Part I: Surprised by BOUNTY

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The first time I experienced this bounty I was hiking an ancient trail alone in the hills above Genoa, Italy.  The trail started near my youth hostel and I simply happened upon it while taking a walk that balmy fall evening before sunset.  I was surprised when I espied numerous ancient Roman ruins in the distance, but more surprised at the prickly bushes that covered the hillside and spilled over the edges of the trail.  Among the prickles, hundreds of blackberries were in a perfect state of ripeness, waiting to be plucked.  But no one else was stopping to pick them.  I couldn’t help myself and paused again and again when ripe bunches presented themselves.  A decade later, after having spent several years in Europe, I came to understand that blackberries in the fall are as common as snowflakes in winter – they become unremarkable and pedestrian, barely worth stopping to appreciate. When I returned to Germany last month with my young children, it was the height of blackberry season.  We went on numerous strolls and always stopped to reach for the perfect berry and stain our finger tips with the dark juices.  Little P would pop a fruit in the baby’s mouth and he would screech for more after barely taking the time to chew it.    Every walk became a treasure hunt that always reaped rewards.  At one point we determined to actually save enough to take home and bake.  The girls were excited about the prospect of cooking in the kitchen with something they had picked from outside and were not disappointed when, later that evening, we partook of a warm, blackberry crumble.  Thank you Germany!  We don’t take your bounteous berries for granted. P1050825 P1060047 P1050824 P1050689 P1060065 ****************************************************************** This series is brought to you by the letter “B” and pertains to our family’s recent three week stint in Europe.  If you want to be sure not to miss a post, sign up to receive the blog via email on the lefthand column.

Happening Upon Solidarity – Stuttgart, Germany

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One Saturday last month we walked down Koenigstrasse – King Street – in Stuttgart, Germany.  Koenigstrasse is Stuttgart’s Michigan Avenue or Champs-Élysées of shopping and people watching.  We were reliving memories of years gone by, years when we had only one baby.  Now we have three children and they each needed a fresh German pretzel while browsing the wares at Butlers, one of my favorite stores.  We paused to watch the ever-present Saturday summer street performers and kept a sharp eye out for women with Euro purple red hair.  This was very special family time.  It was a dream realized.

The crowd in the castle square brought me back to reality, a reality I’m reminded of every day at home when I listen to the news while I prepare dinner.  News of war, rumors of war and more news about religious persecution.  The demonstrators were vocal but peaceful.  Riot police stood at the ready, but there was not a riot.  People wore black T-shirts with the Arabic “N” emblazoned in gold across the front.  These were refugees and immigrants, families with children, from predominantly Muslim countries carrying red crosses, demanding intervention from the West on behalf of Christians being persecuted.  Unlike myself, these people probably knew casualties of war.  Unlike myself, many of these people would not be going home soon – perhaps not ever.

This area of downtown Stuttgart is the approved place for demonstrations – Green Peace, Free Tibet, end the war in Iraq. . .  We’ve seen them all.  But this one was different.  I seen the “N” as people’s profile photo on Facebook.  I see it in the news.  But these people were living solidarity by showing up in a public place with their families, singing songs, making speeches and urging intervention on the part of the government.  It was encouraging to see people exercising their right to gather and demonstrate when, where I come from, people, including myself, mostly just post Facebook status updates on how horrible the situation is.

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Riot police at the ready

Riot police at the ready

Street performers near the demonstration

Street performers near the demonstration

Discovering Museum Reciprocity

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When we moved to a new town with unbearably hot summer weather, I knew my pregnant self with a two and three-year-old could not count on the beach for free entertainment every day.  One child would chase a seagull along the surf and the other would walk into the surf toward the vast expanse of the ocean, drawn by a floating bubble just beyond the next wave.  And all I wanted to do was sit in the shade of the umbrella, fanning my belly and sweat-drenched legs.  Some days, our adventuring just needed to be moved indoors with quick access to clean toilets and air conditioning.

Public libraries were always an excellent option.  You could find us playing and reading stories at our local library about once a week.  But, I have also come to appreciate the payback that comes with owning a family museum membership.  Shadow boxes with butterflies, dinosaur fossils, space capsules, interactive water exhibits – toddlers love museums, even if just to run up and down the climate controlled corridors.  We have a family membership at the Virginia Air and Space Museum, thirty minutes from our home.  I’d like to say we’ve been more than once.  We haven’t.  But looking back over the past year, the membership has paid for itself several times over because I discovered reciprocity.

Baltimore waterfront across from the Science Center.

Baltimore waterfront across from the Science Center.

Last fall we found ourselves wandering the waterfront in Baltimore, looking for a bathroom.  Casting a large shadow across the pavement stood the Maryland Science Center.  Aha!  I bet they have clean bathrooms.  I dug through my purse, shuffling through extra diapers, a bag of crayons, two-year’s worth of outdated Moleskin day planners, junk mail I grabbed on the way out the door, a crusty pacifier, a broken cracker, fifteen various sundry writing utensils and finally espied the holy grail of a clean bathroom pass – a reciprocal museum membership.  Within ten minutes we were able to pass through the lobby, tickets in hand, and use the exclusive restrooms.  We spent a few extra minutes exploring the exhibit at the entrance before leaving the building and continuing our outdoor excursion.  With prices like that, you can afford to stay only as long as necessary to complete important personal business.

Our family membership in Virginia allows free entry into over 250 museums worldwide.  While visiting family in Atlanta, our membership granted us free access to the Fernbank Natural History Museum.  Our membership is worth more than ten times its weight in new diapers.  It has also presented us with options for kids activities while on vacation, options we would otherwise have discounted because of price.  Going to Chicago?  Use your membership to visit the incredible Museum of Science and Industry – for free.  Visiting New York City?  Explore the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum along the docks.  Find yourself traveling with kids on a rainy day in Manila?  Duck into the Philippine Science Centrum.    These museums are all part of the museum Passport Program sponsored by the Association of Science-Technology Centers (www.astc.org/passport).

As we travel with our growing family, looking for inexpensive adventures around the world, you won’t find me without possession of a family museum membership pass.  Finding the pass in my purse is a completely separate matter.

Loving Place

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Be a student of your region, your city, your neighborhood.  This has helped me learn to love where I am living, no matter where that happens to be.  We rarely have the option of living where we love, but we can always choose to love where we live.

There are things one can learn about a place to appreciate and value its culture and people, though it can take some serious initiative.

The last few weeks we’ve had the opportunity to explore our region more in-depth and visit places on our Hampton Roads bucket list.  Next year we’ll be crossing the pond, as they say, so there’s no time like the present to keep learning about  – and learning to love – this region!

First up, I cannot speak highly enough of the newly renovated, world class Chrysler Museum of Art.  Always free to the public.  Go there.  Now.

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The Norfolk Botanical Garden is a favorite year round.  We could spend all day here and still not walk every path and appreciate the different regions (or spend enough time partaking of all the children’s activities).  Watching the planes take off at Norfolk International Airport from the viewing point adjacent to the botanical garden parking lot is also probably not an experience you can have at any other garden in the country.  Doesn’t get much closer than that.

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P1050345 P1050350 P1050361 P1050362 P1050342 P1050578Fort Monroe is a national monument maintained by the National Park Service.  The fortress, originally built from 1819 to 1834, is the largest stone fortress in the U.S.  It covers a large area of land and people still rent the homes and live within the fortress walls.  It’s very unique.  The Casemate Museum located inside the battlements is free of charge and filled with fascinating  exhibits highlighting the history of the region.

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Finding The Body on vacation

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Tickets? Check.
Restaurant recommendations? Check.
Lodging? Check.
Church for Sunday? Uhhhhh. . . no. This is vacation. Vacation from everything, including church.

There are any number of reasons why we never consider attending church while on vacation. We don’t want to pack “church clothes.” We wouldn´t know anybody at the church, so we might be uncomfortable and conspicuous. We might have to get up earlier than we’d like. Particularly in a foreign country, you may be concerned about a language barrier. And what about childcare? You don’t want to leave your kids with strangers.

Some of my most memorable and refreshing moments while traveling have been the opportunities we took to worship with followers of Jesus at a local church.

A decade ago I attended a service with followers of Jesus in a small basement church in Paris. The congregation of fifty was dynamic and ethnically diverse. They were having a clothes drive to collect items for families in poverty, something not unlike what my home church would do.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYears later, my husband and I were deeply moved as a young man and his evangelical praise team led a small group of worshippers in the cathedral of Chartres, France (photo above). The simple melody of his guitar filled the heights of the halls and God was glorified. Though my husband does not speak French, I translated some of the lines and he was able to sing with understanding, following words on a small sheet handed out to all participants. Tourists mingled on the outskirts. If they understood what we were singing, they would have heard that Jesus is the Son of God and he has risen from the dead.

In Amsterdam, a plaque permanently placed on the doorway of a centuries old church announced service times. I was traveling alone over the weekend and passed by the church on a Friday. Familiar with the denomination, I decided to attend their service on Sunday. In the sanctuary built to host hundreds were seated only a dozen or so people. They were overjoyed to see my young face and even more excited that I sang along in the congregational singing. Would I please join their choir? Would I please BE their choir? Alas, they were disappointed that I was only passing through, but were grateful that I had joined them in fellowship that day.

On a three-day weekend in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my husband and I decided to worship at a congregation where, it so happened, the parents of a college friend were also attending this particular Sunday. We bumped into them as we entered the building at the same time. I hadn’t been in touch with my friend for several years. What a pleasant surprise to bump into his relatives!  But I am reminded there are no surprises in the body of Christ, only encounters God uses to encourage and remind us that his family is everywhere. His family is our family.

In London we rose for a leisurely breakfast at our hotel and took the bus to Hillsong London. We didn’t know anyone who attended the church, but we knew the fellowship would be welcoming and we would be encouraged, worshipping with and seeing the body of Christ in the city. We, along with our infant daughter, were warmly welcomed by likeminded individuals who watched the preaching on a screen in a toddler playroom off the side of the sanctuary. Coffee and chairs were provided for the gathering of families. This is not the environment in which we worship at home, but we were encouraged through the fellowship and the preaching of the Word nonetheless.

A friend and I once took a pilgrimage to a dreamland from our youth – Prince Edward Island, Canada. She found and booked our lodging at various Bed and Breakfasts. I researched day trips and found a church near our Sunday B&B at which I thought we would be comfortable worshipping (see banner photo). Shortly after breakfast we drove down a winding country road and, after a few miles, spotted a lone white church on a verdant, grassy hill in the distance. We parked on the gravel and walked in to a service that had begun many minutes before. Apparently I got the service time wrong. Instead of using our tardiness as an excuse, we, along with my 4-month-old, discreetly entered and found open seats. The congregation was small and, yes, I did feel all eyes on us as we took our places at the end of a pew. This church was non-instrumental. The congregation raised their voices, heartily led by the pastor at the pulpit with no musical accompaniment. That is not how the service goes at my home church, but this was nonetheless authentic worship that glorified God. At the close of the service, we were greeted genuinely by various congregants who invited us to the church fellowship hall in the basement for the weekly church potluck. Though we came empty handed, they insisted we join them and a handful of other families. They had nothing to gain, except perhaps mutual encouragement from other members of the Body. They knew they would likely never see us again, but they extended the hand of Christian hospitality to us. Any excuse I could have had for not attending church on my vacation was shot to pieces.

By the time I’ve planned out a vacation, the last thing I want to do is research a church. I’m not naïve. There are plenty of “churches” out there I would loathe to attend, foremost because the teaching may not align with what I believe. To some extent, I am sympathetic to that argument. My entire extended family was together one weekend after attending a destination wedding. Being of one mind, we agreed we should attend church. The owners of our hotel invited us to their fellowship in a large cathedral down the road. They were kind, gracious people and they insisted the church was wonderful and had helped them grow spiritually. The name of the church didn’t sound too off-beat or cultish, so off we went. It was a little more glitzy and showy than we were used to, but we chocked it up to cultural differences in worship style – not an issue we couldn’t tolerate for one service. But as the preacher ascended the pulpit and began to share about fundraising for a new facility in another city, a sermon never materialized and the offering plates were passed down the aisles to thousands of congregants who were informed in great detail how they could give – credit card, check, online, etc. After fifteen minutes of this show, in which several out-of-context verses were tossed on a screen overhead – we discreetly fled. The lesson here isn’t never attend church when away from home. The lesson is, simply, do a little research.

The internet makes it ridiculously easy to find a church. The point is not to find a church that could be your home church if you were to live in that locale. As a frequent mover, I can attest that finding a home church may be challenging. But a church that holds to the same doctrinal truths where you can worship for one Sunday? It’s not that difficult. Church websites often have a ‘Statement of Faith’ page. Read it. Church websites should also have a list of staff, including a short background of the individuals and their education. This will give you an idea of their theological bent. If your home church is of a particular denomination, find a church of the same denomination where you are traveling.

We have been spiritually refreshed and our perspective on how God is at work around the world has been transformed. . . even on vacation.

at Home on the Farm

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Taking a weekend road trip with children is like telling a lie – the more often you do it, the easier it becomes (or so I’ve been told).  Anticipating 18 hours on the road over the course of four days can induce anxiety.  But in the midst of the deed, it doesn’t feel so bad.  And once the deed is done, it feels totally worth it.  Of course, no matter how necessary it seems, one should not tell a lie.  However, one should definitely take that road trip.

I so enjoy a trip to the home farm I married into.  This was the purpose of our road trip a few weekends ago.  The farm is more home than farm, so welcoming and instantly transporting.  Though a mere hour or so from New York City, this farm is far placed from urbanity.  Inside the farm house there is a varietal assemblage of family art and antiques and a vast collection of well-aged books.  Outside there is dirt and weeds and fields and cows and a vegetable garden that seems naturally placed and absolutely necessary, not like my urban garden that’s simply a nod to locavorism.

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If the entire property was perfectly landscaped, with no space for mud, I would feel restless and worried my children might tramp a dirt clod into the wrong space.  If there was no overgrowth along the hedges, I would have to assume every last bit of land was accounted for and my children’s romp through the flowerbed would be noticed.  Not so at this home farm.  Children are free to roam and swim in the pond and be, well, children – scraped knees, ripped clothes and all.

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If I had an antique truck parked in my front yard with grass growing halfway up the rims, it would be considered tacky and trashy.  On a farm it’s quaint and adds character.  It’s perfectly placed.  If I placed a potted plant in a naturally distressed, old milk can, I could send the photo to a magazine and tout my country style of decorating.  On this farm, it’s just another small symbol among many of an authentic country life.

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When honesty eclipses repentance

Every day a blog or article pops up in my newsfeed touting the 10 Things Parent’s Won’t Tell You or 10 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Having Children or something else along those lines.  Someone confesses how challenging their life is, particularly compared to what it used to be, could be, or “should” be.  Comments follow, praising the writer’s honesty and how the reader can relate to the struggle.  This is particularly true in the Mommy Blog arena.  There is no lack of material discussing how lonely, frustrating and tiring it is mothering small children.  When I tread into the mommy blog arena, I am confounded by the mixed messages.  Am I meant to be encouraged by the writer’s honesty, knowing that I am not alone in my struggle against the flesh?

Yes, negative feelings and thought patterns during motherhood are normal.  I struggle daily for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Those character traits aren’t normal.  Focusing on my fatigue, my lack of me-time, on how thankless my children are – don’t they know what I am sacrificing for them? – is normal.  Focusing on how I can’t control my kids – and that makes me look bad – is normal.  Yes, these feelings grounded in sin are normal.  We need to be rescued from this.

We rightly applaud people for sharing their normal, but neglect the critical next step – repentance.  I am beginning a study of the books of Samuel, which include the account of the life of David.  David struggled with every sin imaginable.  He could have written a blog entitled Why I Had Bathsheba’s Husband Killed, baring his soul and how he simply couldn’t resist Bathsheba’s beauty.  We would all comment how we appreciate his honesty.  But what made David a great man?  He struggled with sin – did not accept it as something he just had to deal with because of his position or season of life – and repented.

Where does honesty take us if not to repentance?

Our culture glorifies honesty and never talks about repentance.  Repentance is only for those who have sin in their lives.  One of my favorite bloggers recently brought honesty and repentance into a right context.  She made herself vulnerable and shared about a crisis in her marriage, one that ultimately led to her family leaving Egypt and returning to the United States.  She struggled through grief as she mourned the death of her overseas life.  She could have stopped there.  Us readers could relate to the struggle of being pulled away from something we love.  But she didn’t stop there.  Words paraphrased from Jonah came to her –  “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs” (Jonah 3:8).   She was clinging to an idol – ministry overseas – and was “willing to forfeit the grace that our marriage so desperately needed” for that overseas life.*  I was encouraged by Marilyn’s honesty, but more encouraged by the fact that she identified the sin in her life – idolatry – and sought counsel to address it.

Our culture has come a long way in being able to share our struggles openly.  But what’s the point of sharing/blogging/Facebook-status-updating/ etc those hardships if it doesn’t lead us to discuss the Truth that sets us free?

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*You can read Marilyn Gardner’s complete post at A Life Overseas.

Indelible Scars- Verdun

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In-del-i-ble (adj): not able to be forgotten or removed

One hundred years ago the Great War – the war to end all wars – began.  Years of carnage and devastation followed.  I have seen the scars.

Millions upon millions were killed.  This war reached the furthest corners of the globe.  I once visited a military cemetery in a remote region of Africa where soldiers from WWI are buried.   I have seen the scars.

While tragedies abound in our day, none can be compared to the killings of the beginning of the last century.  The scars are still there to be seen.

As an observer of history one hundred years on, it is difficult to fathom the devastation.  To better understand history and man’s condition, I visited Verdun several years ago.  The battle of Verdun in eastern France was one of the costliest in human history.  Nearly three quarters of a million men were killed.  The battle lasted nearly a year and the bullets and cannons fired across the land permanently changed the landscape.  It is scarred.  One hundred years on, acre upon acre is still pocked with craters.  In many areas, the unexploded ordnance make it dangerous to walk.  Raised plank walkways are built through the woods so visitors do not fall into craters obscured by overgrowth.  This landscape will always bear these visible scars.

This is one war humankind will never forget.

In a world where the most serious scars are those hidden in people’s hearts, Verdun reminds me that visible scars are significant too.  Jesus was pierced and crushed, leaving indelible, visible scars.  Those are the scars that lead to true freedom.

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In the cemetery at Verdun are buried those who identify with the Christian faith.  This we are accustomed to seeing – fields of white crosses that bring tears to our eyes.  But this cemetery also contains the remains of Muslim men, bodies buried facing Mecca.  Yet another sign this Great War left no one untouched.

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You can read about our experience of stumbling upon a British WWI cemetery in Mozambique here.

As hospitable as the Washingtons – an impression of Mount Vernon

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Recently I have been exploring the cost effective option of house swapping for an upcoming trip to Europe.  The internet has enabled folks who are willing to let complete strangers stay in their home connect in a secure way.  For a home swap, users essentially join a club where you can list your house and view listing of homes from around the world where you would be welcome to stay if the owners have vacancy.  At first glance, it sounds risky.  It requires trusting complete strangers around your personal possessions.  What if they steal something while they stay in your home?  Or what if the home you stay in is really dirty gross? These are, of course, logical questions.  Despite those minor risks, allowing complete strangers to stay in one’s home has been done since the dawn of time.  Perhaps only in the last century have people been expected to rely solely on inns and hotels for a bed while traveling.  In a recent visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s famed estate, I learned that the family welcomed traveling strangers into their home nearly every night.  I may soon be welcoming complete strangers into my home.  Hospitality has come full circle.

P1040919With few inns located throughout the region, it was common courtesy in 18th Century New England to host weary travelers in one’s home.  Our Mount Vernon tour guide relayed how the estate was located on a busy travel route and became a common stop for those needing overnight accommodation.  The several guest rooms were frequently booked with passers through, often complete strangers to the Washingtons, who nonetheless offered them room and board.  Even after he returned home from his time as President, overnight guests often had the pleasure of breakfasting with Washington before they continued their journey.  This exemplary show of hospitality was a normal, expected part of the culture.

Allowing someone to stay in your home is a very personal affair.  The guests see your family photos on the wall and peruse your bookshelves, quickly gleaning an insight into your personal interests.  Several years ago we allowed a family from New Zealand – friends of friends – to stay in our home while we were away.  We were already out of town when they arrived, so we never had the opportunity to meet them. They left a very kind note after their stay indicating they felt they knew us after spending so much time in the presence of all our earthly belongings.  When you open your home, you make yourself vulnerable.  Your home and how you keep is speaks volumes of who you are as a person.  I’m looking forward to making my home presentable for complete strangers and, in turn, learning to love and care for someone else’s home while I have the pleasure of experiencing their hospitality, whether or not I actually get to meet them.   P1040914 P1040916

World Cup ready dessert OR Dessert fit for Berlin

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P1050375It’s the little things that trigger happy memories – memories of family togetherness during travels or times living abroad (or in another state).  Little things like dessert.  World Market does it to me every time.  For a minuscule obligatory donation, I return home with an edible item that will trigger smiles, laughter and stories of times gone by.  Most recently it was German ice cream.  The ice cream didn’t start out German, however.  It started with a batch of homemade vanilla ice cream, a favorite Rittersport Chocolate bar (made near Stuttgart, Germany), and travel biscuits of the British type, i.e. a cookie. I crushed up half the chocolate bar and several cookies from less enticing destinations (uh-hum, Las Vegas) and mixed them with the softened ice cream.  After refreezing the batch, I selected an appropriate biscuit with which to garnish the edible memory-inducer.  This being “German” ice cream, I selected a Berlin biscuit. P1050376 Then, using my favorite IKEA repurposed candle holders, the dessert was ready for assembly, presentation and consumption. P1050377This dessert brought back memories of passing through the Brandenburg Gate while running the Berlin half marathon.  The course was packed with participants and spectators the entire length of the race.  I also hadn’t counted on only seeing kilometer markers.  Kilometers go by faster than miles, but there are a lot more of them.  That’s a very profound concept for a runner to contemplate while weaving through a course in downtown Berlin, admiring nearly every significant landmark in the city. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA While drinking the last melted drops of sweet cream from the bottom of my glass, I also recalled the city bathed in warm summer sun.  We had taken a nap on a grassy lawn, along with every other tourist, student, businessman-on-lunch-break and local senior citizen loading up on warmth after the previous season’s numbing cold. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA If you could take a tour via biscuit, to which city would your memories take you?

P.S.  Hosting a World Cup party?  Serve a city biscuit appropriate to the country playing the match.  Argentina’s on the field?  Mix ice cream with authentic dulce de leche topped with Buenos Aires.  Will you be watching Colombia play today?  Serve ice cream drizzled with espresso and a side of Bogotá.

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