Sunday, September 7, 2008

Scooting through Town

Twice a month I walk four easy minutes to my local tram stop, hop on the tram and disembark fifteen minutes later at Ebertplatz, from where I walk just five minutes to join the other women in my writing group. Getting there is usually so easy, I don’t even think about it. During the past summer, however, tram and subway service to this station, which turns out to one of the nuts and bolts of Cologne’s public transportation system, was unexpectedly disrupted. I grumbled to my other writing friends while looking for alternate means of reaching this and other stations in Cologne. A few weeks before they so rudely closed the station, I was curious to find the station an increasingly pungent cloud of dust, with bagfuls of concrete fragments piled high. I would see transit workers at 11 pm, painstakingly blasting away at concrete at deafening decibels, welding pieces of train track, entertaining me with evening fireworks. Every week there seemed to be more boarded walkways , exposed wiring and blocked exits. The station was a mess, and even now that the station is again open, it’s not much better. The other day I saw a man standing there sneezing while waiting for his tram. The only difference I could see was that you didn’t have to climb steps anymore to get on the tram, and there were some pretty tiles that had been laid among bare, exposed concrete slabs. During the summer, when getting around Cologne was such a nightmare, I wondered what the big deal was. Now I understand completely and heartily approve. Ebertplatz is the first of several tram stops which is in the process of being transformed into a disabled-friendly station and transfer point.

Last week I had the opportunity to discover first-hand what it means to get around a city as a disabled person. We had my friends Bonnie and Andrew, who is disabled, as guests for a week. Andrew is able to walk, but he has a back condition which makes walking or climbing excruciatingly painful.

Even while planning their trip over from England, we had to discuss the logistics of getting around. Andrew had recently purchased a “mobility scooter”, a vehicle which looks a lot like a golf cart. This has to be stored in a vehicle big enough to contain it, which meant that they had to buy a new car. Andrew and Bonnie couldn’t fly to Germany because there was no way Andrew could get his scooter onto a plane, and he wanted to use the scooter to have some independence of movement. They decided to drive here. This meant that, once his scooter had safely arrived with the car, they would need to periodically charge up the battery. Which meant they had to have access to a power outlet. I live in an apartment, so we had to find a way to get an extension cord to his car. We would also need an adaptor, since English plugs are not the same as German.

Charging the battery proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I figured we’d just let them park outside our building near the laundry room, and I would put an extension cord through the window. But the parking spot there is allocated to someone else. So Andrew parked his car underneath our apartment in an available parking spot, and we started improvising. It was a little like letting Rapunzel’s hair down. One extension cord down the window, clanking on its way down on the neighbor’s window. Fears of damaging the window. The cord was not long enough. Up went the cord, and we added another to it. It worked! But the question arose, what if it rains? The extension cord is not waterproof. Back up the window again. We looked in the dark in our outdoor balcony storage area, using our flashlight until we found the all-weather extension cord. Finally we had a system which would work, and Andrew’s scooter could be charged all night, even if it should rain.

The next morning we were all set to go. Andrew painfully walked the twenty steps to street level, and we all climbed into his car, off to the Cologne Cathedral. It was awesome to see how cheerful he was, as long as he could drive his own car – or mobility scooter.

Off we drove, chatting amiably while anticipating handicapped parking underneath the cathedral, which we surmised to be the most popular parking garage in Cologne. We found the garage and began looking for the familiar wheelchair sign, but we looked in vain. After circling around a few times, we finally decided to simply take a spot, thinking we had somehow missed the handicapped spots. I found an attendant and asked him where the handicapped spots were. “There aren’t any,” was the curt answer. “Do you have an elevator we can take to get out of here?” “Nope, we don’t have one of those either.” “Well, then, how are we supposed to get out of here?” The nonchalant answer was that we could simply take the scooter out through the exit, where the cars leave the garage, and then find our way through the streets and sidewalks of Cologne.

We gamely rolled out of the garage, forcing the car behind us to wait, only to land on a huge construction zone and no sidewalks! We had to roll on down a road and even onto gravel, which the scooter doesn’t take well to. We eventually got onto a sidewalk. Now the problem was to get to the cathedral, which is uphill from the parking garage. I knew about steps from the street to the plaza level. The question was, could we find a way there without steps? We did! The long way around. But no matter. We made it into the cathedral, and were able to move around there at liberty. As the resident of Cologne showing my guests around, I was overjoyed that there was a way for a disabled person to get into the cathedral, even if it was a bit difficult.

Our adventure continued. We found an outdoor café/brewery near the cathedral where we could park Andrew’s scooter. He managed, with a few pained groans, to climb out onto a chair. We enjoyed the afternoon sun and a delicious Kölsch with our lunch. After lunch, our courage fortified, we continued our adventure, heading over to a two-story music store where Bonnie could browse through sheet music. Here Andrew’s fortune came to an end. There was no way for him to get upstairs, so he waited downstairs, entertaining other shoppers with his jokes. I wondered if he found it funny that there was no way he could look at or buy sheet music if he needed it.

We continued on down the main shopping street, stopping for an ice cream cone. We noticed that Andrew’s was the only scooter amongst thousands of pedestrians. Where were all the handicapped people of Cologne? Weren’t there any, or were they hiding? I suspected that they were hiding somewhere.

On another trip to Cologne, we decided to try taking the scooter onto the tram to a Saturday afternoon jazz concert. We grinned at each other in relief after we all managed to get onto the tram with now mishaps. We only had to share the space with bikes and baby strollers. Andrew flirted with a baby. Someone on the tram assumed that we wanted to go to the zoo, which stop is also along the same line. He informed us that there was no possibility for a scooter to get off the tram there. This proved to be one of the stations still needing to be overhauled. But our station, Appelhofplatz, had a high platform and an elevator! So we were all set to hear the concert. We only needed to take the elevator onto the sidewalk outside, go into a city-center shopping mall, and get on another elevator which would take us to the basement, where the jazz concert was to take place. All went well. After the concert we went grocery shopping at a health food supermarket with aisles wide enough to handle the scooter. Shopping in a department store also proved to be no problem. This was fun!

Another time we went out on the Rhine, driving with the scooter in the back of the car to a town near the vineyards where glorious Rhine wines are produced. Before planning the trip we phoned the shipping line and were told it would be no problem to take the scooter. What a delight it was to see Andrew’s scooter rolling steadily up the gangplank, onto the boat, and then to find an elevator on the boat that could take us right to the deck! I was so excited, I bought us all cakes and tea. The weather was glorious, warm and sunny. My pleasure at watching the scenery was intensified by the feeling of gratitude that this was all possible. Life did not have to end, I discovered, if you are in a wheelchair. The only question remaining was, where were all the others?

Our return Rhine trip was a little more difficult. This boat was an old, romantic steamer with no elevator. However, even here there was a sort of make-shift lift you could use on the stairs, but it was too narrow for the scooter. No matter. We sat out on the deck on the main level, where we also had great views.

Since seeing first-hand what life for a disabled person is like, I now seem to always find myself looking for other people on wheelchairs or scooters, and I discover myself constantly checking to see whether public areas are disabled-friendly. Every time the tram stops at the zoo, I hope this stop will be the next one to be demolished. I will cheer, not grumble. I also look forward to the day when the sidewalks, car parks and trams are crowded, packed with tourists and shoppers on mobility scooters! I will happily put up with the congestion.

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