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Ash Cloud’s Silver Lining Is Leisure Time
LONDON — There is nothing like a huge cloud of volcanic ash grounding flights all across Europe to make this galloping, globalized world feel more intimate, slower and smaller.
To be sure, there has been stress and anxiety aplenty as hundreds of thousands of travelers here found themselves stranded away from home and family this week. We are used to being able to go where we want and get what we want when we want it, thanks to a phenomenal global transportation network. In many ways, we are lost without it.
But since (after all) there was no one to blame for the current predicament and little that could be done to resolve it, many travelers here are finding the forced leisure time an odd respite from the pressures and speed of 21st-century life.
There were of course no planes roaring overhead. But more than that: With London experiencing four days of gorgeous spring weather, it was a chance to experience life at a walk rather than a sprint — a pace that was more common a quarter-century ago. (Full disclosure: I flew to London for what was to have been a one-night stopover on Wednesday night, and have been here since.)
Birgit Wittenstein, a pediatric cardiologist from Kiel, Germany, came to London for a high-powered medical conference and was supposed to have flown home Thursday, the day the planes were first grounded. She spent Friday in a panic. “I thought, I really have to get out of here and get home,” she said, explaining that her son turned 6 on Saturday and that his party was Sunday.
Then something a bit magical happened.
“It took 24 hours to turn around and say, ‘O.K. I’ve got some free time to do shopping and read,’ which I haven’t had time for in six years,” Dr. Wittenstein said in between pages of a Salman Rushdie novel. She was drinking coffee in bright sunshine Sunday, while sitting on the steps of a Victorian townhouse.
Over the previous two days, Dr. Wittenstein had met up with old friends, seen a show, lingered over breakfast and taken long runs in Hyde Park. She bought a disposable camera and took photos of London, something she never had time to do during a two-year stint working here.
Although she has now secured a train ticket home on Monday, she said: “This way there’s no one to blame, and so my husband wasn’t angry. He just said, ‘Enjoy yourself.”’
Businesses that have come to rely on globalized trade in the last decade found themselves falling back on former supply patterns.
Mahmood Rizbi, a fruit seller on Westbourne Grove, said that much of his produce comes by air: pineapples and mangos from Brazil, guavas from Egypt, tomatoes from Spain. Sunday night, he was planning his first trip to the wholesaler since British air traffic shut down Thursday. He was told by associates to expect far less choice and higher prices.
Likewise, Chris Peart, 52, a florist, said there would be fewer roses and lilies at shops in London this week. He said that London’s roses for sale tend to come from Colombia and Kenya; its lilies from Israel; its protea from South Africa. But there will still be plenty of daffodils and tulips, which are homegrown or come from nearby countries like Holland.
“It’s only in the last 5 to 10 years that we’ve been flying flowers this way,” said Mr. Peart, who has had his large, carefully tended stand for 25 years. “It will affect the market if the plants can’t fly.”
At the Hand & Sceptre restaurant overlooking the green in Southborough, Kent, scallops were off the menu Sunday. They are normally flown in from Iceland, which is now producing mainly ash, of course. Etienne Stander, the manager, noted that for now only that dish was unavailable, though he said the list might expand if supply planes could not get in soon.
High-end restaurants, like the Michelin-starred L’Autre Pied off Marylebone Road, were deluged with cancellations as incoming travelers could not arrive.
But finding ingredients was not a problem, said the manager, Sally Humphreys. Like many upscale restaurants in eco-conscious Britain, L’Autre Pied’s chef, Marcus Eaves, finds everything locally, including fish from Cornwall and Scotland.
There is no doubt that the exceptional weather had helped make enforced leisure time feel like an opportunity rather than a burden.
“If you’ve got to get stuck, it’s not a bad place,” said Scott Anderson, 45, who was here for a three-day business meeting from the U.S. Midwest. “It’s an act of God. The weather is beautiful. So you just kind of go with the flow.”
Still, he said that some of the 30 people from his company remained frustrated by the delay, particularly those with small children at home. While Europeans can opt for long train trips to get home, Americans had little choice but to wait.
Thomas and Doris Lutz of Vienna were changing planes in London, destined for a two-and-a-half-week vacation in San Francisco with their toddler when the flight ban was imposed. They were sent to a hotel in London. After a “very frustrating” first day, with no information from British Airways, they have now given up on a U.S. holiday and are enjoying their vacation in London.
“It’s been stressful and strange, but I haven’t been here in 16 years and there’s so much to see,” said Ms. Lutz, who works for a leasing company.
Four years ago, when returning to Austria from Florida, the couple had an unexpected three-day layover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when their flight experienced mechanical problems. Their son, Tim, now 3, resulted from that period of forced downtime. Mr. Lutz, a busy banker in working life, said: “Our friends are joking that this will be another Halifax.”