Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bon Voyage

This past October, we smashed our piggy bank to take a two-week vocation in Europe. We went to Paris and Rome, and sandwiched a Mediterranean cruise between these two cities.

While boarding my 8-hour flight, my mind was busy setting rules and expectations for this vacation. Number 1: I shall become no more than two shades darker --- tanning is not an Asian thing. Number 2: when confronting with endless food and dessert, I shall practice constrain. Lastly, maybe I will meet a “Jack” whom I will die with in a very possible maritime disaster. . . Somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, I began to think about things beyond skin deep. I was told that there are a lot of copper stone roads in Europe. Accessibility could be a concern in many ancient parts of these cities. What about the people there? Are they going to be kind? I reproached myself for over thinking, then drifted into a sleep.

As soon as we got out of the Paris airport, I realized I should have learned more French. “Bonjour” and “Merci” did not get us very far. We were like three Giant Pandas intruding the world of the Polar bears. It was impossible to communicate with the locals for direction. Fortunately, body language is the international language. With hand gestures and finger pointing, maybe a little bit of lucky guess, we managed to find all the places we wanted to go. I was mesmerized by the beauty and majesty of the city. The creative and delicate minds of the city planners were truly gifts from the Divine. I failed to portray my visual feast in words. However, I want to share with you my other interesting encounters.

The copper stone roads in Paris were not as bad as I thought. They were easier to manage than our Distillery District. After strolling around the city for hours, my wheelchair was still agile. “Slow down!” My parents constantly commanded me. They were pacing like turtle on their weary feet. We decided to conclude our day by taking a boat bus tour. We were lucky enough to buy tickets for the last boat of the day. It was scheduled to come in ten minutes. Then, we realized in order to reach the river bank we had to go down a steep stony stair, consisting of at least 20 steps. It was a downward spiral to hell. “Looks like the only way to do this is carrying you on my back.” As my Dad squatted down, I saw his legs were shaking. He had just climbed the Eiffel Tower thirty minutes ago! “Okay, hop on.” His voice betrayed his confidence. “Dad, I don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t want another spinal cord injury.” From afar, we saw our boat bus was slowly approaching, adding horror and insult to our situation. “Do you need help?” We heard someone said that in Chinese! That simply line was poetry to my ears. We turned around and saw another “Giant Panda”. Boy, this man was indeed a giant. He was half times taller, bigger and younger than my Dad. His son and wife were standing behind him and looking up to him as a hero. The trio were also tourists. I made to the bottom of the stairs on this Good Samaritan’s back. We were forever grateful.

My time spent in Rome was even more memorable. Most of its subway stations were wheelchair friendly. The announcement for each stop was bilingual! English had never sounded so musical when I took it for granted in Canada. A visit to the Vatican reached the pinnacle of my spirituality. I was refreshed and humbled by that experience. However, what happened afterward was even more worth mentioning.

On our way back from the Vatican, we were lost. A few miscommunications led us even further from the nearest Metro. Asking for direction was an act of gambling. You would risk losing your pride when people brushed you off. It was my Mom’s turn to ask for direction, which was not a very good idea because she only speaks half English. Her strategy was to find a young person who might have learned some English in school. “So, what did he say?” I asked in hope and anticipation. “I DON’T KNOW! I can’t believe he cannot say ‘left’ and ‘right’ in English.” Being an empathetic person that I always am, I scolded my Mom:” We are in Italy! It’s their country! Name one sign on this street that you can pronounce. DO NOT say ‘pizza’!” Finally, it was my turn to give a shoot. I decided to go for the very next person that emerges into my visual field. The moment I opened my eyes, I saw a Priest walking towards me. I went up to him and said:” Do you speak English? We want to know how to go to the nearest Metro?” “Oh! We are going there too.” I realized he was with an entourage of 5 other people. One of the ladies said:” we were asking him the same thing earlier and he is leading us.” They were all English speakers with perfect North American accent! It turned out that the Priest actually came from Toronto. He was coming to Rome for a conference. More amazingly, we would be getting off at the same subway station! Apparently prayers prayed inside the Vatican City reached Heaven faster than anywhere else.

The 9 of us had a pleasant walk toward the Subway. But as we arrived at the nearest station, we found out that it's one of the old ones without an elevator. There was a long stair leading down to the platform. Hell opened up its bloody mouth again. The Priest said:” well, you think we can carry your wheelchair down?” I was embarrassed about the scene I would be creating. “Father, I don’t think this is God’s will.” The Priest looked around and said:” I know the next station has a lift. You can walk there. It's about few blocks away.” “Okay, we are going to do that.” The Priest pressed a kiss on his fingers, anointed my head with a hint of saliva, drew a cross before departing from us.

We walked about one block toward the direction the Priest had pointed. We could not see the Metro sign anywhere. All at once, our hearts became heavy. We were once lost, but now lost again. My Dad stopped to ask a young mother of two. Her older daughter was about 6 years old. Her younger child was in a stroller. She spoke no English at all. The only word she understood was the name of the subway station. From her lengthy explanation, we figured it would be a complicated and long journey. My Dad suggested we take taxi. Yet, we stood there for 5 minutes, unable to spot any empty cab. I felt homesick and miserable. Suddenly, that young mother approached us and signalled us to follow her. She wanted to walk us to the subway along with her two children! The little girl was definitely confused. She was old enough to reason with her mother. Although I was not able to understand what she said, the tone of her voice suggested that she was very upset. Her mom sounded equally fierce and determined. Occasionally, she would turn back and check to see if we were able to follow along. Twenty minutes later, after 4 blocks of walking, we saw the sign of the Metro station at the other side of the street. The mother pointed it to us. We could not thank her enough. “Glazie! Grazie! Ciao! Ciao!” All the Italian I knew proved to be truly useful. She nodded and turned around toward where we just came from. We were incredibly touched.

On my flight home, I reflected upon this vacation. Aside from the severe sun burn on my feet, the treacherous exercise agenda laying ahead, the blue and loneliness of my sail, I had an eye opening and ear popping adventure. I experienced humanity in different shades and spectra. I came back with a deeper love and appreciation for Canada. But most importantly, my wheelchair and I were still in one piece. That alone made me sing endless praises.