For those members of the European fresh produce trade attending last month’s FRESH congress in St Petersburg, the discussion had been all about how to get into Russia. By the time they came to leave, however, getting out of the country was an altogether more pressing priority.
As delegates dined in the relaxed surroundings of the city's Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace on the evening of 14 April, no-one surely could have been aware that, more than 2,600km away in southern Iceland, a bubbling volcano that many reckoned was going back to sleep had in fact begun to throw a large plume of ash high into the air, flinging its violent and dangerous cloud in the direction of northern Europe.
For those due to return home the following day, a peaceful morning lie-in following the hard work and networking of the previous two days would soon be broken by phone calls and messages drawing attention to the impending air travel ban. For those not based in Russia, hangovers ranging from mild to major would have to be forgotten as calls to colleagues back home, to airlines and even to embassies suddenly became more urgent.
Getting home had just got a whole lot harder. For some, the fast-shrinking range of alternative routes home brought out the very best in terms of resourcefulness and ingenuity: One group of Dutch people attending the conference ended up hiring a car to get them home via Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen on a 40-hour road trip back to Holland. Elsewhere, one British delegate somehow convinced a passing Russian to drive him to the French port of Calais. “We had a lot of fun actually,” he said, with the far-away stare of a man who’s just travelled in a Russian car to France through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
I might have guessed that it would take more than a belligerent Icelandic volcano to stop the finest minds in the fresh produce trade from getting to where they needed to be.