D.I.Y. Travel Crutch. Or the Joys of Modern Duct Tape.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have some difficulty standing on my feet for long periods of time.  This makes activities like visiting museums difficult, even with the help of the Evil Aid.  This is a problem, because my job requires me to visit art museums and exhibits, where I have to stand on my feet for significant periods of time.  My bum leg and wonky EDS joints have been making this quite difficult lately, to the point where I either hadn’t been able to finish looking at the displays or couldn’t pay them proper attention, simply because I was in too much pain.  So I decided things had to change.  With the arrival of my new Ossenberg crutches, which came in a pair, I was inspired to take on the museums with two sticks rather than one.  I figured it was the most readily available out, and if it didn’t work, I’m know it was time to move on to the next set of options (i.e. rollator, a set of wheels).  But here was the thing: I was just about to travel to Amsterdam and Budapest, mostly for work, but a little for pleasure.  I knew that I would be going to a lot of exhibits in both cities, and I was a bit perplexed about how to pack a second crutch.  I should say straight away that I was disinclined to simply purchase a long duffle bag, stuff my crutch into it, and check it in as luggage. Forearm crutches are awkwardly sized and shaped, and as such pose a safe packing challenge. I had nightmare images of the airlines tossing my stick around and bending it or shattering its cuff.  I also looked into the possibility of purchasing a folding forearm crutch.  This seemed ideal, but the best folding crutches out there (which are held together with a bungee cord like folding canes and collapse into thirds) are currently outside the bounds of my mobility gadget budget.  So I had to come up with something else, and quickly.  And you know, it may be cliche, but it does seem to be true that sometimes the best and most functional ideas come from the most unexpected sources.  A few weeks ago, at her mother’s suggestion, I bought the five year old daughter of a good friend a duct tape jewelry kit.  Recently it seems someone had the brilliant idea to add color and interesting patterns to the sturdy but easy to tear sticky stuff.  Gone are the days, dear reader, of silver metallic duct tape that you purchase specifically, because you think it will blend in well with your plumbing.  No. Now the stuff looks like this:

Options

 

My idea was simple. If I couldn’t afford a folding crutch, I would simply fasten my second Ossenberg to the handle of my rolling carry-on carry with some fancy duct tape.  I would affix extra pieces of tape to the back of the suitcase just in case after removing the crutch to get through security or to put my things in the overhead, the first strip would refuse to re-stick.  Admittedly, the sticking and unsticking was a bit clunky.  But it was cheap, and moreover, highly effective.  No extra checked bags. Both crutches on board, as airlines cannot count mobility aids as part of your carry-on allowance.  Here is a little slide show of exactly how it worked:

1.) Choose your Weapon

1.) Choose your Weapon

2.) Affix to suitcase.

2.) Affix to suitcase.

3.) Go!

3.) Go!

4.) Unstick and stow.

4.) Unstick and stow.

This method worked through the infamous security lines at Infamous International Hub here in the Midwestern Megapolis. On SwissAir through Zurich. Through Schipol in Amsterdam and again in Budapest.  And the results of the two stick museum experiment? By and large, success!  Or at least, MAJOR improvement. It seems that for me, anything that involves a lot of standing will be a two stick experience from now on. I have no regrets. But I may buy stock in duct tape.

 

 

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“Memories Come Rushing Up to Meet Me Now”

It is hard for me to believe that my little blog has been chugging along for an entire year.  It really does seem to me that only yesterday I was setting at my friends’ kitchen table on a cold wintery night in the Mid-Western Megapolis carefully following Katja’s technical instructions about how to start a WordPress blog.  I was anxious, and even a little depressed about my new life with Aid, but I was also fiercely determined to not only make that life work but to make it better. I still am. And this is why I have decided to continue to maintain this space. Much as changed for me, however, in the past year. I survived an insane and exhilarating year in the Motherland. I conducted productive original research from early Soviet primary sources on aesthetics, politics, and culture. I began to make some headway on my next big project: turning the results of all that research into a well-written publishable text. I learned a lot about what I can handle and how to cope. 

I would say that for me 2012 was eye-opening and intense. I can’t really complain about it, and I am grateful for what I got. I cannot really complain, but I can keep talking. And I will.

That being said, I want to change a few things about this blog. Until now, it has been a rant space/travelogue. I want to preserve these aspects of this space, but I also want to expand them to add more activism, more art, a little more resistance, a lot more discussion, and some D.IY. just for fun.

For those of you who read this: thank you. And please stay tuned.

Celebrating Yerevan.

It’s hard to believe that my time in the Motherland, at least for this round, is almost up. Only one month left before I return to the Midwestern Megapolis to finish up this seemingly never  ending writing project that I’ve started.  It is really going to be hard to leave Russia.  As crazy as this place is, I find, after living here on and off over the course of seven years, that I really love the craziness and the complexities. And yes, I even enjoy the absurdity and the paradox.  That is, when they are not driving me nuts.

I recently made one last post-Soviet expedition to Yerevan, Armenia to hunt down some paintings that I needed to have a look at for work.  The trip was a success on many counts. I found the paintings I was hoping to see and was granted permission to photograph them.  We were able to do some sightseeing outside the city, traveling to Geghard Monastery, which contains the remains of an early Christian cave church and to Khor Virap, a church on a hill adjacent to Mount Ararat and within spitting distance of the modern day heavily patrolled and highly disputed border with Turkey.  And to top it all off, Yerevan is just a lovely city, filled with pink and red sandstone architecture.  The streets are clean and tidy. The people are friendly and are eager to tell foreign visitors about their country, its history, and its cultural  highlights. And…wait for it…wait for it…Yerevan is the most ACCESSIBLE city that I have ever visited in the Former Soviet Union. Yes. It is accessible.  The sidewalks are wide and paved with smooth stones that are easy to navigate on foot and would be easy to roll over in a wheelchair.  There are appropriately engineered ramps and curb-cuts at every corner, easy to walk or wheel up and down.  And in case you don’t notice them at first glance, the Yerevan city government has placed the little ‘handicapped’ icon at wheelchair eye-level on every single crosswalk signal.  Also and in general, most public buildings seem to have ramped entries and actual working elevators.  I was so impressed and excited to see all of these earnest attempts at accessibility that I kept enthusiastically pointing them out to my friend S., who lives in Tbilisi and who made the trip with me.  She too has traveled quite a bit in the Former Soviet Union and had to admit that Yerevan was impressively accessible in comparison to most other places.  My only regret is that I wasn’t able, due to rainy fall weather, to take more photographs of all this exciting infrastructure. With or without specific pictures, Yerevan deserves some serious praise for its efforts.  Thank you Yerevan, for working to make your city and its culture easily available to everyone.

Geghard Fog

Geghard Monastery in the morning fog.
Armenia.

Geghard eastern entrance

Geghard entrance. Reminiscent of the East.

Evening Service Hripsime Cathedral

Evening service Hripsime Cathedral. Armenia.

Dessert

After a day of sightseeing and a lovely lunch with an Armenian family, pomegranates and Armenian coffee for dessert.

Roses for sale at night

Nighttime rose vendor. Central Yerevan.

No trip would be complete without at least one serious coffee break.

No trip would be complete without at least one serious coffee break.

 

Working Weekend in Stockholm: Isolation and Aided Mobility

Recently returned to the Motherland from a long weekend away in a couple of Nordic countries. I spent much of my time there preparing for a conference presentation, giving a conference presentation, hearing some really excellent and exciting presentations, and then madly finishing a grant application with tedious stipulations. In short: work, work, work. I have essentially two photographs of Stockholm.  One of the old city:

And then this one, which was my view for two days from inside the conference:

(PS-Thank god for Swedish coffee.)

I must say this for Sweden and Finland: both countries are really pretty accessible for both folks with walking aids and wheelchair users.  It was such a nice treat to visit two countries that actually do care about the quality of the lives their citizens lead. You have not only a right to access, but also reasonably comfortable access. Imagine! Wish I could say the same for my own home country, but again, I digress.

Anyway, I wanted to focus on something particular to the Aided Mobility experience that made the whole work-conference thing slightly more stressful than I ever experienced it in my unaided academic past: unintentional social isolation.

Here’s the thing: A Swedish building might be accessible, with smooth floors and ultra-modern lifts. This however, does not mean that the seating in a particular auditorium or lecture hall will be all that accessible.  If in my unaided life crawling over seats and spectators to reach a spot in the middle of a row was a precarious operation at best, it is now, with the Evil Aid, utterly impossible.  I can’t crawl over anything without tripping, falling, and becoming the spectacle.  Also, there is the ever present issue of “Where the heck to do you put the Evil Aid?”  Best I can tell, it is always in the way. There is never any good place to stash it. You lean it, it falls. You lean it, it blocks someone’s view.  You lean it at an angle, it trips someone. You put it flat on the floor, it gets dirty (or really dirty depending on the floor). I found myself, during the course of this conference confining myself to end-row seats at the very front of the auditorium, since I could A.) Access this area without negotiating stairs B.) Not have to crawl over anyone C.) Usually find a reasonably out of the way place to stash the aid.  That was all well and good, but you know what?  It turns out that end-row seats at the very front of an auditorium are pretty unpopular, and for good reason. It is harder to get a good, wide angle view of what’s being shown, and as a result no one wants to sit there. So this means that you, the Aided Mobilizer, end up sitting alone. For two days, during a conference that like all conferences was at least in part organized for the sake of networking.  There is no other way to describe it expect to say that it is a major bummer.  I won’t go into too much detail about the other actual networking opportunities such as our cafeteria lunches and dinners, expect to say that it turns out dishes and trays in Swedish cafeterias are heavier and of a much higher quality than there Russian counterparts, which is a BAD thing for the Aided Mobilizer. You know, I have just about figured out exactly which dishes I can safely carry with one hand here in my Russian university’s stolovaya, but in the Swedish version, I was totally thrown off and either hungary or annoying, because I had to keep going back to the buffet line for something else, and due to a mostly inaccessible seating arrangement in the cafeteria, had to either crawl over people and/or pick my way precariously around the lunchroom while balancing something in one hand to do so.  Also, again in the cafeteria and at our end of conference dinner the only accessible places to sit where at the ends of tables that were somewhat isolated from the majority of the conference crowd.  As my friend D., who recently finished conducting his research in Nantes says, “Le sigh.”  Here’s something though that non-Aided Mobilizer academics might find useful: If you see someone with an aid or in a wheelchair sitting alone at a conference, just know that there is a very good chance that she isn’t sitting alone because she wants privacy or personal space.  She’s probably sitting alone because the isolated spot is her only accessible option. Go and sit next to her. Talk to her. Share our research. Both of you will benefit. That is after all what conferences are for: exchange and network building, for all.

Damn Doors.

Before acquiring a forearm crutch, I used to breeze through doorways. Opening and closing them without giving them even a second thought.  It actually surprises me sometimes just how difficult it is to juggle one’s purse or shoulder bad, trusty Aid, and a non-automatic door. There are almost no automatic doors in Moscow. And it also seems that the buildings and entrances that see a lot of traffic (i.e. the Big Library Named for a Famous Revolutionary, almost every station in the otherwise glorious Moscow Metro) have either: impossibly heavy doors from the Stalin’s era, which were meant to reflect power and security or doors whose hinges have no safety stop mechanism. They just swing wildly back and forth on the whims of those who pass through them at a breakneck urban pace or on the whims of the wind.  Making it through these doors with only one free hand is always challenging, and can be downright dangerous.  Most of the time, someone kind will come along and lend a necessary hand.  But when that doesn’t happen? The result is either A.) absurd or B.) painful.  For example, today I literally got sandwiched between a giant Big LIbrary door and its frame. I stood there oddly angled, trying to plot an escape (crutch out first. no. press with upper arm. no. Ah! Lean whole body into door and do a kind of twist and swing motion to get out. YES! Fortunately, I pulled it off with only a little wobbling. I didn’t actually fall, which would have only added to the general embarrassment of being trapped in Big Library’s front door. And then. Then then then. I went into the metro. And was promptly nearly whacked by one of the entrance’s high speed swinging doors, which the person in front of me had let go with a certain amount of careless unnecessary force. Missed the head. Whacked the knee. It could have been worse.

Bruised and frustrated.  That was that.

Corn and Sky. Part 2: Kyiv to Kharkiv.

Of all the amazing things that Kyiv has to offer, one of the city’s best museums is a compact little venue tucked about in the massive cathedral ‘lavra’ complex on the banks of the Dnieper River.  Its compact size is fitting, as it is, after all, a museum of micro-miniature objects.  That’s right. The objects aren’t just miniature, they are micro-miniature.  Back during the Soviet period a Ukrainian artist named Nikolai Siadristy produced a collection of tiny tiny tiny crafts that can only be viewed under a microscope, including a multi-page book, a chess set, a working clock, a portrait of his mother, and an the fox and prince figures from The Little Prince.  There are only about twelve items on display on any given day, but this is actually a good thing, because each item is some intricate and seemingly impossible that you really want to spend time looking at each little thing.  To give you an idea of what I mean by intricate, here is an image of the chess set (courtesy of i-kiev), as it appears through the microscope, on the head of a nail:

 

In short, if you are in Kyiv, I highly recommend a trip to this place. But I will warn you: it can be quite tricky to find.  In fact, this was my second attempt to visit the museum.  When I tried last summer, armed with both a good map and the address, my journey ended in one epic fail.  I ended up overshooting the entrance, walking all the way to the step embankment of the river, and being too tired, achy, and cranky to try again.  I was pretty darn disappointed, because the place had been heavily promoted by the landlady I rented a space from the first time I lived in Moscow. A professor of biology, she personally hailed from the city of Evpatoria, in the Crimea, and knew a thing or two about what to do and see in Kyiv.  And if she said it once she said it a thousand times, “You have to visit the Museum of the Micro-miniature!!!”  In my experience feisty Russian landladies tend to give accurate advice, so I was resolved to try again the next time I was in Kyiv.  I mentioned my failure to find the place to my friend S., who has also spent a lot of time traveling in the Former Soviet Union, she said, “Oh. Well. The thing is, it’s inside the Lavra complex. There is no entrance from the street. You buy the ticket at the Lavra ticket booth, but then you actually have to go inside the cathedral complex to find the museum.” Ah-ha! Turns out she was exactly right. Keep this in mind if the idea of the micro-miniature interests you: You buy an entrance ticket at the main Lavra ticket booth. You go inside the complex. And then follow the signs to the Museum, which is tucked away into a rather far corner, so don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.  Then, when you do find it, you will need a separate entrance ticket, you buy right at the museum.  The tickets themselves, even full-price, are entirely reasonable. But if you have a disability…They let you in for free.  I have mentioned the Soviet tendency to offer steeply discounted tickets to ‘invalids’ once or twice in a previous post.  Usually, though you are required to present a stamped and signed government issued document attesting to your invalid status and underscoring your invalid category. (There are two categories of “invalids” in the Former Soviet Union. To put it roughly, the second category is reserved for those who can still get around on foot, the first category is for those who rely entirely on wheelchairs. Sometimes a bigger discount is offered to those in the first category.)  Obviously, as I am not a post-Soviet citizen, I have no such document. I do however have an I.D. card from Big Post-Soviet University in Moscow.  So I got that out, and started counting out the necessary cash, which I was happy to fork over in order to support such a cool and unusual museum. But then, the Ukrainian babushka manning the ticket booth wouldn’t take my money. I tried again, saying “Here is my I.D. from Big Post-Soviet University.” And she grew more emphatic. “No no no no no. Your ticket is free,” she said as she gently guided me into the exhibition hall.  Well, okay. Honestly, I always feel awkward in situations like this.  The price of a ticket with a university I.D. was ridiculously small. The museum is pretty accessible for someone with walking aids (Wheelchair access, however, would be trickier, though, I think, not impossible.) And clearly the place can use the money for maintenance and hopefully in the future, improved access.  I wanted to help support it. But when a babushka is refusing your money and hustling you along toward the display, what can you do?  Well. You can thoroughly enjoy the museum, and then buy postcards and pamphlets that illustrate its story. A win win compromise; I now have something truly unique from Kyiv to share with the folks back home.  And I supported the museum. Like I said, win win.

After the Museum of the Micro-miniature and a pleasant walk under Kyiv’s famous chestnut trees, I went straight to bed, as I had a ridiculously early train the next morning to the south-eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.  Ukrainian Railways is now–drum roll–offering a fast train service from Kyiv to Kharkiv (as well as Lviv and Donetsk).  Ukraine is not a small country. It is roughly the size of France, and so if you use the old Soviet style trains, which trust me go really really slowly, and do not necessarily provide comfortable or accessible seating, you will be riding, likely in a painful and cramped position, for quite a long time. It is an experience to be sure.  But the fast train from Kyiv to Kharkiv? Gets you there in a little over four hours in a reasonably comfortable seat. (Note: It is not quite Deutschebahn or the Russian Sapsan, which was built, like all Deutschebahn trains, by Siemens, but still, it’s good.)  And since it’s a day train you have a chance to see something of the Ukrainian countryside and its famous fertile “chernozyom” or black earth.  Seriously, they aren’t kidding about that. The earth is so rich and so black in Ukraine, that at times I thought, “Surely this is not simply soil. It must have been the site of a recent fire. It must be burnt?” Not no. Just rich black earth. Here are some images from the journey. Wheat. Corn. And sky.

 

 

 

 

 

Corn and Sky. Part 1: Kyiv.

I once read that the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag are meant to represent endless fertile fields of corn or wheat stretching out to meet the clear blue horizon.  I have no idea if this is true, but I do think that it makes an excellent story.

I had the pleasure of traveling to Ukraine last week.  I really do adore Ukraine. The countryside is as beautiful as the flag story implies: boundless green and yellow fields where everything grows.  Black black earth.  Fantastically filling food. And Kyiv, one of Europe’s most charming cities.

I last visited Ukraine about a year ago, back in my unaided life.  I enjoyed myself, but I was grumpy.  Really grumpy. Partly because even though it was June, the weather was terrible. It rained almost every single day. And partly because Kyiv was built on a cluster of hills, and its streets are paved with smooth cobble stones.  Or to put it another way, last year, I had a lot of trouble getting around Kyiv on foot.  I tried my best anyway, dutifully stifling any and every thought about the fact that walking was kind of hard. I blamed my shoes (Worn out surely! (They were two months old.)) I blamed the rain. I tried not to think about it and press on, mostly unsuccessfully.  I stopped for a lot of coffee (ahem, sitting/rest) breaks.  Fortunately, for me in this respect, Ukrainians (Sorry Moscow, I do love you, but coffee is NOT your strong suit.) know how to brew an excellent cup of coffee.  Still.  I didn’t feel like I really saw Kyiv or enjoyed what the city had to offer, because I was distracted by poor mobility, anxious thoughts about poor mobility, and pain.  But not this time. No. This time I was actually excited (Yes. You heard that right.) about traveling to Kyiv with the Evil Aid, because I knew that I’d be better equipped (literally) and better able to do and see the things that I really wanted to do. And was this correct? You bet it was. 150%  Yet another example of how mobility aids EMPOWER their users.  Anyway. Moving on.

No trip with aid is ever without a few awkward encounters. And, as I learned on this trip, there may even be one or two that pleasantly surprise you.  For example, the passport line at Kyiv’s Borispyl airport.  When I arrived at KBP that was an insanely loooooooong snake-like, chaotic, post-Soviet line at passport control.  And I was in the last row of seats (yeah, the ones next to the toilet) on the flight from Moscow, I was one of the last people to fall into line.  Our flight was also late, of course, so my taxi driver was waiting impatiently just beyond customs.  It was not a good scene, as my experience with such snake-like chaotic lines in the Former Soviet Union has taught me that they do not move very quickly.  I was not thrilled about an hour or more of painful standing and scuffling in place, but as the Russians say, rhetorically, “What can you do?”  But then, something entirely unexpected happened. The Ukrainian border guard who was attempting to contain the tail end of the line and direct people to the correct passport windows said tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she said politely. “You don’t have to wait in this line. See that line over there, the short one? Go there.”  I gladly did as I was told. It turns out that at Borispyl, the expedited line is not only for diplomatic and official passport holders, it is also for families with very young children and visitors with disabilities.  That’s right; they had even affixed a sizable sticker with the universal ‘disabled’ figure on the passport control window.  I made it through in fifteen minutes, without the additional pain and loss of function from standing in place for an hour to more in the general line. That was definitely worth a big Hooray!  Why can’t all border control posts have this option, especially, ahem, the one in Midwestern Megapolis, where the line, even for American citizens, often stretches to the disembarkation zone? One does wonder…

Here a a few shots of some of the fabulous things Kyiv has to offer. By the way, unlike many other post-Soviet countries Ukraine has abolished its visa regime for Europeans and Americans.  That is, tourists can visit visa free for up to ninety days. Go!

Sofia Cathedral.

St. Andrew’s Church.

Funicular.

Dnieper River

Mother of the Motherland. She marks the WWII victory and protects Kyiv.

Delicious potato and onion filled ‘vareniki.’