A proposition. The vast volcanic cloud currently shrouding Europe, rendering the continent’s airspace the exclusive province of birdlife, is wonderful. This is not, granted, a sentiment calculated to soothe anyone currently sitting mournfully atop their luggage, whiling away the maddeningly indefinite wait teaching themselves to pronounce “Eyjafjallajoekull”. But if those countless stranded travellers consider the bigger picture, they will see something amazing, and not just that unfathomably enormous billow of silver candyfloss.
Usually, when nature turns on us, whether in storm, fire, flood or earthquake, it results in dreadful human tragedy, which rather prevents anyone from enjoying it. The eruption of this unspellable spout in Iceland’s south-west has resulted, substantially, in mere inconvenience. This should not be sufficient to prevent anybody from revelling in an event of singular spiritual worth.
For lessons in reading it, ask an Icelander. For most of the rest of the world’s people, the ground is what stuff happens on. For Icelanders, the ground is what happens. This, I believe, on the evidence of a few visits to the country, is what makes Iceland’s people what they are – stoical, philosophical, and possessed of a tendency to drink like they fear no hangover on the morrow.
“It’s a fantastic reminder of what nature here is like,” says Eirikur Bergmann. Bergmann is the director of the Centre for European Studies at Iceland’s Bifrost University, and has written extensively about Iceland’s international relationships. “It is humbling to see the power of it and how little power people have. Especially here, after all the talk of crisis and recession, this is Mother Nature showing us how diminished our world becomes when we get caught up in relatively petty things.”
”We take it in our stride,” says Alda Sigmundsdottir, a writer, interpreter and host of the popular Iceland Weather Report blog, icelandweatherreport.com. “It’s a strong part of the Icelandic character, and was very prominent when we had the economic crash. It’s not fatalism, exactly, but an acceptance of living on a living and unpredictable land.”
Air travel delays caused by human fallibility can bring out the worst in people – an observation from which I do not exclude this correspondent, who within the last few months has illustrated his vexation to a functionary of KLM by banging his head theatrically on the counter of their customer service desk at Schiphol. But air travel delays caused by those things we can do nothing about – those things that, indeed, remind us that there’s an awful lot we can do nothing about – can have the opposite effect, forging cheerful solidarity from the mutual recognition of mankind’s ultimate impotence. My own record delay was near enough to three days, stranded in Chicago’s O’Hare airport by apocalyptic thunderstorms. I was en route Kansas City to an interview which had taken weeks to wrangle. Rescheduling it, via the same intermediary who had previously been impenetrably fussy and obstructive, took all of 30 seconds, when I outlined the circumstances. “It happens,” reassured the hitherto cheerless bureaucrat. “Get here when you can.”
For the next few days, at least, we are all Icelanders. There are worse things to be.