Monday, April 19, 2010

Volcanoes in Iceland??? Berlin to London by Land

A little story about meeting the right people and being in the right place at the right time…

Growing up, I had been taught not to talk to strangers. After my adventure from Berlin to London yesterday, I am glad that I broke this rule, as I never would have gotten to London safely had it not been for the kindness of strangers, and a whole lot of luck.

I had been in Berlin since Tuesday, April 13th. It was the last city I had planned to visit as part of my two week Easter Break before returning back to London on Friday, April 16th so that I could play in my rugby game on Saturday and use the weekend to prepare lessons for a new job I was to start the following Monday. Unfortunately, due to forces beyond my control, namely the disruptions in air transport as a result of volcanic activity in Iceland, I missed my rugby game and showed up to work today completely unprepared and exhausted (but at least I went- 17 teachers were absent from school as they were stuck in other countries!).

Due to the dangers of flying through volcanic ash clouds, my flight was cancelled and rescheduled until Tuesday morning at 9:35 am. I was a little annoyed and stressed: I would have to spend an extra four nights in Berlin and would miss two days of work. Since I work for a teaching agency as a temporary worker, I do not get compensated for days I miss from work. By missing two days, I would have difficulty paying my rent for May, since I had essentially spent all my money during my two week holiday and was relying on a full week of work for my next paycheck.

In order to avoid complete financial anxiety, I telephoned my parents on Skype from an internet café in Berlin to see if it would be okay if I borrowed some money from them in case my personal funds ran out as a result of the extra travel expenses I would incur. Luckily, my parents are very supportive and in a position to be able to help me out whenever I need it and agreed to transfer money into my Canadian account if required.

Having to ask my parents for money was worse than the feeling of being stuck in another country, as for me, it felt like a complete loss of independence. Even though I lived on the brink of existence financially, I had done well managing my money and budgeting so far this year- but I had not anticipated needing an emergency natural disaster fund. Neither did most other travelers, as I soon learned. I am very fortunate that I have people who I can go to for help when I need it, but there are many stranded travelers who are sleeping in airports and train stations, and who are probably starving due unplanned expenses.

My friend, Nita, who I was travelling with told me that she thought that what I needed to learn from the “being stuck in Berlin” fiasco was that it is okay to ask for help when I need it and that I won’t be able be self-sufficient all the time- that I will need the support of others from time to time. She is probably right.

On Friday and Saturday, I tried to take advantage of having more time to experience Berlin. It is ironic that on Thursday I had told Nita how I wished that we had booked a longer vacation, as I didn’t think I would be able to see everything I wanted to. Although I was appreciating the extended holiday, by Saturday night, the news reports were predicting that flights might not resume for another week or so, and I became a bit panicked. Would my flight be cancelled Tuesday? If it was, when would I be able to leave? I decided that I could not wait any longer. I needed to feel as though I was doing everything I could to get back to London. Who knew how long the volcanic activity would last?

On Sunday morning, I went to the train station in Berlin to see what my options were. Nita decided to wait in Berlin until Tuesday and see if she could get on our scheduled flight before taking action to travel by land. This meant that I was travelling alone. I was also without a cell phone, which I had stupidly left at my friend Angela’s on my trip to visit her in Brussels a few days earlier.

I thought that I would probably travel to Calais, France, and then try to take the ferry from Calais to Dover, England. When I got to the train station, I realized that my best option was to take a train to Brussels, Belgium, via Cologne, Germany and either take the Eurostar or coach bus through the Channel Tunnel to London. I knew that both the Eurostar and bus were sold out and that I would probably have to spend a few days in Belgium before I could travel onwards to England. Since Angela lived in Brussels and I knew I would be able to stay with her family if I needed to, I decided to go there instead of France. Unfortunately, I did not have her number. It was saved on my phone- in her house! I did not have enough time to e-mail her either. The next train to Cologne was to leave in ten minutes. I was alone and not really sure where I was going, or what I was getting myself into. All I could do was hope that everything would work out.

I had to stand on the train from Berlin to Cologne since I had bought my ticket last minute (and paid 140 Euros. Eww.). However, this turned out to be a blessing because I met Geraldine and Patrick, an Irish couple who were trying to get to Ireland from Berlin, and Bryan, another Irishman who was trying to get to Dublin from Poland, and had already had quite the adventure before we met him. Bryan was in communication via text with his wife, who was researching our options online, and Geraldine was in similar contact with her daughter. Although I was cellphone-less I had my Lonely Planet guide, “Europe on a Shoestring”, which proved to be a valuable resource in providing them with ferry options to various places in the UK, as well as to Ireland. The four of us instantly became friends and talked non-stop about our lives and backgrounds, which made the uncertainty of getting home and travelling alone less scary. I was no longer by myself.

When we arrived in Cologne, the train was overbooked and we had to get on a bus to Brussels. The four of us stuck together to make sure that we all got on the bus. By the time we were nearing Brussels, Geraldine, Patrick, and Bryan had all been booked into hotels by their families and were very worried about what would happen to me once I got to Brussels. My plan was to find an internet café (if I couldn’t get the bus or the Eurostar, which were both extremely unlikely options) and e-mail Angela in hopes that she would get back to me soon. Geraldine and Patrick insisted that I stay with them if I was not able to get in touch with her, as they did not like the idea of me staying on my own.

The internet café at Brussels Midi Station was closed. This completely baffled me: with so many people stranded at the station it was a good opportunity for the business to make money! I wandered around the station in search of internet options and started to get a little bit nervous. Perhaps I would have to spend the night in Geraldine and Patrick’s hotel room after all. As I shuffled through the crowds of tired and frustrated passengers hoping to get on the Eurostar stand-by, I saw a familiar face: my friend Anna, another Canadian teacher who lived on my floor in residence in London! What a relief to see someone I knew.

Here is where the story gets unbelievable:

Anna: How are you going back to London?
Me: No clue. I am currently trying to find an internet café in hopes of getting in touch with a friend who lives in Brussels. I’ll probably be here a few days.
Anna: I have an extra Eurostar ticket for a train to London tonight. Do you want it?

Was she joking? Did I hear her properly? Looking at the hundreds of people hoping to get on a train at some point in the next couple of days, let alone tonight, I realized I had literally hit the jackpot.

Even more unbelievable was how Anna came to have an extra Eurostar ticket. She booked the Eurostar the previous Thursday after she decided to head back to London from Amsterdam via Brussels on Sunday. However, while she was booking her ticket, her session timed out. This was after she had entered her credit card information. She thought that her credit card wasn’t working, so her friend, Ashley, another Canadian teacher whom Anna was travelling with, booked tickets for the both of them. Later on, Anna got an e-mail from Eurostar confirming that she had a spot on the train she thought that she had not booked for Sunday. Therefore, Anna and Ashley had three tickets between the two of them- by accident. I ran into them as they were waiting in line to see if they could get a refund for the extra ticket. What are the chances?! Miracles really do happen. Thank you, Anna. Thank you, Guardian Angel!

The whole trip to Berlin was an emotional roller-coaster. In addition to the stress imposed by the looming uncertainty of how and when I would return to London, I had been feeling a little disheartened when I was sight-seeing. Reminders of terrible events in history, through visits to the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust Memorial, and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, made me reflect on the dark side of human nature and the root of evil. Fortunately, my faith in reality was restored when I saw people coming together to ensure that complete strangers were able to get home safely. I would like to thank Bryan, Geraldine, and Patrick, who really took care of me on the journey from Berlin to Brussels. It was amazing how quickly we became a team and helped each other out. I hope that you are all able to get back to Ireland safely!

I would also like to thank Chris and Oliver, who allowed Nita and I to stay for free in the flat that we had rented from them for our first three nights in Berlin, once we learned that our flight had been cancelled, forcing us to stay in Berlin longer than planned. Otherwise, we would have had to pay for 4 extra night’s accommodation. They were also incredible hosts and went out of their way to ensure that we were taken care of while in Berlin. Future travelers, please let me know if you need somewhere to stay in Berlin. Their flats are really nice and in great locations!

The chaos and disruptions created by the volcanic eruptions made me realize how much we take the power of nature for granted. No matter how hard we try to control our lives, we are completely helpless to random acts of nature, or “Acts of God”, as some airlines and insurance companies are using as justification for not having to pay their passengers’ expenses while they wait for a rescheduled flight. It has also made me think a lot about the existence of fate and fortune. I still cannot believe that I bumped into Anna in a busy train station in another country and that she had accidently booked herself into 2 seats on the sold-out Eurostar.

I told the students at my new school that the universe had somehow enabled me to teach their lessons this week, so that they better behave as to avoid bad karma! Unfortunately, this only tamed them for a little while!

I also did not know much about Iceland before this experience, and certainly did not know that it had any volcanoes. I guess the whole world does now!!!

Good luck to all of my friends who are stuck in Greece, India, Egypt, Thailand, Spain, Morocco, and elsewhere in the world. Stay positive: miracles can happen!


Megan V said...

WOW! What a journey. You are a better person than I am! I would have ended up crying in a corner!

Thank God for miracles eh?

So glad all is well.

Victoria Westcott said...

Great story Shannon! And I can't even tell you how happy I am that you made it back in time to teach.


Bryn said...

Wow, that's crazy! I'm so glad you made it back, and that you have such a great story to tell. And yes, it's totally ok to ask for help sometimes.

It'll be another week before I'm back in London, but when I am we should go for a drink and catch up.

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