The following story, written by ActiveMSer Dave Bexfield, appeared as the cover feature in the December 2009 issue of ms.voice, a quarterly publication of the Multiple Sclerosis Society New Zealand.
Stumbling onto a $1 million Ferrari Enzo is a rare treat. Literally stumbling onto a $1 million Ferrari Enzo, though, is not recommended. Dave and his trusty trekking poles keep their distance.
Blast, stairs again! Elevators are not commonplace in Italy. That means some attractions, like the wine museum in Siena, are off limits to those with mobility issues.
After efforts to rent a wheelchair in Rome were unsuccessful, the Italian MS Society graciously loaned Dave a wheelchair gratis, an absolute boon at the crowded Vatican.
So there I was, in the heart of Italy sitting on the Pope’s “throne” as a crowd of people looked on in near disbelief. Sometimes having multiple sclerosis—even during a relapse—can be an unexpected benefit when on holiday. Let me explain.
For the past two decades I’ve traveled extensively all over the world. And since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago, I haven’t slowed much, touring more than a dozen countries. I’ve hiked precipitous trails in the Himalayas, camped in the remote Sahara desert, and ridden elephants in sweltering Thai jungles. Because of my MS, all presented challenges, from endurance to balance to heat. But nothing quite compared to the obstacles I had to navigate during my most recent trip: a romantic three week tour of Northern Italy with my wife Laura this past September.
Italy hard? It certainly can be when the full fury of a relapse interrupts one’s best laid plans just three days into a vacation. My legs simply stopped cooperating to the point that a simple stroll was too taxing. Picturesque hillside Tuscany towns became fortifications built into steep mountainsides. Quaint inns morphed into exhausting labyrinths riddled with steps. Authentic trattorias turned into precarious obstacle courses of tables and chairs and patrons.
No matter, for I had just read in our Italy tour book about the popular phrase “carpe diem,” which was coined by the Roman lyric poet Horace. “A day was too long for Horace, he was more interested in moments, and enjoying whatever might occur in a succession of instances. He believed that those instances make up a lifetime, and that once you appreciate each single one you free yourself of the relentless search for pleasure, wealth or fame.”
It would have been easy to focus on the wisdom of trying to navigate Italy juggling canes, trekking poles, and the occasional wheelchair…. The struggle to find bathrooms, only to discover they were down a flight of stairs or lacking a toilet seat. The disappointment of taking a “handicapped accessible” elevator that was too small to accommodate a single wheelchair. The frustration of finally finding a curb cut only to have it blocked by a parked car.
Instead, moments—those instances Horace philosophized of—would define our trip. We ditched the traditional tourist “checklists” and let each hour of each day unfold as it was meant to. It was refreshing to watch the cacophony of rush hour in Venice float by as we lingered over cappuccinos. Michelangelo’s David could have been our only destination in Florence and our visit to the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance would have been complete. Sips of Chianti Classico painted Tuscan sunsets on the palate as vivid as the sunsets themselves.
While multiple sclerosis might have slowed our travels, it did not slow our spirits. Indeed, more than once it afforded opportunities that would have been off limits to our more able-bodied brethren. Museums and historical sites were free for my wife and me throughout Italy. Hour-long lines that snaked around Rome’s Coliseum and the Vatican were bypassed as security guards ushered us through as VIP guests. In fact our visit to the Sistine Chapel, via a plethora of back doors and service elevators, placed us underMichelangelo’s masterpiece long before the hordes of tourists packed the room. And then there was the, ahem, Pope’s “throne” moment.
We were on a tour of Pope Pius II’s residence in Pienza, which he built in the 1400s. With my walking so sketchy, the guides were eager to find me seating in each room of the palazzo. But in the Pope’s bedroom, no chairs or benches existed for my increasingly wobbly legs. So they told me to sit on his “throne”—his vintage commode restored from the 13th Century. Perfect. I was sitting on the Pope’s antique toilet as the rest of our tour group looked on with mouths agape.
I’m sure they were all thinking the same thing…. Holy crap. Carpe diem, indeed.
Is Venice doable with a walking disability? Absolutely. Is it difficult? Absolutely… but you’re in Venice. There’s no better place in the world to sit back and watch the scenery float by.
The medieval towns of Tuscany are enchanting despite the maze of steps, steep streets, and cobblestones that can make walking or piloting a wheelchair taxing.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a reliable travel companion. In Italy, Dave’s wife carried all of the luggage all of the time. Dave’s only responsibility? Not to fall and injure himself.
Irene Seizes the Day!
This year, my friends who are finishing up their PhDs in Tento, Italy asked me to drop in for a visit. “Nice laidback, medieval town.” “Great Italian food and wine.” “Stunning art and architecture.” “If you come NOW, you’ll escape the hot weather.” “You must see the Riva del Garda.” These were the words they lured me with, of course I did not need any luring, but that’s a different story. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about three years ago, and this would be my first solo trip abroad. I planned to spend a few days there and went lugging my trusty Avonex in an ice pack. Waiting at the luggage carousel in the Verona airport, I watched a hundred red suitcases go by—hey! I thought that was a rare color!—none of them mine. A bunch of policemen with sniffer dogs came in, checking random suitcases.... CONTINUE