A Trip To Germany — Disability and Deutchland

Circa 2010-11

Twice a month I walk four easy minutes to my local tram stop, hop on the tram, and disembark fifteen minutes later at Ebertplatz. From there I walk just five minutes to join the other women of my writing group. My trip is usually so easy, I don’t even think about it. Last year, however, tram and subway service to this station—which happens to be one of the busiest of Cologne’s public transportation system—was unexpectedly disrupted.

As might be expected, this sudden change in my usual route prompted some personal adjustments. Each time I waited at the station, my lungs were now greeted by pungent clouds of dust. Bagfuls of concrete fragments had now been piled high, right next to the tracks. At 11 pm, transit workers blasted concrete at deafening decibels, each worker entertaining me with evening fireworks while welding pieces of train track.

Every week there seemed to be more boarded walkways, exposed wiring and blocked exits. And then, there was the unthinkable: my station was closed for the whole summer. I complained loudly to my family and friends about this unnecessary hindrance to my travels.

My friend Andrew is able to walk, but with such excruciating pain in his back that he needs to use a mobility scooter to get around. It wasn’t until he and his wife Bonnie visited me in Cologne that I became acutely aware of what was actually happening at my tram stop: Ebertplatz was the first of several stops that were being transformed into disability accessible stations and transfer points.

During Andrew’s visit I had the opportunity to discover first-hand what it means to get around a city as a person with a disability. Even as they were planning their trip from England, Andrew, Bonnie and I discussed the logistics of getting around Cologne. Andrew had recently purchased his mobility scooter (which looks a lot like a golf cart) and needed a vehicle large enough to contain it. This meant the couple had to buy a new car. Additionally, Andrew and Bonnie couldn’t fly to Germany because there was no way Andrew could get his scooter onto a plane. Nevertheless, Andrew wanted to use the scooter throughout Germany, to have some independence of movement on their trip. So he and his wife decided to drive here.

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From the outset, we all knew Andrew would need periodically to charge his scooter’s battery during our travels. In order to do this, Bonnie and Andrew would need access to a power outlet. I live in a first-floor apartment so, upon my friends’ arrival, the three of us set about finding a way to run an extension cord from my place to Andrew’s car. We would also need an adaptor, however: English plugs are not the same as those in Germany.

Charging Andrew’s battery proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I had figured he could simply park outside my building, near the laundry room, and I could then run an extension cord through the window. But the parking spot near the laundry room was already allocated to someone else. At a loss, Andrew parked his car underneath our apartment, in an available parking spot, and we began improvising.

Implementing our operation reminded me of Rapunzel letting down her hair. First, an extension cord was fed down from my window (and clanked its way along my neighbor’s!). But sure enough, the cord was not the right length for our purposes. Up went the cord, and another extension cord was added to it. This worked!

But now the question arose: what would happen should it begin to rain? The cord retreated back up through the window. In pitch blackness, we searched through my outdoor balcony storage area and managed to find an all-weather extension cord. Finally we had a system that just might work, and Andrew’s scooter could be charged all night, even if it should rain.

The next morning we were all set to go exploring. Andrew painfully walked up the twenty steps to street level, and we all climbed into his car, off to the Cologne Cathedral. We chatted amiably, Andrew behind the wheel, and anticipated finding disability parking underneath the cathedral. We searched for the familiar wheelchair sign—but our hopes were dashed. After circling around the parking lot a few times, we finally decided to settle for any spot we could get, thinking we had somehow missed the disability parking.

I found an attendant and asked him where we could find a disability parking spot. “There aren’t any,” was his curt answer.

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“Do you have an elevator we can take to get out of here?”

“Nope. We don’t have one of those either.”

“Then how are we supposed to get out of here?” I asked. The attendant’s nonchalant answer was that we could simply take the scooter out through the exit, where the cars leave the garage, and then find our way through the streets and sidewalks of Cologne.

Dejected, we rolled out of the garage, forcing the car behind us to wait, only to find ourselves in a huge construction zone that had no sidewalks. With no other options, we rolled on down a road and even onto gravel, which irritated Andrew’s scooter. Eventually, somehow, we were able to get onto a sidewalk. But how would we get to the cathedral, uphill from the parking garage? Could we find our way without stairs?

Somehow we did! And although we had to take the long way around to get there, we finally made it into the cathedral, and could move around inside of it at liberty.

As a resident of Cologne who enjoys showing my guests around, I was overjoyed that there was a way for a person with a disability to get into the cathedral, even if finding it had been a bit difficult.

Near the cathedral we found an outdoor café and parked Andrew’s scooter. He managed, with a few pained groans, to climb onto a chair and we enjoyed the afternoon sun and delicious Kölsch beers with our lunch. Our courage fortified, we continued our adventure, heading over to a two-story music store where Bonnie, a musician, browsed through sheet music. Here Andrew’s run of good fortune came to an end: there was no way for him to get upstairs. Instead, he waited at ground level, where he entertained other shoppers with his jokes. I wondered if he found it funny that there was no way he could look at or buy sheet music if he needed it.

Continuing down the main shopping street, we decided to stop for ice cream cones. It was then that we noticed that Andrew’s was the only scooter amongst thousands of pedestrians. Where were all of the people with disabilities in Cologne? Did they not exist, or were they hiding somewhere?

On another venture into the city, we decided to try taking Andrew’s scooter onto the tram to hear a Saturday afternoon jazz concert. We all managed to get onto the tram with no mishaps, grinning at each other with relief. We shared our space with bikes and baby strollers. Someone on the tram assumed that we wanted to go to the zoo, the stop for which is along the same line as the one we were traveling. A stranger informed us, however, that a scooter can’t get off of the tram at the zoo. Thankfully our station, Appelhofplatz, had a high, disability-friendly platform and an elevator!

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Once at the concert, we took an elevator to the sidewalk outside, went into a city-center shopping mall, and got on another elevator that took us to the basement where the jazz concert was to take place. All went well. After the concert we went grocery shopping at a health food supermarket that, alarmingly, featured aisles wide enough to accommodate a scooter. Shopping in a department store proved to be no problem. This was getting fun!

Feeling inspired, we decided to take a tour of the Rhine. We phoned the shipping line and were told we would have no problem taking Andrew’s scooter. What a delight (and a relief!) it was to watch Andrew’s scooter roll steadily up the gangplank, onto the boat, towards an onboard elevator that could take us right to the deck! I was so excited I bought us all cakes and tea.

The weather was glorious, warm and sunny. My pleasure at watching the scenery was intensified by the feeling of gratitude that this was all possible. Life does not diminish, I discovered, if you are in a wheelchair. My eyes were now open to the very real possibility of traveling the globe as a person with a disability.

Our return Rhine trip, however, proved slightly more difficult. The boat we boarded was an old, romantic steamer with no elevator. Though there was a makeshift lift on the stairs, it was too narrow to accommodate Andrew’s scooter. Nevertheless, we sat on the deck of the ship’s main level and were treated to a great view.

Having seen, first-hand, the needs of a traveler who has a disability, I now find myself looking for people in wheelchairs or scooters when on my own excursions. Though I rarely see such people in Germany, Cologne is steadily becoming better prepared for them when they do show up. This summer, in fact, the tram stop at the zoo was demolished and beautifully rebuilt. I look forward to the day when sidewalks, car parks and trams are packed with tourists and shoppers who ride in mobility scooters! I will happily put up with the congestion.

What time of year is more magical than the weeks that lead up to Christmas? And what more magical place exists than where Christmas traditions—like the Christmas tree—began? I’m speaking, of course, of Germany, where the streets are brilliantly lit up and the shops are beautifully decorated for Yuletide celebration.

If you find yourself in Germany this holiday season, here are a few ways you might celebrate or get yourself into the proper spirit:

Meander through Hohe Strasse or Shildergasse—preferably in the morning, because in the afternoons and evenings these locations can be very crowded. Stop at the department store Kaufhof and look at the Steiff stuffed animal exhibit. Bring a child or two along, if you can, and watch their eyes light up. Go out for a cup of hot chocolate or coffee at one of the nearby cafés.

Visit a Christmas market. Cologne alone has six of these! I prefer the one at the square around the Dom because from there you can hear the breathtaking peal of the cathedral bells, every hour on the hour. The bells resound in full glory at 6 pm, but the market might be a little difficult to navigate with a wheelchair at that time. This particular market is brimming with nostalgia, as well as with lots of tastefully handmade crafts. Some visitors prefer the market in the Old Town at the Altermarkt (near the Rhine) because it is smaller, has handcrafted gifts and also several attractions for children. Whatever your preference, these Christmas markets are open from November 22 until December 23, from 11 am to 9 pm.

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There is also a Christmas market on one of the Rhine boats: the MS Wappen, visible from along the Rhine Promenade. The deck area of this boat is wheelchair accessible and the admission fee is €2. The MS Wappen is open from November 25 until December 21, from 11 am to 9 pm on Mondays through Fridays, and from 11 am to 10 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

If you love the feeling of being in an ancient city, the medieval market outside the Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum) at Rheinauhafen might be for you. This attraction is mystical and entrancing, especially at night, and will transport you back to the Middle Ages— with an absence of electricity, but plenty of torchlight and stalls run by people in Medieval costume—though it may be too crowded for wheelchairs. The market costs €3 to enter, unless you are under one sword’s length in height!

Another fun, Medieval-style Christmas market can be found in the nearby town of Siegburg. This market is similar to the one near the Schokoladenmuseum but is much larger, with dozens of stalls and attractions, and has no admission fee. Parking is challenging here, however, so you might be best served visiting by train. The market is open from the last week of November until just a day or so before Christmas Eve. Its hours are 11 am to 8 pm.

Andrew and Bonnies German vacation
Andrew and Bonnies German vacation

Go on a Nativity Scene tour. Known in Germany as Krippenwegs, these tours are especially popular just after Christmas. Some churches wait until Christmas to put out their nativity scenes. After the holidays, organized tours are made available for you to join.

Go on a Rhine cruise. The Goethe, a romantic paddlewheel ship, features a passenger lift but cannot carry wheelchairs to the upper decks. If you are able to board this ship, you can enjoy a brunch cruise. Another ship, the Traumschiff Ahoi (also called MS Rheinenergie) also features evening entertainment and is completely wheelchair accessible.

During the weeks before Christmas you can also hear wonderful, inspiring concerts in the many Romanesque or other churches, in the Dom, and in the concert halls. There’s nothing more thrilling than hearing a concert of music written by a German composer and performed in an authentically German setting. The Philharmonie arena holds several holiday concerts each year.

If you are coming to Cologne by car, ample disability parking is available along the streets. Disability parking in the parking ramps is somewhat more difficult to find, but there is designated disability parking in the Philharmonie Tiefgarage at Bischofsgartenstr.

by Noreen Nanz

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