Saturday, April 24, 2010

Eyjafjallajokull - The Inconvenient Volcano

For 7 days I tracked its every move vicariously through BBC TV, SKY News and CNN in hotel rooms in London and Paris, waiting for the go-ahead to get back on an aeroplane bound for Atlanta, secretly hoping that it wouldn’t come too soon. Though I knew had to get back.

Oh, to be stranded in Paris, in the springtime - or London, for that matter. I'd never seen such clear blue skies day after day in London,

Or in Paris,

The volcano erupted on the 14th of April, and the ash cloud drifting towards the United Kingdom and Europe caused almost a week of airspace closures, the cancellation of 100,000 flights, and the expected loss of over $2 billion by the airlines; with a ripple effect of financial fallout experienced by all those businesses and individuals dependent on air travel. It was the worst disruption of air traffic in Europe since World War II. Even today airlines are asking volunteers to give up their seats so that the thousands who are still stranded can get home. The uncoordinated response by the 27 national airspaces of the region exacerbated the problem, something that should be rectified by the proposed institution of a body that would regulate air traffic under "a single European sky."

My husband and I were among the hundreds of thousands of travellers around the world grounded by the crisis. Despite the frustrations and struggles involved in searching for a way out -with erratic internet access - we were not unhappy to be delayed in London. After all, some people are still stranded in Bangkok, close to the strife that is happening there now.

I love to visit London, and this time I discovered the charms of the area around Marylebone High Street. We walked into a lively sing-along with locals in the Golden Eagle pub on Marylebone Lane,

and in my wanderings I came across the totally unexpected treasure housed in Hertford House; the Wallace Collection - the worlds largest private art collection.

But my favorite find was Daunt Books – an original Edwardian bookstore, a place where I could happily have spent all week!

Eventually we were able to get tickets on the Eurostar train to Paris, in the belief that airspace would open on the continent sooner than in the UK.

The journey was 2 ¼ hours long – easy, comfortable and efficient. Why were we going to fly this, again? My husband got a ticket on a train to Stuttgart to pick up his business itinerary and I settled into the lovely Hotel du Bois ,off Avenue Victor Hugo, to wait it out.

For the next 3 days I walked the streets of Paris - stopping at sidewalk cafes,

Admiring window displays,

and I even climbed almost 500 stairs on a spiral staircase to the top of the tower of the Cathedral of Notre Dame to get a view across Paris, alongside the gargoyles.

Then one afternoon a strangely familiar sound made its way into my hotel room. I ran to the window and leaned out, craning my neck. Yes, an aeroplane. I hadn’t noticed the absence of that rumble, but now I remembered how loud planes are. So my flight was going to happen, after all. Sigh…

Bright and early the next day I dragged my luggage down the stairs – ready to fling it in the Seine, if that hadn’t required a longer walk - to the bus stop at the Arc de Triomphe and on to Charles de Gaulle. Home calling. Skies were already etched with contrails. By the time I got on the plane the air traffic haze was back.

Now that I’m home, nursing a case of jet lag, I’ve been reading a lot about the old Arabic belief that the soul travels at the pace of a camel. I imagine the ancients would say that speeding from one continent to the next in a matter of hours is not wise – how long would it take for our souls to catch up with our bodies?

Alice Waters, doyenne of “local” eating, believes that eating foods that are equally sped around the world is not good for the environment, or for us. She supports the Slow Food movement. With 100,000 members worldwide, the movement is the antithesis of fast food. The images of piles of rotting fruit and vegetables grounded by the volcano in warehouses in Kenya give weight to this school of thought.

The crisis brought on by Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced like this) could be the catalyst for some of us to re-examine our dependence on super fast travel by air, along with its negative effects. Perhaps the time has come for a Slow Travel movement, whereby we would use our feet, bicycles, cars, trains, and ships for non-essential travel – once we’ve identified what is actually essential, of course.

I’m dreaming of a slow boat to London.


  1. It's incredible isn't it, that the effects of a volcano in Iceland, of all places, can such global impact? Even in Los Angeles, CA I am feeling the heat from old 'Jambalaya' (or whatever it's called). We arrived ready to house-sit (and I use the term 'house' loosely) for a friend who was London-bound. Unfortunately, thanks to old 'Chiwetal Ejiofor' (or whatever it's called), we are now sharing a studio apartment with two dogs and their owner - no longer London-bound - gracious enough to let us have the bed...

  2. How wonderful to be stranded in London or Paris! To have been stranded in both is a joy beyond measure. I say, "Hooray for volcano eruptions!"

  3. Echoing what Kaye said, it is amazing how interconnected we all are, even across oceans and continents. I cannot imagine the chaos that travel agents had to deal with to get travelers home again after the planes started flying.

    After 9/11 I remember the eerie quietness/emptiness of the skies - I suppose that is what you experienced too.

    But to be stranded in Paris! It does sound like a marvelous thing, especially since you had no pressing problems and could take advantage of your extra time.

    Your point about "slow travel" is very interesting. While I am sure the bell of fast air travel can't be unrung, individuals may find that their blood pressure and stress levels are lowered if they choose to move at the pace of a camel.

    Thanks for sharing your trip C-A!

  4. You offer a terrific corrective to the typical reporting on travel disruption caused by the volcano. Such a wonderful saying, that the "soul travels at the pace of a camel." Your photographs are a delightful accompaniment to the post and illustrate perfectly what "slow travel" allowed you to see. I was particularly fond of the gargoyle looking out over Paris and the rainbow array of what look to be macaroons. So many things to savor in this post!

  5. Kaye and WOS - the far-reaching effect of the eruption continues to fascinate me - even this morning I read that a man who owns a golfing school for disabled people in Germany spent some time in Sarasota to wait for a flight back home. He liked the golf courses, etc. in this area so much that he is now relocating his company to Sarasota.

    Makes me think that there could be a book of really interesting stories to come out of this. Fortunately, unlike 9/11, this crisis was more of a financial disaster than a human tragedy, for the most part.

    cybersr, I did indeed say Hooray for volcanic eruptions, though I hope my darling daughter gets into more comfortable digs soon - no thanks to old "unpronouncable!"

    RA - I found that being unable to leave for a little while forced me to slow down and really savor my surroundings, something that I don't normally do when I rush around trying to see as much as possible on short trips to Europe. And, yes, those rainbow cookies are "macarones" and they were absolutely melt-in-the-mouth delectable - don't get me started on the French chocolate!

  6. Carol-Ann - Among the many wonderful things about your post, I so appreciated The Golden Eagle and Daunt words and pictures. The photos brought back good memories for this former Londoner.


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