Seeing Europe from a wheelchair

Ever wanted to take a cruise but were afraid your wheel chair would get in the way?  Then this review is for you!  My wife, Vallerie, and I love to travel and cruising has become our default vacation experience.  This year she turned 60 and, wanting to do something special for her, I invited our dear friends, Jerry and Dianne to join us on a lovely, intermediate-length cruise on Royal Caribbean from Lisbon, Portugal up through the English Channel to Oslo, Norway.  Our ports of call included two small towns in Spain (Vigo and Gijon), Portland (UK), Bruge (Belgium), and Amsterdam.  At the termination of our cruise we enjoyed a short, guided bus tour of Oslo on our way to the airport where we boarded our SAS jetliner to Paris for two whirlwind days before flying home to Maryland.Traveling with a wheelchair can add to the fun

Our friend Dianne has limited walking capability due to several medical conditions including a past stoke, foot surgery and rheumatoid arthritis.  So we all decided it might be advantageous if we rented and brought along a wheel chair for her (or “push” chair as they call it in the UK).  Contemplating our imminent journey, Dianne said she thought that the use of a wheelchair would be “liberating, fun” and would protect her from the “wear and tear” of travel.  For the most part this proved to be so. The chair we got at the equipment company near our home was what is called in the medical industry, a “transfer chair.” Transfer chairs are sturdy, light weight and fold more compactly than conventional wheel chairs.  They also have four small equal-sized wheels making them a bit more versatile.  At our departure airport we also learned, to our great joy, that the wheel chair typically flies free – a benefit we had not even considered.

Once in Lisbon, having successfully passed through customs,  we paused for a bit of refreshment at the airport before tackling the chore of finding a taxi to deliver us to the pier.  We decided that since none of us spoke Portuguese anyway, we might just as well take the first cab we could find and trust in Providence.  The initial hack in the queue was driven by Gorge, a fairly handsome man of medium build, blondish hair and respectable (if limited) English with a very pleasant, can-do personality.  Unfortunately he was driving a small, black sedan with barely enough room for our suitcases in the trunk let alone the five of us and the “chair” in the front and back seats.  On top of that it was quite cool and raining a bit.  I suggested that we try to find another taxi with more room, but Gorge would have none of it.  Fortunately, the rain did not last long and after about fifteen damp minutes of cramming our “stuff” in the trunk, the sun broke through and we crammed ourselves into the car allowing Jerry the “shotgun” seat next to Gorge.  The wheel chair, which, of course, would not fit in the Lilliputian trunk with all our luggage had to be wedged into the tiny car with us.  The only place it would fit, of course, was on Jerry’s lap, completely obstructing his forward view and forcing him to keep his head cocked toward the window which, as I remember, was rolled down to allow for some part of the wheel chair to stick out.  My right leg and Dianne’s left leg stretched out over the console between the front seats resting against Jerry’s already crowded hip as Vallerie sat scrunched between us like a magician’s assistant in a box.  Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves immensely as we motored along, cracking jokes, body parts falling asleep, first to the wrong pier, finally to the correct one, getting acquainted with Gorge, his alluring language and his beautiful, romantic city as we went.

At the pier we decided that if we were to be living with this wheel chair for ten days, it ought at least to have a name.  Of course it’s name should be native to the country we were in, we thought, and for some unconscious reasons its names were always masculine.  Thus, in Lisbon our wheelchair was christened “Diego.”  While in Spain we kept the name Diego but when we arrived in British waters we decided that “Winston” would be more fitting.  In Bruge, Winston became “Jean Claude” (after Van Damme who is Belgian) and in Amsterdam and Oslo, “Hans.”  Silly, you say?  Absolutely, but why not!?

Dining  - with servers, friends and wheelchairOur first port of call, Vigo, Spain, is built upon a steep hill overlooking the bay in which our ship was parked.  The city itself is nice and clean but of little rich interest to tourists.  Having decided to forego the cruise line’s chartered tours, we took off on our own, up the steep slopes of Vigo to the summit where lay a charming city park with ruins, trees, beautiful flowers and a killer view in virtually every direction.  We learned quickly what we would be up against with respect to Diego, the wheel chair.  By the time we reached the park at the top of the town, Jerry and I (who performed 99% of the pushing) were exhausted.  We often took turns and sometimes pushed together.  The streets, sidewalks and pathways were often bricked, cobblestoned or unpaved.  We occasionally bemoaned our choice to use a transfer chair with it’s four small wheels instead of a conventional chair with the two large wheels in back (which might have helped smooth out the little crevasses and cracks we often encountered).  Our great consolation was knowing that the journey back to the ship would be all downhill – literally!  In any case our efforts were rewarded by the glorious view and doubly so by finding a comfy little open-air cafe on the down-slope where we could relax at a small red, metal table sipping our Diet Cokes from tall, skinny European-style cans before beginning our descent.

Each port of call brought the same kind of adventures – rough sidewalks, crowds,  inclined ramps and roadways; but through tenacity, love and Dianne’s sense of humor we always found a way.  On the ship the chair was unnecessary.  Dianne could easily navigate our lovely vessel on foot.   So, while aboard, Diego rested for the next port of call even though we witnessed at least one fellow cruiser getting around the ship with relative ease in a motorized chair.

Our greatest challenges (and some of our biggest laughs) came with a French accent!  At the end of our cruise we spent two days in the City of Lights.  It was there, in the beautiful home of Victor Hugo, Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe that Diego (now “Pierre”) was really put through his paces.  Dragged through DeGaulle airport and up steep subway stairs, through the streets of Paris to the famed Eiffel Tower he never missed a beat.  In fact because of Pierre, Dianne and Jerry were able to forego the long admission line at the Eiffel Tower.  While in Paris, Dianne met another American woman who was grieving at not having such a devoted friend as Pierre.  She had spent most of each day imprisoned by tearful pain in her hotel room because of a knee surgery she had had 6-8 weeks ago.  Somehow she had not thought to try to acquire a chair here in Paris and was greatly encouraged by Dianne’s success.  At hearing this we counted our blessings and thanked Providence for sending us Pierre.

As darkness fell upon our first evening in Paris, we traipsed up and down the Champs Elysees, all of us trying to pronounce it correctly, gawking at and into the lovely, often fascinating shops.  Out of the brightly lit semi-darkness we suddenly spied a McDonalds!  Like Pavlov’s dogs, Jerry and I hurried in to purchase a couple of cold, refreshing Diet Cokes (you have to ask for ice, we learned), while Vallerie and Dianne waited for us outside on the sidewalk.  As they waited Vallerie spread her jacket upon the ground and sat down next to Dianne who was resting casually in the arms of gentle Pierre.  After a few moments a little French boy appeared and handed down a Euro coin to Vallerie.  At first she simply tried to tell the lad to keep his money, but in his earnest eyes she caught a glimmer of the truth of the moment – he thought she and Dianne were homeless!  The horror!  Instantly Vallerie shot to her feet frantically imploring the boy to keep his money as she tried in vain English and panicked sign language to reassure him that she was just a tourist and had a fine, comfortable home back in the USA!  Finally, he got the message, took his money and went on his generous little way.

Traveling can be made easier with a wheelchairAt this point I would like to add that in two trips to Paris we have never met the stereotypical snobbish Parisian!  Often, while climbing subway steps, etc. the passing Parisian would offer assistance.  Clearly, loving and kind people are to found anywhere one travels if one has eyes to see them or a heart to receive them.

Back at home I asked Dianne how she felt about having brought the chair on our cruise together.  “I say it is the only way for  me and I recommend it 100%!  Just a great help with arthritis or any disability where walking is problematical…it became a ‘friend,’ so to speak.”

All in all traveling with a wheel chair proved to be as simple as carrying another small piece of luggage, particularly since the transfer chair was light and compact.  It rolled smoothly even when collapsed and tied together.  In spite of the added effort involved in pushing and lugging, had we not had the chair our group activities would have been much more limited and much less fun!  Also, renting from home is superior to renting at your destination, partly because wheel chairs fly free and partly so you can choose the kind of chair you want.  And remember, people in wheel chairs get to go first!


Guest writer, Stephen Martin, is a professional actor in the Baltimore/Washington area. He is also a licensed Washington, DC tour guide. He and his wife, Vallerie, enjoy travelling, particularly cruises and make their home in Cheverly, MD.