Surely, there is a punch line waiting for a story with that introduction. My story about a Canadian, a Norwegian and an American meeting in Montreal includes crepes, a hotel evacuation with six fire trucks loaded with Montreal’s finest firemen, and a train evacuation just fifteen miles away from my final destination. Please – someone work all that into a joke!
After my trip to Australia in March, I decided all my future travel must revolve around people, not places. If meeting up with people takes me to wonderful places, it is an added bonus. But it is more important for me to see people I care about rather than new places. So, when I saw a friend’s Facebook post with photos of her visit to Montreal, I quickly asked how long she would be there. Yes, she would still be there the following weekend. Yes, if I came to Montreal, she would have time to meet up for a reunion.
Because of my disability, it is not always easy for me to travel at short notice. I have to find an assistant, this time one with a passport, locate accessible lodging and arrange for accessible transportation. These logistics take time. Sometimes I get lucky though and things just fall into place. Within a few hours, I found a Personal Assistant, booked train tickets and reserved an accessible hotel room within walking distance of the train station. While it’s easy to drive to Montreal from where I live, it is the same price to take the train and this allows me to be productive (read: write and crochet) for hours at a time thanks to wi-fi. I requested Monday off from work and started studying street maps, using French for the first time since high school.
The next day, a friend from Ottawa (she’s the Canadian) asked if I would have time to see her if she came to Montreal during my whirlwind visit. Yes! I have been eager to meet Crystal in person since we “met” in an online writing group. But I didn’t want to ask her to sacrifice her weekend to travel only to see me for a few short hours. Since she offered, I happily agreed it would be wonderful to meet up.
My thirty eight hours in Montreal were brilliant! If you plan to go and require an accessible hotel, the Courtyard Marriott Centre-Ville has very good access. Our room, 509, had a roll in shower with a height adjustable bench. The water pressure in the hand-held shower was not wonderful, but there was plenty of space to maneuver. The toilet was a bit low for me, but since I had help this wasn’t an obstacle. The king size bed is high, as is the disappointing trend in most hotels these days, but there was a sofa bed in the room at a good height for transfers. The concierge was helpful, identifying accessible restaurants and advising us which sidewalks should be avoided due to construction barriers. I am not receiving any compensation from Marriott for my praise. I just believe it is important to highlight businesses which do a good job so other people thinking of travel have a “real world” recommendation.
I met Crystal for a lovely brunch on Sunday. We talked non-stop. We laughed. We gushed over Montreal street art. We took photos in parks. It was an amazing morning. We both felt as if we were spending time catching up with a lifelong friend, not meeting each other for the first time.
Crystal – you have been a mentor, a cheerleader, and sounding board for me since September. Thank you for making the sacrifice to come meet me. I treasure our all-to-brief visit and look forward to the next chance when we can meet up. There will be a next time!
After brunch, I met my friend Astrid (the Norwegian if you are keeping track). Astrid and I were exchange students at the same time, hosted by the same Rotary District in Tasmania. We traveled together throughout Tasmania and mainland Australia. Prior to last weekend, I had not seen her since our farewells in 1991.
Astrid is a kind, intelligent, funny, and articulate woman. As exchange students, we shared laughs about “those crazy Australians” and had many late night conversations about the meaning of life. It was terrific to talk about our respective travels and adventures. Astrid is a biologist and had many fun stories to share about her time spent working in national parks in Western Canada and Alaska. We reminisced about our exchange student experiences and played “have you heard from so and so?” while we walked through the city.
As we listened to a fantastic jazz quartet and ate a delicious dinner at Jardin Nelson (try the Diva crepe if you go), we talked about our unique experiences with exchange brought about due to my disability. I learned so much from the others during that year, and sometimes forget they were all learning from me as well. Astrid and I laughed over shared memories, and I was reminded of how invincible we all were as teenagers. Adults with good intentions would caution us or express doubts in my ability to participate in an activity. But as a group we had already figured out an accommodation or means for me to be included. To hear Astrid’s take-away was humbling and I am grateful to her and all of my exchange student peers who “got it” and worked to include me not out of a sense of obligation but just because it was the sensible thing to do. That sense of “mate-ship” is a very Australian trait, and we embraced it even though we all came from other cultures.
All too soon, it was time to walk back to our hotel. Astrid and I hugged and said goodbye in the lobby, promising to email photos. As I sat waiting for the elevators, I noticed them all opening one by one and then heard the alarm. I have stayed in enough hotels to know this means somewhere in the building a fire alarm has been activated. Sure enough, ten seconds later the concierge was asking everyone to evacuate the lobby, telling us this was not a drill.
Six fire trucks, three police vehicles and an ambulance quickly surrounded the building. I sat on the corner, performing a mental inventory of what personal belongings were up in my room. I had my passport, phone and money with me so I knew I had everything important. The couple next to me had been in the pool and had only their bathing suits and a towel. I counted my blessings and watched the firemen enter the building to conduct their search.
Thankfully, there was not a real fire and we were allowed back inside an hour later. I crashed in bed and made a joking remark to my Personal Assistant along the lines of, “Well at least we got the evacuation out of the way before we were asleep.”
Whether or not you have a disability, you should ALWAYS take the time to look up your hotel’s evacuation plan and emergency procedures when you check in to your room. Some new hotels have an “area of refuge” near a stairwell or elevator. In the event of an alarm, guests who are unable to evacuate without assistance gather in these areas to await help. Sometimes, guests are asked to remain in their hotel rooms with the door closed until help can arrive. Emergencies happen everywhere, not just at home. I have been a guest in at least twenty hotels where the alarms have been activated. Advanced preparation is crucial, especially when traveling.
I thought our encounters with the unexpected would be over, but of course I was wrong. Monday morning we arrived at the train station to find the mechanical lift to our platform did not work. I did not worry, as I have been through the bowels of several train stations when elevators have not worked and I know there is a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels between platforms. Sure enough, Stephanie (the kind VIARail Canada employee) took me through a maze of corridors and ramps to get to the train.
The trip home was uneventful until we approached the station in Saratoga, New York – the final stop before our destination in Schenectady. The train stopped on the track and a few passengers exited but nobody boarded. Then, my Personal Assistant’s phone began to ding with incoming messages at the same time the Conductor began talking earnestly to an Amtrak employee outside the train. The track south of Saratoga was closed because of a freight train accident. Amtrak was calling for buses and all passengers would be transported to Albany to make connections.
I know other people with disabilities who have not had good experiences with Amtrak, but I have always had good, if not great experiences with them and this was no exception. Usually, I am the last passenger taken off planes, trains and buses. This time, I got to be first because there was an accessible cab at the train station available to take us to Schenectady. The station has a wheelchair lift, and it was in working order. Bobbi and John, the Conductor and Assistant Conductor, had me off the train and across the tracks in just over a minute. Amtrak doesn’t endorse me to say nice things about them, but given the chance I take the train almost any chance I can. I always get good customer service, and being able to remain in my chair for the entire journey is much less stressful than worrying about airport baggage handlers damaging it.
I arrived home exhausted several hours later than expected, my head spinning with thoughts and ideas for future writing. Who says you can’t pack a week’s worth of adventure into three days? Certainly not anyone who has been traveling with me!
**Thank you to all the Capital Region advocates who fought to have accessible cabs available at all times at the Albany airport and regional train stations! Our cab was clean, the driver was polite and followed my directions when I told him how to properly restrain my wheelchair in the safety straps. We shared the cab with a delightful woman from Montreal. For the first time in my life, I introduced myself as a writer only to learn she is also a writer and illustrator of children’s books. We had been on the same train for hours but chance, fate, the Universe – whatever you want to call it – threw us together for the end of our journey.