Week 5 of my epic circle-half-the-globe-twice-in-a-month adventure started out swimmingly. We left Swansea on Wednesday night, spent the night near Heathrow, planning to wake up early and catch our flight to Amsterdam the next morning. Rode the Hotel Hoppa to T5, was suitably impressed at what you can get for a whole lot of pounds, dropped off our excess baggage at the left luggage office, went upstairs, and marveled at the fact that, hey, there weren’t many people there at 09:20! What a shock.
Guess why. Go on.
We all know what happened, of course: volcano blows top, traps hundreds of thousands of travelers in and around Europe. Fine, no problem. Lovely Wife and I started racing through the options: we found space on Eurostar to Amsterdam (via Brussels), then discovered we couldn’t book because Eurostar’s Web site kept crashing on us. (Yay for load testing! Good work, developers!) British Airways’ Web site was equally useless — their on-hold message continually advises one to try their flight cancellation facility, except that no such facility seems to exist on their Web site. Calling Expedia (with whom we had booked our Amsterdam chunks) resulted in a “sorry, we can’t route your call” message — which seems absurd and unreasonable in 2010. It was only K.’s calming presence, and the random appearance of MP5A2-armed police officers, that prevented me from having a full-on psychopathic fit in the middle of the check-in concourse. (Photos to come.)
Multiple hours on hold depleted our phone balance, but we finally got the outbound segment on BA canceled. We also finally got through to someone at Eurostar, and confirmed space, and got through 95% of the booking process — then the phone ran out of money, and I had to race downstairs to find a top-up point. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Fully flexible tickets to and from Amsterdam, leaving Friday morning. Did we really want to go now?
Answer: no. So instead we booked ourselves into the Jumeirah Lowndes, a place run by a company owned by the government of Dubai that seems to cater to the Middle Eastern traveler. (It is around the corner from the Pakistani High Commission, and down the street from the Syrian Embassy.) We got settled and decided to make the best of it — fine, we’ll have a bit of a break in London instead of Amsterdam; this won’t be so bad, will it? I tried to refund our Eurostar tickets — that didn’t work. We went to St. Pancras to do it in person — the ticket agents all went home at 16:00. I tried phoning them — no, they close at 17:00. Does nothing in this goddamn country work??
(This is also the point where I should mention that SNCF, the French rail operator, has been experiencing strikes all weekend. Yes! What a great place Europe is!)
It hasn’t been all bad. We saw the Egyptian stuff at the British Museum, got turned away from the British Library because we didn’t have visitor passes, saw Westminster Abbey (which was deeply cool), and I managed to finish up seeing the parts of the Imperial War Museum I hadn’t seen the last time I was here. We went to the theatre last night. (“Wicked,” and it’s quite good.) Mostly we’ve enjoyed the paradoxically wonderful weather — it’s been lovely the entire time we’ve been in the UK, which is exactly the opposite of what I want it to do now. We have been trying to enjoy ourselves, with the knowledge that our travel plans hadn’t really been that screwed up.
Then this morning came. Scheduled to be on ACA849, EGLL-CYYZ, connecting to ACA191, CYYZ-CYYJ this afternoon, departing 15:00. NATS closes airspace, Air Canada cancels flights. Now things have gotten out of hand: K. and I are both supposed to be working on Tuesday; the earliest we can get out of here is on Wednesday, assuming the airspace opens up again — which it doesn’t look like it will. We are leaving our lovely little (ok, it’s not so little) hideaway in Chelsea, trading it in for a “serviced apartment” in Notting Hill that is 1/3 of the price. And now we’re crossing our fingers for a change in the weather, a change in the volcano, or more holiday time than I thought I was going to get this year. I don’t know.
It’s the not knowing that’s the hard part. If someone were to say “ok, we’re going to shut down until XXX,” I think we could get on with things, potentially make other plans (driving to Turkey, perhaps), and deal with the delay. (More likely, we’d go back to Wales and stay with family.) Or book passage on the Queen Mary 2 — at this rate, we’ll get to New York faster than waiting here. But that’s not what’s happening. At the moment, I have to keep my mobile stuck to my side, waiting to hear if something changes. I don’t like this feeling at all.
I still love travel. I still love Airworld. (Though I have to say I’m really tempted just to stay on the ground for a bit after this is all over, and figure out how to mileage-run my way back to status for next year.) In the past four or five years, the world has seemed like an exceptionally small place; nothing was more than a plane ride away, and the places you could go were only as limited as your imagination, or at least the departures from your home airport and your tolerance for connections. Today, however, the world feels extremely large — the concept of being “on the other side of the planet” is no longer a rhetorical statement, because I am on the other side of the planet, a world away from being home with my cat and my dog and yes, my job. K. and I take solace in the knowledge that at least we’re here together, but I won’t pretend it’s not stressful, that this is the opposite of a holiday.
(One must, however, pause to appreciate the irony of — with the amount of time we spend in Hawaii, and living where we do within shouting distance of most of the great volcanoes of the Cascade range — traveling to Europe only to have a volcano disrupt our lives.)
If you want to send positive thoughts in our direction, that’d be appreciated. If you want to call or SMS, +44 7794 619582 is our number here. Friendly voices would help a lot.
Links for your consideration:
- Fallows: FAQ on the volcanic ash mess. Like Fallows, I note two things: (1) this is probably going to be viewed as a huge overreaction when this is all over, and (2) I’m shocked the media is doing as good a job reporting on this story as they are. I haven’t had to cringe once yet, and that’s virtually unheard of when it comes to aviation stories.
- Posts I intend to write when I get to a computer with a real keyboard (and have time): the utter uselessness of European IT, nanny-stateism gone mad, what I hate about Britain, a comparison of Chelsea and Notting Hill as neighborhoods (executive summary: never in my life have I stood on a street corner and seen $2,000,000 worth of car in front of me — this is what happened when a Ferrari 599, a Bentley Continental, a Rolls Royce, and an Aston Martin DBS were in view), and an elegy for the airport where nobody is traveling.
I’ll update more later when I can.