The serendipity of waiting for the weather

All we can find out on the telly about travel problems due to the big cloud of ash is how tough it is for Brits to get back from “holiday abroad.” Nothing, zippo, nada about how it is for Americans and other nationals whose return flights were cancelled abruptly and are now in a not-so-jolly pickle.

Well, that’s the only complaint. OK, one more: We miss our kids terribly and can’t wait to get back to them and the dogs and cats.

The wait is heavy in a way, but since we love London we are coping well with the inconvenience of having to stay longer than planned. Coping, but growing poorer by the day as we hadn’t planned on the extra expense. We don’t know if any of our extra costs will be reimbursed, so “hello, credit cards.”

On the other hand, we’re told that European Union citizens have an ironclad right to compensation from their airlines for hotels, food and other expenses, even if the disruption comes under an “act of God.” With European airlines already losing tens of millions of dollars a day, such generous payouts could cripple their economic situations beyond repair.

We’ve been helped along by a thoughtful landlord (we’re staying at a small apartment in Kensington-Chelsea) who halved our rent for the time we have to stay over. It has a kitchen, and my wife Cynthia is a world-class cook, so we’ll save money eating in. The weather is nice, the transportation is easy (though, again, expensive), and we know the city fairly well, so passing the time is no problem.

Since the ash cloud spewed skyward last week, we have seen old friends (scheduled before we were stranded), gone to exhibitions and an art gallery and strolled along the Thames.

I’ve also managed to put in a few hours at selected pubs and seeing old friends from my days at ABC News. I worked there in the 1980s, globe-trotting to hot spots in Europe and Africa, and if I were still a correspondent I would undoubtedly be filing reports on “World News,” “Good Morning America” and “Nightline” about the volcanic eruption. Perhaps I’d even be interviewing people who had been stranded when the airlines had to be grounded.

We came here for Cynthia’s work, not play. Except that her work IS play. Her nonprofit, the Atlanta Taskforce on Play (ATOP) and Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture are organizing an international play design competition, and she came here to visit some of London’s renowned playgrounds and to talk to museums about the competition exhibit. I tagged along to help carry her computer and provide moral support.

Expenses, homesickness and a little crankiness aside, it’s not so bad being stranded in London. Cynthia found herself attending TEDxVolcano, an impromptu gathering of stranded American and European social entrepreneurs the other night, so adversity created an opportunity that might not have existed otherwise.

Also, without this unplanned extension, I might not have gotten to have another experience with the National Health Service. I hadn’t brought over enough prescription pills (for minor ailments) to cover the extra days, so I went to a local chemist (pharmacist) to see about getting some more. He couldn’t help me, but directed me to a nearby hospital emergency room where a doctor would write the new prescriptions.

At the “Accident and Emergency” wing of historic Charing Cross Hospital, I encountered the opposite of what critics of National Health like to play up as reasons it doesn’t work: overcrowding, surly employees and medical staff and long waits to be seen.

None of that occurred.

I was treated with speed and professionalism and they did not charge a ha’ penny. It was a clean, pleasant environment, just like every other time over the years that I have used NHS. Most Britons consider it a national treasure, despite a few drawbacks that can occur with any huge enterprise. It took only a couple of hours, door to door, including a quick lunch while I waited for the prescriptions to be filled.

It was in a pub (yes, another one) that I noticed a sign that says much about the people of this country: “Please be considerate of our neighbors when you go out. Do not make unnecessary noise.”

We could learn a lot from a nation that we all used to be taught is our Mother Country. If there’s a place one has to be stranded, it’s hard to beat London. We’re waiting for the clouds to dissipate so that Delta can come get us. In a way we’ll be sorry to leave.

Al Dale and Cynthia Gentry are married and live in Buckhead. Dale is a former correspondent with ABC News, and Gentry is founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play.

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