man sharply admonished his young partner: “Don’t get excited. To succeed, you must simply be tranquil. So, mind your business. And remember, I’ll be keeping an eye on you. You may think you’re smart, but I sometimes question your IQ. One way or the other, you’re going to have to face the music, baby! And keep in your memory, mate, the saying ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ doesn’t apply here. Just zip your lip and let’s get to work.”

I was stunned and perplexed by what I had overheard.Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain, I seemed to be familiar with so many of their words.  It was as if I had heard these words before, but in some other context. I just couldn’t put my finger on where.

Maybe it was my curiosity or it could have been paranoia, but I knew I couldn’t just ignore these men. I knew I had to act. But what should I do?

For the conclusion of this exciting mystery, return to this blog next Wednesday, August 9.

Robert Sweetow

Robert Sweetow, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco, and was Director of Audiology at the UCSF Medical Center Audiology Clinic from 1991 to 2011. Dr. Sweetow, author of the book Counseling for Hearing Aid Fittings, has written 25 textbook chapters and more than 100 scientific articles on counseling, tinnitus, auditory rehabilitation, and amplification. He is also a highly sought-after speaker known for his informative and entertaining style.

Dr. Sweetow was co-developer of LACE (Listening and Communication Enhancement), an interactive, adaptive computerized auditory training program. In 2008, he received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Academy of Audiology.