Thinking About Mobility Across Scales & Borders: A Different Take on Travel Writing

Europe Trip - Photo of me in Kensington Gardens - London
Arrianna – posed against a leafy green backdrop in Kensington Gardens, London, UK (June 2018) – [Photo by Donald Planey]
When I travel, I like to carry a notebook with me. During my honeymoon, I carried a little gold-toned notebook- from Kenya (Nairobi, Masai Mara) to Zanzibar to South Africa (Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Jo’burg). Along the way, I jotted down thoughts, hopes, and dreams. The funny thing is, I look back and I have accomplished most of the things that I wrote down.

First, I want to begin by recognizing my subject positions. I hold the “coveted” blue US passport, which means that I have easier mobility across borders via visa agreements. I recognize that that mobility is founded on the specific de-stabilization and displacement of people in states under military occupation. That’s how this border regime works.

Still, though, I face extra scrutiny when I cross the border because I am Black, disabled, and I prefer to wear headwraps (look, I got tired of TSA putting their grimy hands in my hair). I am always pulled over for a “pat-down” because my body is always already suspicious.

Still, I have been able to travel a great deal with this passport.

This summer’s trip to western Europe (London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam) was admittedly less intensive travelling than our previous jaunt across the continent of Africa, but it was different in its own right. We started in London. Landing at Heathrow at 11am and catching the train to the central city, we marveled at how comprehensive the transit system was. ‘Ah, if only we didn’t have billionaires systematically undermining public transit systems in the United States‘ but I digress.

I had originally hoped to turn 30 in Paris, but London was just fine. More than fine! We started with a good, hearty breakfast (tea for me, of course), and then we crossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge and again on the London Bridge (cue joke-y comments on Instagram about it collapsing). And we also visited the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum and ate to our hearts’ content.

Europe Trip - Fish & Chips with Donald in London
Fish and chips with Donald in London – [Photo by Arrianna Planey]
In much travel writing, our bodies and their mobility are the unthought. The ‘default’ subject is non-disabled, with normative modes of mobility through spaces oriented around them. I am deafblind, so embodiment and mobility is a little different for me. And my non-disabled spouse has to move through space a little differently when he is with me. That’s just how it is.

We had hopes of going to the Tower of London, and when we got off the train, we peered out at the Tower, realizing that it was probably inaccessible to me, with its dark corridors and stairs. So instead we walked around the city and ended the day with dinner at a Brazilian restaurant.

I think my favorite city was Paris. I am no francophile, but I did study French for years with the hopes of being able to use it in my travels. Well, my high school and college French instructors would be proud. I’m far from fluent, but I was able to take in more of my environment- the signs, posters, and so on- than I might have if I did not have prior training in French. And after a few days, I was more conversational. Pas mal, non?

We stayed near the border of the 5th and 13th arrondissements- somewhere between the Latin Quarter and Place d’Italie- and mostly walked the city. My favorite walk was from the museums in the 5th arrondissement to the 1st and 16th arrondissements. We just went where our feet would take us, following the Seine. We ended up at the Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre. (Aside: the Mona Lisa is a relatively small piece, but you can’t miss it because it is always surrounded by a crowd).

Europe Trip - Donald in front of the Notre Dame - Paris
Donald, in front of the Notre Dame cathedral – Paris, France [Photo by Arrianna Planey]
The most memorable meal was at a Basque restaurant in the 13th called Chez Gladines. It was a refreshing change from the heavier French food we had eaten earlier in the day. My entree was a red pepper stuffed with cod, served in a peppery Basque sauce.

Europe Trip - Pulled Mint Tea at the Grand Mosque
“Pulled” mint tea at La Grande Mosquée [Photo by Arrianna Planey]
Another favorite was the tagines at La Grande Mosquée in the 5th arrondissement. The “pulled” mint tea was a great pairing too. The sweet minty tea was just what I needed in that moment. I had the lamb and prunes tagine, and Donald had the preserved lemon-chicken tagine. Just perfect. As we sipped our tea and coffee, I decided then and there that I want my future kitchen to be as lively as the dining space there- jewel tones, tiles, and all.

Europe Trip - Photo of me in Paris (5th arr)
After a meal at la Grande Mosquée [Photo by Donald Planey]
Brussels was probably the most difficult city for me. It was the first time in the trip that there was a real language barrier. Most of the signs were in Flemish, which is not mutually intelligible with any of the languages that I learned. We arrived on a Sunday, so we were able to peruse the Sunday market at Gare du Midi (I picked up some spices!).

The public transit in Brussels, though relatively comprehensive, was multi-layered (city, regional, national), so navigating it was difficult for us. We tried using Google maps, but the algorithm kept suggesting untenable (“coupling constraints” such as long waits, discontinuous ‘connections’) or incredibly expensive routes. We ended up taking a taxi, although we had paid for transit tickets. Oh well!

Donald booked us a lovely beer and chocolate tour of Brussels, which took us to some of the best chocolatiers and chocolate makers in the city (none of which were Godiva). I did enjoy one Tripel, but I stuck to a few sips and handed off my glass to Donald. Oh, and I got to try proper frites belgique.

Europe Trip - Amsterdam Canals
Amsterdam canals [Photo by Arrianna Planey]
The last leg of the trip was Amsterdam. The train ride from Brussels to Amsterdam made for pleasant reading interspersed with lush landscapes. What can I say about Amsterdam? It was very walk-able, but I’d add a lot of caveats if you’re a wheelchair user. Some of the houses along the canals have stairways that jut into the sidewalk so that there is not enough clearance for even the smallest wheelchair. A group of pedestrians would have to walk in a line past some of these stairs. That, and the uneven surface of the stone and brick paths might pose an issue.

In Amsterdam, we ate some amazing food and saw amazing art at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. My favorite meal in Amsterdam was easily the Indonesian meals we had at a restaurant called Srikandi, slightly east of the Museumkwartier.

Europe Trip - Train Station in London
Train station in London, UK [Photo by Arrianna Planey]
Overall, our 2-week trip to Europe was a lovely glimpse of what-could-be if infrastructure investments were taken seriously as a state function in the US in this era of neoliberalism. I contrasted it with our Amtrak trip down to New Orleans for the American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting in April- a semi-public train service on privately-owned rails. There were delays at multiple points because cargo freight takes priority over passenger freight. In western Europe, we rode a mixture of public, semi-public, and private trains, within and across borders. But they ran efficiently- shared infrastructure or not. Of course, there is the obvious advantage of relatively smaller land areas with higher population densities that justify more dense infrastructure networks. It’s just such a sharp contrast with the highway-and-car dominated infrastructure investments that the United States has made (even the relative withdrawal from publicly owned freight and passenger rail lines).

At the same time, I look at the infrastructure in developed, current and former colonizer states, and recognize that they are borne of extractive relations- e.g. deforestation, mining, displacement of workers abroad, importation and exploitation of workers domestically. For example, many rail lines in the United States would not exist without Chinese, Mexican (indigenous- the border crossed them), and Black (enslaved, imprisoned, and free) labor- and not just their labor, their lives. I recall an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s series, “”Parts Unknown” set in Punjab state, northern India. He poignantly remembered the thousands who died digging and fortifying the train tunnels that cut through the mountainous region. It made me think: “how many lives were lost to afford me this relative ease of mobility today?”

My mind also jumps to the recent (as of March 2018) 28th anniversary of the “Capitol Crawl“, wherein disability advocates/activists- many of whom were members of ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit)- ascended the stairs of the Capitol Building, demanding the passage of the (1990) Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the time since, we have had mostly modest “concessions” or “accommodations” like curb cutouts and ramps, but many small and medium-sized businesses are not in compliance today, in part due to weaknesses in the ADA’s language, which specifically makes the cost of making business locations accessible the “burden” or the business owners, and allows non-compliance where compliance would pose an “undue burden” or “hardship.” Note that this discussion mostly considers physical accessibility, not dimensions of access like “effective communication” in health care and other service settings. Still, it is important to think about how even modest, incremental, and spatially and socially uneven advances in accessibility and mobility for disabled people came about after people did the work and put their bodies on the line.

That, I think, gets at the lack of corporeality I perceive in much of the literature on mobility- especially work rooted in positivist traditions, which perceive ‘subjects’ as data points largely stripped of their contexts.

Europe Trip - Bird on Statue in Jardin des Tuileries
A bird resting on a statue in the Jardin des Tuileries – Paris, France (Photo by Arrianna Planey)



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