May 28, 2011
LONDON -- It was the best of vacations, it was the worst of vacations. And it's not over yet, either way.
Apologies to Charles Dickens since I'm writing from his city, but my first trip to Europe has turned out to be both challenging and wonderful.
My girlfriend Barb Didrichsen and I came here because her sister, a rhythm'n'blues singer, is on a tour of Denmark, but because Barb has friends in Europe, we were able to stretch it out for a couple of weeks on the cheap, or so we thought.
We first spent a couple of days in Frankfurt with Petra, touring castles and eating saurkraut and sausages, then moved on to Copenhagen to meet up with Barb's sister and mother.
Our first day in Copenhagen, Wednesday, we all did a "Hop On/Hop Off" tour of that beautiful -- but very expensive -- city. Barb's mother was to leave us to fly to Amsterdam for a tulip tour Thursday, so we said our goodbyes to her and rented bicycles to see some different parts of the city off of the tourist trail.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we had a great time, including a picnic in a park with good European cheese and fresh fruit. When got to rush hour, we decided to avoid the traffic and go back to the hotel to freshen up, check our Facebook pages and rest up a little before taking an evening ride in the western part of Copenhagen.
But when we went to the desk to get our key, our vacation turned sour when the clerk said to Barb, "We have an emergency message here from your mother."
Her flight to Amsterdam had been canceled because the volcano in Iceland had corrupted air traffic. In fact, airports all over northern Europe had been canceled for the day. We were scheduled to fly to London on Friday for the next leg of our vacation, which we had hoped to finish with a tour of the ancient sites on the south coast in Dorset County.
The news was very confusing, and they kept delaying the time that flights might resume, so at first we were hopeful that we might be able to stay on schedule, but still, we turned in our bicycles before the rental place closed and went to sleep, albeit uneasily, planning to catch a 2 p.m. plane the next day.
But in the morning, we found our flight was canceled, airports all over Europe closed and the BBC saying it could be as long as five days. Officially, the authorities who made the decision were still taking it a day at a time.
Our goal was clear: Get to London any way possible with the hope that by the time our flight time comes around, the ash cloud would clear by the time of our flight, which is scheduled for Thursday morning.
The train station in Copenhagen was packed with panicked tourists and business people. We waited in queue for two hours, nervously chatting it up with a British businessman who was intermittenlty chatting on his cell phone coordinating his escape with the home office. His advice was what we were already thinking: First get out of Copenhagen, then find our way to London.
The best plan the clerk could come up with was to get us to England was to send us to Hamburg.
The first train from Copenhagen was packed, but we found our British friend and Barb dubbed our journey "The Volcano Express." We parted ways when we arrived in Hamburg by 9:30 Friday evening. He was going on to Amsterdam to catch a ferry to Newcastle, but didn't know where he was going from there. We at least had an internary to get us to London.
Our next train was at 5:30 the next morning, so we found cheap room where we shared a WC and a shower with a half-dozen or so other rooms.
We found our nice, cozy seats on the train to Koeln (Cologne), but it never left the station. About 10 minutes after the scheduled departure, there was a message on the public address, but it was in German, so we were clueless, but suddenly everyone started gathering their bags and leaving the train.
We asked a conductor what was going on. "Fire on the tracks," was all he would say. When we pressed for more information, he just said, "Go to information booth."
The crowd around the information booth was as dense as, but not as vast as, the crowd in the Copenhagen train station. The faces were pleading and tearful, many of the people in the same situation as us, out of our elements. They pleaded with the stoic attendants who just kept telling us to wait, so we assumed that the train would eventually leave, but we had no idea when.
Naturally, we gravitated to the English speakers, in this case a family group of four adults and a cute 10-year-old girl, who insisted that we all stick together.
Eventually, we got word that we needed to transfer to another Hamburg station to catch another regional train that would take us to Koeln.
It wasn't nearly as cozy as the high-speed rail, hot and a little smelly. Our family didn't have an itinerary after Koeln, so spent part of the time on the phone trying to find some thing to get them closer to England. When we left, they had not succeeded. But the good part for us was that our layover in Koeln was reduced from six hours to a little over four, which gave us enough time to have lunch, update our Facebook pages at an Internet cafe, and nose around the magnificent Cologne Cathedral.
While we waited at the big board in the Koeln station on Saturday afternoon to find out what track our train was on, a young man came up to us, asking "You speak English?" He was having trouble with a German note on the big board and wanted to see if we knew. A Belgian who had good English and was on his way home from visiting a friend in Moscoe, he could only get something like a standing room ticket on the train when his flight was canceled. He could get on board but didn't have an assigned seat. So we found ourselves a traveling companion for this next leg of the Volcano Express as we made our way to Brussels.
We arrived in Brussels around 5:30 p.m. Saturday and our final train, the one that would finally get us to London, didn't leave until Monday morning, so we took the advice of our friends to make lemonade, and enjoyed an unexpected day in Brussels, touring the Grand Place and taking pictures of the magnificent buildings and statues, capped it off with a tour of the Magritte Museum.
The high-speed train took us through the Chunnel and into London, where two more local trains finally got us to our friends' house in Surrey, and our voyage on the Volcano Express finally comes to an end.
A two-hour plane ride from Copenhagen to London turned into a three-day, 10-train sojourn.
We have canceled our plans to visit the south coast and stay in Surrey with jaunts into London for a postponed play and city tour until our plane leaves, which we hope will be Thursday.
As I write this, 8:30 p.m. British time, the news is that Heathrow is still closed until Tuesday afternoon, but the volcano has stopped spewing and flights in other parts of Britain may start soon. So there is hope, and our fingers are crossed that we'll be home on schedule.
Heathrow reopened in time for our scheduled departure.