Italy on Wheels – Fantastico!

Ewan Gemmell

The last few years have been quite stressful for my family and one contributing factor in that was the diagnosis of my son, Calum, 5 years ago with LGMD 2a. So having successfully negotiated our way into the NDIS (and that is another story) and with my daughter Bridget having completed her Masters Degree it was time for a holiday.

For some reason they decided on Italy, which I must confess to having no great interest in, and a cruise in the Adriatic ending in Venice. I thought the cruise would be a better option for my son given his mobility issues. So with a hired wheelchair and an overwhelming feeling of trepidation the time eventually arrived for our departure.

From the very beginning my fears were slowly erased. The check-in procedure at Sydney went amazingly smoothly and the staff were extremely helpful and accommodating. Next stop Dubai. I wasn’t at all sure how this would go but we were greeted by an air-conditioned shipping container, which arrived opposite the gangway where everyone else disembarked. The wheelchair was still in one piece and we were driven through a maze of tunnels and turns. It all felt a bit like a scene out of Blade Runner. After 20 minutes of not knowing who was driving or how this contraption managed to negotiate its way in the middle of the night we arrived just before the bus carrying the First Class passengers arrived at our connecting flight and there to greet us was a helpful fellow who pushed my son here and there until we arrived in a huge waiting lounge specifically set aside for those with all types of mobility issues. From the elderly to those with broken limbs to folk on crutches and everything else in between. I was starting to feel that everything was going to work out well.

When it came time to board our flight to Rome the same helpful fellow arrived and took us to the boarding gate where we were ushered on quickly and efficiently. I was amazed at how efficient Dubai was and heartened by the help that we had so far received. Aircraft food and an inability to sleep aside, so far it had been an incredibly amazing and stress-free experience.

Next stop Rome. The seamless ease of the behind the scenes organisation of the trip continued to work its miracles and our driver actually was there to meet us, he did have a wheelchair accessible taxi and even the hotel was accessible! I was amazed and relieved. My cynical nature was beginning to have some faith restored in the goodness of humanity and specifically that of strangers.

The cobblestones

There were several places my daughter insisted on seeing which to be honest I just couldn’t get interested in. I was looking forward to the cruise but here we were in Rome for 3 days and despite the jet lag off we plunged with wheelchair into the chaos and cobblestone lined everything of old Rome.

It was peak tourist season we were tired had no idea where we were going and despite a little bit of family grumpiness and frustration with each other, the first step was a roadside café for a coffee and a gelato. After all, when in Rome…

Much to our delight our wonderful cat had telepathically communicated through whatever means felines do and within minutes of sitting down her doppelganger appeared (not sure of the Italian for that) and made a beeline straight for us, making us feel welcome and very much at home.

After refreshments, once again we set off, this time in the right direction to the Trevi Fountain, jolting across the cobblestones, weaving in and out of the masses of tourists, occasionally getting stuck in a rut on the road and bravely negotiating the unknowable Roman road sense. It didn’t take long to realise that there was safety in numbers and that just because there was a verge on one side of the road, it didn’t mean there would be a corresponding one on the other. You take a breath and go, it’s your ability to project a confidence that you don’t necessarily have that makes it work. Much like life in general, really.

Trevi fountain and crowds

Trevi fountain, we made it. It was packed out like Bondi Beach on a scorching summer’s day but this time we were the backpackers. It made me laugh. It was over the top. You could hardly move for the throng. Somehow I managed to get close to the waters edge and was about to splash some water over my face when a very stern looking policewoman blew her whistle at me, taking seriously her task of protecting Rome’s original water source. After the obligatory pictures and yes even selfies no less, off we jolted sometimes having to reverse when we got stuck, sometimes weaving all over the lane ways negotiating a wheelchair friendly route over the undulations and general disrepair of the cobblestones. And like negotiating the car traffic, the pedestrian traffic was just the same, be bold, hold firm, you are bigger than them and self-preservation dictates that they will get out of the way and you push on through. Like Moses parting the sea we ventured on.

Everything about Rome was right for me. The chaos, the crowds, the anonymity. It was wonderful. The hawkers and beggars left us alone as I think there must be some unspoken code amongst them or they recognise that the sufferings that have got one into a wheelchair should be respected and that there is little to be gained from preying on such vulnerabilities. This was contrasted later with the hawkers in suits on board the cruise ship which to be honest, left me quite cold. At least with the hawkers on the street you were getting sold some charity whereas with the others it was a type of dream that was a total delusion.

Calum in front of the Pantheon

Onwards to whatever was next. That old looking thing over there. Something called the Pantheon, it had ramp access and there was a sign saying it was free, lets go. It blew my mind. I can still see that bent cylinder of light coming down from the heavens like God’s gaze, wondering just what the hell his creations were up to. I am an unbeliever but that’s what it felt like to me. We went to the Vatican later and just as an aside the casino on the ship reminded me a bit of that. It may be sacrilegious but that’s what it was like. An unbeliever in a city of people trying to believe in something. Our taxi driver told us that Rome has 250 churches and it seems to me that it hasn’t done it much good.

Filled with an awe that swept away our tiredness we wheeled off once again through the thinning hordes towards the Piazza Navona and once again we were spellbound. Maybe the cobblestones had jolted some neurons loose but for the life of me I couldn’t understand why there were so few people here and so many at the Trevi fountain. People are funny critters and I’ve never been one to understand the workings of the majority. An ice-cold lemonade helped seal a satisfaction I hadn’t felt in years. Despite not wanting to come to Rome, I was loving this place. It was drawing me into its soul and I was falling in love. It may have been the cat I’m not sure but it really did feel like home.

Following day, the Colosseum. Once again huge crowds and cobblestones, but armed with the expertise of a 10.5 km push over narrow and inhospitable terrain yesterday, a short 30-minute push is easy. It’s just around the corner. Negotiate a few tricky pedestrian crossings, pass the 24 hr. military sentry (no selfies allowed) and there you are in front of one of the ancient wonders of the world. Once again a security guard ushers us to a side entrance with a ramp and through we go, skipping the huge crowd already building early in the morning. While only two of the three levels are wheelchair accessible its still an enthralling 4 hour stroll back through history. With jet lag catching up we retire early in anticipation that Papa Francesco will greet us at St Pauls tomorrow. He will perform a miracle and my son’s muscles will be miraculously restored, who knows, time will tell.

Calum and Bridget at the Colosseum

This time we take a hair raising taxi ride, as it was a bit far to walk and push. The taxi driver despite being a friendly chap seemed more interested in responding to his lover’s texts with numerous love hearts and kisses seemingly taking precedence over any awareness of the traffic, but we arrive in one piece early before the crowds fill the square.

Unfortunately, Papa Francesco must have been a bit busy because he was a no show, I do appreciate that he is a busy man but I was looking forward to a miracle. The thing with miracles however is that they don’t always appear when you want them to. As we took in the atmosphere of the near empty square which is capable of holding the equivalent of the SCG, a throng emerged, clapping and chanting some sort of Catholic mantra. Dressed as they were in orange vests over their shirts they reminded me of a Catholic version of the Hare Krishna’s. I’m not sure they would see it like that but I couldn’t see a great deal of difference between them myself. Caught up as they were in fervour of devotional ecstasy.

Somehow this chanting exuberant mass of hand clapping youth managed by some miracle of divine origin to overtake us and before we knew it we were at the wrong end of a very large queue. We accepted that this was our fate as non-believers, cast aside in favour of the chosen few. I think however God actually was on our side as yet again a kindly man, this time with gun and baton, signalled for us to bypass the devout and once through an Italian version of security we miraculously found ourselves in front of the Catholic Hare Krishna’s.

Once inside my son was able to propel himself effortlessly over the century’s old marbled floor and we all went our own ways to marvel at the heavenly domain in which we found ourselves. Meanwhile the Hare Krishna’s had gathered in the inner sanctum for a Mass thus denying us mere pagans the ability to view the main dome of St Paul’s. We were going to wait for the Mass to end but it dragged on and on and we had better things to do than be held hostage by these rebels, so we joined the pilgrimage to the Sistine Chapel. Just follow the crowds.

At St Pauls

Join the tide of pilgrims and non-believers like us and submit to a greater power than yourself, meanwhile admiring the Catholic kitsch being purveyed along the way. I was very pleased to find myself in possession of a Pope Francis bobble head. Almost sacrilegious, but delicious all the same. You know you have made it when they make you into a bobble head.

We submitted to the will of the mass and soon enough found ourselves outside the Vatican museums of which the Sistine Chapel is just one part. We allowed ourselves to have some faith that a man would appear and usher us through VIP like in front of the crowd and let us bypass the throng. Sure enough this faith thing seemed to be working because it happened again. I really think that is the miracle of Rome. It sucks you in and lets you breathe its soul and leaves you feeling grateful for the experience of touching something much older and greater than yourself.

Inside we stopped for quick refreshment in a café that had a ramp and then proceeded to decipher an indecipherable map of how to find the Sistine Chapel. Follow the crowd a voice whispered and as we followed that whisper we passed a collection of artifacts from the ancient world and religious artifacts the likes of which left me in awe. On the way we passed a shop which in true Catholic fashion sold every type of nick nack a pilgrim could possibly want except for the one thing that I would have thought was important. The Bible. Nowhere to be seen.

Another miracle was soon to be experienced as we got to the Chapel. Seeing a wheelchair, a number of attendants more or less pushed far worthier pilgrims than ourselves out of the way to make way for us. Despite there being hardly any room to move inside the Chapel we found ourselves directly underneath the hand of God (not Maradona) and not realising I wasn’t allowed to take photos I snapped a view of the ceiling before a booming voice, perhaps that of God himself, reminded us that photographs were not permitted but importantly SILENZIO. It seemed appropriate to me. The best way to appreciate genius is to absorb it quietly.

There is no better way to understand what makes the locals tick than talking to a cabbie so on the way back to the hotel we started a conversation about football. Roma of course was his team and then a rant emerged about Juventus and by the time we got to the hotel I hated them too. What is it about popular teams with black and white colours? They probably hate us too but as we know, everyone loves Australians, especially those in wheelchairs or so it seems except perhaps in Australia where I am yet to experience such a generosity and willingness to help those with an obvious disadvantage.

And that was Rome. Miracles really do exist!

Ewan Gemmell Bio

Bridget, Calum and Ewan

I have been a Nurse for 25 years or so but nothing really prepared me for getting the diagnosis that my son had LGMD 2a. For the past 5 years since Calum’s diagnosis I have been focused on getting him the supports that he needs. One of my proudest achievements is navigating into the NDIS. It was like a full time job. It took a good 6 months of continual appointments and then appointments to get more appointments. But just before Christmas last year we got the best present of all. Calum was eligible for the NDIS and it really has been a great thing for him. He has his drivers’ license back and the supports he needs to make his life as fruitful as he wants. He is back at university, looking for work and his life has really moved forward. What more can a parent want than that?





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