The Portugal Diaries

Since I didn’t have wifi for the majority of the trip, I took to writing notes on my iPhone (starting to understand the beauty of these devices). So here are The Portugal diaries:

Day 1: Getting There (Grenoble-Munich-Lisbon-Faro)

Is this a day? It feels like 5 rolled into one. We’ve been traveling since 3am this morning. Bike to bus to airport, to another airport, to another bus, to a train we missed because our flight was delayed, to finally waiting in the dark streets for our airbnb host to let us in. We’ve feasted like hobbits having a meal or snack every few hours because our internal clocks are askew and as a hobbit might think, eating helps pass the time. 18 hours of travel. Antoine and I have been through something like the seven stages of grieving- denial of how long this day would actually feel, anger, and then guilt, from being grumpy with each other, and ultimately acceptance and hope that in spite of missing our train we might actually make it to our destination. Reminder- if possible avoid insanity-inducing long travel days like these.

Too early

Too early

Although I must admit- seeing the sun rise over the Swiss alps is pretty stunning.

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Day 2: Exploring Faro

Good news- we didn’t sleep on the streets! Even better, we met our German host who let us in to our cute little Faro apartment, and informed us that there’s a fall fair starting tonight in our honor! Well…there’s a fall fair on the day of our arrival. Coincidence? I think not. But it’s a gorgeous day- there’s a semblance of summer lingering just outside of my window! How can this much sun and warmth exist in October? I won’t waste my time asking questions- time to explore the old town, take a boat ride around the lagoon and go enjoy the beach. Finally a real vacation with Frenchie!! Continue reading

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“We’re deep in Chartreuse now”

I was lost in green. As the green grass whizzed by rolling green hills, I secured the Chartreuse in my lap. Feeling content in the passenger seat of Antoine’s loud campervan, I surveyed the scenery as green turned to grey and we slowly ascended into the mountains. I was pretty sure we were lost, but I didn’t care. As if to read my mind, Antoine smiled at me, “We’re deep in Chartreuse now”.

With past weekends filled with house projects, Ikea runs and general post-week recoveries, we were well overdue for a day trip. And the idea of a small visit to the Chartreuse cave seemed ideal- it would be short and simple…and delicious.

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Deliciousness

We entered into a space covered in Chartreuse (both the color and liqueur). I was surprised to learn that not only was the tour gratuit, but with that lack of ticket payment, you got to survey the distillery, watch a unique 3D film of Chartreuse history, tour the longest liqueur cellar in the world (you heard that right folks!), and sample a Chartreuse flavor of your choosing. Impressionnant, non? Continue reading

Sasquatch

It’s official. I’m a crazy cat lady.

Alright. Alright. I’ve always been a crazy cat lady. But I didn’t really have a choice, since loving cats is all part of my namesake. No really. Kotecki means cat lover. Or so I’m told.

But it’s officially official because I have one of my own. One who both terrorizes and amuses me. One who drives me insane in one instant and melts my heart in the next. One who goes by Sasquatch.

So in an effort to introduce this charismatic cat to the world and appease my crazy cat ladydom, (or maybe the claws of insanity are slowly tightening their grip on my mind), I decided to write a poem. Continue reading

The Waiting Game

I wrote this a while ago, and while I’m finally back in France (and travel stories will ensue), I wanted to share.  

The thought of entering that waiting room terrified me. Because then it was real. Then I actually had to face the fact that my grandma was undergoing intense surgery. That the tearful laughter we shared the night before in the hotel lobby, might just be the last time we laughed together.

That was a possibility that no part of me was willing to face.

I was terrified that the waiting room would be sterile, dark and bleak. That it would feel oppressive and daunting. And that the hard shell of denial that I had so diligently worn for the past month, would crack in seconds. But I was surprised to enter an area that was spacious and open, filled with sunlight, and the buzz of cheery conversation.

Feeling mildly relieved, my family settled in with our breakfast tacos and nervous chatter about the weather and how long we thought we’d be in the waiting room. Would it really be over in 8 hours? Could it possibly be shorter, with good news that would end this unsettling wait? Continue reading

Kindness Counts

I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last post. Where did time go? How does it fly by so quickly? I have so many ‘return to the States’ observations, thoughts and general posts whirling around in my brain. But here we are- a month later and I’m just now posting. I guess being home for the first time in a year, coupled with a plethora of familial emotions will take its toll on time.

Plus I’m a horrible snowball procrastinator. Just the worst. If I let something slide, and then slide even a little bit more, it snowballs into this seemingly overwhelming task that occupies too much of my thoughts, and thus results in a complete system shut down- a.k.a. curling into a blanket on my dad’s couch and watching the worst American television. Seriously. Is it just me, or has American TV gotten even more dramatic, over the top, expulsive, and so generally disgusting that you somehow can’t put down the remote and oddly continue to watch in shock (and awe) at this train wreck that is television? My return to America (or should I say ‘Merica) was christened with walking into the hotel room where my sister was watching Honey Boo Boo. Enough said.

But I digress. There will be other times, other posts to rant about overweight hicks on “reality” TV, or terrifying trashy pop stars occupying all forms of social media, and even American news. Right now I want to talk about kindness. About having patience, going above and beyond, stepping outside of your daily routine, and generally giving a shit at a time when ultimately, it’s easier not to. Continue reading

It’s the little things

Today I’m feeling appreciative of the little things in life that make a big difference. Like:

  • The universe aligning to alleviate stress, reduce complicated factors and streamline a difficult process (is streamline to corporate jargony? is jargony even a word?)

Or more specifically:

  • The French administration not only being accurate about the arrival of important documents (for once), but actually being EARLY with said documents!!
  • Receiving my récépissé a week in advance, thus allowing me to purchase my plane ticket home and be there for my Grandma’s consultation.
  •  Buying a round trip ticket to the United States 5 days before departure and discovering a ticket $1,000 less than the original expected price!
  • The knowledge that my visa might actually be ready when I return. And due to French error it might be a working visa!

And more generally:

  • A wonderful support system all over the world.
  • And knowing that I can return to an amazing source of support here in France.
  • The excitement that comes with returning home after a year.
  • The happiness that stems from my Grandma’s happiness.
  • Sharing celebratory desserts to further appreciate these little things.
  • And of course- kittens. Kittens are always worth appreciating.

Come Sunday, one of these will be mine (…and Antoine’s).

What’re you feeling appreciative of today?

kittens!

Kittens!

Happy Friday Everyone!

Let Vacation Time Commence!

It’s official. Vacation time is here! I’m off to Paris today to retrieve my sister, and my cousin, and then on to Rome, Naples and the Amalfi coast (particularly excited about this one)! I then return to Grenoble for a week and meet friends in Spain for more European gallivanting. Hoping to post along the way, but I’m not exactly sure about internet accessibility.

But today I’m feeling grateful. Appreciative of visiting family friends, excited for family arrival, and happy to have the opportunity for these experiences.

As Epicurus wrote, “We must exercise ourselves in the things which brings happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”

Or if quotes aren’t your thing, here are some pictures of Bastille Day fireworks. Fireworks are fun. These were awesome.

Especially when they projected them off of the protruding tower in the middle of the park. That was a firework first.

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Happy Monday!

Life’s Rewards (and awards!)

Happy Bastille Day! (Or as I recently learned- quatorze juillet. Apparently no one actually calls it Bastille day…I guess like no one really says Independence day for the 4th of July…)

But happy it is indeed, as summer is in full swing with a free MIKA concert, visiting family friends (a.k.a. the surrogate family or the family ambassadors…), new dining out adventures, swimming in a beautiful mountain lake, and exploring quaint Annecy (future blog post on Annecy to come)!

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To add to the happiness- I was nominated for the Very Inspiring Blogger award! I’ve really enjoyed getting into the blogger community- sharing experiences, opinions, adventures and words! So thanks to all the followers- family, friends, and blogging community- especially as I fumble my way not only through a foreign country but through the blogging world as well!

Enough sentiment. Here are the rules for the award: Continue reading

The bug

Let's Go Anywhere

Well, it’s official. I’m living in Grenoble!

I finally moved in a couple weeks ago. It’s been a long back and fourth of visiting for visa purposes, wondering if I could even stay in France, finishing my time in Montbeliard, and running around the south of France with the remaining TAPIF assistants. By the end, I was ready for down time. Traveling and trying to move in/establish a new life felt draining. I wanted to invest in one or the other. And I felt it was time to invest in living in France.

But now here I am, officially in Grenoble and I have the itch. The travel bug is gnawing away at me- impatient and greedy. And I don’t know what will satisfy this fat little fucker. I’m living in France! I’ve been traveling on and off for the past 8 months. I just finished booking a trip to Italy with my cousin and sister in July, and another to Spain in August with my friend. But the bug wants more. It wants Thailand and Morocco. Egypt and China. To revisit Greece and Turkey. To backpack, to explore, to volunteer, to teach. And I don’t think it will stop there.  Continue reading

Happy Summer Start!

It’s officially summer and boy do the French know how to kick it off! June 21st marks the end of school, the beginning of summer and of course, the Fete de la Musique- where musicians, performers and music lovers take to the streets for some good ole free concerts.

I first stumbled upon it years ago in Paris, as my friends and I settled in for a picnic at the Sacre Coeur and ended up staying through the night with a full on Parisian party, followed by an enthusiastic concert by the Seine. Ah Paris. What a memorable night.

Paris 2009

Fete de la Musique Paris 2009

Continue reading

This is How I Imagined it- Southern France

Well I survived the train travel hell and made it to the beautiful Aix-en-Provence. We even squeezed in a day trip to Cassis (a small gem of a town with the best ice cream! I would like to explore longer/again). Southern France has been built up in my mind, but boy does it live up to it’s expectations (even when France is having freaky summer cold fronts).

I’ve been a bit behind in my life lately. Between moving out, moving in, birthdays, beaches and travelling (I know, la vie est dure- sooo hard), I haven’t been up to date on the whole self employment or blogging thing.

So, in an effort to keep posting, I figure why not let the pictures do the talking? Because this really is how I imagined it- rolling hills of wildflowers and vineyards, quaint towns, crisp wine and fresh food (especially olives), sandy beaches, sunny skies, and lots of smiles.

La vie est vraiment belle.

Stumble, Walk…Dance!

I’m awkward in Grenoble. True, I just moved here and am still getting my footing, but like a baby learning to walk, I’ve spent my start in a state of stumbling (whether that be verbally, physically or socially).

Me in Grenoble. (Except that it's actually Jennifer Lawrence)

Me in Grenoble. (Except that it’s actually Jennifer Lawrence. But it’s awkward. )

I blame Montbeliard. It was a lovely little home for what it was, but it created an antisocial cave creature, that burns immediately when exposed to sunlight, and doesn’t know how to communicate to Frenchies who aren’t old or teenagers.

Take my first nightlife outing in Grenoble. Much to our surprise, Maribel (fellow assistant) and I actually dragged ourselves outside and in to the cold rain. Effort #1. In Montbeliard you don’t leave your dwelling if there is rain…which is always…hence the cave creaturedom.

But we trudged through the rain, promising ourselves just one drink and then the reward of antisocial solitude in our shelter back home. We aimed for the more low-key option of the wine bar, but upon seeing the mass of people waiting outside, we became discouraged. Effort #2. In Montbeliard you don’t deal with crowds or lines.There aren’t enough people out and about.

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Lost in nightlife translation

Looking disheveled and confused,we arrived at our second option, the London Pub, where we awkwardly awaited the complicated entrance.

  • Wait for bouncer to come to door.
  • Wait for door #1 to open.
  • Wait inside small chamber with bouncer, friend, and dripping umbrellas, until bouncer decides it’s time to open door #2 and allow you in the bar.

Seconds in to our arrival, we were bombarded by a bartender who asked if we wanted to sit, to which we replied with a relieved “Oui.” However, before we could be granted our table, he asked, “Vous etes d’ou?” (Where are you from?). Or at least that’s what I thought. “Etas-Unis” I replied, wondering what kind of bizarre code we were speaking. We were at London Pub, maybe only English speakers could get a table. Or certain types of English speakers. Should I have said Scottish?! However, my thoughts came to a halt when I saw the smile and head shake as he repeated, “Vous etes deux?” (You’re two?). “Ohhh. Oui. Juste deux.” Cheeks were definitely turning red.

One weird, disappointingly juice heavy cocktail, a surprisingly empty bar, some drying and lots of embarrassment later, Maribel and I considered tossing in the towel. We were out of our element. We’d been hermits for too long. Hermits we would remain. But something within us rebelled and we tried for one more place. We’d trudged though the rain for a night of fun, not fail. After all, you have to stumble before you can learn to walk.

Long story short, getting lost led us to the start, where we gained footing at Le Tord Boyaux (the wine bar from before) and ended our “night” with the birds. We sang ridiculous French songs, watched the bar illuminate in flames, met some awesome people, tried bizarre flavors of wine (mango and apple pour moi), and caught the last tram to an electro dance.

 

At first we feared a fail repeat as the large place lacked people, and the people who were there swayed like repetitive zombies in front of the dj, leaving the dance floor naked and neglected. But sometimes you just need to dance like no one’s watching. Which is exactly what we did. We let go of the awkward moments, the language barriers, and the social constraints. We shed our hermit skin and left it on the dance floor as we twirled and laughed and danced.

And maybe that’s kinda how life is (or my life at least)- stumbling through the start, until you reach a place of solid footing, ultimately realizing that at the end, you just want to let go and dance like nobody’s watching.

I’ve Missed The Wildflowers

Bike riding down dusty paths, exploring cobblestone tops of old castles, seeking warmth under the sand with my bare feet, and stopping to smell the wildflowers. Amazingly enough these are not memories from my childhood, but rather the foundation of my quarter century start.

I was fortunate enough to celebrate my 25th birthday in the South of France. The remaining assistants and I stayed in a big local house (thanks to airbnb) in the quaint, but difficult to pronounce, town of Villeneuve les Maguelone. Situated close to protected beaches and accessible to Montpellier, it was the perfect introduction to summer in the South (hoping to have a whole Southern France section of this blog later).

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The tiny town was quiet and not accustomed to seeing non-French tourists, which made for authentic experiences. The roads were bikeable and the old church by the beach was intimate with it’s vineyard, medical services, and sweet scents of jasmine wafting from the botanical garden. The beaches were not overcrowded, and the inhabitants moved slower through the small, interwoven streets and smiled more often than the non verbal Montbeliardans I’d become familiar with. It was a welcome change.

The area made it convenient for day trips to France’s 8th largest city and an old Medieval town- Montpellier and Aigues-Mortes. Though my time in Montpellier was short, it took only a small sliver time to make a big impression. I will definitely be returning.

Containing an old Medieval town within its walls and a colorful salt marsh just outside, Aigues-Mortes was unique to say the least. Winding through the old streets, observing with intrigue at the Medieval festival, and climbing through the castle brought back a rush of delightful freedom and a sense of wonder.

Wonderfully enough this trip entering adulthood sent me back to memories from my childhood. The warm weather, the smells of spring, and the simple pleasures of hearing waves rolling, or tasting hard-boiled eggs in a homemade sandwich were refreshing. And then there were the wildflowers. Oh how I missed the wildflowers. As we drove away from the Alps of Grenoble and the terrain became increasingly more flat and dry (reminding me more and more of Austin), I was surprised to feel my heart swell with childlike glee at the sight of wildflowers. I can’t believe it’s been years since I’ve seen them like that. Years since I’ve seen them in full bloom, taking over masses of earth, and tangling with each other in bursts of colorful confusion. No wonder the painters headed down South. Oh I’ve seen flowers. I might have been deprived of Spring in the spastic Boston weather, but I’ve still seen flowers. But there was something particularly breath taking about seeing the wildflowers- to see their color dominating fields, sides of roads, and cracks of walls. Or maybe it was because encapsulated in their passionate forms, they held pieces of home, of familiarity, of a time filled with innocence and memories of simple pleasures.

Or maybe they were just on my mind because of my Grandma’s quirkiness. During one phone conversation prior to the beach, she blurted, “The bluebonnets are blooming.” To which I responded, “Oh. That’s so nice. I miss the bluebonnets.” As images of their blue bodies floated through my mind and I realized just how much I missed them, my grandma interrupted with West Texan urgency, “No, no, no! That’s our code word.” “Our what?!” “Our code word. If anything happens. You say ‘The bluebonnets are blooming,’ and you’ll have a ticket home!” “Grandma. What would I need a code word for?” “I don’t know if something were to happen. If Antoine were to go bad or you were in a situation that required a code word.” As if I’m living in some hostile territory or dating some operative that could turn on me at any moment.

Needless to say that took the innocence out of the moment. My grandma is worth a blog post of her own- several for that matter. She is a character, a force to be reckoned with, and a whole lot of crazy who I completely admire.

Code words aside, it was nice to be reminded of simple things. It was nice to recharge with spring, with sun and especially with the wildflowers.

Perks of being a Teaching Assistant

Being appreciated.

…REALLY appreciated…

Wined and dined by my teachers tonight for a farewell dinner and then received this!

But seriously- WTF?!

But seriously- WTF?!

Never in my life have I received a necklace in a box! -or such schmancy bling. Best date ever! I was pretty much left blushing and speechless. Jewelry doesn’t make me do that! I’m pretty sure it was the surprise of their overwhelming kindness. Next set of co-workers are going to have some big shoes to fill…

But seriously. After 7 months of hot and cold co-worker relations (though in their defense I recently discovered that past assistants were horrible and thus they were keeping their distance)- it’s nice to know that my hard work was noticed and appreciated!

So many mixed feelings are whirling throughout my mind as the end of this program draws near and yet another chapter of my life comes to a close. But exciting prospects are on the horizon and today I’m really feeling the love and support! I truly am lucky.

Paris Je t’aime

Where else can you finish your first “night” at 6:30 am, and your second at 8:00 am after you’ve watched the sun rise and the commuters come out? They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but Paris definitely gives New York a run for its money. And Paris by night truly is enchanting.

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This past weekend I went for a short visit to see my friend Luke from Boston. After an exhausting day struggling with a computer virus, checked out students and no-show classes, I was happy to make my way to Paris sans train complications. After navigating to our host’s house, happily reuniting with Luke and filling up on delicious wine, cheese and baguette, it was time for the match de foot! As soon as we exited the metro, you could feel the energy shift in the streets. Crowds of fans donning blue attire and chicken? hats swarmed into the stadium equipped with flags, whistles and horns. I was beside myself as we took our amazing seats and stood for the French anthem. The excitement that I felt as a 12 year old, rooting alongside the dedicated French fans in bars as we screamed at the television, flooded back as I stood there in person screaming at the actual players, “allez les bleus!” I laughed in disbelief and amusement as the French booed their own players for missed goals or actions not up to par. Only the French would feel so offended by anything other than perfection. As the flags flew, the horns blazed and the roar of the wave that made the Red Sox stadium sound like a mere trickle passed through the crowd, I couldn’t help but think “Is this real life??” Georgia gave France a difficult beginning, but the game finished with a satisfying 3-1.

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The stade!

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The dedicated fan section

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The group!

The night continued with rejoicing in the streets, late night “burritos” (panini pressed and filled with thai rice- but at least they had black beans!!), a house party, followed by a random dive bar with only men and a bizarre selection of 90s music, another surprise dance bar with gummy bear drinks and wonderful west african music, and ending at the Notre Dame where a crowd of teenagers excitedly interrogated us on and impressed us with their knowledge of american culture. Had I not spent the past 6 months working with teenagers, I think I might have been intimidated or annoyed by these kids. However their enthusiasm amused me and my heart went out to one in particular- a Syrian immigrant who came to France for the Army even though he wanted to do graphic design. His face lit up when I told him I taught art in the states and as we left I couldn’t help but tell him not to give up on his artistic passion.

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Notre Dame at night

Day two got off to a late start, but we made our way to the Château de Vincennes originally constructed as a hunting lodge for Louis VII in the 12th century. It was bizarre to see a château in the middle of apartments and shops and to witness an actual prison tower (the kind you would imagine Rapunzel in).

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This is older than Versailles!

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Love the Gothic style

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Ginger Reunion!

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The tower looks much more impressive up close

After enjoying the warm weather at an outdoor cafe, we returned home for aperos and received a special treat- Paris by car. We were lucky enough not only to stay with our French friend in Paris, but to stay with one who happily offered us a personal tour of Paris by night. As we passed the famous monuments and places- Louvre, Bastille, Oblisque, Orsay- I couldn’t help but feel mesmerized by Paris. The glow of the lights, the old buildings, the winding streets, the history encompassing all- it really was enchanting. My favorite moment came as we drove down the Champs-Élysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. I have walked to, around, on top of and under the Arc, but it was amazing to see it from a perfectly centered view as it grew ever closer along the strip of lights.

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Night Tour

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Picture doesn’t quite do it justice

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Illuminated Arc

Our next stop took us to another house party. Unfortunately we were not in the loop, and had no idea that is was not only a birthday, but also a themed party. Apparently the French love to do theme parties starting with letters. Since Charlotte was the birthday girl, everyone dressed in C related attire. It made for great conversation starters to meet people and call out across the room “Chat!”, “Cleopatra”, “Cowboy”, “Charlie” (The French Waldo- weird, I know.) Our night continued with more bar hoping, champagne on the subway, and eventually the Centre Pompidou- at 5 in the morning. It was the last weekend of the Dali exhibit and as a result it was open for 24 hours. 

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Late night/early morning excursion

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We got in!

Convinced we would be the only ones there, we were quite surprised to discover the contrary- a gallery full of people. What a surreal experience- to be in Paris, in an exhibit at 5 am wandering among all types of people and having time to take in Dali’s actual work. I relished the time and intimately stared at and studied Dali’s brush strokes, his choice of color, and bizarre subject matter. It was all the more surreal to exit as the sky shifted from a deep blue to a rosy purple.

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Loved the colors in this one

Wait for it...

Wait for it…

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Too cool!

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The shift

Our final destination brought us to the Eiffle tower as the sun came up. Unfortunately the Paris weather prevented the viewing of an actual sunrise, but the experience was no less impressive. We stood under the massive tower as it penetrated the morning mist, listening to the birds waking up and watching Paris come alive. I felt rejuvenated and overwhelmed. What an amazing adventure. What a treat to remember why I love France, to embrace new experiences, to feel the romantic night of Paris, to take in these famous sites at off hours. It is so rare to have a personal moment with monuments without the hassle of crowds, the noise of tourism, and the rush of “gotta see this quickly!”

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Time for intimacy

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Good Morning

As we walked away, delirious and tired, I couldn’t help but smile and think about what Luke said earlier in an outburst of delight (though he will tell you otherwise), “Everything I’ve ever wanted has happened!”

How lucky were are to have these moments.