Living Life on the Fast Lane

“You are definitely living life on the fast lane”, that is what my mum keeps telling me when she sees my social calendar. It is true though, I am out a lot. For example last week I had a Scouts meeting, a work dinner, an after work event with my social expat group, a school theatre play, a coffee-and-carrot-cake-together and I took the Scouts to an open air museum in the north in the country. This week has not been any better – I so far have been out for an after-work event in my favourite bar (Monday), cake and drinks at my favourite café (Tuesday) and a concert – Amy MacDonald – at the Rockhal (Wednesday). Apart from helping my mum out at the village bazaar, I have no other plans this weekend. I am however tempted going to the cinema….

I agree I might be doing too much in too short an amount of time, but being out with people gives me loads and loads of energy as well and makes me feel happy. It is incredible how much I have changed in just about 18 months – I went from a shy introvert, lonely and miserable young professional whose idea of a weekend night out was having a glass of red wine while watching her favourite crime series to an extrovert who is no longer scared talking to strangers and hanging out in bars. This is all thanks to me making a massive effort in regards to my social life when I returned to Luxembourg in July 2011. Things had to change back then – I could just not sit at home, feel sorry for myself and let life pass me by. I had to go out, enjoy what life had to offer – after all I am in my twenties and not a spinster.

However I have had to realise that I kind of went from one extreme to another – from going out hardly at all to going out all the time. Balance I guess is the key word here, and that is a lesson I still need to learn … I am not doing a particularly good job at it at the moment, I have to admit though. I am glad I am home though tonight, I finally have time to work on my blog, some posts are overdue and I am slightly behind my writing schedule. I have also realised that I have not been reading for quite a while, and there are definitely well over 15 unread books on my shelf (aha new topic for my blog is emerging – I could write about the books I read, couldn’t I?), and my ironing is piling up as well (well, I am not looking forward to doing that), so there are definitely enough things I could do at home. Oh yeah and eventually I should get started on the flat hunt as well (oh dear, here I go again…. that is one of my vices, if I get an energy rush I want to do EVERYTHING at the SAME time, which can become frustrating. So I need to remind myself to take one step at a time).

I have booked two days off Monday and Tuesday next week to give myself a break in between chemo and radiotherapy, and recharge my batteries after some important work deadlines. I was wondering whether I should go somewhere, but maybe what my body really needs is just some nice and quiet “down-time” with loads of rest and maybe some chillaxing on my couching having a cuppa or hot chocolate while reading a book. I guess the reason why I am struggling with the reading is because I am finding it difficult finishing one particular book “Tiny Sunbirds Far Away” by Christie Watson – I started reading it well before Christmas, but it is a bit long winded and so I have lost interest, I am stuck on page 218, so I am too far into the book to just give up.. What shall I do? Maybe I need to try reading another book first before going back to it – some of my closest friends in London gave me Caitlin Moran’s “How to be a woman” for my birthday, and seems like a really good funny read…. We shall see.

Books and maybe a trip to the cinema it is then for my long weekend – time to get off the fast lane and back onto the standard lane – I guess if you are driving too fast, you won’t be able to see the countryside that is passing you by…..

For now though it is time to go to bed – night, night and sweet dreams.

The Turtle and the Birthstone

After having finished my chemo I wanted to buy myself a little present to celebrate this part of my journey, so I was off on a shopping spree to add another charm to my bracelet. After careful consideration I had decided to embellish my piece of jewellery with the turtle charm, as this had a very strong meaning for me. As I mentioned in my Chemo Graduation post,  the green turtle for me is the symbol of perseverance and serenity, it reminds of my strength to overcome difficult times, kind of like a friend who had pointed out to me that “you only know how strong you are until being strong is the only option you have”. Turtles can grow really old as well so this particular charm also stands for the dream and hope of long, happy and healthy life.  

20130220_144017

Unfortunately the shop where I usually buy my charms did not have my object of desire in stock – so what to do? Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to buy my charm online and get it delivered to Luxembourg. To avoid having to pay charges though I decided to add a second charm to my order.

My choice fell on a charm with my birthstone, which for the month of January is a red garnet.

20130220_143628

Why this particular charm? Well first of all it is red, so it complements the colour scheme of my bracelet (black, silver, green and red) really well; on the other hand my bracelet, which is celebrating different stages of my life, would be incomplete without a reference or acknowledgement of my birth.

To my surprise though this particular charm turned out to be more symbolic than I had originally imagined.  As I was not familiar with birthstones, I did some research on the net (reference: http://earthsky.org/earth/january-birthstone-garnethttp://www.americangemsociety.org/january-birthstone)to find out more. So what did I learn?

The name of this semi-precious stone is derived from the Latin word “granatum” meaning pomegranate. This, I thought was pretty cool, because it reminded me of a time in the UK when I had cooked Thanksgiving Dinner for 14 people, for which I had prepared an autumnal salad with pomegranate seeds to accompany the turkey.

Interesting enough I then read that ancient warriors believed that garnets brought victory and that in medieval times this stone was believed to protect its wearer against poison. The garnet is indeed then the perfect choice for me – what better charm to add to my bracelet than one that makes reference to me, the warrior of the pen, ending this journey victoriously, particularly at a time where I had “survived” the poisonous cancer treatment aka chemotherapy?

During my little (non-academic) research I also found out that the garnet stands for a light heart, loyalty, enduring affections, eternal friendship and trust, which are qualities and values I have come to appreciate, value and treasure highly over the last six months.

I bet you can imagine how much I was beaming when my parcel arrived 2 days after having placed the order. Looking at my new charms now evokes even more wonderful memories. I cannot wait for the end of radiotherapy, as this means another charm for my bracelet – the chameleon. However you will need to wait until the end of April to read about the reasons for that choice.

A Passion for Education

So what does a productive day look like? For me it is something along those lines…. 

20130220_171516

Last week I got stuck in developing my workshop entitled “Education – a right for all?”. So when I get this “writer’s block” I take my notebook and head to the Development Education Library, run by another NGO, to have a look through their resources and materials. Going through about 4-5 compilations with a particular focus on education. I quickly came across the activities I needed to bring my workshop to life.  I had known all along what message I wanted to pass on the students (appreciation for the education they are receiving here, the importance of quality education and the crucial role teachers play in delivering this), but I just did not know what the best method was to do transfer this. Completely immersed in the different textbooks, I soon came up with the structure, content and activities for my workshop, which included

  • a comparison of a Senegalese and a Luxembourgish classroom with the help of a photograph;
  • a brainstorming activity to think about factors prohibiting access to education and
  • my “diamond” game, where groups of students have to rank different factors according to order of importance and then justify this choice through different arguments – a great activity to develop skills such as ability to compromise and critical thinking.

I left the library with a feeling of relief and accomplishment.

Art Therapy IV – Light at the End of the Tunnel

“Light” was the assignment for today’s art therapy session. Feeling actually quite sad, for various reasons,  I decided to retreat to one corner of the room. I sat down on a comfy cushion on the floor , grabbed a drawing block, pencils and crayons and started to develop my first intuitive idea.  The words and images of “light at the end of the tunnel” had easily formed in my head, so I tried my best to express creatively on paper.

2013-02-27 11.39.46

So where is the green road of hope leading to? What is at the end of the tunnel?

Love… Maybe? Possibly? Eventually?

My ever-recurrent theme….

Art Therapy III – The Black Hole of Anxieties

Last Wednesday, I very nearly walked out of my art therapy class. Not sure if you know that feeling of when someone really bugs you and you just want them to shut up? Well that was how I felt that particular morning. There is one fellow participant/cancer patient who is really pushing my buttons – she talks a lot, is incredibly dominant in her conversation or shall we say in her monologue style. She keeps telling the group constantly and repeatedly how good the art therapy is for her, how much she is learning, how much it is helping her, how she is improving her drawing and painting skills, and what she feels like doing in the upcoming session, and how she does not like negative paintings or drawings…. It was well just so massively overwhelming for me. I literally felt like a bulldozer had just rolled over me, the session had only started for 5 minutes, and I was ready to pack up my things and just go. The therapist leading the session had not even had the possibility to explain to the group what the instructions/concept for this week’s painting were going to be. It was just too much for me, I felt how my whole body tensed up and all I wanted to do was to get out, to have room to breathe. Looking around the room, I then realised that I was not the only one feeling this way, that others felt uncomfortable too. However it took every inch of my self-control not to take my stuff and head back to the office. But I am not a quitter, I don’t run away, so I decided to stay – knowing full well that once everyone would be absorbed in their painting, I would forget about this nagging voice too.

So this week’s assignment was to draw a picture in a picture, a so-called frame-picture (Rahmenbild). To start of you draw a square on your sheet of paper, which can be as small or big as you like. This square is your fame. Inside this frame, you then draw your fears, anxieties, in short your negative emotions. Outside the frame you draw your positive emotions. Oh dear, was my first thought, drawing my fears and anxieties, that was going to be though. There were quite a few negative ones I was grappling with at that particular time, and letting them out would take quite a bit of courage, and it also meant that I would use the colour black for the very first time since having started the art therapy class. I was set up for an emotional journey.

Trying to avoid having to deal with my issues, I started drawing the outside of the frame, and rather than drawing things, I just kept colouring the “outside” space with different colours, strong, positive colours I like to reflect my happy emotions. This exercise was very therapeutic for me, in that it calmed me down, helped me relax, distress, unwind, and free me from the tensions that had built up at the begging of the session.

However eventually I could not put the “uncomfortable” drawing part off any longer. I started slowly, coming to terms that I would have to use black (which I had been so determined not to use at all in my paintings) and hence used this colour to draw the outline of the frame. For me this inside picture was to visualise my “black hole” that I fall into once in a while and that I find difficult to come out off. In that black hole, there are two major fears at the moment 1) I am scared that the chemotherapy might cause infertility in the long run and hence “rob” me of the ability to have children (this is expressed in the symbol on the top left bit of the black box –  a pregnant woman whose womb contains an unborn baby, the latter being represented by a little heart) and 2) I am scared that I will be on my own, not find love, not be able to enjoy a happy relationship with a man (that is why I have a drawn a broken heart, a recurrent theme in my paintings as my therapist has confirmed). These two things make me angry and sad at times, and that is why I have included a tear, painted in blue (difficult to recognise as a tear, I know) and a little figure with a red head, to represent the anger.

Once I was done, or felt I was done, my therapist came over to have a look at it and talk it through with me. One of her comments struck a chord with me – she said that the “inside” was very claustrophobic – the figure in the black box seemed to struggle, to fight to get out, but there was literally no escape route for him/her. I then realised that I had drawn myself as a prisoner of my negative emotions. I tend to bottle up my emotions and deny myself a way of expressing them, I sometimes want to share and sometimes I just want to keep them to myself.  So how could I resolve this dilemma? “Draw a door, a closed door, in the black box”, my therapist suggested – “you can leave that door shut when you feel like it or open it when you are ready to come out”. A brilliant solution, I thought, and this how I added a white closed door to the left bottom hand corner of the black box.

“I cannot see you in this picture yet –I?”  know you differently – are you only in the ”inside” picture?”, my therapist continued.  No, I am not, I replied, I am feeling a lot of happy emotions too, I am in both pictures. “So where in the positive picture are you?” – “In the pink square”, I replied automatically (this raspberry pink colour is one of my favourites at the moment), so that is why I added myself in that spot, drawing myself when I do one of my happy dances.

Finally I added an escape tunnel for the “angry” Steffi too, an easy escape route for when I need to air my anger, a way out into the sun. And this is how the following picture came about.

20130220_115224

Friday Thoughts I

On Friday I submitted my yearly report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Department of International Cooperation, which funded my 2012 child rights awareness raising project. Therewith I officially “closed” the year 2012, so it is definitely time to put that year behind me, finish that chapter; it is time to move forward, look ahead and if necessary finish any unfinished business as fast as possible. On my way back to the office, I stopped by at the cathedral, walked in and light a few candles – among them one to say “thank you” and one for a friend abroad.

20130222_151833

I then sat down and said a little prayer – a thank you note to “God” for having given me the strength to fight my battle, for having given me my life back, for being alive, for all the support I had by the various people in my life. Sitting on that bench I felt like I was on the brink of a new part of my life. I took a deep breath, grabbed my bag and left.  Opening the cathedral door to let myself outside was like stepping into a new world.

I wrote those thoughts by candle light, in my favourite bar, sipping on a strawberry juice, trying to transform my feelings and thoughts into words and put them down on paper. I felt humbled by what I have experienced since October 3rd, 2012 – my cancerversary. I know full well that my journey is not over, but I can see the silver lining on the horizon, I can see that the sun is about to rise again. For a few moments it was like as if I had made it through already. I felt relieved, grateful, and yes happy, but maybe also a bit overwhelmed, and definitely proud of myself for what I have accomplished.

Lunch Time Walk

On Ash Wednesday – where Catholics traditionally do not eat meat- one of my work colleagues and I kept wondering what we should give up for Lent 2013. I had never given up anything for the 40 days before Easter and even after having given it much thought I could not think of anything appropriate. I briefly considered “dessert” or “alcohol”, but I knew I would utterly fail at giving those things up, so I rejected them again as soon as they crossed my mind. Then however the idea emerged that maybe instead of giving something up, we should take something up instead, focusing on the positive (Let’s do this) instead of the negative (Do NOT eat or drink this or that). That is how our plan to go for a walk during our lunch break every work day, as long as the weather permits.

I went on my first lunch time walk on Friday, and I was just reminded again how beautiful Luxembourg is. The scenic Petrusse valley is only 5 minutes’ walk from our office, it is very quiet, green space, away from the city centre noise and frequented by people walking their dogs or going for a run, so ideal for to taking up our resolution for Lent. On Friday most of the area was still covered in ice and snow, but today as the temperatures had risen, you could actually see the grass again. My work colleague joined me for this second walk and it felt great walking in this beautiful green setting, in the middle of a busy city, chatting away while taking in the cold, crisp air. It was really refreshing and energising – afterwards I felt like I got a bit of my vitality back, which is great. I took some pictures along the walk, to let you share in the beauty that I got to contemplate during my lunch break.

20130218_123744

20130218_124233

The Goodness of a Simple Salad

So what was for dinner then last night? Yes, you all guessed right it included avocado, obviously – as this present from Miss Crémant actually goes out of date. So I opted for  a salad – a very simple one with as a base lamb lettuce and shredded beetroot, topped off with diced avocado, fried bacon and mushrooms, garnished with a poached egg on top  (that is how I like my eggs best – poached). As a dressing I did my own creation mixing together honey, mustard, cranberry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, pumpkin oil and virgin olive oil. I know this might sound like a weird combination, but this salad included everything I like eating, and the combo of hot and cold ingredients is really soothing. The vinaigrette might come across as strange but the base of honey and balsamic vinegar is something I learned in a cooking course and I just like adding other oils and vinegars to it to spice things up – I enjoy being creative in the kitchen. I only just recently discovered the cranberry vinegar, and I love it as it adds some sweetness and fruitiness to the vinaigrette, whereas the mustard counterbalances with its spiciness. The salad was ready in no time and it was a real treat munching on it and so yummy. It was a healthy alternative to my usual dinners and also reminded me of how much I love cooking.


2013-02-17 20.25.22

Surprises

I love surprises – they make me happy, put a smile on my face and turn an ordinary idea into something special. My scouting and gig buddy, Miss Crémant, surprised me on Saturday with a little belated birthday and actual chemo graduation present. The gift bag contained 1) a chocolate teddy bear, 2) a bottle of lavender shower gel, 3) a bottle of bubbly and 4) 2 (ripe) avocados. I squealed in surprise and amazement like a little pig! These are some incredibly thoughtful presents and are all things that really help me recover – chocolate is always good for the soul (even though chemo has killed my appetite for it slightly);  shower gel or any other pampering products help my skin to regenerate from the poisonous treatment;  with a nice glass of crémant I like celebrating my joie de vivre (unfortunately chemo had the side effect that I was unable to taste the bubbles in any sparkling for a about a week after chemo – so drinking a glass of crémant is a real pleasure again at the moment), and well you all know the story behind the cravings for avocados. Here is a little photographic evidence of the pressies/surprises:

2013-02-17 19.52.14

Valentine

In honour of Valentine’s Day I would like to feature here my favourite poem, Valentine, written by my favourite poet, Wendy Cope, whom I love for her writing style marked by simplicity, honesty and wit.

Valentine

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

Whatever you’ve got lined up,

My heart has made its mind up.

And if you can’t be signed up

This year, next year will do.

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

Wendy Cope, Two Cures for Love Selected Poems 1979-2006  (2008), faber and faber, page 20

So what was I, a 29 year single gal, up to on Valentine’s Day, the day of love?

Well as I learned, February 14th is also celebrated as Friendship Day in Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua. I loved this new fact and decided spontaneously that this day should be dedicated to my friends whom I love very much!

I met MFC (My First Commander) for a decadent breakfast at the Mercure Grand Hotel Alfa Hotel in Luxembourg and we went a bit crazy on the buffet – there were continental and cooked breakfast options, but honestly why choose one when you can have both? So I did in fact have a boiled egg, beans, bacon, mushrooms, toast, pain au chocolate, a roll with jam and butter, fruit salad, coffee and grapefruit and orange juice. It was absolutely amazing!!!!  It felt great starting the day in a cosy and quirky atmosphere (the restaurant at the Alfa is decorated in the Art Deco style) and talking to MFC about God and the world (well not literally, conversation topics ranged from travel plans, work projects to the things that I worry about at the moment). MFC was an absolutely wonderful breakfast partner in crime, the same as she is an amazing after-work-bar-hopping buddy. Luxembourg, watch out!

For lunch I then met my dad and told him that today was my turn to pay as I obviously love him very much (random note on the side: Dad, YES I am sorry for having had an argument with you yesterday!!!! Love you!) On the menu that day: chicken leg, potatoes and green beans, followed by tiramisu. Right, I hope you have all figured out by now, that I am a real foodie – I love eating it, I love talking about and I definitely love taking pictures of it as well.

For the evening, I was then off to an after work event organised by the Luxembourg expat (and repat) Meetup Group in Bosso Bar, in the Grund of Luxembourg City. There were about 50 people who turned, which is such a great turn out for a day like Valentine’s Day and it was nice reconnecting with “old” acquaintances, whom I had not seen in ages! All in all a lovely evening, with a lovely glass of red wine, in wonderful company in a warm and unique setting.

Conclusion: Valentine’s Day 2013 was really good and I definitely made the most of it!