Paralinks Home
November 18th 1999

Paralinks is honored to have William Gruar as a contributing writer. Bill, from Auckland New Zealand, the  Paraplegic author of Spinal Dogs,  took his wheelchair to Europe. Here is his account of that adventure. His book is a great introduction to the life of the Spinal Cord Injured. I had a great time reading it, and laughed a lot too!

Travel Europe with the Spinal Dog

Of Travel, Internet, Language and Le Dégustation
By William Gruar

"Going away? You’ll have to set up a hotmail address. Then you’ll be able to access your email wherever you go!" So went the theory. I could keep in touch with my loved ones, dependants and everyone else by finding a computer and logging-in. After changing cables my ingenious little torch-battery powered laptop could dump its files into any regular computer and then send my home thoughts from abroad through cyber space (‘feed the cat and the bank card, the Air Singapore hosties look like barbie dolls, everything’s so, well, old in Europe, the place needs a good sorting out like we did in Auckland and Wellington; the water goes down the plughole the right way,’ –you know the stuff). It was simple enough in London. In came news of Apec, Incis, and WINZ– just like being there, but my leads would not connect to the new laptops so I couldn’t reply with all my wonderful observations, but no matter, I would keep making my modern diary and send it when I got to another computer in an Internet Café in France.

France was a different matter. No matter how much class room French you speak, understanding the reply is only for the bilingual. The wise traveller begins all interaction with "Bonjour. Parlez-vous Anglais?" to which the answer is often a resounding "No!" and less frequently, a more accurate "Non, just a petit, pardon." So high above the Dordogne River in a 15th Century, yet fashionable café, having been told that "Le patron parle Anglais" the reaction to my question about the whereabouts of the nearest Internet Café is derision. "This is France, Monsieur. You are here." Le Patron made a hole by placing his forefinger on the end of his thumb and then he poked his other forefinger through it. "France is a hole, Monsieur. You will not find the Internet in a hole." In another town we were directed to the roadside Cyber Space Café Barbe Bleue, some 25 K distant on the side of Rue N143. A peer through the windows of the forlorn 18th century inn told us the place was terminally shut.

The two times I did find an Internet, once in the walled 14th Century Brittany town of Dinan, and the other in Paris some hours before departure, were quite accidental, and I did not have my laptop with me, so my blow-by-blow details were never sent. Typing in my password and bon mots was even more difficult, as the French have their own, non-qwerty keyboard. Still, as my friend said to me as I bemoaned the inability of keeping my family informed of my impressions, there was ‘no guarantee anyone would read them anyway’.

The French take the Internet, their language, their food wine and water, (bottled water is Eau de France) and their blood very seriously. Contamination is not permitted.

The ad hoc group, Defence of the French Language, maintains that the laws aimed at preserving the language should apply to the Internet as well, despite the fact, obvious to any browser, that the net is predominantly in English and defiantly independent of control or intervention. The group brought a lawsuit against the Georgia Institute of Technology’s campus in Metz for creating a website in English. Facing possible fines of up to $8300 each time the site was accessed, the University translated the site into French and German.

The French have an ever-growing list – now almost 120,000 – of English words that are not allowed in official documents. As we drove along, with our radio on automatic channel search seeking something for our 28 year-old driver’s ears, we were subjected to a surprisingly middle of the road (where tourists often drive) selection of the same western music you would hear anywhere – Ray Charles, Olivia Newton John, Beegees – and a disturbing amount of re recorded and orchestrated versions sung by French artists in English to lack lustre and rhythm French studio bands. And when, driving from dégustation in the friendly vineyards, we tuned in to see if we could somehow find the kick-off time for All Blacks vs England, "men in black" and "the big man" penetrated the unintelligible wall of rapid-fire French Deejay Speak.

Later, at another small café, where they thought they could possibly find ‘le rugby’ on one of their two TV’s, but could not, Le Patron rushed off home and brought back his Sky decoder, so we were able to watch Jonah and his mates carve up the poms. The French clientele with us weren’t very interested, and it was strange to suddenly realise that the tight three Kiwis were the only ones yelling and shouting while the business of drinking continued as much as it continues in any bar in the civilised world.

The French we met were not, as their reputation suggests, reluctant to converse in a language they considered beneath them, they genuinely knew little English. During our dégustation, led by Rufus, our 28 year old graduate in viticulture (but no French) from Lincoln University, we spoke to many charming and friendly people who invited us into their homes, opened up bottles of their best vintages for us to try, and on one occasion sent us home with most of a rare bottle they had opened especially for us – free, but very few spoke English. At the tasting room at one cave, as antiseptic as any laboratory, the charming young hostess told us that while she was interested in wine she only had the job because she spoke English, and she was the only worker who could. In other caves our limited command of French lead to great conversations where all that was shared was an enthusiastic love of wine and company. The only people who had any real command of English were the foreign managers of three of the five hotels where we stayed – a charming Dalmatian graduate from a Paris Art School, an ex-English squash champion, and the Iranian refugee whose interest in architecture had waned as his money expired twenty years ago.

The French may have 120,000 naughty English words on file, but they are rapidly following the Japanese in the strange practice of badging their cars with English words which have little to do with getting from A to B in style, at speed, or bearing cargo; functions one normally associates with vehicles. The French motor through the jungle of their highways and byways in: Le Renault Manager, Master, Elf, First, Five, Spring, and Spider; Le Citroen Flash and Evasion; and Le Peugeot Junior or Jumper. What the Defence of the French Language group think about the Renault Kangoo and Twingo, or the Citroen Xsara, Xantia or Jumpy, je ne sais pais.

In the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, trying to cram lasting impressions of a country I would be unlikely ever return to, my eyes lit on a headline on Le Figaro. ‘Chirac, les médias et Internet.’ Aha, Le Grand Patron knows the Internet! Bronwyn and Rufus left to return our once brand new car (6k on the clock at Calais) back to the depot for guaranteed buy-back, uncleaned from 1000’s of back road and city Ks, bearing the scars of a sneak aerial attack from a conker tree and scratches from the wheelchair. I sat quietly reading beside our luggage in the huge round complex, with its many tiers, doors, tourists, anxious guides shepherding blank faced tour groups from everywhere it seemed, except Germany, looking to all the world a true Parisian internationale. Billboards in English and French cautioned against leaving luggage unattended, and ‘left luggage’ was heard amongst the tourist babble and French instructions on ‘Le Tannoy’. Despite my interest and difficulty in translating the Internet story I became aware of an increased uniformed presence. Soldiers wearing grim looks and plastic machine guns (cell phones optional) scurry about. I am ordered to do something, in French, naturellement. "It’s not left luggage, it’s mine, all of it!" I protest as my bags are moved. The soldier looks at me and Le Figaro in surprise and accusation, as if I am the source of all the trouble. The bags, some bound up with construction tape, and containing at least 40 bottles of carefully selected wine, suddenly become threatening. I am wheeled off, everything is wheeled off, as half the enormous complex is cleared of passengers, staff and cleaners to a safety zone, defined, not by the stone walls and moats of the chateaux we have just visited, but with a ribbon of fresh yellow plastic tape. The roof and vaults of this massive concrete building may be the perfect chamber to maximise the percussive effects of High Explosive, but having got this far, I in my wheelchair have attained the ‘distance from danger’ of the international traveller and am unflappable. Eventually I am removed further and even further away from my rendezvous point with my now dispossessed wine-sampling friends, but the fuss abates, somehow they find me, and we go for le premier café du jour.

Since leaving our Latin Quarter Hotel at about 6 a.m it has taken about four hours to drive to the airport, get slightly lost on the airport motorway (at times 5 fast lanes) due to the paucity of signs confirming that you actually are on the motorway to the airport, check in and ditch the car. We are all very relieved. The suitcases beckon. At one hotel we watched Le Patron scoff a bottle of white while we had breakfast. There is time, (departure delay through le terrorism) and there are three easy access bottles stuffed beneath the wheelchair in some dirty laundry. Non, coffee c’est okay!

I look at my feet. Below me, on the other side, people are asleep and preparations for the Americas Cup continue through the night. It is time for these kiwis to fly home.


William Gruar
17A Larchwood Avenue
Phone: 64 9 3600885   Fax: 64 9 3600818

Reproduced in Paralinks with the expressed consent and approval of  the author.

Visit Bill's Web Site, he has developed an exercise-standing frame and a very handy collapsible toilet and shower seat.
You can also buy his book Spinal Dogs at this web site. 
Here is a two chapter preview of Spinal Dogs.

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