Vespas, Wheelchairs, and the Metamorphosis of Alberto

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago.
Tags: nonfiction, travel, Italy, disability acess Category: Creative nonfiction

‘Didn’t the travel agent tell you?’ Alberto asked. Tim and I looked at each other blankly and shook our heads. ‘They don’t care about you,’ Alberto said, rubbing finger and thumb together in the universal sign for cash. ‘All they care about is money.’

I thought back to the first time my husband Tim and I met Super Wendy the travel agent. She was surrounded by trophies, certificates and plaques, all attesting that she’d made a million dollars in sales the year before, and the year before that, and … well let’s just say Tim and I added to her millions.

I snapped my mind back to the present and tried to grasp the gravity of the situation. We were only one day into our two-week Italian odyssey and our tour director Alberto was already pronouncing that it would be too hard for us because of Tim’s disability. Tim was born with spastic diplegia, a condition that affects his legs and requires the use of a walking stick. It’s true we didn’t realise how much walking would be required. One of the problems is that the older parts of European cities tend to have narrow cobblestone streets that can’t be traversed by the tour buses. The driver takes you as far as possible, and then it’s up to you. It hadn’t been such a problem on the Alpine tour we’d just completed, but Italy was going to be different.

Alberto wasn’t a bad person. In fact, he seemed quite friendly – a quiet middle-aged man of average stature with a twinkle in his dark eyes and a slight curl in his black hair. But he obviously had second thoughts about us after the introductory excursion on that first night. We were told it would be an eight-minute walk, but that was eight minutes at a cracking pace along back alleys to the Pantheon, lots of standing, more walking to get to Piazza Navona for dinner, and another long hike back to the bus.

‘It would be best to get you a wheelchair,’ Alberto announced. ‘It will cost 50 euros to hire and you can pay me tomorrow.’ The fact that Tim had never used a wheelchair was not an issue. Whether or not we wanted a wheelchair was not an issue. Alberto had spoken and that was the end of it.

The next day, the wheelchair was stowed in the baggage compartment and we set off to explore the eternal city. Driving around Rome was an experience in itself. If there were two tour buses travelling side by side with a six inch space between them, an Italian girl wearing a mini skirt, high heels and no helmet would whizz through the gap on her Vespa.

By this time, we’d picked up a local tour guide who told us to call her the Gucci lady. Each guide carried something distinctive so their tour group could find them. For the Gucci lady, it was a Gucci scarf attached to the end of a metal rod that she waved above her head. She teetered precariously on the step behind Mario the driver, holding on with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other every time he took a wrong turn or didn’t follow one of her instructions. Mario was a handsome young buck who thought the tour bus was a Ferrari and that Rome was his own personal Grand Prix. Every time he braked, I expected the Gucci lady to hurtle through the side door and join the girl on the Vespa. The fact that she didn’t was testament to her staying powers rather than Mario’s skill behind the wheel.

Our first stop was the Catacombs – underground tombs where the early Christians buried their dead. Alberto decided that Tim wouldn’t be able to keep up, so he remained in the bus while the rest of us headed off with one of the monks. The old man led us down four flights of stairs and along narrow, musty corridors with compartments cut into the walls on either side. It was like some macabre arrangement of bunk beds, only these had been the last resting places for saints and ordinary believers alike. In various places, the tombs were interspersed with artwork by those early Christians. It was a reverent and moving experience, especially when the monk prayed for us deep in the labyrinth. I bought some postcards to show Tim what we’d seen, but it obviously wasn’t the same as being there. We tucked that little disappointment away, and prayed the rest of the day would be better.

Our next destination would be the first test of the wheelchair. I thought pushing it would be a straightforward task, but I soon learned that each little trip was going to be different depending on the terrain. If only I could know the degree of difficulty beforehand, like in diving or skating competitions. I could almost hear the commentators.

‘Well Mike, here comes the Australian pair and they’ve got their work cut out for them. They’re going to attempt an uphill push to the church of San Pietro in Vincini with a forward lean, a triple loop, and a half pike into the corner to view Michelangelo’s Moses. That’s a difficulty factor of 8.5.’ ‘A bold choice, Clive. If they can nail this, they’ll be well ahead of the competition. But wait. What’s this? He’s getting out of the chair.’ ‘He’s not going to walk is he, Mike? He’s grabbing the railing. He’s bracing himself. Yes, he’s going to walk up and she’s pushing the empty chair. Oh this is a disaster for the Australian team. Have you ever seen anything like this?’ ‘Not since that unfortunate pommel horse incident in Barcelona, Clive. They won’t get as many points with this manoeuvre.’

Alberto suddenly appeared, gesturing in his frantic Italian style and calling out ‘Passmore, Passmore, what are you doing?’ I explained that I wasn’t strong enough to push Tim up the hill. Alberto decided that he would do the honours, but only after telling us he had a heart condition and getting our assurances that it wouldn’t be his fault if Tim fell out. By the time we got to the church, Alberto was sweating and puffing and I wondered if he would be the one to sue us.

The sculpture of Moses was just part of a larger work that spread up one wall in the church’s interior. He was showing a bit of leg and twirling a finger in his long beard. Quite fetching for a man of eighty plus.

We would cross paths with Michelangelo twice more before the day was through, although actually getting to the Sistine Chapel was more of a challenge than we’d anticipated. For the umpteenth time that day, our tour group disappeared ahead of us while Tim and I trekked along an interminable corridor in their general direction. Although a level surface this time, the rich carpets provided some resistance to the wheelchair’s propulsion. Intricate tapestries and ornate woodwork lined the walls, but we didn’t have time to fully appreciate their textures. Each tour group was only allotted a certain window of opportunity and we had to find the Gucci lady.

We eventually came across some steps. Tim could have walked down if the stairs hadn’t been partially blocked by a mechanical contraption that was slowly transporting another woman in a wheelchair. The guard told us there was an elevator back in the direction from which we’d come, and we thought that would save time. However, the guard neglected to say that it was ten minutes back. By the time we caught the lift and negotiated another long passageway, we arrived at the Sistine Chapel in time to hear the Gucci lady say, ‘If you all wait outside, I’ll go and look for the man in the wheelchair.’ We’d missed the whole thing!

To her credit, the Gucci lady gave us a quick five-minute spiel, but we were too tired to take it in. Michelangelo had laboured four years on his back, paint dripping into his eyes, coping with poor light and cramped conditions. I was having trouble after just a few hours of exertion. Looking up at the magnificent ceiling, my eyes caught the hand of God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. All I could think, was ‘Oh Lord, you’re going to have to help us survive this trip’.

Next stop was St Peter’s Basilica. Half the people on our tour were Americans of Italian extraction, with accents that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the Godfather movies. They were enamoured of the spectacular interior of St Peter’s. Lots of statues of saints and past popes, and ornate artistry everywhere including the incredible dome and altars. However, I found it a little gaudy and was drawn instead to the Pietà – the iconic sculpture of Mary cradling the body of her crucified son.

I wanted to reach out to the grieving mother, but the statue was above eye level and not easily accessible. Bulletproof glass, the legacy of an attack with a geologist’s hammer in the 70s, also kept us at bay. I wanted to get a better view, but then I noticed a woman in a wheelchair craning her neck to see above the crowd. Suddenly it dawned on me. She and the woman at the Sistine Chapel were the only wheelchair-bound people we’d seen since arriving in Europe sixteen days before. Where did Europe put its disabled?

Some months later, Time magazine ran an article on disabled access in Europe which confirmed our observations and more. Although Europe had a disabled population of about fifty million, it lagged behind most of the Western world in making reasonable provisions for disabled people. A survey carried out in Rome in 2004 found that only 20% of buildings had complete disabled access. By the time you factored in the scarcity of suitable public transport and the predilection of Europeans for putting most of their toilets up or down flights of stairs, I was beginning to understand why we hadn’t seen many disabled people out and about. Australia had ramps, disabled parking spaces and disabled loos. Italy had cobblestones, narrow passageways and steps. Lots of steps.

But there were lighter moments too. After leaving the Basilica, we had half an hour to kill before returning to the bus. We were still in the middle of St Peter’s Square getting our bearings when Tim suddenly pointed to one of the men in our group.

‘You have to stop that man and tell him he’s going the wrong way,’ Tim announced. ‘How do you know he’s going the wrong way?’ ‘The Gucci lady told me.’ ‘When did she tell you?’ ‘She’s telling me now.’

It was only then I realised Tim was still wearing his earpiece from the tour and the Gucci lady was on the other side of the square waving her arms frenetically while calling on ‘the man in the wheelchair’ to do something. I had to laugh as I ran after the wayward tourist and herded him back to the fold.

Later that night, I ran into Alberto in the hotel foyer. He told me that Tim wouldn’t be able to go on the tour of Pompeii the next day, but there was a nice café nearby where he could wait for us. My heart sank. Tim was the history buff’s history buff. I told Alberto how disappointed Tim would be if he had to miss out on the most significant historic site on our tour. Alberto countered that there was a steep incline onto the site and a lot of walking.

‘If someone could just help Tim up the slope, couldn’t we look around at our own pace? Alberto thought for a moment. ‘Maybe. We’ll see.’ I didn’t tell Tim about that encounter, but prayed it would all work out.

When we got to Pompeii, the group set off on a walking tour with a different Gucci lady. Alberto took Tim’s arm as we walked up the incline and then left us to our own devices. It was a beautiful sunny day, with Mt Vesuvius simmering in the background. The whiff of cloud crossing the top of the mountain gave the illusion that she could blow at any moment. Some structures such as columns and stone walls were remarkably intact. Even the mosaic patterns on some of the floors were still in reasonable condition.

Speckled across the site were little workshops where artefacts such as pots and figurines were carefully cleaned, examined and catalogued. It would have taken a day to fully explore everything on offer, but we were happy with what we did see. We even shared a quiet patch of sun with a lizard while we ate our lunch. We later found that some of our group were disappointed they’d been sent off on a walking tour and hadn’t really seen what they’d wanted to see. It was a pattern that would repeat itself several times on the trip. Wherever possible, we would go at our own pace and often enjoyed our time more than those who’d done every activity on a schedule.

Our two-night stop at Baveno was like that. Our hotel was situated on the shores of Lake Maggiore with the Swiss Alps as a backdrop. Tim and I decided to have a rest day rather than going on the scheduled excursion into Switzerland. We were staying in a peaceful location by a beautiful lake that we could see from our balcony, so why not simply enjoy the day? We relaxed with nothing more exerting than a stroll to the shops and a leisurely lunch of pasta dripping with the ripest of tomatoes and freshest of herbs.

When the others arrived back, some said they wished they’d stayed with us. They’d had a one-hour lunch stop and spent the other five hours in the bus. They were exhausted. We were refreshed and ready to press on to Florence the next day where we would again catch up with Michelangelo.

No matter how many pictures you’ve seen of his exquisite sculpture of David, there’s nothing like standing right in front of him and looking up at that magnificent hunk – the hunk of marble I mean, not his … well, okay I’m blushing, let’s move on. It seemed that Michelangelo and I could be friends after all.

Alberto also lightened up more as the tour went on. Having Tim and I on the trip wasn’t as bad as he’d first thought and I think he even had a soft spot for us. He gave us a big hug at the end of the trip, though he never did get the hang of our first names. We were always Passmore.

Would we have gone on that trip if Super Wendy had told us what to expect? Probably not. Are we glad we went? Yes. It’s easy to make assumptions based on what you think someone can and can’t do. Alberto had us pigeonholed that first night, but we proved him wrong and won him over in the process. Maybe we pigeonholed him too. We initially thought he didn’t want us there, but his concerns may have been compassionate ones rather than discriminatory or self-serving. Maybe he was worried that we wouldn’t be able to do the things we’d paid to do and he felt bad about that.

We also learned some important lessons. Never assume that the Audis and Vespas racing towards you will stop just because you’re on a pedestrian crossing. If you send a postcard from Southern Italy in September you should write ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. And if there’s a Da Vinci Code evangelist on your tour, just look at her with a glazed expression and she’ll eventually move on. And what happened to Super Wendy? Last we heard, she’d opened her own travel agency and was on her way to her next million in sales. Buona vacanza everyone. Happy holidays!

(Published in: Passmore, N. L. (2014). Vespas, wheelchairs, and the metamorphosis of Alberto. In J. Cooper, B. Morton, J. Spencer & C. Tuovinen (Eds.), Tales from the upper room: Tabor Adelaide anthology 2014 (pp. 12-19). Saint Marys, South Australia: Immortalise.)