Jeri and I just got back from visiting our daughter Christina in France (thankfully, as the Iceland volcano cramped our style a bit). I landed in Brussels, Belgium just as they were closing down airports all over Europe (managed to get on a train to Paris, found a bunk bed in a hostel, and hopped onto a TGV train (200 mph) the next morning for Aix-en-Provence. Jeri had flown in via Munich and got to Aix on time, but was delayed a day on the end of the trip.
Other than that all went well. Hundreds of thousands of people were much worse off than we were, some stranded halfway around the world from their homes for a whole week.
The peace and beauty of Provence made up for the stress and chaos in Brussels. Here is an email hastily dispatched (on a foreign keyboard with letters where they don’t belong) as I was trying to get out of there.
im getting on a train to paris dont kno from there all flights from bruss cancel yil tommoro nite
(I never use lower case and I’m a good speller. This was panic in progress.)
Christy’s response that night:
>Glad you’re ok! There are plenty of trains from paris to marseille or aix. So hopefully we’ll see you tomorrow! Hang in there! You’ll be here soon!
>And you’re making history too. this is nuts! http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8623534.stm
(There weren’t plenty of trains. There was a rail strike… But there was at least one, and that was enough. Here are excerpts from the following email that night.)
Hi, Christy and Jeri. I’m in Paris at Hostel Blue Planet, near the train station Gare de Lyon and as seen in Lonely Planet. NO other hotels available. Hostel clean and cheap, shared room, shared bath. Josh from the UK is in my room, he’s stranded trying to get to Geneva.
Chaos. Chaos. I got here after ten PM, got a shower and feel better. Can walk to the train station, leaves for Marseille at 6:14 AM, IF IF IF it leaves because of the rail strike. Conflicting info on that. I could be here for a few days.
I stood in lines for about 3 hours in Brussels, either trying to get a hotel (airline would have paid, but all booked up in Brussels, they would have shuttled us to Antwerp), and finally a train. Then they got word that all flights were cancelled until at least tomorrow night. Then some? Depends on the ash cloud. So I got a train to Paris.
It’s been an incredible struggle but I’m well and it’s warm and the kindness of strangers is phenomenal.
I like that last line: “The kindness of strangers is phenomenal.” Blanche DuBois would have loved this escapade (but then, she was insane). Everybody was sharing information, helping with language. Nobody in charge knew quite what to do (don’t they have snowstorms over there?) but at least they were polite and tried to help.
I was in line with a businessman from Berlin, another trying to get to Prague, a man from Delhi who was handling two calls at the same time on his cell phone (not much help to anyone else), and a man named Laurent from the Mont Blanc region of France who helped me very much.
Many of us didn’t have enough Euros for a train ticket, and the credit card system was out of order. Nor was there any way to get money changed while standing in lines, and some of us don’t speak French (!). Fortunately, enough others spoke English to help, and we got a subway to the next train station where the credit card machine could get us onto a train to Paris.
Ah, Paris in the springtime. But all I saw was a couple of Paris train stations, the urine-smelling subway between them, and a bunk bed in the hostel. Maybe next trip.
The bunk in the Blue Planet, however, was literally an answer to prayer. By ten PM, wandering around finding “no room in the inn” because of all the other stranded travelers, I had visions of sleeping on the floor of the train station. I recommend that hostel when you’re passing through.
The experience in Aix-en-Provence made up for the “welcome to Europe” entry. Very relaxing, warm, friendly, ancient buildings and art, lilacs in bloom, vineyards, strawberries in season, and when you order a cup of coffee they bring you an espresso, no questions asked. Very civilized.
And Christina bought me a chocolate-filled crepe.
Beautiful area, the south of France. Go there in April next year if you can, but try to dodge the volcanoes.