Category Archives: Thoughts

Some of my thoughts, ideas and other text based entries

An Emotional Return to Bremen

Today would have been my father’s 87th birthday, sadly he passed away in January this year. Last weekend my sister and I returned to Bremen to lay him to rest and to revisit some of the places of our childhood and youth (we have both long since moved away, my sister to Heidelberg in the south of Germany, me to the UK). Our father had lived in Bremen for almost his whole life, only moving to Heidelberg to be near his daughter when his wife (our mother) passed away in 2008.

As there are no direct flights from Heathrow to Bremen any more I flew to Frankfurt on Wednesday evening and stayed at an airport hotel. Their noise insulation was very impressive, I didn’t hear a thing of the motorway and the planes landing right outside my window. On Thursday morning my sister picked me up for the long drive to Bremen. The Autobahn was very busy and slowed us down significantly, meaning we didn’t arrive in Bremen until late in the afternoon. At least we crossed the river Weser in some brilliant sunshine. When stopping to buy some fruit on the way we also stopped at Jan Reiners, an old narrow gauge train locomotive. Until 1954 it had pulled a train along the Jan-Reiners-Damm, which passed right outside the plot where our father’s house was built in the early 1960s (the train track and dam was converted to a walking and cycling path). After checking in at the Park Hotel we had a quick look around the hotel and went for a short sunset walk in the Bürgerpark. In the evening we went for a nice meal with a cousin of our father and her husband at the Meierei, talking about our father and more.

Friday started with a run in the Bürgerpark for me, before we drove over to the Hachez outlet shopping store. Hachez was the favourite chocolate of our father, so I think it was quite fitting that I left with 1.3kg of chocolate, I think my sister was in a similar range. We continued into Bremen town centre, direction Marktplatz. We took pictures of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten, the Bremer Roland, the Rathaus and the Dom as well as the Schuetting, before meeting up with one of our aunts (a sister of our mother). The Sun even came out for some of the pictures and for a while we could sit outside at the Raths Apotheke.

By lunchtime it was time to drive over to the cemetery, the Riensberger Friedhof. The five of us met up with the urn carrier at the gate of the cemetery. He took us into the waiting room, among other things some minor administrative steps had to be completed. My sister and I had decided against a formal ceremony, we opted for only the burial with the urn being carried to the grave by the urn carrier. After a few minutes reflection we started the slow walk to our father’s final resting place. Unfortunately (or may be fittingly) the weather had turned by now, it was cold with occasional rain as well as a fierce biting cold wind. Once we arrived the urn was placed in the prepared hole, we had a few more minutes for quiet reflection, leaving flowers and saying our final good byes. Finally the urn carrier filled the hole and put a pot of flowers our father’s cousin had brought on top. As the grave was new our fathers name wasn’t on a stone just yet, but it was listed on a board. We then visited the grave of an aunt and finally the grave of our mother, who was laid to rest here back in 2008. As her plot was full by now it wasn’t possible to bury our father in the same plot. His plot and his stone will look the same as our mother’s though once his plot fills up. I quite like this style and we both feel it’s right for our parents (for myself I have a different idea, but that’s not for this entry).

As we all started to feel the cold by now we decided to move on and drove over to the Bürgerpark for tea and cake at the Kaffeehaus am Emmasee. We spent an hour or so talking about the funeral and our parent’s life and memory. A nice end to the occasion. Later in the evening my sister and I went for a meal at the Gasthof zum Kaiser Friedrich in the Schnoor area with our aunt. From here we also called another aunt (our mother’s second sister) who unfortunately couldn’t be with us in person.

After such a long and exhausting day I had looked forward to a good night’s sleep, although that wasn’t meant to be: That night a cold I believe I had picked up at home in England (when I returned to work I found a colleague had exactly the same symptoms at the same time as me) hit me quite strongly. I hardly slept that night and felt quite bad the next morning. I was so tired I almost fell asleep at the table during breakfast. After a lunchtime nap I felt slightly better and we drove out to Kuhsiel, a popular weekend destination during our childhood and youth. We went on a short walk along the Blockfeld dam protecting the land from the Wümme River. As the restaurant/café at Kuhsiel was closed for refurbishment we enjoyed a hot chocolate and cakes at the Dielencafé . During the walk we also by pure chance bumped into one of the best friends of our late mother, giving us the unexpected opportunity to catch up with her. In the evening we went to Bremen’s oldest Chinese restaurant before an early night.

Sunday morning I felt a bit better and after a last walk in the Bürgerpark I felt fit enough for the long journey back. My sister drove me back to Frankfurt (with an unexpected detour to the outskirts of Oldenburg, where I had gone to university) from where I flew back to the UK.

A few pictures:

(Click on the pictures for the larger version)

Step 1 of another journey complete

When I applied for a job 22.5 years ago after graduating from the Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg in Germany I don’t think I would have imagined in my wildest dreams something I’m doing now. And with that I’m not talking about recovering from heart valve surgery. Said job turned out to be in Swindon in England while I had been born in Germany and had lived most of the next 26 years in Germany (apart from almost a year in the US for an internship).

In early 1995 I boarded a ferry to Harwich to start what at that point I probably thought was going to be just an episode in my life. I don’t know for sure but I think most if not all of the other foreign hires hired at the same time have long since returned to their countries of origin. But 22 years later I’m still here (with one short interruption 1998-2000 where my then employer sent me to Munich in Bavaria. Which as a northerner born in Bremen is a foreign country as far as I’m concerned). I’ve changed employer and I’ve moved home from Swindon to Aldermaston Wharf, but otherwise I’m still here.

Having been in the UK for so long I had started to think about it a few years ago: Naturalisation. Applying for citizenship. I feel the UK is my home now. Germany feels more and more like a foreign country (especially as I only go back to Germany a few days every year, if that. There have been years where I didn’t go at all). I find myself defending my chosen home against unjustified (and sometimes even justified) criticism. I find it more natural to speak, write, think and dream in English than in German. But apart from reading up on it a bit on the internet I hadn’t done a lot about it just yet, it was just on the radar. Then the Brexit vote came along.

The Brexit vote changed a lot. For a number of people I know it means they don’t feel welcome here any more. Some are making plans to move back to their country of origin (or elsewhere), others I think have even already done so. For me the plans I’ve had in the back of my mind have become more urgent. I’ve decided to stay and sit it out, make the best of it. I might regret it if the UK really goes down the drain as is entirely possible. I’m strongly against Brexit (as are millions of others, which is often forgotten) and think it’s one of the dumbest ideas ever. But I don’t feel it’s right to run away from the place which has become my home, with all its faults. I don’t feel it’s right to run away from all my friends which have given me enormous support and mean a lot to me. So I’ve decided to push ahead with naturalisation.

Picture of a UK residence documentation card
My Permanent Residence Card

The first step of that was to apply for a Permanent Residence Card. After a few weeks of gathering all the required evidence that I had legally and lawfully lived in the UK while exercising EU treaty rights (or something along those lines) I sent off my application in very early October, just before I left for the hospital for my operation. Then the nervous big wait began. I had read that processing an application could take up to six months (especially since the Brexit vote as the Home Office has been inundated with applications) and that in some cases applications were rejected for formalities. Today the both dreaded and anxiously awaited large A4 envelope (because of all the documentation to be returned) was sitting in my letterbox when I arrived home. When I ripped it open as soon as I was up in my flat one of the first things I saw was what you see in the picture. Relief, everything was fine. Step 1 of the journey is complete, I’ve obtained my Permanent Residence Card.

Now on to the next steps. I’ve got to pass a language test (I’m fairly confident about that, I know the differences between their/they’re/there, you’re/your,  it’s/its and should have/should of) and I’ve got to pass the Life in the UK test (which apparently teaches you such important things like when and where the first curry house was opened, but not which telephone number to dial in an emergency. But then I know the latter anyway). So the next few weeks, may be even months, will be spent studying this:

New Year’s Resolution: Improved Sleep

It’s not really a New Year’s resolution, but it sounded a bit better in the title. One of the things I thought a lot about during the first months of my recovery from heart valve surgery has been my sleep. I think it’s something I have to admit I’ve neglected over the last years if not decades. In the back of my mind I decided it’s something I wanted to do something about, although I didn’t form any firm plans what it was.

Browsing in a bookstore during a trip to Reading just before Christmas I came across a little book I decided to pick up and see if it can help me forming a plan how to improve my sleep:

‘Elite sports sleep coach’ sounds a bit strange and bombastic, but then the author has indeed good credentials, having worked with the major football teams, the Sky cycling team and more. So I thought I’ll give it a go. I haven’t finished the book just yet, but what I’ve read so far largely makes sense to me.

Since just before Christmas I’m now getting up at a regular time (6:00 for me, very early, but I need the early start for various reasons) regardless of the day. Yes, even over Christmas and New Year I got up at that time. So far that’s working quite well. I’m trying to think/plan my night sleep in 90 minute cycles instead of thinking the old outdated 8 hours (which I never managed anyway) and also aim to have daytime naps in either 25 minute power naps or 90 minute full cycle naps. That part isn’t fully working yet, my body still needs to properly adapt to it. I’m trying to slow down and significantly reduce screen exposure the last hour before going to bed. I’m having mixed success with this, I’m now usually shutting down my laptop an hour before bed, but I’m still looking too much at my tablet/phone at the last minute, so far I haven’t fully build up the resilience not needing to look. Combined with general recovery/fitness plans I’m going for a 15-20 minute bedtime walk regardless of the weather, that’s working really well. I’m also doing other closure/preparation tasks like washing up, preparing my clothes for the next day and the like in that hour, that’s working fairly well.

There are many more areas needing work and I need to make sure I transfer what I’ve started into fully consistent habits, but then this is a journey, not something you just switch on. I’m hoping improving my sleep will help me in both the ongoing recovery as well as maintaining my health later on. After all sleep is when our bodies rest and repair themselves.

Recovering from major heart surgery, the difficult second month

Logic dictates that on the first month of recovering from major heart surgery the second month swiftly follows. I’ll try to write up a few more thoughts about my experiences, challenges, successes and more during the difficult second month of the recovery.

Slowdown of progress, or at least a perception of slowdown. This is why I call it the difficult second month. A lot of it is probably perception and expectations, but at least to me it felt as if the recovery slowed down in the second month, causing a certain amount of frustration. I had to remind myself frequently that I was only 5, 6 or 7 weeks after the operation, so still not a long time. One example was the walking, over the first few weeks it felt like I could increase the distances fairly quickly, from a mile to mile and a half and then to two miles. This probably raised my hopes how quickly I would be fit again and may be even able to start with some very slight jogging. But then I kind of hit a plateau. I still felt I made some progress (e.g. around walking speed), but it was significantly slower. I didn’t feel I could significantly increase the distances (despite doing the odd three mile walk, I don’t feel ready yet for a four or five mile walk in one go) and walking up inclines was still very tough and despite including it in my ‘training’ progress felt very slow. Accepting that things will take time (even though I knew it all along) was difficult at this time.

Mood swings. Same as in the first month they were still around, in particular related to the slowdown of progress. Again I tried to as much as possible see the positive and when I had a down phase remind myself how far I had come and that better days/times were just around the corner. That didn’t always work, but it was the only way I could think of dealing with it.

Weight control. An interesting area, as I wasn’t always sure how to handle this. While not massive I did gain some weight since returning home, what I wasn’t (and am still not entirely sure about) is the question/concern how much (if any) of it is related to water retention and how much is genuine weight gain. I tracked my weight daily (may be not the best idea?) and while I noticed daily fluctuations I also noticed a general upward trend. I also felt that my waist did grow, but again that’s difficult to track. I certainly felt that I ate more (and also ate more sugar, e.g. biscuits), partially due to the tiredness (when you’re tired you get hungry), partially for convenience/enjoyment (a few nice biscuits while relaxing after coming back from a walk, or as a reward for completing something). Either way, it’s something I feel I need to watch and since late November I’m trying to cut down my sugar intake. I can see first signs that the gain is halted, it looks like it’s even starting to go down again.

Painkiller reduction. Pain management is a key component of the recovery, if you’re in pain the recovery will be much slower. This generally worked fairly well for me. While I was in hospital I was on the maximum of 8 Paracetamol per day (2 each in the morning, lunchtime, afternoon and night). When I returned home I cut this to 6 per day by reducing the lunchtime and afternoon rations to 1 each. This seemed to work quite well, so I decided to stick with it for a while. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it as I’m concerned about the long time impact of prolonged painkiller usage, but decided to stick with it until mid November, four weeks after leaving hospital. Then it was time to try a staged reduction with weekly changes and a goal to as much as possible get off them by early to mid December. I did this by gradually reducing doses mainly in the morning and during the day (including taking half doses, you can break the Paracetamol pills in half, they’re already prepared for that) while for the time being keeping the night dose to help with sleeping. By late November I had cut out the daytime doses and only took one in the morning and two and night. This generally went OK, I was never in real pain although I did notice that my chest was still sensitive in various (often changing) places. There were the odd very short term pains, but they went within a few minutes or even seconds. My goal is still to be off them by mid December.

Sleeping problems. I’m not sure how and why they developed, but about halfway through the second month I developed some sleeping problems. While I was tired I just couldn’t fall asleep. I also felt at times my body was tightening up for some reason, making me struggle to stay in bed, it was more comfortable to get up and walk around or sit on a chair. Quite often I was awake until two or three in the morning, then later in the morning hitting the snooze button when I originally had planned to get up at 7:30 or so in the morning. Not what I was looking for. I’m slowly feeling like I’m getting this under control again now, although I still have episodes.

Temperature struggles. After the mild autumn and winter 2015/2016 I was hoping for a repeat, but that didn’t happen, at least not for the period of my recovery. While the first few weeks in October  were still quite mild the end of October and certainly most of November turned out fairly cold, especially compared to last year. November was below the long term average, as was at least the start of December. This did cause me a few problems as I seemed to be more sensitive to the cold weather. I had to turn up the heating in my flat more than I would usually do, yet I still noticed the cold at times, in particular when there was a cold wind which for some reason I still seemed to notice. Having no permanent heating in my north facing bath room and heating up the top half (while the bottom remained at fridge temperatures) with an underpowered fan heater taking half an hour didn’t help either. More importantly the cold weather didn’t help during my walks, as I had to cope with the cold air. In some of the literature they recommend to walk indoors (e.g. in a mall) during cold weather, but that wasn’t really an option living where I live. So I just had to cope with it. I certainly did notice the cold air making it more difficult to breathe at times.

Regaining confidence. This I found an interesting and challenging balance to strike. Especially during the first 6 weeks you are physically unable to do certain things, you are in some cases also advised not to do them (e.g. twisting your upper body, lifting above a certain weight, directly showering your chest). As your recovery progresses you can slowly start or increase some of these activities again, however, this is where I found striking the right balance in increasing activity and having the confidence to do it in the first place can be tricky. While I was sure the scar on my chest had healed sufficiently I found it quite challenging to start showering ‘normally’ again instead of trying to only let the water run over my shoulders on to the chest. The confidence to just point the shower at my chest just wasn’t there. Similarly with lifting where I know I need to gradually build this up, I often worry I might do too much too early and cause damage, which in turn is probably stopping me doing some things I could actually do. Building up my general confidence I found my first trip into Reading for a haircut, lunch and some light shopping quite helpful, while I was quite tired afterwards it showed me I was able to do it, which helped to build confidence.

Rebuilding routines, getting rid of ‘bad habits’. During the first weeks of my recovery I was struggling with concentration, which led me to stop editing and posting daily pictures on my photoblog, I also wasn’t reading as much as I had hoped before the operation. Instead there was a lot of slacking and aimlessly surfing the internet, it was just easier to do. As I was able to concentrate more I started to set myself goals (e.g. edit and post at least three pictures this week) which I found quite helpful, by now I’m back to posting pictures daily. I’m still struggling to an extent with some of the slacking, it’s just so easy to do and a bad habit can be difficult to get rid of. For the time being I’m relying on willpower to overcome this, it’s not fully working just yet but I’ll get there.

Those are some of the key points from the second month, the third month is obviously just about to start now. Assuming everything goes to plan I’m aiming to start a phased return to work in a week’s time. That and whatever else I experience in the third month will be the topic for another entry.

A frosty November Rose

Time to revisit my November Rose, as it presented a new photo opportunity this morning. The last few days have been very cold and sunny, yesterday morning I used the opportunity for my longest walk yet: Over three miles in beautiful sunshine walking back from my GP appointment/review (taxi is ridiculously expensive as mentioned earlier). While I must admit some of the inclines were rather tough the flat parts and certainly the downhill sections were beautiful (especially as they were south facing in the sunshine). Quite motivating after some not so good days before (more about that some other time). When I arrived home at lunchtime the Rose was bathed in beautiful winter sunshine, so I took a few pictures. However, they didn’t turn out too different to the ones I already had, so I didn’t do anything with them. Good thing I didn’t, as this morning after a very cold night for here (-6°C, we don’t get that often in West Berkshire) ice crystals had settled on the Rose, giving me some nice views:

(click on the pictures for larger versions, including a bonus picture of a view over the canal)