Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE VOLCANO FROM HELL

I was half-packed and psyched up to come home on Thursday. We had planned a day of farewells to the relatives in Copenhagen and then a quick flight home on Friday morning. Dad texted me about an Icelandic volcano that was erupting and causing chaos. My first reaction - Is this an April fool's joke? It was too weird to be anything else. I turned on the Danish news and realized it wasn't a joke. News was saying it would last 12 hours so we signed up with Norwegian airlines for text updates on our Friday morning flight and went to the goodbye dinner with Miriam and Bjørn. The news told us before dinner that Danish airspace had been closed as a precaution until 12pm Friday. Our flight was 12-10pm - I was beginning to doubt our chances of escape but maybe we would just be the first flight out of Denmark after the crisis. Sitting on the bus home from dinner at 9pm Norwegian texted us that our flight was officially cancelled. :-(
We watched the news as they prolonged the airspace shut-down hour by hour. We checked Norwegian and they had no more flights before Monday. There was no point in hanging about Denmark as long as that so we opted for a refund and a landtrip. Thomas went out at 8-30am on Friday to find the best land route. At 9am I got a rushed call. He had managed to get train tickets from Copenhagen to Amsterdam via Hamburg - a fourteen hour trip with just six train changes followed by a ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle leaving 24 hours later, arriving in England on Sunday morning - a 48 hour trip in all. The only problem with it was that it was leaving in 45 minutes so I had to finish packing the two cases, and the rucksack and get myself and both girls across Copenhagen in about 30 minutes. It was a beautiful morning and it was the Danish Queen's 70th birthday into the bargain so there were more people on the streets than usual awaiting the royal parade.
First my in-laws phoned for a taxi but they said it would take more than an hour to find one with baby seats and they wouldn't take us without. They then rang Miriam who said there was too much traffic to guarantee getting to me and then to the station. They started surfing the Danish bus system. I tried to explain I knew how to navigate Copenhagen myself and would take a bus to Nørreport and a train or Metro from there. They kept surfing - how could the foreigner know how to navigate Copenhagen better than them? They aren't from Copenhagen and had been using a car all week but... I made to leave. My mother-in-law decided the best bet was her coming with me to the station while Peter drove the luggage in the (3 seater) car. We got to the station with 15 minutes to spare but there was no sign of Thomas or Peter. I rang Thomas - he yelled 'complications' and hung up. There was still no sign of Peter!
With five minutes till the departure Thomas appeared running and told me to follow him. We both sprinted into Copenhagen's main station 'Travel shop' skipping ten queues of 50 people each all shoving, pushing and screaming in many languages. We weren't the only ones who had worked out there had to be a land route. After all those years of flying everywhere (I haven't interrailed since the early 90s) this actually came as a surprise to me! Oh dear.
So what was the 'complication'? There were two departments - one for train tickets, one for ferries. Thomas had bought the train ticket and reserved the ferry one but by the time he'd been redirected to ferries, some numpty had sold his reserved ticket and we had approximately 2 minutes to decide whether to go to Amsterdam without a ferry ticket or simply abandon the plan.
I figured if we got all the way from Copenhagen to Amsterdam over land then going down the coast trying for ferries in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Zeebrugge, Ostend and Calais wasn't going to be too hard. I'd done it so often alone as a student, it really wasn't rocket science so agreed to go to Amsterdam.
We found Peter beside the train throwing in our luggage while Miriam fought the guard valiantly to stop it leaving without us. We jumped in as it pulled away and then set about trying to find seats given we didn't have reservations.
The first train was fine. We crossed half of Denmark sitting together. We had a 15 minute change half way across, where again we had no problems finding seats. It was quite a fun adventure!


We checked the schedule. Most of the trains had about 15 minutes between them, the one in Hamburg at 6pm had half an hour. That was our only window for finding food. Miriam had thrown in a box of cold rice from the night before and a couple of slices of ryebread so we'd survive the first 8 hours.
Things went fine until the Danish border. On leaving it the train ground to a halt and sat for half an hour with no explanation. Strange... Half an hour into Germany, half an hour before our scheduled changeover in Hamburg the train stopped again and a guard announced only in German that there were major trackworks ahead and that the train was stopping. All passengers were to get out and transfer to buses and we'd be driven into Hamburg. This didn't seem over-problematic, just a pain to move all the luggage. It turned out however that the German railways (DB) had been assuming normal levels of passengers and had laid on a bus, but with many intercity passengers instead of the handful of locals they'd expected on a normal Friday, they suddenly had to scramble up two more buses and drivers and by the time we arrived onboard we had 25 minutes to reach our departing train in Hamburg and the driver was estimating it'd take just over an hour.
On arrival in Hamburg we confirmed our train had already left then joined the 60 people queue in the Travel Centre. The guy in there gave Thomas a new train timetable that necessitated a 4-5 hour wait for a connection in the middle of nowhere at 2am and warned us the station there would close so we'd be out in the cold. We were then redirected to the lady who stamps the tickets to revalidate them.
A very smiley, chubby friendly-looking woman looked up from her desk and we explained where we were going. She peered over her glasses and inquired as to whether we really fancied 4 hours in the cold or if we'd rather DB paid us a hotel room for our 'Minikinder'. Hard choice?
She set her colleague to ringing around warning things were fully booked because of the crisis. I envisaged a scabby, dodgy hotel like you often find around large stations - the kind of place pick pockets hang out but if DB were paying, I'd just sleep on my handbag. We were given a ticket for free Bed and Brekkie in the Hamburg Park Hyatt and set out on foot to look for it.
Much to my surprise I found myself in front of a luxury hotel ten minutes later. At reception we were asked where the girls were to sleep in a double room. We asked if they had something even cot-sized for Anna and told them Amaia could sleep with us for the night. They saw the DB certificate offering to pay unlimited costs 'We'll upgrade you to a suite with two Queen-sized beds, Sir' they informed us, rubbing their hands together as they pocketed (I have since checked on the Internet) €435 of DB money!


The next morning we were met with a feast fit for a king - unlimited everything washed down with oranges pressed for us. Anna was given her own silver cutlery with bears on and after our long trip I could happily have stayed there all day but we'd a train to catch at 9-45 to Osnabrück.
We dashed to the station and manouvered the cases and the buggy down to the platform. We waited and five minutes before departure a sign popped up saying in German that the train would leave from Harburg. What was Harburg??? Once more the trackworks were causing a problem. We'd to take a metro to a suburb and catch a train there but we'd no idea what time it was leaving at and no one else knew either. We hopped on the metro and arrived to find we'd to climb three or maybe four floors with no lift to get to the station from the metro. We had two cases, a rucksack, and two babies in a broken double buggy. One wheel had snapped on the girls' buggy on Thursday but we were trying to coax it to the ferry because carrying a baby and a two year old was more impossible. My back ached from trying to push the broken buggy while Thomas dealt with the cases. My boob ached from my latest bout of mastitis just two days earlier - I'm so run down from being on antibiotics on and off since Amaia was born.
We reached the top of course to find Osnabrück had already left. We joined yet another queue of grumpy travellers with large cases to find out plan C or were we on D by now? I was beginning to notice that the percentage of travellers with airport tags on their oversized luggage had gone from 20% on Friday to 70% on Saturday. More languages were being spoken around me. I recognised they were from further afield. It seemed everyone on mainland Europe had decided to try to go home overland and Germany's trackworks were throwing a spanner in everyone's works. A new plan was produced which meant Amsterdam was another day further back and the ferries and Eurostars were all fully booked beyond Monday. The buggy died at that point and we'd no way to carry the girls. The DB asked if we wanted to go on or if we wanted a free ticket home to Thomas's parents.
At this point my kids rang to say they were stranded in France too. I spoke to my ex-husband and established they couldn't get out overland on a bus without two overnights in Strasbourg and London and couldn't get Eurostar tickets either. The first flight (if it flies) that they could get on was April 23. At the thought of not seeing my big babies for another week, I just lost the strength to carry on and stood in Harburg with the tears rolling down my cheeks.
Given we were going to have to sit it out for days and we couldn't afford hotels, we reluctantly opted to return to Denmark - this time to Århus where we could sit in Thomas's parents' flat as they were driving to Italy.
The Intercity train arrived and we tried to get on - I swear the whole of Hamburg airport had the same idea - there was standing space only till the Danish border. I perched on the suitcase trying to feed Amaia standing up as Anna sobbed in distress 'I'm sooooo sad' over and over for an hour. An old lady (maybe late 70s) got on at the first stop. She asked to push through the people saying she had a reservation. People tried to let her pass, and a guard arrived. She explained the same to him. He shook his head and said there was no hope and told her to stand till some people got out.
Eventually Thomas got enough space to sit on the floor in a compartment.

And after a while I even got a seat. At 6-30pm we arrived back in Århus having spent exactly 32 hours on the road getting nowhere.
We are now stuck here hoping something will fly soon, with tickets for (you'll laugh if you've been reading all my recent ranting) the only flights we could get - yeah you guessed it - Ryanair next Friday.

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