Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to be a sack of potatoes at the happiest place on earth

So, I'm sitting at heathrow, waiting for that long flight back to Australia, and I thought I should tell you about the day that Walt Disney and I didn't see eye to eye on fun.
Sorry, just got sidetracked when the Polish waitress here at the airport yelled from the counter, "who ordered chicken crap?" Yes, I know she means crepe, but I snorted into my tea anyway.

Right, the Disney-fest started promisingly. 6 of us in line, including me in my wheelchair and Chris with his faux leg. We were just about at the front of the line when we were whipped out to join the 'special line' below a picture of a wheelchair. We got to the window and dutifully reported "2 people with disabilities and 4 others".
To which, she replied, "have you got your papers?"
Me: My what now please?
Her: your papers to prove you are in a wheelchair
Me: ummmm.... I keep that special paper under my ass, in metallic form (ok, I didn't actually say this)
Chris: here's my paper (as he puts his pretend leg up in the air)
She made a few phone calls, and after a while, was satisfied that we were not the world's greatest actors, and did in fact require the equipment we were using. However, we were sent to Disney "city hall" to get official Disney-disability papers.
Off we trotted/wheeled/hopped to city hall, where we went through the same questioning. This time, the lady appeared satisfied with me, but she wasn't too comfortable about Chris' reason of "I have a prosthetic leg". Let's hope it was lost in the translation because when she asked him if his leg would get better, we nearly wet our pants laughing. Then, when he put his leg up in the air, she almost wet herself laughing too!!
She then explained that we couldn't go on some of the rides due to lack of access. Once again, none of us could contain ourselves when she, indicated on the map, looked pointedly at me, and said, "you cannot do Peter Pan" I think they may be words to live by.
So, fresh with our Disney-endorsed disabilities, and a warning not to do Peter Pan, we headed off into walt's creation of plastic, tinsel and dreams (unless you dream of Peter pan).
I have to say that, like the rest of France, wheelchair access is very much an afterthought. As a consequence, there were only a few rides we could do, and we were supposed to book to go on them, so had to space our day out with routine. I didn't go on too many but Chris talked me into going on a roller coaster. He promised to sit beside me and help if I lost my balance. I should have known it was going to end differently when he sat beside me on the little train-thing, pulled down the guard, which didn't hold me in in any way, and then yelled out to the crowd, "look, I have my very own midget!"
The roller coaster climbed, then dipped, then climbed again, turned, spun, dipped, climbed. All the while, my hands were firmly planted on the rails like a male gymnast on the rings, and the rest of me was flipping out of control like a slinky! At the first big corner, Chris grabbed me like he was carting a sack of potatoes and we screamed our way around the ride. So, I have one question: Walt, why the hell did you think that would be fun?
By the way, I only went so I could go on the 'teacups'. They were closed due to an upgrade. I bet they will reopen as the 'cafe latte glasses'.
Speaking of cafe latte, I better go

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Je voudrais un cafe, svp

Bonjour. It's my last full day in Paris, and I'm feeling a little bit holiday-fatigued. When I stop and think about it, I've been busy being a Paralympic spectator, a tourist, a traveller and a visitor everyday for the last four weeks. I'm going to need a little vacation from my vacation. Right now, I'm taking a little respite in a cute patisserie, elegantly stuffing my face with pain au chocolate et cafe creme. Oh la la.
Isn't it always at the last minute that the gold appears? At the next table, commanding a presence, sits the matriarch of Les Invalides, and her dog, Fifi. She has lived in this street for 50 years, and has an opinion on everyone that comes in. When I couldn't decide whether to have a large or small coffee, her immediate response was to lovingly chide me, half in English and half in French, for even thinking of wasting the waitresses time making a small. I had a large.
I understood this double-language conversation because, earlier this week, I spent a few days at a friend's sister's house in the region of Brittany, which immediately became language immersion camp! You see, his languages are Arabic, French, English, and some others that I've forgotten. Her languages are Arabic, French, German and some English. My languages are English....and that's it. It quickly became apparent that our common languages were charades, misinterpreting, nodding like you understand, and laughing until you finally understood. At one point, the cleaner was gossiping, and despite not speaking enough French to understand the words, my female sensitivity allowed me to get the gist of the conversation.... Gossip is the same worldwide. However, when I was sitting in a Tunisian inspired loungeroom, looking out over cathedrals, eating Lebanese food, drinking French coffee, and listening to people speak arabic, with Pakistani jazz playing in the background, I had no idea where I was!! The same feeling returned yesterday, when i took a detour from the Champs Élysées, down a little arcade, and found a stall selling bowls of Pho. I was genuinely surprised to leave the arcade into Paris, not Hanoi.
Since returning from language immersion camp, i have felt a lot more comfortable with my language-butchering skills. Yesterday, i asked a waitress if she spoke english, then quite accidentally, ordered my entire meal in french. I suspect she thought i was a little french wheelchair girl who mistakenly thought she was speaking english, but was just speaking French with a bad accent. Doing nothing for le cause!

So, what of the French touristy stuff, you ask? Well, my overwhelming memory will be of cobblestones. Lots and lots of cobblestones. Sometimes, like at Mont St Michel, cobblestones combined with a hill. And at other times, like in every other street, just plain cobblestones. Either way, they are the work of le diable!! One place that is cobblestone free is EuroDisney. Maybe that's why they call it the happiest place in the world. Next time, I promise, I'll tell you about our day in the plastic world of Disneyland. Right now, I'm off to join the thinker in Rodin's garden.
Au revoir, L

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ce n'est pas possible

Well bonjour. It is difficult to know where to start this blog. I suspect it will move from a rant to a French farce. You see, the French have a very different attitude to people with disabilities to that which I am accustomed. The attitude is sympathetic for the person's plight, but equally insistent that it shouldn't interrupt the sympathiser's day.
The title of this blog says it all, 'ce n'est pas possible' - it's not possible. I have learnt this phrase well, and it is usually said with a shrug, and a turn away. I've heard it when trying to access floors at museums with a broken elevator, when trying to get on the wheelchair accessible bus with a 'broken' ramp (nb 2 drove past before a non-broken ramp was available), and today, when asking for the shop assistant to get a specific print from the upstairs floor of a shop (which had an elevator, but it was locked).
Now, I've been to inaccessible countries before (yes, I'm looking at you Vietnam and Timor Leste), but at least they are honest with their inaccessibility. The difficulty I have had in France, Paris in particular, is that they indicate access, but frequently access is blocked off, broken, or just not there. In all cases, the simple answer is 'ce n'est pas possible'. In a developed country, in the 21st century, when the World Health Organisation promotes participation for all, is it ok to respond to a lack of autonomy, contribution and participation in one's community with a simple 'it's not possible'? I would think not.
Rant over. I promise funny stories next time... Unless ce n'est pas possible

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A wheelchair in Paris

After 2 fun-filled weeks, I hopped on the Eurostar to get some respite in Paris. We had a moment of panic when the check-in man informed me that they already had 4 wheelchairs on board (I wondered if those chairs contained people) and that is a lot. Four wheelchairs is a lot???? Mate, I've just been to the Paralympics. Four is just the line for coffee...on a slow day!
After we established that I was traveling on that train (ok 'we' was probably 'me'), I sat back and let the French chic wash over me. And by 'French chic', I mean red wine.
When I arrived, it was pouring with rain. Paris was a sad, dreary, wet city. The people looked like wet poodles, and the poodles looked like.... Damn, I've run out of similes. Anyway, it was cold. I stood in the taxi line for 45 minutes, and then 10 minutes later, I was at my nice, comfortable hotel. I booked a hotel in the Invalides area, largely for the comedy value of the name. Get it, me as an invalid?? Ironical! Yeah, the French don't get it. I'm the only one that laughs each time I give directions to my home.
Speaking of les Invalides (heheh), up until today, I thought I had the only wheelchair in Paris. However, sitting in this cafe, in the last hour, 3 people have wheeled past me. They must also appreciate the free entry to the museums (not to mention the invitation to skip the long lines). Honestly, I turned up to Musee d'Orsay to see millions of people in line. I joined the queue, and there was a round of
'non Madame' from the guards. Suddenly I was ushered in the side entrance and welcomed like I owned the place. In order to prolong this feeling of superstardom, I kept popping out in order to pop back in in such a spectacular fashion.
But what Paris gives, Paris also takes away.... For a little while. Feeling very special and VIP-like, I left the museum to wheel home. On one of the roads, I had to bounce off the footpath past construction. I bounced down, wheeled for about 4 minutes, then found there was no way up. I was trapped on the road at the exit of a busy tunnel that ran under the Seine. What to do, what to do?
Well, I sat there like un Invalides for a bit... And a police car drove past at that moment. Next thing I know, the tunnel was blocked by the police car, traffic was stopped, and I was escorted across the road. Superstardom!
That's all for now, but next we speak, remind me to tell you about my first ever roller coaster ride at Eurodisney.
Cheers, L

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Post-paralympic Parisian Post

Well then. The Paralympics are over for another four years, which is just as well as it might take me four years to recover. I thought that being an athlete was difficult, but I hadn't counted on the stress in being a spectator. You see, when you're a paralympian, you have a team manager who organises transport, food, access to games, and sometimes sightseeing and entertainment to pass he downtime. As a spectator, I needed to provide this all for myself...with mixed success, let me tell you.
I became quite expert with the bus system...apart from the 'hop on hop off' bus. It seems only a few of those had wheelchair access, over three different routes. The bus company didn't see why this was a problem. For Gerry and I, it meant a long wait to 'hop on', only to watch two non-accessible buses go by. Followed by a discussion with a driver where he pointed out that when we 'hop off' we might need to wait for three or so buses to 'hop on' again. Not so much the 'hop on hop off' experience, more like the 'get our money back and go to the pub' experience.
As a spectator, as I said, you play every minute of every game. As a player, you do this too, but you have the opportunity to influence the outcome. Your actions have an effect. In London, in the crowd, I spent every game chewing the inside of my cheek, like I did when I was on the bench as a player. By the end of the tournament, I was actively avoiding orange juice
(carefully replacing it with alcoholic ginger beer, score!!!) as the insides if my cheeks were so sore.
But what can I say about the tournament? As you possibly know, the australian women's wheelchair basketball team, the gliders, won a silver medal. I can't speak for those players, but what I can do is tell you about my feelings when I won a silver in the Athens paralympics.
In a team sport, winning a silver means you lost the gold medal game. You go home with a shiny medal, of which you will eventually be proud, but you lost your last game. It's a hard position to be in. It took me a few months after Athens to start saying that I won the silver medal, and not that I had lost the gold.
I know this blog is meandering a little as I reflect on the London Paralympics. It's very difficult to reflect on an event that is: 1. Momentous, 2. Record-breaking, and 3. Represents many of the values that makes me me. The Paralympics is a gathering of people for whom negotiating the world is a tad more complex than the average person. People who have had to develop resilience, coping skills, negotiating skills, and a high belief in their own abilities...and that's just to go shopping! The lessons you learn as a young person with a disability in the presence of paralympians provide a framework to build a life. I will forever be grateful to those athletes who took me under their wings, and in turn, I tried to do the same.
So, yes the Paralympic games is a sporting event, and the sport was superb. However, it is so much more than that. For a child with a disability, it might be the first time they see a role model, a hero, something to aspire to, that isn't reliant on all body parts working, or even all body parts being present. For those of you with all your working bits all in the right places, you might not realise how important this is. Let's just say that the Paralympics feeds my soul.
I plan on attending the next Paralympics, in Rio in 2016. Brazil, the land of parties, Mardi Gras, and skimpy bikinis. I have four years to turn into a supermodel!!!
Cheers, Lisa