The transport disruption caused by ash from the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano has had enormous impact across the world, not only for economic activity but also for individual human lives. Having been ‘stuck’ in the North Karelian town of Joensuu in eastern Finland for the last week, I have been interested and surprised by the emotional impact that this has had on me:
- I discovered that eastern Finland is really a long way from anywhere! Joensuu is four-and-a-half hours by train north-east from Helsinki, and almost at the same latitude as the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland!
- Finland itself is amazingly isolated, and very much like an island. Almost everyone who wanted to leave during the cessation of flights had to get ferries – from Turku or Helsinki to Stockholm, or from Helsinki to Tallinn. According to travel agents, many of these were fully booked, and so it was difficult to ‘escape’. The prospects of the Finnair offer of a 34 hour bus journey to Berlin, with two nights and a day on board, were not particularly appealing – especially when other parts of Europe seemed to be opening up their air-space. Most people who left, and took onward trains through Sweden and Denmark, or across Europe from Berlin took three or four days to get back to England! Being in ‘mainland Europe’ would have been so much easier – a train from Prague to Madrid would, for example, have been simplicity itself compared with leaving Finland!
- The most disturbing feature of the disruption for me was the uncertainty! I was surprised how much not knowing when it might be possible to leave affected me – and particularly my ability to concentrate on work. Might it be worth taking the bus to Berlin – and then the subsequent problems associated with getting a train back to the UK? Should I go to Turku and hope for the best? When might flights start again? Should I try to get a train to Helsinki in case the flights from there are going to be a better bet than risking a flight from Joensuu to Helsinki first?
- It can be really lonely… Thanks to all those friends who kept in touch on Skype, Facebook and by e-mail!
- But I also discovered the real value of open-handed friendship. After I had stayed a couple of extra nights in a hotel, Erkki and Päivi welcomed me into their home, and this transformed things. Their hospitality enabled me to get on with some work (despite my difficulties in concentrating on it), and provided an enormous warmth of personal support. They have been absolutely amazing, and I hope one day to be able to return the favour.
- A real lesson to be learnt from this is therefore that we should all be generously open and welcoming to ‘refugees’ – from wherever they come. Whilst it is completely inappropriate for those of us caught up in the dislocation caused by the closure of air space to draw comparisons with the experiences of political refugees, I do think I have gained a whole lot more insight into some of the anguish that they must face.
- One can spend an age trying to rearrange flights! Many, many calls to Finnair were ‘answered’ with a message saying that their system was overloaded – even at 05.00 in the morning! Eventually, it took almost an hour of waiting earlier in the week to reschedule my flights for tomorrow – but who knows now even if that will be leaving!
- It’s therefore crucially important to take advantage of every opportunity that such chaos can afford! It was great to visit Koli, and also to spend time participating in academic discussions and teaching at the Computer Science Department at the University of Eastern Finland – thanks for the opportunity.
- This disruption also, though, shows the huge value of modern ICTs – the ability to hold conference calls with people in many different parts of the world, to receive e-mails (although not necessarily my ability to answer them all), to speak with loved ones ‘dislocated’ elsewhere (providing their ‘phones are charged), to find out information about the latest delays, to give a conference presentation at a distance (not easy – but see #beyond2010) and to find communal means of resolving travel problems (such as stuckineurope.com)! When the fuel runs out for ‘traditional’ air transport, life might become very much more human!
Apologies to everyone whose e-mails I have not responded to, and for the meetings I have missed! I should have been back in the UK on the 18th – and it is now the 23rd. Finavia this morning at last announced that “Based on the current forecasts all airports in Finland have been opened for air traffic and operate normally”, although lots of flights in Finland today have still been cancelled! Hopefully tomorrow will improve, and I will indeed return home. I intend to take a few days off – just to smell the late spring flowers, to taste some fine wine and to relax!