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Winter 2004-2005

Travel catastrophes such as those that occurred during the Philharmonia tour in January 2004 might seem out of the ordinary. Winter weather can be crippling to travelers, and the disastrous repercussions were very clear to me then. A year later, as memories of that fateful tour were fading, I was reminded of the hassles of traveling in bad weather.

The winter of 2004-2005 was plagued by storms, and was one of the coldest seasons I can remember in the last decade. My touring schedule was rather complicated compared to other years, with a greater number of trips to Europe and new teaching responsibilities at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Also, with the passing of my Westie, Willa, in November, I tried to spend maximum time with my dachshund, Franzie, who was terminally ill. During these anxious months, a minute of delay for flight arrival, or having to take an earlier train to the airports, felt like agonizing hours.

Though the previous winter’s travel had been riddled with plane problems, the one that struck me near the end of January 2005 proved particularly disastrous.

I was in Reston, VA on January 23rd for a board meeting of the American String Teachers Association. During the lunch break, I retrieved a message from my manager, Byron Gustafson. When I returned his call, we settled the question that needed answering, and he asked casually, without knowing that I was not in New York but in Reston, whether I was aware of the weather forecast and when I was planning to leave for Europe. I had not heard the forecast, and I had planned to fly to Germany the following day.

In short, the forecasters were warning of a major storm due to arrive the next day, and severe curtailment of flights. I rushed back to New York from Dulles Airport. Meanwhile, my travel agent was trying to find a seat for me on that day’s flight, so I might leave the U.S. before the snow froze transportation.

My travel agent’s efforts were futile. There was absolutely no possibility for me to leave that day and beat the weather.

I returned to my apartment, and, unbelievably, the skies were still clear. An approaching storm seemed a remote possibility.

The next morning, the skies still showed no hint of what was coming. My students arrived for lessons and left, as I wondered whether the storm warning had been in error. It really did look like a fine day.

Suddenly at noon, the white particles began to fall at an alarming rate. Almost immediately, the ground was covered with snow. I had not witnessed anything quite like it before, and the media warned airplane passengers of major delays, cancellations, and airport shutdowns.

I do not have TV or radio at home, so the Internet is my source for news. As the snowflakes descended, I constantly checked the Lufthansa and JFK Airport websites for updates. My flight was scheduled to depart at 9 p.m. and all reports indicated that the weather conditions were worsening. I worried about the fate of my pianist, Charlie Abramovic, who was due to leave that day, but from Philadelphia. In order for our concerts in Europe to take place – the first was scheduled for the day after our arrival -, we both needed to be there.

The Lufthansa website continued to indicate that all flights, including mine, were leaving on time, even though the outside world was no longer visible from the windows (because of the heavy snow). I packed, practiced, and cleaned the apartment in preparation for my departure.

In mid-afternoon, Lufthansa called. My flight had been cancelled, and I was automatically re-booked on the next day’s flight. The later departure would arrive in Frankfurt on the morning of the first concert, which was in Villingen, outside of Stuttgart. That would be cutting it very close to concert time, so I asked whether I might be switched to a flight from Newark, which would arrive in Germany slightly earlier. The agent successfully made the change, but I was to regret this move for a long time. Little did I know that I would face major trouble at Newark the following day.

For the time being, I found myself with the rest of the day at home and no obligations. It was very quiet – phones did not ring, and even emails had stopped coming in. It felt like a day “off,” and had it not been for the weather, I could have easily gone to the park for a stroll!

I tried to reach Charlie Abramovic on his cell phone. When the call went through, he was boarding SEPTA (Pennsylvania’s public transportation) to go to the airport, in ravaging weather. Like me, he had tried many times throughout the day to check his flight status by calling the Lufthansa main number and looking on their website. Since no one answered the calls, and the website showed that his flight, like mine, was to leave as scheduled, he had no choice but to get himself and his luggage to the airport. Driving in this kind of weather was out of the question – in fact, it is against the law, so his only option was to take the train to the Philadelphia airport from his home in Swarthmore.

It was interesting to contemplate that IT – information technology – which supposedly transformed the speed of communication, was completely unreliable on this occasion. In fact, long after I had received the cancellation call from the Lufthansa agent, the airline’s website continued to show that my flight was scheduled to leave on time – and this was how it remained, until a few hours after the flight was supposed to take off. It was the same for Charlie’s flight, and although his was indeed cancelled after he arrived at the airport, when he was re-booked on the next day’s flight, the website cheerfully transmitted the “on-time” information.

Snow storms play a fantastic psychological magic on my mind about time. As the snow falls, there is incredible stillness. Life seems idle while the world is active. It is like when you are sitting inside a train stopped at a station, and you look out the window at another train about to leave in the opposite direction. The other train starts to move, and soon you notice that is moving away faster and faster. Then you realize that your train had been moving for some time, as well, too. For a moment, there was that wonderful sense of simply observing something in motion while one is seemingly stationary. It is watching the progression of time without being its prey.

Franzie and I spent the rest of the day at home. Although I was not exactly comfortable with the knowledge that I would have to perform almost immediately upon arrival in Germany, I was grateful for this extra time at home, which was more precious now than ever. After surviving my extended tour of Japan, Franzie was doing incredibly well and his spirits were good, but I knew that he did not have much time left. We had been relying on his luck and medication, but the patience of both was already getting close to exhaustion. Even Franzie could not discredit the vet’s prognosis forever.

The snow stopped sometime during the night, and the sun shone brightly the following morning. Franzie and I ventured out onto the streets. The air was piercingly cold, and the wind swirled the snow powder up our nostrils. Minutes later, we returned to our cozy apartment.

Soon came the time to leave for Newark Airport. Just to be on the safe side, I took an earlier train to get to the airport station, where I would transfer to the terminal shuttle called the AirTrain. The AirTrain systems at both Newark and Kennedy airports have made my traveling life so much easier. Before the AirTrain existed, getting to airports was unpredictable at best, and traffic jams on bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan were particularly disruptive in bad weather.

When I arrived at the Newark Airport train station, I found a cobra-like queue of frustrated passengers. Most seemed disheveled and exhausted – likely due to the cancellation of flights the day before; they were tired of waiting and anxious to reach their destinations. The long line was for a looping bus; it turned out that the AirTrain had suffered a mechanical failure and was not operating. Therefore, airport authorities had arranged for four small busses to shuttle passengers between the train station and the terminals. Each bus could only transport about 20 passengers, and a bus came only every 40 minutes or so. There were approximately 250 people in the queue, plus our luggage. It did not take a math whiz to figure out that the wait was going to be a long one.

The Newark Airport station is located within the gated area of the airport. There is no commercial traffic around the station, and, for security reasons, no one is allowed to walk outside the station. I waited over two hours in an atmosphere of incredible tension. As a result of the paltry shuttle service to the airport terminals, many passengers were missing their flights and unable to get to their destinations for the second day in a row.

I called the Lufthansa service desk hoping they might somehow be able to help sort out the situation. In fact, there were several passengers waiting with me to get on the same flight. Not only did I find out that they were rather helpless themselves, but that all the flights to Frankfurt from the New York area in the next three days had been overbooked, with a long list of stand-bys.

I knew that there was no way I would catch my flight, and the next available flight – three days later – meant missing not one, not two, but three concerts. When I contemplated this prospect, I was already way past being interested in taking action. But I did call my manager in Germany, who, at midnight her time, answered her cell phone sounding wide awake. I told her what was happening and that I did not know when I would arrive in Germany.

My German manager, Gabriele jumped immediately into action. I don’t know how she managed it, but she booked me a seat on a flight leaving two hours later on another airline. Incredible, as all of the flights were absolutely full. Like my mother, when Gabriele puts her mind to something, it gets done. She simply said, “You must get over here.” I finally boarded the airplane. In addition, Gabriele somehow maneuvered the reimbursement of my strictly non-refundable Lufthansa airfare to help defray the cost of my new ticket, for which I had to pay full fare, due to circumstances.

When I arrived in Villingen, 185 miles from where I had landed in Frankfurt, it was already nearly 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the concert was at 8. I could not believe that both Charlie, from Philadelphia, and I, from Newark, had actually arrived there in time for the performance. At 8 o’clock, we gave our first recital of the tour, starting with Beethoven’s refreshing “Spring” Sonata (how ironic, after the dire weather situation we had just endured). The program continued with violin sonatas of Isang Yun, Debussy, and Brahms. The next evening at 8 PM, we were on stage in Hamburg. Then on to Cologne, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt…

The life of a touring performer continues.