Monday, 19 April 2010

Vegas to London: Part 1

** When the Iceland volcano blew, I was in Las Vegas selling a website to the Americans. Here is the first instalment of delayed posts describing the journey back to London. More follow.
For the genuine blog experience, read from the bottom up. Or the top down if you can't take the suspense.**

The ticket to Zurich: 18 April

I get more money from more cash machines until I have the €750 in cash that I’m prepared to pay.
But there are none of the long distance taxis outside the station now. At least, not so far as I can see.
So. Tweak the plan. One more try to get a train ticket but it doesn’t look good. The lines are longer and the signs and announcements are saying no trains north … well, ever really.
But the queues at the machines are short so what to lose by trying them again.
Miraculously, the machines are refreshed and I am able to by a ticket to Zurich for Monday. How? Maybe the announcements about no tickets north means all the way north. To the channel. But if we go bit by bit … ?
And I feel suddenly calm since that is a new plan. I have a cheaper hotel for Sunday evening.
I walk towards the new, cheaper hotel and pass a small travel agent with, astonishingly, no queues. Two or three people – most, as it happens, trying to get refunds on tickets they now don’t want to use. I go in to see if I can book anything on from Zurich.
No, I cannot.
But behind me is a man offering a taxi share to Paris for €300. And since that is three times as far as Geneva at half the price I was prepared to pay to go there, I am tempted.
Then another man asks ‘Did I hear you say you want a ticket to Zurich ??’
He has a ticket for the train about to leave for Zurich. He is Milanese and says he doesn’t want to go any more.
I take it. €100 for a first class ticket in a reserve seat. I pay and immediately think – ‘fool … it must be a forgery’ and regret not taking the offer of the taxi to Paris.
I take my seat on the train, convinced that the real owner will show and I do not help things by misreading the ticket and sitting in the wrong seat – 81 – instead of mine – 86.
But it is not a forgery.
And in seat 86 I meet the Utrecht Quartet.

The First Beggar: 18 April

It’s Sunday morning in Milan and it is raining.
The walk to the station is gloomy, dreary and even though I have a plan everything feels very low.
I stop at the first cash machine I see and where there are cash machines in Milan, just as in any tourist town, there are also beggars.
This one was clever. Perhaps I would find them all clever. No, I know that I find anyone who lives on their wits clever.
He was a tall, middle-aged man who came from Africa in one sense and nowhere in another. In that I didn’t see him there.
He appeared by the cash machine and asked what nationality I was.
‘French, English, Spanish’ he asked with a word or two of each language.
I said Greek – in the expectation that he knew none and that if he did, I might know more. Being Greek for the time being, I now had to commit to gestures – indicating that I needed to focus on getting my cash.
He paused until I’d got the money and then said goodbye, stretching out his hand. I shook it and he pressed into it a small, cheap figurine of the Buddha.
‘It is a gift’.
I said thank you. He asked how many there were in my family. I indicated four with four fingers. I was still ‘Greek’.
He stretched out his hand again, saying, ‘you’re so lucky to have a lovely family’.
I took his hand again and he pressed four more tiny buddhas into it.
‘For your family. Now you could give me ten euros.’
I gave him ten euros.

Desperate in Milan: 17/18 April

Is that what I look like?
In the hotel, I see myself for the first time in a while and it is a mess. Creased, dirty, greasy. My right leg – the one with the operation scars – is very swollen. The sternum staples feel stretched from carrying my bag.
I have something to eat. A bath. Wash some clothes – well, the more noisome portions at least. It’s never a great idea to wash entire shirts and so on – hotel rooms don’t have radiators any more and they would never dry and if they did they would be so creased you couldn't wear them.
I try to sleep but it is not going to happen. I have no plan. I have never felt more powerless.
This is the lowest point so far.
I do not know what it is like to have no idea what to do next. The one thing I have is resource. I have no other usable or useful qualification except that I can always see a way through anything. Always see an answer. Sometimes, even the right one.
Except tonight.
I can’t settle to the idea of just waiting it out in Milan. If I were going to do that, I’d still want to know when and how I was going to get out of here. I can't just see what happens.
So I make a plan. However improbable, I make a plan.
There are taxis outside Milan station that go long distances – I know this because they wouldn’t take me the mile or so to my hotel in the city.
I start to work out how much would be too much to pay one of them to drive me to Geneva. €500? €1,000? It’s about 200 miles. About a three hour drive.
I settle on €750. That’s how high I’d go. Then maybe a train. Or maybe a friend in Geneva who works at the UN might know someone going north.
So that’s what I’ll do. Get the cash out in the morning – it’ll need cash, I guess – and do that.
A plan.

The Milan train: 17 April

Everyone is going to Milan.
The train is chaos. There are more passengers than seats but nothing to say which seats are reserved and there is constant commerce in places to sit.
I guess lucky and sit all the way to Milan. We go through Firenze and Bologna but they have no charm. Not today.
Mrs Marsh has booked me a hotel in Milan. At a ridiculous price but it is the only option. A room that would normally be €160 is €360.
Milan station a little before ten in the evening boils with despondency.
The ticket machines have become moody and the queues into the ticket office are long and long and long. Younger people seem to have decided they must sleep in the station, resting like upturned turtles on their rucksacks.
Boards and announcements say there are no tickets north until Monday – that’s in two days time. There will be no ticket tonight and I need sleep more than I need another plan. So I go to the hotel, resigned to the idea of an enforced holiday in Milan where it is raining.

More in Rome: 17 April

That’s the second time today I’ve had this collision of emotions. The high of a barrier overcome with, almost simultaneously, the anxiety and uncertainty about what the next move can be.
I need to get to Milan. Unlike most capital cities, Rome is nowhereland when it comes to railways. It is like Bristol or Coventry but with older and generally more impressive ruins.
If you want an Italian train to somewhere, Milan is where you have to be.
I find a machine to sell me a ticket. At first try, it rejects my Egg card. That’s Egg.
Apparently, I have made ‘a number of atypical transactions’ and they suspect fraud. I know this because they leave a voicemail message on my mobile. One of the ‘atypical transactions’ is a $3 charge for WiFi on the NY flight.
I am glad that they are protecting my card security but wondering why they do not realise that ‘atypical’ conditions – like most of Europe’s airspace closed – might lead to one or two ‘atypical transactions’.
That’s Egg, by the way. Useless in a crisis.
I get a ticket for a train in five hours time and my mindset is now so changed that this seems good news. It is a train. Out of here. And only five hours to wait.
Batteries are now a problem too. The mobile especially. Without it, I am blind. I persuade the woman in a cafe opposite the station to let me charge my phone while spinning out two cappuccini over an hour or so.

In Rome: 17 April

It is clearly very bad.
Countries are falling like falling things. North Italian airspace is closed soon after we arrive. Hungary. Slovenia submit as we go through customs.
There is no news on Kuwait airways but Paris has reclosed and Rome is frantic and vile. It is not the place to stay and though I had protectively booked a room at a Rome airport hotel, it would be insane to wait here so the room is canceled.
I am now committed to getting home overland and so it is into Rome and head for the station.
I am not the only one who has had this idea.
I do some more sums. There’s no way of knowing how long this will take and I went to Vegas as light as possible.
Only just enough shirts socks etc for three days.
It is now day four.
Importantly, only just enough of a vital medication for three days. Pills I have to take daily to prevent me having that stroke I considered feigning in Vegas.
It is now day four and I need a plan within a plan.
The drug I need is warfarin – it’s very strictly controlled in the UK and everywhere else as far as I know. I imagine I will have to find a doctor to write a prescription. On a Saturday. And there will be no pharmacies open on Sunday. We are in the sphere of the social chapter.
Evoke pity is a good plan within a plan within a plan.
I find a pharmacy and in Italian owing more to Vergil than Dante explain what I need. I am prepared to weep, collapse, clutch my chest or anything if need be.
‘Certo’ he says. And hands me a box with enough blood thinner in it to eradicate all the rodents in a small underground station. For €2.50.

The Rome flight: 16-17 April

JFK seethes with lost and abandoned Europeans. A sort of latter day Ellis Island except that the Europeans are trying to get out and they are mostly really rather rich. And shouty. In a 4x4 sort of way.
Ticketing is starting to collapse and the only way through it is to ‘own’ a Delta employee. Make your problem their problem. So I do this and in spite of all machines rejecting my passport I manage to get a boarding card for Rome but only just.
If it had not been ‘the last flight to Europe’ – it probably wasn’t but that’s what they said – it would have been the plane to avoid. Two or three parties of teenage schoolchildren, each one a testimony to American orthodontics. The hormones crackled.
My seat buddy is a living wheezing incarnation of American obesity. I’m sure the dismay shows on my face as I approach and I am a lesser person for that.
Doubtless she is a very sweet and kind and gentle woman. But just right now and for the next eight and a half hours it is about practicalities. One third of her spills over the armrest and occupies one third of my allotted space.
Worse, she fits so tightly into her seat that every movement – like breathing or blinking for example – telegraphs itself through our miserable settle and, for all I know, the entire plane.
I have unkind thoughts. Especially when we hit heavy turbulence over Newfoundland. The sweet, large lady cannot hold her arms near her body and when we drop a few hundred feet or so, her tumbler of red wine is levered sharply up then down … and …and … and …
I do not know how long I will have to wear these trousers, newly freckled. But it was all right because she was screaming ‘Oh my God … Oh my Lord’ as the plane bucked and dived. And the teenagers, confident in their own immortality, whooped.
No-one slept.

To New York: Friday 16 April

It is early Friday morning at the airport and everyone seems to be leaving Las Vegas. That would make such a good film title.
The plan is now extended with a Kuwaiti airways flight to Paris from Rome but I do not believe this will happen.
I check in to NY. But the machine will not let me check in for the flight to Rome. I do not like the feel of this.

The plan: Thursday 15 April

We are at the Vegas convention centre. A depressing carpeted hangar somewhere … somewhere. This ash thing is looking serious and I have begun to do the sums.
There are 400 odd people on each direct UK/Vegas flight. Pretty much full, especially at the end of the Easter holiday.
So one canceled flight means 400 to slot in on later pretty much full flights. Two means 800. Three 1,200 … and so on.
Time for a plan.
Fly. Fly anywhere. Antarctica. Somalia. Anywhere but NY is nearer London so I think there.
My mobile becomes a lifeline. That and wonderful people in London to do stuff for me.
I get a seat on a flight to New York at seven in the morning. And then to anywhere in Europe still open. Turns out, only Rome.
Hurrah. Got seat on that. Looks on the website like it was the last one.
We now start to think about ‘the event’ – the thing I’ve actually come here to do.
It is just half an hour before my presentation and a very long time since I slept properly. Fatigue erupts and I lose the power of speech and of rational thought.
This is a pity since all I need right now is the power of speech and of rational thought. To my ears I am slurring my words so I rehearse and begin with the easy stuff at the beginning.
‘Good’ and ‘evening’ each sort of works on its own . Running them together is asking for trouble.
I consider feigning a stroke.

The News: Thursday 15 April

Wake up in Las Vegas to a text from Mrs Marsh apologising for the cloud of volcanic ash that has closed British airspace.
It is not her fault I think. But it seems Iceland has not finished with us. Dodgy banks and Bjork were only the beginning.
The news seems incredible but then I am surrounded by the incredible. Las Vegas. So it must be true.
It’s easy to be snobbish at Vegas’ vulgarity. But then, there is nowhere more vulgar on the planet. There are queues for everything except the gambling tables and the wedding chapels.
It is what the late-Roman empire or that of Justinian and his part gymnast part whore empress Theodora would have become had it got the hang of petrol and pre-stressed concrete.
Whatever else happens, I cannot stay here. If my flight is canceled tomorrow, I’m out of here.

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