Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stories from the apocalypse

If you rely on the UK media for your news you may be under the impression that the current volcanic dust problems are affecting (a) holidaymakers who can't go on their trip; and (b) the arrival of exotic fruits and the subsequent trauma of the English middle classes. (Honestly I'm not making that up).

However, as I have spent some time over the last few days in the company of people who have been genuinely affected by the wrath of Eyjafjallajoekull (when my 4 year old daughter writes to me on messenger I'm sure that's the word she usually types, which means she's been warning me of this event for some time, which is a bit freakish), I do know that there are some actual stories of hardships beyond the awfulness of not being able to buy pineapple at Waitrose. These are all people I've met in the last couple of days (mostly on my non-flight on Thursday), or who I know or am connected to in some way.

1. The British man and Romanian woman who were flying out to their own wedding in Bucharest (should have been today - Saturday) along with assorted relatives. I have this image of a church full of people in Bucharest standing around even now looking at their watches and muttering "I knew it wouldn't last" to their neighbours.

2. The Egyptian guy who was flying home to Cairo via Bucharest. He is now stuck in the UK with a soon to expire visa and no money whatsoever. With this promising to go on for some time there are increasing number of people in a similar situation. If you've nowhere to stay, no money, no way of getting home aside from by plane...what do you do?

3. The Cypriot businessman who lives in London and who has a factory in Romania. he was flying over to sign all the cheques to pay his workers. He needs to be there to do that, and no-one else can do it. So a large number of people who were not even flying anywhere have a massive problem.

4. Someone I met in Moscow a couple of weeks ago whose visa expires today, and who was due to fly home yesterday. I suspect Russian visa officials will not be terribly sympathetic.

5. Daughter of a friend who is stuck in Bangkok with no money, dodging riots on the streets.

So, what all these things remind me is that (a) my situation is not terrible in the grand scheme of things. I miss my family (and I'd like to think they miss me), and really really want to be home. But I have somewhere to stay, access to some money, and time to work out other options; and (b) anyone complaining they can't buy a fig wants shooting.


Shelly Terrell said...


I'm under the same conclusion that my inconvenience is nothing compared to people suffering due to this disaster. I imagine the people having to leave their homes and others like you have mentioned stuck in situations with no money. Thank you for posting this concern! I'm sure your family, especially your daughter will overcome you with hugs when you get back home.

Sato said...

Andy, before you slam the media once more (and aren't blogs media, btw?) could you clarify the following points?

1. So jetting across Europe to get married is noble and altruistic, while wanting to buy a pinapple or a fig for your kid is horribly spoilt and selfish? Getting married costs thousands; pinapples cost £1 or £2 apiece. Who exactly is the privileged/despicable party here? (And btw, it's whoever gets married in CHURCH that needs shooting.)

2. I'm always fascinated by these stories of people being stranded 'with no money'. How can someone fly transcontinentally with no money reserves whatsoever? Is the Egyptian guy a starving peasant? How exactly did he book his flight without a credit card?

3. The Cypriot guys pays his Romanian employees by CHEQUE? Why? And -- again -- why is someone who takes advantage of low salaries in Romania to move his business there, while centralising power feudally to the extent that only his personal signature will unblock their wages, more respectable that a family who want to go on a holiday?

4. Why does someone who's Russian/lives in Russia need a visa to go back TO Russia?

5. There is no rioting in Bangkok. Soldiers have moved into the business district, and the Red Shirts still occupy part of the commercial district. Not much else is happening, and millions of people meanwhile go about unconcerned. All in all, Bangkok is, even now, far safer than the borough of Hackney.

Andy H said...

I think you've leapt to a few conclusions there Sato. I was telling a few stories that to me were far more interesting and demonstrated a higher level of difficulty faced than what I was reading in the papers here in the UK and watching on TV. People not being able to go on holiday, and a shortage of pineapple didn't strike me as terrible hardships. Whereas some of the stories I had encountered did seem to be far more indicative of the problems raised by this sudden interruption in travel possibilities.

So, for example, "noble and altruistic" is entirely your phrase not mine.

The Egyptian guy had been studying in the UK. He's reached the end of his stay here, and the end of his funds. It doesn't seem too hard to grasp. We are now getting more and more stories like this over here (though mostly on Brits stuck abroad). Many have credit cards of course, some don't (I rarely buy plane tickets by credit card, it is entirely possible)

On the Cypriot guy, I agree entirely. I have no idea why he needs to be there, and clearly he needs to get that sorted out.

The guy in Russia is a Brit who was working there, and is still stuck there (but now having outstayed his visa).

Sato said...

But Andy, that is precisely my point: how is the lifestyle choice of getting married at the other end of Europe more legitimate, and therefore more worthy of sympathy, than the lifestyle choice of wanting to eat pineapple or go on holiday? (Unless, that is, you're the Tory party and think that marriage puts you in a morally and socially superior category to that of the avergae pineapple-muncher.)

And sorry, I still don't buy the Egyptian's story. If you're from the developing world and can afford to study in Britain, you are clearly from a privileged background and do not suddenly run out of funds, or of access to funds, because of a few days' delay. Daddy will provide, as he did when it came to pay £££s for you to study here in the first place.

Lastly -- the Bangkok story. Why are people unable to COME BACK from holiday more deservant than people want to go ON holiday? How is that more interesting or illustrative of a higher level of difficulty?

I'm not picking a fight -- but as a journalist speaking to another journalist, I fail to see A. why the human-interest stories carried by the print media strike you as inane, but the ones you've picked up yourself are somehow intrinsically more interesting or authentic or heart-rending and B. why you accept people's tales without questioning. As I mentioned before, the Egyptian's story is simply not plausible.

Andy H said...

Yes, I confess I do find the story of people not being able to attend their own wedding more interesting than a story that some people can't buy coconuts. Perhaps it's just me.

People trying to come back from holiday are stuck away from home, with little or no access to their usual support networks (and often enough money). People going on holiday, will have had a frustrating time at the airport, and will be bitterly disappointed, but in the end they can just go home, and get a refund on their trip. Again I do think one situation is more challenging than the other.

And as for the Egyptian guy - is it possible that this was all a bunch of bullshit? Yes of course. But I think it's very likely to have been true (and I still believe it have been so). People studying here tend to come on scholarships, and money at home may be very limited. I imagine his family will be doing what they can to get him some money, however possible that is, as people do tend to come together in times of difficulty, and quite possibly after the first couple of days he will have found some way of getting some funds by some means (I certainly hope so). But people travel on limited budgets all the time and often without credit cards. Just a few days before that I had to lend a Kazakh friend £25 to get to the airport as she had run out of cash, having been given a very small sum by her sponsor. If she had been flying back a couple of days later and had been trapped by this, she'd have had some serious difficulties.

I think you're being inordinately cynical about the fact that people really do sometimes have very limited access to money. And to say it is not plausible is way off I reckon. It may not be true, but it is definitely 100% plausible.

Bob said...

Can't get a kumquat in Morrisons for love nor money... apparently.

A said...

Sato, Andy's comment about the Cypriot wasn't highlighting the concern for the Cypriot! It was that his employees are the ones being disadvantaged by the situation. I don't think there was any suggestion of the Cypriot being "respectable", either more or less than anyone else.

Katharine said...

I have a request, Domnul Hockley!

My dear dear friend the Bucharester is depressed. Really quite depressed, he is.

He's having a really hard time getting even normal medical appointments, he is pretty much skint poor (he's a university student and really only gets tuition from a relative and whatever he's saved up from his most recent job), and he is feeling miserable.

I live in the United States. I want to help him.

What resources are there in Romania for people who have depression?

Andy H said...

Good question Katherine, but honestly have no real idea. he shouldn't have much difficulty seeing a regular doctor (though as with anything else here, if you don't have contacts and ways round the system it will probably involve a lot of waiting around). However, I don't know if the Romanian health care system extends to mental health. It should, but that doesn't mean it does. Ultimately I'm guessing the best that could be hoped for is he sees his doctor, gets a referral to a psychiatrist, who then prescribes anti-depressants (the chances of any therapy or more wholistic solution seem unlikely). The next question would then be to what extent those prescription drugs would be subsidised under the system - some drugs are entirely free under the national insurance system, some you pay 10% of the price, and others 50%. If it's a 50% one, I'm guessing that would still be a fair amount of cash to form out.