Friday 23 June 2017

Don't Dream It's Over

Click on any text in bold colour to link to a website, Twitter account or a song

Don't Dream it's over. Sadly, it is. I'm starting this account of a wonderful weekend in Amsterdam on the day after I returned, and as always after any fun weekend, I am moping around on a Monday morning wishing it was Friday again. I had a fabulous weekend of friendship, inspiration and education at #DXAmsterdam, the third European diabetes bloggers' conference on June 16 - 18 2017.
The contents of my suitcase and backpack lie strewn all over the bedroom floor, and whilst the clothes are quickly sorted and put to the wash, every leaflet, wrapper and receipt that falls out of my backpack tells a story, a story of a weekend which once again matched, nay exceeded, the feverish excitement that it generated among those of us lucky enough to be there. 

The theme of the conference was dreams: following them, chasing them, living them, and to be honest, the whole weekend seems like a dream now. A nice dream that you don't want to wake up from. Don’t Dream it’s over is the song title I’ve chosen for this post: an enigmatic masterpiece by the wonderful Crowded House which is over 30 years old – how did that happen? But more importantly, did #DXAmsterdam really happen? I certainly wouldn’t have believed even five years ago, let alone 20 years ago when I was diagnosed with Type One diabetes, that this medical condition would lead me, shortly before my sixtieth birthday, to spend a weekend with a group of young friends from all over Europe who share my condition, having fun, bonding and learning. It was like a dream. 

But it did happen – and my phone holds the proof: It started with a tweet, or rather a veritable TwitterStorm: 

I had known that a third DX was likely to happen, and as a previous participant who had continued to blog and tweet, I felt that I was in with a chance of being invited. But as April came and went, and the anniversary of the two previous weekends approached, I thought maybe not this time. Fair enough. I'd had my turn with #DXStockholm in 2016. Then in mid-May, an email from Abbott landed in a number of inboxes, including mine, explaining that in view of the increased number of Libre-using countries, we were invited to apply for the seven places for UK bloggers, and that a draw would take place if too many applied.
Amidst much speculation over who and how many had received the invitation, I spoke with my good friends Lydia and Ellie, whom I knew had been invited, and we three agreed to reply immediately  and enthusiastically and hope for the best. The reply we received indicated that a draw would probably have to take place, and said we would hear back after that date. It was a Monday, 15 May

Monday came and went. No email. We'd agreed to share news if any one of the three of us heard, so we knew that either none of us had got lucky, or they hadn't drawn it yet.
We spent Tuesday in intermittent Twitter DM contact hoping to be put out of our misery soon. Then in the late afternoon, I was driving home with my phone in my back pocket, where it sits to make sure I’m not tempted to use it while driving. Suddenly I felt not just one, but a whole series of vibrations, that familiar sign that something is going on with your Twitter feed. I got home, took out my phone, to be greeted with this excited exchange on the DM group of me, Ellie and Lydia:- 

I nervously opened my emails, and there it was, the same email, just received. So the DM conversation continued:- 

I think it's apparent that we were just a tad excited....and I'm old enough to know better.

Five weeks later, I was at Leeds-Bradford Airport at 5am to meet up with my two friends and travelling companions. Airports at 5am are strange places where you quickly lose all sense of time. You're plunged into a fully up-and-running workaday world at an hour when you're normally still in bed. We made our way through security and were soon boarding the strikingly small Embraer aircraft which plies the Cityhopper route to Amsterdam.

It’s at that moment that the surreal and dream-like nature of the experience takes hold. Your other life fades into the background, and boarding a plane takes on the feeling of entering some kind of surreal parallel existence. What series of events and decisions in our otherwise unrelated lives had brought us three to those aircraft steps? And all over Europe, others were doing the same.

Three travellers with nothing in common except duff beta cells

A smooth 55 minute flight later (although Ellie will take some convincing that any flight is smooth or easy, and was very glad to have the company of her diabuddies on the plane) and we landed at Schiphol, a bewilderingly large hub compared to the provincial airport we'd flown from. From there, a fast train to Amsterdam Central and we were soon stepping out into the city of bikes, bridges and boats. 

The fabulous Hoxton Hotel

made our way to the wonderful Hoxton Hotel, away from the tourist throng and checked in, relieving ourselves of our suitcases, then set out to make the most of our bonus morning in Amsterdam. It's one of those places that just delivers: canals, humpback bridges, narrow houses with pointy roofs, bikes ridden by people of all ages, shapes and sizes and the unmistakable aroma of wacky baccy. We strolled the streets, taking in the assault on the senses that is Amsterdam. But like Bill Clinton, we didn't inhale. 

Ellie and I showed our true colours as crazy cat people, leading to this memorable scene: These two pictures were taken at the same time. Look at Lydia's horrified face in the right hand picture if you want a picture of embarrassment personified. "I am not with these two, honestly!" The cat, being a cat, was totally unmoved.

Feeling fully in tune with the spirit of Amsterdam having seen some - ahem - interesting sights, we returned to our hotel and its quirkily luxurious rooms, before making our way down to the lobby to meet up with our diabetic friends old and new.

Before we'd had a chance to say more than a quick hello, we were bundled into a fleet of taxis in small groups to be taken to the starting point for a bike tour of the city. It felt like being in a gangster movie, as a rather large and very grumpy taxi driver sped across the city to the bike hire place. He clearly thought that nobody else had a right to be on the streets, honking his horn, gesturing furiously and making grunting noises (that may have been Dutch words) every time the taxi's speed dropped below breakneck. On reaching a traffic queue, he simply used the pavement as an extra lane, and at one point used several hundred metres of (fortunately empty) tram track to get ahead of a long line of queueing traffic before pushing in front of the first car in the queue.

With my whole life having flashed before me, he suddenly screeched to a halt, grunted, pointed at a shop front and flung open the doors. Ellie, Lydia, and a Spanish lady we’d never met tumbled out onto the pavement and fell to our knees in prayer for having been spared (ok, that last bit is a lie). 

We'd survived a plane journey and a taxi ride with a maniac. So in a third and final attempt to kill us, we were now taken on a long tour of the city on a fleet of bicycles. The shop owner half-heartedly offered us helmets, whilst making it clear that to accept the offer amounted to a personal affront,  and we set off on a tour which was, in fact, great. 

Preparing to cruise the mean streets of Amsterdam with Simon

Guided by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable leader named Simon, we zoomed along cycle paths, side streets, parks and even busy main streets, apparently having right of way every time except when we didn't. At one point an angry middle-aged Dutchwoman swept past on her bike with a volley of abuse about the dangers posed by tourists on bikes, and a few cars, vans and trams tried to wipe us out, but by and large we were fine. 

We reached the end of the afternoon intact, were presented with a card celebrating our survival and enjoyed a leisurely walk back to the hotel. Was the taxi ride and bike tour just a dream?

Showered, changed and rested, we gathered for the welcome and a talk by Matthjis, a Dutch blogger who runs a support group for young adults with diabetes in his country. His calm, measured manner was challenged by an angry Greek woman determined to hijack the agenda but the majority prevailed and he was able to deliver his address. We were then served a buffet meal which was rather light and somewhat lacking in carbohydrates, so four of us sneaked away for a McDonalds. Not before we'd captured the obligatory bridge selfie: Suitably fed and watered, we all retired to bed. 

Saturday was spent in conference at the Cristofori Concert Hall, in a room full of inspirational messages lit by a spider made of angle-poise lamps:

Angle poise spider
We were inspired by the utterly awesome para-athlete Claire Lomas, baffled by a team of life coaches who gave us all a pair of plastic ducklings, puzzled by a strangely distant Type 1 astronaut, charmed by a professional photographer who shared tips on capturing Amsterdam on film on an idyllic canalside stroll and intrigued by the latest data on #FreeStyle Libre from Abbott's team of boffins. A varied, enjoyable day's programme with plenty of time for interaction with our fellow bloggers.

A photography lesson
Another stroll in the sun, a couple of hours' chill-out in our rooms, then a well scrubbed-up party made for the lively Van Puffelen restaurant for a delicious meal and much conversation. I spent the time trying to assure new friends from across Europe that the UK had not suffered a complete collective loss of sense in successive elections and a referendum. I failed to convince myself, let alone them. 

We strolled back through the streets, relaxed and inviting on an increasingly balmy summer evening, pausing for the ultimate #DiabetesWithoutFrontiers selfie: 

An Englishman, two Russians and a Turk

I then enjoyed a sustained and enlightening conversation with Saidat, a native of Dagastan in Southern Russia, born under Soviet rule and now living in Frankfurt and working for Abbott. Another moment that had me thinking: is this a dream, and if not, how did I come to be here? I was sitting on the terrace of a canalside bar in Amsterdam at midnight, hearing first-hand stories of glasnost and perestroika from one who had experienced it. And all because I chose to start talking about diabetes online about four years ago. 

Sunday started with a much-anticipated Brit-breakfast, with the seven UK bloggers in secretive conclave with Neil Harris and Ollie Mitchell from Abbott UK for an update on the long and protracted process of achieving NHS listed status for FreeStyle Libre sensors, thereby removing the £100 monthly charge. Their candid and thorough insight proved most useful and reassuring, and the full English breakfast was impeccable in every detail. 

The British delegates

We were then bussed to a hotel and conference centre out in the Southern suburbs, where we were to take a guest slot in sessions of a Quantified Self conference: a strange but in many ways simple concept which could translate as “living by numbers”. After a very West-Coast icebreaker session led by a guy who looked like Gareth Southgate and spoke like Timothy Leary, we adjourned to workshop sessions on sleep, exercise and food and their effects on metabolism. At our session on sleep, it quickly became apparent to those leading the session that people with Type One who like us are engaged in their condition are experts in the mysterious workings of their bodies, and the conference experts were pleasingly keen to learn from us.

Quantitative Self boffins
And that was it. Time for warm embraces and sad farewells as we all realised that it was time to wake up from our dream and return to the real world. Even Maria the Greek had mellowed by now and embraced me warmly.

Me and Maria

We took a coach back to Schiphol, and the rest of the day then ran like a protracted So Long, Farewell from the Sound of Music, as one by one, people took their leave to board a different flight. In the end, there was just me, Ellie, Lydia and Dave Sowerby boarding the flight to Bradford.

So Long, Farewell at Schiphol
Another quick and uneventful flight (although Schiphol is so vast that it seemed as if we had taxied half the way home before the plane took off) and we were back on home soil. Farewells to Dave, then to Ellie and Lydia as their taxi arrived, left me, alone like little Gretl at the end of So Long, Farewell, facing a long lonely drive home. The sun was going to bed, and so must I. 

Don't Dream it's Over: but it is. A fabulous weekend in the ultimate diabubble, leaving all of us wanting more. DX2018? I Can dream, Can't I?

Disclaimer: I was invited to apply for DX Amsterdam, and selected by a random draw, by Abbott Healthcare, who paid for all travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses for me and other delegates. Opinions on the FreeStyle Libre Flash Glucose Monitoring System expressed by me are my own and not those of Abbott Healthcare.


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