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Correspondent Diary: Stranded in Europe

VOA Correspondent Sonja Pace recently traveled to Poland to cover the aftermath of the plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and the rest of his 95-person entourage. She recounts how a short reporting trip turned into a nearly two-week stay and a long journey home

I was only supposed to be in Poland for three days to cover the aftermath of the plane crash.  Then it was decided I should stay on another four days for the state funeral, especially since President Obama was supposed to be there.  Those kinds of changes happen all the time in the news business and you automatically make the adjustments.

But, I should have been paying more attention to that volcanic eruption in Iceland and the ash cloud it was spewing out.

I covered the funeral - President Obama couldn't make it because of the ash cloud, nor could most of the other leaders.  I filed my last story of the day late that Sunday.  Then when I turned on the television news - all I saw was stories on ash clouds and the falling dominoes - one country after another had closed or was closing its air space and grounding its planes.  Reality check: Poland's air space was closed and here I was trying to get to the epicenter of the cloud - Britain. I pretty well knew it wasn't going to happen as I'd planned. That was confirmed by a friendly text message from British Airways on Monday morning informing me my flight had been cancelled - as if I didn't already know.

So, Monday I took the train from Krakow to Warsaw, checked into a hotel and spent the rest of the day thinking of Plan B or Plan C.  One option was to stay put and wait out the cloud. But, who knew how long that might take - there was talk of days if not weeks of disruptions to air travel.  Renting a car and driving across Europe was out since I hadn't brought my driver's license with me.  So, I started checking into train travel with all sorts of possible fanciful connections across the breadth of the European continent.  Under normal conditions this would have been delightful, especially since I love traveling by train.

I decided to take a break from searching out trains online and headed to the hotel bar.  I realized that many of the hotel guests were in the same shoes and it seems some had even more fanciful plans than I had contemplated to get out.  One couple told me they were renting a car and basically driving along the Baltic coast to then get onto a series of ferries to get back to England.  That sounded like an ordeal.  I overheard another group talking about catching a train to Italy and then maybe trying to get a flight out - that sounded appealing, but I reminded myself that "home" was London - not Italy.  

I needed to refocus - so over I went to the Warsaw train station, stood in a long line and with the kind help of a Polish colleague, bought a ticket for an overnight train from Warsaw westward - I booked as far as Cologne, Germany.  Then I figured to catch another train from there to Brussels, from where I could hope to catch a Eurostar train directly to London.  My travel agent in London almost dashed those hopes when he told me the Eurostar was woefully overbooked and I would likely have to make my way from Brussels to Calais and onto a ferry to England.  Ok, that didn't appeal but was a last resort.

The overnight train was definitely not the Orient Express, bur rather a very bumpy, creaky phalanx of vehicles that lurched its way along.  Pretty soon it was dark and you couldn't see anything - so there went the potentially interesting part of the trip. It was a bit like camping without the tent and the views - and I never liked camping anyway.

I got off in Cologne and realized a good cup of coffee will do wonders and at least make standing in line for yet another train ticket bearable.  With what I know must have been a silly grin on my face I boarded the train to Brussels and three hours later I launched my assault on the Eurostar terminal, where to my great delight I was told there was one remaining seat on a train five hours later.  I took it.  

All in all, about 24 hours after I'd started out I got home.  After a good night's sleep what once seemed like an ordeal began to look like an adventure.  Give me another two weeks, I'm pretty sure it will seem even more so.

I suspect the so many other travelers stranded by the "cloud" might feel the same way, regaling friends and family with stories of their great adventure when the planes were not flying and the skies were empty.  Well, at least I hope they do.

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