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Getting across Europe (slowly) without planes

By Paul Nassar, NBC News Producer
MARSEILLES, France -- It's been a case of plane, trains and automobiles... minus the planes, of course.

Stephanie Gosk and I began our day in the wee hours of the morning at the St Pancras International Eurostar terminal.

We had no reservations, no tickets. Just a determination to get to Madrid, one of the few European airport hubs still functioning.

I was expecting St Pancras to be the very image of chaos. Surprisingly, it was calm; nothing betrayed the transportation nightmare that has gripped Northern Europe since last Thursday. Nothing, that is, until I noticed a man walking around with a small board, advertising, "I will drive you to Paris or anywhere in Europe. Just ask."

Rachid is a French taxi driver who had driven four people to London on Sunday and made a hefty little profit in the process. He was hoping to replicate that success on the return drive. Charging 500 euros, this Parisian cab driver had turned his work into an international business, overnight. It wasn't long before I saw Rachid shepherd four grateful travelers into his cab, its "Taxi Parisien" sign at odds with its British setting.

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Stephanie and I then joined what was going to be the first of many many lines. We eventually got to the counter and asked if there was any chance we could grab the next train out. I half expected the guy to burst out laughing; instead he said he could not get us out before 5 p.m. that evening.

Then, out of the blue, he shot up in his seat. Two passengers just cancelled their seats on the next train. An hour later, Stephanie and I were on our way, having overcome the first and biggest hurdle, getting off the British Isles via the Chunnel and onto the European mainland.

Lines and lines in Paris
That success, however, was short lived. No sooner did we get to Paris' Gare du Nord than it became quite apparent that our onward trip would not be as smooth sailing. Our aim was to get to Marseilles from where we could board that rarest of transportation modes, an aeroplane, and fly to Madrid in an ash-free sky. No such luck. All trains to France's major port city were fully booked.

Stephanie and I looked at other options. Hiring a car was impossible, all rentals were taken. What about a cab, I thought? Too expensive. The buses have been fully booked for days. So Stephanie and I did what came natural to us -- we stood in line again in an effort to appeal to a human being and not some automated phone line or website that got us nowhere.

This was no ordinary line in Paris. It snaked its way back and forth several times. We spoke to fellow travelers and tried to glean information -- anything that could facilitate our trip to Madrid. This was no normal line though. It was epic -- think Soviet-era breadline.(Brezhnev would have been proud). It took an hour before we came face to face with Franck, one of the railway's sales reps.

"No. No trains to Marseilles today. All fully booked, but I will check again for you," he said.
Not two seconds later he looks up and smiled. "I have two cancellations on the 5 o'clock train. First class only."

So we are on our way. It will be too late to make it to Madrid tonight, but we are considerably closer than we were this morning. And to think, all this hassle because of a small volcano, with an unpronounceable name, more than 1000 miles away.

See spectacular images of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano