Tag Archives: travel

Minneapolis and Northern Wisconsin- Day 1

Fri. Aug. 19, 2016:
Toronto flying to Minneapolis, MN, driving to Chetek, WI

We had to leave the house at 5:45am, the subway was not yet running and I highly doubted that there would be an available Uber driver so we took a cab to Pearson airport. It’s really too bad that Porter doesn’t fly to Minneapolis. Red Bull was not the best choice of morning drink, it was just not as satisfying as a nice cup of coffee.

Once again there was an incredibly long line-up at security at Pearson. You would think we had learned our lesson last year when we flew to Seattle. It was much the same kind of mess. There were at least three different lines all bottle-necking. We saw a basketball player (insert name) in line, it was funny to see his head bobbing above the crowd. We managed to catch up to him at customs and we got ahead of some people who had been in front of us at security.

The carrot orange muffin I had for breakfast an odd flavour combination. And because I had eaten it when we first got in line, by the time we cleared customs I was hungry again. Once again our gate was in the far-away-from-everything-else section of Terminal 1, where you pass signs saying it’s still a 10 minute walk to your gate, that you are passing the last convenience store, etc. Once again the waiting area was crammed because that space is too small for how many gates they have crammed in there. It was giving me flashbacks to our Hartford nightmare.

Thankfully our flight was on time with no delays. During the flight I had fallen asleep and been scared awake by the drink service, when he asked me what I would like I mumbled coffee. He laughed and said that was exactly what he thought I would order. He told me to flag him down at any time for more refills. I downed the coffee and went right back to sleep. All was well until we landed, we found out  that Brent’s card had been frozen when we tried to get our rental car- thankfully I had mine. Check-in at our hotel was not until 3pm and it was only 10:30am, we had a lot of time to kill. As we drove to Chetek, Wisconsin we made a few pit stops along the way.

We stopped at Wal-Mart to stock up on snacks (weird cucumber lime Gatorade, chocolate chip cookie dough Oreos, French vanilla Milky Way, sweet & sour Haribo gummy worms) as well as some smores Pop Tarts for our day trips. I found some of my beloved Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, even though it was a flavour I had tried before: caramel coffee cake. The French vanilla Milky Way may very well be the best chocolate bar in existence and I later regretted not having grabbed them all.

It was nice to listen to the Josh & Chuck of Stuff You Should Know talk about mammoths as we drove. As per usual, we cheered when we crossed the state line: Wisconsin!!

We decided to have Taco Bell for lunch because a podcaster Brent listens to is obsessed with it, maybe it is different in the States and not as bad? It is, it is just as bad. It is a contender for one of the worst lunches I have ever had. And all I had were the beef nachos. If you can call them that, the beef was rubbery and had a very weird consistency. I mostly ate around it. I had a bite of Brent’s two burritos/tacos/whatever –they-were and I was not impressed. It was mostly bland and flavourless. Needless to say I was left hungry, and it was not even noon yet. We drove across the street and I went in to McDonald’s for a second attempt at lunch. The hot and spicy McChicken was ok, but it was not that spicy. I had ordered a caramel mocha latte and was instead handed a caramel mocha frappe, but in the end it’s all about the caffeine.

The sky was grey and threatening to rain. As we drove we passed through really small towns with populations of less than 500 people, some of the towns weren’t even incorporated. We tried to stop at an IGA but it had shut down. I saw a billboard for Valkyrie Brewery and I kept an eye out for it. They had quite a few beers available and the brochure listed a cider and of course that was the one product not currently available. I did have a sip of the hot chocolate beer, it was not to my liking. I grabbed a brochure on the way out about the nearby craft breweries, except they were all south of us. On the map though I could see Chetek and so I knew we were at least close to our destination. Hopefully the rain would stop by then.

On the way to the resort, Canoe Bay, we drove through seemingly the middle of nowhere and just farmland, trees and a few deer. I was looking forward to relaxing, especially because this resort did not allow kids, therefore it would be nothing but peace and quiet. And hopefully no rain. Upon check-in we found out we had gotten a free room upgrade! This place just kept getting better. We were now staying in a small lodge with a fireplace, deck, whirlpool tub and complimentary sodas in the fridge and trail mix! Icing on the cake: we had a great view of the lake and the wi-fi from the main lodge reached us.

Looking around it was very obvious that the architect of the resort had been a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. We went for a walk around the grounds, the rain had finally stopped. We walked through the garden and on some of the trails. The lake had higher than normal water levels and you could see the submerged bridge to the island. There were frogs hanging around the edge of the island and the water. On the trails we passed two small lakes, one was teeming with turtles who could hear us from really far away and would jump off the log and swim away. The forest was full of bugs, constantly buzzing in my ears.

By the time we were on our way back to our lodge the weather had cleared up, the sun came out and it was warm, perfect for a canoe ride on the lake. I am not very good at canoeing and I have terrible balance. Things were only made worse by the fact that my left arm was killing me where I had gotten a tetanus shot a few days ago, and because Brent was sitting backwards in the canoe (i.e.: facing me) I had to paddle backwards which was an unnatural movement. Even still we managed to circle the lake and take in the views and relax. We passed by a loon and some guys fishing. Before heading back in we pulled up to the floating dock and Brent jumped into the lake while I tried to keep the canoe from drifting away.

I had to shower before dinner, but why shower when there is a whirlpool tub? I would have been silly not to. I also resolved to eat all the trail mix and drink all the soda. I still had time before dinner so I cracked a soda and grabbed my book, Spring Chicken, and headed for the deck. It had started raining but there was a roof over part of the deck. Top if off with a delicious chocolate chip Oreo cookie and I was in heaven.

I had high hopes for dinner, so far the resort had been amazing. We already knew what would be for dinner, they display the menu at the front desk because it is a price fixe. On the way to dinner we saw three more deer, one of which was still young. It also made me realize that all of the deer we had seen thus far were female.

Dinner was alright, nothing outstanding. I did enjoy the roasted red pepper corn chowder, so much so that I ate Brent’s as well (he hates soup). The salmon was tasty, but there were so many veggies on the side that I did not like. The real standouts of the dinner were the red wine and the port wine, followed closely by the carrot cake for dessert. It lost points for having pineapple in it. We were surrounded by weirdos at dinner. One lady kept talking to the server about her hair. She later asked for a fork, saying she could not eat her dessert with a spoon. The guy at the other table was talking to the server about upstate New York. He had asked her where she was from. When she mentioned attending the Culinary Institute of America, he started talking about places that were not that close to there. He then proceeded to expound copious knowledge about wine to his partner, even though she did not seem to care much. At dinner Brent joined the ranks of the weirdos when he asked me if he had ordered a beer, a beer and a wine and called himself a BBW, what I would do. I dryly said I would leave him, making him laugh.

By the end of the evening I was so tired and achy that I was in bed before 10pm. Adding to the tiredness was knowing that I would have to be up before 9am, as breakfast was to be delivered to our room between 9 and 9:30am.

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Adventures of Pinka!, Travel


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Middle-of-The-Week-Weekender: Boston Edition Day 1

Tues. July 26, 2016:
Toronto flying to Boston, MA

A few weeks prior Brent had mentioned that he would be flying to Boston on business. A few days later he said that the Red Sox just so happen to be playing the night that he was staying there- it totally made sense for us to go, plus I would be able to finish off the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum which Brent had already seen. It was settled, we would have a middle-of-the-week mini-vacation.

Our vacation just happened to be a few days (weeks?) after the release of Pokemon Go in Canada. The whole ride down to the Billy Bishop Airport I was desperately trying to hit as many pokestops as I could, we were driving through St. James town, one of the most populated pokestops areas in the city. Once we were in the airport lounge however there was nothing even remotely close in Pokemon Go and so I was stuck in the real world instead. At least I had a chance to figure out how the complimentary snacks and drinks in the Porter lounge work. I grabbed a cup of tea and a bowl of snack mix. On the flight we were offered wine or beer, but it was way too early in the day for that, it was barely noon! There was no TV in the seatback because we were on a small plane for a short flight. I had not packed a book as I wanted to travel light and so I instead opted for listening to my podcasts- which really sucks when they make you take your headphones out for takeoff and landing.

Our taxi from the airport left much to be desired. It smelled like gasoline and he routinely almost slammed into cars in front of us. We managed to get to the Lenox Hotel in one piece thankfully. Our hotel this time around was approximately a thousand times better than the last time we visited Boston. By the time we had checked in and dropped our bags I was quite hungry. There was a Shake Shack around the corner and I had not had Shake Shack in years, there was no way I was going to pass that up. The plan was originally to get it to and eat them while walking but looking at the burgers and the alcohol menu, it did not make sense. The burgers were massive a-la Burger Priest in Toronto and needed to be eaten at a table. I had the Shake Stack which had a Portobello mushroom atop the burger patty. In the hotel I had flipped through a magazine listing the best of Boston and one that stood out was the best cider which they claimed was from Down East Cider Co. And wouldn’t you know it, Shake Shack had it on offer. It was kismet. The cider was incredible and lived up to the hype (our server also said it was amazing). We had our drinks while we waited for our burgers. Except when Brent went to pick up our tray of food they had poured him another beer. As brent had his second beer I went back and ordered a frozen custard, the flavour of the week was cheesecake with raspberry sauce. It was ok, but paled in comparison to the burger which was outstanding.

As we ate we looked up the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The plan had been to walk over and finish the museum before heading to Fenway Park for the baseball game. We had not planned it out any more than that. Turns out we should have because the Boston MFA closes at 5, and we had planned to be there from 4:30 to just after 6pm. No worries, we had a backup plan. We would just go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum up the road. This plan also failed as the museum is closed on Tuesdays. Rather than go back to the hotel we went to the Boston Public Library which I had wanted to see last time we were in Boston but it had been closed. I totally geeked out once inside. The interior was gorgeous with a grand staircase adorned with lions similar to the ones outside of the New York Public Library. The reading room was great, just wall to wall books and one weird guy photographing his girlfriend as she pretended to read. The courtyard was amazing and it made me wish that we had an enclosed courtyard like that at the library in downtown Toronto. We visited a small exhibit about maps. The only interesting item was a pair of bound volumes of maps from the 16th century.

Rather than sit in the hotel we walked over to Fenway Park. I had read online that there was a good bar across the street, Boston Beer Works, where people would go for drinks before the game. That would be nice I thought. What I did not anticipate is that everyone and their grandmother who has tickets to the game shows up just before the park opens. One of the side streets gets shut down and vendors pop up, the so-called Yawkey Way. There were huge line ups just to get into there. And there was a huge line up of people waiting to get into Boston Beer Works. We lined up to get into the stadium. It was so hot, and I was so tired and dehydrated and just standing there in a huge throng of people, I was not feeling so great. Things only got worse when I heard a thump from the crowd behind us and a guy yelling out about his knee. From what I could tell he had tried to jump over a small set of stairs and his foot got caught on the railing and he landed smack on his knee. The sound was either him dropping a water bottle or his knee cap breaking. I don’t know because I could not look. I did hear someone in the crowd say they saw blood. It was enough to make me go weak and I came close to fainting a few times. I kept having to sit down on the curb. Once we were inside I sat in the shade for a moment more. It was a relief to be inside because Brent had bought the tickets online and we were not even sure if they were legit, thankfully they were. Once inside we walked around Yawkey Way. I bought a Powerade and felt much better. Inside the gift shop I found an awesome baseball tee that featured the Green Monster (the wall inside Fenway) but it was too expensive to be worth it. I was not yet hungry, even though there was a stand selling a high quality steak and cheese sandwich.

On our way in we had been given a promotional bag that had sunglasses, a crappy gold chain and a fake beard. Apparently it was dress up like Pappi the baseball player day. Inside the stadium we circled the concourse. There was no line up at one hotdog vendor so we grabbed a Fenway Frank and split it. It was just a terrible steamed hotdog, but apparently a must when at Fenway. Our seats were at the top of the section just behind home plate and luckily in the shade. We had a great view of the field. We were in a row with some Detroit fans and in front of us was an entire Red Sox family. The game started out with some pigeons in the outfield. There was a blimp flying around overhead and their mascot was making the rounds nearby. He looked like a seasick Elmo and I was not impressed. I soon got distracted and forgot about the distractions as this was actually an eventful baseball game.

Midway through the 4th inning, after three hours of sitting, we went back out again. I had finished my Powerade and needed water. Brent had a Tasty Burger, apparently the official burger of the park. It was quite decent for a stadium burger. There was no sign of the beef tip grilled cheese vendor. I guess it was only outside of the park. It was ok though because I was not that hungry. I opted for a bag of Cracker Jacks instead. As we walked away from the burger stand I noticed a girl with a Jack’s Abbey lager. I pointed it out to Brent, had he not mentioned it earlier and been unable to find it in the stadium? I was saying this to him as he was holding two beers, having been unable to decide between Samuel Adams summer ale and Blue Point toasted lager. His eyes lit up (it made me love him that much more). I had paid attention to where the girl had come from and I pointed Brent in that direction. He left his burger and one beer with me. The line was a bit long and it gave him enough time to finish the beer he was holding. If he was already waiting in line I figured why not get me a drink as well? I had been tempted all evening by the lemonade with vodka. The server was very generous with the vodka, it was at least a double shot if not almost a triple.

When I opened my Cracker Jacks, Brent mentioned that the prize inside is now a digital prize. I pulled out the little paper and matter-of-factly, with an air of triumph really, said “oh yeah? What’s this?!….” and as I turned it over I saw that it had a PIN code to enter online for the prize. I was so disappointed. I’m sad that I have only ever known the Cracker Jack prize as a sticker or pencil topper, I wish they had little trinkets and toys.

A few rows ahead of us there were some really loud hecklers. It felt so good to see them get warned by security. No one likes loud obnoxious hecklers. Only the light-hearted ones are fun, such as the Red Sox guy in front of us who kept calling the guy beside us Tiger Boy because he was a fan of the Detroit Tigers. There was a great moment when Brent and the two men all agreed on one thing: their shared dislike of the Baltimore Orioles. It made me smile. Brent had mistakenly thought that during the 7th inning stretch the stadium sings Sweet Caroline. Google told us it was at the bottom of the 8th. Sure enough, everyone broke out into song.  At this point the game was really fun. People were doing the wave, the pitcher was throwing 100 mile an hour balls that you could hear thwomp in the catcher’s glove and the girl in front of us, her braid was hanging down into Brent’s cup holder and faced a dilemma: hold his beer or risk pulling her hair? A woman in the row in front of us was resting her foot on the closed seat in front of her, but when that lady came back and sat down, the seat unfolded crushing the resting woman’s foot and she let out a yelp. It was hilarious, so much apologizing and laughing. Her whole family was laughing at her. The Red Sox lost, which was good for the Blue Jays, who at the time we left were in extra innings. On the walk home we found out they won. A guy passing Brent asked if the team won- but he had never said Red Sox. We will never know if he, looking at Brent’s hat, had wanted to know if the Red Sox or if the Jays had won.

As it turns out the last time we tried to walk back from Fenway Park, what we thought was a dead end road was not actually, it just looked that way from afar. It was stupidly marked. It was a long slow walk back in a crowd of people. Eventually we made our way to the front and broke free. We stopped at Walgreen’s for some snacks: a Snickers bar with crispy bits and some Gatorade. There hadn’t been any new candy releases since the last time we were in the US. The only Dunkin’ Donuts coffee they had was French vanilla. I decided to risk not getting it and waiting until the next day and checking the Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner from our hotel.

The FitBit has been a great addition to our vacations. We had walked a total of 9.1km and I was feeling it.

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Posted by on August 11, 2016 in Adventures of Pinka!, Travel


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 18

Sun. May 29, 2016:
London to Toronto

I woke up and my joints were sore, I was starting to get old. On the plus side I did not have a hangover. I had to pack, and everything was a mess. The plan was to leave our bags with the hotel concierge and get in a half day of activities as our flight was not until the late afternoon.

We transited to the Tower of London. We got off at Bank Station, where you really do have to “mind the gap” as there was about two feet between the subway door and the platform. It is amazing that they have not fixed that, how has no one fallen in?! We got to the Tower of London via the empty financial district. As it turned out everyone was visiting that museum. There was a huge line-up to buy tickets and then above the ticket booth on the marquee sign it said that it was an approximately 40 minute wait to see the Crown Jewels, the main attraction. Forget that! Having to wait in line and then wait to see stuff, all for £25?! Not worth it.

Instead we walked down to the Tate Modern, on the way we passed the ugly bridge again and this time I saw that it was labelled underneath: London Bridge. The Tate Modern was still super busy but much more manageable. We could actually get inside and move freely. My purse was uncomfortably heavy as I had brought my iPad with me, not wanting to leave it with the concierge. I did not want to risk checking it at the museum, and I did not have £2 anyway. For the map I only had 10p, so that was what I threw in. Turns out it was not even worth that. The map was all wrong because the museum was undergoing major renovations. This also helped us with the time crunch. There were only two floors of exhibitions open to the public. We finished it in under two hours. In amongst the head-scratchers and weird stuff were some gems: Picasso, Braque, Dali, and Magritte. Rothko just made me mad.

It would have taken us too long to walk to Westminster Abbey so instead we just headed back to the hotel. On the subway there were drunken soccer hooligans, it was not even 2pm yet. We grabbed our bags and started walking towards Paddington Station, we needed to be on the Piccadilly Line to get to the airport. We stopped at The Victoria Pub for lunch. I had one last Sunday roast dinner. This time it was pork loin with some crackling, it was incredible. I developed a love affair with the dough crunch side, the so-called Yorkshire pudding. It was a brilliant idea for a dinner: meat and a pastry puff and potatoes. No room for veggies though, that makes it too much food. The only cider they had on draught was the Stowford Press which I had already had before. I had a bottle of Cornish Orchards pear cider instead. The subway to the airport slowly rocked me to sleep, all around me people were people with luggage falling asleep.

It was a struggle, but I had to stay awake as we would be landing in Toronto at 9pm. we breezed through security. The London-themed bottle opener key chain that we bought on our first night in London did not cause any trouble thankfully. The info board said that the gate info would not be posted until 5pm, for the time being we had no idea which end of the airport to hang out. I wandered around and did a lap of the top floor. I was tempted to buy a rooster mug but it was £10 which seemed really expensive for a mug. I bought some Haribo starmix gummies and one last Double-decker and Irn Bru. We found out our gate number 20 minutes before boarding but the sign said it takes 15 minutes to get there from our spot. Why would they do that? We barely had to wait to board the plane. It was a long wait once we got on the plane though. Making matters worse, the entertainment system was not working and had to be rebooted. Things turned around once we were up in the air and the TVs were working. I watched Hateful Eight, Sisters and Zoolander 2 and then a few episodes of New Girl. The icing on the cake was that the bar service was free, we weren’t even flying Porter, this was Air Canada! I briefly considered having a third serving of wine but thought better of it. The vacation was amazing, but I arrived home exhausted and with dead legs and a newfound appreciation of cider and love affair with Yorkshire puddings and Sunday roasts.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 17

Sat. May 28, 2016:

Brent had to wake me up, it was time to get ready to head back out. We transited to Oxford Circus. Our first stop was Crosstown Donuts. I had seen it on Buzzfeed and now I needed to eat one of their fancy donuts. The crème brulee was pretty good and the Lambington chocolate donut with coconut glaze and jam was only ok. Neither donut was outstanding though. That was ok, we were headed to breakfast at Sketch anyways. This one I had seen on Instagram, I knew that the interior was wacky and fantastical and that the bathrooms were a must-see apparently. We walked in and found ourselves in a forest full of flowers, it had been decorated for the Chelsea Flower show I guessed. The menus on the table were partly underneath books. It was nice to drink a cappuccino out of a fancy porcelain cup while gawking at all the wacky décor around us. I had ordered the scrambled eggs with chorizo and peppers. The chorizo and peppers were amazing, the eggs were good but after a while it was too much. I can only eat so many eggs! We did not trade halfway, as the pancakes Brent had ordered were topped with grapefruit jelly. I did try a bite, but I just hate grapefruit so much. When I asked where the bathroom was, I was first directed to the basement, then she corrected herself and told me to go up one floor. I climbed the red velvet stairs, lit in black light. I was looking for a red door. The bathroom did not disappoint. The toilet paper hung on a crystal trapeze, Alice in Wonderland style music was playing, and everything was glittery and reflecting in the dimly lit room. Every surface was mirrored or sparkly.

Now that we had eaten donuts and a full breakfast we were ready for the big one: the British Museum. It killed my legs, but we saw all the free exhibits. All of them. We started out in the room that showed what the museum would have looked like when it was first founded, with everything in cabinets. It reminded me of a library. Apparently I had walked right by the Elgin Marbles, looked at them, and not even recognized them. Why was there no sign explaining the significance? Is the British Museum still so embarrassed? The mummies were pretty cool but way too popular, it was hard to get a good look. The one unwrapped mummy chilled me to my core. I had always wondered what it looked like under there, thinking it’d be cool to see one. Turns out I was very wrong. By far the coolest was the Syrian relief sculptures. The amount of detail and craftsmanship was incredible. There were more than a few irritating moments, watching people touch stuff as if they had no idea how to behave in a museum. It was great to see one kid get yelled at by his mom. The collection was great, but it was also plunder. The only part that aggravated me was the porcelain, I am so sick of looking at porcelain. Towards the end I needed a break. We sat down at the upstairs café for 5 minutes and I recharged with a lemonade. We got it all done in about four and a half hours.

Now it was on to the National Gallery. First we stopped at a convenience store. I was getting hangry and in need of snacks fast. It was a 30 minute walk to the gallery, therefore I needed Jelly Babies, a cherry Coke and a strawberry Cornetto (this time it was fresh). We sat outside the gallery on the steps, looking onto the crowded plaza and drinking the Coke and eating Jelly Babies. Our peace was short-lived, an annoying busker behind us ruined it all by trying to draw a crowd. The National Gallery was amazing. They had an incredible collection ranging from Reubens and Michelangelo to Monet, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. We saw the famous painting The Ambassadors. I had expected the perspective-shifted skull effect to be much more pronounced but it was still cool to see the actual painting. We only missed seeing the early Renaissance room because we ran out of time. My love of Impressionism was only further solidified.

I could not find the email that confirmed our reservation at The Lamb Pub but we decided to walk there anyways. If it was too busy we could go elsewhere. On the way we stopped in at Craft Beer Co., a pub Brent had looked up. It was super busy and we were about to leave but we found two stools by the wall. Thankfully I stayed back and held the chairs while Brent went and ordered. I just knew I would screw up ordering a half pint of the Pheasant Plucker and would mix up the name. It was delicious. As we drank we looked at the menu and saw that they also sold bottles to go. And they had our beloved Cantillon! We would be fools not to get a bottle of Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus! Only when Brent ordered it, she did not hear him say to go and she opened it. It was a big bottle, of course I had to help by drinking half of it.

The Lamb Pub was not busy at all so it did not matter if I had a reservation or not. We ordered the “banger’s plate” to split, we had three sausages each and fries. It was the perfect dinner. The half pint of Henry Weston’s Still Country pear cider tasted like juice and I downed it in no time. Brent was still working on his pint, so I ordered a half pint of Flat Tyre, which was a cloudy rhubarb cider, further confirming how wrong I had been about rhubarb. We had just eaten a greasy meal, we were already at pub number 2 and there were plenty more pubs from my list nearby- so began the “last night in England pub crawl.”

We got to the Cittie of York pub and found out that it was owned by the Samuel Smith brewing company and that it was on the list of heritage pubs. It had a nice interior and we sat in a secluded booth. Everything on tap was brewed by the company, lucky for me this was not limited to beer. They had Cider Reserve on tap, a nice refreshing cider. I had to try a sip of the beer Brent had ordered. The S.S. Bitter was brewed using oak casks and water from a well that had been tapped in 1758. It tasted a little nutty.

Walking to The Ship Tavern we passed Bar Polski. I made a note of it, as we would be passing it on the way to the subway if we were still up for it. Alas, The Ship Tavern did not appear to have any ciders on tap. Instead I tried a third flavour of Old Mout, apple and passionfruit. There was an adorable mutt of a dog in the bar, he was so well behaved. It was here that Brent had switched to half pints, which worked out great because we were able to make it to Bar Polski as the final stop of the night. Brent had a half pint of Żywiec meanwhile I had switched to doing shots of cherry liqueur (Soplica Wisniowka). The bar tender was Polish and very nice. As I was trying to decide on my second shot, he gave me a list of everything he had available. The list was huge, I had never seen that many different Polish liquors and liqueurs. I settled on the UV Siedlice Raspberry vodka just because it was bright blue. Migawd it was smooth and went down easily. We were in a Polish bar, with so many Polish alcohols available, on our last night of vacation… why not have one last shot I thought? I had the Valentine honey and berry liqueur on its own not over ice this time, partly because this one was only 29% whereas the others were 40%.

We had a great night of barhopping but we had killed Brent’s phone battery. Thankfully I knew the way back to the subway and to the nearby McDonald’s (it was the same one from two nights ago) and so I led the way. There were some drunk people across the street clapping, so Brent clapped back and they all cheered. We were complaining about how expensive England was and a guy ahead of us chimed in and said we were right. He then told us that Coquitlam in British Columbia is gorgeous and we should go see the forests there. We walked in and it was the same manager, except as soon as he saw us he went on break. Odd, I thought. The Crunchie McFlurry was just what I needed, it had little bite-sized pieces of chocolate covered toffee. Inside the station we stopped to grab a bag of sour Haribo gummies. At the hotel I realized I had been given a chicken bacon wrap, not the chicken snack wrap. Brent went downstairs to the bar to get a corkscrew, the Cantillon he had bought a few days ago had a pop off bottle cap and a cork underneath. On the way back he reported that it sounded like our hotel neighbours were watching a dirty movie. I stuck my head out into the hallway, indeed it did seem so.

It was tough to catch up writing in my notebook after being out at museums all day and then doing an evening of barhopping. We had been way too tired to visit the Tate Modern after dinner at The Lamb Pub. My only regret was not ordering the custard dessert at the Lamb. I had assumed another bar on our hop would also be serving a custard dessert.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 16

Fri. May 27, 2016:

Biscoff cookies dunked in coffee for breakfast were becoming a regular thing now. We transited to St. Paul’s cathedral, which was easy as we just had to go to the station stop called St. Paul’s. We got there soon after open therefore it was not yet crazy busy. The first order of business was to climb to the top of the dome. It hurt that I was not allowed to take pictures, the cathedral was incredible on the inside. And the views looking down into it from the dome were amazing. The only picture I managed to take was from the top of the dome, looking down into the centre of the cathedral via a little porthole window which gave me slight vertigo. The whispering gallery was not exactly as I had imagined it but it was still cool to vaguely hear the people at the other end talking. It sounded like they were behind me even though I was facing them.  So much climbing, 119 steps, and we reached the edge of the dome exterior. Yet we were still not done, there was another 152 steps to climb to get to the top. We were well rewarded for the efforts. My legs and heart were dying, but the panoramic views of London and the River Thames were well worth it. Now that we had the stair-climb out of the way, we could explore the cathedral itself. The ceiling featured a gorgeous gold tiled mosaic. What it lacked however was a cathedral cat. Walking through the crypt, the sombreness of it got ruined by screaming children. The highlight was seeing a burnt tombstone that had survived the great fire of 1666.

It was tough to get the entire cathedral into one frame, the building was so big and I kept backing up until I was by a tree, and at this point the sun was behind the cathedral as well. We had enough time to walk, rather than transit, to The Ritz hotel for high tea at the Palm Court. Along the way we passed through the theatre district and Piccadilly Circus. It was a nightmare in the style of Times Square. So many tourists, walking so slowly and so many horrible places like TGI Friday’s (actually there were two within a block of each other). Then there was construction so we had to walk an extra block to get around it. I was glad to be out of there and once again able to enjoy the nice architecture without the gaudiness and tackiness. I saw a Twinnings Tea shop and I had to go in. There was no way I was not going and in coming out with armfuls of tea for everyone back home. I was immediately overwhelmed, so many choices! And nice boxes! I briefly considered buying the wooden box you get to fill with your choices of individually wrapped teas but I thought better of it, the idea of having to cram it into my luggage dissuaded me. I got a box of tea for each family member… and two for myself. One was a last minute impulse buy by the register.

As we walked we noticed a particularly nice looking building. We ducked down the alleyway to get a better view of it from the courtyard. Turns out we had found Courtald Gallery at Somerset, a part of the Art Institute. I wish I had known about this beforehand, the current exhibition featured one of my favourite paintings of all time, Bar at The Folies-Bergère by Manet. Outside of the hotel I changed into my heels, it was awkward as I was rushing because we were a few minutes late.

The name of the place did not lie. We were seated in a small section, which was atop a small set of stairs, a small court. And it was surrounded by potted palms. It was a literal palm court. Overhead was a domed ceiling and chandeliers. I had high expectations, as they were the ones who invented the afternoon tea tradition. My expectations were definitely met. Soon after we had ordered, Brent regretted not getting the champagne option. When the server brought our tea, Brent asked for the champagne as well. We were doing this all out of order. You are supposed to sip your champagne while they get your tea ready. Then while your tea steeps you finish it off and start on the food. Ah well, it worked out in the end because we did not end up scalding ourselves as the tea had time to cool down. The sandwiches, in order of best to worst were (surprisingly): ham with grainy mustard, egg salad, cucumber, cheese, smoked salmon and dead last was the chicken breast. No sooner were we done, they brought us another plate of sandwiches! But this time it was only one of each. It was easy to divide them up amongst ourselves as we had differing opinions of which sandwiches were good and which were not. Except the ham with grainy mustard. That was the clear winner.

The sandwiches were followed by scones with strawberry jam (it’s always strawberry) and clotted cream. Again the clotted cream was similar to butter. I was starting to realize that what I had been served at afternoon teas back home, more of a sweet cream, was not authentic. The scones were still warm and the clotted cream just melted. They got major bonus points as the scones were not covered in powdered sugar. This meant that I in turn was not covered in powdered sugar (an almost inevitable outcome whenever I tackle powdered-sugar scones). Finally it was time for the mini desserts. Except before we could dig in, a server came by with a trolley and offered us slices of chocolate hazelnut coffee cake and a rhubarb ginger cream pie. We split one of each and although it was close, I preferred the chocolate cake. As it turns out rhubarb is pretty darn good and I may have totally misjudged it in the past.

Now it was finally time for the mini dessert. Except I was already quite full. We each had our own lemon macaron with a lemon curd centre, but then the rest we had to split because we only got one of each: white chocolate coconut mango truffle with a mango centre, chocolate covered cinnamon cream puff. We sat there drinking cup after cup of tea. I had ordered the rose congou (rose sounds so fancy) and Brent had the traditional English. By the time we were on to the mini desserts we had about two cups left each. It was incredible, in total we must have had about 6 cups of tea each but damnit we finished the whole pot each. Looking at the bill it turned out they forgot to change it to champagne tea and charged us just for a regular afternoon tea- score! Even the bathrooms at The Ritz were ritzy. The womens bathroom had a couch, magazines and a pitcher of water. On the way out of the hotel I noticed some cufflinks in the hotel shop window, they were a whopping £3500, I could not believe it.

We walked back to the hotel via Oxford St. Brent continued on to the hotel, I got caught up in a last ditch attempt at finding my palm tree shirt, I had spotted another H&M. As was to be expected, I came up empty-handed. I went into what I thought was a mall, but turned out to be a few crappy shops and a subway entrance, not much of a “shopping centre” if you ask me. I was now on a mission to buy a FitBit. I don’t know why it had never occurred to us to get one to track how much we walk on vacations. Alas HMV didn’t have one. Debenham’s department store did, but for some reason it felt too expensive and I could not commit. I stopped in at Selfridge’s, reasoning that the FitBit could be my souvenir if I buy it from there.

In Selfridge’s I discovered the basement floor and it was amazing. There was a bar called Harry Gordon’s and next door they had a liquor shop. There was a Selfridge’s IPA, I saw it on the bar menu but they were sold out of bottles. They did have Bacchus Framboise but I was not sure if I would have time to drink it, we only had a few days of vacation left. In trying to figure out where to go to find the FitBit I found some store directory maps, these could count as souvenirs I thought. I went from one department to the next, getting closer to the electronics department (watches to electronic toys to electronics) and finally to a “FitBit expert” as he was called. It turned out that the warranty was regional and that was a deal-breaker for me.

I rushed back to the hotel because I could not remember for the life of me what time we were leaving for the Chelsea Flower show. I had just enough time to pack my teas in my luggage and write about the morning. We left a little bit early so we could check out Kensington Palace. It was just an old brick building with exhibits that we did not have time for anyway. As we got closer to the flower show we could see people with tote bags from it. There was a mass of people, it was unimaginable how many people were crammed into this outdoor exhibit space. We could barely move and the whole time we were shoulder to shoulder with strangers. More than once we had to push and shove. At the entrance I had noticed a booth that was giving away the tote bags, you had to buy a copy of The Telegraph to get the bag but it was less than a pound and so worth it as he only had a few left. There were beautiful sculptures made of flowers and shrubs and gorgeously designed garden spaces. The florist section was the best, it was the most interesting to look at. I was surprised at how many people were walking around drinking alcohol. This was the last place on earth I would dream of drinking: it was crowded and everything was making me sneeze. We did not last there very long, pretty soon I needed out, it was way too claustrophobic-feeling in there for me.

We headed back to the Victoria & Albert museum with the hopes of finishing it. First I needed a pit stop. My legs hurt and I was dehydrated and hungry. I chugged a cold Coke and ate some honey-roasted cashews. Now I was ready to tackle the rest of the museum. It was open late on Friday therefore we did not have to worry about running of time, only out of steam. There was set up going on throughout the museum, as it turned out on Friday nights they had live events throughout. My legs were so dead but we managed to get through it all. Well most it, parts were closed off so we could not see them. We saw some of Raphael’s giant paintings, and artists sketches in oil paints by John Constable. We saw a lot of great photographs, the V&A had an extensive collection (Weegee, Muybridge, Weston, Man Ray, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson). Towards the end we were in a room of silver items and I could not care less, I was so tired. There was a 3D projection on a costume for which you had to put on 3D glasses that was pretty cool, but the lights started giving me a headache.

In a rare turn of events, Brent took off for some shopping while I headed back to the hotel through Hyde Park. I was fairly certain I knew where I was going, I had to head straight north, in a straight line that was not actually a straight line. I was walking on the path and I saw a statue that I was trying to pass, rather than continue on my path and turn right and head to the statue, I cut diagonally through the grass. My legs were dead and I needed to sit. I knew I was trying to get to the Italian Fountains, and so rather than going “straight” I went a little bit to the left (barely), following the signs to the Italian Fountains. I passed an obelisk dedicated to Speke. I was very confused, I had never seen this before, where was I?? Turns out the sign led me to a path that said the Italian Fountains were to the right. That initial sign had misdirected me at the fork.

I stopped at the corner store for a Daim bar, some more Haribo mix and the prawn cocktail flavoured Walker’s crisps. We had been avoiding them for far too long now. They were actually not that bad. The No Brainer cider by the Cotswold Cider Co. was delicious. We were too tired to go out to a pub for dinner, so instead I cracked open the Sandford Orchards Devon Red, another delicious cider to go with my snacks for dinner. My legs were lifeless.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 15

Thurs. May 26, 2016:

I woke up at 8:30am, right before Brent was going to wake me up. Breakfast consisted of the Double-decker bar from the previous day and Biscoff cookies dunked in coffee. We took the subway to the Royal College of Physicians. There had been a delay earlier and the first train that arrived was crammed and we had to wait for the next one. Once again we were in our dressy clothes, as we had a fancy lunch scheduled. In my running shoes I fit right in, it seemed to be the norm: wear running shoes and pack the heels in the purse.

At the Royal College of Physicians we had to sign in as guests and the only other people there seemed to be admins and business [people. It was a bit weird, but in our fancy clothes we fit in. I was excited to see the exhibition of John Dees books. I had heard about it in a podcast in the winter. He had been a scientist and alchemist with a vast collection of books. He had made notes and observations in many of the books, books that were then stolen while he was on vacation. One book had his name bleached from the front page but it was hard to see in the case. It was hilarious to learn about him and his nuttiness. He was under house arrest for predicting the Queen’s horoscope. We also saw an old copy of Gray’s Anatomy. They had some anatomy tables from 16th century Padua on display. It featured the nerves of a human body all laid out flat on a board. It was tough to imagine it being 100% correct. It looked funny.

Lunch was not until 1pm and it was barely 11am, the Royal College of Physicians took no time. We walked through Regent’s Park and saw some nice gardens and more baby ducks with their territorial parents. A clueless mallard had been chased away and later tried to eat grass from the river bank right behind the nest. I had not planned this day very well. I had forgotten to put on sunscreen and now I felt like the sun was frying me.

We walked over to Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street. At first I barely recognized it from the show. Until we got to the main entrance, I recognized the vestibule and the front doors. Inside however was unrecognizable and modern, it was like any other high-end department store. I overheard at the perfume counter that one perfume was £850. My jaw dropped. We went to the Foodhall in search of a quick bite as we had not had a real breakfast. First we walked around looking at everything. It was incredible how big just the food section of the store was. They had fish, cheese and meat counters even. There were two bakeries and a restaurant called the Brass Rail. The second half of the food section had fancy chocolates and macarons and a health food section. We ventured too far and ended up in stationery. I was on the lookout for anything branded to bring home as souvenirs. There were Foodhall tote bags but they were so expensive, £5 each! For a reusable tote bag!

At the bakery we ordered a sticky toffee dessert and a peanut butter chocolate-covered Oreo. Looking around, we had nowhere to sit and eat it. We walked over to the restaurant. The plan was I would order a coffee and then we’d sit and eat. Somehow it turned into Brent ordering a Reuben sandwich (called hot salt beef, so gross) and I ordered a Lunetta Prosecco. This was partly because I had seen a lot of places advertising Prosecco cocktails, it seemed to be the thing to drink before noon. This sandwich was the best Reuben I had ever tasted, it was warmed up! And it was not too salty either.

After that we wandered through the other levels of the store, gawking at ugly and expensive things and playing “guess how much it costs.” I found some awesome pineapple print pyjamas, alas they were £110. Way too much for pair of jammies. I found a hilarious series of books called the Ladybird Guide To. Some of the topics included Hipsters, Dating and Sheds. I was really tempted to buy them but £7 seemed a bit steep for a joke book. Even after all of this we still had some time to kill.

We walked down the street to where Google Maps said there was an H&M. I still had not given up hope on my palm tree printed shirt.  Alas, there was no sign of it. We walked over to the Connaught Hotel for lunch at the Hélène Darroz restaurant, which had two Michelin stars. Outside I changed into my heels. As soon as we were seated we were offered a glass of champagne, before we had even ordered water or seen the menus. I was ok, I had just had a glass of Prosecco. For the menu we had two options: prix fixe 3 course which came with wine pairings and a bottle of water or the option to choose 3/5/7 courses via marbles on a board (you left the marbles with the menu items you wanted on the board, the rejected ones went in a moat around the edge- it was all very weird). The a la carte items were not individually priced and we had already ordered a bottle of water, so it made sense to do the prix fixe menu, it seemed relatively cheap given it included wine. For each course there was a choice between two items, so we each chose a different one, maximizing the amount of food we would get to try.

The hotel was located downtown and was busy, and the service was fast and efficient. The first amouse bouche consisted of a weird bread and freshly sliced (table-side) ham, smoked mackerel in a cracker cone (it was amazing) and a weird gazpacho that we first had to let steep while we ate everything else. It tasted like salad dressing, not helping matters was the fact that once steeped we had to pour it over chopped garlic and down it like a shot. For my appetizer I went with the “summer minestrone,” as it sounded delightful and better than salad. I should have been wary of something in quotes. There were vegetables, a green sauce and shavings of parmiggiano cheese. I barely got through it.

The main dish won it back. The veal shortbreads were delicious but the real knock-out was the cod that Brent had ordered. It just melted in the mouth and was so delicious. The dessert was a chocolate mousse atop some vanilla cream and kumquat jam all nestled on top of a cookie. It was nice to have a selection of wines to go with each dish. At first I felt ripped off, they had poured so little! Until I realized how wide the glass was. With the bill came two more little amouse bouche desserts, a lemon cream cookie and a heavy chocolate truffle. I was already so full. Before leaving we were still handed a wrapped mini-cake covered in chocolate. I was way too full to even think about eating it. It would have to wait until later.

We walked back to the hotel through Hyde Park. The weather was amazing, the sun was shining and it was quite warm out. We saw a hilarious dog having them time of his life in the park. His owner had just let him off the leash when he took off running and started sniffing people. She called him over and threatened to put him on the leash. He made sad-puppy eyes, she let him go off running again. And he made a beeline for some horse droppings and was about to roll in them, she was running after him across the grass in her heels. She was about ready to clip his leash when again, she thought better of it and let him run again. This time he ran over to a group of kids, grabbed their soccer ball and started playing keep away. She ran over, full of apologies, and chased down the dog, who thought this was a fun game and refused to give up the ball. It was hilarious and I wish I could have seen what had happened next. But it was getting really hot outside and I needed to go back to the hotel, change and rest my feet a little bit.

Back in the hotel I swapped out my purse for a lighter smaller one and left my sweater. Back to Hyde Park we went, our third time through, and taking another completely different route (that is how big this park is). Being less tired, I was now able to appreciate the beauty of the park a little bit more. The Victoria & Albert Museum was just south of the park. As we walked around the building to the main entrance it dawned on me just how big this building was. It was good that the admission was free, because there was no way we were going to finish it in one half day. We got the bottom floor and half of the first floor done before we had to leave because the museum was closing. The religious section of the museum was actually pretty interesting because they had old manuscripts. There was one that had been so well preserved that the pages had barely yellowed and the red inks were still vibrant. I was almost suspicious of it. There was another manuscript printed on vellum. We saw a book of hours that had ivory covers. We also saw some Rodin statues. We had to leave the museum at 5:30 instead of the usual 5:45 because there was set-up being done for an event. We decided we would come back the following day when the museum is open until 10pm.

Walking back towards Hyde Park we took a different route and I saw another H&M. This was my final chance at finding the shirt, alas I came up empty-handed and officially gave up. We split off at the top corner of the park near Marble Arch. Brent went back to the hotel while I headed off on my own for some shopping. I went to Primark which was a zoo. The line for the fitting room was so long that when I realized I had grabbed the wrong size I was not going to back in and wait again. I gave up. I slowly realized that Primark was not that great, finding good stuff there is a rarity (but when you do, it is very good). There were no London sweatshirts and I found no sandals or purses to my liking. I ended up only buying tealight candles and socks. While I was in there I heard someone say “7pm” and I looked at my clock and realized I had been in there for way too long. I was about to head back when I saw another store on the corner, Next. But I was too tired to really look around and I did not find anything.

It was a slow cautious walk back to the hotel, even though it was just a straightline- the road changed names three times though. I jaywalked and a little girl pointed at me, looked at her mom and raised her arms in protest, saying why can’t we go? I stopped at the corner store for some Cherry Coke because I was really dehydrated and the McDonald’s near the Primark was most likely a zoo.

Back in the hotel Brent was just getting ready to head out to Brew Dog to buy some beers. I snacked on a few Haribo alligator gummies and we went out. We took the subway there and I realized I was backtracking to where I had come from. Brew Dog was beer heaven, if you like beer. I found two ciders that seemed good, the third one was chai-flavoured, so gross sounding. I also found a Belgian lambic: Oud Beersel framboise. We stopped at McDonald’s to get a light dinner, we had walked by Cittie of York (another of my pubs) but there was no point going in there with our bags of bottles. To go with my chicken wrap I finally caved and ordered the Taste of America cheese bites. I figured I would be eating them in the hotel, therefore if they made me sick it wouldn’t be as bad. As we waited for our food we stared at this one kid. He was so high and acting so dumb. It was starting to annoy me, we had been waiting quite a while now for our food.

Back in the hotel there was no time for TV, as I had to catch up writing about the whole day in my notebook. I checked the H&M website for the palm tree shirt, even there it was sold out. There was no winning. My plan for the ciders and lambic was to start with the strongest and work my way to the weakest. Therefore I started with the lambic, clocking in at 5%. It was delicious and slightly sour. The cheese bites were ok. I sat there cursing the hot room, why was the air conditioning not working? Turns out I had forgotten to turn it on. As I was half-asleep and half-waking-up I imagined seeing a black cat on the wall that all but briefly scared the bejeesus out of me. I was so tired from the long day of walking.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 14

Wed. May 25, 2016:

We woke up early to get to Windsor Castle before it got overrun by the daily rush of tourists. As I drank my coffee I was flipping channels. It was unbelievable how many different shopping channels and shows there were and all on at the same time. Driving to Windsor Castle it was nice to have another new episode of Stuff You Should Know to listen to. Thanks to all the traffic we got to listen to the full episode. An 11 minute drive took us 36 minutes and took us through the town of Slough where The Office had been set.

I did not expect Windsor Castle to be smack in the middle of a town, with a McDonalds down the street no less. We were initially worried about finding parking but soon found a lot nearby. The trouble was that the lot was unattended and we had to pay at the machine, the machine that only took coins. The nearby change kiosk was not yet open. We went to the ice cream shop next door and paid for an ice cream cone with a £20 note and asked that the change be given in coins. Snickers ice cream in a waffle cone made for a good breakfast.

We had lucked out because on Wednesdays at 11am they have a changing of the guard at the castle. We still had an hour before that. Walking up to the entrance an orange and white cat crossed our path. He was so cute and friendly, when the lady in the gift shop called him he came running and jumped up onto the counter to snuggle her. I’ll admit, I was a bit jealous.

We walked down to see where the changing of the guard would take place and to scope out where we would stand.  We tried to visit the chapel which was near there but they were not yet ready for visitors. Back up the hill we went to the main part of the castle. Inside there was no photography allowed. At first I was mad, everything was so richly decorated and the crystal chandeliers and the dining room were indescribable. I soon saw the benefit of no photography, the crowd moved faster. I could only imagine the nightmare scenario of having to around people all trying to take photos. The self-guided audio tours alone were causing mini pockets of traffic. People would abruptly stop and we would nearly run into them. The royal collection included some Dutch and Flemish paintings. It also included a lot of guns and armour. It was awesome to see Princess Mary’s epically detailed dollhouse. I would have been too afraid to actually play with it, lest I break something. It was giant, taking up almost a whole room. There was also an exhibit of Shakespeare works and related books from the Royal Library Collection. It was not as interesting as the Bodleian Library exhibit.

We had finished the main castle exhibits and tour just in time to walk down and watch the changing of the guard. It got boring very quickly. People marching stiffly and shouting stuff while moving their guns around. It was very precise and orchestrated but I had no idea what was going on. I was amused by the one guy who was shorter than the rest, throwing off the balance of the group as a whole. We kept waiting for something interesting to happen but it was the same thing over and over again, march, stand face to face, shift gun, shout gibberish, salute, walk back and forth a bunch of times. Sometimes a commercial plane would fly by overhead, we were near the airport I think.

I had seen enough. We went into St. George’s Chapel, reasoning that we were close enough that if anything interesting did happen we could just run back outside. The interior of the chapel was gorgeous. We saw the tombs of a few King George’s, I think it was III, IV and VII, maybe more I am not sure. We finished just before noon.

We stopped at McDonald’s for a quick lunch. They had self-serve kiosks, and I was finally able to order curry dip with my chicken nuggets. The new American burger in their Taste of America line-up was out. I stole a bite of the TexMex, the tortilla chip was not soggy and had crunch to it and the cheese actually tasted like something. It was actually better than I had expected. On the way to the car I noticed a souvenir shop that had cute little decorative mugs that featured iconic images of London- the perfect souvenirs for everyone back home! We also stopped at the WHSmith because Brent had seen a gummy mix that featured phone booths and hats and while there we also got a bottle of Irn Bru.

It was an easy drive back to the airport to return the car, despite the GPS trying to lead us in the wrong direction. Thankfully by that point there were signs and we recognized where we were. It was easy to find the subway entrance and just as easy to switch lines. The subway at first glanced seemed confusing but really was not at all. The subways also, much to my amusement, run on the left side. Our room at the Corus Hyde Park hotel had two separate beds and the world’s tiniest bathroom, it really had to have been a broom closet in a past life. There was only one light switch and all the door jambs were loose so I could not open drinks on them. I assumed that it was from previous uses of the door jambs as openers.

The rest of our day was going to involve a lot of walking, so we took the subway to the Museum of London. We took a different subway line this time, closer to our hotel. It was awesome because it was one of the older lines and was built much deeper underground. On the platform there was a sign that the station, Lancaster Gate, was a historic site.

The museum was easy to find, we just followed the signs. The museum also had its name written in giant letters on the side of the building. My main goal in the museum was to see the art deco elevators from the original Selfridge’s department store. Along the way we also saw stuff that had been found in the Thames River and during various construction projects. We learned about the Romans who lived in the area a long time ago. The elevator was everything I had hoped for and I gasped a little when I saw it.

The plan after the museum was to walk around London and look at various buildings and stop in at a pub for dinner. We were not yet hungry, so at the pub we would just have a pint for now. On the way to The Ship Tavern we passed the Seven Stars pub. I recognized it from my list of pubs to go to, and we went there instead. It was a small cozy pub full of locals and two tourists from Texas who had “never seen snow.” We settled in and watched them talk to the locals, it was both amusing and cringe-worthy. The French drink I had, Cidre Breton was wacky and unusual. As we sat and drank I pondered why our maps were leading us to Ship Tavern, I had not mapped it. I slowly realized that Brent had mapped the route to all the pubs I had chosen. My plan had been to go to the first one, if it was busy then move on to the next. They were all within a few blocks of each other. The Ship Tavern had been near the bottom of the list so I did not recognize the name at first. As we looked at the map we realized we had just missed the Old Bank of England pub by a block, and we were heading back that way anyways. What’s another half pint?

It was well worth it to go to a second pub. The interior of the Old Bank was very art deco and the bar was right in the middle like an island, with repeating sets of taps at all four corners. Everything was gilded with gold and upholstered in leather and made of wood. At first we were worried there would be a dress code but inside there was a mix of business people and tourists. The Cornish Orchard Cider was sour but also tasted like juice.

Walking to the Tower of London I saw the iconic bridge off in the distance and I mistakenly identified it as the London Bridge. As we got closer I realized it was the Tower Bridge. Because we had finished the Museum of London, our Sunday plans were now free again. We decided we could check out the Tower of London museum then (it was closed now). We walked along the river back towards the centre, keeping an eye out for the London Bridge. The first bridge was ugly and plain, but across the river beside it was the London Bridge Hospital. No way could this be the London Bridge I thought, it was so blah! Surely it was the next one, which was much prettier. Nope, that was the Southwark Bridge. I repeated this again, and it was the Blackfriar’s Bridge.

We crossed over the Thames via the pedestrian Millennium Bridge. There we looked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre which had been rebuilt in 1997. I assumed the seats inside were uncomfy as I saw a guy heading in with a bag of seat cushions. The London Eye was way overpriced and crawling with tourists. Plus the weather was cloudy and overcast, the view would have been terrible. We did have a nice view of St. Paul’s Cathedral across the river. We stopped at an ice cream truck, it was time to get a soft serve (aka Mr. Whippie- I did not have the guts to call it that when ordering) with a Flake chocolate in it.

From the Southbank Bridge we had a view across the River Thames of Parliament, this was the closest to the view that JMW Turner would have had as he painted it while it burned. We crossed over the next bridge because it would take us right to Parliament and Big Ben. There was a wedding photo shoot happening on the bridge, it was awkward to watch. The exteriors of Parliament and West Minister Abbey were both stunning and impressive but difficult to photograph. Our final stop on the walking tour of London was Buckingham Palace. We walked through a nice park to get there, where they had a sign about not being mean to the geese and ducks that made me chuckle (I had once heard that all the geese in England belong to the Queen). We circled the roundabout in front of the Palace and gawked at the golden fancy gates.

We walked through a park diagonally to get to the much larger Hyde Park. It took us over half an hour to walk through Hyde Park, passing by Kensington Gardens. At this point my feet were killing me, every step was agony. We saw two herons by the lake and a lot of runners. I was way too tired to go to a pub for dinner. Instead we went to the corner store and got snacks: Cherry Coke, a Double-decker chocolate bar, white chocolate Lion bar and Tangy Cheese Doritos. The Monster Munch was terrible, like a slightly spicy cheesie that was barely edible. My legs were so dead. We had walked for over six hours, all I could do now was sit, snack and watch TV.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 13

Tues. May 24, 2016:
Oxford to London suburb

I awoke feeling amazing after 11 hours of sleep. We had breakfast at the hotel, I had the usual again. The fresh chocolate croissants made up for the bacon being lame and the delay in coffee service. This was one of our less fancy breakfasts, a hotel buffet. We headed back to Oxford and left the car in the same parking lot as before.

We started the day off at the Ashmolean Museum. I had read that it was one of the first university museum’s established, therefore I went in expecting something along the lines of the museum we had seen yesterday. Man was I ever wrong. It was so big and the collection so varied. It did not feel like a university museum at all. Throughout our tour we saw some Egyptian mummies and tombs, paintings by Pissaro and Kandinsky and yet again a tonne of ceramics. It was still too soon for Delftware. One room had over 900 pieces of European ceramics, giving me flashbacks to work and a school project from a few years ago. In total we spent about 3 hours in the Ashmolean Museum. It would have been longer but we breezed through the ceramics rooms, it was just too much. Lunch was a disappointment: the Wispa and Yorkie bars were both just plain chocolate. Thankfully the Cherry Coke saved the day.

We went back to the Bodleian Library. The upcoming tour was sold out and we would have to wait an hour for the next one. Instead we paid the admission fee to just see the Divinity School. It had a beautifully carved ceiling and was exactly what you would expect to see of an old university. It turns out this was the first lecture hall in the University of Oxford and had been built in the 13th century. Next door was the Museum of the History of Science. At first it seemed really small and like we would be done in no time. I was blown away by the museum, despite the small size. We got to see photographic plates taken by Talbot, Lewis Hines’s camera which he used to photograph Alice Lidell and even Einstein’s chalkboard. There were also some really old telescopes, it had never occurred to me that they would be made of wood.

Afterwards we went across the street to the Weston Library which was associated with the Bodleian Library. They had two exhibits of books from the collection. The first one presented treasures from the collection and the exhibition title did not lie. It was an amazing exhibit. They had a written copy of Plato’s works from 900AD, and Robert Hook’s nature illustrations (open to a drawing of an ant that he fed brandy to keep still). One book had purple pages and gold writing, it was stunning and beautiful.  The second exhibit featured books of Shakespeare’s work paired with books on the subject of death. There was an engraving of a student with a skeleton looking over his shoulder, I joked that was how I felt in school. This was a definite highlight of our vacation, so many wonderful books for me to geek out over.

Walking by Trinity College we noticed that the entrance was now open. We tried to go in but were told we needed to pay admission- oops. The buildings were beautiful and the student chapel was jaw-droppingly gorgeous with stained glass and wood carvings for decoration. There was a guy playing croquet on the lawn, it just seemed so stereotypical of what one would expect in the setting.

We stopped in at a convenience store for some more snacks. I finally got my Cornetto ice cream cone fix. It was peanut butter flavour and it was old. The cone had started to go soggy. We also grabbed a Star Bar which was like a Wunderbar and a white chocolate Twix that was just not as good as a regular Twix. We split a can of Irn Bru as we walked along the River Thames back towards the car (in a roundabout way).

A cat came out of nowhere, meowing his cute little head off at me. The ducks were afraid of him, but he could not care less, he did not even seem to notice them. He was too busy meowing and avoiding my attempts to pet him. This ended up for the best as soon after he started rolling his head in goose poop.

The walk along the river was very pleasant. We stopped to watch the locks fill, but it was taking way too long and the boat had a few sections to pass. We saw a bunny in the grass. As we walked we knew we were getting close to the parking lot, Brent had Google maps open on his phone. And across the river we could see the parking lot, but how to get there? We were so close! We had to keep walking to get to a bridge. Once we crossed over to that we side we back-tracked, except we reached a fork in the path. We could continue on the right, or go over a bridge to a seeming island on the left. That made no sense, off to the right we went. For a few steps anyways. Brent looked at the map and realized we had to go over the bridge. Soon we could see the parking lot, we were so close now! Except our path was blocked by a million ducks, geese and all their progeny. We had to go around them, through the grass that they had sullied.

In the car I was getting antsy. The sunscreen had started running into my eyes. I drowned my sorrows in Jelly Babies that had been warmed up in the car. It was the perfect snack. We drove to our next hotel, which was near London. When we arrived there was a rabbit on the lawn of the hotel, it was so cute. The internet at the hotel was great, alas we only had an hour before we had to leave for dinner. As we left I saw six rabbits on the hotel lawn. They were becoming less cute as they became more common.

Dinner was at the Cliveden hotel, except the GPS took us to the National Park that the hotel sits beside and opens onto. The instructions on having dinner at the hotel warned that we would have to be buzzed in, so it made sense. The park was closed but we got buzzed in and they let us in. We drove in and it seemed wrong, we made a loop and left. We kept driving up the road looking for the entrance, following the walls around the hotel grounds. Eventually we found the actual entrance. Why had they let us into the park we wondered?

Brent parked far away from the entrance so as not to have to deal with parking by another car. The driveway was made of loose stones. I was not having it, heels and loose stones do not mix. I slowly, awkwardly, made my way up to the front. There were plenty of empty and roomy parking spots closer. The hotel was super fancy and I would be correct in describing it as grand. In the entrance there were plush textile wall hangings, everything was mahogany wood-panelled and there was a suit of armour. It was too bad we did not know this place was so amazing or that there was a national park, or else we would have planned time to visit it all.

The tasting menu featured a salad and a chocolate mint dessert, it was easy to pass on that and go a la carte and get three courses instead. My app consisted of a veal and oyster tartare that I was supposed to spread on a sourdough melba toast, except the toast kept breaking and the whole thing just became a giant mess. I tried a bite of Brent’s foie gras, but I am still not a fan of it. The texture is too thick and greasy for me. Each of us claimed that our own dish was the clear winner. The “locally stalked” deer was ok, but it did not hold a candle to the squab pigeon. Even after I found out that squab pigeon refers to a pigeon that is 4 weeks old or less. As I found out this trip, baby birds are delicious. On the dessert menu nothing really caught my eye. I got Brent to Google what a “French brest” was. Turns out it was a pastry. Pastry and pralines? I was sold. It was delicious and way easier to eat than I had anticipated (I pictured myself battling a pastry with my tiny dessert fork). It was more of a biscuit than a flaky pastry. A table had been set up by the windows, looking out on the park. The staff had placed flowers in a vase. We were instantly intrigued and we started betting on the occasion. I had suggested proposal, but that theory got thrown out when they set up a third chair. Brent correctly guessed birthday.

There were bunnies in the parking lot and then outside of our hotel, the Taplow House. I was beginning to think they were quite common in these parts. We stopped at the hotel bar for a nightcap. I had finally looked up how to drink Campari (from Call The Midwife) and had that with soda water. It was ok, light and refreshing, tasting slightly of licorice. It turned out that the internet was set up in a stupid manner. It was free for the first 2 hours and then you had to pay. It was not 2 hours of use, just 2 hours from the time you signed in- as in the time we had spent at dinner. Without internet, I got ready and decided to make an early night of it.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 12

Mon. May 23, 2016:

The morning started off great, I was dunking Biscoff cookies my coffee and yelling at the TV while watching Storage Wars Texas (there was one team being really dumb). There was no point in heading out on the town as we would have to soon return to get changed for our 11:45am lunch at a two-Michelin-star restaurant, Belmond Le Manoir.

The restaurant was difficult to find, we had to get to it via windy small backroads. We were a bit late but no one seemed to care. We parked a bit far from the entrance where there were no other cars around. As we ran up to the front, the guy offered to valet the car- a bit awkward if you have already parked the car but Brent handed him the keys anyways.

The server asked us if we wanted to sit inside or outside. Outside was my immediate response. As we sat on the back lawn patio the sun started to disappear behind some clouds and it started to get cold, but at least it was not super bright out. As we were handed our menus I asked if we could be seated indoors for the meal. He seemed a bit confused, of course the meal would be served indoors. Apparently the outdoors sitting part was just to have a drink and decide on the menu. How was I supposed to know that? Turns out this is a normal thing in fancy restaurants. The sun came out and I was finally able to enjoy the patio. I was also glad that I had put on sunscreen, as it was high noon.

We decided on the 5 course tasting menu, as this was a Michelin-starred restaurant, we had to try their best. The tasting menu also had the option to swap out dishes for a small fee (which was a drop in the bucket compared the total bill).  Brent swapped out his main dish for the veal, and I swapped out my dessert for the millionaire shortbread with ice cream. It only seemed fitting. Based on the amouse bouches we ate while perusing the menu, we were in for a culinary delight. This was further confirmed when the server came by with the bread basket. At first I thought I had misheard him. Did he say there was bacon baked into one of the breads? I had not misheard him. There was bacon… baked into the bread… right into it. Every bite had either bacon or bacon-flavour in it. It was incredible and genius and why do more places not do this?!

Once again the first course was a small shot of white garlic soup that was bright green. This time it was served hot and even more delicious. The second dish was salmon with roe, which once again was amazing. I did not have a bite of Brent’s salad, no matter how fancy or good the restaurant, I will never be a salad fan. Things fell apart with the third dish. Oh they fell apart so tragically. A poached egg, that once cut into spilled yolk all over the watercress it sat atop. It was horrible and there was barely any ham. I barely got it down. The main dish, the quail, totally won it back though. We were back on track. The outstanding quail erased any memory of the poached egg-watercress disaster. The veal was good too, but not as good as the quail.

After we were finished the server came over and said something indecipherable and asked us if were ready for dessert. We said yes. Unbeknownst to us, we had said yes to the first thing he said. Before we knew it, a guy was wheeling a cart featuring a selection of cheeses on it.  Turns out we had said yes to a cheese platter. We listened to him talk about the cheese options and then had to explain that we were in fact too full for cheese. Needless to say it was super awkward. It was around this point that we started betting on when we would be done lunch. We adding to the betting, how much the bottle of still water would cost. Why do they never offer tap water??? The millionaire shortbread was amazing, way better than the default chocolate dessert. When the bill came we had to double-check that they had not charged us for the cheese. Turns out they had forgotten to charge us for me swapping out my dessert. Lunch had taken so long, almost two hours, therefore we did not have enough time to check out the hotel grounds and gardens.

We had Googled car-parks in downtown Oxford therefore we knew exactly where to go: the local skating rink. It was an easy walk to the city centre from there. For the most part we followed the signs. We passed by the Oxford Castle but there was nothing cool there to see, just some nearby restaurants and a courtyard. As we got closer to the city centre the buildings got way prettier. Brent had chosen a few random buildings on the University of Oxford campus for us to check out and as anchors on a walking route. On a whim we stopped in at the Oxford Natural History Museum. It was by donation and we only had an hour before it closed. It was a small museum and we got it done in less than an hour. It was cool to see fossils and they had on display an amazing 13-foot long jaw bone of an aquatic prehistoric animal. I had a blast laughing at the t-rex’s stumpy little arms. It gets me every time. The adjoining Pitt’s Museum was closing sooner and it seemed to be stuff similar to what we had seen in British Columbia last year, we passed on it.

As we approached the Bodleian Library we were in the heart of Oxford campus. The buildings were absolutely gorgeous and the road was cobblestones. There were no more tours of the library available for the day, the ticket office was closed. We only got to see the courtyard and the exterior.

We still had time before dinner so we stopped in at Thirsty Meeples, a board game café. It had been our plan the day before but I had not been feeling well. We had about an hour, just enough time for a quick game and a drink. We played Hive while snacking on a bowl of Haribo gummies. This time I tried the berry-flavoured Old Mout cider. We each won a round of Hive but then it was time to go. It’s too bad, as the café was awesome and I wish we could have played more games. Even more-so when we got to The Bear Inn and it turned out they had no record of our reservation. We could have stayed long at Thirsty Meeples! Curses! Ah well, it was too late for that now. The cider selection at the pub was surprisingly lacking, I had a half pint of Stowford Press. The only thing on the menu that really caught my fancy was the sausage and mash. Brent had a burger because it was a deal of the day, it came with a free pint. We were sitting in a side room off the bar with a low ceiling. The walls were decorated with glasses frames filled with pieces of peoples’ ties labelled with their occupation and the year they had visited. At the two other tables were: two old English guys, and a middle-aged American couple. It seemed like a set-up for a joke. But they were having the most boring conversation of all time, I swear at one point one of them talked about his pension. I was dying of boredom. Thankfully they left soon after, Brent had missed most of it while ordering at the bar. Now that we had peace and quiet, we could hear the idiot in the main room talking. Was I ever going to get some respite?

Our dishes arrived and it turns out I should have paid way more attention to the menu when ordering. The greens were mushy peas. The sausage turned out to be sausages with an s on the end. There were three full-size sausages atop a bed of mashed potatoes, peas on the side and the entire thing was smothered in gravy. I had to stare at it all for a second in disbelief, trying to take it all in. I was supposed to eat this entire mountain of food? All on my own? This was a single serving? For a single person? I tried the peas, they did not really taste like anything other than gravy. I had no room for peas. I had to tackle the sausages and mashed potatoes first. The potatoes were amazing, so fluffy and full of butter and gravy. I managed to rally and eat two and a half of the three sausages. Towards the end I was so full, yet I kept eating, the plate was only half empty! In the end I made a good dent in it.

On the walk back to the car we did not pass any corner stores where I could get a Cornetto ice cream cone. By the time we were by the car I was starting to feel peckish for dessert. We went back to the gas station and Waitrose express across from the hotel. This time we grabbed Hob Nob cookies because apparently that is a British thing to eat. Who can say no to cookies? We also grabbed a Yorkie chcooclate bar, and a Wispa bar. Brent also grabbed Monster Munch, which looked like lame Cheetos. At Waitrose we grabbed some drinks and the good brand Jelly Babies. I had seen the 2014 English Vintage Cider yesterday so I grabbed that and another cider to go with my Cherry Coke. We also grabbed some Krispy Kreme donuts. There was a deal if you bought 3. The caramelized Biscoff was ok, the Reese’s peanut butter one was mediocre and the chocolate topped one with custard (aka Boston Cream) was the clear winner.

Even though the “vintage” cider was Waitrose brand it was still delicious. It was the right mix of sour-beer and juice. As it turns out there are multiple types of Hob Nob cookies. The ones we grabbed were not the chocolate-covered ones that everyone is apparently crazy for. Brent was not having it, and so I had yet another package of cookies all to myself- can’t complain about that! They were kind of like oatmeal cookies and they were simply perfect for dunking in tea while watching The Leftovers.


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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 11

Sun. May 22, 2016:
Cotswalds to Oxford

At 4:24am I awoke to a cacophony of bird song. I am all for their sweet songs, within a good context such as in a garden, not when I am trying to sleep! So loud and so not cool. We had misread the information about breakfast. It was by request only if you wanted it outside of the stated hours, not only upon request. There was yogurt from a local farm and the full English breakfast featured sausages from another local farm. Thankfully you could also order the items a-la carte. As we left the B&B we passed by the pen where the lambs were being kept. One was trying to escape and the dog was all over it, trying to herd it back into the pen. The farmer resorted to picking it up and placing it in the pen while the dog kept vigilant watch. We passed by a cow field and they were all crammed together in one corner despite the vast amount of space. We slowed and rolled the windows down to admire them. They were quite interested in us, just staring and chewing.

We got to Blenheim Palace at 10:30am. We had a lunch reservation for 1pm at a nearby tavern, giving us plenty of time to check the palace and grounds out. Or so we thought. Looking at the map of the grounds we realized that the place was enormous. We would be cutting it really close.

We decided to tour the palace grounds first and leave the building for later. The weather was still nice and they were calling for afternoon rain. It was a good 20 minute walk to the Marlborough hedge maze, pleasure garden and butterfly garden. When we got there we realized there was a small train from the palace that we could have taken. We noted it for later if the timing worked out. The maze had a sign at the entrance, saying to expect about 25 minutes to get to the centre. We checked the time and went in. This maze was well designed with dead-ends instead of loops. There were elevated lookouts that served as pseudo-checkpoints, allowing us to survey the maze and try to figure out where we had to go next. We made it to the centre and out in 14 minutes like geniuses. To get out we just had to walk through a passage rather than backtrack. If someone had gone left instead of right at the entrance sign they would have instantly made it to the centre.

The butterfly garden was tropical and like a greenhouse. My glasses and camera lens instantly fogged up and I could barely see. A big brown butterfly landed on Brent’s shoulder and stayed with for most of the time. Then one landed on my leg as we were leaving. It was a 20 minute wait for the train back to the palace, about how long it would take us to walk anyways. Before going into the palace we walked up to the Victory Monument because walking back from it we would have the grand view of the palace. It felt like forever, walking up a gently steeped hill to get to the monument. When we got there I was more interested in the nearby sheep. It was starting to get hot outside. And we still had a well and the remains of a previous house to see before heading indoors. I was getting really tired. It was around 12:30 now and I was starting to seriously regret not having worn sunscreen. It also seemed our lunch plans would have to be postponed, we were barely halfway done.

In the front courtyard of the palace there was a Bentley car show, as always when we go on vacation, we managed to end up at a car show. Before going in we stopped at the inner courtyard. We split a brownie and ice cream sundae, I chose it partly because it was Sunday, but mostly because it was hot outside. We walked through the first half of the house. There was a giant traffic jam of people crowding around the Winston Churchill exhibit. The library was pretty cool, it had two levels of bookshelves and a giant organ. On the tour we got to see the room where Winston Churchill had been born. The exit led us to the terrace and gardens. We walked one of the looped pathways. We saw some pheasants, where Churchill proposed to his wife and a built waterfall. We had done so much walking and there was still the second exhibit in the house and the second looped pathway to be done!

The second exhibit was a timed exhibit of 35-40 minutes, going through room by room and learning about the history of Blenheim Palace and the Marlborough family. The exhibit was excruciating. Only one room was interesting and that was because there was an animatronic lady being caught in bed with a guy. I learned nothing from it and only wound up confused. I wound up counting down the rooms to comfort myself. In one room there was window facing the back lawn. We watched some people play cricket.

Brent had a map of how to get to The Feather’s Pub from the palace, but we were not sure which exit it was from and it was a good 30-40 minute walk between them. Driving past the place and being unable to find parking we discovered it was a few short minutes walk from where we had parked the car near the main entrance to the palace. We ended up pulling back into the palace. The same kid who had sold us the tickets in the morning asked us if we had admission tickets. Brent had to explain that we had thrown them away and all he had was the crumpled up debit receipt. Thankfully he let us in.

The Feather’s Pub had stopped serving food at 2:30pm. Instead we went to a place two doors down, The Woodstock Arms. It was an old setting but it had a distinct hipster vibe to it. I had the Aspall Suffolk Cider (for some reason spelled cyder). The bar tender warned me that it was 7%, much stronger than most ciders. I shrugged it off and said I would be fine. There was no way I was going to pass on the Sunday roast dinner! The sirloin beef came with amazing crispy-skinned potatoes and a soft airy bun smothered in gravy. It was exactly what I pictured a British dinner being like. Even though it was only 3 in the afternoon, it still felt like dinner-time. Walking back to the car, we once again had to explain that we had left the crumpled receipt in the car. The kid laughed and said he remembered us as he waved us through.

We were staying at a Holiday Inn off the highway near Oxford. It would be a 1 hour walk to the town of Oxford, we Googled parking lots closer to the places we wanted to see instead. At this point my head had started to hurt. The bartender had been right to warn me. Adding to the discomfort, my face felt sunburnt and I was dehydrated. I conked out and fell asleep for a good hour and half. I was still not feeling great when I woke up at 7pm. It was a bit late to head out on the town. Instead we went to the gas station to grab some snacks. The lemon Fanta was just what I needed. We also grabbed some cheddar and chive Tyrell Kettle Chips, a Haribo gummy mix, Twirl bar and some more Biscoff cookies. They had a Biscoff krispy kreme donut but we thought they would make for a better breakfast, getting them fresh in the morning rather than the stale evening ones.

The Twirl bar was just a lame version of an Aero bar. Like a genius I brewed some hot chocolate and dunked my Speculoos cookies in it. We managed to watch an episode of Game of Thrones and Inside Amy Schumer, but we still had to wait before watching and let it pre-load which took a while.


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