Thursday, 27 May 2010

Every Ash Cloud Has a Silverlight Lining

My ash cloud story. I’ve just read it back and it’s quite long. Perhaps you might want to put the kettle on ?

More than a month has passed since "The Ash Cloud Incident".

I like many was caught up in it and my return home was delayed by 5 days.

We had decided to have a short city break in Rome for the school holidays and had a fantastic time. I had spent a lot of time in Rome when I was growing up and wanted to show my sons the sights.

The Colosseum was a big hit as was the Vittorio Emmanuelle II monument. Perhaps the most impressive was the Vatican. We toured the museums and climbed to the top of the cupola (not for the faint hearted).
A particular favourite of my youngest son (Max) was the Cappuccino Monk's cemetery (and you thought it was a coffee!). The place is full of dead monks arranged in collages. There are even chandeliers made from various bones.

By the end of the week we had done a lot of walking and eaten plenty of pizza and ice cream. We were looking forward to getting home to see the animals and a nice cup of tea.
We had checked out of the hotel and were on the train to the airport when my wife's PA telephoned to say that we wouldn't be coming home because a volcano had just erupted and all flights were grounded.
The airport was a nightmare. We were probably several hours behind the news and there were thousands of travellers with nowhere to go.
Our first stop was the check in where we found a lady (watched over by a burly minder) handing out a sheet of paper telling us that the flight had been cancelled and that we should report to the Jet2 desk.
Being Jet2, they don't have a desk. Instead, an agent acts as a representative for several budget airlines. As you can imagine, he was a bit harassed. He was giving out sheets of paper supplied by Jet2 explaining that we could have the price of our return flight refunded or arrange a rescheduled flight. It listed several numbers. Most of these numbers were simply for sales agents who were not expecting the call and insisted on transferring you to someone else who didn't know what to do with you either. The upshot was that they offered us a flight on the following Friday. This was on the Thursday and so we would have to wait 8 days.
Not bloody likely!
This was early on when I refused to believe that simple things like getting your family home from Italy would prove so difficult.
OK so flights for the next day or two would be tricky but there are so many other ways to travel.
Plan 'B'. Fiumicino airport has an adjoining train station. We headed off to try and book some tickets to Paris. The queue was long. While I waited to be served, my wife asked her PA to organise Eurostar tickets to get us from Paris to London.
By the time I reached the front of the queue, my wife had word that Eurostar had pulled out the stops to do their bit in the crisis. They inflated the prices and quoted us £850 for the four of us.
Cheeky bastards!
I then found out that there were no European rail tickets available for another 6 days. They had all been booked up during the course of the past 5 hours.
Some younger travellers (they were called back packers in my day) were just going to catch any north bound trains and then simply leap frog from train to train in the hope of reaching the channel. With a family of four to get home, I didn't want to set off until I knew we could arrive safely. Anyway, I had a plan 'C'.
Although I didn't fancy a long drive, it had the prospects of being an adventure. The kids were already looking forward to driving through (under) the Alps by the time we got to the car hire desks. Once again we were thwarted. The car hire firms had quickly realised that they were in danger of their entire fleet being in the wrong country within 24 hours. Therefore, they suspended cross border car hire for the foreseeable future.
That left plan 'D'.
Most of my family live in and around an ancient hill town called Alatri. In fact my sister has a small one room flat in the town that she uses for short breaks. A few telephone calls later and we had arranged for the key to be left for us at my Cousin's bar.
We had to take a couple of trains to get there (well, nearly). The closest we could get by train is a town called Frosinone. It is about 24km from Alatri. By the time we arrived at the station, the station master / barman was closing up and the last bus had gone.
The taxi rank was empty and there were two cards pinned to the wall. The first was for a taxi driver named Claudio, the other for Vincenzo. I telephoned Claudio. He couldn't come because he was in Rome. "You should try Vincenzo". I called Vincenzo. He was in Latina. "You should call Claudio".
We were really getting fed up now. It was 10.30pm and we'd had enough. I was about to telephone my father in England so that he could telephone one of my cousins or uncles when one of the guys who had been playing cards in the bar came over and asked if we had called Claudio. I said we had but he was in Rome. He asked if we had tried Vincenzo. I told him that Vincenzo was in Latina. Hoping that my family were doing their lost puppy dogs impression behind me I asked the man (Mauro) where we could possibly get transport to Alatri.
Mauro put us all in his car and took us himself. What a nice man. It turned out later that he was a taxi driver himself but usually only did short trips.
So there we were in Alatri wearing our last clean items of clothing. As look would have it, Friday is market day in Alatri and so we walked down the hill in the morning to buy some new underwear. The flat didn't have a washing machine and I didn't remember hand washing in the sink until the day after!
We were in Alatri for 5 days and had a lovely time. I got to take my kids to all the places I had played as a child in my summer holidays and visited some relatives.
All the while, we were stressed about how we were going to get home. My wife had a lot to do back home and I was due in Belgium to deliver a Silverlight 4 course for Microsoft.
For someone who Googles (I'm sorry. Bings) whatever he needs, it was a shock to find that Alatri's only Cyber Café had closed down. It hadn't caught on. None of my relatives had the internet. And so we had to manage things by asking my wife's PA to check things out for us. Even my colleague Steve Brennan helped out by finding some flights that I could try and book.
What ever we tried, we kept hitting "no planes or trains until next Friday".
I did give the car hire firms one last try. I proposed a car hire relay. Drive to Genoa with one car. Get ourselves over the border somehow to Nice and drive from Nice to Calais. That way the Italian car stays in Italy and the French car stays in France. They said no.
So we stayed for a week.
And although there was some stress, we only had to watch the news to see people sleeping on floors in airports to count our blessings.
I managed to get us on a flight to Heathrow with Alitalia on the Tuesday Cloud Day +5. I didn't want to fly to Heathrow as our car was at Manchester Airport but I figured that once we were in England we would be able to get home OK.
We tidied up the flat and headed off to the airport.
We had to change trains at Rome's Stazione Termini which was like hell on earth. This was Cloud+5 and people had been there for days. Tempers were short and there was a lot of pushing and shoving.
As we were checking in at the airport we were told that our flight (which connected in Milan) would stop in Milan because Heathrow was still closed. We didn't want to turn around and go back so we took a chance and booked the Holiday Inn in Milan for an overnight stay.
The Holiday Inn were doing their bit in the crisis, the two rooms cost 260 euro (more than double the usual price) and the dinner was fixed price at 30 euro per head.
Cheeky Bastards!
On top of all that we got stuck in the lift. On the way down to dinner, the list overshot the ground floor and crashed down onto the buffers. It took them several minutes to get us out and I had whiplash for the rest of the night.
I thought that would be worth a complimentary bottle of wine. It wasn't.
News was that the Heathrow flight would depart in the morning. So we booked a taxi for 5.15am.
In the morning we were in reception with several others waiting for our taxi. This was to be the first bun fight of the day. The taxi driver asked who had booked the 5.15am. As I was gathering the kids, three Brits and two Germans headed for the car.
I said "Hold on. We have a taxi booked for 5.15am" to which the driver, receptionist, Brits and Germans simply shrugged. I wanted to establish exactly whose taxi it was but no one was interested. They simply set about getting in to the cab. As I was asking the receptionist to order us another taxi an argument broke out because the driver wouldn't take five adults and all their bags. So now it was the Brits against the Germans with the Italian in the middle (don't even go there, I've heard it all before!).
It was as the shouting started that a quiet voice beside me said "Signore. Room 217? I am your car."
The look on the Brit's faces was brilliant. They were still all arguing as we drove off.
If I thought the train station was bad, Milan airport was worse. We were all queuing for our flights while rumours of more cancellations drifted around. The board still showed our Heathrow flight and so I queued. All the time, people were shouting. As is typical, the queue wound back and forth until the person at the front would wait to be called by the next available check in assistant.

Whenever some poor tired traveller reached the front and didn't notice that they had been summoned to a desk, shouts would ring out. "MOVE !, IT'S YOUR TURN !, ARE YOU DEAF?".
At one point, an Italian started threatening some mild mannered Spanish guys ahead of me. He must have been a Southerner. My money's on Naples. He was going to take them all on. It was crazy.
When we got to the front we were in luck. Our flight had been cancelled but the assistant was fantastic. Where, all the other check in assistants simply shrugged as they told people that they would have to re schedule their flight, ours (I am annoyed that I cannot remember her name) did everything that she could to help. She said that she could get us to Paris or Amsterdam with the remainder of our ticket.
We chose Paris and as it was about to leave, she actually escorted us to the gate. Hugs all round.
In Paris I queued to find a flight to Manchester. In the queue I spoke to my brother in law who is a Manager at Manchester airport. He said that he could get us 4 seats on a flight to Manchester that afternoon with FlyBe. Unfortunately they were going to charge £1200! I checked the same flight for today. £620.
Cheeky bastards!
They can't claim supply and demand as there were plenty of empty seats. Presumably there weren't enough people prepared or able to pay that amount.
As we strapped ourselves in, the hostess welcomed us onto Europe's cheapest airline.
Yeah. Right!
So we made it home.
I didn't even register the price of the car park after a further 6 day stay. My Amex card was red hot.
The good news was that we made it back in time to see the lambs born.
The first two out we named Ash and Cloud.
I'd missed two training events in Brussels and Chertsey but had a couple of days to wash my clothes, iron and repack and leave for Johannesburg.
All a bit of a blur really.
I delivered two events in Johannesburg for Microsoft. One was the two day training course but day one was a seminar for 200+ developers and some designers.
The seminar was great. The crowd were full of questions and were really engaged. Every one was making Cloud Computing jokes. Then laughing heartily and punching me on the shoulder.
Perhaps the freakiest moment was when I sat down to dinner outside the hotel restaurant and took in the view.
After being stranded in a classical Italian hill Town, I had flown to South Africa to eat dinner in a reproduction classical Italian hill town.
Now that's irony !
Spot the difference. Alatri in Italy, Montecassino in South Africa.

See you soon

Phil Stirpé
"I don't do average!"