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Why France?

Embracing the Imperfections: Discovering the Charm of France Through the Eyes of a Wheelchair User


Julia Wingfield finds France may not be 100% perfect for wheelchair users, but its friendly folk make up for it…

I wasn’t always a wheelchair user. I was twenty years old when I sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI) as a result of a motorcycle accident. Since that time, I’ve been wheelchair dependent, although I prefer to think that I am giving an inanimate piece of furniture purpose – without me it would be a rather useless chair on wheels. Prior to my accident I travelled with my parents on family holidays around the UK and the channel Islands, as well as France for the 24 hour Le Mans Motorcycle Race.

I’ve had some fun and not so fun holidays along the way, but by far my biggest enjoyment and most memorable experiences have been while travelling through France, with and without an impairment.

Like most Brits my first visit to France was a school day trip Calais in my teens. Back then I doubt anyone thought about risk assessing or supervision, we were literally taken by coach and dropped somewhere and told to ‘interact with the locals’.

Interact we did, but I’m not sure being chatted up by lorry drivers was quite the cultural experience described in the school the curriculum. However, once we’d successfully given them the slip we went off in gangs of six to explore and practice a few French phrases. It was my first introduction to the most delicious pastries I had ever seen or tasted. The crusty loaf and custard tarts I could buy in my hometown were very different to the patisseries with their stunning array of delicious rainbow-coloured macarons. Although I can’t remember where we went, the medieval town remains imprinted in my mind, cobbled streets reminiscent of something out of a Harry Potter movie.

Le Mans on a motorbike was very different. Sixteen years of age, rebel without a clue we set off from Portsmouth to Le Havre, then down to the racetrack. Winding roads, castles on hilltops, I remember the journey more than the race itself. We stopped off on the way back in the pouring rain somewhere in Normandy where I was introduced to my first sip of Calvados with a side shot of inky black coffee. Restored and fully awake, if not a bit wobbly riding pillion I promised myself I would return one day.

Fast forward a few years and post injury I read the iconic book ‘A year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle. Captivated by the romantic images of life in France I persuaded my now ex-husband into crossing the channel with our young son who’d been recently diagnosed neurodiverse.

We settled for Quimper in Brittany, as my ex preferred a shorter drive. The Gite we booked was advertised as fully accessible. It was owned by someone in the UK with a SCI, and I was assured the property would meet our requirements. Inevitably we ran out of fuel but were rescued by a lovely French lady who used her credit card in the unmanned service station at 1am in exchange for the cash. Finally, we arrived in the middle of nowhere at 5am in the pitch black. The gite was quirky. The electrics blew the minute we opened the door, so we were forced the navigate the house by torchlight. The two-bed accessible gite had a ground floor bedroom with a surprisingly modern WC and shower room. But the second bedroom was on a mezzanine so even with a rope and pulley system I couldn’t put my sleepy, anxious son to bed. What’s more the front door wouldn’t close properly, so we had to ram the large wooden table up against it to prevent any potential marauding invaders.

Our first night or should I say morning, was spent with all of us in the same bed, fidgeting, snoring, and complaining about trades description versus reality. At 8am, barely a few hours after we’d retired to bed, a woman introduced herself by shoving the door open and offering a basket full of eggs, butter, and bread. Using my English to French dictionary, we established she was the housekeeper. We explained the lack of power, so one by one she flicked switches mumbling merde every time the fuse box pinged, until finally normality returned. Bleary eyed and hungry we inspected the basket and helped ourselves to crumbly croissants, pain au chocolat and half a freshly baked baguette. She must have been psychic or used to the daily ritual because she also left a selection of fuses. It was just as well because every time we turned on more than two appliances the house plunged into darkness. But did I care? No, this was the holiday we needed.

The tiny kitchen was basic, and as anyone who’s blessed with a neurodiverse child knows, mealtimes can be stressful. Apart from the croissants, he would only eat food he was familiar with and cooking on what was essentially a student version of a grill and two ring hob tested my culinary skills considerably. Quimper was charming. And it was noticeable that when my little son displayed what might be considered ‘naughty behaviour’, it resulted in a pat on the head, or a smile from the French. At every café he was given crayons and a colouring book, the waitress directed questions to him with a smile, even when he shrugged and couldn’t reply. The cobbled streets in Quimper were somewhat uncomfortable in my wheelchair, and access in the medieval town was as expected fairly challenging, but there was always help available even without asking. If I stopped to look in a gallery window in a blink of an eye men appeared, cigarette clamped between lips, and like it or not I was lifted into the building and greeted with a cheery Bonjour!

Quimper’s Cathédral Saint-Corentin, with its stained-glass windows and twin towers is well worth a visit, it’s the oldest gothic structure in Brittany and dominates the landscape. The potteries, famous for their rustic designs, proudly display their colourful ceramics in the windows of many of the shops and boutique galleries. The medieval quarter is a feast for the eyes with its beautiful architecture, cafés, and shops. Driving back to the Gite one early evening I spied a sign nailed to a wall advertising cider, we doubled back and drove down a dirt track and ended up in a farmyard. I don’t quite know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t a French farmer, rosy cheeked and brimming with enthusiasm thrusting glass after glass of rather unpleasant apple juice into my hand. To be fair, after sampling quite a few I did find two I particularly liked, so I paid a few francs for two fertiliser containers filled full of what looked like bad urine samples and promptly fell asleep the minute we got back to the gite. The week flew by with daily deliveries of pastries and eggs then it was time for home.

Despite the very modest and basic amenities I was hooked on France and in particular, the kindness of strangers.

In 2016 my new partner bought a town house in Normandy and set about making the ground floor accessible for us to use for vacations and rental purposes. It’s been an adventure and continues to give me great joy to visit France.

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