Boarding a Train in Europe

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.

Here is a short example video of how to exit an older train in Germany:

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Finding Ethel: Part 2, The Second Week

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There were a few things about owning a Great Dane that came as quite a shock to me over the weeks at the farm. For one, I was very surprised by just how large Ethel’s poops were. It’s not that I’d never spent time with big dogs before. In light of the newest additions to the Service Dog Project from the Netherlands, I’d like to share my experience of when I truly knew what “big” meant for dogs.

 

We left Germany last Thanksgiving to share the holiday with some of Dusty’s treasured friends from college. They were also stationed in Europe and were currently residing in Italy, working with education and outdoor recreation for soldiers and their families. We joined them in the northern reaches of Italy, where they were helping to host a group of soldiers having a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps.

 

I drove through the most hairpin turns I’d ever experienced as we navigated the Alps to reach our friends, my GPS route looking more like a crazy straw than a route. If GPS’s could laugh, I swear mine was. Due to the horrendous nature of Germany traffic (our town Stuttgart was called Stou-gart, in German stou= traffic jam), we always left for our road trips at 2 or 3 a.m. and were well on our way before most of the back-ups could happen. At the time, we thought this strategy was genius. Instead of leaving at 6p.m. on Friday night like everyone else to only sit in traffic for four hours, we had dinner with friends and frighteningly amounts of coffee to leave in the early morning. Again, genius. Or so we thought until we began driving in the dawn light through the ice and snow on the tiny, windy roads of the Alps.

 

Cervino and Matterhorn Mountain, one side Italy and the other Switzerland
Cervino and Matterhorn Mountain, one side Italy and the other Switzerland

By God’s grace and my terrified determination to go 20km below the speed limit, we made it alive to Cervino, Italy. I had never heard of Cervino, but I knew the town by the more familiar and infamous name of Matterhorn Mountain. This mountain lies on a range directly on the country lines of Italy and Switzerland. On the Italian side, the mountain and town are called Cervino. On the Swiss side, it is Matterhorn Mountain and its’ town of Zermatt that can only be accessed in the winter by train. The group our friends were helping to host was to take soldiers and their families up to this incredible mountain from the Italian side and have a Thanksgiving weekend of skiing in both Italy and Switzerland.

 

Both the Cervino and Matterhorn regions of the same mountain have very distinct and defined traditions concerning drink, clothes, language, music and dance. In Italy, we learned about the local drink coppa dell’ amicizia, the cup of friendship, a shared wooden bowl called the grolla with spouts to pass along the table so that everyone can partake in the coffee liquor that is set aflame when served.

Cervino, Italy
Dusty trying the coppa dell’ amicizia in Cervino, Italy

The Italians we stayed with were warm and welcoming, even trying to serve a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner to us. But both the Italian and the Switzerland side have a shared, revered tradition of loving and using the esteemed service dog the St. Bernard.

 

Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy
Matterhorn, Switzerland
Matterhorn, Switzerland

These beautiful, long haired bear cub-like dogs freely roamed the ski lodges up on the mountains. I didn’t ski that weekend, but Dusty took videos and photos for me of the ski lodge St. Bernard’s that still protect the explorers of the mountain today. (See pictures and videos of that weekend Here!) The architecture of this area, including the ski lodges placed strategically along ski routes down the mountain, include white stone ground floors of houses and then dark, wooden planks crisscrossed the last half above the white stone. Entrances were usually not accessible, each doorway was elevated in preparation for the inevitable snow and contained a few steps to enter. But in the doorways of many were these beautiful, big fluffy bear dogs watching the people pass by. In one house, however, was the dog known throughout the town as being the largest, gentlest creature in the region. He was a St. Bernard as well and without knowing his weight, I’d guess he was at least three times as large as I was. I had not been to the Service Dog Project Crazy Acres yet, so I didn’t know that it could truly get better, but at that moment I learned how a big hearted, big dog could make my own heart sing.

 

A St. Bernard mountain dog of Cervino, Italy
A St. Bernard mountain dog of Cervino, Italy

And so it was the two weeks I spent with Ethel at the farm. Her presence, her personality and her big eyes carved a permanent spot in my heart as large as her own heart patch on her shoulder.

 

The final piece for me, however, was when I understood what it meant for me to regain my freedom and my independence from her help. Before Ethel, I was capable of being fairly independent of any caregiving. It may take me multiple trips to get all the groceries I need, but I could do it. I had learned the hard way about all the warning signs for medical concerns and had built a strong preventive care routine. But my independence was only possible when I had a calm, sound mind. My Achilles heel is anxiety, a crippling anxiety I’d struggled with before I became a paraplegic and that would overwhelm me whenever I was separated from my husband. The Army has given us plenty of months apart after I became a paraplegic and in these circumstances, it would exhaust me to have a handle on my anxiety long enough for me to care for myself. My battle turned into a metaphor of trying to hold three screaming, wriggling babies; my anxiety, my medical needs and whatever was demanded of me from life and school.

 

So the first weekend we were alone on the farm, Dusty and I wanted to do an experiment. I would go shopping, alone, with Ethel in the mall while Dusty would be somewhere in another store. He’d be close enough to come running if anything was needed but it would give me a chance to see what it was like handling her, and myself, without the extra set of eyes and hands. So Ethel and I said goodbye to Dusty at the entrance to the Danvers mall and she and I headed to Old Navy, the mission being to collect shirts and sweatshirts to be embroidered with the SDP logo to give to family. People watched us as we strolled to the store, but my eyes were on Ethel. I wouldn’t know if anyone said anything, I never stopped talking to Ethel. “Good pace,” I happily hummed to her. “Stay with me, sweet girl, good pace, good pace.” There were only a few times I needed to tell her to “Easy! (slow down)” or “Leave it! (stop sniffing around and pay attention!)” before we were at the store.

 

For anyone unfamiliar with Old Navy, there’s always a plastic dog mannequin standing at the entrance with his plastic, mannequin owners. Animals (and people) standing perfectly still, I learned, is a reason to be alarmed for a dog. It usually means the animal is about to or could attack making the dog alert and defensive. That’s why there’s an eccentrically dressed mannequin who greets you at the gate of the Service Dog Project farm and several mannequin animals placed throughout the grounds. When we entered Old Navy, the mannequin family of four with their small dog gave us a frozen wave and Ethel tried to steer me in the other direction towards the cash registers. “Nope, we’re going left!”, I directed.

And we started to browse, her patient steps going the pace I wanted and giving me the chance to happily dream of wearing all the clothes.

Other shoppers began to approach us or comment when they went past. An older lady walked towards us and I felt my grip on Ethel stiffen and my head drop. Before I knew whether or not she was approaching me or the stacks of clothes behind me, I was already resenting her presence. I was already bracing myself to hear some of the terrible things people have said to me in the past (“You can’t possibly go shopping by yourself. You need some help. Here, let me get that for you, I can’t believe there’s no one helping you.”) and I mentally shielded myself when she opened her mouth. “Well aren’t you just the most precious service dog I’ve ever seen! Well, my stars isn’t he big.” She smiled at me, chuckled and walked away.

 

I was confused. It was like she didn’t even notice I was in a wheelchair. People ALWAYS notice I’m in a wheelchair and they make sure I know I’m in a wheelchair while they’re at it. Maybe this was just a fluke. Maybe.

 

But it kept happening. All throughout the store, no one noticed me since their eyes were only on Ethel. She took all their attention and all the comments (“What a great horse you have there! Such a beautiful dog. Love your pony!”) were geared towards her. I was invisible. I was unnoticed. I was safe. Ethel was doing more than bracing for me so I could reach that cute sweater on the top rack, she was protecting me. She was acting as a social barrier for me so I could finally feel … just like anyone else shopping. Not someone different.

 

I was physically independent before pairing with Ethel. But only as long as my heart and mind felt safe. And in a world of constant fear, pain and struggle, feeling safe is a cherished moment that I previously only knew with my husband’s presence. Until now. Until I learned that safety is holding onto the dog that is giving me my life back. That safe can be spelled E-t-h-e-l.14282_10153653649189018_5977566610086700791_n

 

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Cervino, Italy and Matterhorn, Switzerland Mountain of the Alps in Pictures

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What keeps us warm in Italy

We are lucky enough to have some friends stationed in other bases around Europe and for Thanksgiving, we met up with one couple and their flown in family in Italy. He works for the Outdoor Recreation Department of the military base and was leading a group of single soldiers to Cervino Mountain, the Italian side of the infamous Matterhorn Mountain. The hotel, having catered to American skiers before, served an Italian version of Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day. We enjoyed a five course meal, sans any frustrating normal Thanksgiving family conversations, and enjoyed turkey (but mostly veal) and Italian apple pie (an apple flavored dessert cake served with different kinds of flan). Not only was this gesture delicious, but very gracious of the Italian hotel owners to try to accommodate some Americans who may be missing home.

Dusty and our friends spent the daylight hours skiing, both down from the top to Italy and then down to the Switzerland side. There wasn’t a working cable car to take me to the top or I’d have joined them, but Dusty dragged the GoPro and the camera to the top so that I could see the infamous Matterhorn view. See it here!

Matterhorn, Switzerland
Matterhorn, Switzerland
Matterhorn, Switzerland
Matterhorn, Switzerland

 

Upon his return from the mountain on the second night, we ventured outside the hotel/restaurant into the banks of snow to enjoy the rest of the town. We passed pizzarias, ristorantes, sci (ski) rentals and other quaint little hotels like our own. This was such a small, one street town that we quickly ran in to the other soldiers and families from our hotel at the different eateries along the way. We sampled wine, cheese and olives in true Italian fashion at one lodge bar and then found a small pizzaria for dinner.

Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy

We sat down next to a group of Italian men, some older, some younger and two kids, everyone still clad in their ski gear. Towards the end of dinner, we noticed one of the waitresses filling up what appeared to be a wooden bowl with a half dozen spouts on the side with steamed coffee. We watched as she approached the table of the Italian men with the bowl, put the bowl down and then surprisingly, lit the entire dish on fire! Blue flames danced on the entire bowl’s surface for a minute and then she replaced the lid of the bowl to snuff out the fire. A single flame shot out one of the spouts and she tapped it with a spoon, almost to scold the blue flicker. The Italian men had clapped and cheered during the scene and once the flames were out, one man raised the spouts of the bowl to his mouth and drank. The next man rotated the bowl to a new spout to drink and the next man followed suit. They saw us staring (oops) and in Italian, ushered us over to their table.

“You want to try?” One of the children translated for their fathers to us in English when they saw us stumbling over the few Italians words we knew.

Dusty thanked them and being the daring soul that he is, took the bowl to try. “What kind of drink is it?” I asked, unsuccessfully trying in Spanish to see if any of the words were similar enough to get the message across. They aren’t. Dusty drank and I could see he was fighting the urge to sputter. This was a strong drink. The men at the table all laughed and the closet one to us clapped Dusty on the back.

“For the ski, for the snow. It is coffee and liquor and oranges. It’s made with genepi (I later learned this is an Italian liquor made in the Alps). For the cold,” the child answered, gesturing to the window. Dusty opened the lid as he passed it to me and sure enough, there were orange peels floating on the surface.

I took the warm bowl in both hands, rotated spouts, said a quick prayer and took a sip. It was hot and strong and burned like no other, but the taste was so rich that it didn’t matter. It tasted like warmed rum with just a hint of coffee and orange but it was just delicious. We thanked them and tried to retreat back to our table, but that’s American thinking. When an Italian invites you to their table, not only are you there to share the food, you’re there to stay until the drinks are dry and the bar’s closed.

Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy

Several rounds of the drink later, we had learned that this was an Italian drink specific to the Cervino mountain region of the Alps. The Cervino/Matterhorn slice of the Alps has its own culture and this drink is only ever served or found on the Italian side of the mountain. By this time, I had also been shown dozens of pictures of some of the men’s grandchildren, wives, daughters, vacations to the coasts (for future reference, Italian men generally wear speedos, no matter their age) and the latest renovations of their homes in Rome. Dusty shared pictures of his hikes that former weekend in the Italian Dolomites and I brokenly spoke to them about seeing Pope Francis in Rome.

We went back out that night feeling quite warm amidst the flurries, but more from the welcoming embraces of the Italians who had befriended us than just the *cough* pretty powerful mountain drink.

Cervino, Italy
Cervino, Italy
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When an American celebrates Thanksgiving in Europe

Happy Thanksgiving from Europe

A Tribute to Jimmy Fallon

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.

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