In France, as in many other European countries I’ve visited, the sound of church bells is a regular part of any community. Whether they’re marking the passing of time or ringing out to summon the faithful to a church service, the sound of church bells is certainly part of the audio memory I have for many European trips.
So it wasn’t especially unusual to hear church bells when we stopped at Villedieu-les-Poêles In Normandy. Except these church bells were playing part of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. And a few minutes later they played part of Auld Lang Syne. Which we took to be a good sign – it meant we had discovered the bell foundry, which we’d decided to hunt down after hearing a mention of it on an audio guide of the WWII D-Day landings.
We were thrilled to discover we could take a guided tour of the foundry in English – tours are also offered in German, and French of course. And that the tours are able to accommodate those with sight impairments as well as those with mobility impairments.
The foundry was opened in 1865 and is still in operation. On the tour we learned that the way bells are cast now varies little from how they were cast when the foundry first opened, although they use a more modern process to melt the bronze and copper from which the bells are made. They make bells of all sizes, from tiny hand-held bells right the way through to those for churches and cathedrals. In fact, this was the foundry that made the new bells for Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2013, before it was damaged in the tragic fire.
I was surprised that the process of making bells isn’t more mechanized and was able to explore the components of each stage of the process with my hands. Though no firing was happening while we were there so there was no danger of me burning myself.
Something else that I found fascinating as a musician was that they can only approximate the pitch of the bell when it is being cast – the fine tuning has to be done by hand, shaving the inside of the bell to alter the pitch until it is tuned correctly.
But my favourite part of the visit to the foundry was the fact that they have an entire courtyard of bells that you’re not only allowed, but encouraged to ring. Which of course we did, with gleeful abandon. The photo shows me striking one of the smaller bells and, if we’d had the foresight to video it, you’d have heard me tapping out the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb.
Out of interest, every 10 minutes the bells we’d heard on our arrival played aa refrain from a famous song. When we asked our guide whether the townsfolk became annoyed by the constant bells ringing, she told us that the community loves the sound and that they are proud of their foundry. It’s certainly a unique memory that will remain with me as a reminder of our visit.
Although the bell foundry wasn’t on our original itinerary, it was a wonderful discovery and I’m glad we went out of our way to track it down and spend some time there. It was not only interesting; it was lots of fun!
It was the sense of tranquility and beauty that struck me most on our visits to Juno and Omaha beaches in Normandy. Which feels slightly unbelievable considering that these were both beaches that thousands of Allied and German soldiers met their deaths during the D Day landings on 6 June 1944, during WWII.
If you’ve studied accounts of the brutal and bloody fight that took place on the Normandy beaches , or have watched movies like Saving Private Ryan, or The Longest Day, or the series, Band of Brothers, you’ll probably have a sense of why I was so startled by the peace of the beaches now.
If you’ve never looked into the event, it was when more than 200 000 Allied forces attacked the heavily defended beaches of Normandy to start the liberation of France from Nazi domination.
With my husband’s interest in WWII, it was no surprise that we visited the sites of the landings. As we drove around the region where the fighting took place, we listened to a detailed audio guide of what happened on that fateful day. It was with the soundtrack of these accounts in our minds that we stepped out of the car and made our way to the beach known as Juno.
And how beautiful and tranquil it was – a slight breeze rustling the nearby trees and the sound of the rhythmic waves as they ebbed and flowed gently onto the sand. Although we knew we hadn’t taken a wrong turning and landed up at a different beach – the large gun housings, examples of the 2 million metal caltrops that had been scattered across the beaches to deter landing craft, and a replica of a landing craft that we were able to explore were all vivid reminders of the past.
Visiting Omaha Beach was much the same – the peacefulness of the area nowadays seeming almost incongruous considering the massacre that took place there on 5 June 1944. And yet, maybe that’s how it should be. Because it left me with a profound sense that peace, tranquility and beauty can eventually replace the horror and brutality of war.
I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.
Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.
What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?
I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.
Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.
The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.
But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.
Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.
The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.
Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.
One of the things I love about travelling in Europe is the abundance of local food and produce markets. I was looking forward to discovering some while in Bayeux. And I was by no means disappointed.
There was a large market every Saturday with a vast range of locally grown produce, meats and cheeses. And another on Wednesday morning.
Craig and I arrived in Bayeux on Friday afternoon, and were ready and waiting to go and stock up by the time Saturday morning arrived. Luckily, we were staying in an Airbnb, so we weren’t limited to cold meats, cheeses and a few pieces of fruit – we also bought plenty of salad ingredients, and some of the largest artichokes I’ve ever seen, along with a few vegetables to cook. And some of the famous Normandy cider.
And then we spied a stall selling nougat – slabs and slabs of different flavoured nougat! I know I’m diabetic and that I really ought not to indulge in too many sweet things, but I have a particular weakness for nougat, so we went to go and have a look. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone cutting nougat like she was slicing a large cake. On the very rare occasion I allow myself to indulge in my secret weakness at home, I usually find pre-packaged nougat in matchbox sized cubes, not 30 by 30 centimetre slabs like those shown in the photograph.
The stallholder was delighted to have two tourists showing so much interest in her wares and happily allowed us to sample a number of the different flavours on offer. Ee eventually decided on one and bought a piece – but one that was half the size the stall holder thought we needed.
Believe it or not, we had to stock up on local produce again by the time the smaller market took place on Wednesday. Only, the weather wasn’t great. I don’t think I’ll ever forget running from stall to stall trying to avoid the gentle but persistent rain. Admittedly, we didn’t buy so much on that occasion, which was good because it meant we were able to hide out in a coffee shop and warm ourselves up with a hot drink and a crepe – yes, more sugar for the diabetic!
I wish the local produce market vibe was more common in South Africa. Sure, you can find the odd market for local organic produce here and there, but I guess I’ll have to wait till our next European trip to dive back into the wonderful local market culture that’s so prevalent there.
As someone who’s been travelling for a number of years with a visual impairment, I’m familiar with the assistance and support that I need to put in place to assist me to travel. Whether I’m travelling with a sighted companion or travelling on my own, I know the help I require and how to ensure I arrange for it ahead of time. For me, this includes assistance at the airport, transport to and from the airport, and ensuring that my needs – and those of my guide dog, if Fiji is with me – can be accommodated at the place I’m staying.
But what about a person with a disability who hasn’t travelled before? How do they become aware of the assistance that they can tap into?
I had the opportunity to interview a gentleman named Saul Molobi on my accessible travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling. Saul shared the story of his first overseas trip since becoming mobility impaired three years ago. I listened as he described accommodations at the airport and the hotel that should have been there, and weren’t. And the impact the lack of those services had on his journey. And I found myself thinking, “That’s not how it’s meant to happen!”
I guess, for those of us who have travelled regularly with a disability, it’s almost automatic that we spend time researching what facilities and services are available to assist us when we travel Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s sometimes frustrating when we don’t find it easy to identify whether or not a service provider can accommodate our needs. And yes, sometimes we put everything in place and yet it’s not there when we arrive. But at least we know what we need to look for and request. Because we’ve learned by experience – most often from what’s gone wrong before.
I’d like to think my podcast can be a resource to help people to overcome some of the challenges of travelling with a disability, so they don’t need to face so many barriers to a positive travel experience. I’ve never thought of it before, but the information shared by the people I interview can be of immense value to other travellers who may not have travelled as much as some of us have. At least, I hope so.
Going back to the interview with Saul. You may be thinking that it landed up being a sad, depressing interview. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the most inspiring stories I’ve shared so far – Saul kept reinforcing how liberating it was for him to know he could overcome the barriers he faced, and how satisfying it was for him to be able to successfully travel on his own for the first time. Sure, he struggled with certain aspects of the trip, but he said he knows what he needs to do differently when he travels next time.
Even if you have no interest in accessible travel, I think you should listen to Saul’s story – it’s a story of courage, tenacity and triumph over adversity. And it was an honour for me to be able to share the story on the podcast.
You can find Saul’s story here: http://iono.fm/e/797930
So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?
For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.
While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.
And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.
In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.
After a week in Paris our next destination was a town called Bayeux, in Normandy. Before I tell you all about it, I’d like to tell you a little about how we got there.
By far the most logical way to make the journey was by train. Except, you see, I’m terrified of train travel. Well, that’s not quite true. I’m fine once I’m on the train. What I’m actually scared of is navigating through noisy, busy train stations.
Navigating through a train station with trains screaming past me as they fly in and out of platforms, with the noise masking the sounds I would normally use to help me find my way, makes me extremely anxious. Even when I’m accompanied by a sighted guide who will prevent me from doing something crazy like hopping onto the wrong train, or falling off the platform,
On this trip, my anxiety was worse because we had two suitcases with us. Which Craig had to manage as we navigated our way from our Paris apartment, through two metro stations, a shopping centre, a train station, another train station, and finally to our apartment in Bayeux. All the time having to keep an eye on his nerve-wracked, blind wife, to make sure she didn’t do something stupid.
There were two things that helped me keep the anxiety under control. The first was to focus on just the next step of the trip, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire journey. That helped a lot, since I only had to deal with what was happening in the immediate future and then catch my breath before tackling the next stage. The other factor that made it easier was that I was more confident in how to use my white cane to help me get around, thanks to the mobility lessons I’d taken earlier in the year. And that made Craig’s task a little easier, since I was able to move around a lot more independently.
I don’t know if I’ll ever become totally comfortable navigating noisy train stations. But at least I know in future I’ll be able to manage my anxiety with my increased cane skills and by taking it one step at a time.
Is it just me, or does it feel like the year 2019 went by very fast?
It feels like it was yesterday that I sat down to write my annual post setting my intentions for the year 2019. Yet, here we are, already more than a week into 2020 and it’s time for me to do the same for the coming year.
As I sit here, pondering what I’d like to achieve in 2020, I find myself reflecting on all that happened last year.
I managed to take my speaking beyond the disability sector and spoke at a number of events on the topic of overcoming challenges. Since much of my focus last year was on building strategic relationships to support the work I’m doing, it’s hard to say whether I achieved that – it’s an ongoing task, as any entrepreneur will know. I consolidated my social media profiles to better show the work I’m doing. And, though I haven’t completely finished the writing project I was busy with, I have only a few steps to go – but more on that in my intentions for 2020.
- Talking about that, here they are:
- Writing: I plan to publish my first audio book this year. Most of the work on this was done in 2019. I just need to complete the final tasks.
- Podcasts: I plan to continue publishing 2 podcasts on accessible travel each month, and have a few exciting other possibilities in the pipeline for the coming year – watch this space for news!
- Speaking: I’d like to build on the speaking I did last year, and grow this aspect of my business. If you’d like to motivate your teams while giving them practical techniques to help them overcome their challenges, I’m the speaker for you!
- Website: Last year I updated my Facebook page, and my Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. My website is next on the list, and I hope to get that done in the next few months.
- Music: I know, I know. This is on my list every year. Hopefully, sharing some of my lyrics and writing on my blog each month will help me make my music more of a priority in 2020.
- Travel: I’m not sure where my travels will take me this year, but I’d like to include a trip to Durban amongst my travels – I have family and friends I’d really like to visit.
What would you like to achieve in 2020? Have you thought about your own intentions for the year ahead?
You know, the strange thing is that I don’t really check back to what I’ve written in this annual blog post during the year. And yet, I seem to achieve them. I think creating this post each year is enough for me to understand the strategic areas I want to work on. So I don’t need to be constantly checking up on my progress.
I’d like to challenge you to think about your intentions for 2020. And write them down. Whether you check them on a regular basis to see how you’re doing, or simply use them as a guide for the coming year as I do, is not the point. I truly believe that the simple act of determining my strategic areas helps shape my actions and my plans for the coming year. And perhaps it’ll be the same for you.
May I wish you all a productive and impactful 2020 – I look forward to connecting with you in the year to come.
There’s a commonly held opinion that the French people actively dislike the English, and that this often affects English-language speakers from other countries. This general dislike is said to be especially so of the Parisiennes.
At least, that’s what I’d been told.
Yet, in the three weeks I was in France, that simply wasn’t my experience.
You don’t believe me? Let me share a few examples with you.
When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were trying to find the commuter train to Paris, several people helped us, including a railway official. You might argue that, since he deals with lots of confused tourists, that his job requires him to be helpful. But a friend of mine had the opposite experience in the same environment.
Then, as we negotiated our way through a maze-like station to catch the Metro that would take us to the place we were staying, a young guy offered to carry our luggage so Craig could assist me. As South Africans we were naturally hesitant. So, with a typically Gallic shrug, he offered to assist me instead, leaving Craig to carry the bags. Which is what we did.
It seemed like there were always people willing to assist me off a train or a Metro. Serving staff in restaurants were hospitable and friendly. And the people we met as we visited the various tourist sites on our list were approachable and willing to assist. In fact, I can’t think of a single person on the trip who was less than friendly.
On one occasion we were helped by an elderly gentleman who couldn’t speak a word of English. He guided me through a Metro station onto a train, climbed on and travelled with us. He assisted me to the next train and again travelled with us for a few stops. Then he said goodbye in French, climbed off the train and headed back the way we’d come.
I don’t know whether it helped that Craig and I are able to say a few words in French – we try to do so for any country we visit. Or whether my blindness played a role in making people feel more welcoming and willing to assist.
But, whatever the reason, I certainly found the French people to be charming and hospitable – nothing like what we’d been led to believe. And I’ll be happy to say so anytime I hear someone mentioning how unfriendly the French people are.
Spending more than a week in Paris, travelling round extensively on the Metro and train service, I got the feeling that a traveller using a wheelchair might encounter some problems using the Metro. Luckily, I was travelling with my sighted husband, so didn’t have to find my way around unfamiliar Metro stations on my own, especially as not all trains had audio announcements to let me know which station we were approaching.
Physical access is seldom a problem for a traveller with a visual impairment, but I was very aware there appeared to be few elevators, that many of the trains had steps up from the station platform into the carriage and that there was often a gap between the platform and the carriage. The only Metro line that seemed to have a good level of wheelchair accessibility was the 14th, which is a newer line – it even has a barrier to stop people falling onto the tracks, either by accident or design.
When I got back to Cape Town I wanted to discover if my observations were true. And, if they were, I wanted to learn how those using wheelchairs are able to navigate their way around Paris. So, as almost anyone would do, I turned to Google.
In my exploration, I found this fantastic article on the accessibility of Paris, and not just the rail services. I think it’s a great article for someone with a disability to read before heading off to Paris for a visit.
I know most of the Metro and rail infrastructure in Paris was built before the needs of persons with disabilities were really considered, but I was startled to find that so little accommodation has yet been done.
Still, it’s good to know that persons with disabilities who do visit Paris are able to get out and see this beautiful and historic city.