Europe on Hold

With most European airports closed, travelers from around the world set on an adventurous journey home

On The Town | Mina Nacheva, Stefanie Rauchegger, Daniel Gloeckler | May 2010

With confusion dominating the world after a plane crash killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and much of the country’s elite, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull could not have chosen a worse time to erupt, shooting clouds of ash into the atmosphere and grounding nearly every plane in Europe. The gods were clearly very angry.

Lots of things didn’t happen: President Barack Obama (US) and Heinz Fischer (Austria) cancelled their attendance at the Kaczynski funeral Apr. 18; German Chancellor Angela Merkel went ahead into stormy skies, and what turned into a very long odyssey. On board a plane headed from Washington to Berlin on Friday, Apr.16, the clouds of ash caught her in mid flight, forcing air traffic controllers to divert her flight to Lisbon, where Merkel and her delegation spent the night. A day later, they flew to Rome where they took a bus to Bozen, South Tyrol and a train back to Germany – leaving her far behind schedule and to her regret, unable to attend the funeral. Days later, former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky was still stuck in Japan, and missed the 40-year anniversary celebrations Apr. 21 of another former Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky’s 1970 election by absolute majority – a precedent still unmatched.

But they were only a few among the many affected.

With no planes allowed to take off into northern European airspace, cancellations numbered more than 100,000 flights in the week following the Apr. 15 eruption, and nearly 1.2 million passengers have been stranded daily in airports all over the world, according to a report by Eurocontrol – the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation. Unable to fly, people sought other means of transportation. And fast.

Oksana, an elderly, fragile-looking woman riding the Schnellbahn from Vienna International Airport leaned over the young woman next to her and asked in her broken German, "How many more stoppings" it was until Wien Praterstern.

The look of fragility was deceptive; she had managed to carry two large suitcases, and was smiling in spite of the situation. She had lived a vast number of years already and fully intended to live another decade or so, by the looks of her.

"I was going to fly from Moscow to Brussels and luckily this happened!" referring to the cancelled flight from Vienna to Brussels. "I was going to Brussels to see more of Europe before I pass away," she said, adorably referring to death as kaputt gehen, to break down, or perhaps she meant her bones. "Now I am excited, because I will get to go through so many more countries on the way."

She had managed to get rooms in youth hostels in both France and Germany and will decide to spend her time in the country where she can still get a train the next day. If neither had trains, then she would just stay in Vienna for a while. She loved classical music, she admitted, so it was hardly a sacrifice.

"I don’t care a lot about the deposit; it is only ten euros in total." She shrugged. "I have a lot of retirement funds," again adorably referring to the deposit as Geld ich muss loslassen, money I need to let go of, and retirement funds as altes Mensch Geld, old-person money.

She was trying to find a hostel near Praterstern for the night, well aware of its questionable reputation. This she passed off with a chuckle. Yes, she decided, that was where she would stay.

But if additional free days meant adventure for Oksana, for others it was a waste of precious time.

Suzanne, a twenty-year-old British student studying silver smithery at the Birmingham School of Jewelry could not have become unbearably ill at a worse time; after she came down with an unpronounceable version of the flu, the tongue-twister of a volcano took over.

"Tomorrow I have my briefing for the next three projects of the semester. Then my contextual studies review, where I will be given my grade for that part of the course." Or she would have, if she were there, which is unlikely. The three projects would have been for the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, a jewelry company, and a fashion designer – whose name was forgotten as a result of the flu. A towering challenge left to be met at the end of the feverish tunnel.

An exhibition, too, will now be unattended for days, and unable to be removed, leaving her worried about their security. There had already been cases of classmates’ tools and pieces going missing.

Now in line at Westbahnhof, Vienna’s largest train station (until the new Hauptbahnhof is completed in 2015), Suzanne waits anxiously to see if, by some stoke of luck, she can get back to the U.K. any time in the near future. Her freckled face appeared to have accepted the situation, but who knows what was happening inside her head.

"My father was considering sending me by train back to England, but the trip takes so long…," she sighed. "Anyway, most of the tickets are booked and seats all reserved."

If she is unable to get a train ticket, her only other option is to work some of her parents connections and try to hitch a ride to the UK in the back of a supply truck, the perfect complement to an attack of the flu.

Two students standing nearby were getting punch drunk from all the waiting.

"Imagine what would happen if people could actually pronounce Eyjafjallajökull," one kidded the other, who rose admirably to the occasion. "Yeah, they might start using it in a sentence," the second rejoined gleefully, "and then all hell would break loose!"

This set a reporter to thinking… then again, we need to give credit to the proud Icelandic nation who managed to put three entire words together (island mountain glacier) into a name that from now on will undoubtedly send shivers down the spines of travelers for generations to come. But of course, only of the ones who can afford to spend their time dwelling on it.

For the Turkish couple on Platform 8 at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, it didn’t matter what the cause was. They were too busy trying to juggle four pieces of luggage while their two sons, aged 4 and 6, were trying (not very hard)  – and failing (spectacularly) – to stay still on the concrete deck.

"We might have decided to not visit the family, if we had known this was going to happen," moaned the father, Devlet, clearly exhausted. "There is already enough difficulty flying with two kids; this only made it worse."

The 40-something parents were desperately trying for tickets back to Turkey; meanwhile, oblivious to the stress, the two boys continued fighting. Their plane was scheduled to take off at 18.30 that evening, but had been cancelled along with dozens upon dozens of others. Both parents would now miss one, possibly two days of work; but the real challenge was just to get home.

"We would be back in about an hour with a plane" the mother sighed, "but instead we need to go through Hungary, then Bulgaria and then finally, we will arrive in Istanbul Sirkeci. Of course, that is if this line will go anywhere before the train leaves at 19:50." Which was far from guaranteed. During the previous 15 minutes, the line of some 200 people had moved up only four.

The boys began shoving each other against the luggage; sweat poured down Devlet’s crimson face. His wife tried in vain to separate them, while at the same time calming her husband. From whenever they were finally able to leave Vienna, they would have to travel three hours to Budapest, followed by another 18 hours to Sofia, and finally another 12 hours to Istanbul. And by then, with a little luck, their two devils would have fought themselves to sleep.

For others the trip was more restful; some simply decided to just accept things as they were. For 27-year-old Pole, Agnieszka Sikora, this was just another minor setback on just another business trip. With her flight out of Zagreb cancelled on Apr. 16, Sikora had had a rough day and a half booking train tickets and waiting in long queues with her large suitcase and handbag, now both leaning against the wall.

"I took the train from Zagreb… as it was impossible to get to Vienna by plane," she said, pausing for a moment to recall the 8-hour ride already behind her. "Now I am taking the night train to Warsaw."

The time was 15:47; "now" it would be at least another four hours.

Sikora seemed to have settled in for the long wait. A friendly smile lit up her face as she casually ran a hand through her hair. Her eyes, however, gave her away, where the traces of exhaustion were hard to miss, interconnected rivers of red adding a look of drugged stupor.

"It’s been a long night," she said with a tired smile, as if seeing the question coming.

Even though she was lucky enough to book a hotel room for the night, it had taken her a while to come to terms with Austrian Airlines as to who would pick up the expenses of her layover. "It was a big quarrel at the airport," she said, "but finally AUA paid for the hotel, the taxis and so on," she said glancing over to her luggage. Indeed, it would have been hard to carry all of it on the public transport. The reporter thought back to the Turkish couple with the kids...

The waiting room at Westbahnhof echoed with a series of announcements coming over the loudspeakers. Sikora looked up for a moment as if expecting to hear her train being announced but it was too early.

"It’s my first experience like this," she said once the room fell silent again. "I travel a lot, and I was also at the airport when 9/11 happened. But that situation was not this complicated," she concluded, laughing, as she tried to make herself comfortable in the seat she has spent several hours in already.

More people filed into the waiting room; the queue outside had grown even longer. ÖBB staffers moved among the crowd, answering the questions coming from all sides. At the ‘Info Point,’ more and more people were joining the line to get a turn to talk to someone who might know something.

"We are providing additional trains, mainly heading to Germany," explained the staffer at the Info Point. "They should have enough space for all." According to Der Standard, the ÖBB had opened extra ticket counters at Westbahnhof; the increased demand brought in an additional €750,000 in ticket revenue during the weekend.

In the queue, some travelers looked tense, some on the edge of collapse; some would try to catch an eye, perhaps hoping for sympathy, others simply stared with empty eyes. In the center of the upper level, many just stood under the huge departures board, transfixed.

Leo Laursen still seemed quite awake – symptoms of a two-day caffeine binge. "My flight was supposed to take off yesterday afternoon," explained the 43-year-old, very blond man from Denmark, who was on his way home. He seemed glad to have someone to talk to. Maybe it would slow the rapid chattering in his head.

Constantly on the road, Laursen only has a small, black bag, which matched his black clothes. "I was in Slovakia and the suitcase ended up in Vienna," said the Dane, who took a cab from Bratislava. "But you know, it was cheap," he shrugged. Everything’s relative.

If all went well, Laursen’s adventure would be over the next day, Sunday, at 2 p.m., following a two-legged train journey from Westbahnhof, via Hamburg, to Copenhagen. Even though he seemed pleased with his plan, his smile suddenly vanished, as if he recalled a past experience.

"No, no, it’s the first time," he said, shaking his head. Did he think he would be thought irresponsible if disaster struck more than once. "People say it’s okay because nobody can do anything about it." Then he got angry. "The thing I am most dissatisfied about is the way the airline companies are treating people – you can’t get any information at all."

Unlike others, nobody paid for his extra night at a hotel. However, Laursen didn’t seem to care; mostly he just wanted to get home. Then it was back to mineral water.

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