ICC Weekend edition #1 in Antwerp, Belgium

And thus, another great event organized by ICC Belgium has come to an end… but hang on, that doesn’t mean I have already finished writing how it actually went:

Organizing my stay wasn’t too difficult, as ICC Belgium took care of the accomodation and further organization of the entire ICC weekend, so the only thing I had to organize myself was the arrival and departure, not too much to worry about (I thought).
First off, there was a problem with my desired connection. I would travel from Marburg via Frankfurt to Düsseldorf by train and then change for Deutsche Bahn’s IC-Bus to Antwerp. The problem with the IC-Bus was (and obviously still is) that the IC-Bus will depart from the bus stop (where it should be, of course) and the train station staff is not allowed to accompany you anywhere outside the train station, due to insurance reasons; therefore, the MSZ (Mobilitätsservicezentrale: Deutsche Bahn’s mobility center) offered me to book the assistance for the train connection which would have taken less time, but it was more expensive.
I would have perfectly understood it if DB said they do not accompany you from the train to a bus because it was Flixbus or any other possible companies operating long-distance busses.
However, as the IC-Bus is operated by DB themselves, I called up their complaints department. It was a quite positive talk; the lady on the phone was really sorry for the inconvenience and, for the time being, sent me a promo code to get a discount when booking the train trip to Antwerp.
Of course, complaints have to be forwarded to the right departments to actually let them know about the issue but rest assured, I shall be informed about any developments. The last few weeks though, there either was no further investigation on that matter or they just didn’t let me know, who knows…

Anyway, I booked the train connection with the promo code instead and, a few days later, tried to arrange assistance for my booked train connection which was – according to the online schedule – still up to date.
The MSZ called me up just a few minutes after my inquiry to inform me that assistance for my desired connection was not bookable because the ICE train was cancelled between Frankfurt and Cologne. The connection itself was still valid on the website and usually if a train is cancelled, they won’t be shown on the schedule anymore; strangely, they just placed an attention sign which, when clicking on it, revealed a short note that the train is cancelled.
we were right back where we started: at the IC-Bus connection via Düsseldorf.
I explained the reason why I went for the train connection and as a result, they booked the assistance from Marburg to Düsseldorf and instructed the staff there to pick me up, that I need to take the IC-Bus to Antwerp and that they should guide me as far as they can go; and in worst case, Adrian, Philipp and Marie could also pick me up from a certain spot in the train station on their way to the bus stop.
I even got a new promo-code after I cancelled my booking to buy a new ticket valid for the bus connection.

On the day of departure, everything went as it should and in Düsseldorf, the lady who picked me up guided me straight away outside the train station to find the IC-Bus and she instructed the bus driver to help me boarding the bus when he is done cleaning it up. He also arranged that I could sit together with Adrian, Philipp and Marie who arrived at the bus stop later on as well.
We arrived in Antwerp with a little delay so I called up Anthony to let the ICC Belgium guys know about our delayed arrival before we eventually made it to the train station to find our train to Antwerpen-Berchem; we ended up asking someone for help in order to find the right platform.
Some volunteers were already standing by in Berchem to pick us up and get us over to the Scoutshuis, where the entire event took place.

A short tour through the most important areas of the Scoutshuis and a few arrangements in our rooms later, dinner was served, followed by a welcoming speech and a couple of leisure-time activities (speed-dating, Karaoke and card/board games), after which we went to the ICC café for a drink and a chat.
Later on, a group of volunteers suggested to go out with those who are interested and find a suitable bar nearby, so that’s what we did!

The next morning after breakfast at 9:30, a short assembly meeting took place in which the workshops were presented and at 10:00, it was workshop time. Before the ICC weekend started, we created a wishlist for workshops in advance so they could assign us to our desired workshops.
I ended up in networking which, in comparison to ICC in Zadar, was a little different. As I mentioned in previous blog posts about networking already: every workshop leader has different topics in mind, so the networking workshops are never equal to each other.
This time, we not only talked about how to create networks and what kind of network we already have; we additionally were divided into groups and talked to our neighbors as if we would meet the first time and would like to get to know each other, for example. It was rather difficult to accomplish, given that I knew my neighbors from ICC or elsewhere, so we at some point ended up asking about each other’s lives eversince we met the last time. Anyway, the whole thing was basically about one’s personal appearance, so the workshop leaders went round to listen in to our conversations, giving hints on how to appropriately look at each other and how to possibly express ourselves in a non-verbal way. A piece of cake, you might say; but it can be quite difficult for a blind person to accomplish.

At 12:00, a lunch break followed and another assembly meeting plus another workshop session (“Traveling Abroad” in my case), led by the Trio Infernale 😉 (Silke, Eddy and me) from 13:30 until 15:30.

Before the leisure-time activities started (16:30-18:30), we had a small break in between.
The leisure activities on the schedule were:
* Sightseeing in Antwerp
* Showdown
* Jam-session and
* Board/Card games
I went for Showdown and I do admit that I had to cope with a colossal loss of 1:12. Well, it was my first time after YEARS playing it and, whereas in Riga I could practise a little bit and warm up, we just randomly selected opponents to play against and started straight away in Antwerp. Sure I lost, but it was funny anyway.

We had dinner from 18:30-20:00 and spent the rest of the evening chatting with people in the ICC Café or elsewhere. As far as I remember, there even was a dancing activity going on, which I skipped to have a short rest before joining the others later onagain.

The next morning, breakfast – as usual – took place from 8:00 to 9:00 and after a short workshop presentation and an awesome wake-up call (proudly organized by ICC Belgium) in the assembly hall, Silke, Eddy and I had our second round of the workshop “Traveling Abroad” and, if you check the podcast, you’ll find a short talk about the workshop with the three of us and Alice, one of our participants from the UK.
As a conclusion, some of our participants were completely new to the topic traveling abroad and they appreciated our workshop. I hope we were able to teach them some possible ways to get started themselves. In any case, the input from our participants was amazing! We again learned a couple of new things concerning what comes in handy when traveling, such as “Busbud”, an accessible app to search for long-distance bus connections of all kinds and companies.

The ICC weekend basically slowly came to an end after lunch when the first few people started to depart. As I was going to depart a little later in the afternoon, I had a little chat with some people from the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Belgium.
Together with some other participants, Eric drove us to Antwerpen-Berchem to drop us off at our desired trains.

I did mention earlier that there were no direct connections from Frankfurt to Belgium (same goes for the other way around) at this time and especially on that particular Sunday, the train connection back to Marburg was horrible! So what options did I have … either taking this bloody train connection and risk missing a few trains due to possible delays – therefore being stuck for an hour or more -, taking a long-distance bus or perhaps take advantage of Blablacar?
During one of the English meetings in Marburg (I think one week before the ICC weekend), I mentioned my travel plans and how stupid the train connections were. Coincidentally, Alejandra also planned to stay in Belgium for some time and also leave on Sunday, November 4th and we both had a profitable discussion later on, after which Alejandra booked us two seats in a Blablacar from Brussels to Frankfurt.

Alejandra therefore picked me up at Brussels Central and we went onwards by Metro to catch up with our driver.
We were four people in total and the ride was very pleasant indeed; it furthermore gave me confidence to try out Blablacar on my own someday, should trains or busses not suit me.
After all, the ride took just as long as the actual ride on the ICE train from Brussels to Frankfurt and there was no traffic jam at all!
He dropped us off at Frankfurt central station and we took the train back to Marburg after a little snack.
Honestly, as pleasant and fairly smooth the entire ride was, I was super exhausted and would have probably overslept Marburg if Alejandra didn’t wake me up in time.

To summarize the weekend: It was an awesome experience and I really appreciate the way ICC Belgium supports and promotes ICC, eventually even giving anybody the chance to participate (as long as they are between 16 and 30) or get involved in the organization of the event.
However, fun can’t last forever. I really appreciated the long breaks in between during the course of the weekend but when the event was over, it was a good thing indeed having a few more hours in hand to recover by sleeping very long to be rested the next day.

A trip to London from September 29th until October 2nd

It was not only my first time in the UK and in London, it mainly was my first time after 6 years meeting Erik again, a former volunteer in our group during my first year in Marburg, who now lives and works in London with his girlfriend Anne.

I stayed with them for one night and then moved to Robert’s place in Slough and had an awesome Couchsurfing experience with him and Georg, another couchsurfer from Germany, who also stayed at his place. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Because I went to London by train at 6:27am from Frankfurt, I therefore decided to consult booking.com for a place to stay nearby the central station of Frankfurt to get enough sleep before heading to London, and I happened to find a hotel pretty close to the central station just across the street.

After that was sorted out, I realized that booking an assistance for my trip was a little more complicated… First, I called up Deutsche Bahn who were able to arrange assistance in Frankfurt and Brussels Midi, but I had to call up Eurostar for further assistance from there which turned out to be a little more complicated; in order to make sure that I actually have a ticket, they wanted to know my reference number. However, the Deutsche Bahn reference code was not vvalid in their system and apparently, DB is unable to give you a reference code for the Eurostar ride itself. The ticket was cheap, of course, but you won’t be able to book any extras to your Eurostar ride without providing them with a reference code, and this doesn’t only conclude assistance; they in the end just emailed Brussels and London to inform them about my arrival. Problem solved!

My final destination, however, was West Hampstead Thameslink, so I additionally called the National Railway hotline to find out which company is responsible for the assistance and they transferred my call to Thameslink so I could arrange the assistance with them.

After all that was out of the way, I was ready for departure. One last thing though: As I was not familiar with the train station of Frankfurt and its surroundings, I tried to arrange assistance to get to the hotel. The Bahnhofsmission agreed to pick me up if I would arrive after 9pm and they not only picked me up and guided me to the hotel; the nice lady also helped me with the check-in filling in a form for guests so they know who you are and what you’re up to – just a formality. She also showed me my room and some other places close to my room. About half an hour later, she even called me up and said that it is not possible for them to pick me up from the hotel the next morning so I wouldn’t wait for them to show up, which I really appreciated. When I called the reception to ask for directions to the central station the next morning, they told me that, since they are just a business hotel, they cannot provide assistance outside the hotel. Anyway, they offered me to pick me up from my room to guide me to the reception at the time of my desire, and they also set up a wake-up call for me the next morning. I ended the day at the hotel bar (I was quite surprised that I found it so quickly without really knowing the hotel, but the elevator was braille-labeled and I could hear the clinging of glasses on the ground floor, so I was just assuming that the bar is also not far off and guess what, I was right!).

The wake-up call worked as planned and they called me once again to ask whether my plans were still up to date which I confirmed. After checking out at the reception, as I was assuming that I had to find my way on my own, I was asking the receptionist for directions to the train station. To my surprise, he just guided me to its entrance and two random guys who also entered the train station helped me finding a service desk to claim my assistance. A stop at Lecrobag for breakfast and another while later, I found myself on the ICE train to Brussels Midi.

Arrived in Brussels Midi, I was picked up and guided to the Eurostar section of Brussels Midi, where the hand-off would take place; because Eurostar staff is available in Brussels Midi, the local staff will only guide you to the check-in desk where the Eurostar team takes over.

A security check followed after which we had to show our passports to the border-control team. After a short break, they again picked me up to help me board the train and find my seat; obviously they boarded me ahead of the others. After a non-stop ride of about 2 hours, I arrived at London St. Pancrass International; thanks to the time-zone change, we got an extra hour.

The Eurostar staff was standing by to guide me out of the Eurostar section to hand me over to the local staff.

It took a little longer for the local staff to arrive, as they were busy helping another handicapped person boarding a train; as a result, I couldn’t catch the train I was actually scheduled on when I claimed my assistance. Nevertheless, they boarded me on the next train and two stops later, I found myself in West Hampstead Thameslink, where Erik picked me up at the entrance. After getting something for lunch, we went to his place to eat and stow the luggage.

We haven’t seen each other for 6 years, so we had a lot of stories to tell and talks concerning the crazy stuff we have done together in the past.

Together with Anne (who joined us later on) we decided to head into the city by underground to explore some places.

There are two common and cheap ways of traveling by public transport in London:

– The Oystercard is similar to the Dutch OV-Chipkaart system I am already used to: Top up your card with money, check in at your starting-point and check out at the destination of your desire.

– Alternatively, thanks to contactless payment, you may also just check in and out with your debit- or credit card at the barriers.

In comparison to other cities I’ve been to so far, I was surprised how heavily crowded some of the places in London could be; let’s just say that I used phrases like “I’m Sorry” or “Excuse me” a couple of times a minute on average.

Back in Stockholm, I was talking to a Dutch couple from Amsterdam who did not recommend Amsterdam to me, due to its crowded streets and squares. Well, given that I have just been to Amsterdam for my first time in early September myself, I can conclude that Amsterdam is nothing against London! In fact, I can’t remember that I have ever bumped into anyone in Amsterdam, whereas I stopped counting the people either I have bumped into or who bumped into me in London.

Before we went back home, Anne and Erik surprised me with the Dovetail, a Belgian pub with Belgian beer and delicious snacks for both of which I can’t resist wherever it is available. 😉

Back at home, whereas Anne met some friends at a restaurant, Michael, on of Erik’s friends, joined us and we had a talk about this and that, chilling in the living-room for a longer while before we went to sleep.

As only two days in London are a little less in my opinion, I decided to either book a place to stay or find a Couchsurfing host for a night or two. I created a public trip in early September and just a few days later, Robert got in touch with me to offer hosting. He already hosted more than 200 couchsurfers from different countries and, except for five negative references, all the other references were positive and we also had a few chats on Facebook to get to know each other a little better.

I even got a spontaneous backup-host who contacted me shortly before my stay at Robert who offered to host me for one night, just in case I didn’t yet find a host or something went wrong. To be honest, if she was able to host me for two nights, I would even have switched over to stay at her place, as she lived in the actual city of London; Slough is a little further away.

Anne and Erik dropped me off at Oxford Circus on Sunday afternoon where I met Robert. Before we went home though, we took a walk to explore different places we came along on our way.

Should you, Robert, or anybody else living in- or near London read this: I am terribly sorry that I can’t really remember the places by their names anymore; it for sure doesn’t mean that I disliked them at all.

We came across a square where a Japanese festival took place and Robert did his best describing things accurately. There were also quite a few sound impressions (I started recording later on), such as musicians playing typical Japanese music.

After a short stay, we went onwards and had another stop on a bridge at the river thames which, additionally to the footways, also comes with a section for trains (it used to be a train bridge only about a century ago, Robert told me). According to what we could hear and see on the bridge besides the trains, there was a lot of traffic on that part of the river.

Before we had a coffee break, Robert introduced me to a place (he had no idea what this place used to be) occupied by skaters, which was also an interesting sound experience.

We eventually went to the nearest tube station to catch a tube to get to the place where Robert parked his car. In comparison to the Metro and undergrounds in other cities I’ve been to, rides on the London underground can be quite bumpy (kind of like a roller-coaster) and especially noisy as hell!

It was also a quite interesting experience sitting in the drivers-seat of Robert’s car; however, the stearing-wheel was missing.

Of course I’ve been sitting in the passengers-seat, but cars in Britain have their stearing-wheel on the wrong … uhm … left side I mean. Never mind, my dear British friends, I’m just teasing you a little… 😛

Anyway, even though I already knew about this little fact long before, it was still a little confusing when people pushed me towards the front left door instead of the front right door during my stay in the UK.

A 20-minute car ride later, we arrived at Robert’s place in Slough where he helped me getting familiar with the most important places in his house. During the first evening of my stay, either Robert or Georg (whom Robert picked up after we had dinner) helped me getting back on track when I got lost, but the more I got familiar with the house, the less Robert or Georg had to help me.

After a talk about how visually handicapped people cope with life and a short demonstration of Apple’s VoiceOver feature, we went to sleep a little earlier, as Robert offered Georg and me to take us to uxbridge so we could head into London by underground.

We departed the next morning after breakfast at 7AM, because Robert went to work right after dropping us off in uxbridge.

We did some grocery-shopping before we took the underground to go to Westminster to visit the London Dungeons. As they offer discounts for blind people, we only paid for one ticket, whereas the companion got a ticket free of charge.

I have already been to the Hamburg Dungeons twice and it was rather difficult to scare me, but this time, I must admit that they managed to scare me a little more often.

After we left the dungeons and a lunch break, we were on our way to Kings-Cross.

Before we visited the dungeons, I was in touch with Andre Louis whom I asked for locations or possible attractions in London that blind people should check out. He recommended the RNIB shop near the train station Kings-Cross; so that’s where we went. However, although it was quite a walk indeed (Robert still thinks we got to be insane), Georg and I decided to walk instead of taking the underground.

This way, we spent less money and got a little more familiar with different parts of the city we probably wouldn’t have seen if we went by underground, ESPECIALLY the tea shops we stopped by on our way.

The cool thing about one particular tea shop was that you could get yourself a small plastic mug and taste different kinds of tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

In comparison to other blind-specific shops I’ve been to in Germany or elsewhere, the RNIB shop seemed to be bigger and the shelves were, as far as I could see, all braille-labeled, even with the prices of the products.

Because I didn’t really know what they actually offer and where to find what, I asked for help at the service desk. The guy gave me a short summary on what they offer and I eventually asked for braille card games and cane-tips, which turned out to be both way cheaper than in Germany, so guess what I bought there. 😉

Next, we went to Belgo (guess what, a Belgian restaurant chain!) for a Belgian snack and a drink, after which we finally went to Kings-Cross to travel back to Uxbridge. It was quite a long ride; I didn’t realize how far it was when we head into London in the morning! We texted Robert when we passed Ruislip which is about 10 minutes away from Uxbridge so he could already prepare to pick us up when we arrive in Uxbridge.

Finally in his car, it was surprisingly silent; Robert either became very serious or angry, maybe both or perhaps I got it wrong.

Anyway, about 2 minutes after we got in, he asked me: “So, Georg wasn’t offering you enough assistance, right?”

Today I think we can laugh about it; but the reason why he was assuming that was because when Robert guided me the other day after Anne and Erik dropped me off, my cane was stowed in my pocket and I didn’t find it necessary to take it out.

When I walked with Anne and Erik, I walked with people I trust and it was kind of useless in the crowded streets anyway.

When Robert took over, we walked slow and – as far as I know – there were no obstacles really (such as small steps or gaps on the streets I could have tripped over). Also, we didn’t really walk a big distance.

The next day, however, we had much longer walks with a couple of stairs to climb, nasty gaps or small steps on the streets I didn’t want to trip over. Furthermore, when I unfolded my cane, people more likely avoided us – instead of bumping into us – when they saw my cane. And whether my cane comes in handy or not at certain times, it just sometimes gives me a little more confidence, regardless of who is guiding me.

Long story short: it was a misunderstanding Georg and I could fortunately clear up very quickly, and we all became more chatty again afterwards.

At home after we had dinner, Robert introduced us to different kinds of cheese to taste and in return, we told Robert what we did during the day in London and showed him the things we bought.

As for Tuesday, Robert suggested that we should go to Windsor (just a short car ride away from Slough and also close to Heathrow airport) for some more sightseeing. However, since we got up early the day before, Georg and I decided to rather relax at home and sleep longer, as we were not really in the mood to go sightseeing anyway.

Also, I was in touch with Ian, who offered to meet up on Tuesday before my departure. He additionally offered me to drive me to Heathrow and help me claiming my assistance. Ian actually lives in London most of the time, but organizes Couchsurfing meetings in Marburg from time to time when he is around, so that’s how I got to know him.

He showed up at Robert’s place in the late morning and drove Georg and me to Heathrow. Well, actually I would have driven if Georg hadn’t guided me to the front left door because I was about to go around the car to get to the front right again. Whereas Ian and I went to the terminal, it was time to say fare-well to Georg who took the underground to head into the city.

During the time we were waiting for my assistance to show up, security officers showed up in the waiting area to – in beforehand – ask the passengers whether they had any liquids or anything else to worry about in their hand-luggage, which is actually a good way to prepare the passengers what they are up against before the actual security check takes place.

Later, the assistance took me through security and instructed me to wait for the boarding to start at the gate. The flight wasn’t late, but they showed up a little later anyway to board me in the middle of the boarding process.

It was apparently a good decision to reserve a seat in the back of the plane. Firstly, it was less noisy back there and the stewardesses were also not far, just in case.

While taxying to the runway, the usual security briefing took place and I must remark that British Airways has a hell of a great security film that comes with a lot of typical British humor!

We landed in Hamburg ahead of our scheduled arrival, so yay on the one hand! On the other hand though, nobody was standing by to pick me up from the plane. As a result, I joined the crew in the front of the plane near the exit and they offered me a drink whilst waiting. In the end, as they had to prepare to fly back to London, somebody )presumably some sort of airport staff) picked me up and instructed me to sit down amongst the waiting passengers with destination London because the red cross staff wasn’t available at this time.

In the end, my mother – who picked me up by car – had to wait in the terminal for more than an hour until they finally picked me up, helped me retrieving my luggage and eventually guided me into the main terminal.

I had a pleasant 3 and a half days in the UK meeting a lot of awesome people and getting familiar with London and its surroundings and the British culture.

Especially the Couchsurfing experience at Robert’s place was very remarkable and Robert learned how to cope with hosting me as a blind person very quickly; in fact, as I told him in beforehand, it was easier than it sounded like in the beginning.

To sum things up: Thus, another trip on my own into a country I have never been to before had come to an end and for me, it was another great step towards my personal independence abroad; and of course, this for sure wasn’t the last trip to an unknown place I went on, so stay tuned for more!

What else happened on our Scandinavia trip?

Finally, some more news concerning the hyggelig time we had in Copenhagen and Stockholm!
There are a few reasons why it took me so long to come up with some more stories and especially why we ended up with only one audio log entry:
First off, concerning the audio log, I want to be honest: we either didn’t feel like recording another audio post because the time and place was rather inconvenient or we forgot about it when time and place was right because we just enjoyed the time and company, talking about other crazy stuff whatever came to our mind.
Secondly, ICC came right after, followed by a short break before work started and I got sick. :O

Nevertheless, I’d like to finish what I started and write up some thoughts out of my perspective about what else we did except for what we already talked about in our short audio post.
Additionally, I hope that we will also see some posts from my fellow companions’ perspectives in the near future. Continue reading “What else happened on our Scandinavia trip?”

A train tour through Skansen

The wifi in Stockholm apparently caused trouble uploading the video, so here we go again; hope it works now…We decided it was time to hopp on a small train for a short ride through Skansen and although there’s nothing much to hear, you can apparently see a lot; sighted people I showed the video to actually thought that it wasn’t me who took the video, because it looks so professional…Feel free to give feedback and a few descriptions though, I’d love to find out what can be seen on the video as well! 😉

ICC Day 2018 and our first self-organized workshop!

The ICC Day organized by ICC Belgium took place on Saturday, March 31st, 2018 but this time, I didn’t plan to attend this ICC day as a normal participant; instead, I offered them to help organizing a workshop on traveling abroad, which was gladly accepted!
As Silke also came up with a similar idea, we started organizing the workshop together. In addition, as I didn’t plan to rent a place on my own again, I asked around whether anybody would be interested in joining me for a few days in Belgium.

Continue reading “ICC Day 2018 and our first self-organized workshop!”

A trip to Switzerland and my first Couchsurfing experiences

I already heard a lot about Couchsurfing and I must admit that the idea of staying with foreign people at their places sounded suspicious to me. But at some point, I decided to try it out anyway. In fact, some of my friends already tried it before and told me a lot of positive things about Couchsurfing, so why shouldn’t it also work for me? Plus, I already visited a few Couchsurfing meetings in Marburg and met a lot of awesome and open-minded people.

Continue reading “A trip to Switzerland and my first Couchsurfing experiences”