Travelling must be in my blood. Quite a lot of my trips have been with family members, who have also spent a lifetime wandering far and wide. Over half of my European city breaks have been with my Grandma, let’s call her ‘WanderNan’, who also shares my love of history, culture, and architecture.
Only WanderNan is very sick, and very frail, and on what was intended to be her last ever trip abroad she needed a wheelchair to get from A to B.
And I never prepared for how hard, emotionally and physically, that would be.
WanderNan wanted one last trip to her favorite country, the Netherlands. She told me what she wanted, to go to Maastricht (in the South), and let me book the whole thing for us. Her doctor told us that she couldn’t fly because of her illnesses, so we took the boat from Newcastle to Amsterdam. We spent a few days in Amsterdam before getting the train to Maastricht.
There are two things that I failed to take into account with this. Amsterdam is a very busy city with tram lines at crossings, and Maastricht is a beautiful, but cobbled, city.
We discussed getting a lightweight wheelchair to take, thinking that it would be better to travel with, and I left it up to her to sort that out, while I worked on all of the bookings. I should have done more research on this.
Ignorantly, I assumed that transport and buildings would be wheelchair friendly (trains in the UK seemed to be easily accessibly for wheelchairs), and ignored my own advice in my previous post where I stated that you cannot assume that the whole world is like your own world.
Trams in Amsterdam had huge steps which made it impossible to get a wheelchair on, as did the trains between Amsterdam and Maastricht, and I came across very little help from the public. I was exhausted, embarrassed, and frustrated. (Embarrassed for doing things wrong, like where to put a wheelchair on a tram, and felt like the members of staff were belittling me, not embarrassed by WanderNan and her chair).
At some points I found myself having to carry a wheelchair, a suitcase, a weekend holdall, and two handbags up three flights of stairs. I was bruised, sore, and crying inside. I kept asking myself how I could have not prepared for this and put my Nan through this.
WHAT I WISH I HAD DONE + RECOMMENDATIONS
As the days progressed, I started to reflect on all of the things that I could have done to make the trip easier on both of us.
1) Think about how you pack – pack light, avoid suitcases which cannot be pulled as you are pushing a wheelchair. Bags could be put on the back of the handles, over your shoulder, or on WanderNan’s knee.
2) Check Train services – ignorantly I had assumed that I could just push a chair on, similar to the UK’s services. This was not the case with the trains that I used in the Netherlands. Apparently, some trains have this ability, some don’t. Check before booking.
3) If it isn’t stated, email hotels about disability access and to make sure you get the best room for wheelchair access. They don’t know unless you tell them.
4) Plan itinerary for access – most places wen’t above and beyond to help me, however some did prove difficult to get to because of cobbled streets. Plan your route ahead, and when in doubt, get a taxi.
5) Research your wheelchair – I cannot stress this enough as I felt like many of my problems could have been less hard if only I had looked into this more. The wheelchair we ended up with had equal sized wheels on both front and back, which meant that when it got stuck I struggled to do anything about this. Small wheels got stuck on tram lines. Wheelchairs with much larger wheels on the back would mean that I could tilt it back easier to get it moving again. Getting it stuck in the middle of the road only added to my overall frustration.
6) Do not overlook the strain on yourself – I had been told by other people that it would be hard, but to me, a wheelchair would make it so much easier for us. I was giving WanderNan a means for more freedom to explore, but by not properly researching wheelchairs or access I had put us in a situation that was quite restrictive for her. Again, this made me frustrated. You will get little help, so be fully confident in yourself that you can cope.
Some days I had to leave WanderNan at the hotel, and explore on my own, which I felt terrible about. I kept thinking that if only I had looked into it more before we had left then I could have avoided the problems that arose from this. If you are taking relatives aboard, like I did with my Nan, and thinking about getting a wheelchair to help with your travels, then please take my above advice. Shop around for wheelchairs, and check every single step of your itinerary.