Apr. 26th, 2010

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It was an initially unpleasant exit to my holiday plans. Thank you, Iceland!

But here and now, sipping Bruno Paillard in the Champagne Bar at Heathrow T5, it doesn't seem quite so awful.

The first inkling of trouble came at Istanbul's Ataturk airport. There we were, three big bags and a bunch of carryons, lining up at checkin for our Heathrow flight on Thursday, 15 April. We had an hour or so at T5 before catching an Amsterdam shuttle, where we were booked in for a convention weekend.

"Your flight's been cancelled," the checkin lad said, and gave me a printed sheet to calm my suddenly jangled nerves.

Canceled. Iceland. Cancelled. Volcanic ash. Cancelled. Regrets. Cancelled. Soon as possible. Cancelled. Safety concerns. Cancelled.


"The ticket counter will help you find another flight," he said.

Ticket counter was a few metres and a long, thoughtful walk away. We waited for them to deal with a group of clucking ladies who left hoping for a wind change. Visions of hiring a car and driving to Amsterdam passed through my mind. Maybe a train. Or a bus. Or camp in the airport.

We explained our situation, and the young ladies behind the counter bent keenly over their computer screen. I tried to stay calm. I had no control over Icelandic volcanoes, and my long-planned itinerary was now in the caring hands of British Airways. If I had to spend a week in Istanbul, growing melancholy over my missed convention, I'd do it and be cheerful about it.

"We've found you a direct flight, sir," they said. Turkish Airlines. Not only would it get me into Schipol three hours earlier, I'd have better food.

And it was so, though I cannot say that the passenger behaviour was all that could be hoped for. Heavy-set men with five o'clock shadows at lunchtime argued with each other, dominated the toilet queues, and stacked the overhead lockers full of odd parcels. I don't know why the two gents in front of me were glowering at each other and had to be pulled apart by the cabin steward, but I was pleased to be in the air and eventually gliding down over the Dutch flatlands.

Happy convention, but on the Saturday I checked my flight status and my onward flights were shown as cancelled. Bugger!

No real surprise, as Europe was pretty much totally locked down, but still, I'd been hoping for a wind change, or the airlines to twist the arms of the regulatory bodies, or something. Anything.

The lady at Qantas, when I rang her, was sounding frazzled, and mentioned an onwards flight on the 9th of May. Christ. Three unplanned weeks in Amsterdam.

"Oh, here's something odd! A flight's just opened up." It was Sunday, 25 April, a week away, but it got me back on the road. I'd have to cancel my planned Canadian roadtrip, and reduce my stays in Chicago and San Francisco, but if I had to be stranded, there were worse places than Amsterdam.

Kerri and I talked it over. We'd spend an extra night at our hotel - not a bad place for another day and night - and then hire a car. Kerri wanted Portugal, and Google Maps suggested it was doable, but we'd drive drive drive for a half day in Lisbon and then drive drive drive back.

Still, i booked a small car. Ford Focus or similar, for five days, return to Schipol.

When one of our fellow conventioneers mentioned he was stranded, and his flight to Switzerland delayed a week, it was obvious. We offered a lift. And, incautiously to two more conventioneers stranded with us.

The car turned out to be a Golf - pretty much like ours apart from the lack of cruise control - and we squeezed in five passengers and baggage with some difficulty.

Netherlands to Belgium to Germany to Luxembourg to France to Germany to Switzerland to France to Germany to Belgium to Netherlands. sometimes six border crossings in a day, sometimes three nations in five minutes.

It was a blast. Cramped and not awesomely efficient, but a lot of fun.

Back to Amsterdam on Saturday night, a farewell dinner of Dutch tucker. Pack for flight early Sunday, hug our friends, drop off the car, board the Heathrow flight and swill champagne in the first lounge.

And gain a stack of travellers tales we'd never have anticipated.


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