Friday, August 8, 2014

Cobblestones & Canes & being Royal


    Traveling.  I love to travel.  I love to see new places.  See different cultures.  Try new foods.  Drink different beers.  I owe my love of traveling to my parents.  We were fortunate enough to go across country twice when I was in elementary school.  Those trips opened up so many new worlds to me and I think it's a big reason I now live in the Great Pacific Northwest.

    I made my first trip over the pond in late 2008.  My good friend Thor Petersen and I left Seattle on the Winter Solstice and landed in Copenhagen.  I had a bucket list item to skate the canals of Amsterdam and 
my dream almost came true.  The canals had not frozen over in 13 years but that drought ended!  Unfortunately I missed the frozen canals by 2 days.  I did end up skating on an outdoor Olympic rink and gave my skates to a big tall young man with large feet (mine are size 15).  It was a great memory and a great trip!  Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.  The cold snap lasted the entire trip and it was dark by 5pm every night.  I had a blast traveling with Thor and the memories from that trip are still very active in my mind.

My good friend Thor!

Skating in Amsterdam!

    When I traveled to Europe the 1st time, I was legally blind and I used a 42'' tall I.D. cane.  This cane is exactly what you think.  Its an identification cane so people know I have trouble seeing and they should get out of my way!  I had no cane skills so the cane provided no information of my surroundings.  Thor was a big help while we navigated around areas that were unfamiliar to me.  Thor prevented me from walking into bollards, drifting into bike paths and falling down basement stairs that jutted into sidewalks.  I was surprised by how many people paid no attention to my cane.  I couldn't figure out if it was tourists not paying attention or people in Europe not used to seeing people with canes.  Regardless, the trip was successful from the standpoint of being visually impaired.  No injuries.  No deaths.  No major embarrassing moments.

Me with my 42" I.D. Cane!
    6 years later I was ready for my 2nd trip to Europe.  This time with my wife Kiirsten, her son Ian (15) and my two daughters Acadia (14) and Sierra (11).  Same duration as my 1st trip (2 weeks) but we were going to land near the Summer Solstice.  4 days London, 4 days Paris, 4 days Berlin and 2 days Copenhagen.  3 train rides totaling 17 hours.  Travel through the Chunnel.  Time in the countryside near London and Paris.  Pearl Jam in Berlin at an outdoor amphitheater and a train ride that actually went on a ferry across the Baltic Sea!  We had everything booked and we were excited to go!  As the trip got closer I periodically wondered what Europe would be like this time with less vision.  I had cane skills and a longer cane now, so I was interested in comparing the 2 trips.   I wasn't nervous.  I can thank my Mobility Instructor Penny Armstrong for that!  I had confidence in my cane skills.  I knew I could get around by myself and if I couldn't, I would ask for help.

My Rock Star Teacher Penny!  She has given me so many tools for more independence!

   Boom!  Just like that, we were walking the streets of London!  Good Day!  Jolly Well!  Fair Enough!  Brilliant!  Listening to people talk in England was fantastic!  I was so jealous of there accent.  Everything sounded better with a British accent!  We navigated the tube (inner city trains).  We walked the streets.  We had no idea what side of the sidewalk to walk on.  You drive on the left in london, so do you walk on the left? Nope.  People walked where ever they wanted.  There was no pattern.  I never got used to car travel being opposite than the U.S.  Crossing streets was confusing.  London was nice enough to write on the pavement at intersections, 'look left' or 'look right'.  My cane was already proving its worth.  I didn't walk into bollards or signs.  People generally got out of my way.  I didn't fall off curbs.  I found crosswalks easily because of the plastic rumble strip located right before you crossed a street.  I would walk out in front of my family at times.  I would charge along at a good pace.

Headed to our Hotel!

Downtown London viewed from the Eye!

    Early into our trip I would meet my biggest challenge.  I didn't know it at the time and maybe that was good to not know what I was in for.  Cobblestones.  I love cobblestones.  They look amazing on narrow streets surrounded by 500 year old homes clad in stone and iron.  The different textures, sizes, shapes and colors make for great eye candy, but cobblestones and canes don't mix.  My cane tip would dig into the joint between stones and stop me in my tracks.  I would sometimes be lifted off the ground like a fledgling pole vaulter.  My graphite cane would bend like I had a 100lb fish on the other end as the golf grip cane handle dug into my lower abdomen.  It hurt.  It was startling.  I shook it off and continued on my way.  It reminded me of jacking my shins through the years on coffee tables, dishwasher doors open, and low fences.  I've had a constant array of bruises on my shins for years.  I willwhack my shins on something and keep walking like nothing happened.  Its like stubbing your toe.  You know the pain will subside in several minutes.  I have a strong urge to litter the room with profanity but I usually stay silent.  I'm not going to let that object win.  That's what I thought about cobblestones.  

My Teacher in Patience.  Cobblestones.

Pretty Cobblestones. 

    We moved onto Paris with the help of a high speed Eurostar Train.  186 mph is insanely fast, especially without a seat belt!  I have a special place in my heart for Paris.  The people, the language, the architecture.  I can't find a more magnificent church than Notre Dame.  We had a blast roaming the streets of Paris over the next several days.  We tore up that city!  Paris was much the same as London in terms of mobility for me.  It was nice to have the cars driving on the 'right' side of the road.  We of course encountered lots of cobblestones.  Cobblestones would win.  A lot.  I would even stop using my cane sometimes to avoid being stabbed by my cane.  Not an optimum solution but I needed a break.  I tried a marshmallow roller tip on my cane that helped.  It was a much bigger tip which made it harder to get stuck in the 1/2" grooves, but it was heavier and my hand got tired more easily swinging it from side to side.  The cobblestones could also have a 1/2'' variant in height between stones so even the bigger tip would still get hung up.  I tried the marshmallow tip for a day but went back to the lighter tip.    
Notre Dame

My Ceramic Tip vs the Marshmallow Roller Tip

    Have you ever been treated like Royalty?  Maybe you rented a Limo one time.  Maybe your company scored an executive suite at a sporting event.  Or maybe you got upgraded to First Class on a plane for free. It can be awesome.  To be waited on.  To feel rich or royal even if it's just for a short time can make for a story worth repeating.  No one told me becoming legally blind included a celebrity card.  I generally get my whole family to the shortest line at airport security checkpoints.  We can board the plane first.  I get seats offered to me on packed buses and trains.  I get special (close to my seat) bathrooms at concerts.  People are constantly offering to help me get somewhere in a city.  I get offered elevators in lieu of stairs.  I get discounts on tickets.  I get a life time pass to national parks for free.  I get a lifetime handicap parking placard.  What's not to love about that?  I should be thrilled and sometimes I am.  I know my family likes not waiting in a 2 hour security line.  I'm fairly certain we would have missed our flight in Seattle if we had not received preferential treatment because of Ol' Blindy.  I try to graciously accept people helping me.  I know they are doing it because they care, but it can really grind on me.  It really feels like I have a Big Scarlet Letter on my chest.  Blind people are not necessarily lazy.  I don't need to take an elevator instead of stairs and I don't need your seat on the bus.  When people feel pity for you it can suck.  I don't want someone feeling sorry for me or treating me like I'm weak and helpless.  I know I can do that to other people with disabilities.  I can feel sorry for them.  I know its human nature.  I usually want to be left alone.  I want to go unnoticed.  Probably much like a celebrity feels.  There was a 2-3 hour line to get into Versailles.  A huge snaking line of people probably 300 feet long.  There was no way we were waiting in 85 degree heat to see Versailles.  Kiirsten checked in with an attendant and 3 minutes later all 5 of us were entering Versailles.  No charge.  No wait.  How do I reconcile that?  Heck ya I want to see Versailles with no wait but I also wan to be left alone most of the time.  People stare at you.  Constantly.  They bend their necks around so much I worry their necks may snap.  Our trip was filled with no line waiting, discounts, people staring, and people offering help.  I haven't mastered how to always accept help graciously or turn down help respectfully or even educate someone that NOT all people with a cane are totally blind.  Most of the world has two types of people in regards to eye balls.  People who can see and people who are blind. It is my understanding that 80% of the 'blind' community have some vision.   I work hard on trying to take all of the attention and offers as a form of love.  It's good for me.  It makes me a better person.  As we rolled into a new venue without paying or waiting my kids would lean in, hug me and say, "thanks for being blind Dad".  My pleasure.  

Please give me your seat! I'm Blind!!

Blind people this way!

    As the trip rolled onto Berlin I was able to evaluate how things were going for me.  My family was helpful and loving towards me and I know they struggled when they saw me struggle.  Discounts, no lines, people staring, and new obstacles in every city was wearing on me.  I have always thought of a trip as a mini life.  You tend to deal with all of the things that happen over a life time in a vacation.  You have joy, heartache, accidents, wonderful moments, and constant new situations.  It can be an emotional roller coaster.  It's not normal everyday life.  It's not routine.  I was really starting to notice I was gearing up for each day.  I had to mentally prepare for the day before we left the hotel.  Walking on different terrain, going to different places, dealing with different transit systems.  I wasn't upset but I could tell there was mental energy needed to stay focused so I would stay upright and in one piece. 

    Kiirsten found a free walking tour in Berlin.  It looked fun.  Berlin was full of history and we were all excited to learn more about this great city.  We had a wonderful lunch near the holocaust monument (incredibly powerful monument) and headed over to the Starbucks next to the Brandenburg Gate to meet our tour guide.  Rob McCracken from England was our spunky guide for the afternoon.  There was probably 25 people in our group and we were off.  I stayed near the back because it was hard to walk in a pack.  The group walked briskly and Rob liked to jay walk.  We found plenty of cobblestones and metal grates.  I had had enough.  I wanted to be in a bar with a tall glass of German beer.  I wanted to sit down.  I wanted to be in a kayak on the Spree river.  I was done.  Kiirsten was worried about me.  I'm sure the kids could tell something was wrong.  And there was the rub.  I love my family.  I want them to have a great time, even if I can't do something because of my vision.  All of them having a great time makes me happy.  That is hard to achieve because my family cares about me.  If I struggle, they struggle.  That reality was right up in my grill.  I wanted to struggle by myself.  I wanted to struggle unnoticed.  When you are surrounded by people who love you that is not an option.  It sucked. I felt claustrophobic.  I felt trapped.  It was my perception and my fault for feeling this way.  My family would have gladly left the tour to help me out but I was not ok with that option.  I would have felt like I ruined the afternoon.  I wanted to break my cane into a million pieces.  I envisioned myself smashing my cane on the cobblestones until only tiny shards of graphite remained.  I wanted to yell.  I wanted to explode with f-bombs.  None of that happened.  My face and body language told the story but my lips stayed closed.  I felt bad that I cracked.  I'm sorry my family had to witness my struggles.  I know I should give myself more space to feel what I felt but that didn't happen. 

Berlin was gorgeous!!!!!

And of course it provided many obstacles for my cane!

Another great example of something that is beautiful and a nightmare for a person with a cane! My cane tip would fit perfect in the manhole cover holes! 
Taking a break from the Cobblestones with Cadie's help!
    The next morning over coffee at our favorite little bakery down the street from our hotel I opened the gates.  I broke down.  I cried.  My voice trembled.  I was pissed and crying.  Kiirsten just listened.  She has always been so supportive of me in these moments.  She usually encourages me to be more angry.  She knows I'm going to have hard moments with my vision loss.  I'm an extrovert so I can only carry my feelings around for so long until it has to come out.  I let out all my feelings over coffee.  Nothing was fixed or solved.  You can't fix it and that's ok.  I was empty in my head and ready to carry on. 

    I went back to the heavier bigger marshmallow roller tip for the rest of the trip and it really helped.  I dealt with the bigger load on my wrists and it was worth it.  I still got hung up on cobblestones but it happened much less.  A fun highlight was finding blind trails.  As the trip rolled on I would find more trails.  Train stations in France, Germany and Demark had blind trails and I even found trails in the streets of Copenhagen.  The trails were awesome!  Just feeling the trail under my feet made me smile wide! While we waited for trains I would wander around the station on the trails like a 4 yr old would investigate new places.  The blind trails were a raised pattern of bumps about 18'' wide.  In  Train stations the trails would lead you to bathrooms, elevators or ticket counters.  On the street they would help you navigate through a city.  Blind Trails (my name for them) for Visually Impaired or Blind People were like Bike Corridors for cyclists.  I also relied on my family more for help at times.  Kiirsten was taught how to be a human guide from my mobility instructor Penny and we taught the girls how to do it.  Sierra, Cadie and Kiirsten led me all through Versailles and all of them took turns through out the rest of the trip.  It was really helpful and gave me a break.  I think they all enjoyed helping me too.   If I let my guard down and accept help there are little nuggets of goodness waiting for me.  It's always a balancing act.  I want to be independent but I also need to accept love and help from people.  I know I want to do the same for others. 

Blind Trails Rocked!  This was in a train station.

My favorite Blind Trail in Copenhagen!  It was beautiful and really fun/effective to walk on!
Ol' Blindy walking next to the Blind Trail!

Gard de L'est Train Station, Paris!

    Our European Family Vacation was Epic.  It was life changing.  We had highlights.  We had lowlights.  We all became closer to each other as a blended family.  We are labeled a blended family by society but to me Kiirsten, Ian, Cadie and Sierra are just my family.  Our trip could be explained with 7 words.  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  We experienced it all.  It was mostly awesome with some rough spots.  Its how I hope my whole life goes.  We all get served rough spots.  What do we learn from the storms in life and how do we handle ourselves during those tough moments is what I care about.  Its what I focus on.  I'm gonna break down again.  I may even smash my cane some day, but I'm gonna keep getting back up.  Life is an incredible ride and I couldn't be happier with how my life has turned out so far.  

   I will end this story with pictures that I think capture the essence of our trip.  Love.  Compassion.  Laughter.  Empathy.  Joy.  Family.  Forever.  
My Family! If you told me 8 years ago this would be my life, I wouldn't have believed you!
My girls.  They don't always get along but I hope deep down inside they love each other. 
Kiirsten and Cadie bonding!

Cadie and Ian bonding!  Or should I say Cadie is harassing Ian!  

Dinner with the fam bam!
I feel so much love from my daughters!  They do a wonderful job of looking out for me!

Family Selfie! I guess we should practice some more!
Family Selfie! We got it right this time!

So proud of my 14 year old daughter Cadie!
KK and Ian in Copenhagen!
Sierra, KK and Ian headed out to a palace in Berlin for the afternoon while Cadie and I check out more of downtown Berlin!

Ian is growing up into a wonderful young man and I feel so blessed to have him as a step son.
Sierra giving her Dad some love!

Thanks SO much for taking time to read this!  I hope you enjoyed it and maybe even learned something about the diverse world of visually impaired people!