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Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Wheelchair Abroad.

Most, if not all, of my regular readers are most likely aware of my passion for independent travel. It is something that I always loved from boyhood, when during my primary school days (under twelve years of age) I thought nothing of walking alone through the streets of my former home town of Central London. Then again, it was normal for children to play outside unsupervised, or in my case to wander off up to a couple of miles from home (I recall a walk from near Lupus Street in Pimlico to South Kensington, two miles away, and back again in an afternoon, much to the astonishment of my parents). The idea of paedophile was not even a word found in the English dictionary, let alone feeling wary in anticipation of their presence. As one elderly chap at the sauna said to me only the previous evening: These days parents no longer let their kids out of the front door alone.

Pimlico London, my childhood home

I think God was generous to allow me to be born during the Baby Boom, an era which began not long after the end of the second World War, and continued into the mid-sixties. Sure enough, as we marvel at the latest high technology, ease and speed of travel, and other commodities totally unknown during my younger days, unless God allows me up to another thirty years of lifespan, I won't be around to see even greater marvels coming into existence and into daily use, together with environment-friendly projects such as garden bridges spanning the River Thames, something still only on the drawing board as I write. But on the other hand I can't help sensing that living in hardier times - when parents almost kicked their kids out of the house to seek adventure, to gape at the black, soot-covered industrial buildings across the Thames with chimneys belching out black smoke, and hundreds of domestic chimneys releasing grey smoke from living room coal-burning fires, perhaps an occasional school day morning with the air visibility choked with smog, it might indeed be the right kind of environment to exercise the immune system. After all, peanut allergy now common in young children wasn't even heard of.

And how could I ever forget those all-green, slam-door trains which rolled in and out of nearby Victoria Station? Or the tremendously loud sound of the steam engine as it pulls out of the terminus, the semi-indoor structure amplifying the noise? The wooden panelling furnishing the interior of such trains, along with the side-corridor which ran the length of each coach, providing a level of luxury unknown by comparison of today's commuter trains. During my childhood, train travel was a very rare treat, as my father, having just passed his driving test, had become a fanatic of the steering wheel. So during the very rare times I found myself inside a train, such experiences remains unforgettable to this day.

And so as I grew older and more independent, so travel extended overseas. Having tasted a package holiday in 1972 to a hotel at a Spanish resort with a college mate, I decided that free-hand travel, better known as backpacking, was more to my ideal. I find choosing where to go, where to spend the night, even bed-hunting after arriving at a city or resort more of a mind-strengthening challenge, a contest of trial and error which broadens the horizon in a way that a package trip could never achieve anywhere near as much.

And so, having been spotted by a work colleague whilst trumping through the Creole streets of New Orleans in 1978, I was called brave after I was asked whether I was on my own. Brave? It was a form of praise which had beforehand had never entered my mind. And it didn't even end there. Seventeen years later in 1995, whilst flying to New York with United Airlines, one of the stewardesses took an interest in my Greyhound Bus "Ameripass" itinerary I'll be starting on after landing. After informing her of my planned visit to the Grand Canyon and afterwards finishing at San Francisco, after stopping at San Diego and Los Angeles whilst on the way, she gasped, My, you are brave! As with the previous occasion, I took in the compliment. But really, it had everything to do with my childhood walk from my Pimlico home to South Kensington some 32 years earlier.

Hiking into the Grand Canyon, both in 1978 and 1995, walking through a dodgy street through Downtown Los Angeles to get to a rather remotely-situated Greyhound Bus terminal, to snorkel over the Great Barrier Reef in 1997, and to hike through a rainforest of Blue Mountains National Park - all these, and more, were sources of excitement and the spirit of adventure. And that is despite one or two of my church friends warning me of dire consequences. But equipped with such knowledge, they either preferred to go with a fully escorted Christian group rather than take the plunge and going for it on their own, or remain at home.

So how did I feel about taking my wife out for a weekend in Paris to celebrate our Wedding Anniversary? The plan was to experience the Eurostar international train service from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, passing under the English Channel through a 31.4 mile 50.87 km. long tunnel under the seabed. I was keen on the train. My wife was keen on Paris. The holiday was a perfect plan for both of us.

A Eurostar Train awaits departure from London St. Pancras.

Having been to Paris several times throughout the 1980's, I was no stranger to the French capital. This included standing on the top of the Eiffel Tower and watching the panorama transform from late afternoon daylight to early evening darkness. But for Alex, Paris was her first time experience. And to add to this, her first ever trip abroad in a wheelchair. Before then, we as a couple had travelled together to several places - The two Greek islands of Rhodes and Kos, Lanzarote of the Canary Islands, the Italian island of Sicily, Malta in the Southern Mediterranean, and Israel, including Eilat on the Red Sea, a narrow tongue of the Indian Ocean thriving with coral reefs. But with all these trips, Alex was not only able-bodied, but was able to walk and cycle long distances, out-sprint me, dance and skipped along well.

But not any more. She is now partially disabled. Whenever outdoors, she has to be in a wheelchair. This provided a very new challenge where travel is concerned. Especially in travelling abroad, taking the wheelchair out of the UK for the first time ever. And so after booking both train journeys and the hotel, and paying for them both, what challenges would we both face? So I decided to check with the website TripAdvisor, especially on Paris Gare du Nord.

There were more negative reviews on the station than positive. Recorded experiences of pickpocketing, unauthorised taxi drivers confronting the arrivals full face soon after stepping off the train, criminal gangs posing as authoritative station officials out to take advantage of the lost or confused. Tales of scam taxi drivers taking the victim to a slum area of the city, then only taking them to their hotel after further payment. Parting with fees ranging from 80 to 100 Euros, when the official taxi fee is only 15 Euros. With such dire reading of one review following another, all on the same theme, gradually my excitement for the trip turned into fear. A deep fear, not so much for myself as for my wife's safety. I felt as if all the demons in Hell came up to torment me, giving me visions of both of us being in a desperate state. On my own, I would know how to look after myself. But with a patient in a wheelchair, things were very different. I felt vulnerable.

On top of this, I discovered that the hotel I chose for both of us is located at Montparnasse, a district south of the city, about four miles 6.5 km from the terminus station. My original plan was a shortish walk to the hotel. Instead, some form of public transport was necessary. One which was wheelchair accessible. But thanks to the Internet, I became thoroughly acquainted with the Paris Metro/RER system. And there was one RER line linking Gare du Nord with Montparnasse - Line B, which was wheelchair accessible at all its stations, maybe because this particular line is near to ground level. I chose the station nearest the hotel - Denfert-Rochereau. As a result, every detail of the journey was carefully planned weeks before departure.

On the day, after stepping off the Eurostar at Paris Gare du Nord, I could see straight away why this particular terminus is far less favoured than its London counterpart, St Pancras. It does look like the sort of place for pickpockets and sham cabbies to linger around, on the lookout for the next victim. But glory be to God, nobody approached us. Instead, we found the RER Line B entrance, and we queued up to buy tickets. After this we made our way to the ticket barrier. But not only would the wheelchair-wide barrier refused to let us through, but it wouldn't even scan our tickets, even if they are appropriately striped. We were stuck there for probably thirty minutes, while watching hundreds of commuters pass through the individual barriers, each too narrow for a wheelchair.

It was eventually the kindness of one black commuter who saw our distress, asked us to stand at the barrier, and with his bank or pass card, swiped the terminal. At long last, the barrier opened and all three of us were able to make it to the station platform. I discovered at the other end, at Gare Denfert Rochereau, that wheelchair accessible barriers were operated by the cashier or platform porter, and I had to ask while I was buying the tickets. Talk about learning by trial and error. It makes travel so much exciting and adventurous!

Gare Du Nord, Paris

Overall, the whole trip was an eye opening experience. After checking in, airport style, at London and boarding the train, the ride was smooth and very fast. But it was the Channel Tunnel I found most impressive. The train enters the tunnel while still in England, and emerges out of the tunnel in France (reverse for the return journey). To me, the whole Eurostar system is the tangible symbol of the European Union. And history bears this out. A tunnel under the Channel was something the French had in mind for up to a century, maybe even further back in time. It was the British who were against the idea, fearing an invasion, and it was they who blocked the plan. The European Union has resurrected the concept in the 1980's and the Tunnel was eventually opened in May 6, 1994 after six years of construction.

Such ideals of political unity allowed such a trip like ours to take place. And aside of the sham technology of the French ticket barriers, the whole trip with the wheelchair was a stunning success, taking in the Tower of Eiffel (second floor only - the third at the top is not wheelchair accessible), a long walk along the River Seine to the Notre Dame Cathedral (over 5 km, 3 miles) which took the greater part of the day as we also stopped and rested by the glass pyramid at the Louvre, a spacious courtyard outside the famous art gallery where the Mona Lisa painting is housed. The open space was filled with happy people sauntering around. We watched a motorbike rally cross the River on one of the bridges and contrasted this to the solemn service taking place in the Notre Dame. We managed to arrive back at our hotel just before nightfall after walking approximately 12 km 7.4 miles pushing a wheelchair all the way and taking up the whole day, before commencing to return home on the following morning. 

As I see it, the walk from Pimlico to South Kensington and back had laid the foundation for the world of trial-and-error travel experience, with the climax, so far, of pushing a wheelchair accommodating a disabled patient across a foreign capital, rather than hiking the Grand Canyon as the climax.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Praise God for His protection and guidance through this journey! It has been many years since I visited Paris, and that time was very impressed with the Metro, but can't even imagine what it would be like to try to navigate in a wheelchair. That being said, driving around L'Etoile and trying to find our exit without getting into an accident was challenging and frightening enough! I'm glad you both had a well-deserved and enjoyable vacation and returned home safely.
    Thanks for sharing your travels with us, and God bless,

  2. Hi Frank,
    First and foremost I think I would have to side with Alex and prefer visiting Paris as opposed to traveling over thirty miles under the English channel. My mind would be on all that water above me.
    Also I would have to agree that the world has changed drastically since I was a youngster. I was able to walk into the country, swing from trees etc, and feel safe while doing it. Regarding the Paris station, sometimes the bad news we hear about places can cause a fear of that place. We must always remember that there are people around who do good things as well as people who do bad things, like the commuter who saw your distress and helped you.
    We certainly do learn by trial and error, and I think 'trial' strengthens us all.
    So glad that you and Alex had a lovely anniversary trip to Paris.
    I agree with your last sentence. God sees ahead, the trials we will go for and has a perfect plan for our lives. Every day of our lives is written in His book before even one of them was formed.
    God bless you and Alex with the overcoming of your trials.

  3. Glad you both enjoyed your trip. Isn't god wonderful to take care of all the things you were warned about?