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Smorgasburg: How to be a foodie (for a day)

Fancy-pants grilled (gruyere) cheese from Milk Truck.

This past Saturday, as part of a weekend of birthday festivities, Sean and I went to check out a cool event called Smorgasburg in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In addition to being a play off of one of my favorite words of all-time, “smorgasbord,” Smorgasburg is made of yummy-ness and fun. The New York Times called it “the Woodstock of eating.” Needless to say, I was pretty pumped.

Smorgasburg takes place every Saturday afternoon, in rain or shine, in the summer months through mid-November along the East River, nestled up next to East River State Park. Basically, this is a collection of food tents–most of which typically operate as either food trucks or brick-and-mortar dining establishments. And you can walk around and eat all kinds of food! Most of it is street fare, from gourmet takes on American classics like the grilled cheese sandwich or pigs-in-a-blanket to the more refined, like artisanal soy milk and vegan kale chips.

I think it’s something that visitors to NYC would love because you get to sample all kinds of great food you can’t find in any ol’ town (or fancy-schmancy adult versions of the foods you grew up with), and you get to enjoy a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline across the river.

 

Smorgasburg, as seen by birds, not me.

Here’s a few quick tips for any locals or out-of-towners heading to Smorgasburg for the first time:

  1. Bring cash! And an ample amount of it, too. Because it’s all the vendors will take. And you WILL eat more than you know you should.
  2. Bring a friend (or two! or three!)! This way you can try many different things. Order the smallest size of everything, and split it. This is definitely the sort of place where you’ll want to taste all the things and will be very sad if you fill up on just one — albeit very yummy — item.

    You really can’t beat this view for your culinary adventures.

  3. Bring a blanket to sit on. We didn’t do this, but I wish we did. There’s a grassy area next to the lot of tents, where people quickly took up all of the benches to enjoy their Smorgasburg purchases. A wise person would think ahead and bring a towel or picnic blanket. Go ahead and make it the most gourmet/artisanal/hipster picnic of your life. (Unless you’re one of those people I’ve seen in Central Park before, consuming “picnic lunches” consisting entirely of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods purchases. P.S. If you’re one of those people, can we be friends? And can you invite me to one of your picnics, pretty please?)
  4. When you first arrive, stake out the “lay of the land” (“lay of the land” is one of Sean’s favorite phrases). Walk up and down all the rows so you’re not tempted to just spring for the first booth you see. And trust me, you will. Go where your nose, taste buds, and stomach lead you.
  5. Throw ideas about meal conventions out the window. When we arrived, we got a toasted coconut donut from the Dough stand, even though it was nearly noon. Then after eating our way through the lunch foods of the world, we finished off with gourmet s’mores from S’more Bakery. On second thought, throw your ideas about “nutrition” and “balanced meals” out the window, too. At least for this one special, magical time. It is a fair of sorts, OK?
  6. A pleasant surprise!

    Don’t be afraid to try things you think you wouldn’t like. I tried a free sample of those kale chips. They were OK. I also tried fried chicken with a cheddar waffle in maple-vinegar sauce and LOVED it. I never understood the “chicken & waffles” establishments in the South, but now I totally do. It’s two comfort foods together. Fortunately, we did not get a Southern-style portion of this fried goodness.

  7. Give into the pretentiousness. Be a foodie for a day! Yes, we paid as much for one panini-pressed grilled cheese as it would probably cost to buy a whole loaf of sandwich bread and pack of Kraft Singles (in any state other than NY, at least), but you know what? It was about 10x yummier than Wonderbread and a Kraft Single. And I also plan on repeating the experience zero more times. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not a habit.
  8. Take the East River Ferry back to Manhattan! For $4 a person, you get to go on a decently long boat ride while looking at the skyscrapers of Manhattan on one side and the hodgepodge of Brooklyn on the other. Plus, the subway ride under the river always makes my ears pop.
  9. Before you leave, absolutely get a donut from Dough. Best. Donuts. Ever. I heard the blood orange is a favorite, but Sean has something against citrus-y desserts. So YOU should totally get the blood orange donut, and tell me how it is!

Interesting graffiti on the walk through Brooklyn to the ferry port.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, sans a somewhat sticky situation involving my s’more (see what I did there? “Sticky situation?” I crack myself up). Smorgasburg is definitely a once-a-year or so venture because the cost of all that artisanal, gourmet food can make it add up a lot quicker than other casual lunches.

But it is a great idea for those of us who love to eat yet are indecisive about what we want to eat! You’re presented with so many appetizing options, you can’t help but want to try them all. Which brings me to my last and final Smorgasburg tip:

10. Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach! I’m still working on that one.

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Musical equinox

This is us at Radio City Music Hall before the Bon Iver show. Being a cute newlywed couple and stuff.

Sean and I kicked off this autumn of many concerts this past Friday, just before the season officially began, according to astronomy or whatever. I’m pretty sure Bon Iver is the sound of autumn, and since we went to his concert on Friday, that’s when I’m saying is the official start of fall. (Yeah, yeah, I know Bon Iver is a play off “Bon hiver,” which my four college semesters of French tell me means “good winter.” It’s cold weather music, alright?)

Since someone is FINALLY done with the second tax busy season and has managed to escape the all-consuming World of Accounting, we are able to enjoy more of our non-working hours together. And one thing that we both really, really enjoy is going to concerts. Usually my birthday gift involves some form of live music — for my 21st, we went to the ACL Music Festival; for my 22nd (last year), I brought in a new year of life with Austin indie band Quiet Company in downtown Bryan and scored a free T-shirt from the band members for being a birthday girl; and this year for the big two-three, we’re going to see Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit.

I call this one “Poor Quality View of Bon Iver, As Taken Without Flash on an iPhone from the Back of the Second Mezzanine.”

Anyway, we have at least one concert scheduled every month through this December, and we kicked off the season with Bon Iver at Radio City Music Hall. Not your typical concert venue if you’re not going to see a symphony or, uh, the Rockettes, but it was pretty swanky. Definitely worth at least stepping into the lobby for. And Justin Vernon surprised everyone with jazzed-up, rocked-out versions of his typically super-chill tunes.

In case you didn’t know, Bon Iver has made appearances in a few Kanye West songs. I used to think that was weirdly awesome, but I’m gonna have to drop the “weirdly” part of the opinion because apparently they both have a penchant for using lighting effects at concerts that could probably induce epileptic seizures. Like I said, not the super-chill stuff you were expecting.

If you have not yet listened to any of Bon Iver’s music, you really should. You can listen to the song from his first album below and then sing along and imagine hundreds of other people are singing along with you. There, it’s almost like you were at the concert too, huh?

Then on Saturday, we bought fairly cheap last-minute tickets to see the Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We bought them from some chill hipster dude who also lives in the UES and posted an ad on Craigslist. I know he was a hipster even though Sean went on that errand by himself because he wanted to meet at a bar that serves only crafts beers and, um, hello…he was selling Purity Ring tickets. If you’re going to Craigslist anything, I suggest hipster-ish transactions with hipsters only. You are less likely to get killed this way. (This is also how we obtained used Bose speakers for our turntable.)

This picture is a bit better than my Bon Iver one, since it was general admission and we got there early with the NYU undergrads so we could be near the front.

I have listened to Purity Ring’s debut album, Shrines, like a million times on Spotify in these past few weeks, so it was really awesome to see them live. There were two other electronic dudes who opened for them, and I don’t really know how any of the music I heard Saturday night was made, but I loved it nonetheless. Even though some Cool Asians (using Mean Girls classifications here) danced a little to crazily, and stomped on my foot and caused another girl to accidentally splash beer on my shoes, it was still worth a late night out in Brooklyn, which is a good 30+-minute subway ride away from us. What matters is that I saw two Canadians doing mesmerizing things with lights and computers and special microphones.

Below is a clip from one of Purity Ring’s other shows, and if someone can please explain to me how this all works, that would be awesome:

Other groups we’re seeing this fall: Father John Misty (also known as that one dude from Fleet Foxes), Grouplove, Japandroids, and The Gaslight Anthem, not necessarily in that order. And Frightened Rabbit, as I mentioned before. It’s like football season, only BETTER!!! Because it’s something I actually want to stand around for hours for. (See Texas Aggie traditions: 12th Man.) The best part about all these indie bands is that tickets cost a fraction of what Lady Gaga or One Direction or whoever kids listen to these days would charge you. That, and most of the other people in the audience care deeply about music. I like that.

Just because we’re kind of on the topic and I want to…here is the album cover art for Father John Misty’s Fear Fun, which we got on vinyl somewhat recently. I swear I could stare at it all day, and it will never make any more sense.

Sean and I would much, much rather spend our money on experiences than things, and concerts are our ultimate experience. We don’t have cable, we pack our own lunches for work everyday, and we shop the clothing sale racks and thrift stores. But we are surely going to some concerts. I figure that when I’m 80, I won’t look back and be all “Oh, I had, like, 15 pairs of designer skinny jeans and went to salad bars everyday for lunch and watched every episode of So You Think You Can Dance as it was originally broadcast when I lived in New York and life was awesome.”

No. Just…no.

I’ll say, “I saw all my favorite bands perform live in New York, and that kids, is awesome.”

P.S. If you think two concerts in one weekend is a little excessive (I was afraid it was), I overheard a girl standing behind us at the Purity Ring Show talking about how it was their FIFTH show that week but she had a friend who was going to his SEVENTH. That’s literally a concert every single day for a week. I would say THAT is excessive…but I kinda envy the guy. Where does he find the time? And money? And energy?

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The Great Hot Dog Rivalry: East Side vs. West Side

Having survived closing out my first issue of one of the magazines I copy edit at my new job last week — and the longest issue of the year, mind you — I am happy to return to blogging more regularly. No, I did not work until the obscene hours my accountant husband has these past few months, but even just working an extra hour or so killed my spirit for wanting to look at words at home too much. Not even leisurely reading (gasp!). One night I came home, ordered Chinese food online (how lazy can you get?!?) and watched what felt like a half million YouTube videos of late ’90s and early ’00s music videos. I mean, you can’t watch just ONE Britney video. Trust me.

Sometimes, I really cannot explain or excuse my behavior.

Ahem. To the point of this post. On Sunday afternoon post-Mass, Sean suggested we grab a light lunch. “Where?” I asked. “I was thinking…hot dogs.” And then, because our hearts and minds are just so in sync, I just knew where we were going.

Papaya King.

Behold! The glowing yellow delights of Papaya King. (Photo not mine because I feel awkward taking pictures of food in public. I should get over this.)

Actually, I think that whole mind-/stomach-reading thing was less due to love and more due to common sense. I mean…where else are you going to get a hot dog in New York?

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) know what’s up. They dig a NYC hot dog here and there.

Yes, you can buy one for dirt-cheap from one of those carts in Central Park or Time Square or wherever tourists are (this is what Tina Fey does on 30 Rock, so it’s OK, I promise!), but here’s a little tip: check out a neighborhood favorite! I first learned this when I came to visit the city during spring break my senior year of college while my then-boyfriend/now-husband was interning up here, and we went to check out Gray’s Papaya in the Upper West Side.

We’d heard about it on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations NYC episode, when he raved about “the recession special,” which boasted two hot dogs and a tropical drink for $4 or something equally ridiculous. I was also pumped because this is the brightly colored joint where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet when their characters become friends (and are unknowingly in love with one another) in You’ve Got Mail. Oh, and Ted takes Robin there on How I Met Your Mother when she gets really hungry on New Year’s Eve. It’s a hopping place on TV.

Previously, I considered hot dogs a “specific occasion food,” as in, they were acceptable to eat at a professional baseball game or a backyard barbecue, but other than that, forget about it. Then I tried Gray’s hot dogs and they had this wonderful bite/crunch to them, plus I really dig the combination of the saltiness of the hot dog with the bitter/vinegary-ness of the traditional NYC toppings (sauerkraut, onions, and spicy brown mustard). However, once we moved up here and settled in the UES, getting over to Gray’s Papaya isn’t so easy. But good news! We have Papaya King:

There it is, right on 86th and 3rd, in all its colorful glory!

I’ve determined that I like this place more than Gray’s Papaya, so it’s all good. And I’m not just saying that to show my Upper East Side pride. The papaya drinks here actually taste like papaya, and not just thick sugar-water, so that’s a definite plus. Also, you can get a variety of hot dog toppings, like an onion-crunch dog or a chili-cheese dog. I still go with the classic toppings, but my favorite combo is “the 1932” (not so coincidentally, the year this fine dining establishment was founded), a balanced and nutritious meal consisting of one hot dog, a tropical drink, and an overflowing cup of curly fries for around $6. Like, I said you’ve got all the food groups covered.

It’s a teeny-tiny place with little counters by the windows where you have to stand to eat your food, just like we see Meg & Tom demonstrating in the You’ve Got Mail screencap above, or you can take it on the go and enjoy a meal in all of a New York minute. If you do choose to stay inside, I like to read the various news clippings on the wall. According to this collage of media, Julia Child proclaimed Papaya King to be her favorite NYC hot dog, and Chef Anthony Bourdain — a current UES resident, if I haven’t mentioned that half a dozen times already — said the Papaya King special (two hot dogs and a tropical drink, our pick this past Sunday) is the best meal you can get in the city for under $5. Uh, apparently, Bourdain is not very loyal with this hot dog stands. Which one do you really prefer, Tony?

Apparently, chef/author/TV host Anthony Bourdain has no discrimination when it comes to his NYC hot dogs. Here he is pictured in front of Papaya King (you can see where it says “King’s Special” on the sign behind him). I would love to run into Bourdain at Papaya King. Can the gods of the universe arrange this for me, please?

The restaurant itself boasts all kinds of ridiculousness, from “our frankfurters are tastier than filet mignon” and “papaya promotes heart health.” The last one might be true, except for when consumed with curly fries and hot dogs, of course. You can’t blame them for trying.

So how exactly did these two seemingly random foods, papaya juice and hot dogs, end up irrevocably paired together? As the story goes, the founder, Gus Poulos, fell in love with papaya while on a tropical vacation in Miami. So then he opened several successful tropical juice stands in the city. One day Gus fell on his roller blades and a young German-American woman (hopefully she wasn’t a Nazi spy…you know how Yorkville was back in the day) named “Birdie” helped him up and nurtured him by bringing him traditional German food, including…frankfurters! (This also explains the sauerkraut.)

Needless to say, “Birdie” and Gus were married, and he soon introduced the frankfurter to his juice stand. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a food legend was born.

Sorry to post a gazillion pictures of this guy, but “OH HEY! I totally stood in that same exact spot this past weekend and ate my hot dog.” Sadly, Bourdain was not there to stand and eat with me.

So maybe you’re a UWS resident with a fierce and undying loyalty to Gray’s Papaya.* Whatever your preference, I hope you relish (hardy har har) your classic New York meal! According to some statistic I saw while enjoying my hot dog, it takes about 5 bites for the average American to down a frank. So be careful: your meal could be over before you know it. Good thing the menu is cheap and the calorie counts aren’t displayed, right?

*…but we all know Papaya King is where it’s at.

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Broadway & Brunch

I need to post this entry about our past weekend soon, or it will be the next weekend before I know it! Our weekend got off to a bit of a rough start, particularly for Sean, who had to work until 10 at night on Friday. While he works late a lot right now because of some sort of second tax busy season, this was extra-ridiculous. We had a sushi dinner at 10:30 p.m., and I was very thankful at that time to live in New York, where restaurants are not only open at that hour but are bustling.

Here’s a scene from the stage production of “Once.” Meet the vaguely named main characters, Guy and Girl.

The main thing I want to talk about is our Saturday evening because, thanks to the extreme generosity of a good friend, we were able to see the newish Broadway musical OnceWe were given the tickets as a belated wedding present, and I think it might have quickly become one of my top wedding gifts, right up there with restaurant and money gift certificates we received for our honeymoon. We’re all about spending money on experiences rather than things, so this was right up our alley. Plus, we had both seen the indie film upon which the stage production is based and adored it, so we were quite excited to see the stage version for ourselves.

Before the show, we found a random Theater District Italian restaurant, Patzeria Family & Friends, which was delicious and affordable and almost completely devoid of tourists. (I have nothing against dining among tourists…it’s just that there are a lot of them here, and they can make the wait for a table difficult!) We ended up getting to the theater really early, and I’m glad we did, because we were able to catch all of the “pre-show,” when various secondary cast members performed different folk music selections. The entire show takes place on one set, a dingy Irish pub, with changes in lighting and chair arrangements to help you re-imagine a new scene/setting. For the pre-show, however, the set was all about being a pub, and audience members could go on stage to purchase outrageously overpriced drinks and watch the musical action up-close. We did not do this (see note about “outrageously overpriced drinks”), but we enjoyed our viewing from the mezzanine nonetheless.

As for the actual show, I cannot say enough how much I loved it. I have been fortunate to see several other Broadway shows, either here in NYC or on tour at my university (and I even wrote reviews for the student newspapers of a few, like one for Mamma Mia!, which I am not a huge fan of), but this was easily my personal favorite. Just like in the movie, which could also be classified as a musical, the music is not your typical big-band show tunes. In fact, there was no orchestra pit. All of the cast members played at least one, if not two or three instruments, providing the most beautiful instrumentation. If you are at all a fan of folk music, whether a classic Bob Dylan fan or a follower of more mainstream Mumford & Sons or an indie kid digging Radical Face, I think you would appreciate the music of Once. There’s acoustic guitars, mandolins, violins, accordions, and even a melodica! A melodica! Now you have to go, right?

Here’s a sample of the music, the song “Gold” performed by the cast members at the Tonys:

I would have loved Once for the music alone, but the story is pretty bittersweet and touching, too. I’ll warn people that the show does not have a typical Hollywood ending, so please don’t gripe like some of my fellow audience members. The story tells of a chance encounter between a struggling Irish street performer and a poor Czech immigrant in Dublin, and how their remarkable ability to craft lovely music together forges a strong friendship and maybe something more between them. The main character, Guy, wears a vest over a T-shirt, and his female counterpart, simply named Girl, wears leggings and boots. Enough said, OK?

As if the eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it won this past June didn’t speak enough for Once‘s quality, I’ll urge you to go if you ever find yourself in New York wondering what show to see. Tickets are pricey, but they do have rush tickets and students standing room-only tickets available for much less, which is what Sean and I were planning on doing eventually. Or you could get married and hope someone kindly gifts you tickets, too! (Needless to say, we are writing this guy the magnum opus of all thank you letters.)

Since you aren’t allowed to take photos inside, I snapped this one of the theater.

We spent the rest of our Saturday drinking wine at home, watching Modern Family, and watching our kitty’s silly antics until the wee hours of the morning. Sunday we decided to have a repeat experience of the Sunday before and went to brunch down the street. I’d always heard about how much New Yorkers love their brunch, and now I totally understand why. Brunch is perhaps the greatest dining invention of all time. Most restaurants here serve brunch items from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to accommodate everyone’s lethargy and inability to rise at a decent hour on the weekend (too many 11 p.m. sushi dinners, I guess).

We have gone to Le Moulin a Cafe on York both times. This is a darling little French-style cafe that feels like you just walked into some French woman’s large and airy country kitchen. There’s a shelf filled with empty French lemonade bottles for decoration. The wooden tables have flecks of worn-off turquoise paint on them. It’s charming. And according to the Times, real French people eat here, y’all. Both times I ordered the croque-monsieur, an exquisite creation that was included every. single. year. in my French textbooks, in the food and dining chapter, right between “les pommes” (apples) and “le petit-dejeuner” (breakfast). You know what my French textbooks said a croque-monsieur is? “A ham and cheese sandwich.” OK, um, nothing too exciting there…wrong!

From The New Yorker. Croque-monsieurs are made of awesome, not frogs.

A croque-monsieur is a buttery, cheesy, melt-in-your-mouth delicacy. It’s also probably not very healthy for you, which is why Le Moulin a Cafe serves theirs with a small side salad tossed in a light vinaigrette. Anyway, I wish someone had told me a long time ago that croque-monsieurs are THE way to start your Sunday. My life could be so different right now–me, I’d probably be a much more cheerful person, in addition to a much fatter one. Sean tried a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a croissant the first time, but the second time he tried the croque-madame (see how we played a gender-reversal game with our sandwiches), which is the same thing as the croque-monsieur plus a sunny side-up egg on the top. I was too scared to try something with runny yolk all over it, despite my willingness to try things like eel (delicious), but Sean loved it. The first time we went we also tried their pain du chocolat, which are little pastries filled with–what else?–chocolate! I would also eat pains du chocolat for breakfast, if they had a little more nutritional value. 🙂

Then we went to the Yorkville HousingWorks, a wonderful thrift store that aids those with HIV/AIDS. We bought a lot of our other furniture there, and it’s great because you are getting quality used furniture for a good price and helping those in need. Such a win-win situation. It turns out it was the perfect day to go to HousingWorks because we finally found a nightstand!!! This is one article of clothing that we simply could not track down, because the space between the edge of our full-sized bed (which is in a corner) and our doorway is all of 12″. So we were using the cardboard box our TV came in, standing precariously on its narrowest side, which took up a lot of room because the long side went halfway down the bed! And you could never rest a glass of water on top or anything. Lo, and behold, we found this little gem:

Who would have thought such a simple, unexciting piece of furniture could excite us so much?!?

As you can see, it’s being used to hold laughably little at the moment, but the point is it fits! I am now inspired to buy a little table lamp so that I can read in bed in the evenings (my favorite). I’m not yet sure what all those little cubby holes will hold, but I’m sure they’ll come in handy at some point. It was only $16 and it’s remarkably 12″ wide, so I’m a happy camper. Also, this light bamboo material also matches the other two pieces of furniture we have in the room: an end table/filing cabinet next to the bathroom door and a wardrobe. Our bed is just on a metal frame and some risers, as you can see. It would be nice and homey to make one of those faux-headboards, but we’ll see when I find the motivation and skills to achieve that.

A selection of goodies from the Peter Pan Bakery, taken from Yelp. See those big half-chocolate, half-vanilla circular creations of scrumptiousness? That’s what we had.

After Sean stopped to get a haircut in a little basement barbershop in our neighborhood, we took the subway out to Brooklyn and spent the afternoon wandering around Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Brooklyn has a lot more of a neighborhood feel than does Manhattan because there are no high-rise buildings and there are endless rows of mom-and-pop shops. We stopped in the Peter Pan Bakery on a whim and split a black-and-white cookie, a New York staple that we’ve recently fallen in love with. It was very yummy, but you should have seen the donuts they had in the place! Incredible–there were apple crisp donuts with baked apples and cinnamon streusel just PILED on top. If I hadn’t already had that croque-monsieur (literally translated from French to “Mr. Crunchy,” or more accurately, “Mrs. Fatty”), I would have totally gotten one of those. The bakery itself was adorable, an old-timey, diner-style joint with checkered linoleum floors, uniformed waitresses, and swirling diner stools bolted up against a sticky counter. The place was not even trying to be retro. It just was. Brooklyn is cool like that.

Audrey likes vinyl, so you should too.

We also stopped in a few record stores because Sean is intent on expanding his vinyl collection. I created a monster out of him by giving him a turntable for this past Christmas. As a huge audiophile, he loves it and indulges it in new vinyls quite often. I like visiting the record stores myself because they always have interesting artwork and band posters plastered all over the place. Usually there’s a resident cat, too, for whatever reason. Although we did not buy any more records this weekend, Sean did purchase the nonfiction book The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (what a title!) from one of those used book tables that pop up all over the New York sidewalks on nice weekend days.

We went back to the UES to split a pizza from Gotham Pizza, where a little girl sitting next to us sang “Hakuna Matata” while eating her cheese pizza. So weird to think that I was her age when the movie that song is from (The Lion King) first came out–and happy that kids still appreciate it. Then we watched Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which makes me hopeful that one day very soon I can convince Sean to watch my namesake Hitchcock film, Rebecca.

Despite the rough start, it was a wonderful last weekend before I began my employment! It’s fun to be tourists in your own city.

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