Friday, April 23, 2010

My travels back from Sweden

Last week I was drinking mead in the land of Vikings for a conference. It was the last and final big event for the project I work for. As noted by Steven Newhouse, our technical director, in the closing session on Thursday, “We are ending with a bang.”

Late on Wednesday, April 15th a volcano in Iceland (known by the festival of letters “Eyjafjallajökull”) had unexpectedly erupted. It spewed plumes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere – at just about the elevation planes fly.

It is rare – and welcome – for a natural disaster to have so little impact on human lives and suffering. What misery there was being mostly limited to interrupted travel plans and inventive, lengthy journeys home. What journeys we had though!

Many of us spent a large part of the weekend following the forum sending flurries of e-mails to each other, trying to access websites that were forever crashing, making phone calls to lines that would not pick up, trying to get news of our workmates, and assuring ourselves that everything would clear up in a day or two. When it didn’t a group of us from the Project Office – who had considered 1) renting a car, 2) hiring a coach, 3) hitchhiking, 4) waiting it out or 5) surrendering to fate and starting a new life Stockholm (well, me anyway) – we finally settled on a plan of some daring.

After an epic queue at the train station on Sunday (no tickets for sale until Tuesday, and then only out of Sweden) one section of the team braved the line for coaches – seeking overnight passage to Copenhagen. Another contingent from their hotel rooms had found a means to book train tickets on an obscure section of a website and began booking the legs Copenhagen to Hamburg to Basel to Lausanne to Geneva. Assuming we could get to Denmark, it would work.

We needed four tickets for that evening. By a kind of miracle we got the very last four. We called Bob (who was poised to get the train tickets, assuming we could get the bus tickets) with the good news. No dice – it seemed. We wouldn’t be able to leave Copenhagen till Tuesday. We’d might was well take a car. We gave the bus tickets back – hoping someone else could use them.

A quarter of an hour later Bob called again – he could get the tickets. I rushed back to the coach counter. The woman I’d handed the tickets back to had thrown them away, since they couldn’t be resold. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to find them again and began to shake from fear and stress (this was a real low point of the journey for me). Happily, they were still in a dust bin in the back office.

With bus and train tickets (first class, no others were available) we set off from Stockholm at 10:45 p.m. at night. I had hoped that my days of long-distance bus travel had departed along with their heyday: my early 20s. But here we were again . . . in for a eight hour ride (my record, aged 22, is 27 hours from Barcelona to London). As an added pleasantry, the bathroom in our coach was broken. Specifically, the toilet was overflowing. Spewing Eyjafjallajökull-like out of the door and in to the central isle. Sheets of water slid forward whenever the bus downshifted or came to a stop. Heaven help us if we had been in flip-flops.

None of us slept well during the night. Catherine Gater, EGEE dissemination manager, shared a row with a woman who crashed, coma-like, for the first half of the journey (literally climbing over her left her undisturbed). At about 3 a.m. the woman turned particularly (one hates to use the word obnoxiously) chatty.

“You know, I was eight months pregnant before I suspected something was up.” “I can’t wait to get home to my guinea pig and my fiancé.” “How old are you? That’s a nice iPod.” Upon which Catherine said, “Yes, isn’t it?” and stowed the iPod in the bottommost reaches of her purse and tucked the bag away.
Upon arriving in Copenhagen we felt like we’d been spewed from a volcano ourselves, though it would still be a long while before we reached something like land.

We had first class passage on the train to Hamburg, the only available, but had to stand, perch on ledges or sit on the floor anyway – the train was woefully oversold. In Hamburg we had about 5 minutes to change platforms (most of the train seemed to be trying to make the same connection) but got on it somehow.

From there the day turns foggy for me. We changed trains about half a dozen more times. Sometimes making the slim connecting time, sometimes not. At about dinner time, cruising through Southern Germany, we found an empty table in the dining car. More specifically we, er, I coerced a lingering couple to give it up. To celebrate having made it thus far we ordered some champagne, saying how glad we were that we did not have to make the journey alone, with infants, medical conditions or with the continued company of the bizarre woman on the bus.

Following that we made some more train connections, missed some more, got separated in Basel (who knew there were two Basel stations?), had to take a taxi to catch a train from a different station (the driver kindly offered to take us all the way to Geneva for a mere 1,000 CHF. We politely declined. Even if he knocked off 10%? We politely declined again.) In the end, we got home at about 1 a.m. A journey in total of around 26 hours.

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