Stranded in Europe at the mercy of ash

It’s midnight on a Sunday as I write my very last column of the semester from a computer at a hostel in Prague. Only at this time of night can I avoid the dirty looks I’d normally get for commandeering the sole machine with Internet access. On a computer without Microsoft Office, Google Docs has become my best friend, despite an archaic dial-up connection speed and periodic warnings of being unable to save my work.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned this weekend, it’s that when life gives you lemons, you’ve got to learn how to make lemonade.

Rewind to Friday afternoon. I was checking my e-mail and reading my daily news alerts on a computer at my hostel in Pisa, Italy, when two women entered through the main reception doors. At this point, it had been two weeks into my spring break trip through Europe, and I was looking forward to finally going back to London — even if it did mean taking finals.

As I read about the problems caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, I overheard the women — who turned out to be from London — asking if they could stay another night because their flight had been canceled. Though I felt bad about their misfortune, I secretly rejoiced that my own flight was on Monday, far enough into the future that the ash would not be a hinderance. In less than 48 hours, however, my naïve belief that I would be spared from the weather dissipated at the click of a mouse.

From Pisa, my group and I made our way to Florence by train. My time in the city known for housing Michelangelo’s “David” remained unmarred until about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, when we got wind that the ash was spreading and airlines were canceling additional flights, including ours to London.

A cursory check of our e-mails resulted in finding one from the airline telling us that we could either apply for a refund or reschedule for a later flight.

Needless to say, the amount of available flights for later that week were minimal at best. We still held out hope that we could somehow make it back to London before our first exams. If we took a train to Paris and then the Channel Tunnel to London, we would be OK. We quickly packed all of our belongings in case there was a train that left immediately.

My friend and I were the first pair to rush to the train station with our Eurail passes in hand, hoping to make it to the front of the line before all the tickets were sold out. The rest of my group stayed at the hostel to be close to an Internet connection in case of any updates on the situation.

With only three ticket windows open at the station and an hour before closing, the line, which wrapped around the room in coils, moved at a rate slower than it was growing. Determined to speak with an actual person, however, we took to the tail and crossed our fingers.

But after about five minutes my legs started to feel wobbly and my brain started to flash images of the worst-case scenarios.

I wouldn’t make it back in time to take my finals, so I would have to try and book another place to stay. But all of the places that I could afford were taken. For an indefinite number of days I would swipe my credit card to pay for expenses, only to be maxed out before I could leave. I would ruin my credit, not be able to get a job in the future and wind up a poor beggar on the streets of Pisa.

To quell my apocalyptic fears, I left my friend to hold our spot and made my way to the front of the line with the intention of ambushing the first English speaker about how they were getting home.

The first two men I met were Irish and had been waiting for more than an hour to buy tickets. They were in Florence for the weekend on business and were also trying to get tickets to Paris, where a friend of theirs had already reserved Eurostar trains to take them back home.

I had to restrain my desires to ingratiate myself in their presence, hoping to attract an offer to go with them. However, they rejected my friendly advances, but promised to update me on their status when they actually bought tickets.

Another pair of English-speakers stumbled away from the ticket window with papers in hand. Clearly distressed and annoyed, they had bought tickets to Paris through Zurich for 250 euros ($334.68) without any further reservations to get back to London.

Slightly reassured, I headed back to my friend in line where I heard the whisperings of worried French girls regretting their last-minute decision for a weekend getaway. In broken French, I attempted to converse with them. They were trying to get tickets to anywhere in France, hoping to make it back before their own final exams.

As horrible as it sounds, it was reassuring to know we weren’t the only ones stranded in the city.

About 45 minutes later, the Irish men that I met walked toward us with their tickets in tow. They had only been able to get a hold of first class tickets to Paris, which cost them 250 euros each. In other words, we either had to deal with the skyrocketing prices for transportation back to London or wait a week for new flights to open up.

Before we could even reach a decision, an official cut off the line and reported that all tickets to France were sold out until Thursday — not exactly what we wanted to hear.

My group spent the remaining two days of our spring break in Internet cafes, frantically trying to rebook our flights, only to hear that all were cancelled. Every hour of every day yielded a new udpate.

Flights cancelled until Monday at 1 p.m. Airlines sending up test flights. Flights cancelled until Wednesday at 1 p.m. Airports opening up runways. Another volcanic eruption. Flights cancelled until Friday at 1 p.m.

Giving up on trying to make it back on time, we just wanted to get home.

At one point, we even considered renting a car and taking a road trip from Italy to London. But as much as we would like to say we were the first to think of this brilliant idea, we weren’t. According to the front desks, every AVIS and Hertz car in the entire country had already been rented out. The chances of getting a group of five back to England were quickly diminishing.

A mixture of disappointment, panic and desperation set in as we sat down for lunch. Maybe we could check back at the train station? Even an 18-hour bus ride started to seem appealing.

But with all the trains to Paris and Brussels fully booked until the end of the week, buses were no better of an option. We stared at the map for a good 15 minutes, trying to figure every roundabout route we could. Budapest, anyone? As out of the way as that sounds, when I learned that my rebooked flight was cancelled, any sort of movement seemed appealing.

In the end, we all split up. One of us managed to get a flight from Venice to Liverpool and a bus to London. Another got a train to Zurich and a flight from there to London. A third waited for a special train to open up from Florence to Paris and bused it back to London. And a friend and I hopped on a train to Budapest with plans to go to Prague after.

It was almost fate that I had already booked a roundtrip flight to Prague for the coming weekend. I only had to make it there before the return flight back to London on Tuesday.

When I started spring break, I could have never predicted where I would end up.

It’s weird to think that around the same time last year, I was studying at Leavey Library and getting ready for finals at USC. My biggest worry wasn’t about finding a place to crash for the night or where I was going to be the next day, but about writing essays and finishing up classes.

One of the last e-mails I read before hopping on the train to Budapest was from our study abroad program adviser telling us not to worry about tests. They were aware of the situation, and finals would be rescheduled.

In retrospect, it sounds unbelievable when I say that an Icelandic volcano disrupted my two and a half week spring break across Europe, forcing me to skip my finals and extend my travels.

Only in a life across the pond.