Grapefruit Martini with a Kick

It’s summer, and I’m a sucker for refreshing martinis. If it has exotic-sounding ingredients, like hibiscus flower or jasmine-infused jicama, and it costs $14 at a fairly lackluster LA bar, chances are I’m going to want to order it.

An impromptu dinner party and a Costco bag of grapefruit I wanted to use up inspired me to search for a great grapefruit martini recipe.  I normally don’t follow drink recipes and just wing it. I mix yummy-seeming ingredients together and then make up a fancy name — like Sunset Spritzer Refresher or Cabo Tankini — however, I’ve discovered there may be some merit to mixologists saying certain alcohols or flavors don’t mix. Also, my guests feel a bit more comfortable when they know I’ve followed a recipe. I tend to have a heavy hand when I pour — a complaint I hear often from my friends, though they don’t seem to mind when a bartender commits this offense, so f them.

I found a few options online, like this Pink Grapefruit Martini and this Grapefruit and Basil Martini. The first one seemed a bit boring, and I’m not a huge fan of the simple syrup used in the second, so I decided to wing it — rules be damned!

Here are my adapted versions — that’s right I made 2! I aim to please guests with both a spicy and a mellow palate.

The spicy in the back and the mellow up front.

Spicy Grapefruit Martini

  • 1.5 ounces (1 shot) vodka
  • 0.5 ounces triple sec
  • 2 ounces fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice
  • 2 thin slices jalapeno
  • splash of prosecco (or sparkling wine)
  1. Muddle 1 slice of jalapeno in the bottom of the shaker.
  2. Fill shaker with ice.
  3. Add vodka, triple sec and grapefruit juice.
  4. Shake what your mama gave you.
  5. Pour into martini glass, and add fresh jalapeno slice.
  6. Top with a splash of prosecco.

I did a heavy splash of prosecco; I like the bubbly. It tasted pretty good without the splash as well but the prosecco does add a nice summer-y, refreshing topper to it. For a spicier option, infuse the vodka with jalapeno beforehand — just toss some vodka in a glass, throw in the jalapeno slices, and let it all sit in the fridge for a couple hours.

For the more mellow-mouthed, a refreshing alternative is a Basil Grapefruit Martini. Follow the above recipe but replace the jalapeno with 2 or 3 basil leaves.

Esther after 3 Grapefruit Basil Martinis.

Esther after 3 Grapefruit Basil Martinis.

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Challenge Pho the Best!

For the past year or so, Dave and I have been mildly obsessed with pho. Though we always go to the same place — Pho Citi on Westwood Blvd. You can see from its 2-star Yelp profile that we are pho connoisseurs.

I always get the shrimp pho, or the #22, as we Pho Citi regulars call it. And Dave always get the chicken wonton pho — the #28, of course. The pho is accompanied by a plate of mix-ins you can choose to add to your pho. I add all the bean sprouts, a leaf of basil, and 1 slice of jalapeno. I often add sriracha or hoisin sauce to individual noodle bites.

It’s 2 am — time for Pho Citi!

We’ve been consistently pleased with our meals at Pho Citi, so much so that we don’t even mind the 6 pounds of sodium-overload-induced water retention that comes with it. TIME magazine, however, tells me I should try new things to keep my brain healthy so when the craving for pho hit, we decided to venture to a new pho restaurant — maybe one that isn’t open 24 hours.

Since we were down at Home Depot in Culver City, like all the crazy kids on Friday night, we decided to try Super Pho & Teriyaki. This place has a whopping 3.5 stars on Yelp and it closes at 1 am on weekends, so we were expecting a serious step-up in class from Pho Citi.

Here’s to new pho experiences!

I got the chicken pho and Dave got the raw steak pho, both regular sizes. The sizes are huge; smalls would have been plenty big. It was decent pho but sadly, it didn’t measure up to Pho Citi for us. My chicken was very cartilage-y, and the broth was somehow even saltier than Pho Citi. There was no plate of accompaniments; however, there was a topping bar that we didn’t see that had the usuals. They also have a more limited menu than Pho Citi so no shrimp or won ton pho options.

This sparks the beginning of our search for the best pho in Los Angeles — or at least the pho that beats the 24-hour joint.

Esther missed out on pho so we gave her an extra big dinner.

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Florence: The Land of Space and Sunshine

We got into Florence around 10:30 pm last night. Because we are travel noobs, we didn’t book our Chunnel tickets back when we were planning this trip, assuming that it’d be something we could snag last minute for the same price. Well, prices went up astronomically so we ended up flying from Paris to Florence, and paying triple what we would have had we booked a month ago. Learn from our mistake — toss your footloose and fancy-free aspirations out the window and book in advance.

We’re staying at the Palazzo Ricasolo. After our miniature room in Paris, this is the mansion of all mansions. It’s not in the best area of town but you can quickly walk to the best area of town so it’s nearly as good. And it’s huge! We have a massive sitting room, a solid balcony, a nice-sized bedroom, and a full bathroom with shower, tub, toilet and bidet (do any travelers actually use the bidet?).

This doesn't look particularly nice in the photo but it's huge and clean!

This doesn’t look particularly fancy in the photo but it’s huge and clean!

Since we didn’t check in until 11:30 pm, we set out to find some food. What’s up with Europe, people? Why is everything closed by 11 pm? When we were searching for someplace to eat this late, we had several locals refer us the 24-hour McDonald’s. Instead, we opted for a tiny bar that served food. It had more of a pub feel and a cute dog hanging out, and it did the job for us. I quickly embraced the Italian feel with Prosecco; Dave is having a hard time getting out of London.

Our first Italian meal.

This morning we enjoyed the view from our balcony and walked around the city. The architecture here is simply astounding, and my photos don’t do it justice. So just visit Florence yourself (come on, do it) and be somewhat astounded every time you turn the corner and see another immensely huge and beautiful building.

The view from our balcony was pretty killer. Thus far, Florence wins.

The view from our balcony.

Another nice touch with the Palazzo Ricasolo is the complementary breakfast. This isn’t your stale Danish and lukewarm coffee kind of breakfast. It’s pretty robust — with eggs, meats, pastries, cereal, muffins, fruit, fresh juices, and really good coffee. AND they have a barista so you can order cappuccinos to your heart’s content. For us, this equals three per day.

We’ve been drinking a lot of these.

Thus far, Florence takes the cake as my favorite on this trip. It’s substantially warmer which helps its standing, seemingly more affordable, and just gorgeous.

Esther prefers her cappuccinos without the espresso portion.

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Odds and Ends in Paris

Despite the frigid weather (have I mentioned that it’s cold here), we’ve done tons of walking around Paris. Every time it rains, we debate buying an umbrella but the rain abates before we’ve pulled the trigger.

We’ve enjoyed lots of Parisian street food. In addition to the requisite crepes — we went for ham & cheese as well as nutella & banana — we’ve had a lot of baguette sandwiches on the go. Baguette sandwiches may be my favorite lunch ever. While the crepes are seriously delish, it’s hard to feel like a million bucks after ingesting copious amounts of cheese and nutella.

Like typical Parisians, we dip our sandwiches in mustard.

Like typical Parisians, we dip our sandwiches in mustard.

After a day of walking the streets, we opted to go to the Louvre for the afternoon. I’d been to the Louvre when I did my whirlwind Europe trip at 21, and it was as I remembered — overwhelming and pretty freakin’ tiring. I mean, there are over 35,000 pieces of artwork in there. I know people who have spent nearly their entire trip to Paris in the Louvre. While it’s undoubtedly well worth the visit (I mean, you are in Paris), it can also slowly but surely drain you of all energy. We sat on one of the circular couches for way longer than should be allowed; when you are watching the people rather than the artwork, you’ve been there for too long.

I would recommend that you don’t try to do the whole Louvre; I mean, it’s massive, you’ll kill yourself. Instead, tackle the wing that interests you most. You art aficionados could make multiple days of it, giving a wing a couple hours of your afternoon rather than attempting to run by everything in one day. I also highly recommend bringing snacks to keep your energy up, and maybe wear a CamelBak.

We only waited in line for about 10 minutes, but we are visiting Paris during its sub-Arctic season of late May. Word in the square is that lines can be horrendous so plan your visit for off-hours if possible.

The Louvre is really exhausting.

A friend who moved to LA from Paris told me I had to get hot chocolate at Angelina. He said it was an otherworldly experience. We trekked through the rain to get to the tearoom; our soggy shoes and socks haven’t deterred us from walking for some reason.

The line for Angelina was insane. Apparently, people are more willing to wait in line for luscious warm drinks than world-renowned landmarks — most of the people in line did look American. We debated skipping it but we’d walked for about an hour to get here, and it was still pouring rain so we waited. There are two separate lines — one to sit in the tearoom and have the full-service experience, and one to get takeaway items from the cafe. We opted for the latter, and, while the line was still long, it was much shorter than the full-service option.

We kept our diet in check by skipping these goodies and going straight for the melted chocolate.

The bakery cases were full of adorable and yummy-looking baked goods. We didn’t mess around with anything that we hadn’t heard raved about incessantly so we got a hot chocolate to go.

Pure liquid chocolate goodness.

Um, this is seriously the best hot chocolate ever. I’m pretty certain they just take high-quality, super-delicious chocolate and straight melt it down. There might be some cream thrown in there for good measure. Basically, there’s no way this tiny cup of hot chocolate is fewer than 1,000 calories because it’s that good. I’d take a sip and then just let it linger on my tongue for as long as possible — I kept swallowing and it was gone too soon!

We leave Paris late tonight and head to Florence. On to Italia!

Between the liquid chocolate and the rain,
Esther doesn’t think Paris would be her jam.

 

 

 

 

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5 Tips for Climbing the Eiffel Tower

We’ve really liked Paris. The weather has certainly left much to be desired but our days are filled with lots of stops in cute cafes where we eat bread, nuts, fries and drink a half-liter of wine while waiting for the rain to stop. As the day progresses, we like Paris more and more.

How Paris has looked for much of our stay.

Despite the rain, we opted to climb the Eiffel Tower. I’d read online that the lines can be horrible for the elevators, and we liked the idea of the challenge. It turns out, you can only climb to the second level, up 1,652 stairs. There was no line at all for the stairs but that could have been due more to the pouring rain and howling wind than the physical aspect of it. It’s also cheaper to climb the stairs; I believe the elevator costs about 8 euros and the stairs are 4. From the second level, you can take an elevator to the top viewing platform. Be aware that the top platform is tiny! And if you climb to the second level, you’ll have to pay a separate fee for the elevator to the top.

It’s not too strenuous of a climb, and you can take breaks as needed. If you are scared of heights, this might not be your best route as it does have a bit of a rickety feel. That being said, Dave IS scared of heights, and it was fun to watch him clutch the railing. For entertainment value, bring your friends who are afraid of heights.

Looking very European.

We paused at the first level briefly and then proceeded to the second. They have a bar and a coffee shop on the second level, both of which were pretty full. We bought coffees solely for the warmth value.

The gloomy view was worth the climb.

 

We survived the elements!

We survived the elements!

So now that I’ve done it, I consider myself a bit of an expert. Here are my 5 tips for climbing the Eiffel Tower:

  1. Plan to travel to Paris during the rainy season. Chances are the lines for anything outdoors will be incredibly short.
  2. Wear comfortable shoes with treads, and if following tip #1, aim for shoes with rubber soles. It’ll be slippery.
  3. Enjoy your walk up. I tend to power through physical activities so I was on a mission. Don’t follow my lead; instead, take it slow and enjoy the view. There are lots of platforms where you can stop and take a breather.
  4. Bring a snack to eat on the second level. It’s fun to sit and snack up there, and the food lines can be long and the seating inside limited.
  5. Definitely walk down the stairs. It’s tempting to take the elevator down but you’ll miss all your chances to gloat at those huffing and puffing their way up!

Esther empathized with our cold-weather plight and wrapped herself in a blanket in solidarity.

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Paris Is Cold — Really Cold

We took the Chunnel from London to Paris. It’s a tossup between this and flying; oftentimes it’s cheaper to just fly but we would have had to deal with the hassle and cost of getting to and from the airports whereas the trains to the Chunnel were walking distance from our hotels in both London and Paris. That being said, we majorly screwed up by not booking our tickets in advance. We had checked them weeks ago and assumed we could book last minute for roughly the same price. Well, prices went up by the hundreds of dollars so book in advance!

We’re staying at Le Petit Belloy Saint Germaine. Reviews had told us it is centrally located and clean. And your stay includes a continental breakfast, tea time complete with snacks and treats as well as a welcome drink.

It is in a great location; we’ve walked all over Paris. Now that I think about it, we haven’t taken any form of transit here — only our feet! The hotel is also, indeed, petite. We’re talking super, super tiny rooms.

There is about a foot on either side of Dave’s hands.

This is hands down the smallest hotel room I’ve ever been in. If you’re an engineer, you’ll love the challenge of figuring out where to put your bags, your clothes, your computer and your person. If you’re not sure how you feel about your significant other, you’ll love the clarity that comes from living on top of each other.

The view ain't shabby.

The room is small but the view ain’t shabby.

The view out of the single window is pretty killer though. You do have to open the window and hang your head out to the left but it’s still pretty neat. The hotel’s breakfast and tea time were tasty and filling; tea time added a nice, wholly unnecessary 4th meal to each day. And the welcome drink was a fun touch.

Welcome to Paris! Have some prosecco!

Welcome to Paris! Have some prosecco!

We headed out to Notre Dame (super close to our hotel) the first day. I had really wanted to do a dinner cruise along the Seine to see the Eiffel Tower and the city lit up at night. Calife seemed to have hands-down the best reviews as it seems most of these dinner cruises have pretty mediocre food. We walked along the Seine and quickly discovered that Paris had been getting a lot of rain. At several points, the walkways along it were flooded so we had to backtrack and head to higher ground. When we got to Calife, we learned that they weren’t allowed to cruise currently because the water was too high and the boat wouldn’t clear the bridges. We could have opted to just dine on the boat but seeing the city held most of the appeal for us so we opted out.

Along the Seine.

We decided to take one of the cheapo, mass cruises along the Seine that night. These huge ones were able to clear the bridges because they didn’t have masts. This definitely ranks as one of the top coldest experiences of my life. We wrapped our faces in scarves and huddled together but it was still really freakin’ cold. Apparently end of May in Paris can be a cold, wet time. I did question our carry-on-bag-only philosophy often in Paris but I did wear the heck out of my 2 long-sleeved shirts!

The lights were worth the mild frostbite.

The lights were worth the mild frostbite.

We do miss Esther terribly.

It's sunny here, guys!

It’s sunny here, guys!

 

 

 

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London in 2 Days

After breakfast at Caffe Nero (it’s hard to beat a latte and oatmeal on the go), we hopped on the bus to London. About 5 minutes into our bus ride, Dave discovered that he left his wedding ring at the hotel. After much debate about whether or not a 30-minute detour on our departure to London was worth the cost and sentiment attached to a wedding ring, we hopped off the bus at the next stop.

We had our 2 rolling suitcases and 2 backpacks, so I made the brave decision to stay put with our luggage while Dave ran the 1.5 miles back to our hotel. He got there as they were cleaning our room and was informed the ring was in the hotel safe. Thankfully, he procured it and then ran the 1.5 miles back. It was all a ploy to work off some of our European indulgences.

We arrived in London about 1.5 hours later, and made our way to the W Hotel in Leicester Square.

Our chic room at the W Hotel in Leicester Square.

If you’ve ever stayed at a W hotel, you know that there is pulsating dance music throughout all the public areas, making you feel like you are severely underdressed at a uber hip nightclub. We’re part of the Starwood club so we opt for hotels in the brand when possible, and this was a really nice one.

Our room was pretty neat, with the shower located in a hidden compartment behind the mirror along with the toilet in a separate hidden compartment. Everything was sleek and modern, and their fitness center was well-equipped and nearly empty all the time. When we checked in, we mentioned that we were honeymooning and they sent  a piece of yummy red velvet cake to the room, negating our later use of the fitness center.

Dave contemplating his political aspirations.

We spent our 2 days in London seeing the expected sites — Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the like. We walked around the whole city and checked out the shopping districts but didn’t buy anything (I mean we only have carry-ons, people!).

We did discover that it’s oddly difficult to find a place to eat past 10 pm around Leicester Square. It’s the theatre district so we figured places would be open late, and with it being light so late here, we weren’t generally heading out for dinner until post-10 pm. So our dining experiences in London weren’t stellar — we had mediocre Asian fare and super subpar Italian food. We really embrace the culture of the city we’re in.

We did stumble upon Helen Mirren exiting The Gielgud Theatre after performing in The Audience. We had a moment of true connection; despite the crowd of people, we both knew it was only the two of us there.

My BFF Dame Helen Mirren asking me to give her some skin.

And, of course, we frequented a few pubs throughout the different areas of London. Though I don’t drink beer, I feel I got the true British pub crawl experience by ordering different traditional English drinks (names procured via extensive online research) at each pub. A solid 80% of the time the bartender had no idea what I was ordering.

Another day in England, another pub.

Esther doesn’t even have the decency to look us in the eye anymore.

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Oxford, Teddy Hall and Pubs, Pubs, Pubs

In college, I spent my Junior year at Oxford. UC Santa Barbara didn’t have a study abroad program with them, so I had to apply to Oxford, withdraw from UCSB, and then reapply to UCSB after my year at Oxford (I got back in!).

Oxford University is comprised of 38 colleges; I was in St. Edmund Hall, fondly known as Teddy Hall. Since I lived in Oxford for a year, I thought it’d be fun to show Dave around my old haunts. We made the short drive from the Cotswolds to Oxford, turned in our rental car, and walked about a mile to our hotel. I bought a pair of nicer flats for all the walking on this trip, thinking I’d be awash in stylish comfort, but I’m getting blisters and overall irritation on the back of my heels. How do girls wear these types of flats all the time?! I’ve taken to padding the back of the shoes with copious amounts of moleskin and wearing my enormous running shoes most of the time (it’s a great look with skinny jeans).

The Macdonald Randolph Hotel

We’re staying at the Macdonald Randolph Hotel. I had originally wanted to stay at the Eastgate Hotel where my mom would stay when they visited but it was booked up and the Macdonald Randolph had better reviews. Our room was at the end of a serious maze of hallways and stairs but it was good-sized.

I had initially thought we’d need a solid two days in Oxford but quickly remembered you can pretty much see everything in a couple hours. We started by walking the length of the city to 39 Stockmore Street, where I lived for the year I was there.

My old digs. The window to the left is off my old bedroom.

We then walked to Teddy Hall, where I went to lectures, dinners, studied and fraternized during my time there. It was closed to the public but former students are always welcome so they let us in after a rigorous screening process.

Teddy Hall, Oxford

The library is one of the coolest parts of the college; it’s housed in an old graveyard. On sunny days, students lounge and even picnic in it.

We opted against picnicking.

We snuck into the library because that isn’t open to former students, only current students. I always loved the library’s tower which is full of little study nooks tucked around the staircase. I think we’re about 5 floors up here.

I used to study in some of the tower’s nooks.

Oxford is full of neat passageways through buildings.

We peeked into another couple colleges, walked through the covered market, the length of High Street and the river, and realized that I’d pretty much shown Dave everything I wanted to in Oxford. So we hit Turf Tavern because it was 5 o’clock somewhere. This 13th-century pub is one of the coolest in Oxford, though all the buildings here are old and neat.

Cobblestone dreams.

Our European feet.

We’re getting daily proof of life texts from our super dogsitter so we know Esther is doing well.

Esther thinks pubs are overrated.

Esther thinks pubs are overrated.

 

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We Need the Internet

We left Sunderland bright and early, around 11 am, to head south toward Oxford. We have a reservation to stay in Oxford Sunday night, and we’re heading to London on Monday, so we had a gap night here to fill. Since we rented a car, we figured we’d drive south toward Oxford and find somewhere neat to stay along the way.

We go online before making a lot of decisions — before choosing a restaurant, booking a hotel, visiting a new doctor, or frequenting a masseuse, we first turn to Yelp or elsewhere on the InterWeb to read reviews. We opted instead to just drive in the general direction of Oxford until we saw something cute. We’d then stop there and spend the night, letting adventure lead us rather than Google.

This isn’t enhanced. Things are this green.

We ended up heading farther south than we anticipated, pretty close to Oxford, passing about a dozen No Vacancy signs on the way. Our free-wheeling and fancy-free aspirations were further tampered after stopping in at a cute-looking pub/inn. The friendly innkeeper showed us a room. Between the damp carpet, strong smell of bleach, and a coat of freshly thrown paint, we were sure if it was a lackluster renovation or if a crime had just been committed there. We opted instead for a drink in the pub where we could use free Wi-Fi and rest our wearing heads on the sturdy shoulders of TripAdvisor.

Old Swan & Minster Mill had great reviews and an open, albeit tiny, room. Since driving took the bulk of our day, we didn’t explore the area as much as we’d have liked to, but the Cotswolds really are beyond charming. This area knows how to do quaint, cozy, and seriously green well. Old Swan & Minster Mill was no disappointment either — it’s set on beautiful grounds, with a river running through it, and its staff members are really accommodating and friendly.

Our room’s veranda is behind the glass to the right.

Dave on bridge above said river.

Our room was super small, with the bed pushed up against a wall, so the person on the inside (not it!) had to climb down the bed to exit it. It did come with nice tea-making facilities. This is the norm with all decent British hotels, and I love this (get with it, ‘merica!) , as well as a complimentary decanter of sloe gin.

The main building’s corridors had neat crevices throughout them. We found our way through them despite the decanter of sloe gin.

This guy was no match for the swan.

We ate at the restaurant twice — you really have little choice since nothing else is nearby. Dinner was less than impressive. The food was fine but the service was pretty bad; it just seemed like they were stretched too thin. Breakfast was a better experience with a full English breakfast buffet as well as continental fare.

On to Oxford!

Esther’s laughing at us in British drizzle while she soaks up LA rays.

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The Geordie Life

My mom grew up in Sunderland and never even left the city until she was in her early 20s. She won a pageant — Miss Camay — and got the attention of Pan Am. When Pan Am flew her down to London for a meeting, she and her mom — my nana — were so excited at the prospect of going somewhere as far and exotic as London.

Nana used to live on Nettleham Road in Sunderland, and this is the house we used to visit when we were growing up. Dave and I set out to find it; I hadn’t been here in about 15 years so the details were fuzzy.

Street sign, Nettleham Road, Sunderland, England

The street my nana lived on in Sunderland.

I have clouded recollections of the entryway to the house, the stairs, the kitchen and the backyard, but I couldn’t remember the exterior all that well. Granted, my nana hadn’t lived there in over a decade so I’m sure things had changed.

My nana's old house on Nettleham Road, Sunderland.

My nana’s old house on Nettleham Road, Sunderland.

Being that my mom is from northern England, you’d think I have a bevy of relatives there. My extended family happens to be quite small — I only have 3 cousins total! But I do know a dear friend of my mom’s from childhood. We hadn’t arranged to meet up, and I felt a bit rude popping by unannounced, but Dave assured me when a visit involved a 6,000-mile, transatlantic journey, unannounced visits are acceptable.

We found her home — we only had to cross 14 roundabouts to get there — but no one was home. We were about to leave and a gentleman pulled up to the house. When I inquired about May, the gentleman said, “Are you Muriel’s daughter from California?” It was just like walking into the Cheers bar — if they greeted with long personal descriptions rather than names.

May arrived shortly thereafter and we had a lovely tea with her.

May and Dave became fast friends over tea and biscuits.

Now for my Sunderland family, my aunt, uncle and cousin live in Peterlee which is about 13 miles from Sunderland. My cousin Rachel visited us in California a few times, but I hadn’t seen her in nearly a decade.

Me with my uncle and aunt.

We then met up with Rachel and her boyfriend Andy for dinner at a local pub. Really delicious food with great company.

With my cousin Rachel.

Just the guys.

All together now (the Brits at least).

All together now (the Brits at least).

We depart Sunderland tomorrow morning and head south. Seeing family has been the highlight of the trip thus far!

Esther’s been having a bit of an identity crisis while we’re gone.

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