A journey of 10 years comes to an end

Just one more week and I'll be in Bratislava for a couple of days. It is the closing piece of a journey along the EU member states that I started in 2013. After Slovakia I will have visited them all, except for Cyprus. Time to recall memories of a special project.

The story is well-known by now. I am travelling along the EU member states to interview people with a disability about their lives in the country they live in. The idea came to me late 2012 when I was brooding on an extended journalistic project. What could be more fitting than to compare your own life as a disabled person, which took place in Rotterdam and Antwerp, with that of similar people in the rest of the EU? The preparation took me a good eight months. On May 7 2013, I finally crossed the border. By train from Antwerp Central Station to Berlin Hauptbahnhoff.

About remarkable hotel rooms and memorable fellow passengers

The hotel I booked in Berlin for a three-day stay, Motel 1 (photo), is less than a five minute walk from the train station. Good choice. The room was also fully accessible. Bull’s-eye for the second time. Unfortunately, in 2013 I also stayed in hotel rooms that were less successful. Especially in the Scandinavian countries it was makeshift. A room as big as an Ikea wardrobe in Copenhagen. A room underground in Stockholm (so no daylight!). And a hotel room on the sixth floor in Helsinki in a hotel where no staff was present at night. You sleep a little less restfully.

The trouble was not over yet in 2013 when it comes to accommodation. The booked apartment complex in Warsaw had the promised elevator. But Booking.com had not mentioned that it stopped halfway between two floors and you still had to take the stairs down to get to the apartment in question. No way given my physical condition and the large American suitcase I dragged with me on a trip along 12 EU member states at the same time that took some five weeks. Luckily I could stay in a nearby hotel that was perfectly accessible to me.

In the following years, I intended to pay better attention to what kind of accommodation I booked. That has generally worked out well. Only in London it went wrong again, May 2016. The accessibility was not great, but I could live with that. More frightening was the fact that on my first evening in that hotel the fire alarm went off several times for no reason. My neighbor one door away, an Asian woman, and I were no longer at ease afterwards. In addition it was boiling hot in the small room without air conditioning. I shortened my stay in London by one and a half days. So much for the hotel misery.

Those who travel meet people. I still have clear memories of some of them. Like the teenager on the bus to Copenhagen. I sat next to him along with a German couple I had already met on the train from Berlin. They were going to visit their son who was studying in Copenhagen. I got on that bus after a train ride and then a ferry crossing between Germany and Denmark.

The teenager asked what I was going to do in Copenhagen. I told him about my project. He said he was autistic. That could be deduced from his behavior. Meanwhile, he was tastefully eating a full bag of Haribo candy, which fascinated me enormously at that moment. Before that time, I didn’t care much about Haribo. Since then I occasionally get the uncontrollable urge to buy a bag of Haribo candy at the supermarket myself. It takes me a lot longer to empty it than he did.

I still cherish grateful memories of a priest who sat in the same train compartment from Copenhagen to Stockholm. He was a slightly restless type during the ride. He had a hard time focusing on one activity. His theology book, clearly dated, did not interest him. He too was constantly snacking, constantly looking in my direction. We sat diagonally across from each other, but on different sides of the aisle. My right arm was living its own life that train ride, just like my right foot was stirring. That catches the eye. He must have wondered what God has in store for some of his creatures. When getting off he was the first to offer help getting my heavy suitcase out of the train. His good deed for that day.

That suitcase. I want to talk about that too. It was an American suitcase I was allowed to borrow from an American acquaintance. She had two, a very large one and a smaller one. She went on trips herself regularly with the very large one. I would never have been able to embark on the journey with that huge one. It is difficult to maintain your balance while walking when you can only use one hand to drag a full suitcase. In addition, I already walk in a special way anyway.

Getting in and out of trains with the suitcase was not easy. With my good left hand I have to hold grip when getting off (steps). Then there is no hand left to carry the suitcase. Buses were more practical. You put the suitcase in the luggage compartment and don’t have to worry about it anymore. Nevertheless, I was glad to have it with me. At airports you could easily spot it at baggage handling because of its appearance and a lot could fit in.

However, after returning home in 2013 it was clear to me that on my subsequent trips I did not want to struggle so much with a suitcase anymore. Since then I use a shoulder bag. That way I have both hands free. Much less fits in, but it’s just enough. The trips in the following years were much shorter anyway.

Long-lasting affair with illogical travel routes

The very first plan was to visit all EU member states in 2013. That proved too ambitious. Financially and practically/logistically. I would have been on the road for more than three months. A bit too much. In subsequent years I was no longer able to chart a logical route. Logical in the sense that countries still to be visited would all connect well with each other.

Unemployment in 2014 prompted me to visit only Romania. That country was number 1 on my list  for personal reasons. I stayed there a good five days. Romania is not such an expensive destination. In 2015, from mid-May onwards, I had a temporary job in sight again and in terms of time and finances I was able to visit three countries. Austria, Slovenia and Hungary. They are close to each other. Perfect. In 2016, Croatia and the United Kingdom were on the agenda. They do not really lie close to each other. I visited Luxembourg and Ireland in September 2015 and 2016 respectively. Portugal and Spain in 2017. Italy and Malta in 2018. Bulgaria in 2019. Actually that year I also had wanted to go to Greece and Slovakia, so I would have finished my trip. However, I chose financial prudence. If only I hadn’t done that. In 2020, corona struck.

Due to corona, I stayed home for two years. In September 2022, I trusted the situation enough again to travel to Greece. And this year Slovakia is the very last stop. Conditio sine qua non.

Interviews retain value

Finally let’s return to the purpose of all those trips. The interviews with people with a disability about their lives in the country where they live, work. The eldest interviews were held almost 10 1/2 years ago. In the meantime, two of the interviewees I spoke to in 2013 have passed away. Maybe others have passed away in the meantime as well. With most I have not maintained contact after completion and publication of the interviews. There are a few people I still follow via social media. I have left the interviews with the deceased online, because the story they told remains relevant. After all people with a disability experience specific problems in society that are not easily solved. Mostly due to lack of political will.

I haven’t talked about the interviewees in this article. Over those ten years of interviewing I have tried to make a mix of different types of disabilities, male/female, young/old. It’s not perfectly balanced, but it’s good enough. If you read all those interviews from all EU member states, the UK was still just in the EU in May 2016, you get a good picture of the issues people with a disability experience in the EU. But also of their perseverance, their resourcefulness. No one just accepts the situation. And that’s what binds them.

That was also true for me during all my trips. With each new trip after 2013 I encountered problematic situations. Not least during flights. In the end I always arrived at my destination and returned. One more trip to go. Slovakia. On Monday September 11, I will interview an employee of the Slovak Blind and Visually Impaired Union. I am travelling on a tight schedule and keeping it short this year. Not least, because a war is raging close to Slovakia. I will keep a diary at People with disabilities speaking out. If you have never visited that site and read the interviews there: definitely take a look. I won’t claim it’s my life’s work, but it does contain ten years of my life as a travelling freelance journalist.

The complete site from A to Z can only be viewed on a pc/laptop. Many pages still originate from the era when few cared about internet pages that are easy to read on a Smartphone. My provider didn’t do that back then either and I’m not going to convert all those old interview pages to mobile pages now.

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