Ashes and zen: My volcanic story

I lucked out. I was almost stuck (if that’s the right verb) in Europe under its cloud of Icelandic ash. But thanks to the help of many strangers and much good fortune and speed, I made it out on one of the last flights from Germany before all its airports were shut down.

I was at the re:publica conference this week giving a talk on publicness and privacy (and penises … more on that when the video is available) and was scheduled to leave Friday morning, before it ended.

Last night, friends Micah Sifry, Heather Gold, and I had dinner with some new (to me) friends, including one who couldn’t get back to her home in Oslo, which was already ashed-in. Hearing that, I thought it would be clever of me to get to the Berlin airport early this morning to catch an earlier flight than my scheduled 10:50a to Frankfurt so I’d be safer making my connection to Newark. Lufthansa said nothing about delays to my flights, listing only a handful of the thousands eventually canceled across Europe on its web site.

Not for the first time, I was an ignorant fool. Berlin’s airport had been shut the night before and when I arrived before 7a, the line at the ticket counter was long — but friendly. We fellow travelers shared strategies and information—one young lady helping a family call busses and ferries, a Berliner giving us tips and news.

I’m a neurotic wreck at moments such as this. I tie myself up in knots that become all too evident as I start getting heart palpitations and worry that this could lead to all-out arrhythmia. But someone joking in Twitter told me think zen. Silly as it was meant to be, it helped. I just kept reminding myself all day that there wasn’t anything I could do (except get the hell out of Berlin with its still-tiny, preunification-sized airport).

My guardian angel in line was a guy named Daniel, a local fixer for a Bollywood film crew who’d been scouting locations in Berlin and needed to get back to India. As he helped them find every imaginable option, he also told me that a friend of his had just rented a car to go to Munich to get to a meeting. He called her and, bless them, she and her friend agreed to take me in.

I was at the front of the ticket line. I debated whether to drive or train to Munich (in the south, farther away from the cloud) or Frankfurt (where there would be many more flights to New York when the cloud lifted). The Lufthansa agent made my decision by finding me a seat (or so I thought) on a 3:20p flight from Munich. It was now 8:30a. I jumped in the car.

On the way, I went through three iPhone charges using it nonstop as our navigation system (since you’ll ask, I didn’t have a German SIM for my Nexus One) and compulsively tweeting to find information mixed with misinformation and to make smart-assed remarks: I thought myself quite clever making a gag in German, paraphrasing the word for asshole — Arschloch — into the news-appropriate “Ashloch” for a one-word tweet, only to be met with literal-minded Germans correcting my spelling and thinking me both ignorant and rude. ASH, you get it? I tweeted. Ashes, I grumbled.

Along the way, I had a Burger King cheeseburger for breakfast, for that’s what fate offered. I refused to do the calculation from kilometers per hours to miles per hour as I saw the driver of our car, a student friend of Daniel’s friend, tickle 220. Zen. Zoom. Zen.

At a cigarette break (theirs, not mine, though I was tempted), they told me they were actually going to a city 80 kilometers north of Munich for a meeting. So I now had to figure out how to get to the airport with what looked, according to my Google Maps’ calculations, to be very little time. But Google Maps doesn’t calculate the weight of the foot of a German driver. So we made it to Ingolstadt in what anywhere else in the world would be illegally good time.

My departing friends called a taxi for me at a gas station. Even though Ingolstadt is Audi’s HQ, the car that arrived was a rattletrap Mercedes and we got stuck in construction in a single lane behind a literal-minded German who didn’t go a KM over the posted 60. Zen. Breath. Zen.

But on the way into the airport, I saw a plane landing and had hope. For a mere 120 euros, we got to the airport an hour ahead of departure — neurotic me refers at least two hours, for no good reason — and I sauntered — no, dashed — to the check-in machine only to be told that I’m stand-by. Damn. Damn. Damn. All this way and I’m on stand-by?

As I said, I’m a neurotic SOB. One of my many neuroses is getting aisle seats since I’m as spindly as Ichabod Crane (Twitter readers who see me in person are surprised to see that I’m tall because, after all, everybody looks short in Twitter; I’m 6’4″). Normally, as soon as I make a reservation, I get a seat assignment both so I won’t get stuck by window and so I won’t be stuck on stand-by. But on this trip, I stupidly if subconsciously thought I’d jinx myself if I checked in from the road. Idiot, I silently shouted to myself as I dashed to the gate through extreme if usual security.

At the gate, another stranger become not a stranger when the guy next to me asked whether I was Jeff Jarvis. He watches This Week in Google (and forces his wife to listen to every Leo Laporte podcast in the car). They’d been diverted from New Delhi to Munich instead of Frankfurt and they also were on stand-by. They thought good thoughts. I thought evil thoughts, wishing people couldn’t make it to Munich from ports north.

All day I consoled myself that if I were stuck in Munich, I could continue my tour of German saunas (more on schwitzing my way across Europe later). But I also got nervous that I could be stuck there for a long time and would have to do such things as get prescriptions for the medications that would prevent the arrhythmia that my nervous, neuroses, and palpitations could bring on (my wife seemed shock that I didn’t have a week’s extra supply; she would). Another Twitter wag told me that the last time this Icelandic volcano erupted, it lasted from 1811 to 1812. “Buy a house,” he advised. Zen, damnit, Zen.

But I made it onto the flight. I refused to tweet that I’d been successful. A guy in line in Berlin said that the night before, his plane was next to take off to Paris when the airport was shut. This story wouldn’t be over until the skinny guy took off. I was still superstitious.

We backed away from the gate. But then we sat there. Then we returned to the gate. Shit. My zen was failing me. So far yet so near yet so far.

Turned out they had an unidentified bag in the hold and once they retrieved it, we were off. Take off. I never thought I’d want to hear a pilot say, as ours did in two languages, “Better late than never.”

En route, I watched the nerdy map of our little plane (well, actually quite big, relatively) crossing Europe and the Atlantic, this time taking a wide southern swing. I felt relief passing Iceland. As I write this, we are approaching good ol’ Canada and if you read this, you’ll know I made it, thanks to the kindness of strangers and Twitter zen.