The Netherlands: Days 10.3 & 10.4 (the Great Volcano Standstill, 2010)

Day 10.3

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ever since this fiasco began, we’d been considering alternate forms of travel, just in case.  As Tuesday approaches and the situation in the skies shows little sign of improving, Jennifer decided it might be smart to start planning alternate travel now, just in case our Tuesday flight gets canceled after all.  So we’ve been spending a lot of our “spare” time doing just that, investigating trains, buses, and anything else that might get us across Europe and to an airport that’s still allowing flights.

It’s not going to be easy.

Ever since European airlines started cooperating better and offering more, cheaper, and shorter flights between cities, trains have seen a significant slump in business.  I remember reading an article about it a few years ago, and the author suggested then that the romantic days of European train travel were numbered.  Turns out he was right.  Trains have had to compensate for the reduction in passengers by cutting routes and upping prices, which makes the current situation nightmarish for us:  Because of the cooperative nature of the EU, European citizens have easier access to cheaper tickets, and for those Europeans stranded in airports, taking a train home is a no-brainer, so the trains have booked up fast.  I had thought we might try a train to Istanbul, which I know could fly us easily to UAE, but we’ve discovered that the route that used to be the Orient Express has long ago disbanded, meaning we’d have to take several different trains with multiple changes along the way, and even if we thought we could manage that, trains are booked for more than a week already, meaning we couldn’t even get to Istanbul—or anywhere else—until late next week, at the earliest.  Even if we decided that was worth it (if flights get canceled on Tuesday, there’s no telling when we might get out of here on a plane), the cheapest rail fares start at around $700.  And we’d still have to try to book a flight—at our expense—once we got to Istanbul.  I considered Morocco, too, which is closer and just as likely to get us to UAE, but travel to Morocco and flights out of Morocco are also booked full for days or weeks.

We looked into buses, as well, which are about half the price of train tickets, but those, too, are completely booked, some of them through the middle of May!

Renting a car isn’t even an option, because picking it up in one country and dropping it off in another is either impossible or absurdly expensive (one rental company that would allow us to drive to Istanbul wanted to charge $15,000.  Seriously.  For the trouble of an international drop-off, they wanted a $14,000 “drop-off fee.”  And even then, the rental for our travel dates was “not available”), so that’s off the table.  And to be honest, I’m a little relieved—I wasn’t looking forward to two or three days of driving across several borders.

So it looks like we’re staying put and hoping our plane on Tuesday actually takes off.  If not, I’m not sure what we’re going to do.

There is good news, though.  The German government has allowed Lufthansa a handful of low-level flights, so Lufthansa has been moving empty planes into Frankfurt in preparation for the airspace opening again, meaning if things do open up on Tuesday, they’ll be ready to fly us out without any further delays.

And more good news:  Irene, our B&B host (though at this point I’m starting to think of her as our landlady!), realized we’d started re-wearing our vacation clothes, since we hadn’t packed for a delay like this, and she insisted on doing our laundry for us.  I can’t begin to express how grateful we are that she’s been looking after us.  She’s become something of a friend in all this and is a tremendous source of comfort every time we get bad news about the air situation.  We’re not alone in the B&B—a group of very friendly Brits are stuck here, too (they’re booking a train home to the UK, but even they  can’t get out for a couple of days), and they seem just as grateful to Irene for all her generous help.

Anyway, with nothing else to do today but wait, we headed out to a movie and then spent the afternoon in Vondelpark, our emotional touchstone.  It turned out to be less peaceful than we’d expected—on this gorgeous Sunday, the park was flooded with a sea of people, so many that practically the only green we could make out was in the trees overhead; every square foot of grass was covered in people—but it was a necessary respite.  I took along my paper journal and wrote in it as we relaxed by a stream surrounding the heron refuge in the heart of the park, and in the interest of preserving the emotions of the moment, I’m going to transcribe those pages from the journal as I wrote them, in the present tense:

It seems cruel that the days should be so bright and serene.  The breeze still brings a chill in the shade, but the skies are almost perfectly clear, just a pale brush of high, thin clouds in the eastern horizon brushed out like powder on glass.  The experts assure us the ash is up there, the southeastern edge of the cloud directly overhead, but they also say it’s invisible from the ground.  If I believe that cloud is up there, I have to believe it’s invisible, because except for our continued presence in the city, you’d never know anything was wrong.  The park is a throng of picnicking families, partying students, bike riders and roller-bladers , girls smoking cigarettes and guys drinking wine in circles on blankets, games of volleyball and Frisbee tossing playful shadows over everyone.  For Amsterdam, it is just another gorgeous Sunday in the park.  For us, it’s another day of uncertainty, and this weather that should be relaxing is instead perplexing.

It seems strange, too, that we should even be here in the park.  Hundreds of people are even now struggling to make camp in Schiphol Airport, thousands more in airports across Europe and around the world.  There’s no hint of such discomfort here in the park, yet I know if our flight doesn’t leave on Tuesday, we may join those camping at the airport, or the train station or bus station if we can find alternate transportation.  But any route we take would, after Tuesday, require days more of waiting, and we can’t afford to spend money on waiting much longer.  Already we’re planning cheaper meals and drinking more water.  We chose to come to park today instead of heading to the beach as our host had suggested because the park is free and nearby—we opted to save the money of a train ticket west to the sea.

So many others would view today as vacation, as relaxation.  And a week ago, in this very park, it was.  Today, it’s all we can do to keep from collapsing in on ourselves with stress.  Our cats are well cared for, Jennifer’s classes are covered, my writing can happen anywhere, and Amsterdam is glorious.  But home is home, and we’ve long been ready to get there.  Relaxation like this is just stagnation, and it’s time for us to move on.

11:45 pm


Day 10.4

Monday, April 19, 2010

This is impossible!

We spent the day at the library, monitoring the news online and otherwise trying to do a little reading [it’s also where I wrote the only immediate post about all this, before we found out what is to follow here], but during a late lunch, we saw updates online that conditions were not good and the countries we’re worried about most, The Netherlands and Germany, were only letting a handful of flights out.  Ours was still on the books, but we decided to head home and call Lufthansa just to make sure.

We  are screwed.

Our flight tomorrow has indeed been canceled, and according to Lufthansa, the next available flight from Amsterdam is April 28.  I asked to skip the flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, thinking we could catch a bus or train to Frankfurt, and I got us booked on a flight for April 26.  But even that is too long to wait, so now we’re spending the rest of tonight going back to the train and bus schedules.  It was impossible a couple of days ago and I can’t see how it’s going to be any better tonight, but we have to do something.  Irene is looking up possibilities for us as well, and hopefully by tomorrow morning we’ll have figured something out.  We’d better, because I just don’t know what else we can do at this point.

9:07 pm

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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