We landed at Heathrow on the morning of April 15, little knowing that we were on one of the last flights permitted to arrive. When I phoned a friend to say hello, he was surprised to hear from me. "Katie," he said, "you shouldn't be here. All of the air space in Britain is shut down."
I am now among the stranded and the stalled. Like most travelers, I do not know when I will get out. I am sharing fantasies with others in my affinity group. Can we get to France, even though the ferries and the
Eurostar beneath the English Channel are completely sold out? Then, can we drive or get a train to Madrid or Lisbon, and fly out from there? What about the ferry from England to Bilboa?
These are fantasies. What are the realities? Being in London in April, as the Plume of Ash drifts across the waters of the Atlantic and the land mass of Europe, is inexorably strange. London is beautiful right now. The sun dapples the people relaxing in Leicester Square. The tulips and daffodils brighten the gardens around the exalting cathedral of St. Paul's. To read TIME OUT about cultural events is thrilling. Look up at the sky. No-one can see the Plume. Instead, you gaze at a delicate shade of blue with white, pink, and golden clouds. Feathery clouds. Everyday life is more plume than ash.
Yet, escaping the invisible Plume is impossible. People say the best maps on which to watch its motions, going East and South, is on the NEW YORK TIMES website. Ah, said a man in the office on which I have a borrowed computer, the plume is nearing Madrid. So much for the fantasy of Madrid as our new launching pad. Waiting for the Tube, the London subway, one hears a stiff-upper-lip recorded announcement about all British airports being shut down because of the Plume. Do not take the Tube to Heathrow. The BBC features incisive, responsible, non-perky analyses of both the forthcoming elections here and the nature of volcanos and their expulsions. We now read about the airlines putting pressure on aviation authorities to relax the ban on air travel in Britain, to be more lenient.
This combination of April happiness and the Plume of Ash tests all our modern technologies. Planes cannot fly, despite being in good condition. A volcano on a small island in the Northern Atlantic has beaten them.We trade stories about which websites of which airlines have crashed. My indispensable Blackberry flaunts its limitations, how hard it is to read applications, how tired one's thumbs gets trying to send messages and memos.
The combination also, yet again, tests our globalism. I came to London to chair a meeting of an advisory group for an international organization. Of course, several of our members could not get in. If they had had to obtain a visa, their efforts were wasted. But we could Skype them in if we could manage the various time zones in which we were operating. The organization has its offices in Hammersmith in the West of London. I am being housed in Novotel West London, a hotel of 650 rooms and conference facilities, a decent enough chain with a global clientele, often families. The staff is from nearly every country and seems to include a native language speaker for all of its diverse customers. Despite our variations, our breakfast buffet is resolutely English: eggs, beans, bacon, toast, porridge, with some yoghurt from Normandy and some cold cuts and cheeses and croissants for the picky.
My personal conditions and circumstances, despite being stranded and stalled, are enviable. I am not sleeping on a make-shift cot in the Munich airport. I have more than enough access to ATM machines, food, a historic and vibrant culture, the Technologies of Communication, and friends. I can wash out my clothes. No-one here expects the Novotel to have to dole out masks to protect our respiratory systems against the shards of Icelandic pumice and volcanic rock. My colleagues at work are helping me with cancellations of appointments and re-arrangements. Everyone is understanding that I am in my beloved England and April's here, but I am not on a feckless, giddy holiday.
But that Plume, that Plume, is no spray of feathers in a dowager's tiara in a comedy of manners; no decoration on the helmet of a British guardsman. That Plume, the smoke from the fire within the earth, is burning the global economy. The Plume, and the global winds, do their thing, and refuse to Skype us and reveal their intentions. And, if we were really stupid enough to believe that we were more or less immune from the ravages of nature, our stupidity has crashed along with our ever so global travel schedules.