Though one of the most positive aspects of reaching retirement age is the opportunity to travel, I wish I had photos of the incredulous expressions on airport security personnel when my husband and I show up. They look like, “Why don’t people like you, just stay home?” Their feelings may be justified since they spend twenty minutes patting down my husband, whose pacemaker can’t go through the x-ray machine, and about fifteen minutes examining my wheelchair as I limp through, at the same time others are dismantling our sleep apnea machines. I’m not sure what terrorist profile we match, but believe me, you are safe from us.
Back in our youthful sixties, we each took only a small rolling suitcase and backpack for eleven days abroad. This meant we could take it all as carry-ons and not risk the trauma of lost luggage. Now, in our seventies, we need an extra suitcase just for medicines, heating pads, sleep apnea machines, current converters, and outlet adaptors. The upside of my wheelchair is that we customized it to carry both me and the luggage. Of course, we look a lot like a traveling circus act. But that’s one advantage of being over seventy, who cares? One small warning to other wheelchair travelers however; all those lovely little bridges, that you have to cross every two blocks in Venice, actually consist entirely of stairs. A wheelchair with pontoons and a paddle would be my suggestion for Venice.
Traveling late in life has given me a new twist on the old joke, “What do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American.” My version is, “What do you call someone who can say, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ in six languages? Any woman over sixty ,who travels.” And I am currently creating a coffee table book of photos of my husband waiting patiently outside loo’s, el banos, il gabinettos, and badezimmer around the world and including a warning about the sale de bains in France that are ecumnenical.
I remember callously laughing years ago, when hearing about two young men on one of those farcical thirty minute tours of the Louvre getting on either side of an elderly woman and literally hauling her like luggage, as their group raced from Winged Victory to the Mona Lisa. That’s not quite as funny to me now, but I do try to bring a bit of lightheartedness into having to use a wheelchair in countries that lack accessibility in their transportation systems. When I have to stand up and struggle up long sets of steep stairs, I sing out, “I’m healed. I’m healed.”
Since I’ve never been compulsive about seeing every single thing there is to see, I don’t mind sitting in sidewalk cafes or under shady trees, while my husband and son are climbing castle ruins that are too much of a challenge with the wheelchair. Being a devout coward, I declined my son’s suggestion that we ask if there was a catapult available. Besides, I have memories of the time my husband and son, energized by several glasses of beer, attempted to run while pushing me up Mont Saint-Michel over its large cobblestones. We threw a wheel about halfway up. I decided then that the view from the bottom is just as interesting and tasty as that at the top.
One surprising travel experience was sitting in a row of white-haired, rosy cheeked Miss Marples in the theater at Stratford-on-Avon. I was the only little old lady to gasp aloud at sudden full frontal male nudity on the stage. It would seem that the English are at least a verbally reticent race. Or perhaps the Miss Marples had been coming to the play every day since it opened.
There was another experience that’s funny now, if not then. We stay mostly in clean, but literally ancient, B & B’s or small hotels that have lots of atmosphere, but limited plumbing. Once, at three in the morning in Vienna, I spent fifteen terror-filled minutes locked in a tiny bathroom down a very dark hall, listening to heavy breathing sounds outside the door. It turned out to be my husband’s snores echoing out the bedroom door that I had left open for a hasty return.
I confess that planning trips seems a tad less fun now that we tend to choose the countries we visit by the quality of their medical facilities. And shopping for insurance that will fly us home dead or on life support conjures up some daunting scenarios. Recently, just my husband was planning to visit one of our sons, who was staying in London for a month. Since I do most of the practical preparations for our trips and I’ve also reached the age where funerals are a frequent part of my social life, I checked out the pros and cons of return by urn, rather than by casket. When I suggested to my son that should the need arise, he bring Dad home in an urn, he responded with great outrage, “That’s a horrible thing to say. There’s no need to be morbid.”
I decided right then to make the trip with my husband, figuring that one of us would survive to deal with any morbid decisions. When we both returned, sans urn, from what felt like the best trip of many years of traveling, I began to wonder just what made it feel like such a wonderful trip. That’s when I realized that there’s an upside to imagining worst-case possibilities. This particular trip seemed so delightful, at least partly, from sheer relief that nobody came home in an urn.