Sunday, April 18, 2010

I live on an island

Eyjafjallajökull, erupting. Image source: Reuters

Many people forget that Ireland is an island. Much to the chagrin of many 20th century nationalists, I think that many people who have never lived in Ireland picture it somewhere in northern Europe, attached to the UK. But there is a big, wide sea between Ireland and the continent, and this becomes very evident when, say, a volcano erupts and sends ash into the atmosphere, grounding all air travel to a halt for days (and maybe weeks) on end. I missed a scheduled trip, and when I was still thinking I could work it out, a friend said "can't you take a train?"

Image source: Lonely Planet

I was supposed to attend a conference in Manchester this past Thursday. I was looking forward to meeting some of the people involved in the loose research network that is linked to the project I'm working on. I dutifully packed the night before (packing, even for a few days, kind of stresses me out), and was up around 6am to get ready for the airport bus, and I looked at my phone, only to see a whack of text messages. This is a very odd thing for six in the morning. The first message to greet me was from Aer Lingus: "Due to the closure of UK airspace as a result of volcanic activity, we have no option but to cancel your flight." By now the whole world knows what is going on with old puffy over in Iceland, but I'll tell ya: this was a very odd message for my dazed and sleepy head to receive at 6am. I thought it was a joke, but then I thought - how did someone hack Aer Lingus's texting system? Too much to process at that early hour. Onto the next message: there were a few from Elisabetta, who was already at the airport en route to Italy: Check your flight before coming to the airport because a volcano exploded somewhere and the majority of the flights are mine." I immediately called Lisa, who was planning to be on the same flight as me, and then thought of Aoife, who I was expecting to run into on the airport bus, because she was off to a theatre conference in Berlin that morning, also on a 9:30am flight. I rebooked for later that day, but it was cancelled. And then all flights were cancelled on Friday. And Saturday. And today. And tomorrow...

In the last few days, Facebook has been plastered with people talking about not being able to go places, and more recently, not being able to come home. Now, if you live in London and are off in Paris for a holiday, you could take a train home instead. Yes, the trains are being booked up by stranded travellers across Europe, but eventually, they will be able to move everyone around. And there are buses, and cars for hire. And frankly, when it comes down to it, if you REALLY had to, you could get all dressed up like the characters in The Road, and walk home! But if I am not on the island of Ireland, I cannot walk home! It's not even possible. And I know that if I am suggesting that one could walk from Paris to London, then I should consider that one could swim from Holyhead to Dublin, but really, we both know that is too far to swim, unless you are Martin Strel. This is why it's a blessing in disguise that I didn't make it to that conference in Manchester - I would still be there, maybe for all of next week, I'm am so over living in a city where I don't know a single person. That was so Autumn 2009.

Anyhoo, I am getting off topic (wait, there was a topic)? What I have realised is that people here fly A LOT. I know at least 10 people whose travel plans have been affected by Eyjafjallajokull. I wondered (aloud on Facebook) if the carbon produced by the Icelandic eruption would outweigh the carbon saved by the cancellation of flights, and two friends sent me this link within minutes. The rise of Ryanair and Easyjet, and the concomitant competition this has created with other regional airlines, like Aer Lingus, has radically altered the way we travel, and we're really not disaster-proof in this area. I wonder how many fewer train trips and ferry crossings occur now, compared to the mid 1990s, when Ryanair really started to take off? It's not just a pain to catch a train instead of a flight (in terms of the time it takes, and the unexpected nature of it), but apparently, it's not even possible: stranded travellers are reporting that they can't get train tickets, because, well, everyone else thought of that as well. But if we all just considered taking the train more often - for its convenience (no full body pat-downs and invasive security scans; you only have to arrive 15 minutes early), and for its relatively small level of emissions, then we wouldn't be so f*cked when mother nature decided we all needed to be just a bit more grounded...

Much to my amazement, both Ryanair and Aer Lingus have announced that they will be refunding or rebooking all tickets without charge. This is shocking, because when other disruptions occur because of mother nature, they are not always so willing to bear the financial burden. Perhaps they realise that their clients might just start thinking about other options...

As for the volcano, it keeps erupting. My friend Angela Rawlings is keeping a blog with frequent updates and interesting tidbits. Check out No Slumber for Volcanologists. And I found this time-lapse video of today's eruptions really beautiful:

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