A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Twelve conclusions by a released volcano hostage

Five days of uncertainty, trapped far away from home by an Icelandic volcano, provide plenty of time to think. Here is my attempt at drawing conclusions the day after returning home: partly on a personal level, partly on a general human level, partly on a societal level.

To recap what has happened: Ten minutes before the intended boarding time of LH459 from San Francisco home to Munich, I got an SMS about the flight being cancelled. This was Thursday 15.4.2010 at 20:20. Thereafter I lived in uncertainty in airport hotels, most of the time 40 km south of San Francisco, to finally arrive home five days later than plan on Wednesday 21.4.2010 at 13:00..

Personal conclusion

Conclusion 1: Uncertainty and losing freedom are hard to cope with. In retrospect, I never was in any real trouble. No physical suffering, no bodily harm, hardly any material loss. Still, the experience was amongst the strongest ones in my life. If that's the case, what do I really have to complain about? Losing freedom for an indefinite period of time. Unmet expectations.

Conclusion 2: Europe is my home continent. Emotionally, it was terrible to be stuck on the wrong continent, 9474 km away from home (SFO to MUC). Last time Eyjafjalla erupted (1821-23), it took one and a half years, and knowing this instilled a feeling of potentially being a hostage for countless weeks, away from family and friends. How could anyone know for how long intercontinental air traffic would remain closed? Sure, the relief when returning home was enormous, but the real euphoria happened when I saw Europe again in Madrid. I was rescued! Sure, I was still 1481 km from home, but that distance I can make by train, bus, car or even bike. Fellow sufferers amongst MySQLers have shared my feeling that although it's fantastic to be home, the real pressure was off already upon "merely" returning to Europe.

Conclusion 3: Humour is a strong weapon. From the start, we who got stuck kept a good mood through joking. Some of the humour was black enough not to merit being captured in print. "Send cash not ash" was the first successful joke on the web, but the self-made jokes provided more solace. Most jokes were somehow language dependent and I shared them with the two biggest language groups amongst the stranded colleagues and friends: the Swedish speakers and the German speakers. Language jokes seldom translate but the illustration on the right is 1:1 transferrable between Swedish and German. The word for "surprised" in both languages is literally translatable to "overrashed", so leaving out one "r" means we were "overashed". One particularly fun web link is to the three-minute Icelandic terrorist video, where Icelanders keen on keeping their Icesave money threaten to put soap into Eyjafjalla's big sister Katla, so we won't have a summer for years (a Katla eruption in 1783 caused hunger and poverty across Europe, believed by some to have been a key trigger for the French revolution six years later).

Conclusion 4: Language creates closeness and strengthens a sense of kinship. This one may be impossible for monolinguals to understand, though. Basically, sharing raw information about my situation would have been technically doable in English, making Twitter and Facebook texts understandable for (nearly) all. Yet, the whole point with the social media communication for me was to shorten the emotional distance and increase the mental well-being of those at home, of fellow sufferers and of myself. For this to happen, there needs to be a en emotional closeness to the language itself. I need to communicate in the same language as I would use in person. Hence, I used mostly Swedish and quite a bit of German, with English only as a third choice. It wouldn't have felt right to use English only.

General conclusions

Conclusion 5: Humans are social creatures, and social media give true consolation in times of hardship. Facebook and Twitter became lifelines for us volcano hostages. I got more Facebook events than ever. On my way from Chicago to Madrid I had 51 events, and from Madrid to Munich 48 events. It felt great for me to know that someone cared. And to judge from the content of the comments, people really did care: "I hardly get time to work - having to follow the exciting serial story about 'will-Kaj-get-home-or-not-and-when-and-where-and-how". Reply: "That's how I feel, too! Is this Reality Entertainment? (Sorry Kaj - perhaps not from your perspective...)" whereas a third fellow hostage pointed out that "this is a bad reality show, as no matter how hard I try, nobody votes me home...".

Conclusion 6: Individual characteristics, good and bad, are underlined by the exceptional situation. Stoic peace could be seen amongst those who stay calm under normal circumstances. Systematic work and concentration amongst those not easily distracted. That I found consolation in humour, in writing and communicating with others was no coincidence. Sadly, I regressed into an old bad habit of being too keen on following superficial web news, instead of just carrying on as if nothing had erupted.

Conclusion 7: The possibility and ability to make the best of a bad situation varies according to attitude, character and luck. Myself, I had set my mind to returning home quickly. I have visited to California quite often and (picky as I am) have problems in the US to find food I enjoy, particularly for breakfast. I dislike driving cars; lazy as I am, I prefer public transport. I was in no mood to spend time somehow getting the 40 km to the city centre of San Francisco, which I have visited many times. For others stuck, the situation was quite the opposite, and they were happy that San Francisco was the place fate had chosen, if they had to get stuck. For me, the good part was that I had my running gear, books and notes, as well as car-borne colleagues with whom I could have a run and share dinner.

Conclusion 8: Wishful thinking is more common than panic reactions. "How may hours will you be delayed?" was a typical question in the beginning. As hours grew to days due to closed airspace, the questions became "Have you got closer to home?" or "Do you know when you'll be home?", although nobody had a clue when air traffic would be allowed again.

Societal conclusions

Conclusion 9: Flying, especially for tourists, will become less frequent. Both rational and irrational reasons speak for travelling less. Personally, I will evaluate the need for travel outside Europe more stringently than before. And I believe many will even avoid intra-European travel.

Conclusion 10: The value of insurance will be questioned. The idea with insurance is to minimise exposure to risk if something unexpected happens. Financial Times Deutschland points out that insurers exclude many unexpected events from the list of what you're protected against. Consequently, customers may see less value in being insured in the first place.

Conclusion 11: Social media grow ever more in importance. Although Lufthansa were bad at communicating during the Eyjafjalla eruption, it turns out KLM already has done what I have nagged for Lufthansa to start doing. KLM actively communicates in Twitter, has a good Facebook page (I became the 38704th one to like it), and an impressive YouTube video with their CEO. And the sense of belonging created amongst private users during times of crisis won't fade off as quickly as the ash cloud.

Conclusion 12: Risk assessments may become more rational. BBC's question whether it's more dangerous to drive a car than flying through ash clouds stresses the unethical aspect in the populist politician statement of "security above all", since we irrational human beings readily accept highly dangerous activities such as high speed limits for cars, smoking, alcohol and unhealthy food, all of which cost considerably more lives than air traffic. And even airport "security" control (de facto a form of state sanctioned systematic mobbing) will over time get easier to question, as we travelers use our newly gained vulcanic experiences and contemplations to become less gullible.

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