Friday, April 30, 2010

Saving drowner is the drowner's job

So says a common Russian wisdom, and it also was the essence of the message given by the kind lady at the SAS desk in the Stockholm airport. Well, I *knew* it, and this is how by the time I got to chat with her I had a bus ticket safely stored in my SMS archive. So in order to justify 2+ hours of queuing, I chatted with her about inflexibilities of business models of transport companies: she suggested they can make big money if they adjust their schedules to those of volcanoes. Good idea.

And drowner I was: I really had to get out of Uppsala on Thursday, because I happened to schedule an exam some 600+ km away in Lund on Friday at 9 AM, and needless to say, it was a tad too late to find a replacement. On top of that, I had a flight to Geneva on Sunday, to take some shifts. In other words, I really had to make two trips by Monday morning.

So my odyssey started by rushing to the airport hoping to jump on the first flight south, only to miss it by few minutes. It was the last one, actually. Don't think they had free places anyway. This was when I got the ticket to the infinitely long SAS help desk queue, and bumped into a colleague who just got his northwards flight canceled. Another Russian wisdom says "one head is good, two are better". Indeed. Anticipating a long wait in the queue, we comfortably sat on the floor and fetched our trusty notebooks. I tried to get through the ever-crashing Swedish railways site, and Mattias found the famous ash maps from the UK met office. We just looked, shook our collective head and concluded "it ain't going to be better".

The rest is history. He managed to get a train through his agent using my phone because his ran out of power (northwards direction nobody needed somehow), and I abandoned futile attempts on the Web and rushed upstairs to the physical railways ticket office. Oh, these folks were super-efficient, Scandinavian way! They only had one cashier, but there was a helpful girl walking up and down the queue and asking "where are you heading?" To almost any reply her comment was simple: "no tickets". So the queue was moving really fast. I didn't give up even when the guy at the cashier told me the same - no tickets for the next couple of days. I happened to notice in between the Web site crashes that there is another company running trains, and asked the guy about it. Surely enough, he couldn't sell their tickets, but he knew their phone. Better than nothing. So I went back to my SAS queue and called that other company. No miracles, they sold everything out. But they knew there is a bus company that may help. Oh, there's another Russian wisdom: "the tongue will lead to Kiev". You know what I mean. I wasn't going that far, but getting to Lund required some extensive communication too. So, the bus folks never picked the phone, but their Web site was working, so yessss, I got the ticket!!! Cost more than I paid for the plane, actually. But the plane was definitely canceled by this time (they really waited long before admitting it).

And since I got some time before the bus departure, I decided to wait and see what SAS has to say. That's where I started this post. Meanwhile I met some other stranded folks from the EGEE Forum who I'm sure will post way more exciting stories. But mine is not over.

The night bus Stockholm-Lund is a pain. I shared this pain with 320 fellow travelers, for whom the company exceptionally arranged 8 buses - the driver kept repeating that normally they run one (1), and even that is half-empty. Maybe the SAS lady was right. Anyway, the bus went past Lund all the way to Malmo, heading towards Copenhagen, and the driver suggested me to take another bus back. No way, that was enough and I wanted to brush my hair before appearing at the exam, so I took a taxi. The first thing the cab driver said was "nothing works today" - which made me thinking of taking another cab, but he actually referred to the canceled flights and the volcano. That made me suspicious, but it was too late (like, 7 AM) and I was too desperate. A 30 Euro drive cost 100 that day. But hey, I made the first journey, in time! Phileas Fogg would have cried of envy.

So there I was on Friday, thinking what are my chances of flying to Geneva on Sunday. Zip. Of course the airport was only closed until Saturday, and of course nothing was canceled, but the air smelled like sulfur and the clouds looked odd. So I figured I have to go by train. Travel agencies were useless, and there was no way to buy a ticket Lund - Geneva on the Web, whatever is the reason. That is, one can buy tickets Lund-Copenhagen, Copenhagen-Hamburg, Hamburg-Basel and Basel-Geneva, all separate, from different sites. Which I did. Does this qualify me as a travel agent, I wonder? Whatever. Copenhagen railway station featured the longest queue to the ticket office I ever saw on train stations. Train Copenhagen-Hamburg looked much like those in India, with people all but hanging outside. And it was late by 20 minutes in Hamburg! Right, my connection to the Basel train was 7 minutes, tough luck.

But hey, I was prepared: thanks to the SBB Web site (HIGHLY recommended!) I knew I can catch the Basel train in Goettingen if I take a later but faster Munich train. So I was running like crazy up and down the platforms trying to figure where is that Munich train. Every official was pointing into new direction. And then something occurred to me: *every* train was delayed by 30-40-70 minutes. Really striking observation, given the circumstances. Calmed down, I came to one very serious lady who looked less stressed than other officials and told her that I missed my train to Basel and wonder ... "NO" she said in a very firm and loud voice. I didn't get the point and tried to repeat the question, but she repeated in a tone of a police officer "NO" and asked, in the same tone, "when is your train?". I actually didn't remember at that point, so she answered: "19:24, you did not miss it, it didn't even arrive yet". Cool. No, I mean it, cool. It departed 2 hours late, by the way, but being a night train, caught up with the schedule.

Yeah, half the train jumped off at Basel Bad, but the station looked suspiciously small to me, so I decided to ask a local smoking a pipe near the car (remember about Kiev?), - he said that this is not Basel SBB. Good. Because my connection to the Geneva train was 8 minutes, and the train was 5 minutes late. It is incredibly difficult to make a dash to the opposite end of a large railway station with luggage at 7 AM after a stressful day and sleepless night. And when your mobile phone cries for a recharge. So I had to catch the train, they have power outlets there. I managed, still can't believe it.

And I tell you what: I actually bought a train ticket back for April 27, just in case. Good that one can return train tickets any time!

1 comment:

Catherine Gater said...

Thanks for posting your travel story, what an epic trip! Well done on not making the mistake of getting off the train too early at Basel Bad instead of Basel SBB - we unfortunately did make that mistake and missed our connection (but I feel slightly comforted that we weren't the only ones...)