The FX industry is a life of travel. A natural disaster struck, and I took the overland route. Here is my account
Senior executives whose business is centered on any aspect of the FX industry are used to global travel, such is the borderless nature of our ultra-modern, highly advanced and ever evolving business.
From the supply of institutional services to brokerages to the provision of liquidity from Tier 1 banks to prime brokerages across the world, right through to vendors that provide all aspects of ancillary services encompassing signal provision, social trading, risk management and liquidity bridge integration, we are a business which is constantly on the move, both technologically and geographically.
But what if your progress is stalled by a very low-tech natural event?
Today, Iceland is a nation which is synonymous for two specific events, those being the 2008 collapse of the nation’s entire financial structure with Iceland’s three largest domestic banks becoming insolvent to the tune of £70 billion and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Nordic country, the other being the 2010 volcanic eruption that generated an ash cloud that halted all flights across most of Europe.
This eruption and resultant ash cloud occurred simultaneously to what was intended to be a two day business trip to London.
Under normal circumstances, regular visits to London, a city I lived in for 12 years and is the center of institutional FX, is not only a breeze (4 hour flight), but is business critical.
That particular visit was no exception, until I heard an announcement that there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland, creating particles of ash and abrasive dust all over Europe’s airspace.
As I was due to return to Tel Aviv that day, I began to consider the impracticalities of being marooned in London ad infinitum (although there are far worse places to be!)
A few days passed, but the dust and ash remained so I took it upon myself to embark upon my journey overland.
Day 1 – All aboard!
By this time, chaos had taken hold of Europe’s transport network, including millions of stranded travellers at airports, and an overloaded train and boat system.
However, I took my chances. My journey began in East London on Sunday morning, by walking to Liverpool Street Station, where I waited at Hope Square, home to an emotive statue of holocaust survivors alighting from a train, sculpted by Israeli artists Frank Meisler and Arie Ovadia.
Subsequently, I boarded the Underground train to London St Pancras International Station to join the Eurostar train to Paris. On arrival, there were hundreds of hopefuls waiting in line for tickets that did not exist. I was fortunate enough to have obtained one of the last remaining tickets the day before, so I boarded for Paris, the remaining passengers without such tickets adorned the floor space and at least 500 meters outside the station with little hope of obtaining a ticket and even less chance of finding a hotel room (all full and prices at a 150% premium), or any form of land transport.
On arrival at Gare du Nord, I then saw the full scale of the disruption – British taxi drivers touting for fares to London, coach loads of students and tourists stranded, and an array of fully booked and cancelled train services. I am not sure what was more distasteful, the lack of care for these people by the travel companies, or the trebling of prices for local hotels, and ramping up the prices of the last remaining train tickets available.
Impressed by the remarkable Eurostar train, but uncertain of the outcome of the travel that lay ahead, my target was Milan by morning, but this seemed increasingly unlikely as the hours rolled by.
Day 2 – Paris to Milan before Noon
Having managed to find my way through Paris’ beautiful but extremely traffic-laden streets, I arrived at Bercy train station in hope of finding a train to Milan.
I entered the terminal and immediately my heart sank as I was faced with a gargantuan line of potential passengers who had seemingly been there all day and all of the previous night. I could not get a ticket for any trains, and there were many cancellations due to what SNCF politely call ‘Industrial Action’ , which in my book translates to ‘bone idleness’ or ‘vindictive ransom’.
There were rumors of an emergency train arriving that evening bound for Milan, with beds and sleeping compartments, and 1000 spaces available. I considered renting a car and driving through the night to Milan, but as I would still be ahead of schedule if I waited a few hours, I decided to go for dinner.
I can assure you, one thing the French are still very good at is cooking and service. I ate a lamb tagine, with couscous and roasted vegetables. It was sublime and I am very glad to have visited Paris if only for the gastronomic delights. My understanding of French was useful also, but as I do not speak Italian, I was worried about what lay ahead..
6 hours rolled by and the emergency train materialised. It was a 30 year old relic, put on by TrenItalia, which had certainly seen better days and looked as though it would be harder to coax into life than Lazarus.
However, it had two engines, and what appeared to be staff with uniforms, so I kept my fingers crossed that it would propel me south, past Lyon, Chambery, then through the MontBlanc Tunnel into Italy.
I boarded, found a bedroom, went to sleep. So far, so good.
Day 3 – Italy, A Very Large Boot, Kicking a Very Large Ball.
After a night’s sleep in relative comfort despite being on the move (albeit slowly) through France, I awoke to find myself stationary and in complete darkness despite it being 10.00am.
Unusual, I thought, so I decamped from my bunkbed and opened the window to investigate. The darkness was due to the train being stationary inside the tunnel. The crossing from France into Italy was blighted by further stops because this was an unscheduled train, therefore was having to give priority to other scheduled trains. Ever disheartening was watching 186mph TGVs covering ground at Gagarin-esque speeds while I had been aboard for over 12 hours and still had 150km to go.
However, I was looking forward to exiting the tunnel and seeing Italy for the first time.
Initial impressions were very favorable. Beautiful Alpine villages, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and scenic suburban Turin.
I had heard Italy was a beautiful country, and so far it did not disappoint. I tried to get my bearings by looking through the camera’s zoom lens at far away road signs showing the distance to Turin and Milan. It looked like I was on target for lunch in Milan.
Milan railway station was another casualty of overcrowding due to the volcano thwarting all European flights, and I was greeted there by another array of disgruntled passengers and sold-out train seats. I realised very quickly that I had no chance of a train to Brindisi, or Naples, or anywhere for that matter.
I found a cafe in central Milan, which was very pleasant, and sat outside with a calzone and cappucino, to study the map (yes, a paper map, six years ago, iPhones were not common!) and contemplate the most effective means of transporting myself from Milan to Brindisi, to catch the ferry to Pireus, Greece.
By now, time was of the essence, so after lunch, I debated with myself whether to drive to Brindisi, some 750km away, and then see if I could get a ferry to Greece, or whether to try my luck at Milan Malpensa Airport, as I was far enough south now to be able to fly.
Italy at this point began to appear to be a much larger country than it seems on a map, and I worked out that if I drove to Brindisi, and did not make it there by 6.30pm, I would turn into a pumpkin and there would be no transport to Greece until 24 hours later, so I decided to take a taxi to Malpensa Airport, which cost an outlandish 85 Euros and was driven by a man with complete disdain for other road users.
Milan Malpensa Airport was open and flights were unaffected by the volcano, however, it now contained most of Western Europe’s air passengers, and was chaos. Most flights were completely overbooked and sold out, but fortunately I found out that Brindisi has an airport, so I managed to endure a 2 hour wait for tickets, and then board a Canadair RJ900 for the 2 hour flight to Brindisi. The flight took off at 5.10pm, 3 hours late due to the sheer volume of air traffic that day.
Arriving at Brindisi, I looked down at the Adriatic Coast, and could see the ferry port, which was missing a vital ingredient – the ferry itself.
More disappointment greeted me when I exited the plane into Brindisi Airport, which was closed to all outbound flights, and I learned that there were no more boats that day, and that the one 24 hours later was fully booked, and the airport was closed.
I had essentially flown there for nothing, and had no chance of getting to Piraeus for the foreseeable future.
I made my way to the Avis desk, and rented a car. When I asked for an Automatic car, the Avis representative told me they dont have any, so I said I would go to the Europcar desk. She then miraculously found one, a 2009 Nissan Note 1.6 Automatic.
Since its launch, I had often sneered at the gormless-looking Nissan Note, and wondering which think tank had been responsible for designing something so utterly characterless.
It seems I had been a bit hasty with the finger-pointing and jeering, because my 400km drive from Brindisi to Naples in the Note revealed that it was relatively comfortable.
The highways in Italy are all new, and very good (by European standards), but you have to pay to use them. The toll is collected by aggressive and grouchy men in booths at the side of the road, who shout, bash their hands on the counter and demand money in the rudest manner imaginable.
Driving in Italy is a frenetic and heart-attack inducing experience by comparison to most other regions of the world. 400 kilometers later, I arrived in Naples, very late at night, and blighted by a horrific and exhausting eye infection. All I wanted to do was to go to sleep, as it was 2.00am on Thursday morning already.
Naples is a downtrodden, dirty and neglected town, and appeared to be lifeless. I found some small hotels, which were all full so I kept driving until I found one that would accept me at such short notice.
What ensued was a truly weird experience.
30 Euros gets you a bed for the night, in an ancient hotel, with a malfunctioning elevator, intimidating inhabitants, loitering youth outside and charmless staff, including a receptionist with the manners of a tomcat.
The pushing and shoving in the elevator was in keeping with my initial impressions. Still, it was better than sleeping at the airport in the Nissan Note’s rear seat.
I woke up at 7.00am and checked out very quickly, and walked to the car, half expecting it not to be there. Naples in the daylight was no more appealing, and I was very glad to be on my way to Naples Airport.
At the airport, I managed to survive more shouting, pushing, elbowing and “customer service” and found an Alitalia flight to Athens.
Day 4 – Naples to Athens, and finally Athens to Tel Aviv. The home straight
Wednesday was a day of hope and excitement. It seems that I had found a means of actually arriving home that night, albeit in the early hours of Friday morning.
I was very pleased to see the back of Southern Italy, and as the plane took off for the 1 and a half hour journey to Athens, I reflected on the Italian leg of the journey. Northern Italy was sleepy but very pretty, and the villages set in the mountains were old fashioned and outmoded, but a fine sight. Southern Italy by contrast was quite the opposite.
On approach to Athens Airport, I enjoyed a remarkable view of the city, set in a combination of green and arrid mountains, on the Aegean Sea. I had no idea of what to expect, as although it is close to home in terms of proximity, I was certain it would be totally different.
I was right. The airport was substantial, and had some outdoor cafes serving Greek traditional food which was quite pleasant.
Unfortunately, I had arrived too late to board the Aegean Airlines flight to Tel Aviv, and EL AL couldnt exchange my ticket for that day, as they only fly from Athens on Tuesday and Friday. I contacted Aegean Airlines customer service and they told me there was a night flight at 2.15am – some 13 hours away. I reserved it, and then checked in and caught the bus into Athens city center.
I was impressed. Athens is a scenic city, with views of the mountains all around, and some wonderfully historic sites – the Acropolis, the Syntagma to name just two. I spent some time in the city, walking and observing.
Athens is part of Europe, so therefore it had an older, quainter, European feel to it than the nearby Middle Eastern region, but there was also a smattering of modern, Middle-Eastern buildings too. However it still overall had an older-fashioned, less dynamic feel to it – very laid back and peaceful though.
After a few very enjoyable hours in Athens, where I had no idea what anyone was saying, and could not read the signs either, I headed back to the airport, to sleep in a very undignified manner on the floor until my flight was ready to depart for Tel Aviv.
Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, I got out of the taxi and opened my front door. I smiled to myself and welcomed myself back to normality, however this entire trip was the product of circumstances over which no human control was exercisable. It did not thwart my travels, however, as the interior of an aircraft is still a twice-monthly sight for me.
To all of those who are traveling for business, and in August for their well deserved vacation, I wish you all bon voyage.
Featured photograph: An over crowded Milan Malpensa Airport as the ash cloud took its toll. All phtoography copyright FinanceFeeds