Sixty years ago, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. My mother, who was just shy of 6 years old, traveled with her parents and older brother and sister from Antwerp to the coastal port of Ostend, hoping to get a boat to England. Alas, the Nazis were faster. She and her family had to walk back from the coast, dodging bombardments along the way. Less than three weeks later, Belgium capitulated. She and her family went into hiding, sheltered by the Resistance throughout the war.
Speaking to my mother by Skype this afternoon as I sat in a hotel room in Zurich, three days into my own odyssey of being stranded in Europe by the Icelandic ash cloud, I heard some of the pain of that experience in her voice. Despite my efforts to reassure her that I was really fine, despite not knowing if I would make it home sometime in the next week, my mother, now 77, still worried. "Are you sure you’re okay?" she asked. I suspect that she can’t understand just how much I don’t feel like a displaced person, but more like a ball being buoyed by an invisible network of friends and strangers, all connecting to me and with one another via the Internet.
My volcanic odyssey started Friday in Berlin. I was there to give a talk at the re:Publica conference, a gigantic gathering of mostly German bloggers. I was supposed to fly home via Zurich on Saturday morning, but realized Friday afternoon that the Berlin airport was closing. So I took an overnight train to Zurich, expecting to make my connecting flight from there. But the next morning, after doing a Twitter search on my iPhone for "Zurich airport," I knew I was in trouble. "I’m two hours from Zurich but already know my 1pm NY flight is canceled. Now what? Any ideas?" I tweeted.
Ideas flowed in. Stay and enjoy the city, said some. Others counseled racing south to outrun the cloud’s spreading airport closures. Even though I was tired from the overnight train ride, I pondered pushing further, to Milan. A tweet from a follower named Simone Veldema helped settle that debate. "Asked my Italian friends for u. Their TV says the north, incl #Malpensa is closed till 20h or 22h tonight. So stay in Zurich." My friend the writer and activist Deanna Zandt added, "@Mlsif according to the @nytimes airport map, you’d have to get as far south as Rome. Milan seems to be closed." My friend Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org told me to look at a new Facebook group, CarPoolEurope. I joined, along with hundreds of others. Meanwhile, another friend, comedian Heather Gold, who is also stranded in Berlin, shared her tidbits, like signing up on RoadSharing.com. I signed up, along with thousands of others.
After a talk with my wife and some diligent hunting for flights online, I decided that my best strategy was to push south. Should I go to Spain or Italy? And where to stay? Marc Lopez, PdF Europe’s coordinator, warned me that the Barcelona airport had closed. FlightRadar24.com, a site that several people tweeted me about, showed that planes were still flying in and out of Rome. Other friends sent me recommendations for hotels and restaurants they liked there. I got lucky and found a Wednesday flight from Rome on Alitalia for the exorbitant price of $1,994, refundable. I figured it was worth the risk and rolled the dice on Rome. (As of this writing, I’m heading there by train.)