Riding the Storm Out

Tags: musings

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After a successful local meetup for the ‘Learning on Graphs’ Conference, I found myself almost stranded away from home. It had already been snowing a little bit1 over the previous evening, but upon waking up, I was greeted by a lot of notifications concerning cancelled trains, flights, and the like. A quick glance outside showed that more snow had fallen over night, resulting in a non-Euclidean transformation of the city. Where previously ambient and geodesic distance were at least correlated, the snow had created a metric with singularities that might even stump a Perelman. Public transport was stopped for the time being. Walking was out of the question.2

It looked like I might not reach home after all, but I had a strong incentive to do so since my wife was home alone with our two-month old baby. Fortunately, I love improvising and thought that the situation, while not exactly optimal, could also be much, much worse. I thus walked into the nearest hotel and pretended to be a guest, trying to order a taxi into the inner city. The reason for this non-obvious destination was that I suspected that the airport would be overwhelmed or close to being so anyway in a couple of hours, whereas there might be a chance for trains to run at least in the rough direction of ‘home.’ Seeing taxi after taxi leave for the airport, I started approaching some other stranded guests who were putting their hopes into the train system. Together, we got a taxi van that was willing to drive us into the city.

Along the way, I briefly discussed travel plans with my fellow travellers; upon checking their itinerary, I found that we all shared a rough direction but, alas, no trains were running any more at this point. I thus made the, somewhat jocular, proposition that we should just drive to Zurich. Much to my surprise, this suggestion was taken up by two of my fellow travellers, both execs in a highly-competitive industry. They were motivated to get home as well, home being Nice in this case, and, luckily for me, extremely experienced in such mishaps. Indeed, one of them introduced his job as being a troubleshooter. Our troubleshooter was able to negotiate successfully with the driver, while I served as the translator, and then we were on our way. This was a lot easier than I anticipated!

During the drive we mostly encountered the road in good condition, with some minor traffic jams. Next to the beautiful winter landscape—everything can be beautiful if it does not pose an immediate inconvenience or threat to one’s own plans—the thing I remember most vividly are our conversations. While not exactly like the Canterbury Tales, the second manager, S., turned out to be an outstanding conversationalist, engaging everyone of our small fellowship and drawing some quite interesting stories out.

He also shared some lessons from his long career, which struck a chord in me:

  1. When you are in a problematic situation with imprecise knowledge, try to move as fast as possible in any direction that strikes you as better. You can always adjust course along the way.
  2. The fact that we can charter a taxi at no small cost without batting an eye makes us already highly privileged in comparison to most other human beings.
  3. Our biggest inconvenience is getting home during snowfall; later on, this will make a good story. Many others are fleeing bad economic or climate conditions and might not face such a happy end.
  4. ‘Ask and you shall receive:’ We would have never gotten our little fellowship together if we had not asked and improvised.

This was a good trip and, indeed, a little bit of an adventure. I am grateful for the lessons and the shift in perspective. Until next time, stay safe in your travels!

  1. Meaning that all walkways and streets were slightly powdered but no more. ↩︎

  2. I am a pedestrian by nature, but trudging about 20 kilometres through the snow to reach the main station from the conference site did not seem like a viable option. ↩︎