True confession: I hesitated about renting a wheelchair in Paris, because that would put me literally beneath Parisians, and yes—I’d been gullible enough to believe all the hype about Parisians being arrogant snobs. This misconception evaporated on the bus ride in from the Charles de Gaulle airport. I looked around, and saw people who reminded me of another slandered tribe, the New Yorkers. I was born a New Yorker. I’d always laughed at people who were too chicken to visit New York City. Oh, my. It was time to laugh at myself. I’d been as terrified of Paris as any Manhattan-fearing yokel from upstate.
My early years in the Bronx were replete with lectures about how to appear street-smart. I’d known since before I could walk by myself that you were never walk around a city street with an open map. Before we left for Paris, I read the warnings about gypsies attacking tourists near metro stops. When my more trusting, Midwestern-raised husband opened a map near the bus terminal at Charles de Gaulle, a woman with a head scarf approached us…and offered to help us find our way to the correct stop. My pocket was not picked. But my false pride was pricked.
I would put off renting a wheelchair until after a side trip to visit my friend Laura in the French Riviera. There I found I was able to walk most of a mild 2k loop through the glowing inner sanctum of gorgeous Nice. My legs went all heavy and numb before we’d quite made it to the parking lot just past the gazzillion dollar yachts, which left Laura in the uncomfortable position of having to dash off for her car, and pull up for me in the middle of a very busy street. After that incident, my husband asked Laura for translations of a few handy phrases. How do you say “multiple sclerosis” in French? How do you say,”wheelchair”?
Once we rented the wheelchair, we were able to see much more of Paris than we would have if we’d constrained ourselves to my current level of mobility. One of the many charms of Paris is that it’s a walkable city. As it turned out, Paris is also fairly wheel-able. There are cut corners at nearly all the intersections in Paris, and not nearly as many cobblestones as I had feared.
The sidewalks weren’t much of a problem with a wheelchair. What about the Metro? That wasn’t too tough for us, either. If I’d been on my own, I would have taken advantage of the law that states that taxi drivers are required to assist the wheelchair-bound. But since I had my husband and son to carry the wheelchair up and down the Metro stairs, we went that route, instead. I decided not to worry about what Parisians thought of me getting in and out of the wheelchair at the staircases. As it turned out, Parisians did wave and shout at us—but only to gesture us toward the subway elevators. So as not to paint too rosy a picture, I admit those elevators smelled of piss. But they were there. Not on all lines. But on some.
As it turned out, a wheelchair in Paris became something of a perk. My husband and I were shown to the beginning of every line at every museum, and qualified for free admission, just like our 15 year old son.
My favorite wheelchair moment occurred on the Eiffel Tower. After we took in the views from the platform, my husband, son and I waited on line for the elevator back down. It looked from my humble, wheelchair bound vantage point that elevator was full by the time we got to the door. My husband waved the elevator on. Then the nicest thing happened. The people in the elevator shifted, and stepped back, forming semi circle just big enough to include the three of us. My husband went ahead, and wheeled me on. I wished, at that moment, I could be eye-level with all the grownups, to thank each and every one, but it was nice enough to just be eye level with the kids.
The city I’d always assumed would snub me was instead a place of welcome and accommodation. Yet another useless fear discarded.
(This replaces “Ms. Lab Rat Loves France.” Sorry, subscribers: I don’t know how the final draft emerged with a headline, and no text. One clumsy move on an unfamiliar cell phone?)