A Mid-30s Birthday Wishlist

August 28, 2014

Birthday Wishlist: I Like Nice Things

There's something about hitting that halfway point on the journey through one's 30s, one step closer to 40, that makes one rethink the wants in life. Sure, I've always liked nice things, but creeping up towards 'middle aged' makes me think about having those coveted things that will last a lifetime: a leather skirt, a diamond necklace, a beautiful, classic handbag. With just over two weeks to go, here's hoping the birthday fairy is listening!

Nice Things poster | Me, in a nutshell.

Nike Flyknit Lunar2 | I love the knit pattern on this fresh sneaker style - and black is always a classic.

Black leather skirt | This is one of those pieces that I have always wanted, but never thought I could (a), afford or (b), pull off. After seeing Jessie of We The People in hers, I realized it can be more chic than bad-ass, and Mango makes it easy on the wallet.

Pave diamond bar necklace | I discovered this sparkler via lovely Austin blogger Kirsten awhile back and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. Definitely a wear-forever kind of piece.

Arquiste for J.Crew No.57 | Notes of aged whiskey and cinnamon? Why, those are the smells dreams are made of.

Monogrammed travel bag | I've always wanted a nice carry-on that makes me feel like a first-class traveller even back in economy. This one's expandable, French and can be monogrammed. Très, très chic!

Leather biker jacket | Granted, I have a leather jacket, but my recent foray into the fairest of hair territory has upped my confidence in making everything in my wardrobe blacker and a little tougher. I love the way this waterfall neckline softens the look.

An everyday bag | This Madewell beauty is called 'the berliner satchel'. I mean, it might as well have my name monogrammed on it.

Classic ankle boots | Flat black boots will never go out of style. This lovely pair has the makings of a go-to shoe, to be resoled over and over again and softened to butter-like perfection.

Black and gold watch | While this little beauty is already sold out, a little birdie told me that there's one with my name on it just waiting to be sent. (thanks, Mom)

Want to see more of the things I covet? Check out my Pinterest board.

Getting Started Living Gluten-Free: Kitchen & Diet Revamp

August 26, 2014

The silver lining to a celiac diagnosis: all new kitchen supplies!
A celiac's kitchen_ all new cookware and appliaces

After some big moping - and probably a bit too much retail therapy - following my celiac diagnosis, I realized it was time for the self-pity to stop and the repairing of my body to start. After all these years of feeling foggy, bloated and just off, I finally had an answer, and a clear path of how to make it all better. I just had to get on the gluten-free train and stay there. The more I poked around on the internet, the more amazing-looking recipes I found, even for some of my favorite baked goods like cupcakes and banana bread. I was shocked. I could still bake without wheat flour? Who knew that flour also came from rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, sorghum and coconut? I sure didn't. I knew then that all was not lost and was convinced after tasting a few winning recipes that I would not feel deprived by what I did get to eat. A whole new world of cooking opened up to me and I'm diving into it, head-first.

A celiac's kitchen_ new baking recipe orange creme cupcakes A celiac's kitchen_ cooling a gluten free banana bread

Before I could even think about cooking, which frankly, was the only way I was going to be able to eat, we had to completely gut our kitchen and pantry. Apparently gluten for celiacs is a bit like peanuts for those with peanut allergies - even a microscopic amount can have disastrous consequences. While gluten doesn't always have the instantaneous and obvious response of peanut allergy sufferers, it can leave one sick for days with stomach flu-like symptoms, not to mention backtrack intestinal recovery in a significant way. After this disease has already driven me to the point of hospitalization and weekly iron infusions, I was not going to take any chances.

With my husband on board with making our home a 100% gluten-free zone and eating gluten-free with me, we set to work. Every kitchen cabinet was opened, sorted and cleaned. The oven was sprayed with heavy-duty cleaner and meticulously scrubbed no less than four times. All wood, plastic, bakeware and essentially anything that could contain traces of gluten went in the 'must go' pile. We even had to take the wood top off my high work table, as it had seen many a flour-covered day of cookie dough rolling, tortilla pressing and baked good mixing. Sticky gluten makes the best of friends with porous wood.

A celiac's kitchen_ getting rid of everything contaminated with gluten

Letting go of my ample cake and muffin tin collection was easy compared to what was next: the pantry. Everything came out so that the pantry could be scrubbed down as well, but it was the review of every single item with a fine-tooth comb that was most exhausting. Here I thought deciphering processed food labels with their plethora of unpronounceable words was hard, doing it German felt like my head might explode. Anything that made the cut, we wiped down and put in a pile to go back in the pantry. Gluten-containing foods (I'm still mourning the loss of my beloved jars of speculoos...) went either in the trash or the giveaway pile. The questionable ones, of which there were many, went into a bag to be researched. Some of the offending foods were not all that surprising - corn chips and corn four that stated they 'can contain gluten', often from cross-contamination in the growing or processing stages - but there were some, like a jar of nutmeg, that contained a stabilizer that is on the verboten list and had to replaced with a purer form from the bio store.

We do a lot more shopping at the bio store now for the products filled with fewer additives and other gluten-offenders, meaning that unfortunately it is quite a bit more expensive to be a celiac. I like to think that our lack of eating out helps balance this out, but I'm not sure that's always the case. When I really think about it though, isn't this how we always should have been eating? Fewer cheap additives and more actual nutrition? The body is a temple, as they say, and why hadn't we been treating ours as such? Because it's cheaper? Easier? Probably a bit of both, but now my health was raging against the machine that is modern processed food, so I had no choice but to listen.

A celiac's kitchen_ online gluten free food order

I was able to take solace in the new ingredients I was discovering and the new recipes I was trying. Ordering harder-to-find flours and processed foods* - let's be honest, there is still a place for cereal, pasta and the occasional cracker in my life - felt a bit like a treat rather than a punishment. Food that I had neglected to dabble in, like polenta, were brought into my new kitchen with gratifying results.

I mean, does this look like I'm not enjoying what I eat?:

A celiac's kitchen_ new food fried polenta and eggs A celiac's kitchen_ new recipe spicy chicken lettuce wraps and coconut rice
A celiac's kitchen_ old recipe chinese food A celiac's kitchen_ old recipe yellow chicken curry

Even more satisfying was when I examined some of my go-to recipes and realized, hey, these are naturally gluten-free! Favorites like homemade Chinese food (made with new, GF soy sauce) and chicken curry could stay in our regular rotation. These little victories have helped make the transition to living gluten-free not only bearable, but delicious and free of feelings of deprivation. Now, when I pass the smells emanating from a bakery, that's another story...

For reference, here are a few resources I found helpful after being diagnosed and having to transition my diet and kitchen:

Gluten-Free Goddess: How To Go Gluten-free
Gluten-Free Girl: New to Gluten-Free?
Equipping Your Gluten-Free Kitchen - What to Replace
University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center Jump Start Your Gluten-Free Diet eBook

* A note on the alcohol-free, gluten-free beer pictured here: it contains barley malt. Alcohol companies claim that distilling grain alcohols rids it of gluten, but many celiacs have a reaction to any grain alcohols, distilled or not. I got sick from drinking this beer, so it taught me that only personal experience can determine what is actually safe for me to consume.

Berlin Parks | Sunset from Volkspark Humboldthain

August 22, 2014

Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain iron fence and sunset beyond One day a few months back, my husband grabbed my hand and said 'we're going for a ride', a knowing smile on his lips. He was rather secretive about where he was taking me, letting on only that he and Bailey has discovered it on a walk awhile back. All three of us loaded into the car (the four-legged among us still terrified of public transport) and headed a short ways away, before parking next to an overgrown, forest-like green space.

As we headed into the park, we could see the sun getting lower through the trees and he urged us to go faster. We crossed fields, climbed stairs and scaled small hillsides as quickly as we could until... we reached the top just in time. The city was laid out before us, bathed in the golden light of sunset, with the background turning the most glorious colors. The juxtaposition of the harsh, jutting iron fence of the former WWII flak tower and vibrant graffiti against the painterly, pastel sky was pure perfection. It was clear this place was a new discovery only to us, with affectionate couples and small groups of friends already set out along the fence, some even bringing sustenance to enjoy the entire length of nature's show.

Between the oohing and ahhing and ample picture-taking, we managed a few moments of out own, holding each other in the warm glow of the day's end and overlooking this great city of ours.

Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain bunker platform with graffiti and iron fence framing sunset
Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain sunset through the iron fence Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain sunset over the city graffiti
Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain plane flying into sunset over city Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain people and dog watching sunset
Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain top of jutting fence and sunset beyond Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain futuristic sculpture
Berlin Park Volkspark Humboldthain sunset through the trees

Volkspark Humboldthain
Between Wiesenstra├če and Brunnenstra├če
13357 Berlin (Wedding)
S1/S2/S25 Humboldthain

My health questions answered: A celiac disease diagnosis

August 20, 2014

Iron to be taken via infusion, the last resort for those who can't absorb it for themselves
iron for IV infusion

Oh 2014, you've really been kicking my ass. This was supposed to be one of the best years of my life: moving to one of the greatest cities in the world, exploring amazing restaurants and creating a new life in an exciting new place. But instead, almost every aspect of our move was disastrous, not to mention the construction crew continually trying to extort all this money we didn't owe (we rent, by the way). Then there was the whole tax mix-up where we were left to live on a fraction of what we were used to for months while it got sorted out. Then, there's been my health. While my overall well-being has felt rather lacking for a while, it was this year that it really kicked me to the curb. It put on gloves and smacked me straight in the kisser. Repeatedly.

Where I last left off, publicly-speaking, was that after my stint in the hospital a few months ago, my health seemed to be improving and I appeared to be getting stronger. Gastritis was the answer and I was on medication to help this condition. Only, it seems when I finally got confident that I was well down the road to recovery, I unexpectedly got booted back to start. Do not pass 'Go'. Do not collect $200. I just steadily started to decline again into fatigue, constant hunger and a strange haze in my brain that made it hard to think clearly. All this despite my medication and twice-a-day iron supplements. When I got scarily close to being sick and passing out immediately after having a burger, a beer and my favorite ice-cream-cookie sandwich (gluten, gluten, and hmm, more gluten), I knew something was still seriously wrong. After another trip for tests with my regular doctor and a last ditch HIV-test on her part to explain my puzzling declining health - which was, unsurprisingly, negative - I was sent to see yet another specialist. In the waiting room, I remained skeptical. I had already been looked over by no less than five doctors since this all began and each one ticked their boxes of questions to ask, always ending with the same quizzical look and a head shake. No idea. If one more doctor should ask if I like meat again, as if I was some secret burgeoning vegetarian, I might just scream.

But as soon as we sat down in his office and started going over my symptoms, I saw that he thought differently than other doctors. Instead of merely going down a checklist, asking all the same questions I had already been asked a dozen times before, he started linking all my symptoms together to offer an explanation: the persistent anemia, the elevated liver levels, the continued fatigue and stomach distress. He thought I had celiac disease. I sort of nodded in understanding, but really, all I knew was that it was some 'wheat allergy'. I was rather surprised since I never noticed any correlation between feeling bad and consuming gluten before, but listened when he went over the signs of celiac and how it pointed to this conclusion. So I had my blood drawn and went home to wait for an answer.

In the meantime, I did research. As I started pouring over celiac websites, my jaw dropped: my symptoms were right on for the disease. Everything from the more tangible headaches, bloating, unexplained liver problems and anemia to the less concrete inability to concentrate, depression and fatigue. I knew in my gut, pun intended, that this is what I had. I had thought this was merely an eat-bread-and-get-a-tummy-ache thing, but my relief at finally finding the answer to all my health problems quickly dissipated as the reality of it set in: this was serious. The Celiac Disease Foundation defines it as "an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine," but it goes deeper than that. That damage it does to the small intestine? Yeah, that means your body can't absorb nutrients, which essentially means that no matter how much nutritious food a celiac consumes, if gluten is still in the mix, those nutrients just pass right through, leaving your body - and your mind - deprived of the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs to function. If this deprivation continues unchecked, it can lead to things like osteoporosis, cancer and even MS. Scary stuff. Way scarier than the prospect of never eating another doughnut.

Since the tests had already been done*, I also spent the week cutting out the gluten to see how I felt without it. I read all these accounts from people who swore that they immediately felt better after making the change, but it seems I was to feel worse before I started to improve. The second full day without gluten, my body reacted in a most unfavourable way, beating me down with food-poisoning-like symptoms. Apparently, when gluten breaks down in one's damaged digestive system, the resulting peptides enter the bloodstream and bind with receptors in the brain that mimic opiates like heroin and morphine, so when you take that abruptly out of your system... well, a drug withdrawal-like experience can be what you get. At least when I got the test results confirming I did in fact have celiac, I was at least thankful I already had a head start in de-glutening my life.

Being the food-lover that I am and realizing the extent to which this would affect my life, this diagnosis came as quite a blow. All those burgers I chowed down on, the weekend brunch spots we had yet to discover, my beloved Krispy Kreme I planned to consume every time I would visit the US, I would have to say farewell to, for good. I admit, I cried over this a lot while waiting for the test results, then had myself a big sob session once the diagnosis was confirmed. Retail therapy as means of distraction has also played a big part. It seems silly, I know. It's just food. Food that was making me terribly, unknowingly sick. Perhaps it's a sentiment of the privileged, but food is a luxury of choice, not to mention a powerful tie to memories. There's a huge emotionality behind it. Thanksgiving at Grandma's, Mom's Christmas cookies, your favorite cake on your birthday. Hungry? Feel like fill-in-the-blank-here? It used to be I could go out and get it. Now, if I'm out and I get hungry, I'd better damn well hope I remembered to stash a gluten-free bar or piece of fruit in my bag or I'm S.O.L. Friends invite you over or out for dinner? That's where that purse stash comes in. Again. It's a complete and total game-changer for what was our usual way of life.

While my heart is still heavy with its recent adieu to gluten, I'm trying to stay thankful that this disease is totally manageable. My focus for now is being kind to my body. Not wanting to risk any possible cross-contamination, eating out is off the table, so to speak, for the time being. Alcohol, coffee and milk are also on hiatus in an attempt to be as gentle and non-irritating on my digestion as possible. You see, once the gluten has been cut out, the body still needs another one-two years to get back to normal. Normal takes time for such a damaged system. So while my gut slowly repairs itself, I am still desperately in need of nutrition and am being hooked up to an IV once a week for iron infusions, since like even the most nutritious food, my iron pills remain mostly unabsorbed. It's been a real test to my aversion to needles, the first session resulting in me passed out cold within the first two minutes of starting the infusion. Thankfully, the second week I managed to stay conscious, with the nurse continually popping her head in with a worried expression, undoubtedly anxious to find me slumped over in the chair. Two weeks down, three more to go. As a good friend said to me, I am facing my fears head on and expect to be a pro with needles by the end of this. Perhaps this warrants another tattoo to celebrate...

first iron IV infusion was tough outpatient iron IV infusions improving

So I am doing all I can to move forward. I'm reading (and translating) labels with a fine-tooth comb, researching, cooking three meals a day, searching for hard-to-find ingredients/GF products online. Needless to say, it's been exhausting on my already taxed system and I still have a bit of an uphill battle ahead. I still have much to learn and even more to understand about where gluten is still hiding in our home. I still have days where my mind seems unable to handle much more than zoning out to a television series and my body can't quite handle the trek to the grocery store. But I have good days too. Days when I realize one of my favorite meals to cook is naturally gluten-free or when I find a recipe for baked goods that has a plethora of comments about how it's just as good as 'the real thing'. I am so thankful for the online resources and community that have already been a lifesaver during this period of adjusting to living with celiac and all its required day-to-day changes.

My hope is that I can share some equally useful information that might help someone who has just been diagnosed feel not so alone, not to mention delicious recipes that are gluten-free - and restores a deep enjoyment of food without any inkling of deprivation. It is my new road, one that I know I will stumble on and perhaps take a wrong turn here and there, but one that I am committed to for the health and well-being of my body and mind. It will get better.

*Changing one's gluten intake before a celiac test can alter the results and provide a false negative. If you think you might have celiac disease, talk to your doctor about what you need to do to be tested.