Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Vegas to London: the final leg

**This was written on Eurostar on Monday 18 April - posted later**

Why am I not surprised?
Of course, the Eurostar part of Brussels Midi is swamped. Mostly with people trying to buy tickets which they will not be able to do. Long, long queues. Crying, crying children and the depressing, rattling ostinato of those bloody bags on wheels that, apparently, even able-bodied grown men drag around behind them without the slightest embarrassment.
There are two ticket collection machines. Both are en panne - of course - but there is a mending man grovelling in the innards of one of them. I ask him if it will be working in a moment and he says it will.
He is sort of right. He presses some buttons and sucks through his teeth and pulls and pushes paper into slots and the screen comes alive and pretends to work. He moves onto the next machine.
We are so, so close now. I key in my code. My reservation comes up on the screen. It asks me to confirm my identity with the card I used to buy the ticket. A tense moment - let's hope RBS haven't been as dozy as Egg or that at least they have read the papers and know something is up.
It is fine.
'We are printing your ticket' the screen says. For a long time. A very long time. Until it changes to say: 'There has been an error in printing your ticket. Refer to information desk' - or something like that - and then shuts down.
That scream is mine. The mending man looks up from the bowels of the other machine. Perhaps it is the hyperventilation that alarms him enough to come and have another go at the machine in front of me. Again, buttons, lights, paper, slots. And the screen comes on.
I key in my code again but of course the machine now thinks it's issued the ticket and tells me it can't issue another, before shutting down again.
It is own-a-Eurostar-employee time. There is one to hand. She tries to brush me off and tells me I have to join the long queue of crying people in the ticket office but this will not do and I tell her she must find someone to print the ticket for me. There is a stand off so I do something that surprises even me. I say: 'OK' and begin to walk through check-in towards passports and security. This causes a kerfuffle but fortunately they do not shoot me and instead another woman breaks off from whatever she was doing on her computer and prints me a boarding pass.
As it happens, the long queue of people who were standing behind me waiting to use the en panne ticket printing machines have followed me and now stand queueing at her desk demanding she print their boarding passes which she really cannot refuse.
It is a small triumph and it appeals to my vindictive side.

It is almost time to be relieved but I will not be until we actually leave Brussels. For the first time in days, I have lunch. In the sunny square by Midi station and go back to Eurostar at two - as instructed.
They have managed to manufacture a small riot.
There are no tickets now until Wednesday - they say ... but then, they said in Milan there were no tickets north from there until Tuesday - and so all the supplicants have been thrown out.
So, bizarrely, have all the passengers who have tickets and were waiting to check in for the 1429 or 1459 trains. Perhaps it was for the sake of neatness.
There are two burly but unfrightening bouncers on the door and a non-burly but extremely frightening woman barking instructions in three languages to anyone who tries to get into the office or passenger lounge.
Only 1429ers are let through and they have to join a long queue since both passport and security controls have been stepped up. It is half past two before we 1459ers are allowed in and there are still over a hundred 1429ers being critically examined for bombs and surly expressions.
It is a shambles and impossible to guess why the 1429ers weren't checked in hours ago. Don't they know there's a crisis???
Odd how irritating half an hour delay has become when, in Rome I was happy that a delay was only five hours and in Milan I was prepared to hang around for 30 hours.

We leave half an hour late. And there are empty seats. Lots of them.

Vegas to London: the Brussels leg

**This was written on Eurostar on Monday 18 April - posted later**

It is an unremarkable morning in Koln.
The hotel is on the raw side of the station. All station's have a raw side, the side you're not supposed to see. The side where the prostitutes work; where something is always being built or demolished and the roads are always coned and dug.
Some have four raw sides.
From the room's balcony, you can see this mucky, bleak, platz. A place to scuttle through and hundreds of schoolchildren and office workers and labourers are scuttling.
I have a headache. Dehydration. I seem to have forgotten the basics of day to day.
My shoulders and back hurt beyond what is simply annoying. My bag isn't very heavy but it is heavy enough to pull my spine to one side - 'unstable vertebrae' was how the osteo once described what I have. And to bruise my shoulders. And to pull on my sternum which is held together by metal bands after Bashir - the sawsman on Mr Pugsley's cardiothoracic team - unzipped me sixteen years ago.
The gammy leg and its filigree of op scars is more swollen than ever and one of the scars is starting to show the signs of an infection. I hope there's not another bout of cellulitis in waiting but at least I have some emergency antibiotics with me.
It is good to know that I have tickets through to London but I am now regretting that I did not book a seat to Brussels. Still there is little sign of of stranded types but who knows.

Down to breakfast and the hotel lobby is piled high with suitcases. I am now worrying about the Brussels train.
The breakfast restaurant is piled high with British pensioners. I am now worrying even more about the Brussels train but it turns out that, incredibly, they are going the other way. On a 'no-flight' tour of Europe.
Perhaps they feel vindicated in their decision never to travel by air.
They talk about Knutsford and travel insurance and peace of mind and one of them is telling her table about a new breed of foreign pickpocket who work in twos; the first picks your pocket and the second replaces your wallet or cash with a wad of papers so you don't notice 'til it's too late. You can never be too careful.
I do hope they have a lovely holiday and I'm sure they will but I also wish they would hover a little less over the buffet. Especially the fruit. I need fruit.
For a very long time, one of the senior travellers seems to think he needs some too. But he hesitates. And then hesitates some more. And then some more still. And then he decides fruit is a bit too foreign for breakfast and moves on to the speck and gruyere but I do not imagine he will find what he wants there either.

Now I really wish I'd booked a seat. The platform is crowded and it turns out only half of the train from Frankfurt goes on to Brussels, the rest to Amsterdam. And it is late.
There is nothing else for it. It is down to luck or guesswork or fate or whatever but since luck has been good to me so far - and the harder my family and friends in London have worked on my behalf, the luckier I've been - I am not too despondent.
I pick a place. If the door stops opposite me, I will be fine. If not, well ... There is no chance of moving up or down the platform to chase the door, so this is it.
And what about that. The door stops at the exact spot I am standing. I am first on and find one of the few unreserved seats.
The train fills. And fills. And fills with standing passengers. There is a loud bilingual row at the end of the carriage because someone is sitting in someone else's reserved seat. The line of passengers trying to get on spills out of the door and the guard/conductor makes a long and complicated announcement in German which is the first or second language of about 1% of the train passengers.
It amounts to 'if you don't have a reservation you must get off the train'. This is insane. Everyone thinks so and no one moves. The standing passengers reason that since they are standing two abreast along the entire length of the train, the guard will not be able to check any tickets but they are wrong.
He forces his way into the train and starts checking tickets and throwing people off. Perhaps he really will throw all the standing passengers off.
In the event, he sees sense and leaves the train without having made a huge impact on the number of standing passengers. We depart half an hour late but I am on the train, with a seat and will arrive in Brussels with three hours in which to make sure I can get the ticket I've bought.

Vegas to London: German Homecomings

**This was written in Koln on Sunday 18 April - posted later**

Zurich station is not chaos
. It is instead a model of Swiss order.
I know the station well from many trips to Davos both for the WEF and for family skiing holidays.
I am swayed by the guard's advice about Basel ... on the other hand, there are other routes through Germany and perhaps I should be thinking about those too.
Or perhaps Paris.
It is the total ignorance of what lies ahead that is the problem. Even with the SMS lifeline to Mrs Marsh, it is possible only to know so much. Railway routes are no more than serving suggestions, timetables no more than aspirations.
It is three o'clock and walking down the platform to the main concourse, I devise a plan. Well, it is not so much a plan as a decision to let fate decide.
There is a huge board over the main concourse at Zurich station and it lists all the departures for hours ahead. If there is a train to Basel soon, I will take it. If not ... well, I'll look for the first one that seems promising.
There is a train to Basel in an hour and I can buy a ticket from the machine. You can only buy tickets to Swiss destinations from the machines. So that kinda clinches it. Basel.
Decision made and I have an hour to kill. I wander into the Reiseburo. It is packed but they have a ticket system - you take a numbered ticket and when it's your turn, your number flashes over one of the dozen or so windows. The highest number flashing is 413. I take a ticket. It is number 491. I leave.
But by the Reiseburo are the ordinary 'international' windows. This is one of the infuriating things about European trains. There is a fantastic network of wonderful fast trains ... but the ticketing is 19th century.
I have nothing else to do with my fifty minutes before the Basel train so I join one of the, relatively, short queues. They go very slowly but even at ten minutes per customer in front of me, I will be able to reach the window.
At the front of the queue, the Utrecht quartet are negotiating passage to Amsterdam. One of them comes to me at the back of the queue and asks if I want to travel with them. They have a train and it leaves at six in the morning - they will buy a fifth ticket if I want them to.
It is a temptation. It would mean a night in Zurich and then ... then what from Amsterdam? A ferry from the Netherlands, I guess.
But I have the ticket to Basel and perhaps if I have to spend an overnight that would be better and there is still something pulling me more towards Calais rather than Ostende or Rotterdam.
I thank them but stick with the Basel plan.
The young couple in front of me want tickets to Paris. There is nothing until Wednesday they are told; 'you have to have a reservation to travel on the TGVs'. She adds that, of course, the French trains will be affected by strikes.
Again, I wonder whether the true nature of what's happening is fully understood in the chancelleries of Europe ... and the boardrooms of the transport operators.
The young couple are crestfallen; 'My mum is coming over to pick me up in Calais' the young man says, his voice cracking just slightly.
He asks about a coach station but the clerk does not know. They walk slowly away and I do not know what they will do.
It is my turn and I ask for a ticket from Basel to Koln. The clerk is a little shruggy and tells me she can sell me a ticket but doesn't know whether I can get on the train. It is a risk I will take because it means I can at least travel to Basel knowing I have a plan of sorts.
And Koln is within the pick-up zone - a place from which, if all else fails, someone can pick me up in a car.
The train to Basel is about half full and hardly any passengers are stranded types such as me. I have just seven minutes to change trains in Basel but this is Switzerland and I am confident and indeed we pull into the station not early, not late, but exactly on time.
The Mannheim train is busy but a long way from full. There are seats and rouged old ladies with lapdogs who have perhaps been visiting reluctant children and grandchildren. And sad faced young men going home perhaps after a weekend with a girlfriend. And students cramming for the week ahead. People making their way home. But homes in Germany. Again, there are no stranded types.
There is WiFi, though, and I buy an hour's worth hoping that the laptop battery will hold out. The intention is to post a blog or two ... but first I look at trains from Koln to anywhere north, intending to go to Lille which is even more into the pick-up zone.
The Lille trains go through Brussels ... so, with the laptop battery on a shouty shade of red, I take a look at the Eurostar website. Just in case.
And there are trains. From Brussels to London. Tomorrow afternoon. At a ridiculous price, but they are there.
Yesterday, the Eurostar website was teasing with the promise of trains but they could not be booked. The site timed out or refused to accept payment.
I choose the 1459. It lets me. I put in my payment details. It likes them. It tells me I have a seat. It gives me a confirmation code. It thanks me for my purchase. The laptop battery dies.
We speed north up the Rhine valley and it is difficult not to think of it as a tour of WW2 bombing targets, the place names characters in every black and white war movie featuring young men with white scarves and pipes and bouncy dogs with names it would be wrong to use these days.

Vegas to London: Koln and another beggar

**This was written in Koln on Sunday 18 April - posted later**

The train pulls into Koln at half past nine. For the first time, I am something close to optimistic though I will not allow myself to feel good until I am in my seat on the Eurostar and the train is moving.
Again, I have no idea what it will be like at Koln station. Perhaps the relative quiet and normality of the Rhine journey was an illusion and thousands of stranded types are already recreating the bung that was Milan.
They are not. Again, the station is busy but it is German people getting home in time for bed and work in the morning.
I will feel better if I get a ticket to Brussels tonight. There are no queues at the ticket machines but you can only buy some types of ticket through the machines. Again.
My ideal train is a Thalys at 1044 but you cannot buy Thalys tickets through the machine - only Deutsche Bahn. And I cannot find the right button.
From my left, a smartly dressed Asian man asks me if I want to buy a day pass 'for all trains'. I say no but he appears not to understand and begins to tell me that it will take me anywhere I want to go. I say no but he appears not to understand.
From my right a small man in a red jacket asks me where I'm going. His breath smells lightly of beer but he is not at all drunk and speaks perfect English with no more than a hint of an accent.
I am annoyed and tell him I'm going to the ticket office because I need a train to Brussels.
'You can buy that here. Look ...' His fingers are already playing the buttons on the touch screen like some silent musical instrument.
'Here. You can buy this ticket. The 0843.'
It is earlier than I want. I am tired. Very, very tired and the thought of waking up early dismays me. But it is a train. And I will feel happy to be on something. I say OK.
'Here. First or second class?' Second.
'You wanna book a seat.' For some reason I say no.
'OK. Here. Put your card in. You won't need your PIN.' He is right. I don't. He has done this before. Clearly. Often.
I pick up the ticket.
'So maybe you could give me some change?'
I give him five euros and he is content. It is not begging. He is running a small service industry which is better value than most.

My son has booked a hotel for me. It is right opposite the station and the Dom; the stark and slightly scary Koln cathedral. It is perfect. Two minutes from the station.
In the hotel room, there is a strange, alien smell. It is me.
During the night, there is a small riot in the platz outside the station and policemen smashing batons into people but I hear nothing. It happens in the couple of hours that I'm asleep. Not a long sleep but a very deep one.
I hear about it in the morning.

Vegas to London: To Zurich and the Utrecht Quartet

**This was written on the train from Milan to Zurich on Sunday 18 April - posted later**
A time to reflect. On the conflicting emotions, apart from anything else. The high that I'm on the move and the anxiety at what will happen in Zurich when I will have to decide what to do next.
I have left Milan ... feel that it is a kind of escape.
It's idiotic, of course. But Milan felt like the Athens Olivia Manning described in her cloying but oddly compelling Balkan Trilogy.
It's idiotic. We were not forced to eat lung and rodent and Prince Yaki did not have to sell his overcoat at the last and we were not fleeing before a lethal enemy. But there was a sense of desperation, magnified no doubt by our ludicrous early 21st century assumptions about the way the world should work. Comfortably. Conveniently. Without setbacks.
And people from all over Europe milled and mixed, queued and quarreled. There was no obvious way out of the city. At least, that was the official version and it turned out not to be true.
We are four days into this and I can see no sign that anyone has got a grip. It is not the EU's finest moment.
As a BBC man through and through, I understand the arguments both in favour of and against the 'ever closer union'. (Though I do wonder what happened to that phrase - haven't heard it for a long time.) But whether you are a phile or a phobe, the EU is there ... and surely this is the sort of EU wide crisis that a suprantional institution is meant to manage. After all, it was a Europe wide body that pressed the alarm button in the first place.
But there are no additional trains; no fleets of coaches; no advice on the best route to take; no relaxation of ticketing rules; no emergency accommodation ... though the piazza in front of Milan station is already filled with tents which house the market there.
I see no sign of a EURO-COBRA. But perhaps they are videoconferencing in secret.

My seat is in the middle of a group of four elderly - they are probably not much older than me - Dutch people. From Utrecht, or close by.
They speak perfect English, of course. One, the oldest of the men I think, speaks perfect Pall Mall Club. He also coughs relentlessly and I cannot understand how he has not had an aneurysm. Or perhaps he has. It is impolite to ask about these things.
We talk about our journeys and about Utrecht which is a beautiful city. Like me, they are travelling stage by stage. They have no Big Plan and at one point they say they will try to hire a minibus in Zurich and offer me a ride to Amsterdam. It is very kind of them but I do not think this will happen. But they take my mobile phone number just in case.
The train pushes through low cloud and up the St Gotthard pass through Como and Lugano which are dripping and gloomy. But the mountains and lakes are beautiful even if it is impossible to enjoy them.
The road over the pass runs to our right and it is a long, long, traffic jam. Had I taken the taxi to Paris, I guess I would be in that queue and it is not moving.
We are and we are soon over the pass and into Switzerland where the angled pastures are sprinkled with yellow flowers and the train's air conditioning fills with pollen. This I know because my eyes begin to itch and swell and I sneeze and the hayfever makes the approach to Zurich miserable as well as anxious.
The guard on the train predicts chaos in Zurich and advises we head to Basel. I text Mrs Marsh who works out for me the route from Basel to Koln. It seems an option and the anxiety if not the misery lifts for a moment.





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.
Sleep.

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.