Thursday, July 16, 2015

Don't believe me? Just watch: A day in Brighton

      Every time someone asks me to encapsulate an experience from this adventure, it's very hard to  think of just one, even after all this time. But when someone wants to know what the defining moment that I will never forget as long as I live or what I learned from this experience, I love to tell the story, so I'm looking forward to sharing it with all of you. Here goes!

      So,  after the trip detailed in the last post, fast-forward to Saturday. Oh, splendid, glorious Saturday! My time to sleep in, alas! Except… not this week. We have to get up at 6:30 AM to make the train for a required class trip to Brighton. Granted, it is a required class trip to the beach, but still.... And, it also happened to be my 21st birthday. So, I may or may not have told the universe to go do some unkind things that I regret....
      Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, the train. Better known as the bane of our transportation existence. We made it with literally minutes to spare, as usual, because of  construction traffic on buses. Somehow I remember talking to John about gentrification of smaller towns and people of different ethnicities on the way there, and somehow everyone magically knew it was my birthday, even though I had only mentioned it once in passing. I guess I have a little birdie to thank for that :-)
      Let's back up a little bit, to the 1st day of Mike's class. He mentions a tradition that all summer classes  must go on  a traditional seaside holiday  to the beach, and at least put their feet in the water. Of course, I  was all over it, because everybody knows I love swimming! But of course swimming and gimpiness does come with its complications. I really wanted to figure out a way to get down this beach and into the water. Anything for a dip in the pool.
      Come to find out that my friend I'm traveling with is not particularly fond of water. So this basically means I have to beg a group of strangers to help with this project. Okay, cool. So I go up to Mike after class on the class before this trip and I ask him about the layout of the beach. He says  “Of all the places on this trip, I think this is where you  will find it  the least accessible and have the most difficulty. He admitted that he might be staying closer to land as well. I asked him if he had seen any type of wheelchair or device that would allow me to cross the beach, and he said that he hadn't seen one in over 20 years of doing this. But, I knew he had faith in me. He said “If anyone can find a way to do this, you can."
      After getting to Brighton as a group, the first thing we did was  head directly for the seaside boardwalk, or promenade, as the British  call it. We were free to break for lunch, during which I informed several of the guys of my evil plan. And it was just evil enough, it worked. because I actually got two of them to agree. They helped carry me down the pebbly beach that my chair would never have made it across, and then stood me on a rock where I could put my feet in the water. I watched the tide coming in and out, and after several minutes realized my feet  were too cold, so I decided not to go swimming after all. I settled instead for  a beach chair where I could still let my feet touch if the tide came in far enough. All I really needed then was a margarita! I didn't get one, but you know, I'm okay with that, because some magical things happened next. Mike, who had been previously sitting carefully on  the top edge of the beach, decided to come down once he saw that I was down there. But my favorite moment of all was when John, one of the other professors had come down to join the rest of the group. He did not notice for several minutes that I was there with the rest of them. Upon seeing me there, he stood for a moment, looked at me, looked at my wheelchair, perched a couple hundred feet away, looked at me again, and his jaw dropped open for what  I swear was a solid 5 minutes.  
     “YOU'RE HERE?" he exclaimed, “I just can't believe it!”
      “I'm here,” I said.
      And just like that, all the hell I had gone through to go on that trip was worth it for that one single moment of victory and disbelief.  This was my moment, on my day, and nobody was going to take it away from me.
      The group gathered around for a group picture that I still display and will remember that moment. One small victory was encapsulated in that moment, forever.
     The next thing we did was tour the Royal Pavilion. You can't take pictures inside, but basically it looks like Orientalism meets the Victorian era on steroids. Heavily influenced by East Asian cultures, King George decided that he was going to decorate everything in the most gold plated, ornate, dome inspired designs  you could possibly imagine. Of all the places we went, this place, which was a kind of vacation home for Queen Victoria as I understand it, and was eventually left to the  people of Brighton to maintain, had some of the most  detailed and amazing artifacts that I have ever seen.
       After this, we were then free to roam about as we pleased. After exploring several neat little shops, we then headed  to explore a garden trail, I heard music coming from somewhere nearby and wanted to go investigate. It turns out they were celebrating some sort of armed forces appreciation day (it wasn't Veterans Day) and this old-school a cappella group was singing songs from the World War II  era, so we decided to hang out and listen. Then, suddenly, they started singing Amy Winehouse, a song I actually knew, and my friend serenaded me so badly you couldn't help but love it. To this day, every time "Valerie", is on the radio, I can't help but smile!
       We forced ourselves to break away, and we went to the pub where we heard some people *might*  be meeting at 4 o'clock. Lo and behold, there was Mike and most of the group. I settled in for about 20 min. of conversation, when, all of a sudden, one of the waiters comes over with an extremely confused look on his face.
      “Did someone order cake and ice cream?” he said,  entirely too conspicuously.
 I tried to hide behind the menu, but the whole entire pub started applauding and burst into song, some  even accompanied by the lyrics in ASL. Yes, it was entirely that corny, and yes, I loved every minute of it. I ate the entire molten chocolate fudge cake and ice cream and didn't share!  Then, one of the other members of the group presented me with a card signed by everyone. She said they were going to buy me a round, but they found out that I didn't like to drink that much. So I said I would try one thing. Somebody went and got me a glass of Pimm's, which kind of tastes like fruity ice tea mixed with wine, I'm not sure exactly what's in it, but I could never find it when I came home.  knowing me, the horrible college student, I only sipped on it. So thank you to the many of you who probably finished  that glass!
      At this point, everybody was hungry (except for me!) so we broke for dinner. I was exhausted and feeling homesick so I opted to get paninis that we ate on the train on the ride back with some people who wanted to leave early. Apparently I missed the real party! But I was so exhausted and ready to prepare for the week ahead. And even though I didn't appreciate it at the time, because I was missing family and friends back home, I realize now, as I sit here and look at the card on my wall signed by all of you,  that  that was and will continue to be one of the best birthdays I could ever ask for. So thank you, each and every one of you! Cheers!

 (Image:   our group after swimming at Brighton Beach. Most of us are in some kind of swimwear. We are all smiling and people are huddled around me, who is sitting in a striped  beach chair in a purple one-piece. The pebbles on the beach and various buildings on the beachfront are visible in the back of the photo.)

 (Image: Me, a white woman with shoulder length brown and purple hair, smiling. I am sitting in my wheelchair under a white umbrella holding a red fruity drink with a straw. The beachfront is visible in the background.)

(Image: Two men, one in a blue shirt and khaki shorts, and the other in a white shirt and black shorts are carrying me, in my purple swimsuit, and are about to put my feet in the water. One guy was also a member of our group is standing off to our right, looking like he is freezing as he has just come out of the water. Several other members of our group are sitting along the beach. The beach and the ocean are visible in most of the photo.)


     Hello again folks!

      Now, we're getting to the really exciting part of the trip that I've been looking forward to writing about for quite a while.  I'm not exactly sure if it was  in chronological order, or close, but the 2nd week of our trip  started out with the only overnight excursion that we would take as a group, to Stratford-upon-Avon. For you history buffs, that's better known as the birthplace of Shakespeare. This is something that Peter, one of our instructors, referred to as Disney-fication, where the attractions themselves were made to look less realistic in the name of capitalism,  as of course would have been with a lot of major attractions in the area. In this case, this location was bought and curated by the same people who run Madame Tussauds wax museum, which is sufficiently  creepy enough in itself and not worth it for us to make the trip after viewing the displays in Warwick Castle, which I'll get to in a minute.
      The journey started off with us  missing the train by  about 10 minutes The good thing about this was that I found out once again how helpful the transportation staff would be, which is a recurring theme, unlike here in America where I usually have to deal with paratransit providers, or at least I used to. Thankfully, we were able to catch one that gave us only a couple hours delay and missed the tour of Mary Arden's farmhouse. One thing I do remember, though, when we switched trains, was that the conductor aboard the first train seemed to know this very friendly man who tried to approach us on the platform while he waited. Apparently he had some sort of intellectual  disability and he frequented the platform often. At this time, my friend was more concerned for my safety and tried to get in between us, but I was more concerned for my friend at the time.  He eventually  went on his way and we went on ours.
      A couple cups of tea and some gorgeous greenery  later, we had arrived. Our accommodations  were located in the community and were some of the quaintest little B&Bs I had ever seen.  it was really lovely.  The next thing we did was join the group for a walk about town, which involved talking about the architecture of not only Shakespeare's home, but many of the churches and parks  and schools in the area. We visited Shakespeare's grave site and discovered that many famous members of the family also lived nearby. After this walk through the simultaneously quaint and touristy town, we were free to explore on our own for a while.
      At this point,  some friends and I decided to go into a magic shop, I believe it was called the Creaky Cauldron. They were offended that we would ask if they were around  before Harry Potter, which it turns out they were, by a long shot.  Most of us spent the equivalent of $4.50 on butterbeer, which in my opinion was disgusting (only to be outdone by a local Ballard favorite a year later–one of the best things  I've ever tasted!).  After this, we  adjourned for dinner, and then one of the greatest shows ever-Henry IV part 1 as the Royal Shakespeare Company theater.
      Now of course, we knew that most people would give their front teeth to see the show we were about to see. Of course, I had had my fair share of Shakespeare (thanks  Gifted and IB English!) But this  was actually my first time studying it in college, so I was surprised how simple the crash course we got was in the class the day before. Granted, it was still enough to understand what was going on  on stage.
      This stage  was in the middle of stadium style circular seating  with a central platform and walkway on all 4 sides, which means that some of the cast  went directly  through the audience on their way to the stage, creating an incredibly unique viewing experience. I think most of us, though, were too busy looking at the incredibly handsome and talented Alex Hassell to care! ( am I right?)  Nevertheless, it was a fantastic show with fantastic acting and special effects, which I will remember the plot of more clearly once I have a chance to read the play again! :) It all has to do with becoming king, greed, cunning, and trickery, of course, oh, and a few witty one-liners thrown in, as any good Shakespeare play will do.
      Most of our group met together at a pub afterwards, which marked the 1st time that the group had helped me to ascend a flight of stairs in my wheelchair. I think the pub was called the Dirty Duck if I remember correctly.  This made me think that my last post is almost certainly out of order, but that's okay. The good news is I made it down safely and a good time was had by all!
      After a lovely breakfast at our B&Bs the next morning, the group headed to Warwick Castle, one of the oldest castle sites still standing, I believe it was built somewhere around  1186 if I remember correctly. That being said, this was probably the part of the trip that I was the most concerned about accessibility wise. There were many different types of attractions available including the launch of a flaming trebuchet, archery, birding, the dungeon of doom, which I didn't go into, and the main part of the castle which had all the rooms set up in period decoration with these creepy wax figures à la Madame Tussaud's  with recordings of the people talking about how the woman had cheated on her husband while eating little wax pastries, etc. There was also one about a bunch of men gambling if I remember correctly. And then this building had a lot of period armor and weapons, which was cool. I had a plan worked out that 2 guys in my group were willing to help me get up to the top of the castle tower, but my professor talked them out of it because he was too concerned about safety and me taking the risk, so instead there was some video footage taken for me, which, come to think of it I don't think I ever saw. While everybody was  busy climbing 27 flights, I hung out with the peacocks in the castle gardens, which was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Many an iconic picture was taken here.
      And finally, as if we thought Peter was truly a man of all  trades already, what with being a professor, a published author,   a historian, a B&B owner, and a theater critic, we also learned that he was an acclaimed chef as well. When we came back from our day trip to his B&B, there was some of the most wonderful food I have ever  tasted in my entire life, only to tell us afterward that he actually had made most of the entire thing.  As if that weren't enough, while we were eating, we found out that our meal would be completed with Hal  (a.k.a. Alex as mentioned above). Turns out he was a friend of the family and was gracious enough to sit with us for over an hour. I can't remember most of the things he said *swoon*  but I do remember how he said he enjoys playing complex characters because he does not do any 2 performances of a show the same. He said every day he is still trying to figure out who Hal is, that's what keeps it  interesting.
      After lunch, everybody was brought back to the  coach, and us to the train, for the three-hour return trip to London, where the only eventful thing that happened was I had to be carried up a flight of stairs by a stranger because there was no actual disability assistance on-site to get us to the other side of the tracks, only by phone. Other than that, though, I can say without a doubt that the people in Stratford were lovely, and that you are exhausted from reading this post! So until next time, my friends!

(Image:   an arch in the beautiful gardens of Warwick Castle, covered in pale pink roses and surrounded by a circle of grass at the bottom. It is surrounded by gravel trails and lush greenery in the background)

 (image: a medium shot of Warwick Castle with its tall stone tower standing tall in the front right corner of the  photo. There is green grass on the lower third of the picture  and surrounded by blue sky speckled with cumulus clouds)

 (image: the front exterior of some shops in  Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with Tudor wood paneling of brown designs on a white background. Some tourists and the road are visible in front of the shops)

Monday, July 13, 2015

East End Adventures

     So I don't know if this is entirely out of order, but it seemed like the most logical story to share next.

 We went from the fast pace of the very first day to Mike speed, which is more like what my friend and I were used to. The pace  of a very distinguished British gentleman with a cane is more like gimp speed. So, on a day soon after, we transitioned  from one of London's most well-known areas to one of its least known areas, the East End, more well known for being home to the water and, according to Mike, some of the  best ethnic neighborhoods  until about 100 years ago when gentrification started to come in.
      So today, in this area with a very large Muslim and East African population, you can see some of the most luxurious buildings and high-rises going up beside some of the most rundown sidewalks I have ever seen. I remember one of the places we stopped was a park that was famous for being bombed during World War II and several people have been killed there in recent years. It stood right across the street from a German Methodist Church, I believe, if that sounds right at all I can't remember,  that looked more like a hollowed out warehouse  and  a cross between one of those ugly apartment buildings from the 70s. The place was so adorned with graffiti, you can hardly believe anyone had ever been in there. I remember Mike standing in the park, the name had something to do with MLK I believe, and telling us that there is a very distinct line here between the neighborhoods. You could almost see where the West End stopped and the East End began (or any neighborhood closer to it for that matter.) The construction and the upkeep of the city was so distinctive between the two streets
     I began not only to empathize with different communities that had slowly  been pushed out of their original home, but there were very obvious similarities to Seattle and the way the economy is going. Perhaps in London you can notice the more extreme  class gaps side-by-side, but there are also many similarities in the ways that both London and Seattle use their water resources. A staple of the East End was what they called the Docklands (the Port). Also, I wanted to mention that, ironically, it had some of the best accessible transportation in the whole city because it was nearest to where we were staying. The DLR (or Docklands Light Railway) was the only form of transportation that has level entry on all vehicles without using any sort of  ramp  or alternative entrance.
      I think this was one of the parts of the chair where I learned that the problems at home are the problems  everywhere, and it could be just as bad if not worse for people with disabilities. It is intriguing that  even  with mandatory disabled toilets and the socialized health system, the income gap is still as great as any, and that could be me in any place. Not to mention the very clear separation of religious and ethnic groups.  I remember Mike told us a story about how he would take his summer classes on a  mandatory field trip to a mosque in the East and, to participate in a call to prayer  and  worship.  He recalled that the student said he was one of the most memorable experiences of their entire time there, to truly experience from another's point of view. This got me thinking about how I would be perceived, with physical weaknesses, as it were,  as that is very taboo in many cultures.  not to mention the fact that if I had to kneel down I'd probably be screaming and wouldn't be able to get back up at this point! This was the first of many experiences  in Mike's class where we would be asked to think from this perspective, and one that stuck with me, there's another one  that occurred much later, and the story will follow!
      But for now, back in “America,” as he affectionately called our group, many of the students were too busy to notice this because they were looking at the results from the American World Cup match on their phones (those of us who were lucky enough to have data in another country, anyway! Myself not included). So, because the day is not properly ended without a pint and some football, as it were, we went into one of the most historic pubs in the area and Mike  was gracious enough to buy the entire group a round while we cheered for the USA on  the flat screen. Let the record show that this was one of the only times I drank something that I enjoyed on the entire trip (Balmer's raspberry lime cider, if you must know, I was a horrible college student :-) )  That was indeed a true cultural experience, only to be outweighed by the time we ended up watching the final on a small TV in a room with the wrong words on the screen. Looking back now, I can only say that that spirit is comparable to the Seahawks playoff season in Seattle, I have never seen anybody get that excited about sports and don't plan to anytime soon.

      Until the next adventure…

(Image: A picture of a dismantled toilet that somebody was using as a garbage can. The toilet has the back taken off with several boxes and plastic garbage bags next to it in the middle of the street)

 I remember when I took this picture, my friend said “You better use that on your blog!"  So this one's for you, Hannah!

West End Adventures

     So, where was I? Ah, yes, I had just spent 2 hours on a bus with a broken chair and now it was the 1st day of the program. Notice I am recollecting here so details won't be as vivid, but I definitely remember some of the things we covered. If this  day was going to be any indication of how the trip was going to go, then I probably would not have made it! In this day, we covered much of what tourists would see in an entire week, that is to say zone 1 (central London). We started out learning about how town squares originated as a way for people to communally farm land and determine who had control of several estates in the area. We stopped inside of Russell Square which was one of the oldest and discussed the façades on  various buildings, whether made out of wood  or brick was an indication of the ages of certain buildings.  There was talk about how the feudal land system played into  community structures and  who was able to be on certain land.
      Then, there came a line that I will never forget. “The Victorians,” he said, “if they didn't like it,  they would just take any building, put a bunch of crap on the front of it, and call it their own."   We would soon learn that not only was construction material a part of this, but also layout of the buildings, the shapes of the windows, and the roofing material had a lot to do with it as well. As we  toured some of the oldest neighborhoods of London, the whole thing was to rethink  that we would never call anything “old” ever again.
      We saw many famous landmarks of central London, including Queen Elizabeth Tower (or what we layman would call Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey (where we would later attend a service),  Houses of Parliament, and many other historic landmarks which leads me to a funny story that happened in this area that I will write about a little later.
      For the time being, though, most of us students were concerned about operating our cameras or the new phones that we had just gotten overseas  that looked like your mom's old Nokia phone from 1990 (hi mom!) So, at that point, we were more than content to be exhausted and do some shopping. But there is one quote that has stuck with me after all this time, and I don't think I could find a better way to end this post.
      So we were headed through the famous landmarks of Trafalgar Square and many people had stopped to admire this very out of place looking statue of a  rooster. Come to find out, it's pretty famous actually. I think it had to do  with one of the Olympics or something.  So  as he's giving us his spiel  about  the area, our instructor says

 “I don't know why there's a blue cock outside, it's not even that cold."

 That still makes me laugh, sorry people!

(Image: Statue of a giant blue rooster in Trafalgar Square.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Birthday reflections

     This year is a little different than most. Although I haven't been big on celebrations since I was a little kid, this year is one that I've been trying not to think about for quite some time, except for the fact that now it's actually here. You see, this year, I was given an ultimatum of sorts. Several of my friends have talked about the fact that many support services for people with disabilities either end or are significantly changed at a somewhat arbitrary age limit. Never mind the fact that I've actually been an adult for 4 years, and in charge of my own affairs, now I am officially viewed as one.
     This week has brought with it many changes, both in my social situation, and in the help I receive to live independently. Just because I am now 22 doesn't mean that anything has magically changed  at 11:59 p.m.  I am thinking of far more dire situations, such as the battle that my friend Nick fought several years ago against a similar policy, literally in a life or death situation. I'm thankful that I can adapt in this situation, but it has been  more than stressful focusing on purely survival needs and perhaps not on other things I should be at this moment, like this blog for example. If I have had to ask you for help in the last couple weeks, thank you! You know who you are.  In the midst of this, I am also job searching and looking for an apartment, both of which can be wonderfully complex things if you're in my situation. So you might be able to understand why, in the words of Taylor Swift, I'm not really feelin' 22.
     You know that feeling you get in junior high or high school when you realize everybody is leaving you and nothing will ever be the same? That feeling hit me last week. Hard.  My friends are off to do amazing things, and they are nervous and excited for their future plans, as it should be. It is a whole other kind of nervousness when you know exactly what life could be like for someone in your situation, who, a planner as I am, or as I have to be, did not have things figured out a year in advance.  Trying to stay optimistic in the face of  barriers for people like you is very overwhelming, and it is hard to stay motivated. I'm not saying that it won't happen, but it will not be easy, it will be real.
      But then I realized something else. I took a moment to observe how my support network has transformed in many ways,  and that there are still many people who care in  an emergency, whether or not they can help physically. So, I was able to spend the day with someone very important to me, and with her help, I was able to keep my plans that I had made before I was aware of a bunch of crises to come. After this, I decided I would pass the time at the movies.
      I went to see “Inside Out,” the new Disney/Pixar film  about the emotions inside the head of  an 11-year-old girl, and at that very moment, I'm glad I did. Even though  the experiences of Riley, the main character, were meant to be much simpler, I felt like the film encapsulated the bubble I was in at that particular moment. When you are trying to focus on so many things, you  really don't get a chance to be grateful for  what you have. I felt like the movie validated the ever-changing state of emotions, from depressed to happy to angry at any given moment. People need to know that that is okay, especially in these situations with no instruction manual. While obviously there is value in finding positivity,  that  can be really difficult in a world that shelters you extremely, no matter how noble its intentions, only to let you loose with no map as an individual with disabilities pursuing their dreams. If I had returned to the path of what was expected of me, I wouldn't be here where I am, having these issues at this very moment.  But  that's exactly what I want. And if Fear and Sadness took over last week, that's okay, because Joy is coming on the train right behind them.

Happy birthday to me!

(Image: Me, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, sitting in my wheelchair, smiling. I am wearing my spaghetti strap rainbow dress. The aisle of the mall is visible in the background.)