NIGHTS IN A CAR: Memories of a volcanic eruption

I assume I already have mentioned that one of the main motivations behind my blog writing is that I consider my blog as some kind of pantry to store what Germans use to call Lesefrüchte, fruits from reading, as well as memories. After having returned to Hässleholm from an extraordinary nice Easter vacation with the family in Rome and Umbria, I came to think of several of my more or less remarkable memories from such occasions and know I feel that such recollections might run the risk of becoming lost.

In one of his short stories, Stephen King succeeded in describing the horror of losing the past. Langoliers are huge, meatball-like creatures, with throats like dark caverns and teeth like rotating chainsaws, which devour everything in their path only to leave an empty void of nothingness behind them. I am sometimes seized by an agonizing sensation that Langoliers are on my trail, threatening to devour memories of friends and experiences. Maybe the blog will help me to ward them off?


Five years ago, around the same time of year as now, I went by car from Paris to Rome and back again. My youngest daughter's birthday is on the 17th of April and she wanted me come to come down for the celebration. However, three days prior to my scheduled departure, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland exploded, releasing an ash cloud that spread across Europe, preventing all air travel.

On Friday, the News reported that the airports would reopen at two o'clock in the afternoon, something that suited me just fine because my flight was scheduled to leave at six o´clock in the evening. Early in the morning I packed my suitcase planning to leave for the airport directly after work. I had some commitments during the day, among them to partake in a small celebration on the occasion that the gender equality department would be moving directly under UNESCO´s Director General´s Secretariat. I had offered to bake a cake, mainly because I previously had promised to do so for the International Women's Day, since except me there were only women working in the gender equality department and I as the only male I was expected to invite them for a cake. However, that particular day the party had been canceled. Given my impending departure, I had no time to bake a cake, but had to spend my lunch break at buying a nice gâteau in one of Paris' exclusive pastry shops, where I also took the opportunity to get some goodies for my daughter´s birthday party.

During the cake session,  I was told found that the airports, which have been open for a few hours, once more had been closed down and would not open until after seven o'clock in the evening, meaning that I would miss my flight. After having swallowed a piece of cake, I therefore went into my office and sat down by the computer to search for alternatives to the missed flight. Strangely enough, I got in touch with the airline company, which promised to reimburse me for the cancelled flight and I even managed to book a new ticket for the last flight from Paris to Rome. It would leave from Orly at ten o'clock in the evening. However, a new ash cloud swept across the continent and then it was time for me to leave for the flight it turned out that Orly would not open after all and thus I lost that flight ticket as well. The nearest future looked bleak

The ever resourceful and nice Marie Pierre, the department´s secretary, helped me to search online for buses to Rome, all of them proved to have been fully booked since many days back. Finally, we got hold of a ticket for a bus that around midnight would leave for Rome from Lyon - five hours drive from Paris. It meant that I could try to rent a car in Paris and take me to Lyon just in time for the bus departure. Unfortunately,  it turned out that there were no rental cars available anywhere in Paris. I had to forget about the bus in Lyon and cancel that ticket as well.

OK, maybe there was a train? No, there were no trains - the French train staff had decided to strike on this insane day. Eventually, Marie Pierre and I found out that a train from FS, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, the Italian state railway company, would at ten o'clock in the evening leave for Rome from Paris Gare de Lyon. We tried to book a seat through the web and phones, but it proved to be impossible. We called to Rome and through the ticket office down where we managed to get a seat reservation.

Accordingly, I took the metro to Gare de Lyon where I was met by a chaos I was forced to throw myself into. A friendly Italian conductor managed to squeeze me on board the train, but well inside the wagon I was greeted by a riot, not less than three people had the same seat reservation as me, all equally desperate. I lost the fight against an affluent American who must have succeeded in giving some passenger or conductor some kind of bribe or assurance to obtain the coveted seat, and soon I was back on the platform, among desperate people who shouted that they had a reservation, or even a ticket and had to be present at extremely important meetings, take care of dying relatives, or attend to christenings or weddings.

I rushed from platform into a gallery where the car rental firms nested. But even there reigned confusion and uproar. Dejected, I went out into the square in front of the railway station, called Rome over my cell phone and explained that it had proved impossible for me to take me down there. My daughter became disappointed and while I stood there trying to explain all my misfortunes, trying to comfort her, I was filmed by a TV team from French TF1. When I had finished the call, they wanted me to comment on the situation and I was later told by colleagues how they had laughed together with their families when they on the TV news had watched how a flushed and familiar looking Swede nervously and incomprehensible had tried to convey his frustration about the lack of all means of communication, not the least French. Dragging in the suitcase after me I fled from the embarrassing scene.

I passed one of the car rental offices I had visited before, while desperately concocting various stories to convince the employees that I at all costs had to rent a car. Through the window of one of them I glimpsed someone waving at me and in a throng of people at the rental counter he leaned forward and told me discreetly that he had a car available; a small Fiat, one of the rental firm's own five permanent cars meaning that it had to be returned to the same office. I had to drive it back from Italy on Sunday and return the car early on Monday morning. I considered the offer as a sign from benevolent forces high above and immediately rented the car, without telling the nice clerk that I the same night intended to drive it all the way to Rome.

As I just had stated that I could not turn up for the birthday celebrations, I hesitated to call my family again and tell them I was coming down by car. I did not want to worry them in vain. Nevertheless, if something would happen to me on the way? My dilemma was solved out on the highway towards Lyon. My oldest daughter's boyfriend called over the mobile and told me that he by chance was passing through Paris and had been caught there by the volcano ashes, asking me if we could not eat supper together. I explained that I was heading for Rome in a tiny Fiat, asking him not to say anything to my daughter. The next afternoon I would call him from Rome, if I succeeded in turning up there, otherwise he could get in touch with my family. Relieved, I stopped at a gas station and bought two CDs, one with lousy French rock and one with some of Mozart's symphonies, they kept me awake during a long night, supported by plenty of coffee that I every two hours drank  at various night-open road cafés.

At three o'clock in the morning I arrived at the 13 kilometer long Fréjus tunnel between France and Italy and found it closed for traffic until five o'clock. Despite the cold, I slept for two hours, curled up in the uncomfortable, little car. When I arrived at Rome I was of course scolded by my family, who righteously pointed out the recklessness of my night driving idea, but then everything became nice and calm and I fully enjoyed being with my loved ones once again. On Sunday, we had a delicious lunch at a rooftop terrace, with a magnificent view of the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Rome´s city center had been sealed off and under us  passed an impressive parade of Roman soldiers, gladiators, senators, and I do  not remember  what else, to commemorate the founding of Rome, which apparently had taken place on April 18th, 2 765 years earlier.

At four o'clock in the afternoon, I drove back to Paris. I left Rome, satisfied and replete, with plenty of cash in my wallet. Eleven o'clock in the night I had entangled myself out of Milan and was heading towards the Alps. When I was passing a nice looking, roadside restaurant that was open at the late hour, I could not help but eat a delicious pasta before I continued towards Simplon. I had imagined that it was a long road tunnel under an Alpine pass, but found it had been built for trains only. Accordingly, I had to take a narrow road towards some mighty, snow-capped mountains, shining bright against starry sky with a pure white crescent moon.

The road was glistening of moisture and I was engulfed by raw cold when I at two o'clock in the morning was halted by a Swiss border guard, who stepped out of his glazed sentry-box. I had not given a thought to the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the EU and had my passport in the suitcase. The pasta I had eaten at the restaurant had been swelling in my stomach and I had therefore unbuttoned my pants while I sat behind the wheel, something which meant I was almost dropping them while I followed the customs officer to open up the trunk. On top of my suitcase I had placed a large drawing I had been given as present by my daughter. She had made it in school and it was some sort of collage of William Blake drawings that she had painted, bringing them together as a Last Judgment scene. To my great surprise the customs guy lit up, smiled and said in French: Mais je le reconnais! C'est Guillaume Blake. C'est grand! Est-ce que vous êtes un artiste? or something like that, my French is not very good.

I explained that it was my daughter who had made the artwork and then he enthusiastically rushed back into the customs house, telling me: Je dois montrer cette pièce à mes copains.  He came back with three colleagues. The customs officer was apparently a big Blake fan and eagerly held up the drawing in front of his friends, while he was explaing the details.  “Guillame Blake” he exclaimed, “Fantastique! Ce qu'un artiste!" They spoke incomprehensible among themselves until the customs officer gently put back the artwork, pounded me fraternally on the back and the four colleagues waved merrily goodbye while I left them behind. They had forgotten to check my passport.

Half an hour later I passed under highest point of the mountain pass. At the altitude of two thousand meters a huge statue of an eagle watched over the lonely Fiat, which between high snowbanks went further into Switzerland to the tunes of Johnny Hallyday, an artist I had never been particularly fond of. 

While I drove through a seemingly, completely deserted Switzerland, I imagined that if a satellite filmed the country from above around three o'clock at night, the only signs of life it would have captured would have been an odd mountain goat, as well as a lonely, little black Fiat travelling through deserted towns and villages, passing over high mountains and empty plains.

As I traveled through the desolate landscape, I occasionally stopped at deserted petrol stations. The car lacked a GPS and I was looking for signs telling me where I was. I had no map and looked for directions towards Geneva, but only Bern showed up and I knew that this city was in the wrong direction. Finally I caught sight of signs to Lausanne and knew I was on the right path, but instead another concern made my nerves vibrate. The gasoline I had filled the car with while in Italy began to run out. I had not known that gasoline dispensers in Switzerland only accept Swiss francs and to my great surprise I found that the teller machines did not accept my credit card. It had worked just fine in Italy and I knew I had money in my account, but no bank notes came out from any Swiss ATM.

And of course ... on a deserted highway, two miles outside of Geneva, not far from the beckoning border, which on its other side had EUR accepting petrol stations, the car stopped abruptly. It was four o'clock in the morning. I got out of the car and stood alone by the roadside, no other vehicle appeared. Stars and moon were gone; it was a deserted spot, silent and cold.

Oddly enough, the Fiat, I think I remember that it was called Panda, had stopped only a few meters from one of those SOS posts that may be found along expressways and when I pressed the button a friendly man immediately replied and promised that someone as soon as possible would come and help me. After I had wandered back and forth for almost an hour, it was too cold to be inside the car, a tow truck turned up. A jovial man, with a bushy beard and a shaven head laughed heartily when I explained that the car had run dry. He spoke in broken French and I figured he must be of Italian descent, and when I went over to Italian, which I master somewhat better than my poor French, his face lit up and he apparently came to consider me as a mate. The Italian explained that, although he could have driven away and come back with a can of gas according to him Swiss law forbade petrol filling by the side of a highway and therefore he was forced to whisk away my car to a gas station.

He winched the Fiat onto the tow truck. On our way to the gas station, he enthusiastically began praising his wife's cooking and gave me one glorious recipe after another. We arrived at an unmanned station, but the problem persisted - no Swiss francs, no petrol and my credit card was as useless as before. I explained to my food-loving savior that I was unable to pay the exorbitant towing costs. "Never mind," replied the jovial Italian, "there are still so many others who fool us and you are nice fellow, so I don´t care." In vain I asked to pay him afterwards, when I had arrived in Paris, but he obstinately refused to either write down my address, or my passport details, instead he gave me five francs “for coffee" and went off with his tow truck. I and the Fiat were left alone at the gas station, which did not open until half past seven.

When the gasoline guy came, he accepted without problems my euros and filled the tank. When I five minutes later arrived in France, I found that my credit card worked without any problems and to Mozart´s soothing music I drove at a somewhat too high speed towards Paris. Everything went well, though some hopelessly long queues tempted my patience on my way into the center of Paris and since I had to return the car I was not at my job until two o'clock. I had of course phoned them, explaining my late arrival, so my colleagues received me in a good and lenient mood.

I slept soundly that night, but then I after a long day at work come home in the evening I found no less than two speeding tickets in the mailbox. I had during my journey from the Swiss border passed no less than two speeding controls, and the evidence had now reached me in the form of two photographs showing both the car and myself, where I sat happily smiling behind the wheel. Such a thing I had not happened to me before and I marveled at the efficiency of French authorities.

Well, why did I tell you this story? I really cannot provide any logical answer. The story does neither have sense, nor morality, but I nevertheless felt that it was worth to be told and preserved.


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