Getting There Comfortably

Getting There Comfortably

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It was just a year ago that my family arrived at
the airport to move to Paris. My husband had been living there,
searching for a home and had come back to the States to help us make
the flight. Our 2-year-old little girl was dangling her favorite teddy
bear from its ear, her eyes wide in anticipation.

It
might sound wonderful, but we were a wreck. We had already shipped our
household goods and were scheduled to fly on Sept.11th. Obviously, that
flight was cancelled. So, after two weeks of living on an air mattress,
in an empty home we left to board the first flight to Paris that would
take us. Our little girl was actually our puppy—who is so large her
crate is just short of a lion’s cage.

We
had repeatedly called the airline to let them know just how many
suitcases we had, how large the dog crate was, and the fact that I was
in a wheelchair. When we finally arrived at the airport, with the help
of my dear in-laws, the staff from Air France smiled, raised their
eyebrows and said, “We’ve been expecting you”. Yes, the high
maintenance family was moving to Paris! That trip is a distant memory
now, and I’ll try to share my collective experiences as an handicapped
traveler.

At check-in they
will put handicapped tags on your luggage, so when you arrive at
Charles de Gaulle there will be someone to assist you. If you are
physically uncomfortable traveling, try to take one of the new Boeing
777s. The seats are larger, more comfortable, and there is more
legroom. In the US, I have always been able to take my wheelchair to
the gate. (But when leaving from Charles de Gaulle, they insist on
checking my chair with my baggage).

At
security they pull me aside and put my things through the metal
detector. A woman pats me down and pats my chair down. They have always
been friendly and respectful. At the gate they take my chair and it’s
the very last thing they put on the plane. If you are not taking your
own chair, but need assistance, they will wheel you to the gate and
arrange a chair to meet you at your destination. I also take a cane to
walk with on the plane and several small pillows, loaded into one big
pillowcase. They have never said a word about all of the pillows and
frankly, they would have an easier time prying my dog’s Teddy Bear away
from her.

If you can’t walk
from the door of the plane to your seat, the airlines have a narrow
wheelchair for this purpose. I always check in with the staff at the
gate and remind them I’m taking my own chair. They often make an effort
to put me next to an empty seat. If you’re traveling coach they
sometimes seat you in the bulkhead, because it is closest to the
entrance of the plane. Some people like it, but to me it is the least
comfortable, because of lack of legroom and no storage below the seat
in front of you. I specifically request to not be there.

On
the day of travel I avoid caffeine, salt and alcohol. For those of us
less mobile, swelling and even deep vein thrombosis is a greater risk,
so stretch and exercise if possible. Also, I take my prescriptions on
board, in case they lose my luggage. I try to be as comfortable as
possible on a plane so I wear loose, long dresses, and no make-up. My
mom raised me to look nice on a plane but since pain entered my life I
have absolutely no pride. If I can get through a long flight without
lying on the floor, crying or moaning obscenities, I feel I’ve really
accomplished something.

That
first flight to Paris was surreal. We were in shock from Sept. 11th,
worried about our dog and unsure what it would mean to be handicapped
in Paris. Because my husband had been living there and was experienced
in pushing me, he had previewed the obstacles that lay ahead. Paris was
not going to be the same experience for me that it would have been
prior to my injury.

When
we finally landed my chair was waiting at the gate and our luggage and
puppy (tail wagging) were waiting for us at baggage claim. The staff
was warm, and friendly; and shook our hands as they welcomed us to
France. At that point I knew that as long as we were together, we would
get through this time and make the best of it. We were young, we were
in love and we were in Paris! Of course we were going to enjoy it!
Welcome to our life in France, as seen through the eyes of what my best
friend affectionately calls “crippled girl”!

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