Part of returning to life ‘After B.C.’ (Breast Cancer) is going on holiday outside of the UK.
Alt Text: A selfie of a white man & woman, taken at an intersection of the road with a statue in the background (it’s Bastille, Paris). The man is wearing a grey, flat cap, tortoise-shell rimmed glasses, a blue denim jacket & a blue/grey t-shirt. He is smiling. The woman has long, curly brown/blond hair & she is wearing brown/pink rimmed, round glasses, a white mask & a metallic pink rain jacket.
Going on holiday can be a major undertaking as a wheelchair user, especially overseas, but I wondered how complicated it would be post-COVID (i.e., extra checks for vaccinations, etc.), post-Brexit (my partner is French & has E.U. Settled Status) & post-surgery/radiotherapy. But after two years of watching how countries were slowly opening their borders & getting used to my new diagnosis, I decided that the best way to find out was to actually go on a holiday outside of the UK.
I started with the easy option. All of my partner’s family live in, or around, Paris & we’ve frequently travelled by Eurostar. As we’d been separated from them for a couple of years, we were excited to be able to see them.
It was too early into diagnosis for me to comfortably fly anywhere. I’ve got many personal stories of being left stranded on planes, nearly missing planes because assistance arrived late, my wheelchair being broken or lost, & inappropriate questioning &/or comments about my impairment by airport staff &/or cabin crew. And all of this happened way before COVID-19 temporarily shut down the air industry. I couldn’t face being manhandled by staff from wheelchair to aisle transfer chair to plane seat, & vice versa, because of the pain levels that I’m currently experiencing due to medication.
In contrast, I love travelling by train & if I can choose this option over flying, I will every time. Plus, it’s more environmentally friendly. Of course, the train isn’t without its problems, such as luggage blocking the wheelchair space, the accessible toilet being out of order, or being left on the train or missing the train because ramp assistance hasn’t been provided. But I’ve always had a great experience on Eurostar, including as a frequent lone traveller.
I always book in person at St Pancras station (London) rather than over the telephone or online because I prefer the face-to-face communication when I’m trying to explain my access requirements. Booking was easy & not much of the booking assistance process had changed in the past years when I hadn’t been able to travel to Paris. The agent showed us on his phone how to download the NHS COVID-Pass App which was the only unfamiliar thing that we had to do. Even my partner’s E.U. Settled Status was straightforward when booking. The only minor blip came when I got an email to say that my train had been cancelled & new tickets had been issued to via online booking which had been set up for me. After faffing around with that for a while, I saw that our tickets were exactly the same as before – a relief because I can’t travel without being allocated the designated wheelchair space.
Travel out to Paris was hectic, but it did go smoothly, considering the situation we had found ourselves in. When we arrived at St Pancras, I’d never seen so many people queuing to get through security; the queue was so long that it was coming out of the station. Luckily, travellers needing assistance can queue-jump but when we reached the assistance area, there were more people than I’d ever seen waiting for support. It turned out that we’d booked to travel on the same day as the 30th Anniversary of Disneyland Paris opening. And here was I, thinking I was clever for booking a holiday during school term-time! However, there were many Eurostar personnel on hand to help, so we managed to get through all checks very quickly. The only long wait was to board the train; our train was delayed as it was taking longer to on-board all the families for the Disneyland train. Yet our Eurostar staff member stayed with us on the platform until the train doors opened & we were handed over to the train staff. Being abandoned for hours without assistance at airports & train stations was a big reason for me to stop travelling on my own.
The delay in getting on the train was the first time on the journey that I started to get fatigued. Due to my impairment, I move around frequently in my wheelchair, but now because of the Breast Cancer surgery & the side effects of treatment, I find sitting for extended periods without stretching out my arms & legs, really painful. When it came to pushing myself up the ramp, I couldn’t do it; I needed extensive help but once onto the train & into the wheelchair space, I could stretch my legs out & have a sleep.
The trains have been modified since I last travelled & they’re more like UK trains now – a bit less luxurious – I have to be honest – but actually I had more space to move around & the route to the accessible toilet was much clearer. It seemed to me as if there were a couple more wheelchair spaces (always in the Business Class) per train, but I couldn’t be entirely sure.
I was also relieved that we still got a meal on the train (& very often the meal is very nice). The Eurostar train staff are always really helpful & check that you’re ok – I do appreciate this. I can’t travel alone in standard carriages on UK trains because I haven’t got any means by which to get to the restaurant carriage. I even if I could get there, that wouldn’t be an option for me now; currently I don’t appear to have the strength or dexterity to negotiate tight spaces & I often drop things that I’m carrying because the nerves in my hands are messed up. That loss of grip in my hands & my balance being even poorer ‘After B.C.’, made going to the loo almost impossible. I don’t really know how I didn’t fall to the floor when I was transferring, or even off the toilet itself mid-wee (lol!). I was sweating when I came out of the loo due to all the energy that I’d used up just to do this simple task!
Post-cancer diagnosis, I have stronger anti-sickness tablets & these were a game-changer for me during the journey. Usually, I have to face the direction that I’m travelling in (& even then, it’s no guarantee that I won’t be sick!) but for the first time, I was completely fine travelling backwards.
Once we reached our destination, Gare du Nord, Paris, the staff were already there with the ramp on the platform (as they should be on every journey, anywhere in the world!) & a staff member, recognising that I was tired, helpfully pushed me to the taxi rank (a little fast & a little close to the platform edge for my liking, but he was determined to whizz me through the crowds, lol). At Gare du Nord, disabled people go to the front of the taxi queue, but it’s always chaos as the taxis come in & staff literally hustle you into one. It really is like that, being hustled! You’re swept along with staff, taxi drivers & confused passengers with a lot of raised voices & wild arm gestures. I’d so missed this!
My partner & I had started speaking in French as soon as the train crossed the border. Although I have a degree in languages & my conversational French isn’t too bad, I was worried about how much my menopausal brain would screw up & I’d be coming out with some random, nonsensical words. There were instances of this across our stay, mainly in the evenings as I experience a lot of fatigue then, but on the whole, I surprised myself at how much I could remember.
Like my partner, I’m a creature of habit. After thinking carefully about whether I now needed a bigger accessible ‘wet room’ (a bathroom without a step to the shower, without a bath) because of my reduced mobility, but we decided to book again with our favourite budget chain hotel in the 11th area of Paris. The accessible room & shower are probably too small for people who use larger wheelchairs & who may need a hoist, but I’m happy to report that the facilities were still manageable for me. And it’s a home from home – most of the hotel staff were still there from our previous visits & we were incredibly happy to see each other again.
We spent five days in Paris. It was the perfect amount – enough for us to see all the family & have some time by ourselves too. I was anxious about how tired I would get each day, especially in the evenings as most nights, I’m lucky if I stay awake until 9pm. I knew we’d be occupied all day & then I’d have to get ready to go out to eat in the evening, without much, if any, rest in between. And understandably I didn’t want to miss out on anything or have to stay back in the hotel room. I only had one “OMG I CAN’T DO THIS, I’M SO F****** TIRED!” one evening, but after a little rest, I was able to muster the strength to eat late at a nearby restaurant. One morning I overslept, so my partner brought some breakfast back to our room, so I didn’t have to rush to get ready. I found that exploring places & being out of my usual routine kept me energised – I mean, who doesn’t find Paris fascinating! And of course, it was so lovely to spend quality time with family once again, & to meet my partner’s great-niece for the very first time (an adorable moment!)
Of course, Paris has its challenges because it’s an old city. It’s also being refurbished & cleaned in preparation for the Olympics & Paralympics 2024 so there is a level of disruption. There’s never been many wheelchair-accessible toilets (I’m hoping that this changes during the course of the refurbishment!) & I tend to plan sightseeing around where I know there is a toilet that I can use; they can be found at most of the large tourist attractions, art galleries & museums. But if you like to go to places off the beaten track & fully adopt the Parisian café culture like I do, then finding suitable toilets is trickier, & the only option is to limit your fluid intake. This really isn’t a great thing to do.
I got ‘caught short’ once at Parc de Bercy in the 12th. It’s pretty modern around there & has undergone a redevelopment similar to Granary Square (Kings Cross, London) but the lift to the cinema which houses the accessible toilets was broken so we had to wander around for a while in search of an appropriate toilet. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a wheelchair symbol through the open doorway of a modern Japanese restaurant, so we stopped there for a drink & to use the facilities. However, I guess some aspects of inaccessibility are universal because the accessible toilet was narrow & baby highchairs were being stored in there!
Public transport can be tricky in Paris – I’ve used the buses (there are wheelchair spaces on board), the taxis (but often my style of wheelchair is tricky to fit into the average Parisien taxi) & the RER (this is the mainline overground train system & the ramp access is managed by the train driver – so much more efficient) but mostly my partner & walk. Paris has grand, wide pavements that don’t get too crowded & if you walk into central Paris by the river Seine, passing Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s so beautiful.
In case of any detailed explanations that I may have needed to give, or any emergencies, I’d practiced saying “I had breast cancer, radiotherapy, no I didn’t need chemo” etc in French but apart from the tiredness & having to scrutinise the menus for any food allergies, e.g., mushrooms (anyone else having that issue? My sister couldn’t keep down mushrooms either whilst in treatment!), thankfully I didn’t need any of those phrases.
I cried on the morning of our return. I’d missed all the family & the beautiful city so much. Anxieties started to creep back into my mind: “What if this is the last time that I visit Paris?” Always so much to process & so many irrational thoughts to dispel.
The UK Customs guy at Eurostar Paris made it worse for me by barking: “Where do you live?” I so wanted to say “Paris, thank God!” but instead I replied: “London” to which he then asked why I’d been there. “On holiday!” I replied even grumpier than ever. In fact, I almost said: “So are you going to deny me a bloody holiday as well after all this Brexit shambles?” He pursed his lips & let me through, thankfully, as I was already over-tired & in increasing levels of pain. Note: My French partner got no questions whatsoever from either French or British customs – he was really worried about this. We were also able to stay together at all times during all the security checks, despite having passports issued by different countries which was a huge relief to us both because I need a lot of help from my partner.
But my holiday ‘After B.C.’ had passed successfully, so now I know that I can holiday outside of the UK. TICK!