It’s easier to pack when you don’t have any luggage.
Ash plume from volcano in Iceland
It started at YVR when, part way into the boarding, they suddenly stopped without an announcement. After a while we saw the early-boarders come back off the plane and knew something was up, but it was a few minutes more before we heard about the volcano. KLM announced there would be a delay of an hour or more while they figured things out – finally they boarded us 90 minutes later and away we went.
Cheryl and I are on our way back to Auvillar for a second season for her as Resident Director of Moulin à Nef, the artists residency in southwest France of the Virginia Centre of the Creative Arts. Last year we arrived in mid-July, so we’re looking forward to seeing our first late spring in Tarn et Garonne.
Back on the plane, they announced that the ash cloud was over Scotland and Northern England, and that they would be altering course to the south and then turning north up the channel toward Amsterdam. And that Schiphol, the airport in Amsterdam, was closing right after our arrival, with all connecting flights cancelled til further notice. We’d always wanted to see Amsterdam and it looked like we’d be getting our wish.
No one at any of the counters in the airport seemed to know anything, so after an hour or so of rugby scrum we shoved the extra bag in a storage locker, found the metro station and took the 15 minute train ride into Amsterdam. It was 6pm when we arrived. The first hotel we checked was full, but we soon found a one-star with some room, one night only. We were slowly beginning to get a sense that this situation could get quite a bit more serious than we first thought. I spent an hour or so online trying to rebook to Toulouse, even had a rep from the airline on Skype, but the signal was poor, he couldn’t understand me, and we had to give up.
Haut talons in an Amsterdam shop window
Finally out into the streets for a walk and a look around. It’s pretty tacky-touristy in the few blocks closest to Centraal Station, but it changes quickly, and the loveliness of the buildings and the canals is striking, even at night. We found a place to eat, discovered they had a duo at the mike playing some South American guitar, had a nice Argentinian Malbec, made friends with the musicians and managed to suppress all those worries about how we might actually get to Auvillar, and where our luggage might be.
That was Thursday night – as I write it’s Saturday late morning, and we’re among the lucky ones who managed to find train tickets – we’re on our way to Paris for the night. Jetlagged, I had woken up in the middle of our night in Amsterdam and went online looking for information and alternatives – found that the airport was still closed to all flights, but had no luck reaching KLM or discovering what they were advising their passengers. I also looked at train tickets, not realizing there was a train strike in France. There were a couple of options available, but they seemed very expensive, and we were still hopeful to make use of our Toulouse boarding passes.
Complicating matters was the fact that my laptop battery was depleting and we didn’t have an adaptor with us. I tell everyone coming to Moulin à Nef to be sure to bring an adaptor, and here we were when we really needed one – without one. We decided to head back to the airport to find someone from KLM. On the train there we met a couple of young guys from Vancouver who had tickets to the Liverpool football match today – Saturday – and who were hoping to pick up their luggage and somehow get to England in time. I can’t imagine how they made out – KLM wasn’t releasing any luggage – it had all been stored somewhere in mountains waiting for the planes to start flying.
Arrivals board at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam
Schiphol airport was amazingly quiet. A few people sleeping here and there but no long unhappy lines like we had expected. The KLM departures area was a sea of friendly looking faces all dressed in KLM blue, and we quickly had one to ourselves. She explained that most of northern Europe was still closed and that Schiphol would stay closed to all flights until at least 6pm that night (Friday). This time was something like Khadafi’s famous “Line of Death” – it kept getting pushed back further and further. It’s now Sunday morning, and the maybe-fly time is now 6pm tonight.
Back to Schiphol – the KLM rep told us that Thalys, the Netherlands train system, would exchange our Toulouse-bound boarding passes on KLM for train tickets at no charge. That was the first piece of good news we had heard, even if it sounded a little too good to be true. We grabbed our extra bag from the locker and headed downstairs to the Thalys international ticket line. It was huge. A Thalys rep working the back of the line confirmed they would exchange boarding passes for tickets, and then suggested that we take the train an hour south to Rotterdam – the line would be much shorter and we’d be an hour closer to France. Looking ahead at the 6-8 hour lineup in front of me, this idea sounded brilliant.
It only took an hour in line at Rotterdam before the agent told us that they were NOT exchanging boarding passes for tickets – only if you had a ride and fly package before. And that there weren’t any seats available anyway. An hour of her searching on the computer found tickets only to Paris – nothing further south through Sunday. We bought the tickets to Paris for the next morning and went looking for a hotel.
Veerhaven harbour in Rotterdam
The Tourist Information office suggested a place called the Maritime Hotel, right on the water, a short tram ride away, 3-star, 60€ with breakfast. It was great. Filled with deep sea crewmen waiting for their ships and tourists waiting for their flights, it was adjacent to the spectacular Erasmus bridge. The bar was like an internet café with drinks – tables and outlets everywhere. We went online and somehow found train tickets Paris-Agen on Sunday, first class only, on the IDTGV. We were very excited. With IDTGV tickets you have to print them yourself – by the time we checked with the desk about whether or not they could print them, the tickets were gone. Aaaaack! Searched again, this time there were 2 second-class seats, no first-class, we snapped them up, and that’s how we came to be on this train Sunday morning speeding south through the French coutryside.
The spectacular Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
Friday night in Rotterdam we walked from the hotel and found a comfy looking bar-restaurant called Granny’s Place, seemed apropos to our “living in one set of clothes” look. At the next table there was a guy wearing, what else, a Canucks jersey. Turned out he was Ian from southwest Wales, part of an international crew that inspects pipe welds. Cheryl had been listening to their accents and had remarked how one of the English speakers didn’t sound like a Brit, and didn’t have any of the American-sounding characteristics, ergo he must be Canadian. From Vernon BC as it turns out. Ian rhapsodized, as the Welsh love to do, about the magical land of sw Wales, and how much he loved his Canucks jersey.
Saturday on the train to Paris we sat with a group of travelers whose various plans had all been dusted off by the volcano. Two brits were hoping to get to Calais to catch a ferry home and a woman from Detroit was trying to get to Spain, hoping to outrun the ash cloud so she could get home in time for her Mexican vacation next week. The Thalys trains offer hi-speed wireless internet for 6.5€ an hour (free in first class), and the woman from Detroit was deep in trying to book her next leg when her screen went blank – hour’s up.
Activity on Nieuwe Maas river in Rotterdam
It’s the same all over northern Europe – not since the war has there been this kind of disruption in travel. And there really isn’t a clear end in sight. The brits on the train said they had heard that this same volcano spewed ash for 3 years running back in the 1820s. Hopefully it clears up in the next few days and travel works its way back toward normal. Maybe we’ll even get our luggage. The really odd thing is that we haven’t seen any trace of the ash or the ash cloud anywhere.
All these thoughts were in my mind as we traveled south today toward Agen. I was just starting to type them in when WHAM! A heavy suitcase fell out of the overhead rack onto my head, then onto my glasses, then onto the laptop, then to the floor. The laptop went dead, my nose was bleeding and the young girl next to me looked horrified – it was her suitcase. The girl and I made a trip to the office of le controleur, where I got a bandaid, then back to try the laptop. Luckily it re-started fine, and so far so good.
In Auvillar now and able to post this entry. Thanks to Brian Lord for the title.