A volcano erupted in southern Iceland. It seemed like a remote occurrence, an interesting geological event but certainly not something that would impact our lives. The volcano is called Eyjafjallajokull, a name I cannot even pronounce, and its eruption melted a glacier, causing massive flooding and prompting the evacuation of about 800 people, mostly local farmers. Dramatic. But in the week since we arrived in England, we have also heard news of the airplane crash of the Polish president and his entourage as they headed into Moscow for a Katyn memorial, and an earthquake in northwestern China that has left hundreds of people dead. Icelandic volcanoes must assume their proper priority among such tidings.
But this particular volcano affected our plans. We were supposed to fly to Berlin today, and as you have no doubt heard by now, Britain’s airspace has been closed to avoid the dangers of a huge cloud of volcanic ash and debris that has been drifting south and east from Iceland. As a matter of fact, a specialist on volcanic ash at Bristol University was just quoted as saying that the plume would likely find its way over “a good portion of Europe” and will take a day or two to disperse, so flights are likely to remain cancelled, the ramifications will spread, and a lot of folks are having to rethink their plans right now.
It's one of those bizarre, who-would-have-imagined? and what-can-you-do? sorts of things. We tried to book a train, but the trains filled up too quickly. We found a Saturday morning flight to Berlin, but the price was exorbitant, and there were no guarantees of its actually taking off. It was past check-out time at the little flat we'd been renting, so we vacated the place, turned in our key, and walked through Oxford with our bulky backpacks like a pair of Rip Van Winkle students awakening from the1960s to find themselves old and out of it. Oddly disconcerted, with nowhere to go and no plan in place, we called our daughter. She was busy at work and had that busy-at-work tone in her voice.
We went to a pub with WiFi. We still had no idea what we would do instead of Berlin, but we tended to loose ends, canceling the meeting we’d arranged with a tour guide there and writing to the landlord of the place where we would have stayed. Then we tried to come up with ideas for a new kind of adventure. We thought we would rent a car and drive to Cornwall or some quaint and rural part of England, and we imagined how pleased our daughter would be when we invited her and her boyfriend to join us for the weekend. I called her excitedly to let her know. She still had that busy-at-work tone. We were pretty sure her boyfriend would sound busy too.
So we are still in that pub in Oxford, and we still don't have a plan. At a nearby table a young man, 20-something (as they all seem to be), just told his companion, “Now all I need is coriander.” No, I’m not making that up. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is Nina Simone, very nice, and I’m drinking Earl Grey tea and pondering the many ways this situation could have been worse. What if we had gone all the way to the airport and found ourselves in the lines and confusion there? What if we had boarded a plane and been made to sit on it for hours on the ground? And those are just the minor inconveniences. What if we had been involved firsthand in one of those catastrophes we hear about?
To get to this pub we're sitting in, we walked along Christ Church Meadow, through a narrow alley that smelled like chocolate, past a stone cottage where an old man with a broom and a missing front tooth paused in his sweeping and wished me a good day. I might have missed all that. A woman with long dark hair was standing on a Cornmarket Street corner singing opera. I might have missed that too. A little later, we walked along the Cowley Road, and it seemed like a bazaar; every shop door that opened released olfactory surprises – smells of curry, bouquets, even bicycle tires. I was intensely aware of being part of life’s grand and colorful procession.
Now I look up, and there’s Monte, and it comes down to us, and we still don’t know where we’re going, but we’re right here together. Here’s the thing I think I finally get: Life is not about how good your plans were but about how graciously you adjust to their not working out.
And if a volcano erupts, well…it’s not so bad to be in a pub in Oxford with someone you love.
I'll let you know where we go next.