One of the inevitable truths of travel is that things will go wrong: trains will be missed, reservations lost, sunglasses, toothbrushes and the occasional shoe (among other, more important things) forgotten in hotel rooms or hostel lockers. There’s a saying that a person’s true character is only revealed in moments of crisis, so if you’d like to ascertain the true nature of a friend’s (or of your own) character, your best bet may be to start traveling, and wait for a crisis. As any of the more than a million passengers on the more than 100,000 flights canceled following the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in southern Iceland, could tell you, you probably won’t have to wait for long.
The more quickly we come to traverse the globe, the more efficient our technologies of transport and travel, and the more interconnected and “small” our world becomes, the more it seems to surprise and overwhelm us when the earth does something unexpected. Eyjafjallajökull is a volcano located beneath the Eyjafjalla glacier, less than 150 kilometers from Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, geographically between Norway and Greenland. Its eruption on 14 April 2010 was in many ways only a minor natural occurrence. From what I gathered the myriad news programs and daily papers throughout the week following the initial eruption, on ground level, the situation was far from disastrous: fewer than a thousand people were evacuated from their homes, and there were no recorded deaths. However, a few kilometers higher up into our atmosphere, the volcano wrecked millions of dollars worth of havoc, completely shutting down major airports all across Europe, including world hubs like London’s Heathrow and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle. Travelers around the world found flights originating from, ending in, or traversing European airspace canceled, with no immediate prospect of rescheduled departures.
When it came to my late April travel plans, I had all the luck in the world: on the pretext of improving my French, I’d decided to pass my whole trip in France, and I’d decided to travel only by train. In an even greater feat of chance, I’d done something I rarely do: I’d planned ahead. Remarkably, my plans weren’t disrupted by Eyjafjallajökull, or by the apparently interminable grèves SNCF that have been affecting train travel both within metropolitan Paris and on longer distance routes throughout France for weeks.
Exactly how lucky I was quickly became evident as I met more and more people struggling to make the best of agendas rendered null by the huge cloud of volcanic gases and ash clouding the airspace over Europe.
While many of my friends were stuck in minuscule Parisian apartments hosting visitors unable to fly home, I took a TGV to Lyon, where I met two Dutch girls who’d driven south from Holland after their planned week in Rome had become impossible due to canceled flights. Later in the week, on a train from Lyon to Nice, I met another couple with a cancelled flight to Italy who’d been taking trains non-stop from northern Europe, brushing their teeth in public WCs, eating boxed sandwiches and sleeping upright for more than a day and a half, all with the goal of arriving in Naples before the husband’s important business meeting. When I left them, they had 18 hours till the meeting and nearly a thousand kilometers of train travel yet to go.
I met students (not unhappily) stuck in cities where they’d been enjoying spring break, and older travelers worried about jobs, pets and gardens–travelers who made it clear that nothing makes you want to be home more than being unable to get there. Throughout all of this, my travel plans continued in a bizarre bubble of good fortune: none of my trains were cancelled, or even delayed. Metros arrived just as I stepped onto their platforms, and I was even offered free champagne at my hostel in Nice. For once, I was not the one scrambling for a plan B, and I felt a bit like the only sailboat on a breezy day crossing an ocean filled with cruise liners that had run out of fuel.
Normal travelers weren’t the only people whose plans were thrown off by the volcano. A friend of mine told me that a well-known actor countered his cancelled flight by hiring a taxi to carry him from one European capital to another (proving as usual that the best thing to throw at a problem is money—lacking that, flexibility and a good attitude are distant but important seconds). Even some of those with money and power found their plans disturbed: due to the eruption, President Obama and other world leaders were prevented from attending the funeral of Polish president Lech Kaczyński, killed in a tragic airplane crash in Russia a week before the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.
When I returned to Paris, things had begun to sort themselves out. Newspaper headlines were covering new topics, and my newly-acquired vocabulary of words to do with volcanic eruptions was suddenly rendered defunct. Today, jet trails once again cross the blue skies of Paris, and my friends have their tiny studios to themselves. I’m sure if I’d been trapped in an airport queue far from home, eating my umpteenth ham sandwich, I’d have felt differently, but the truth is I appreciated Eyjafjallajökull’s reminder of how powerful a creature our world is (especially since the eruption came without the tragic cost in human life of so many natural catastrophes). The stunning images of Eyjafjallajökull show why we visit naturally magnificent places, as well as her greatest man-made cities: the earth is an incredible place. It’s not only the things we’ve created on its surface that amaze us, but also the power of the planet itself to remind us that our globe is still a big one, especially compared to the length of a single stride on our puny legs, so fragilely formed of flesh and bone.