#wackywednesday – The birthplace of Fahrenheit

In my two trips to Gdańsk, I came across an odd achievement the town has – it’s the birthplace of Daniel Fahrenheit, the guy who invented the Fahrenheit system of measuring temperature.

Daniel Fahrenheit was born in Gdańsk in 1686, although he spent much of his life in the Netherlands. Gdańsk is proud of this heritage and has a bar, hotel and monument named for or honoring the physicist.

Surprisingly, Fahrenheit was first on the scene. Anders Celsius, a Swedish physicist, invented the Celsius scale not long after Fahrenheit invented his scale. While both methods of measurement have been around for a similar amount of time, Celsius only gained its popularity in the past 70 years or so, as more countries adopted the metric system. Nowdays, only a handful of countries besides the United States use Fahrenheit, including…Belize. Neither Poland nor the Netherlands honor their Fahreheitic connection.

In my research, I discovered that Fahrenheit vs Celsius is quite a heated debate on the scientificblogosphere. In fact, if you are a physicist, getting on the wrong side of the debate might get you a cold shoulder. But if you are just a regular nerd like me, pour yourself a hot cup of coffee or cool glass of iced tea, google “is Fahrenheit or Celsius better” and watch the temperature rise.

#wackywednesday – The birthplace of Fahrenheit

#tbt – Non-USA Thanksgivings

I have celebrated my share of non-USA Thanksgivings and to be honest, I enjoy spending it with a bunch of expats. My family has rarely have large family Thanksgivings so it’s usually just three or four of us. Expats Thanksgivings have a more jovial spirit.

Such as Thanksgiving 2005, when I was studying abroad in Ireland. We had a group of about 12 of us and we put out a damn good spread for college students. A housemate of mine and I were big fans of Jane Eyre so we named our two turkeys Bertha and St. John Rivers. Then we went across the street to the cathedral and pounded on the organ. Then we had a delicious dinner, with plenty of wine before, during and after. After more glasses than I could count, I stumbled to bed and woke up at 5:30 hungover for my 7:30 flight to Edinburgh. Then plane had a rocky landing and the wine and turkey churned in my stomach. I was VERY glad to be back on solid ground (and proceeded to have an amazing weekend in Edinburgh).

2009 was my first Thanksgiving in Swaziland. We were invited to the Ambassador’s house for the day. I had not brought my swimsuit – no one had told me to and swimming pools were so outside the reality of my life in my rural village that it didn’t occur to me that I should. The Ambassador turned out to have a lovely in-ground pool and it was a hot day. Some had thought to bring suits but our country director advised for those that did not there would be no swimming without proper swimwear. After a huge lunch, I sipped a beer that the Ambassador had so thoughtfully provided and sweated, gazing enviously at the pool. Another volunteer and I made a plan. I would sit perched on the edge of the pool in my clothes and he would run by and push me in. I would pretend to be “surprised” while relishing the delightfully cool waters. It went off without a hitch. I got my swim without technically breaking the rules.

Thanksgiving 2010 was my second Swazi Thanksgiving. Again, it was at the Ambassador’s house and again, there was a massive spread of food. As we finished lunch we mournfully contemplated how disappointing it was that we were full and there was still all this delicious food left that we wouldn’t be able to get when we went back to our communities. The talk turned to how convenient it would be to have one of those misrepresented vomitoriums available. Then we debated whether lust or gluttony was the funner deadly sin.

But no matter where I spend Thanksgiving, one thing is for sure – I always have a lot to be thankful for.

Ireland 2005 – Bertha or St John Rivers?

Ireland 2005 – the spread and someone’s butt which was not intentional

Swazi Thanksgiving – Ambassador-provided beer

Swazi ThanksgivingAmbassador-provided food

#tbt – Non-USA Thanksgivings

#traveltuesday – Rebuilding\|

I just got back to the US this afternoon and I’m far too tired for a lengthy blog. But I wanted to write about Warsaw, rebuilding and my own life.

Krakow is commonly known as the city in Poland to visit because its old town was so well-preserved when much of Poland was razed to the ground. Warsaw, in contrast, was one of the most damaged cities in WWII, with 85-90% of the city destroyed. While Warsaw was rebuilt, Krakow still gets more love for being “authentic,” even though the rebuilt Old Town received UNESCO heritage status.

I was in Warsaw for the first time in 2011, a brief stopover between Poznan and Munich. I wandered to the Old Town at night. It was a few days before Christmas and full of vendors selling hot wine – and it was gorgeous. I read a historical marker about the rebuilding and was suddenly hit with a sense of how powerful it was that this city was so utterly destroyed and then rebuilt. (Especially coming from the US where beautiful, fully intact old building are knocked down for parking lots and condos.) Even though the beautiful building I was looking upon weren’t original, they represented hard work, determination, a love for ones city and the unconquerable spirit that I have observed in the Polish people. I decided right then that Warsaw was much cooler than Krakow.

Fast-forward six years. I have spent the past four getting knocked down by cancer and rebuilding. I am back in Warsaw, no longer the carefree younger traveler I was before, and I realize that this city is a metaphor for my own life. I go to the Old Town and gaze upon the reconstructed building. I pull strength from them and again vow that no matter how much this terrible disease tries to destroy my life, I will keep getting back up and rebuilding.

#traveltuesday – Rebuilding\|

#tbt – Gdańsk in Photos, 2015 vs. 2017

I can’t write about my 2017 trip to Gdańsk without writing about my first 2015 trip there. And I will write about it – next week. But this week, I wanted to do a little then and now comparison.

The most striking difference in the photos is that talented Younes took most of the first batch with his good camera and I took the second batch with my iPhone. Aside from that, the other obvious difference is that there are more people the first time around. July vs November tends to bring more people out to sightsee in cold, grey Poland. And with the nice weather, we spent more time outside last time.

Not obvious differences. Our good friend took us to visit with her parents, who were wonderful and gracious hosts, even though we spoke no common language. Her dear father unfortunately passed away only a few weeks after we visited them.

In 2015, I was in my very short stint of “remission” from cancer (I put it in parentheses because I know those little bastard cancer cells were already growing new tumors back them but I was symptomless and certainly hoped – although I didn’t think it was likely – that the cancer would stay away). I had poofy, thick hair growing back. This time around, I was in active treatment, sandwiching my trip to Europe between chemos and covering my almost bare head with winter hats. And geez, I am so more tired this time around.

We were all less settled back in 2015. Younes and I had no one to stay with and rented an apartment because everyone was either living with parents or in tiny one-bedroom flats. But with less responsibilities, we could stay out drinking in the old town till midnight. This time, people own flats outside of the city centre, so between that and the cold, we did more driving and less walking. People have fiancées and live-in partners and new puppies (cutest Jack Russell ever). And my sweet husband stayed in the US to work. I miss him. I’m not all that impressed with grown-up life sometimes. I miss my carefree travels and wanderings. But grown-up life does have some advantages. Money. Nice flats to stay at. And puppies to pet.



#tbt – Gdańsk in Photos, 2015 vs. 2017

#traveltuesday – Olsztyn, land of lakes with a Prussian history

I spent the first few days of my Polish stay in Olsztyn, a small city in Eastern Poland. It has a fascinating history, having changed hands several times. The Old Town is very walkable and accessible and is a mix of old and new buildings and businesses. One of the most attractive parts of the city are its lakes. While the lakes are more enjoyed in the warmer weather than in November, I still liked taking walks by them and nature viewing.

A nature walk was indeed what Kasia and I did my first full day in Olsztyn. A brisk 6km walk around one local lake was refreshing. We followed that up with dinner with her mother at the weirdly named Casablanca, which had no Moroccan food but is semi-famous for its tomatoes and was a good spot for a warming bowl of pumpkin soup and a glass of spiced honey tea. We then took a walk around the Old Town by night.

The next day, we walked the Old Town by day. We stopped for dinner where I tried for the first time traditional Polish sour rye soup. OMG. I am now in love with this soup!

My third and last day included a visit to a tourist village. It’s basically a Polish version of the colonial/pioneer re-enactment villages we have in the United States. It was semi-closed for the season, so we couldn’t go into the houses and there were no actors, but there were also no crowds. We could still wander around outside and with no other tourists, it felt exactly how I would imagine a blustery early winter day in a rural Polish village would’ve felt like 100+ years ago.

We also talked about Kasia’s childhood. She told me that she and those born late 70s were the last ones to have clear, vivid memories of Communist times. Clear memories of the empty shelves, the long lines for bread, the rations. That the only way to get meat was to know a butcher who could do you a favor. The one sweet orange served as a special treat at Christmas. Knowing of Barbie dolls and other wonderful childhood toys children in other countries got to enjoy but that were out of reach of a Polish child. But life was certainly not all hard times and she recalled to me as we walked, spending summers at her grandparent’s farm, which was still a family farm although they had to give some of their harvest to the state. It was simple and happy times on the farm.

The visit was ended by a dinner party in Kasia’s charming flat with several other Polish ladies. We ate, talked and toasted to new friends and a lovely visit.

Olsztyn by night

Sour rye soup is sooooo yummy

Wooden church, formerly common in the south of Poland

Kasia remembered her grandparents using one of these on their farm

#traveltuesday – Olsztyn, land of lakes with a Prussian history

#sciencesunday – Inherited vs tumor genetics

Kasia, one of the friends I’ve been staying with in Poland gives sessions on moving and harnessing energy holistically and she gave me a session to try and move the cancer energy out of me. In one of the sessions, she had me pick an energy card to work on and this is what I drew:

Which is fitting because genetics are probably the reason I’m in this mess in the first place and breaking the genetic code is what I’m trying to do.

Most people see genetics as inherited, i.e. passed down in families. But that is only a small part of the genetic code I am trying to crack.

I’ve written about testing I’ve done for mutations. Today, I wanted to explain the difference between inherited (germline) mutations and tumor (somatic) mutations.

First off, the genes themselves, do not cause cause cancer. BRCA and p53, for example, are tumor suppressor genes. That’s good because it means they keep cancer cells in check. The problem happens when there’s a mutation in the tumor suppressor gene that makes, say, BRCA ineffective. So it’s the mutation causing the cancer, not the gene itself. I wanted to clear that up because people usually refer to themselves as BRCA-positive or negative, not BRCA mutation positive or negative.

So there’s a bunch of germline mutations, which are passed down the family line. They can be passed by either parent. BRCA is the most well-known and increases a person’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer substantially. But there’s a lot of other mutations, many which doctors and researchers don’t quite know what to do about. Therefore, testing for BRCA only is what often happens. There are other tests that test for other mutations.

Due to my young age when I developed cancer, I have been tested twice for inherited mutations. I have tested for a few Variants of Unknown Significance but never tested positive thus far. But between my young age and my not extensive but not insignificant family history (especially given my family is pretty male-dominated), I may still be positive for an inheritable mutation that is in the process of being identified.

Then there are somatic mutations, that occur within the cancers themselves. Some mutations are present in the original tumors, some mutations are acquired as the tumor grows and spreads. Many of these mutations likely lead to resistance to common therapies. I have had my metastatic brain tumors tested and the testing showed several mutations that are common in the resistance to Her2 targeted therapies. When I went to South Dakota to meet with Dr Leyland-Jones, I was looking for ways to use combination therapies to overcome resistance.

Targeting somatic mutations are a new thing in Oncology and the theory is to treat the cancer based on a person’s individual tumor makeup instead of just treating based on tumor origin. I am super excited about this approach, even though this practice is still a lot of trial and error. I am going to add some slides from the conference I just attended to illustrate what this personalized medicine approach is all about and what the current challenges are. This is the main genetic code I am trying to break. I…we…NEED to break it for the sake of saving/extending my life and the lives of my fellow MBC patients and friends.

#sciencesunday – Inherited vs tumor genetics

#freedayfriday – Europe on a budget

Having traveled through Europe several times, I do know how to have a great trip on little money. Here are my tips:

  • Don’t stay at hotels – Choose Air Bnbs, regular bnbs, hostels or Couchsurfing. The prices are cheaper, the experiences more personal and you can choose places that include kitchen usage and laundry to cut down on costs more. Which brings me to…
  • Cook your own meals sometimes – While eating out is a huge part of travel, on longer trips it gets expensive and unhealthy. Cooking occasionally gives you a break and it’s a great excuse to wander local markets and ask vendors about unknown ingredients.
  • Eat street food Street food is much cheaper than a meal at a restaurant. And no trip to Europe is complete without having a ubiquitous donor kebab.
  • Pack light – By packing only what you need, you avoid luggage fees. You also avoid having to take taxis because your baggage is too much to handle on public transport. For this three-week trip, I only brought two carry-ons, a small suitcase and a large purse. You can accomplish that by doing what I mentioned above and staying at apartments or hostels that have self-service laundry (just remember that many Europeans don’t have dryers and air-dry their clothes instead).
  • Free walking tours – Many European cities offer free walking tours. These tours are comprehensive, easy for any fitness level and a great way to get an introduction to the city and country. There are tours that go into standard history but there’s also tours that explore alternative culture, like this one I took of Berlin back in 2011. The tours are not completely free as you are encouraged to tip (and with the quality you tend to get, you should) but it’s still a really good deal.
  • Use mass transport – Most European cities have phenomenal public transport options as opposed to the United States (example: Lisbon’s public transport system, which serves half a million people, is much better organized and runs much more frequently in off-hours than NYC’s, which serves 8 million). Seriously, with underground trains, trams and buses, there is almost no reason to take a cab or Uber.
  • Go East – Remember this scene in Eurotrip? The first part couldn’t be further from the truth, but the second part is still fairly true. Eastern Europe is gorgeous, fascinating, historical and usually devoid of the crowds found in Western Europe, but your money still goes a long way.
  • Go off season – Not only is it cheaper, you have much less crowds. And you have Christmas Markets. And hot wine.
#freedayfriday – Europe on a budget

#tbt – My introduction to Poland

So how did I end up having several friends and guides in Poland? Here’s how it goes…

During the Great Africa/Europe Tour in 2011, I think I mentioned I met a handsome, charming young man in Morocco. Well, this handsome, charming man, aka my now-husband, has several friends in Poland that he would visit during vacations to Europe. So when Younes and I decided to meet up in Europe, he proposed we go to Poland and stay with friends.

Unfortunately that trip we only made it to visit one friend, Krystian in Poznan, which is in the western part of the country. I had not planned on visiting Poland (or if I did, only visiting Krakow), but Younes changed my mind. We set off from our meeting point in Germany, to Poznan by overnight bus.

We arrived at the bus station just as the sun was rising. I was hungry and we looked for hot food and found sausages and bread. I remember vividly suddenly craving a good classic American breakfast – eggs, crispy bacon, homefries. The bus station was cold and gray and it was too early to call for Krystian to pick us up. Younes snoozed against me as I watched movies on my computer.

When he woke up, he said Krystian was at work until 3 and couldn’t pick us up. I was raring to go. “Let’s stow our luggage and EXPLORE!” I urged. He agreed somewhat grudgingly. We brought a locker, put our bags in it, and headed out towards the tram. We got about 20 feet and Younes stopped, muttered “It’s effing cold,” and walk back inside. I knew at that moment I would probably never convince him to move back to my home state with me. I found a tram to a shopping center, wrote down the information, went back into the bus station and coaxed Younes to come along with me, where we passed a few hours wandering a mall that looked very much like an American one.

It was finally time to meet Krystian and he took us to his lovely home in a residential neighborhood of Poznan and we had a nice evening together catching up.

The next day, we had a leisurely morning at home and then Krystian had to work so Younes and I set off to explore town. I had read in a guidebook about a bar where one could drink a Polish specialty, hot honey beer. I suggested to Younes we find that bar. We took the tram into the center of town, where the bar was right one the beautiful town square. Best of all, the town Christmas Market was going on. We took a table in the bar and ordered hot beers. They were delicious, warming and full of flavor. The lights of the market twinkled from underneath the majestic buildings on the square and snow began to fall. There could not be a more perfect evening.

We repeated this several more times, getting to know each other over pints of hot beer and falling in love. I agreed to go to Younes’ hometown the next month to meet his family. But first we had separate plans for Christmas. He was heading home and I was going back to Germany to meet family got the holidays.

We would take an overnight train to Warsaw where we would split up. We left Krystian’s in the early morning hours for the 2am train. The train pulled into the station and it was packed to the brim. There was no space in the compartments and we stood with all our luggage in the entranceway for the 4 hour ride. It was three days before Christmas and everyone (and their packages of presents) were traveling to visit relatives. They were also very much in the Christmas spirit. Vodka bottles and beer cans were passed around freely. I turned down the vodka – still too many bad memories from college – but accepted sips of a Jack Daniels malted drink. I perched on top of my luggage and chatted up anyone who spoke English. The crowd began to thin as we approached Warsaw. Younes’ stop came up and he kissed me and headed for his bus. I rode the train into Warsaw and entered the city just as the sky was beginning to lighten.

We went back to “our bar” during our 2015 trip

#tbt – My introduction to Poland

#traveltuesday – Lisbon and the invasion of the selfie snappers

Welcome to #traveltuesday, which will temporarily replace #truckingtuesday during the time I am in Europe. Yes, I am back to traveling overseas. Why? Well, because I got invited to the European Society of Oncology’s Advanced Breast Cancer Conference as a patient advocate. So I flew to Lisbon, Portugal for the conference and am now spending two weeks in Poland visiting Younes’ friends (who are now my friends).

The first time I was in Lisbon was September 2011. I was flying from Dakar, Senegal to Casablanca. It was right before I met my husband. The cheapest flights had a layover in Lisbon, so I picked the one with the longest one and decided to make a day of it.

That day was a hot, sunny late summer day. I took a bus to the Praco do Comercio and sat by the river and dozed in the warm sun as musicians played in the background. I wandered the hilly cobbled streets with no specific plan or destination in mind. I didn’t know where I was, but it was charming in a rustic, gritty sort of way – the narrow, winding streets, the laundry flapping out of open windows, the houses mixed with small shops.

After walking uphill for quite awhile, I stumbled upon a terrace with great views of the neighborhood below, a small chapel, Moorish tiles adorning the buildings, and trees with bright purple flowers. Best of all, except for maybe five other people who wandered in and out, I had the place to myself. It was too beautiful not to photograph. I took my little point and shoot and started taking pictures. They were beautiful pictures and some of the only ones I took on the whole six-months backpacking trip. A few weeks later, my camera stopped working, lost to the sands of Morocco and Spain that embedded themselves into the camera’s inner workings. But at least I still had the pictures on my memory card.

So of course, what did I do? Go back to the US and NOT download the pictures. Like, for years. Three years later, my budding photographer husband took the memory card from my camera and put it in his. Don’t know if he still has the card or if he possibly accidentally deleted my pictures.

My trip to Lisbon was a chance to recreate those pictures and also recapture a beautiful memory, harking back to a more innocent time of my life. I had a little trouble tracking the place down since I wasn’t paying attention the first time. But internet research gave me the name of the neighborhood (Alfama, a historic district with a gritty past – why I liked it) and the terrace (Miradouro de Santa Luzia, “miradouro” being the Portuguese name for “viewpoint”). So on my one free day from the conference, I set out.

The Alfama district was just like I had remembered at first – narrow streets, flapping laundry. As I climbed higher, I noticed more tourists wandering around than I had remembered in the past. Then I noticed the Tuk Tuk cars. The gift shops. The snack bars advertising in English. And the tour groups. I had an ominous feeling that, within the past six years, Alfama had been discovered by the masses. Had my private terrace been too?

Indeed it had. Cafes with English signs surrounded the place. Street musicians played Top 40. And the backpack wearing, selfie-stick wielding tourists were everywhere. The view was the same. So were the tiles and the purple-flowered trees. But it was hard to find my old serenity when someone else’s iPhone was in every view and someone with an accordion was playing “My Heart Will Go On.”

So I pouted a bit. Tried to find someone to ask “WTF happened to this place?” Then joined in with the selfie-taking…hey, I clearly wasn’t going to beat ’em, so I might as well join ’em. Proceeded successfully to take at least a few of the same pictures I had taken before. And accepted that hidden gems never remain hidden.

P.S: Younes, if you ever find the original pictures, I would really appreciate having them back!

#traveltuesday – Lisbon and the invasion of the selfie snappers