As I watched the train leave, the realisation that I had made a mistake, came surprisingly quickly. The station was obviously deserted and appeared to be unmanned. The locked ticket office confirmed this, and my suspicion that I was very far from home. After a long wait, in a biting wind, I guessed there would be no more trains that night, and I searched for the exit. As I rounded the corner of the office, my simple mistake became a nightmare. I sat in my wheelchair, somewhere in the north of Holland, at the bottom of a huge flight of stairs, and decided never, ever to travel beyond my front door, ever again!
My husband and I were enjoying a week in Leiden, a bohemian and interesting little university town, about half an hour outside Amsterdam. Hiring a car and driving into the city seemed like a straightforward idea, until we encountered the sea of cyclists. Even an hour or two in the ‘coffee shops’ did nothing to calm hubby’s frazzled nerves. I had also arranged to meet an old friend in Dam Square later that evening. She had come to Amsterdam as a squatter, and now lived a somewhat quieter life as a teacher. It was on our fourth drive past the Square that I took pity on my hubby, insisting that he gave up trying to park, and simply dropped me and the wheelchair wherever he could. With my solemn pledge that I would phone him if necessary, he drove off. I could clearly hear him swear at the lemming- like cyclists, glad that even the wonderfully bilingual Dutch would understand little of his broad Glaswegian curses.
My decision to take a train back to Leiden came about after two small disasters – the first being that I my friend did not arrive (later I learned of a nasty playground accident). The second was the discovery that I did not have my mobile phone and hence no phone numbers of any kind. Not wanting to wait in Dam Square until hubby finally realised, probably at some point the next morning, that Pauline had not driven me back to Leiden as planned, I decided to rustle up the courage to travel home alone. As a disabled traveller, it is the small, ordinary things that make travel both rewarding and exciting. So, in my own little equivalent of white water rafting, I wheeled myself towards Amsterdam Central.
I would like to say that everyone in the station was helpful and supportive - but they weren’t. And I would like to say that I followed directions easily and confidently in that huge, bustling hell on earth – but I didn’t. In fairness, it may have been the lateness and rush to last trains that led to the lack of assistance or care, but I was on my own until finally helped by a kind worker, who was emptying bins. When I showed him my ticket, he smiled, gave me a thumbs up and lifted me onto the train. Sorted. But sixty minutes later, a sickening feeling that the journey was taking far too long, replaced my daring spirit. My compartment was empty apart from two, tiny Chinese ladies, who studied my ticket and their own little travel map, then bravely hefted my wheelchair out at the next stop. Seems I was headed north, rather than south. A simple mistake, and now a simple flight of stairs.
Travelling with a wheelchair forever means overcoming obstacles – from restrictive airline rules, to the bone shaking ride of ancient cobbled streets; from inaccessible museums, to hotels without lifts. I accept, and even relish the extra stresses because the bad journey completed fills me with a wonderful feeling of achievement, and my husband with a sense of pride. But, as I sat alone at the bottom of those stairs, I felt only scared and defeated.
Rescue came in the shape of a dog walker, who saw my predicament and called his sons. Two huge, strapping Dutch boys arrived and not only carried me up those cursed stairs, but insisted on driving me back to Leiden. I spent most of the long journey in tears, not because I had been stranded, but because I felt overwhelmed by the kindness of these wonderful strangers.