There’s nothing easy about trying to make mass public transportation accessible in older European countries. There’s no American Disability Act that ensures all vehicles of public transport be made accessible, which leaves a wheelchair-using tourist like myself feeling a little lost. That split-second feeling of entitlement (“What do you mean you didn’t make this train car specifically for someone like me?”) that comes from only ever knowing the accessibility laws of the United States was soon to be hushed from one encounter after another of inaccessible transportation (I’m looking at you, Italy). But what was so surprising and so reassuring was how the people of every country, every public transportation worker in each city, went to extreme lengths for me and my party so we could get to our destination. Old lifts were dug out of hidden corners of train stations, strangers carried my wheelchair up flights of stairs while Dusty carried me and workers continually took time to escort us through alternate routes when an aufzug (German word for elevator) was broken. Thank you, people throughout Europe, for affirming a belief in humanity that people will help.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me there are so many different ways key cards can fail to turn on unfamiliar light switches.
Thank you Europe, for showing me such colorful styles of driving, swerving stopping and speeding on all your autobahns, side streets, coasts and bridges.
Thank you Europe, for making sure I’m always aware when I don’t have my Passport to fill out a form at the bank or pay for a travel ticket.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me how to say “backed up tummy” in six different languages.
Thank you Europe, for all your delicious, bitter, full, sweet and sometimes noxious ways to consume alcohol, where it’s for a festival, dinner, breakfast, after dinner, before heading out in the snow, coming in from the snow, going out to the beach, at the beach, meeting a new person, traveling in (x) city, coming from church, at a farm, at a lake, when it’s Monday, when it’s Friday…
Thank you Europe, for closing every grocery store, shop, gas station and restaurant to remind me it’s Sunday.
Thank you Europe, for phone services that go into international “roaming” mode when traveling just a few hours away.
Thank you Europe, for schedules that close businesses in the middle of the day, but only on certain days of the week and those days change week to week and sometimes just close for a week altogether.
Thank you Europe, for trains, buses and planes that allow me to meet all sorts of colorful characters who each have very interesting smells.
Thank you Europe, for the shared bathrooms in hostels to make sure standards stay flexible when it comes to cleanliness and personal space.
Thank you Europe, for all the interesting ways to cook and sometimes not cook sausage and potatoes.
Thank you Europe, for wine. Nothing more to be said.
Thank you Europe, for each country that boasts having the BEST chocolate, wine, beer, dancing, cheese, leather, nightlife, parks, meat dishes, shoes, pasta…
And now the real thanks
Thank you Europe, for showing me more sides of humanity that I could have known, that people respect, accept and welcome a girl in a wheelchair no matter the country, language or cultural differences. Thank you Europe, for showing me that love is the true universal language and is accepted everywhere. Thank you Europe, for the travel and learning that has allowed me to grow from a disabled girl learning how to live in an able bodied world to a disabled woman, proud and capable of conquering life no matter where.
Little known fact about Euro travel in a wheelchair- most places don’t have an accessible entrance, so to get into the building you go through some of the hidden guts of the establishment. When this is a restaurant, it’s not so exciting. We made reservations to see a flamenco show in Barcelona and the show had advertised online that it was wheelchair friendly. A common misunderstanding in Europe is what it means for a building to be accessible; in our experience, that has been a phrase up to the interpretation of the establishment. “Yes, you can come in with your wheelchair. We just have stairs to every room except the dorm rooms and you can’t use the bathrooms” (Bruges, Belgium). In Barcelona, “wheelchair friendly” meant I was escorted through a service elevator, lifted in my wheelchair up and down stairs and then finally taken to the audience seating, which was elevated except right beside the back hallway entrance. So, yes, wheelchair friendly indeed.
This isn’t as frustrating now as it first was when we arrived. We thought a term like “accessible” was universal and the same standards for what was acceptable for wheelchairs would be the same as it is the states. I know there are a lot of problems with the politics of Social Security and such in our government, but I greatly appreciate that the US has federal standards for accessibility now that I’ve traveled in countries that don’t.
But, like I had started out explaining, sometimes this accessibility misunderstanding ends up in some really cool experiences. We spent Valentine’s Day weekend in Paris this past February and seeing a show at the Moulin Rouge was something we were really looking forward to. We’re too broke kids, so we didn’t try to do dinner and a show but had dressed in accordance with the dress code and hoped they’d let us in. When we got there, the line to enter was already around the block and tourists had flocked the entrance to take their selfies with the infamous Moulin Rouge sign and windmill. We approached the line and I saw that, despite the reassurance of accessibility I had read about, there was a step leading into the show and I could see people walking down steps just inside the door. There was a large, French Bigfoot in a tuxedo bouncing people away from the doors until opening times and we cautiously approached him about the stairs. “Ah yes, ve, ah, do not have ey vey, ah, for you to enter“, he replied and then got on his very cool wrist walkie talkie to ask for us. Moments later a second Sasquatch came out and Bigfoot resumed frightening the tourists away from the lines. “Vou have the tee-kits?” Sasquatch asked. We nodded fervently. “Den you vill come wif me, pleese“.
He pulled us away from the line and down the sidewalk to a dark, forgotten door. There was a third gorilla guarding this hole and when Sasquatch approached, the gorilla stepped aside. “Des way, please“, he motioned to us as he opened the door. We stepped into the lit hallway.
We were backstage of the Moulin Rouge.
In the thin, crowded hallway, half-dressed and half-painted dancers were entering and exiting dressing rooms while smoking cigarettes and chattering in French. Few noticed us and those that did were too preoccupied with their wigs and stockings (the male dancers) or their lipstick (again, the male dancers) to care. “Hurry, please“, Sasquatch said to us in a bored tone but I did my best to push myself as slowly as I could so we could see more. There were costumes littering tables and chairs thrown throughout the hallway and ceramic coffee cups and saucers.
Like all good things, the elevator was behind the next door and our view of the backstage preshow came to the end. We were escorted to our seats (again, lifted in my wheelchair to get down steps) and given a bottle of champagne. The show was incredible; simply calling it a cabaret does not do it justice. The forms and moves these dancers could shape themselves into doing was astounding; it was Cirque de Soleil with partial nudity.
To leave, we met up with Sasquatch and were once again led through backstage. Even though it was 15 minutes after the show had ended, we couldn’t recognize a single makeup-free, normally dressed person back there. They asked us if we liked the show and we answered enthusiastically, but all the while glancing between doors to catch a glimpse of the dancers. We shook hands with the normal looking people in the hallway and told them we’d come back to Paris just to see the show again. And just as Sasquatch opened the door, men with bouquets of flowers entered to the embrace of the normal looking people behind us and, with our jaws dropped with realization, praised them for a wonderful show.
I love to raise my voice. Take things personal. Leave the room. Bring things up two years later. Yell at Dusty in my head all day after he forgets to take out the trash. All the terrible, awful habits of hurtful arguing, I love to do.
There’s a reason there’s good and bad arguing in relationships. The “bad” arguing are the tendencies we have to want to be RIGHT, no matter the cost, to be HEARD without trying to listen and to be LOVED regardless of whether we love in return. I’m guilty of doing all three and more when Dusty and I get into arguments. Some of the mistakes I make include:
saying “you ALWAYS…” I’m pretty sure there’s never anything that Dusty ALWAYS does, so it’s not fair for me to accuse him
holding grudges “Well, when you did this two years ago…” Holding on to a grudge is toxic to any relationship
not speaking up when something bothers me by saying “Fine. Go ahead.” Those three words are Dusty’s signal to run and duck for cover.
Moving to Europe is stressful. Moving and traveling in Europe with a disability as a couple is very stressful. Sure, it’s also incredibly rewarding and once in a life-time experience, blah blah blah. We frequently argue when we travel, because it’s no easy feat to navigate an ancient city with modern medical equipment. We were in Brussels for the first time (our second trip was worlds better) and I was being thrown left and right in my chair from the crazy, bad cobblestones. These walkways shouldn’t even be called cobblestoned, but instead “designated walking areas similar to walking over rubble from a stone quarry”. I had had enough and wanted to stop, Dusty wanted to keep going and was trying to carry a rucksack full of all our things and help push me. Our conversation went a little like this:
“Dusty, can I grab your arm instead of you pushing me? I think that will work better.”
“Sure, but watch out for that grate! Baby, be careful!”
“Stop! I am being careful! What does your phone say our next turn is?”
“Oh shoot, I wasn’t looking…”
“Stop watching me and navigate us! You ALWAYS watch me and it’s not helpful. Please just pay attention to where we’re supposed to go next”
“Alright, alright, I got it. Ok, we missed a turn but now we’ve got 3 blocks until we take a left and then I think there’s a train involved… is that going to be ok?” “Fine.”
Not the best way to communicate but we learned a lot about our own limitations that trip, how much sightseeing I’m comfortable doing in one day and how to walk together in a way that doesn’t make Dusty nervous for me yet I’m still able to be independent. While it’s not the only way to grow, there is tremendous growth that comes from conflict when resolution is found. And we did grow from this conflict, enough so that the second time we went to Brussels we had one of the best trips we’ve had in Europe (click for itinerary). View more pics here!
There’s a bad stigma about arguing and marriage. There’s an idea that a good marriage is one without arguments or conflict and people count the days between arguments to mark progress. I used to buy into this; I wouldn’t admit to anyone that Dusty and I fought. I didn’t want them to think that I had anything less than a wonderful marriage and that meant they couldn’t know we just had a spat over whether to use the self-checkout at Target. I am by no means an expert, but when did knowing that growth comes out of conflict get forgotten? Dusty and I began going to pre-marital counseling when we were engaged, as a requirement to get married in my church. And we loved it. We’re two young kids in love, nothing more. We’re not marriage geniuses full of wisdom or even truly experienced in being in relationships, so how in the world are we supposed to know what to do? There’s plenty of marriage wisdom online, but the truthful answer is that Dusty and I don’t know what we’re doing so we ask for help. We kept going to counseling after we got married and five years later, we haven’t stopped.
The lessons we’ve learned in counseling helped us to navigate some of the awful things that have happened in the five years of our marriage, like my accident. We saw divorce papers flying at the rehab hospital where patients and spouses were learning how to live as paraplegics and many couples justifiably fell apart. And we loved, cried, laughed and argued our way through it.
We argue still today. Because when there’s something wrong, we speak up about it and make time to fix it. But we’re not perfect; I’m better at speaking up, but I’ve got a temper and little tolerance. Dusty’s quieter and works on speaking up, but he’s the insightful and calm one in an argument to keep us rational and on point. We didn’t come into our relationship knowing our strength and weaknesses, we were counseled. And I’d recommend that to anyone in any relationship, but being in a relationship with someone with a disability takes some real relationship tools. We’re a blessed couple in that we’ve learned about these tools and God’s given us the ability to communicate well enough to use the tools. We’re 5 years married now, but I’d gladly go through 100 years of love and arguing to spend 105 years married to him.
Bruges is a preserved medieval town that demands a whole day or two just to stroll the streets and see the same buildings that were there in the 13th century. We spent a peaceful two days just wandering the streets of Bruges and sampling the famous Belgium chocolate and cherry beer. **NOTE: Bruges is not an accessible city, no paved sidewalks and entrance to many cafes and stores have a step** Don’t rush through this town, but enjoy the relaxing nature within its’ walls. Parts of the city are along canals and boat tours are popular. Anabel’s Travel Blog has some great insight into what sights to be sure not to miss.
Brussels is a bustling, modern city not unlike London or New York. The palaces and royal buildings of the king are quite impressive and the Atomium had amazing views! Please use my itinerary to have a fun and accessible trip! See the World Brussels & Bruges
Morning: The Markt and the Belfort
A market square surrounded by medieval houses that will have a real market every Wednesday. We can on a Friday and there were still many sellers advertising their wares and street artists. **NOTE: All cobblestones, everywhere**
Across the street is the dominating Belfort tower, where the medieval charter was held. It’s possible to enter and climb the Belfort, but there’s no accessible route.
Inside a wall enclosure in northeast Bruges is a convent started when nuns were seeking asylum in 1642 when Charles I was executed. The gardens of the convent are truly breathtaking and traditionally, it’s the site for couples to wander. Be quiet, however, loud noises and even talking above a whisper is not allowed.
Afternoon: WANDER THE KANTCENTURM NEIGHBORHOOD
Known for its’ lace, this neighborhood reflects the history of Burges lace workers. Again, no paved sidewalks but cobblestones.
While not truly accessible, there’s an easy route around the entirety of the city. The route only takes two hours to complete, but it will last all day if you stop to enjoy the different scenes. You begin attheMarkt. Be on the lookout for:
Café Vlissinghe, reputedly Bruges oldest tavern and in our opinion, most delicious cherry beer and lunch. There is no accessible entrance but the kitchen staff helped carry my wheelchair as my husband carried me up into the bar area. There is also outdoor seating, which is slightly more accessible with no stairs.
The Traitor Skull at the city gates, Smedenpoort (Blacksmith’s Gate). In 1688, a traitor to Bruges attempted to open the city gates to Louis XIV’s army. He was executed and his skull mounted on the gates as a permanent reminder.
This 2hour walk (on paved sidewalks, very accessible) goes through the Upper town on the Coudenberg hill of the royal quarter and past the Place Royale Konings Plein where the royalty of Brussels has lived since medieval times. From Coudenberg you walk into the Lower town of the working class. This part of the city is more crowded and it returns to cobblestone streets and sidewalks, but the area around the Place du Grand Sablon has some great restaurants (no accessible bathroom in these restaurants and many have a step to enter).
Make sure to keep an eye out for:
Manneken Pis, a tiny yet infamous fountain of a statue of a little boy urinating. There are many theories and legends surrouding this little guy and during city events, he’s dressed in different outfits. (He’s on a street corner, easy to miss!)
Created for the 1958 World Fair, this crazy sculpture is now famous symbol of Brussels. Make a reservation in the top restaurant the food is delicious and the view is incredible! (Unfortunately, the restaurant is not accessible and has stairs from the viewing floor. The staff carried my chair while Dusty carried me to our table)
***WARNING: The only accessible rooms are DORMS- the rooms are on the ground floor for easy access, but this part of the building also wraps around the backside of the bar. We stayed in a private room, but all the private rooms were on the second floor and my husband had to carry me. For independent travel, stay in Brussels and day trip into Bruges. As expected with a historically preserved town, I had difficulty finding any accessible lodging.