Saturday, December 29, 2012

A feast for the eyes

In front of La Sagrada Familia
I must confess that when people told me that I should see as much Gaudi as possible in Barcelona, I really didn't understand what they were talking about.

But the minute you see this Catalan architect's work, you can say for certain that the word "unique" is truly justified here.

On Thursday Katie and I started out our day by visiting La Sagrada Familia, the large Roman Catholic church that he designed. Construction of the church began in 1882 but was not completed in his lifetime, and work is still under way.

This sandcastle in the sky takes you by surprise when you come up out of the nearest Barcelona train station, looming over everything else in the vicinity. We ate lunch across the street at a restaurant with outside tables and sat transfixed.

Katie had already been with her study-abroad friends, but I don't think her amazement was tempered by a return visit.

Next we climbed...and climbed, and climbed...up to Parc Guell, where the tile work many associate with Gaudi, is equally eye-catching. I wouldn't have made it up or down without Katie's arm.

Crowds of people took photos all over the place as though intoxicated by the shapes and colors. It was impossible to stay out of everyone's way. We got a little crazy too.
Up at Parc Guell

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

From Granada to Barcelona

On the plaza overlooking the Alhambra
View of the Alhambra
We had a couple of beautiful days in Granada, where the sky was a perfect blue.

Sunday was our big day, when we toured the Alhambra, the palace and fortress that looks down on the city of Granada. The gardens are amazing, with some flowers still in bloom. The design, with fountains and water flowing all around, are designed to inspire meditation. We sat on a bench and took it all in.

There were steps everywhere. Our admission ticket allowed us to wander in the gardens until 6 p.m. if we wanted, but after about two hours I couldn't move anymore. I looked up at a steep flight of stairs which I'm sure led to an inviting garden, but I froze. We found the salida and ended that part of the day.

But later, after I lay down for a while, we headed for the old Jewish neighborhood, where the view of the Alhambra was promised to be awe-inspiring, and it was. We went up up up more stairs through  narrow streets until we finally got to the top. A band played flamenco music, and so-called hippies playing flutes laid out their wares on blankets while dogs wandered around. As the sun set, making the Alhambra look more and more unreal, I didn't want to leave, but it was getting dark and we had a long way down.

At right is the street that we took to get to the plaza with the view.

Monday, a short day because we had to catch a flight, we went to a tetería, an Arabic tea house where you can relax and have a choice of many teas. We think we might open one in Northampton. If you don't drink, it's an excellent place to hang out instead of the bar scene.

But that venture will be hard to realize if we move to Andalucía, which is another possibility that we have discussed.

Christmas in Barcelona has been pretty quiet. We walked along La Rambla, the main street, and spent some time in our hotel, having coffee (me) and hot chocolate (Katie) and sharing a chocolate chip cookie and talking.

Last night, Katie watched "A Christmas Story" ("You'll shoot your eye out!") and I watched it with her until I fell asleep sitting up. I think I'll watch the end tonight after we eat Chinese food and take a stroll to see the lights at night.

I said before that I have been introduced to many things. One is Principe cookies, sort of like an oreo but not as intense, with a chocolate filling inside two plain wafers. I have to admit that I just ate quite a few while I was writing this. I also have to admit that we had breakfast at Starbucks, which is just as ubiquitous as in the U.S.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Goodbye Seville, hello Granada

Katie at the entry to Granada center.
Me walking down the hill from our hotel.
I was sorry to leave Seville this morning, but I'm happy with the taste of Granada that I got this afternoon.

I still can't believe what a beautiful city Sevilla is. I knew Katie loved her program, but I didn't understand how much being in the city played such a big role. Yesterday we didn't go to any attractions except an artisans' showcase where we admired the beautiful work and bought a few things.

But most of the day we walked around. "Un paseo," they call it. We walked past the cathedral several times, and each time I just wanted to stop and look at it in all its grandeur. At night, photographers with fancy cameras stood in a group, trying to capture the Giralda, or tower, as it glowed in the night. ("You were up there!" Katie said.)

People shopped, but many stood or sat and enjoyed each other and watched people. Well into the night, the crowds of people having a drink or eating grew. It was unlike in New York or Boston, where everyone always has to be going someplace.

At night, we went to a flamenco performance and then had dinner outside around 10 p.m. If you go too much earlier, they look at you like you are uncivilized.

Our hotel in Granada is on top of a long steep hill, next to the Alhambra, where we will go tomorrow. We walked down the hill (and later, back up...thank you Michael, my physical therapist, for helping me get stronger). Then we went into the cathedral and chapel, a monument to Queen Isabel and her husband, Fernando, and into the adjoining museum.

Katie, an excellent tour guide and interpreter, had already been there and explained the history. We stood at the grand, intricately sculpted monuments to the monarchs lying in rest and went below to the crypts where they are buried. Eeeew.

John the Baptist's head has been another fascinating and somewhat creepy sight. We saw it in the Seville cathedral and later today in the Granada cathedral, and I looked up the story of the demise of this major New Testament figure.

In Seville, a sculpture of his head lay in a glass case, the sinews and tendons of his neck exposed. In the Granada cathedral, we stood in awe of a large altarpiece of scenes in the life of Jesus Christ, including his birth and his baptism by John the Baptist and then John's head on a platter.

I looked it up and learned that Herod, subking of Galilee during the Roman Empire, drunkenly promised Salome, the daughter of his wife, Herodias, anything she wanted. Herodias, jealous of John's influence and angry about his criticism of her unlawful marriage to Herod, told her daughter to ask for John's head on a platter.

I never knew that while having fun I would learn so much history.

Above, Katie stands next to a sculpture of Queen Isabel.

Left, John the Baptist loses his head, which is about to be placed on a platter.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Magic and mystery

Yesterday we went to the Plaza de Espana, built in 1929 for the Exposition Iberoamerica. An impressive, fairytale-like building abuts a plaza with fountains and little canals; around it is intricate tilework used to create a map and a scene for each province.

There is tile-work all around, so that everywhere you look there is something to admire. If you are from Western Mass, think the states buildings at The Big E. ONLY KIDDING.

We walked around the Plaza and the gardens across the street in the twilight, a time when everything glowed magically.

It's great to walk around Seville, not a CVS or big box store in sight. There are actually old-fashioned drug stores.

At this time of year, you also run into Santa Claus scaling the walls and the Three Kings hanging from terraces.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hola from Seville

On one of the bridges across the Guadalquivir River
 I am having a wonderful time in this beautiful city with my beautiful daughter as my tour guide and excellent companion.

The flight on Sunday was fine, six hours on the plane. The six hours in the Madrid airport waiting for my connection to Seville were harder.  I saw what some other people were doing at 6:30 a.m. local time   (12:30 a.m. my time) and did the same – I put my coat down on a table, dropped my head down onto it, and fell asleep. For a change of scenery, I saw down at a gate and fell asleep in a chair.

I picked up some Spanish just by being at the airport. When I got to Seville and asked where I could get a cab to the B&B, I learned that the airport taxis were on strike and I would have to take two buses or one bus to the bus terminal and then a cab to the B&B.

I got the correct change and got in line for the bus. After a few minutes everyone ran to the other end end of the pick-up area to where the taxis line up, calling out, "The strike is off!" I guess I was getting my first taste of Spanish culture.

Yesterday, on my first full day after getting over jet lag, we went to the Seville's awe-inspiring Cathedral, said by some to be the largest cathedral in the world. We saw some amazing things, such as Christopher Columbus' tomb. After walking around, we climbed the Giralda, the decorative brick tower on the side of the cathedral. It seemed like it might be hard, but it really wasn't because a series of ramps leads to the top, built that way so that the guards could ride to the top on horseback.

From the top, there is an incredible view of Seville.

We also went across the street to the Alcazar, the royal palace surrounded by beautiful gardens.

People in the city walk everywhere and eat outside even if it's a little cool. We walked a lot, and it was tiring, but our daily siesta is refreshing. This is just my kind of lifestyle, with a late dinner eaten at a leisurely pace. Restaurants don't even open until 8:30 p.m. We have been eating a lot of tapas, a good way to try different kinds of food. Orange trees and palm trees line the streets.

Our hosts, Rosa and Carlo, are especially friendly and helpful and give us a good breakfast of fresh orange juice, coffee and typical Spanish fare: toast with salt and olive oil, tomatoes, Spanish ham and good cheese. That's what I'll want to eat when I get home. You can't get the ham in the U.S., and I hear that people try to smuggle it out of the country wrapped in clothes.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Leaving on a jet plane

"Have a great trip to Spain and BE SMART."

"Pace yourself and remember, less is more."

"Don't overdo it."

"I don't want you to call me from the hospital."

This is some of the advice that well-wishers have given me about the trip.

What, me overdo it?

I guess my friends know me well.

I am leaving at noon tomorrow to get to Diane's around 2. She'll drive me to the airport (as Joe Biden says, "Bless her soul" for carting me around) and I should get there around 3 for a 5:25 p.m. flight.

I'm not packed, but I do have piles which are about to go into the suitcase. Last night I had a "packer's nightmare" that only a woman, and maybe a few men, could have. I wasn't fully packed, but the bus (bus to where?) was about to leave, so I had to throw everything in my suitcase and dash out the door. When we were on our way I realized I had forgotten to wear or pack a necklace.

I was devastated. How could I enjoy a trip without a necklace?

I am truly my mother's daughter. For those who don't know, she was a jewelry designer and a firm believer in being properly accessorized.

I better go pack my necklaces now.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Drink up...your water, that is

I fell on my rear end while playing tennis today, finished the set and then ran into the bathroom and threw up.

The sore rear will take care of itself, although at this minute it hurts to sit, and I hope it's better before I take a seven-hour plane ride on Sunday. It wasn't that bad, and actually it was kind of funny. We were playing a round robin on three courts. A man on the court to the left of me fell and got up. Then I fell. It was kind of like the wave. We glanced over at the third court to see who would fall next, but it was only the two of us.

The throwing up has actually been happening on and off after tennis for a couple of months. I asked Melissa about it and she said it was probably dehydration. Then I looked up on the internet "Why do I vomit after exercise?" and was surprised to see quite a few entries all with the same conclusion: It's due to dehydration.

I talked to someone else about it today and she pointed out that while in the warm weather we just naturally drink a lot, in the winter we sometimes forget to. I thought I was drinking enough water, but when I paused to consider it, I realized that probably I wasn't. I came in from running errands this afternoon and saw a 3/4-full glass of water sitting on the counter. You have to do more than pour it; you actually have to drink it.

Here are some tips that I found in various places on the web:
  • The conventional wisdom of drinking eight 8-ounce glasses a day still holds. If you don't think you can keep up with that at random times during the day, drink a glass before each meal to make a dent in it.
  • Eat raw fruit and vegetables, which are mostly made of water; fruit juices don't count.
  • Adjust for exercise by adding 4-8 oz. of water for 1/2 hour of low-intensity exercise and 10-16 ounces for 1/2 hour of high-intensity exercise.
  • Avoid or limit caffeinated drinks and carbonated drinks, including seltzer, or if you are a coffee-drinker, try to switch to decaf in the afternoon. Also, drink extra water each time you have caffeine or a carbonated drink.
  • Limit or avoid sugary food and drinks, which cause dehydration.
Staying well-hydrated will also help with dry, cracked skin and lips.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Laments of a pill-popper

One down, 21 to go.

When I learned that my insurance no longer covers magnesium, I thought it was a good time to ask Melissa if I still needed to take it. She said I could stop.

My 21 pills does not include the once-weekly solution of Kayexalate, the grainy stuff I dissolve in water to keep my once-high potassium within normal limits. It's not as nauseating as the Exjade I take to lower my ferritin, but it's pretty gross.

Organizing my meds for my trip to Spain, and making sure I have enough plus extras, is a bit of a task.

If I read all the side effects of all my pills, I would probably freak out.

I take several drugs as preventatives because the prednisone inhibits my immune system.

When I saw the infectious disease specialist Dr. Marty on Monday, I asked him, "When can I stop taking the Valtrex (an anti-viral)"?

Answer: "When you stop taking prednisone."

 I already knew what he would say because I have asked before, yet I couldn't help but ask again. Dr. Marty just smiled.

I suppose I would get the same answer to the question, "When can I stop taking the Bactrim (an anti-bacterial used to prevent pneumonia)"?

And "When will little things stop popping up on my hands and face (and tongue) that sometimes turn into skin cancers?"

OK, so, the big question: "When can I stop taking prednisone?"

Answer: When my liver function returns to normal.

Melissa said on Monday that although my numbers were a little lower (a good direction in this instance), they were not low enough to change my prednisone dose.

It's only five mg. a day, down from a high of 20 when I was all puffed up, but still, you can see the effect it has on everything else, including weakening the muscles in my legs.

I shouldn't complain. I am alive and well and going to Spain on Sunday, toting my pills minus one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Counts are good

I read a very hopeful story yesterday about a young girl with leukemia, near death after chemotherapy had failed to keep her in remission, who received an experimental treatment that gave her a new chance at life.

Last April, when Emma Whitehead was six, doctors at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia gave her a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS in an attempt to reprogram her immune system. The experiment worked, and seven months later she remains cancer free.

The New York Times ran a beautiful photo of Emma and her mother smiling together. It's always encouraging to read about promising new cancer treatments, and it caught my eye especially because it was about leukemia.

Coincidentally, I read the story while waiting to be called in for my two-month checkup at Dana-Farber. I had driven to Boston that morning through fog and pouring rain, fueled by glazed Munchkins and coffee.

My counts were good – about the same as last time – except that my platelets went down a little, to 86, out of a normal range of 155-410. But they have bounced around in the same vicinity for a long time, and my doctors remain unconcerned.

My hematocrit – 35.7 – was normal for the third time in a row, qualifying me for getting a pint of blood taken out to lower my ferritin. In an odd way, I was looking forward to it. Anything to take even a little less of the nauseating Exjade, which is the main way of lowering ferritin.

Melissa was about to schedule the "blood-letting" but then said I should wait until the next time because the procedure would make me a little anemic, which would not be good right before I go away.

I'm leaving on Sunday.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Flight to Spain in the balance

If the customer service at Iberia is any reflection of the management at the troubled Spanish airline, I can see why the carrier has so many problems.

I spent about an hour on the phone with the airline today, getting disconnected three times. I have been calling every day and checking the website to find out if there is an update on my flight Dec. 17 to Spain. The flight is still confirmed although a strike is planned for Dec. 14 and Dec. 17-21 to protest cutbacks at the airline.

You can understand why they can't change flights that aren't canceled, but still, it's frustrating that they have no information on when they would notify passengers. They said they would make other arrangements, but I can just see the chaos of all these people trying to rebook with limited notice. I guess that is the point.

So....I decided to buy some peace of mind by changing my flight to Dec. 16. The cost is pretty wild, and there is always the possibility that they won't strike, but I don't want to take the chance. And there is a lot to say about limiting stress, for anyone, of course, but especially for someone like me operating with a compromised immune system.

In the meantime I'll watch my expenditures to see if I can make up some of the difference. I could start by skipping Starbucks, but I'm not sure how that would work out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

More on my mind

Emily and I outside her house in Pittsburgh.

The rest of my stay in Pittsburgh was wonderful. We went to a lecture, ate out, hung around and walked in a large neighborhood park where Emily and her friend tricked me into walking four miles.

Well, they didn't actually trick me, they just forgot to tell me how far we were going, and by the last uphill I was zigzagging across the path. I guess it was good for getting me in shape for my trip to Spain, coming up fast in two weeks.

When I had to show my license in the airport, it was nice to finally have a new one showing me the way I look now as opposed to the one I had for four years showing me in a scarf. I had the picture taken when I had just finished chemotherapy, and although I could have gotten a new picture taken after my hair grew in, I would have had to pay $25 unless I waited four years, and I wasn't vain enough  for that.

Only one person asked me about my license in all that time, and that was a sales clerk who needed to see it when I opened up an account. "What kind of cancer did you have?" she asked.


Moving along, my next thing to worry about is the possibility of a strike at Iberia Airlines Dec. 14 and Dec. 17 through Dec. 21 to protest cutbacks at the struggling Spanish airline.

Guess when I'm flying?

Dec. 17.

I have called the airline and been told that if flights are canceled, they will book alternate flights either two days before or two days after. With Katie waiting at the other end and B&B reservations prepaid, two days after is a pretty bad option.

The person I spoke to today said they might have more information on Friday.

Joe pointed out that worrying won't help since there's nothing I can do about it.

I guess that when you're wired for worry, you need to be reminded of these things.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On the road

The discombobulated traveler (me) arrived safely in Pittsburgh yesterday after a plane ride of an hour and a half that took less time than the bus ride from the airport, which took so long I thought I was going to Ohio.

In this age of Nooks and Kindles, I might have been the only one lugging a 100-pound book (David McCullough's "The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris") in my already overflowing oversize purse. And I didn't see anyone else take their suitcase off the belt in security and drop it on their shoeless foot.

But seriously, everything really went fine, and I'm glad to be here visiting my friend Emily. You could see the airport experience as a trial run for the big trip I'm taking with Katie in a few weeks. I've gotten kind of slow (my brother-in-law correctly calls me "Pokey"), and it was a good exercise to keep up with the crowds.

I started the day with tennis, then made my traditional stop at Starbucks and headed down to Bradley Airport with plenty of time to spare, unlike my usual running around.

Whenever I go anyplace with Emily or go to visit her, she monitors my progress. "Are you awake?" "Are you on the way to the airport?" "Are you at the gate?"

Now why she would think I'd have trouble getting to the plane on time, I have no idea.

In any case, I did text her from the gate that I was sitting calmly. It's really much better than my usual mode of getting everyplace at the last minute, or the minute after.

Today her friend Davida joined us for a walk in the woods. I was happy to find two walking sticks which enabled me to stay relatively steady on the path and soak in the soothing quality of the water below. I walked about three miles,with intermittent help from Emily or Davida giving me a hand up or down a tricky spot.

Tonight we're going to see Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," with dinner before in a neighborhood restaurant. The restaurant is about two miles away, and since it's nice out, I think we're going to walk. Too bad I tossed the walking sticks. They probably don't grow on trees in the city.