Trapped in Paris

Trapped in Paris

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My husband found us a home to live in before I
got to France. This proved to be far more difficult that we imagined.
We needed to find an apartment that was on the street level, since I
can’t walk up or down stairs.

Businesses
usually occupy the street level of buildings, and most apartments have
stairs going up to the entrance. Fear of fire made me not want to trust
an elevator, so we eventually ended up in a house. Hemmingway said that
Paris is a moveable feast, but he didn’t mention that you also need a
moveable neck if you want to drive in this city since you have to be
looking at the cars darting in and out around you constantly. By the
end of my first day in Paris I realized I wasn’t up to Parisian driving
so I was glad we found a nice home, since I’d be spending a lot of time
in it!

Because of stairs, even
getting all the way out to my street requires help. Nothing is in
rolling distance anyway, so here I sit, trapped in Paris, with a view
via the Internet. If you are an American being transferred to Paris, or
the spouse of one, I would strongly recommend you have a full
understanding of how mobile you’ll want to be and how much assistance
you might require. If you’re here as a tourist you might not realize
the every- day frustrations of doing simple, mundane things like
grocery shopping.

My first
trip to the grocery store wasn’t a pleasant one. We were yelled at for
leaving the produce area without weighing our fruit and vegetables.
Whoops! As I was looking at the merchandise, trying to figure out if
detacheur was stain remover, and why on earth the milk wasn’t
refrigerated, people would actually walk in the tiny space between the
aisle and my chair. This brings up the issue of personal space. There
is none in Paris. If you leave a gap between yourself and anything,
whether you are in a car or grocery store, that space will be filled.

As
we stood in the long check-out line, I also noticed they didn’t have
people bagging the groceries and offering to take them to your car.
These small services made a big difference to me once my mobility was
impaired. I later learned, however, that some grocery stores offer a
home-delivery service. There’s also sometimes a line for handicapped
people but these lines aren’t routinely open so you have to just sit in
them until someone comes to assist you. My chair will fit though any
line at Mono-Prix, but will only fit through the handicapped line at
Auchon, Hyper-Champion and some of the smaller grocery stores. More
than once, I’ve had to back all the way out of line, forcing all the
people behind me to back out as well.

I
often wonder how many “invisible” handicapped people there are behind
doors. I was grilling my doctor over this subject when I was new to
France and asked what people do and why the French people tolerate it.
He explained the difference in the social network of care available for
handicapped people and I realized I was viewing it through my American
eyes. He said the idea of everyone having equal opportunity was
American.

While I was a
completely independent woman in the U.S., the situation in France is
different: France is a much more socialistic country. Therefore, the
social system does much more to aid disabled people. Doctors make house
calls, food is delivered, social workers visit, handicapped vans pick
up people to take them to the store or take them to therapy or rehab. I
don’t want that kind of help. I don’t want assistance; I want to be as
self reliant as possible The doctor also said the laws requiring new
buildings to have access are routinely ignored, something I continue to
witness first hand. A common statement here is “There is the law and
then there is what is done.” I’ve heard this phrase about a thousand
times since living here. I’ve been carried down a steep staircase to
use a restroom, and once downstairs there’s a handicapped one
available. If you visit, you’ll see many of these incongruities.

The
first time we went to visit friends living in an apartment I was glad
we had moved into a house. We drove around for about 20 minutes looking
for a place to park. We finally parked quite a distance away and on the
way it started raining. When we got to the entrance we encountered
about a dozen stairs. My husband carried me up and then went back to
get the chair. We had to go up several floors so we were relieved to
find an elevator. It was tiny and we thought I could go up with the
chair and my husband could walk up the steep, spiral staircase. We
folded the chair and tried to get it inside. It would only fit on its
side, and there wasn’t room left for me, so we decided I would go up
first, send the elevator down, and my husband would put the chair in,
send it up and then run upstairs to pull it out for me. We have
repeated the same process in buildings all over Paris during the last
year. When we finally got to the door of our friends we were late, wet
and slightly frazzled. Luckily, the whole thing seemed so absurd we
could only laugh at the situation.

Overall,
in France, I have lost much of my independence. Every trip out involves
a series of experiences of being trapped, and trying to decide if
there’s a solution and if the solution is worth it. Don’t get me wrong,
I love Paris, and I love the French people, but at times, I find that I
am yearning to go back to the United States. And the fascinating thing
to me is that in many ways it is for the same reason my ancestors
started their original journey west…for freedom.

 

This
article is dedicated to Keith Clark, who along with two maintenance men
died on Sept. 11th in the WTC. The three men were last seen carrying
down a woman in a wheelchair on the 78th floor of Tower 2. And to Abe
Zelmanowitz, who refused to leave behind his co-worker of many years,
Ed Beyea, who was trapped in a wheelchair. Both died when the tower
collapsed. Bless them all.

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