I will return to the election and to the debate, but at the moment even the election news is swamped by the other actor on the world stage at the moment: the cloud of volcanic ash that has grounded much of western European air travel, and has stranded my husband in Sweden.
At this point, ferry companies have no vacant seats from the European mainland to the UK until May. Three Royal Navy troop ships are steaming towards (okay, they don’t use steam propulsion anymore) the continent, two to pick up civilian travelers who can’t get home and one to pick up stranded military personnel. The UK government is negotiating to use Spain as a hub, hoping that UK nationals can fly to southern Spain via air routes remaining usable, there to be collected by government-sent vessels.
The news is full of people phoning in from around the world with their stories of being left in the Caribbean without money to pay for their extended stays, or of being left in India past the expiration date of their visas such that they are in violation of Indian law. Parents who went on vacation while their kids went on school trips for spring break are in some cases stuck overseas while the kids have gone home; they’re burning up the airwaves trying to line up friends and relatives who can take care of the kids until they get back. Schools are trying to get back to normal, but with too few teachers. There are tons of consignments of perishable foods perishing because they can’t be imported into western Europe; we’ve been warned that prices of fresh vegetables and salad ingredients will rise as these become more scarce. Reports raise the possibility of financial disaster for farmers in Kenya who won’t have income from the crops they grow for our use.
In the middle of this, Dan Snow, a TV presenter and experienced sailor, set off with some friends to France in private boats to bring home as many British people as they could. He reports that it was a beautiful day, the best day for crossing the Channel he’s ever seen, and that his little flotilla of five boats could have gone back and forth enough times to get over 500 people home.
But the French wouldn’t let him.
He was turned back, told that his rescue operation constituted unfair competition with the businesses operating cross-Channel ferries. He managed to take only 25 British people home.
The press is saying that Dan Snow’s attempt shows the spirit of Dunkirk, which refers to the famous incident in WWII when hundreds of private boats of all sorts made heroic efforts to evacuate over 300,000 Allied soldiers from French beaches. Snow is an historian as well as a TV presenter, and has taken great care to point out that his 5-boat convoy can’t really be compared to the Dunkirk rescue (not least because he and his friends weren’t under fire). Still, his project reflects the spirit of pulling together to the do the right thing on which Britons pride themselves.
Unfortunately, some Britons also pride themselves on anti-Americanism, something that I try not to emphasize in my blog entries, but which simply has become a fact of life here over the past decade. During the current election campaign here, BBC radio is presenting amusing definitions of modern political terms in the style of Dr Samuel Johnson, whose 18th-century Dictionary of the English Language was groundbreaking, being the first real dictionary of English, but also entertaining, being dotted with satirical definitions. BBC’s modern-day Dr Johnson today quipped that when Valhalla opens, Heathrow closes—okay, that’s funny enough—but he also defined a volcano, in part, as something that makes the country “safe from visitations from the American colonies”. I’m afraid I didn’t find it funny, and I doubt that British people with empty hotels, guesthouses, and tourist attractions did either.
My husband spent this morning arranging to fill his prescriptions, because he’d run out of his medications. Fortunately he’d taken his government-supplied European health card with him to Sweden, as well as paperwork proving the medications had been prescribed. He walked to a hospital near his hotel, which directed him to another hospital, where a doctor worked through some medical reference books to figure out what Swedish medications matched his British ones, and he ended up with all the refills he needed.
At this point, the client for which he’d gone to Sweden is trying to arrange to get him home, using its clout as a major customer of a local travel agency. They may—to mix my metaphors—be able to pull strings and get him a booking on a ferry from Denmark, although first he has to get on a ferry to the Swedish mainland (he’s on an island) and make his way down to the right Danish port by train and bus. That’s Plan A.
In the meantime, he’s working to set up Plan B, which involves contacting all of his clients in Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands to see whether they’ve got any work for him, offering a “volcano discount”. If—and it isn’t certain—he can get an affordable rental car, and if any of the clients do need him, he hopes to meander through Europe doing enough work to defray expenses until he can get home. I spent more than half an hour on hold with Avis yesterday, and found that the one-way drop-off charge for such a rental could cost us over £900 ($1350)—that doesn’t include the cost of renting the car, that’s only the drop-off fee.
Plan C, presumably, is to get on one of the ships of the UK Navy, but we don’t yet know how you sign up for that. But at least it’s better than Plan D—swimming the channel.