Our living room mostly packed.

Our living room mostly packed.

So it’s been kind of a rough week! PACKOUT: First of all, we had our HHE packed out on Monday and Tuesday. It was fairly uneventful, barring the fact that they were 30 minutes late and sent three guys instead of the four they’d said were coming. But they still managed to get it all done in two days. They’re coming back next week to collect the UAB.

The annoying part is that we supposedly have 7,100 lbs worth of stuff. We are only allowed 7,200. So all the items we were planning to get out of storage and all the supplies we were planning to buy for Iceland on home leave…are now obsolete, because we would be over our shipping allowance and have to pay for international shipping out of pocket, which we can’t afford.

The really curious thing though is that we only had 5,000 lbs of stuff when we packed out of our four-bedroom HOUSE in Belize. And we got rid of quite a bit more after we got to London and realized we had no space for it in our comparatively little apartment. Yet somehow we’ve supposedly acquired an EXTRA 2,000 POUNDS. I might have to call bullshit on that one.

DAMAGES: We also had to pay $200 in damages for various bits of government furniture for the first time (scratches on dressers, etc). But I suppose it could’ve been worse.

OAKWOOD: We have stayed at the Oakwood corporate housing properties twice during training. The first time we were there for about two months and got a two-bedroom apartment. The second time, we were there for a month, were told that there were no two-bedrooms available and squeezed into a one-bedroom where our son slept in a crib in the living room. This time we’re going to be there for less than a week but again were told we’d be in a one-bedroom.

We put our housing request in back in February. So I spent a couple days going back and forth with them because I couldn’t believe that there was not a single two-bedroom available in the half dozen properties in the DC metro area when we’ve given them almost six months’ notice.

And then they gave me the long and short of it. They prioritize according to family size, length of stay…and I would guess pay grade, even though they didn’t say it. So basically we will never get what we want unless they have no one else to give it to. Another reminder of the lovely government hierarchy.

KID: And our son is not handling the changes well. He was two the last time we moved and didn’t seem to care. This time, he’s almost five and is on an emotional rollercoaster. He doesn’t seem particularly worried that he’s leaving nursery and all his friends (and is quite excited about moving on to big boy school).

But he’s acting out in other ways. The first day he came home after the movers had left, he realized the TV was gone and burst into tears. I’d like to think it was just an outlet and that he’s not actually emotionally attached to the television, but who knows.

Every night since then he’s come into our bedroom once in the middle of the night, and again around 5am. At that point I can no longer sleep since I have to be up at 6:30, so I usually let him crawl in with us. Both mornings I got out of bed before he did, and he was completely irate that I’d left him there sleeping…even though his daddy was crashed out next to him. I’ve done that many times in the past, and it was no big deal. I know he’s stressed, so I’m trying to be patient with him. But I’m stressed too!!

CAT: Yesterday, I took the cat for her third and final vet visit, but she knew it was coming this time and clawed the crap out of me. Then they gave me the bill, which came to almost $500 USD for three visits. Maybe it’s better that we’re no longer buying a bunch of supplies in the States!

And then somewhere on the 15-item checklist on “how to import your cat to Iceland,” I missed two little words. They wanted copies of her paperwork “at least” 5 days before she arrived. I’d gotten it in my head that it was “within” 5 days before she arrived. Just like her health certificate has to be “within” 10 days before she arrived. So yesterday I received a nice email from the Food and Vet Authority saying that I’d missed the deadline, and the cat was no longer going to be allowed into the country.

That’s about the time that I completely fell apart and started crying at my desk.

All that work!!! All that money!! I couldn’t even blame it on the vet strike. I had f*d it up all on my own!! So I had a good cry, then sent them the paperwork and a pathetic email. And…happily…they accepted my late documents and approved her import. Still keeping our fingers crossed that the vets don’t go back on strike on July 1.

So, yes, I am officially ready for home leave and a much-needed vacation…and a COLOSSAL margarita from some awesome Mexican restaurant in Arizona. And I promise that someday soon I will again post something fun and upbeat on this blog. :)

 

Ivan the Terra Bus. Specialized passenger transport vehicle manufactured by Foremost (Canada) that resides at McMurdo Station and is part of the US Antarctic Program fleet.

Ivan the Terra Bus. Specialized passenger transport vehicle manufactured by Foremost (Canada) that resides at McMurdo Station and is part of the US Antarctic Program fleet. (Photo: http://ciresblogs.colorado.edu/antarcticuavs/2012/10)

The Tundra Buggy fleet in Churchill, Manitoba, manufactured by Frontiers North Adventures for polar bear tours.

The Tundra Buggy fleet in Churchill, Manitoba, manufactured by Frontiers North Adventures for polar bear tours. (Photo: http://breathinstephen.com/the-next-great-adventure)

The MAN 8x8 off-road Personnel Carrier, originally built for the German army and now used in Iceland for glacier tours.

The MAN 8×8 off-road Personnel Carrier, originally built for the German army and now used in Iceland for glacier tours. (Photo: http://www.get-married-in-iceland.com/clacier-vehicle-from-ice-explorer)

Photo: flickr/linecon0

Those of you who don’t follow Icelandic news and politics, which is probably most of you, may not have heard of the labor strike that’s been going on since April. Hoping for better wages, it started with about 10,000 workers mostly made up of general laborers, wholesale food service workers (slaughterhouses, fish factories, etc.), and some from the tourist industry and cleaning services.

And they even had the following schedule:

April 30: Work stoppage from noon until midnight.
May 6 and 7: Work stoppages from midnight until midnight.
May 19 and 20: Work stoppages from midnight until midnight.
May 26: General strike begins at midnight.

Then things got a little more serious. Other unions, such as the Association of Academics (BHM), which includes health professionals (nurses, midwives and veterinarians) also went on strike…indefinitely, and frightening headlines started to appear in local and international newspapers:

The Verge: Iceland is running out of meat because of a vet strike.
Bloomberg: Iceland Running out of Burgers as Vet Strike Causes Meat Crisis.
Reykjavik Grapevine: Vet Strike Getting Serious: KFC To Close Due To Chicken Shortage.

All the while I’m thinking, gee, that sucks. I hope the people get what they need, but I also hope the food prices aren’t too high when we arrive.

At the end of May Iceland Review reported that 40 percent of Iceland’s workers were on strike, and in such a small community, as you can imagine, it was affecting everyone.

But for some reason, I never connected the dots until I read this: Dog Refused Entry to Iceland due to Strike (Iceland Review). Vet strike: dog deported or destroyed (Iceland Monitor).

And then it clicked…no vets…no animals being inspected at customs…no pets being allowed into the country. OMFG…our cat is due to arrive in Iceland in two weeks to begin her mandatory month-long quarantine. If there are no vets, she will be refused entry and returned to the UK. She will miss her quarantine window, her blood tests and health certificate will expire…and she will have to go through the process all over again. Not to mention the fact that we’re LEAVING THE COUNTRY, have already paid for a plane ticket to Iceland, and still have to get her into quarantine at some point.

THIS IS NOT THE KIND OF STRESS I NEED!!

So I did what every responsible pet owner would do…I called our London vet to confirm they’d sent her blood tests to a UK lab and not an Icelandic one where they would sit and go bad. I emailed The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), not even expecting a response if they were all on strike. I called the quarantine facility that had not responded to any of my random emails over the last month when I sent them the cat’s flight information.

So you can imagine how relieved I was when both MAST and the quarantine folks responded and told me not to worry, Parliament was meeting that very day to create legislation to end the strikes. And end them they did. Now the headlines in Icelandic papers are saying things like:

Strike called off: waffles time!
Beef is back!
Parliament crushes strikes.
Law On Nurses Strike Passes, Resignations Follow En Masse.

And the best sentence I’ve ever read: “Vets will be returning to work today…”

BUT we’re not out of the woods yet. “The bill passed on Saturday calls for all strike action to be halted until 1 July and for the parties involved to use that time to strike a deal. If this does not happen, the case will be sent to a court of arbitration.” That’s the day our cat is supposed to arrive in Iceland. If the vets go back to striking that day, we’re screwed.

I guess all we can do is keep our fingers crossed, watch the news reports, call the quarantine facility the morning that she flies, and come up with a Plan B…just in case. Such is life in the Foreign Service when you have pets. Have I mentioned that we’re thinking of adding a dog to our family?

 

A new sculpture popped up in the northeast corner of Hyde Park near Marble Arch last month. The seriously awesome sculpture of Genghis Khan by Dashinima Namdakov, that’s been there since 2012, has been replaced by another one of his pieces called She Guardian. Apparently there’ve been mixed reviews of She Guardian, but I think SHE is fantastic.

Namdakov is a Russian sculptor born in Siberia and is one of eight children. His family has its roots in an ancient and respected clan of Mongolian blacksmiths called Darkhan. And he has an amazing way of adding movement, passion and mythology to his pieces.

She Guardian.

She Guardian (internet photo).

Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan (internet photo).

Bletchley’s been on my bucket list since we arrived. I saw the movie Enigma years ago and FINALLY got around to watching The Imitation Game on Friday night. Such a sad and amazing story. Definitely leaves you with mixed emotions.

Bletchley “was the central site of the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), which during the Second World War regularly penetrated the secret communications of the Axis Powers – most importantly the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.”

The Mansion House at Bletchley Park.

The Mansion House at Bletchley Park.

One of the rooms in the mansion.

One of the beautiful rooms in the mansion.

And Alan Turing was one of the main figures at Bletchley. He was responsible for German naval cryptanalysis and pioneered modern computers. “Turing’s pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements, including the Battle of the Atlantic; it has been estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years.” (Wikipedia)

The embassy CLO had organized a trip to Bletchley for Saturday with a nice little twist to it. It was going to be led by Sir Dermot Turing, Alan Turing’s nephew and one of the Bletchley Park trustees. It was neat to see him, but in the end it was a little underwhelming as we didn’t really get a chance to meet or talk to him.

He addressed our group for about 10 minutes with a bit of Bletchley history and his recommendations for what to see. But it was difficult to hear him as we were all outside, and the wind was quite loud in the trees. Then we were released to explore on our own.

Sir Dermot Turing, Alan Turing's nephew and Bletchley Trust trustee.

Sir Dermot Turing, Alan Turing’s nephew and Bletchley Park trustee.

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Sir Dermot.

But Bletchley in itself was a beautiful campus with very interesting buildings. The Mansion House was well organized with a lot of the film sets still up for visitors to view. And the huts were decorated the way they had been during WWII and were fun to wander through. We didn’t pause for too long in any one space with the four-year-old, but they also had a café and a lovely playground with an oversized chess set that happily distracted him.

So I would highly recommend it for a family day out from London. The train ride from Euston Station is less than an hour. And Bletchley is currently running a two-for-one admission special if you show your train ticket.

Part of the film set for "The Imitation Game."

Part of the film set for “The Imitation Game.”

An Enigma machine on display in the museum.

An Enigma machine on display in the museum.

Grabbing a classic British cab in front of the Houses of Parliament.

Grabbing a classic British cab in front of the Houses of Parliament.

I’m a little late jumping on this band wagon, and I know at least one fellow blogger has posted her pros and cons about London. Some of ours are the same, but some are different, so I thought I’d throw mine out there anyway for anyone thinking of bidding on London this summer.

There’s also a great little roundup of Copenhagen and other posts and their pros and cons over at The New Diplomat’s Wife.

London: The PROS

Travel – Granted it’s been more expensive than I was hoping for us to travel as a family, but you still can’t beat the proximity to all of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. And if you’re not too picky, there are a bunch of low budget carriers that can get you there for less. You can also take the Eurostar and be in Paris in about the same amount of time as it would take to fly…considering it would take you an hour to get out to Heathrow or Gatwick, and you’d have to arrive the required two hours before your flight.

History & Culture – Even if you don’t get out of the UK, every square foot of these islands has 1,000+ years of history. I’m trying to remain calm when I think of all the things that I haven’t had a chance to do yet. But because the sheer number of possibilities is so overwhelming, I could never do it all anyway.

1st World Convenience – Yes, they speak English, they have (fairly) reliable internet and satellite television,  and my favorite big-city perk…grocery delivery! That’s right, people, I haven’t schlepped my groceries from store to house in almost two years. I hate shopping, and I hate crowds. London grocery stores are tiny as a whole. So this feature has spoiled me silly at less than £5 per delivery.

Transportation – Be it a black cab, the underground tube or a red double-decker bus, London public transportation is safe and reliable…as much as any system can be. We brought our car and really wish that we hadn’t. The government shipped it, but I had to spend about $700 on new tires, emissions tests, fees and other modifications to make it road ready, plus monthly insurance. And we’ve literally only driven it half a dozen times. It would’ve been easier and cheaper just to rent a car now and then. Especially considering the fact that our building only allows you to park in one of their 20 spots for two weeks at a time. We finally just got a city parking pass and left it on the side of the street (and yes, it’s a bit more dinged up now).

Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) – Lots of posts have a bit of a COLA, but London has one of the highest, and it really does make a difference in your paycheck…at least at my level, it does. There are quite a few posts that have a very high cost of living (Tokyo, Moscow, Sydney) but a disproportionately low COLA. So I’m listing this in the pros.

The CONS

Crowds – I used to think I’m a people person, but I’m really not. People exhaust me. Large crowds of people make me want to go into a hole or never come out again. Even in London, one of the greatest retail and fashion cities…I still shop online. Because there are just entirely too many people here…especially in the summer. BUT if you do manage to get off the main streets like Oxford and Regent, you can find some fairly quiet neighborhoods.

New Embassy Split – The US Embassy will be moving in 2017 from its historic address on Grosvenor Square to a new location south of the Thames by Battersea Park. The international schools however will remain where they are. The embassy has already started housing people in residential areas around the new embassy to ease the housing lease transition and make sure there are enough properties available. This has a HUGE impact on the daily commute. So be very aware that there are two distinct locations where you can be housed and at some point your commute is probably going to shift when the new embassy is up and running.

Pollution & Allergies – I hadn’t thought of London as being particularly polluted. It supposedly rains a lot, so the air should be clean, right? And it’s obviously much better than during the Industrial Revolution and better than in the developing world. BUT it actually doesn’t rain as much as I thought it would. And the mild weather means that there are allergens pretty much all year round. And there actually is a significant amount of air pollution in central London. We’ve had chest coughs off and on for most of our tour. You should’ve seen the reports that came out on how much the pollution dropped during the bus strikes!

Expense – It is ridiculously expensive to live in London. That said, it’s not really the cost of things in the city but the exchange rate that kills you. We paid $1200 a month for a lovely full-time daycare in Colorado. In London our son attends a beat-up little nursery school that costs £1010 per month (beyond the government subsidized 15-hours a week)…depending on the exchange rate, that could be $1,500 or $1,900. It’s painful.

Community – I recently read a comment on someone else’s blog stating that community at post is not separated according to rank or job status but according to family status (single vs married vs young children vs older children). And I have certainly found that to be true both here and in Belize, presumably for the basic reason that these are the people you are most exposed to and can plan with. But it’s even worse in London because I know several lovely people that have children our son’s age, but we’ve never gotten together because they go to different schools and are scattered across town. In Belize we had one good set of friends. Here we have one really good set of friends. I guess if you make one good set of friends at each post, you’re doing pretty well. ;)

One of the jokes about the Foreign Service is that you can supposedly tell a woman’s first post by how her house is decorated. I think I picked up one tiny painting, a carved seashell, a necklace, a couple fridge magnets and a beach towel in Belize. More souvenirs than art.

But I’ve never been a big collector of art. I had a few teen idol posters in high school (was crushed when River Phoenix died) and have always enjoyed the romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. We also picked up a reproduction of one of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries called À Mon Seul Désir on eBay a few years ago. So most of the stuff I have has always been pretty main stream.

Our reproduction tapestry of À Mon Seul Désir - the original was created in the 1500s and is now in Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris.

Our reproduction tapestry of À Mon Seul Désir – the original was created in the 1500s and is now in Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s a house near us that used to be the home of painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. He lived in it with his wife, Laura, for 30 years starting in 1884 until his death in 1912 and had lavish dinner parties with the social and artistic elite of 19th-century London.

According to one author’s website, “He built a Dutch-style studio for Laura, who also painted, and a three-story studio for himself, capped with a semi-circular dome covered in aluminum, which gave a silvery tone to his paintings.” And you can still see the copper-covered entrance to the house from the road.

My favorite piece by Alma Tadema - "Ask Me No More" painted in 1906.

My favorite piece by Alma-Tadema – “Ask Me No More” painted in 1906.

I imagined we’d be buying all sorts of glorious antiques and prints while in London, but nothing has really jumped out at me, and it’s all ridiculously expensive.

So I’m looking forward to getting to Iceland and finding lots of new art to fill our house. And I’m already off to a great start! I posted on a bit of Icelandic art a while back and have since found out that there’s an entire art gallery in Reykjavik dedicated to the artist I highlighted, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, that sells prints of his work. So I’m hoping to get a couple of those.

But I’d really like to have some original items as well. To that end, I’m very proud to present these three pottery pieces that I’ve picked up. They’re gorgeous, so unique, and I love them! They’re handmade with Icelandic lava. I’ve found them scattered across the world on Etsy and eBay. But they were all made between 1960-70 in the same tiny little ceramics shop in Reykjavik called Glit.

My three little pieces of Glit pottery.

My three little pieces of Glit pottery.

In 2013 the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Reykjavik had an exhibition called a “Glimpse of Glit” featuring chosen items from Glit Pottery from between the years 1958 and 1973. And they had lots of great info about the history of the shop that still exists today.

“Glit was adamantly devoted to utilizing Icelandic clay and ground minerals in production during its first decade of operation—especially hardened lava.

“The Glit Pottery LLC was founded on June 10, 1958 by Einar Elíasson, a businessman; Pétur Sæmundsen, then head of the Federation of Icelandic Industries and later head of the Industrial Bank (Iðnaðarbanki); and Ragnar Kjartansson, sculptor and ceramic artist. The pottery, operated at Óðinsgata downtown Reykjavik until 1971, when the decision was made to expand the company and move its operations to Höfði. The company’s time at Óðinsgata is often referred to as the “Old Glit”, and the company as it operated at Höfði called ‘The Big Glit.’

“Glit’s administration had lofty artistic ambitions immediately upon the company’s founding. Ideas about expansion and exportation came early on, so that nearly from its inception the company operated under the highest of standards and was unyielding in their demand to withstand all comparison. Many of this country’s best-known artists of the 20th century worked at Glit at one point or another, remembering the place as an artistic breeding ground, especially during the time when Ragnar was in charge of the manufacturing workshop at Óðinsgata. Technological advances and the desire to increase production led Glit to shift gears, moving them from Iceland’s history of art and design and into its industrial history.”

So, ya, I’m getting classier. ;)

We had a three-day weekend over Memorial Day, and our apartment flooded from a blocked pipe in the laundry room (gotta love 1930’s plumbing). So we figured it’d be a great time to go to Brighton! Besides, their fabulous Victorian aquarium was on my bucket list, which is supposedly the oldest aquarium in the world. But I’d been a bit hesitant to go before as all the reviews made Brighton sound really tacky touristy in a Coney Island kind of way.

A national railway strike was planned for the holiday Monday (how rude!) and then cancelled, but we figured Sunday would still be the easier day to travel. Someone apparently didn’t get the memo, and there was much craziness at the train station when we picked up our ticket.

They happily sold us our ticket for the 9:10am from St. Pancras, but when we looked at the board for the platform info, the 9:10 had been cancelled, and there were no other trips to Brighton posted up past 12:00. Thankfully, we arrived at 8:30am, and the last train still scheduled to actually depart was at 8:40. So we jumped on it and even found a nice group of seats around a table for our comfy 1.5-hour journey (it was only £10 each roundtrip compared to the 1-hour express from Victoria, which was £25).

The lovely Victorian railway station in Brighton built in 1840.

The lovely Victorian railway station in Brighton built in 1840.

And I am pleased to report that the Sea Life Centre was a hit with everyone. It’s not huge, like SeaWorld or anything. But it’s 10 times better than the National Aquarium in DC. (That place is a joke.) The Victorian architecture was fantastic; it had a fun Jules Verne twist to it, a petting pond, and an underwater tunnel, which is always awesome. And I thought they did a great job with the variety and layout of the tanks for being a smaller venue.

The cost is a bit high if you show up at the door…about £22.50 per person, and they only discount for children under three. BUT if you purchase online, it’s practically half the cost. We got ours for £10.95 each, and it was well worth it for the two hours we spent wandering around inside.

Brighton Sea Life Centre.

Brighton Sea Life Centre.

Cool Jules Verne-style submarine.

Cool Jules Verne-style submarine.

Beautiful Victorian interior with dramatic lighting.

Beautiful Victorian interior with dramatic lighting.

More interior.

Main hall with sand pit.

Victorian detail.

Victorian detail.

Nemo.

Nemo.

Seahorses.

Seahorses.

Nautilus.

Nautilus.

More Jules Verne themes.

More Jules Verne themes.

And my favorite part of any aquarium...the underwater tunnel.

And my favorite part of any aquarium…the underwater tunnel.

After that we headed across the street to the the food stands on the pier for lunch. I picked up a savory crepe with ham, cheese and mushrooms, and the boys grabbed fish and chips. And I would like to add that it was probably THE BEST fish and chips I have had in the UK. Even the pubs in London tend to serve a bit of a flavorless fish, but this was a beautiful chunky white fish fresh from the sea. Sooooo good.

We then spent a good hour sitting on the rocky beach eating our food, feeding the seagulls and throwing rocks in the sea. The latter is our son’s single favorite thing to do. And sand in the cracks and the shoes can be a pain. So it was great to be on a beach made entirely of shiny stones.

Once fortified, we ventured up to the pier and spent the remainder of our time walking around and watching A enjoy the kiddy rides and snacking on chocolate crepes with the occasional stop into the pier pub for a beverage. And we even had decent weather.

The rocky beach in front of the pier.

The rocky beach in front of the pier (built in 1891).

Pub on the pier.

Pub on the pier.

Pretty carousel.

Pretty carousel.

The one thing I’ve learned during our time in the UK is that nothing contributes more to the success of an outing than the general attitude of the people involved. We’ve had a couple trips that seemed lovely during planning go sour because of stress or fussiness. So I am happy to report that this was probably one of the most pleasant and relaxed outings that we’ve had. I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. :)

Beautiful London.

Beautiful London (internet photo).

A co-worker asked me on the bus this morning what has been my favorite thing in London. I assumed he meant sites and experiences rather than the everyday fun stuff like black cabs, pubs and grocery delivery. I’m not really a morning person, so I mumbled something about the British Library since it was one of the most recent things I’d done, and it was clear in my memory. But it got me thinking, what really HAS been my favorite thing in London.

I think for my son, that’s an easy answer: Playing in the parks and playgrounds, and the seasonal kids’ fairs that pop up in them, the London zoo, the lions in Trafalgar Square, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, the Duck Tour and the Transport Museum. Some of the things I thought he’d enjoy like the castles and Natural History Museum, he’s just kind of run through without really paying attention. And he hates being forced to sit still in restaurants, although he’ll make an exception for the ice cream parlor at Fortnum & Mason. He likes the silly fountains at Granary Square.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of the off-the-beaten path or behind-the-scenes things, like tracking down random Bridget Jones movie filming locations and Roman ruins as well as more high profile stuff like tours of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, and daytrips to Highclere Castle and the Harry Potter studios.

I really liked the ice sculpture tent at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, the Wallace Collection, and the concrete Frost Fair murals in Southbank. The Foundling Museum was probably the most moving and emotional. But there’s honestly SO MUCH to see in London, how could I really narrow it down?

So my absolute favorite things have been more of the events and experiences than the sites…things like summer picnics in the parks, ladies’ nights out on the town, and having afternoon tea with friends and family. The American Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s, the Christmas choir performance at Westminster Abbey, recording at Abbey Road with the Rock Choir (of course!!), planting memorial poppies at the Tower, catching the film stars on stage at London theatres, any event at the ambassador’s residence, and just how beautiful the city is from season to season. These are a few of my favorite things. ;)

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