Adventure – Ancestry. Trace family roots to their most interesting story, then go there.

Have you ever wondered just exactly what you’re made of? Most of us assume we’re a mix of some kind. Some associate themselves solely by their religion, place of birth or known/preferred ethnicity, but we are far more than that underneath it all.

Whenever faced with the stress of social events out of my comfort zone (public speaking, getting in front of a camera, fancy dress) I use the mantra, “We’re all just piles of DNA” to help put my anxiety in check.  Well, maybe piles isn’t the best description, but we are definitely a fascinating mix.

I love a good story and what could be a better story than how each of us came to be?  Over the past few years I’ve been doing searches here and there at the ancestry websites and working with a cousin is really knows what’s she’s doing (thanks Laine :-). She’s on my mother’s side of the tree, so that part is really clear, but my father’s isn’t as much. Even though they were both born with the Surname of Gilmore, who’s mothers were of French descent, we knew there was more to the story than that.  Whenever I strayed too far from the norm of our white-bread, Catholic upbringing, my mother would say, “You take after the Bohemian.” The known parts were also often referred to. When I would fall into a trance whenever bagpipes were playing she’d say “That’d be the Scotch-Irish in us.” And, whenever I fell in love with something we couldn’t afford she’d say “You have champagne taste on a beer budget,” referring to our French heritage and Irish-Catholic upbringing.

When I saw the results of my recent DNA test, I thought back to how much she enjoyed making tea and had quite a collection of fancy tea cups and pots. She was also a fan of British television series like Alistair Cooke and Upstairs/Downstairs. “Was this an inherent trait of a Brit?” I wondered, half knowing the silliness of the thought.

So, Anglo Saxon isn’t a surprise. I’m blonde and rather pale skinned with Hazel eyes, but Iberian Peninsula was a surprise as well as North Africa and Middle East.  Is this why I’m drawn to these regions? I recently visited Portugal/Spain for the first time and felt an odd sense of belonging. Very much so for Italy. Of course these are the least strongest lines, but sometimes we are more drawn to the whisper than the roar…

So, now I’ve got a wider map to peruse through for my adventure, “Trace the family tree to it’s most interesting story, then go there.”

The test? I went with’s DNA test because it was cheaper and I already have a tree I’m building there (and yes, I was half afraid they’d come back and tell me there was an anomaly, as in something unfamiliar they couldn’t trace – cue X Files theme), but there are several testing sites to choose from. Here’s an article I found that helped spell out the differences in DNA test choices. There are even options now for test medical background, a great tool for those who are adopted or have an unknown parent. Isn’t science amazing~

If you’re interested in finding out more about what makes up the sum of you genetically speaking, I highly recommend taking one of these tests. I takes a few weeks to get results, but I found it was worth the wait (and rate).

Ok, back to planning…

A Cowboy, 2 Angels and a Fortune Cookie

Pops MugBack home, at my desk with a (very big) coffee mug that belonged to my Pop and a fortune cookie one of my best friends left for me to find when I arrived home last night. A writer’s inspiration.

Over the past couple of weeks I let the series’ blazing campaign trail grow a bit cold and for reasoning I wasn’t completely aware of until now. There is always a point when you’re going after something new; a job, career, skill, language, big holiday, whatever,  where you start to question the wisdom of your decision, your ability to succeed and whether those you hoped would be are really on board or just being polite, so don’t push it.  There are also external “signs” that make you wonder yourself if you should put down the baton, shuddup and sit quietly in the corner.

Why do we do this to ourselves and how do we stop doing these things that stunt us, hold us back?  Good question and I’m working on the answer, but this I’m sure of, I must break through this barrier myself if I expect any of you to follow along with me on 12 adventures. More so, to take the leap yourselves into your own bucket list of 12 adventures.

I had a pivotal conversation with one of my brothers about this while I was home, in Seattle.  What I got from it (besides learning I do NOT like the smell of single malt scotch) is that we humans are highly receptive creatures.  If enough people transmit the message they don’t believe we can, should or worse, are silent in response to our search for affirmation, we will be inclined to step back or stay in a holding pattern until the momentum dissipates and the opportunity passes.  Sad.  Our lives here are so brief.  Too brief not to make the most of them.  I made case in points of people with less ability who are doing what they want.  I myself am a case in point to a certain degree.  I may have yet to be wildly successful in my endeavors, but I am a scrapper and I do somehow by hook or by crook, finish what I set out to do.

Which brings us to the question, “Who’s holding us back?” The first thought might be, “All those people around us who tell us we can’t or shouldn’t.”  Maybe. Humor me for a sec and Thomas-Edison---Giving-upgo look at a light bulb. Pass by a lamp and peer in or pick one up from the cupboard so it’s fresh in your mind. Got it? Right then, listen up. When he was a child, teachers told Edison he was “too stupid to learn anything” (seriously, who the fk says that to a kid??). He was fired from his first couple jobs for not being productive enough and he made over 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. Now, look around you. They’re everywhere. They brighten our nights, light up our Christmas trees and the roads guiding us safely to our destinations.  If Thomas Edison had listened to those voices outside of his head, how very dark and dreary our lives might be… Every time you see a light bulb think Thomas Edison and ask yourself which voice he listened to? Unless someone can prove you would cause irreparable damage to yourself or others by following your dream then full steam ahead I say~

Gina Wilbanks Swanson

Sometimes what holds us back feels completely beyond our control. It can be hard to celebrate and take greater chances in life when those you love or admire stop living. My father’s passing earlier this fall left a gaping hole to be sure.  He was my biggest fan and quick to encourage my far fetched ideas. For the past few years, being a Stage IV cancer fighter has been the fuel I use to drive home the message, “life is short, so go for the life you want now,” but it’s hard to say that when other Stage IV fighters, ones I know, don’t survive.  It’s heartbreaking. It fcks with your head and brings a twinge of shame for not only surviving, but boldly marching on, when what it should do is spur you on to push yourself even further, reach even higher.  Gina Wilbanks Swanson and Sandra Sundari Greer are the names of these two, new angels.  Gina, I knew from high school and Sandra, from my theatre days in my 20’s. Both bright souls, deserving of long and illustrious lives. Both died recently from the effects of Stage IV cancer.

When someone we care about passes away, how do we honor their memory?  Do we sit quietly or do we make bold gestures?  Everyone is different, but for me, I want to pick up their batons and take them with me to places unknown, on a big adventure maybe we all three dreamed of.  And this is a small gesture I know, but their names will go next to my beloved Mom and Pop’s, in the dedication credits of the premier episode of 12 Adventures.  That is my way of honoring their bright and inspirational spirits.

Sandra Sundari Greer
Sandra Sundari Greer

To those who knew them and are asking yourselves the same question, first I’d say to check in on their family and offer your support.  Whether it’s cash or a casserole, a whole lot of people offering what little they can makes a mountain of difference to the ones receiving. The other, brilliant way you can pay tribute (and I’m sure Gina and Sandra would agree) is don’t just hate cancer, fight back.  Fight back by never allowing it to ever get past the initial (highly treatable) Stage 1, by getting screened now (as in today, pick up the phone, make the appointment and then show up for it).  If they say it’ll cost you $300 (or more) out of pocket, say “No problem.” You have friends whose cancer treatment “out of pocket” costs are well over $30,000 and you can think of a hellova lot better things to spend 30k on. If your doctor asks if there is a history of cancer in your family say, “Yes” because even if you don’t have actual proof of it, the chances are 1 in 2 (if not greater) there is history of cancer in your family and it doesn’t matter what kind (did you know there are over 100 types?).  My mom had endometrial cancer, one cousin had breast cancer, another pancreatic and mine was colon. Often, back in the old days, no one really talked about cancer. I only found out after four years into treatment (and a bit of ancestral digging – thanks cousin Laine, xo) that my grandfather on my mother’s side died of colon cancer (Ahaaaa).

Now we know, knowledge and preventive measures are the best defense.  Speaking of knowledge, did you know that colon cancer is 100% preventable?  It starts as a little polyp in your colon and slowly grows (taking up to ten years) before spreading to other areas of the body.  So, if I had been screened by the age of 35 (the recommended 10 years before anyone in your family was diagnosed), I wouldn’t have had to go through five years of nearly 50 chemo/radiation sessions or these now life affirming PET scans every 90 days.  I think about how much more life affirming it would be if I could convince everyone (ok, in the world would be a bit much to expect, so let’s say) who is friends with Sandra, Gina and myself on Facebook to take action and get screened right now and then every year. That’s at least 1,200 lives wouldn’t be lost to cancer. I think I would like that on my gravestone (when I die from too much good living), “She convinced over 1,200 people to not risk death by cancer.”

How do I know this will happen, that I’ll convince that many people and more to get screened? How do I know my big idea for the 12 Adventures series will come to fruition?  Simple.  Because the fortune cookie (I kid you not) just told me so 😉

12 adventures web series

The Northern Lights of Tromso

12 adventures - NorwayFirst, a hearty meal at a restaurant down the road before we head off to parts unknown for a few hours.  We were to meet in the lobby of he hotel by 19:00.  Military or 24 hour time is standard here and helps to make sense when the skies here can become dark for most of the day/night.

Reindeer meat is on the menu and Mer seems keen to try it. I’m opposed and here’s how that went, Me: “No way…that’s like eating Bambi.”  You’re okay with eating Bambi? Mer: “It is not like eating Bambi.  More like Rudolf.  I’m ok with eating Rudolf.” I’m too squeamish for that or any of the other delicacies served in these parts, but catch of the day (Arctic Cod) is always a good thing and it was amazing.

If you travel to the northlands you’ll hear warnings like “It’s expensive” and “It’s very expensive.”  After booking our non refundable flights I heard it so many times I got a bit rattled.  Would we be reduced to stealing bread off the breakfast bar to tide us over til the next days’ breakfast??  Dinner last night was two full entrées with bread and potatoes on the side and a full carafe of the house wine for just under $100 (with tip) and honestly, one entree would have been enough for two, so it’s all in how you see, spend and taste it.

12 Adventures NorwayBesides that, most hotels include breakfast and ours (as you can see) served up a hearty variety of meats, cheeses, eggs, fruits, spreads and breads that lunching would be pure gluttony. To be honest (and you know I’m a foodie) I wasn’t even all that hungry by the time dinner rolled around.

Right, enough about that.  What you want to hear about are the lights…the lights…the lights~

Ok, I’ve got two words for ya…Holy Crap~  Yes, they are amazing~  No, you cannot fully capture them with a cell phone camera, so yes, I will be doing this properly with my Nikon and a videographer next time and yes, thankfully we were wise enough to pay up for a tour guide who happened to be an excellent photographer and captured some brilliant shots that we’ll be sharing later today on the 12 Adventures Facebook page.

The tour itself took a few hours and we were joined by people from Italy, Spain, Belgium and New Zealand. It started at 7pm and we were back at the hotel close to 1am.  The cost: 1200 Norwegian Krones which is about $140.  Not bad.  PS – That’s a good 5 hours on a mini bus and out in the wilderness.  Did I mention there is no toilet on a mini bus and they offer a hot cup of cocoa and norwegian cake during the trip…? Flashback to my parents shouting out “Did everyone go to the bathroom??” before leaving on our summer road trips.

Y’know, in our travels my amigas and I have a few steadfast guidelines that have worked really well for us over the years; good food, good booze, men with accents. Along with, “and learn/try something new.”  For Meredith that would be “Try Reindeer meat.”  For me, so far, it is how to say, “Thank you” in Norwegian,”Takk” which I just said to the housekeeper who brought us extra pillows, coffee and creamer and kleenex, because we both caught the sniffles :-). Also, how to properly photograph the northern lights.  I can’t tell you how many times locals approached me assuming I spoke Norwegian.

If you do decide to go after this adventure, here are a few settings tips (courtesy of our guide Alessandro Belleli of Tromso Safari) for your digital camera:

  • Set the focus to Manual Mode
  • Set the aperture to about f/3
  • Set the ISO to about 1600
  • Use the widest angle on your lens
  • No flash (other than the flashlight you’ll need to get around in the dark)
  • Attach the tripod before you set out in the dark

You’ll want to experiment /tweak a bit depending how much moonlight there is and the model/age of your DSL camera, but those are good settings to start with.

Alessandro Belleli, Tromso Safari
Alessandro Belleli of Tromso Safari

The lights are above you and will steak across the sky. Sometimes dancing, sometimes running across as if witnessing a cosmic water color artist at work.  Even the best descriptive and photos won’t do it justice. The lights aren’t something you can easily or fully explain.  It is definitely a “you had to be there” moment and one I wholeheartedly recommend being there for.

What else I learned is that we’ll need one camera for video and another for stills.  Our guide, Alessandro (Yup, an Italian living in the arctic circle) was elated at our find.  He was sure to caution us several times how unpredictable the lights can be.  We made three stops in total.  The first, we saw nothing but some clouds, the moon and some stars here and there.

My eyes saw lights dancing across the sky, but my poor cell camera only caught a glimpse of it.

My eyes saw deep and bright green lights dancing across the starlit sky, but my poor cell camera only caught a glimpse of it.

The second, we went further north and hiked down to a river, crossed the bridge and saw a bright moon and several stars with little whispers of clouds.  Or so we thought…those whispers were actually strokes on the canvas.  At first there was nothing, then he encouraged us.  He thinks there’s spark there…if any of us have a special dance or song that might bring out the lights, now would be the time.  The guy next to me, Kevin from Belgium, started humming “Send in the Clowns.”  This happened to be one of the first songs I ever sang, so without thought we started singing it together…still nothing…then before we knew it the sky started lighting up, first above us, then behind us then to the west and the east and at one point all around us.  When one area would fade, another would pick up.  Sometimes a luminous green streak across the sky, sometimes a mix of greens, whites and pinks dancing together.  Yes, the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind definitely came to mind.

This was probably close to 11pm and apart from the moon n stars, very dark out.  Every few moments we’d hear our guide, Alessandro, blurting out “Yippee” or “Ayeyayeyeye”  as he skipped across the water’s edge to get just the right angle.  The photos you’ll see later today on the 12 Adventures Facebook page are courtesy of him and the tour service.

12 Adventures creative lead, Meredith Letts and Ali courtesy of Alessandro Belleli and Tromso Safari
12 Adventures creative lead, Meredith Letts and Ali (courtesy of Alessandro Belleli and Tromso Safari)

The northern lights are elusive, fleeting and unpredictable. No guide will be ever be able to guarantee you’ll see them on any tour and if you keep your eyes fixated on just one point in the sky you could very well miss a light show above and behind you, but the driver did say that January/February (the colder the better) were the best months to see them. He told us as he shared his bar of Norwegian chocolate “Sometimes they take the whole sky.” A comment followed by a unison “Wooooow” from both Mer and I who were huddled in the nice, warm bus while the others got their final shots for the night.

Lesson learned here?  Always be open to the possibility of off chances. If I hadn’t met professor Rigmor Solberg, if she hadn’t given me her card, if she hadn’t pointed me to Norway (obvious to many I know, but I’m a different kind of brain) then our mission to see the lights on this trip may not have been successful.  Thank you Rigmor for your guidance and thank you Alessandro Belleli for being such an excellent guide on our adventure :-).

If you do decide to add the northern lights to your list of 12 Adventures and you see them, sing them a little song, tell them I said hello and I’m coming back for more. Only next time with a warmer set of clothes and snow boots~

Next up…with 2 more nights left in a now rainy Tromso, there will be cuisine challenges and a trip to the local cinema to see a Norwegian film, so stay tuned to the 12 Adventures Facebook page~