Shand was feeling bored.
“I need a holiday,” he informed me, with his best schoolboy pout.
“Okay,” I replied. “Make it August if you can. There is every chance I can get away then”
“What?” he stuttered. “What do you mean?”
“I mean go ahead and organise something”
“What sort of thing?” he asked
Long-suffering patience was not my forte.
“You said you wanted a holiday – go ahead. I will keep you company wherever you decide you want to go!”
“And you want ME to organise it?”
“Of course!” I replied. “There is nothing wrong with your brain. I am very busy at work, and if you can do this for me, it would be very helpful.”
It only took twenty-four hours. He was up and running (well, metaphorically)
And so it came about. He organised a strict itinerary.
COMPLEXITY AND DOVETAILING
Edinburgh to King’s Cross by train: then the circle bus which operates hourly from King’s Cross for the disabled until 7p.m. to take us to the Tara Hotel in Kensington. If , as a disabled person, you belong to the Visitors Club you can access a room at half price there. Then a night or two in London - we could take in a show.
Then, we were to take the train to Folkestone, followed by a ferry to Boulogne.
Boulogne to Paris was to be accomplished by train, and a couple of nights in Paris.
We would then travel by train from Paris to Nancy– our final destination.
And then all the way back again.
Thunderstruck does not describe my emotion. Did he not realise the difficulties of holidaying with an electric wheelchair and a battery charger as our two main pieces of equipment? Clothes came a poor second due to the extent of his disability. His hands were now reduced to a flipper like movement, and he could no longer feed himself, so there was a considerable amount of specialised equipment to take with us.
“I thought you wanted a holiday, not an endurance test!” I observed
He went all huffy.
“Do you know that I spent hours and hours at this? I was on the phone all day!” he replied.
I mellowed a bit, understanding the full impact of his undertaking. He had a special loud speaking phone, which maximised his volume. However, his volume was now so poor that, to be heard, he had to throw the top half of his body forward towards the phone every few words. Anyone watching through the window, and not understanding the way he achieved volume on the telephone, would have wondered what was happening.
To spend hours doing this was certainly more than equal to a full work out.
“Okay.” I replied. “I just wanted to be sure that you know that accomplishing this will be more difficult than arranging it!”
So, with the all-important equipment, we left Edinburgh in late July. He carried what items he could on the back of his wheelchair. We caught the train, and started to enjoy the holiday mood. This did not last for long. By the time we reached York, the train was running three hours late, even if we made very good time, it would not be possible to catch the circle bus. A taxi would add to the expense – if we could get a taxi driver to take us. With the wheelchair too large to slot into the wheelchair space, and requiring to travel sideways in the cab, we were given transport at the discretion of the driver. We had waited for a taxi on numerous occasions, been loaded, and then told to get out again, when they understood the problem.
The temperatures in England were most unusually high, and the rail tracks had expanded, causing delays throughout the rail system into London. Instead of arriving at 5p.m., the train arrived after midnight. We were tired, exhausted and crestfallen.
ENTER: A MAN AND A VAN
The queue for taxis was right around the block. As the night was still very warm, it was possible, and could even be quicker, to walk to Kensington. I got out a map and stood underneath a streetlight to work out where we were.
A young, blond haired male came up and said:
“Can I help you, love?”
I was slightly taken aback, but explained that we were going to walk to Kensington.
“Oh! That must be five miles away” he said.
“We really haven’t got an alternative,” I said, indicating the queue.
“I’ll take you,” he offered.
“What are YOU driving?” I enquired most ungraciously. “This electric wheelchair has to go too!”
“I’m in that Transit over there.” He pointed to a white van across the road. “Just hang on a minute while I get a paper.” And with that he disappeared.
“What do you think?” I asked Shand
He suggested that we take a look at the van. Correct …just as he thought, it would be too high….. Electric wheelchair plus passenger too heavy to lift….
And then Shand spotted a skip across the road……under instruction, I climbed in and ferreted for ramp making equipment.
I emerged triumphant with one good solid piece of wood. On my second exploration of the rubbish, the van owner reappeared, and gazed at me atop the skip.
“What are you doing?” he enquired, astonished.
I explained my efforts to make a ramp, but he merely laughed and shouted to two fellows passing by:
They responded, and the three of them lifted the chair containing the apprehensive occupant into the back of the van. As he was hoisted and propelled forwards by these willing hands, I saw that the van was filled with old pieces of furniture: boxes, pictures, stools. Tardily, I wondered if we were being foolhardy. It was now too late to have second thoughts, though. Off we sped into the night…………
“Are you going this way anyway?” I enquired nervously of the driver
“Heavens, no! I come from the other side of London!”
“So why are you doing this?” I persisted
He only laughed and said he liked to be of help.
“But what will you charge?”
“Send me a postcard from wherever you are going. It will be enough to know you got there safely!”
We arrived at the Tara Hotel in this old Transit van full of furniture. . A very well dressed Doorman assisted the driver and me to extract Shand and his wheelchair and unload him. Any thoughts that the doorman may have had about one of the guests arriving in this rather unusual manner were kept to himself.
This was the unorthodox start to one of the most memorable and lovely holidays of my life.
BRITAIN: NO TRANSPORT OR MINIMAL STANDARD.
London was hot – too hot even for the Londoners.. Personal fans sold out. Even the Show we took in was almost unbearable. At eight in the evening the debate was still raging –should the doors be open or closed? Were they letting in more heat, or would people suffocate if they shut them?
Transport in London did not exist for the disabled tourist, only for residents. Taxis are very expensive, and as previously explained, a dodgy alternative. The only reliable means of transport was St. John’s ambulance, at £60 for a one-way journey. The circle bus only connected the main stations. So we walked and walked and walked, or at least I did.
Fortunately, the weather was good, because we covered over sixteen miles in two days. For the next leg of our journey, from London to Folkestone, we had to travel in the guard’s van. This was a real misery, and very uncomfortable: no company, no food or drink, no sight of where we were going. We were glad to leave it behind us.
The ferry crossing was simple but on arrival at the station in Boulogne, we started to worry. The ramps were different over here. They were half moon shape, because the trains were that much higher than in this country, but worse than that, there was only one of them!
“You definitely informed them a wheelchair was coming?” I asked.
“Couldn’t” said he, a bit too late for my liking. “There is no communication between British Rail and SNCF: it was impossible to book all the way through.”
“But we are in the European Union!” I remonstrated.
“Not where trains are concerned,” he told me, correctly. [I checked on my return.]
The train arrived, the guard did not have time to look for the missing ramp, and so various passengers were enlisted to hoist the wheelchair aboard with a terrified occupant.
“How are they going to get me off at Paris?” he wailed. “I couldn’t stand going off
A degree of hysteria had crept in, with no idea of how we were going to exit the train. However, if you have a disability you travel First Class in France, and it was pleasurable – a marked difference to our last British train journey. It was quiet and relaxing, preventing him from worrying too much about his exit strategy.
We need not have worried.
A hydraulic platform lift was there to assist in exiting the train. The operator was very friendly, and realised Shand’s degree of concern. He made soothing noises in French. Reassurance was given.
With the operation over, I asked the lift operator the distance to the hotel Shand had booked. He looked astonished. He hummed. “Two kilometres, perhaps.”
He noted my reaction.
“I will take you,” he offered
“How are you going to take us?” I asked, again, wondering if he understood the complexity of the situation.
“Nous marchons au pied!” (“We will go on foot,” ) he announced happily in French.
He loaded all our bags effortlessly into a station trolley, and set off at a canter, pushing this trolley through the streets of Paris. We rushed along behind. After several twists and turns and street crossings, he delivered us to the door, unloaded our luggage, and wished us a good holiday. We thanked him profusely, but when we attempted to say goodbye, he said it was not goodbye: he would expect to see us at the Gare du Nord on our return journey.
These little touches – these people who took time to go the extra mile –literally - they really had no comprehension how much difference it made to our holiday and our feeling of well being.
MAN + VAN + WILLINGNESS = SERVICE
Paris was expensive, and there was no wheelchair transport. Shand had booked a room with no air conditioning, and we realised that this was a mistake after one night. Keep the windows shut, and you suffocate with heat – open them and you suffocate with fumes from the traffic.
We found that the cheapest breakfast was at a lorry drivers stop, and the cheapest evening meals were in China town.
We were quite happy to leave after a couple of days, and take the SNCF to Nancy.
Again, the First Class treatment was wonderful, and the journey passed quickly, although this time the guard attempted to eject me from the First Class carriage, as I was not disabled. I had to argue that I was Shand’s helper. He looked disbelieving, but allowed me to stay. We disembarked at Nancy station, and I tried my French out again.
“How far to this hotel?”
This time, the looks were more than astonished, as I was informed that it was in excess of seven miles.
Far from amused, I asked Shand what he had been thinking about. He was equally confused and told me that he had understood that the hotel was in the middle of the town. There was one of a similar name in the town centre, but confusion between languages meant that we were booked into the one several miles away. The station master was very concerned for our wellbeing, but after a brief consultation between ourselves, we told him that we would walk again.
“Mais, Non!” he replied. “Nous avons GIHP!”(Pronounced JEEP) I had never heard of this, and asked for an explanation. It turned out to be disabled transport.
“We cannot wait until next week,” I said abruptly, with my jaundiced experience of disabled transport in Scotland
I was assured it would only be quarter of an hour. I was sceptical, and had settled down for a long boring wait on the station platform, during which time we were entertained to his minimal knowledge of Scottish, which appeared to begin and end with Mary Queen of Scots and Whisky.
However, I should have had more faith: the man was right. The transport appeared within a very short space of time. For £5.00 we bought a book of tickets that would cover us for ten journeys!
It was amazing! What towns had this system, we wanted to know? Just Nancy, Metz and Strasbourg, was the answer.
How much notice did we have to give, and how late at night did they run? I asked.
Nothing could have prepared me for the reaction.
I was regarded with incredulity.
NATURALLY, WE WERE IN COMMAND, AS THE USERS.
We were paying, I was informed, so we returned when we wanted to. Even the middle of the night that was fine. You simply booked the day before you wanted it and stated your requirements. We used it every day and discovered more about it.
It had been in operation since 1963, and ran eleven buses and seven cars (for those with walking difficulties) in the town. It was reliable, cheap and efficient. Occasionally we had to share, but the driver was never late, and always courteous.
It was absolute bliss. This transport made our holiday. There were very few English-speaking people there, and so they made a real fuss of us. They suggested interesting places that we might like to see, they told us about their famous park, (Parc de la Pepiniere, if I remember correctly) which was not just a park as we think of it, but more a community centre, zoo, and public gardens with gaming facilities. It was adorned with a beautiful floral clock display, fountains, and quiet rose gardens lit at night – something for families and those wanting peace. It was very cleverly constructed and very popular.
Because disabled transport was so good, it was common to see wheelchairs about, so adaptations had taken place in most of the shops.
My only bit of excitement here was when the police woke me from sunbathing, and angrily demanded that I remove myself. I did not understand at first, because other people were sunbathing in the park. They explained that you could only sunbathe in certain areas!
Every night there was son et lumiere in Stanislas Square, and it was lovely to be able to stay out and enjoy this, where at home we would have been bundled away before it started because transport was so restricted. The shops were good, there were excellent markets, and the days were warm.
The accommodation was among the highest standard of design I have ever come across. It was one of the Novotel group, and very cleverly done. On first sight, I thought the room would be far too small, but it worked well. The toilet was planned with great precision Space had been maximised with a hanging toilet and sink to allow adequate turning areas, and the rack for suitcases was out of the way in the bathroom, to capitalise the bedroom size. It was really cheap – something like £5.00 per night including breakfast - much cheaper than a bed and breakfast at home.
All too soon we had to make the homeward trip ----- and this was epic!
WHAT LACK OF THOUGHT DOES..
We repeated the railway journey back to Paris, and we intended to stay for a couple of days.
Firstly, although we had booked into a wheelchair friendly hotel in Paris on the way back, some thoughtless soul had put a pillar immediately in front of the lift door. This meant that the wheelchair could not enter the lift, which in turn meant we could not reach the bedrooms.
A long conference followed, during which they upgraded us to a room in the Mercure group, the only hotel available, as it was August in Paris. ( Much later, on reflection, I realised someone had made a mistake. The pillar was intended for the back of the lift. Someone had installed the lift in the hotel the wrong way round!)
We took in Montmartre this time, and the Moulin Rouge, and then went to book the train journey home. It was emphasised that we must give twenty-four hours notice of travelling, so that everything could be ready. We had to be at the station one hour before departure. I didn’t mind a bit – not for luxury like that!
However, on the day of our departure, walking to the station with all our bags, Shand spotted a jacket, which he thought was a real bargain, and a “must have”. I remonstrated that we did not have time. He said we did. I reminded him of the one hour deadline for loading. He said he would just be a minute.
And he would not be moved.
I became more and more concerned. If I missed this train home, I would be late back to start work. He was totally unconcerned, and taking his time over the jackets…
Eventually, we reached the station with only a quarter of an hour to spare before the train. The lift operator, who had been so helpful with our luggage on our arrival, would not consider trying to load us. We had to wait another twenty -four hours.
As we remembered with dismay how busy Paris was in August, we wondered if we would get a hotel room at all. I was distressed at the delay, and the hotel we managed to locate with a disabled room, after several hours trying, was through the tourist board. We emphasised that the lift had to be able to take a wheelchair and were assured that it was.
So we booked it.
WHEN PLANS ARE NOT MADE
On arrival at this “accessible hotel” the lift was not big enough. I had to transfer Shand onto a dining room chair, which I placed in the lift, and go up with him to the bedroom. As he had very little balance, this terrified him. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the odd scream.
The lift attendant looked amazed.
“Le monsieur – est il toujours comme ca?” was the question, as the lift went slowly upwards, and Shand became more and more distressed.
I replied that he was not always like this, but balance was difficult, and he was not required to sit on a dining room chair in a lift very often. I then had to leave him sitting on the chair in the corridor, while I went back down in the lift for his wheelchair, and bring that up folded in the lift. We were not sure we could find any other accommodation, and we were booked in…
Shand announced forcibly that he would just sleep downstairs in his wheelchair rather than go through the lift ordeal again.
Neither of us was too happy at this turn of events.
I was devastated as I knew that I was going to be delayed going back to work. As a Ward Sister, it did not look good, nor set a good example. I was obviously very effective in showing my anger, because my enduring memory is of Shand pursuing me through the streets of Paris with a red rose between his teeth, (he was unable to hold it) to make up for his unthinking behaviour.
Eventually, we found a hotel that suited our needs, but the first hotel would not refund the deposit. It is this uncaring attitude that is at the heart of a lot of disability issues.
The journey back was uneventful, but there was a real sense of achievement at having undertaken something so ambitious.
I do not know exactly what elements led to this holiday being so successful. He had previously only had respite breaks - so this was a real change, as well as a challenge.
The transport was wonderful, as were the caring people who helped along the way.
The feeling of empowerment was really important and he enjoyed the full mobility that our chosen destination offered.
Although he survived for many more years, and had many more tales to tell, he always referred to this as his best holiday – perhaps because he had set his sights high, organized it himself and made it happen. Once the frustrations are in the past, you have a funny story to tell.
The postcard was sent to the Transit driver.
Shand never wore the jacket.
© Linda Jane McLea
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