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 had just spent the weekend trail hiking in Charmonix- Mont Blanc on the Switzerland side and was trying to head home. So I put in our address in the GPS and the option for what type of route I wanted to take came up. Toll roads? Ok, check. Fastest route? Check. Ferries ok? Well, I didn’t see how I’d need to take a ferry and I didn’t want some inconvenient route to be mapped, so I left the ferry option unchecked. The GPS plots me a route and I go. I had been driving about four hours and still had about four hours left when I saw something coming up in my headlights. It was pitch black by this time and I had been coming through a little town, but I didn’t recognize what was blocking the road in the front of me. I got closer and saw a metal bar, like a gate, blocking off the road with a crossed circle telling me I was not allowed to keep driving. I pulled over and got on the GPS to get an alternate route. Fastest route, check. No, I don’t want to take a ferry. There were only two lakes in the area, but neither was close and I didn’t see how I would need to cross them to get back to my mamacita in Deutchland, so I left it unchecked.
Overlook from Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest), Königssee, Germany
New route, tried a different direction but only 20 minutes down the road I came across another one of these gate blocks. What was going on? I got out my map and checked any road leading back into Germany in my area, but the only route was the first one I had tried. I started driving and ended up finding a climbing gym that was just closing. I rushed the climbers leaving the gym, like a half-crazed American, asking “Hilfe, bitte! Wo ist Deutchland?!” They told me, “Autozug! Go to the autozug! Wait, sorry, you missed it! I can hear it going by right now!” I was thinking, “Autozug? What the flip is that? I hear a train going by… wait, I was supposed to take a train?!” They direct me to the train station and when I get there, there’s a family looking around just as frustrated as me. The train station is deserted, it’s pretty late at night by this time, so the dad gets on his phone to see when the next train is going by. I’m still a little lost as to how the fact we have cars fits in with the train, but I forget to ask when he says “No train until morning! But wait, we can drive to the next train stop. It looks like… it’s an hour and half away.” I’m too far in this by this point to give up, so I ask the dad if I can follow them. While I wait at a light behind them when we’ve started driving, I recheck the GPS. Fastest route to Germany? Check. Tolls? Sure, who cares. Ferry? FINE. YES. I’LL TAKE A FERRY. And when the route plots, I see that it’s taking me to the same train station that the family is leading me to. Of course. I had passed this two hours ago.
I learned later that when the weather is bad, they close the roads that cross the mountains to make sure no one gets stuck out there. Instead, you drive your car onto a platform car on a train that looks kind of like the semi-trucks carrying cars on the highway. When the train goes, you’re whizzing by the country on an open-air platform so make sure to lock the doors! And that’s when I learned what a ferry means in Switzerland.
Ah, Paris. Not simply a city, but an entire culture of wine and romance. The sidewalks are older (i.e. plenty of cobblestones, cracks and curbs without ramps), but the city is modernizing and around the more popular tourist areas the accessibility is greatly sufficient. Sage Travel, a travel company for people in chairs, has made a great guide for navigating Paris as accessible as possible.
DO NOT USE THE METRO. There are only a few metro stations that have a lift down to the trains and the few that have lifts are notoriously out of order. We used the buses and were able to get discounted tickets. The bus route and ticket prices can be acquiring by the Disability Help Desk found in the major train stations.
Paris is also an expensive city, but many of the tourist attractions are free or reduced for disabilities! The Parisian attitude, in my experience, towards seeing me in my chair is very similar to that of New York or another dense urban environment; they saw me first and foremost as a tourist and generally respected the boundary of not touching my chair to help (for those who aren’t familiar, grabbing a person’s chair without their permission is a big no-no. It’s precisely for that reason many wheelchairs for paraplegics do not have handles. That is less common in Europe, however, than in the states.) But help was readily given when asked; Parisians, from my perscpective, seemed simply to be happy to be living in Paris and didn’t mind that I was there.
Morning: LOVE BRIDGE (Pont de Arts): bring a lock!
Pont de Arts or the “Love Bridge” epitomizes a European tradition of attaching a lock to a bridge to symbolize the strength of love in a relationship. The couple will go to a bridge, attach a lock with their inscription and then throw the key to the river, symbolizing that their lock (like their love) can never become unlocked again. Couples have been performing this rite since 2008 all over Europe, but Parisians can claim this tradition as originating on their bridges.
Afternoon: SACRE COEUR go at night (Steep hill! Take tram to the top)
There’s beautiful, hilly part of the city near Sacre Coeur that is best to go at night in order to see the view of all of Paris lit up against the night sky. It was a clear night for us and we were able to clearly see the Eiffel Tower glitter (the lights on the Eiffel Tower flicker all night for an amazing light show)
These notes come from a Parisian friend of ours, who gave us tips on how to see the best of Paris and he was absolutely spot on
“Start the evening walking along Place du Tetre for the piano bars, meander away from the top of the Sacre Coeur hill. Remember, this is Paris so stop and watch the street performers and have wine at one of the piano bars. Don’t let me find out that you didn’t tip a single street performer. Next, as it starts to get dark, go to Montemarme by going left from tram stop. Once it’s good and dark, take the tram to the steps of Sacre Coeur and breathe in the view of this beautiful city.” And breathe it in we did.
DINNER OPTION: L’Ete en Pente Douce/ (PG 456) 23 Rue Muller
Morning: CANAL St. MARTIN
Paris is said to be a walking city, which can be more challenging for people in chairs with cobblestones and sidewalks without ramps. My wheelchair attachment, FreeWheel, became extremely useful and I was able to navigate the unpaved, cobblestone streets without much difficulty. The Canal St. Martin is an example of one of the highlights of Paris that is not a single attraction, but a whole area of the city to be explored.
Afternoon:EIFFEL TOWERtake the bus and be there by 1300 to get in line!
One of the highlights of Europe, let alone Paris, has awesomly been adapted to be accessible. There are three platforms in the interior of the Eiffel Tower with a lift that goes up to the second platform. The third platform is the very tip top of the Tower and can only be reached by stairs. However, the second platform (the highest a person in a chair can go) is high enough to be able to see the entire city.
The line to get tickets to get to the elevator is a gamble for those without a disability. Many choose to buy their tickets ahead of time. However, persons with a visible disability are directed to skip the line and escorted then escorted straight to the lift. The tickets are not free, but can be reduced.
**NOTE: There is a front and back to viewing the Eiffel Tower- the front side is on higher ground, in front of buildings and overlooking the fountains. The back side is on the field where the tower itself stands.
AFTER THE TOWER: walk across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim bridge (The same bridge used in movie Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio)
Morning: NOTRE DAME ( Service at 1100, be there at 0900)
Notre Dame is a sight to be revered. The beauty of the cathedral only compliments the incredible history of the church and the impact the Catholic faith has in Europe today. We went to Sunday mass (there is a mass held every day) and we were escorted out of the line to the front pew. We were not asked to pay, but we made donations. The ushers keep the surrounding, circulating crowd quiet while those in the pews participate in the mass. It was a beautiful, incredibly moving experience. Unfortunately, I did not see the Quasimodo, the Hunchback and hero to disabilities everywhere.
After mass, we walk to Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Rue de l’Odeon. This historic bookstore was the first English bookstore in Paris and is today one of the most unique and famous bookstores in Paris.
Dress Code: No sweatpants, sandals, t-shirts, shorts, ball caps, sweatshirts, etc. This is a historic show, dress up!
When buying tickets, there are options to have dinner with the show (in that case, you show up earlier as directed) or simply have the show with champagne, which is what we chose.
**NOTE: The Moulin Rouge is NOT accessible. There are steps to get to the bathroom from the seating area and there was no available temporary ramp. It’s best to call ahead and warn them you’re coming. BUT the only accessible entrance into the theatre itself is THROUGH BACKSTAGE, which we were escorted through. So being in a wheelchair gives you a INSIDER GLIMPSE at the dancers before and after the show, which is priceless.
**BE WARNED: This is not the nicest of districts in Paris. As you travel to the Moulin Rouge, there are quite a few novelty sex shops and French strip clubs. It’s not a dangerous district, however; everyone’s just walking around with shy sinner grins.
Morning: OPERA GARNIER
The Opera Garnier is the origin of ballet sophistication and upper class culture. Ballet students lived and breathed ballet, earning pennies to take home to their families and battling for the chance to continue in their classes. The most beautiful, graceful, talented and appealing dancers would be approached by “donors”, wealthy men who’d pay for the student’s room, board, clothing, etc. A dancer with a donor could afford to sleep after late night lessons, could buy quality clothing and equipment and most importantly, could afford to eat well. And this is where they danced; the grandeur of the interior reminded me of Cinderella’s palace, where she met Prince Charming.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t spend time inside the Louvre but we did take the (necessary) picture in front of the big, glass triangle in front. The entrance to the museum through the gardens is beautiful and to fully enjoy the Louvre, you need a whole day. I was fortunate enough to do this when I was younger, before my accident, and even a whole day was not enough time. There are incredible guides to the Louvre and information about how to navigate the museum, but the entrance and the interior are completely accessible. The lift ride from the entrance into the foyer is almost an amusement ride!