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Archive for the ‘By Mike’ Category

A friend asked for a detailed account of our skydiving experience, and I realized I’d like to remember all the details too, so here it is.

Even before we met, both Mike and I wanted to go skydiving someday. It’s been on my “to do” list for at least a decade, so when Groupon had a 50% off deal with Central Michigan Skydivers, we jumped at the chance. That was nearly a year ago. We waited until just about the last minute to cash in and actually go for it, but thank god we did. It. Was. Amazing.

A couple weeks before our scheduled jump date, I started to get nervous. What the hell was I thinking? And part of me, I admit, hoped it would somehow not end up happening. So the night before the jump, when it started to pour and storm, I was a little relieved. Maybe this wouldn’t happen afterall. But by 10:00am, the sun was peaking out and we hadn’t received a phone call telling us it was off, so I gathered my wits about me and we headed to the airfield. I hadn’t slept at all the night before, but fatigue was the last thing on my mind. I was nervous!

When we got there, everyone kind of looked at us funny. “Um… we have a reservation…?” “Oh, nobody called you?”

Yeah, they had canceled everyone else’s jump for the day, but somehow missed us. They said we could either reschedule right now, or we could fill out the paperwork, get trained, suit up and then see if it was safe. I was tempted to reschedule, but I knew if I didn’t do it now, I may never work up the nerve again. So we signed about a thousand pages of liability releases while my sister (the skydive place was near her house, so we stayed with her and her husband the night before) chatted up the instructors. Then Geoff, one of the instructors, walked us through everything we needed to know.

The night before I had done some research about skydiving, and it actually eased my mind to know more about what would be happening. And the thorough instructions from Geoff helped even more. I was a little bit freaking out during the training, but I was glad to know exactly what would be happening and what it would feel like. Plus he promised us it would be half as scary as we thought and twice as fun, so ok!

Next we got into jumpsuits. From this point, everything moved really fast. In minutes we were fully suited up and the instructors were strapping harnesses on us.

That’s me and my dude Chuck. He was a real jokester.

That’s Mike and his dude Geoff. Apparently even super tall people can tandem jump!

I, of course, asked a million questions. Including “Are there bugs that high up?” and “Has anyone ever become detached from their instructor?” Both answers were no. I thought I needed a little time to compose myself, but with a few harness adjustments, we were suddenly walking off to toward the plane. The little bitty teeny tiny plane. During training Geoff referenced the “big plane” and the “small plane” because he wasn’t sure which one we’d be using yet. Turns out: small plane.

We took this before we knew for sure we were actually going to be jumping!

Look at me! Practicing my arch!

Even while we were getting harnessed, we weren’t positive we were jumping. But as we walked to the plane, it hit me, yep, this was happening. Holy eff. Honestly though, I was feeling pretty chill. Yeah I was nervous, but not the barfy out of control nervous I was sure I would feel. Even on the plane ride up, I was shockingly calm. I knew it would be ok all along, that nothing awful was going to happen, but I was sure I’d be a nervous wreck and want to change my mind. Instead we all chatted (well, more like yelled) and joked around, and got ourselves ready to go.

The plan was pretty cramped. Four people plus the pilot in a space the size of my teeny bathroom. My instructor, Chuck, was quite the comedian. It definitely helped ease the craziness of the situation a little. I was worried I’d get motion sickness in the plane, but thankfully I felt fine the whole time. At around 3,000 feet I thought surely we were high enough, but nope, not even a third of the way there. We were going up to 10,000 feet! The ride took about 12 minutes, and after about 9 minutes the instructors started getting ready. I had to climb up on Chuck’s lap which was, well, intimate. He strapped me to him, and when I asked to be reassured I was firmly in place, he tickled me a little, to which I obviously squirmed and tried to get away. And couldn’t move. Point taken.

TheĀ  next two minutes were the scariest of the whole experience. I heard the pilot say “one minute” and I think I squealed. Eeeek! Then the pilot said “door” and Chuck opened the fucking door. Please realize I was directly next to the door, like, touching it. And suddenly it was open and the wind was out of control. And they’re telling me to swing my legs around and out onto the step. I distinctly remember thinking “In a few seconds I will be plummeting toward earth. This is happening and there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

Then I was flying. I’m not kidding, I have no idea how I got out of that plane. Chuck titled my head back, I heard “ready set arch” in my ear, and then I was airborne. I know in theory, Chuck got us out by sort of tipping forward, but I have zero recollection of what happened. Luckily, I remembered to get into the arch position, we did a little flip and I got a split second glimpse of the plane above us, and whoosh. Flying.

I’m scared of heights and I was really scared of the free fall, but it’s less like flying and more like really loud floating. The ground is so far away, you really have no concept of getting closer. Basically it’s a lot of wind in your ears, a lot of pressure pushing up on your body (not uncomfortable), and it’s cold. I started with my arms crossed at my chest, as instructed, and when Chuck tapped my shoulders, I put them out like I was being arrested.

After about 40 seconds (or what felt like 10), he pulled the rip cord and we were floating. Immediately Chuck told me to look up and I saw a tiny pinprick of dark spot falling through the air and then a parachute open up. It was Mike! It was pretty crazy to be together so high in the sky. When you’re floating, it’s pretty quiet and peaceful. And actually, I was a little more scared during this part than the free fall. When you’re free falling, you’re not even thinking about anything. But when you’re floating, suddenly it’s like, holy shit I’m in the air!

It’s Mike!

It’s me!

Chuck loosened my harness a little, which was a bit scary, but more comfortable. And then he had me hold the reins of the chute. He was still in control, but I could at least feel the power of the parachute. He took me through a cloud, we steered around a little, and he had me practice lifting my legs for the landing. I watched Mike a little too. They were falling a lot faster than us, probably because of the weight difference, so I also got to watch him land.

Then it was my turn. We approached the ground, and I waved like crazy at Em and Drew. Then I looked at the ground and damn, it was approaching fast. I worried he forgot to tell me to lift, so I frantically asked, “Do I lift my legs now?” He said go ahead, I did, and a couple seconds later we hit the ground. You kind of come in at a angle and land on your butts. The instructor takes the brunt of the landing, hence getting your feet up, but somehow my right foot still grazed the ground and I hurt my ankle. I didn’t notice at first, but that night I had to ice it. A skydiving injury! How cool am I?

Em and Drew ran out to meet us, and we were both high on adrenaline. We couldn’t stop talking about it, and I’ve been replaying it in my head for days.

I already want to do it again. I told Mike I’d go right back up and jump again if it wasn’t so expensive. But in reality it’ll probably be awhile. Maybe for our fifth anniversary? And I told my little sister I’d take her when she graduates from high school in eight years. But I definitely want to do this again sometime.

It’s funny because if they had called us to cancel like they had with everyone else, we wouldn’t have jumped that day. But the universe was looking out for us. They didn’t call, we showed up, the weather cleared just long enough, and we had the time of our lives.

I was scared to go and I was nervous, but it was more amazing than I can describe. Such a fucking rush. It really was twice as fun and half as scary as I thought it would be. If you haven’t done it, and you’ve been thinking about it, go! Go skydiving!

From Mike’s perspective:

I did not have the same trepidations that Shannon had. I believe this means I’m not very smart, and probably shouldn’t be in a position to take risks in my life. Seriously though, it never crossed my mind how scary of a thing it is to fall out of a plane at ten thousand feet and plummet toward the earth. Even when I read the part about serious injury or death on the waivers. In hindsight, I was so amped up for the prospect of doing this thing, that I just didn’t have room in my mind for the fear.

Then, we were in the plane. I was behind the pilot, away from the door, so the door opening didn’t freak me out as much as it did Shannon. What totally freaked me out was when, shortly after the door opened, I watched my wife try to get her feet out the door and, seconds later, watched the empty door where my wife had been a moment ago. It wasn’t like watching a car drive away, or even like watching someone dive into a pool. It was as if she literally vanished.

Before I had time to contemplate this much, Geoff and I were shuffling toward the door. I swung my feet out and we were falling. As I was wrapping my mind around that fact, I heard Geoff scream “ARCH” in my ear. I had forgotten to arch with so much of my brain power devoted to processing the fact that I was falling through the sky. I arched, we fell, and, before I knew it, the chute was open.

This is where my experience goes down-hill. I am not a cushioned individual, and I don’t fit in most things. Apparently this includes my harness, because when that chute opened and the harness took my full weight, I became aware that I was 6’8″ of guy in 6’7″ of harness. That extra inch meant that I was squeezed at the crotch and the chest for the entire float down. This was not comfortable, and I have the bruising to prove it.

I did, however, nail the landing, which was surprising since it entailed lifting my legs up so my toes were parallel to my nose. This is not an easy task for a tall man, but I managed it…mostly out of fear of terrible bodily injury. As my butt slid to a stop on the grass, I began laughing uncontrollably. We got unhooked, and I staggered to Shannon and gave her a hug.

While I am not quite as excited as Shan about doing this again (remember the bruising?), I am definitely glad I did it, and sort of like the idea of giving it another whirl. All in all, it was incredible.

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Shan: I’m going out of town for work the week after next.

Mike (out loud): Oh…ok.

Mike (in his head): I better get some movies and stock up on corn dogs.

 

Here’s the thing. Every so often, Shannon has to go on the road for work. Usually it’s a few days, and it’s never too far away. But it happens, and it changes the days she’s gone. I feel a reduction in purpose when Shan is away. I have no one to cook dinner for and no one to watch tv with. That purpose needs to be filled, and I do it with movies, video games and food. Movies that Shannon generally doesn’t show an interest in, and food that she doesn’t like.

This week, I filled that purpose with the following.

“Surugates”
“The Expendables”
“Rescue Dawn”
“Bad Lieutenant; Port of Call: New Orleans”
NBA Jam
Brats and coleslaw
Corn dogs
Ham and pineapple pizza
Chunky Monkey

It’s not that I don’t miss my wife when she’s gone. I do. I miss her and I look forward to her return. It’s just that, if she has to be gone, I might as well have pizza with fruit on it. Life’s all about purpose.

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When in Rome…eat pizza and gelato.

In Rome, we were, once again, on our own for meals. For dinner the first night, as Shan mentioned, we got roped into a touristy restaurant. The Italian marketing strategy for food is, apparently, stand in the street with a menu in your hand and forcibly hand it to unsuspecting tourists. Then subtly guide them into a chair and begin bringing them food. Seriously…this is how it’s done.

This charming gentleman (who eagerly grabbed Shan’s sunglasses and posed with Richie) talked us into sitting down in an outdoor cafe on a street so narrow that, sitting on the street-side, I could feel the heat from the exhaust of each car that passed by while we were eating. He first asked if we would like some wine, and then talked us up form the half-liter we were going to order to a full bottle of Italian white wine. It was light and refreshing, tasting a bit like Chardonnay.

Then he asked if we wanted bread, which of course we did. After bringing it, our tour friend Ty astutely noticed that it cost 2 Euro, although our server had made it seem like compliments of the house. Very sneaky.

It was really good though, so we didn’t mind too much. After bread, we ordered pizza. I got a margherita pizza, and it was actually a little disappointing. The crust was crispy and chewy, and was the best part. It had almost no basil on it, my favorite part of a margherita pizza. It was still pretty good, just not the transcendent experience I was hoping for. Shan got a pizza with eggplant, artichoke and basil, which was delicious. Ty and Richie got pizzas too. We all ate our fill, and then headed out as the sun set on Rome.

The next day, after walking forever, we had lunch outside the Vatican. In our most dissatisfying Italian meal of the trip, we ordered sandwiches and waters in an Italian combo meal. The sandwiches had plenty of Italian cured meats and cheese, but very little moisture. Richie had to conscript a bottle of olive oil from another part of the cafe so we could dowse our sandwiches and make them palatable. They gave us the energy we needed to keep moving though, and, as Shan detailed in the saga of the huge effing wall, it was a good thing they did.

Our final evening in Rome found us back at the Colosseum for dinner at a cafe with an awesome-looking pasta menu. We started with an appetizer of caprese salad, which turned out to be even better than in Venice. We even talked Shannon into trying a bite of tomato, which blew my mind. My mind was reassembled when she decided she still didn’t like tomatoes and gave the rest to me.

For dinner, we both got pasta. Shan ordered a cheese-stuffed pasta with marinara sauce, and I ordered tagiatelle with bolognese (Italian meat sauce).

The pasta was house-made, and you could tell. It had a structure and bite to it that processed pasta can’t replicate. It was tender, and it clung to the sauce for dear life. It was incredible.

We ended our last meal in Rome with tiramisu. This was another one of those things we knew we had to eat in Europe, and it didn’t disappoint. The lady-fingers soaked up so much rich espresso that they were like little pillows of caffeine-soaked awesomeness. The custard was equally delicious. We even managed to eat it without inhaling any of the cocoa powder on top.

I couldn’t have thought of a better final meal in Europe than pasta and tiramisu in the shadow of the Colosseum with four great friends.

The next morning found us eating our actual last meal in Europe…the breakfast box. Since this box contained no actual breakfast foods, and most of it was terrible, I don’t really count it. I’ll just hold onto the image of that pasta by the Colosseum. Grazie Roma!

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A night in Florence; or, all roads lead to Rome.

After a gigantic seafood lunch on the island of Burano, we departed for Florence, our shortest stop of the tour. We arrived at dinnertime, and ate another big meal at our hotel. After that lunch, I didn’t think I was in the mood for a big meal, but that’s what you do in Italy. We had more delicious crusty bread with olive oil. Our waiter, a prodigious sweater with a long, gray pony-tail (side note, the European service industry seems to be male-dominated — we had almost all male servers in the restaurants we ate at, which is not the case in the US) brought out all the penne with tomato sauce we could eat (literally, he brought seconds) as an appetizer.

Then we had another delicious roasted pork loin with vegetables (pork is huge in Italy).

Dessert was a nice fig tart with a latticed top-crust.

Although there’s no picture, after dessert we had a final cheese course. In the course of the meal, shared with our new tour friends, we noticed some platters of cheese at some of the other tables. We had not been presented with a cheese platter. So, in the spirit of experiencing everything Europe had to offer, we swiped a cheese plate from another table and tore that bad boy up. The best was the wedged Parmesan. With bellies full of stolen cheese, we went to bed.

The next morning we had a pretty typical hotel breakfast. One interesting thing. As we moved through Italy, every hotel breakfast featured nutella. You don’t see this chocolate-hazelnut spread in the US very often, but it’s delicious. It’s perfect spread on a croissant or piece of crusty bread. Then, in the streets of Florence, I had my first taste of gelato. It was lemon, and the most refreshing ice cream I’ve ever eaten. Shan had one that was flavored like tiramisu, which was rich and decadent. Then it was off to Rome.

On the way to Rome, we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill. Imagine a small American truck stop: gross facilities, McDonalds, other gross stuff. In Italy, they have Autogrill…surprisingly not gross. They have pizza, homemade salads and meat plates, grilled panini sandwiches with Italian meats and cheeses, even espresso bars. They are, however, intimidating. There is a very specific method for ordering, and you can only get certain items in certain lines. You can also only eat in certain areas, depending on which line you ordered from. And, naturally, all of this is accomplished in Italian. Very confusing, and made more so because our tour guide tried to explain it to us before our first stop, and confused us (mostly me) even more. At our first Autogrill stop, before Venice, I was so intimidated stepping in that I didn’t eat lunch. On this stop, I was determined to find success. We managed to order sandwiches and, much to our surprise and pleasure, they came out grilled and steaming. Amazing.

Then it was back on the road for our last stretch of driving on the tour.

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Venice, as you’ve seen, was amazing. And oh the food!

I’ve been excited about eating in Italy since I started learning about food. Italians love food, and eating is an event. This was evident shortly after we arrived in Venice.

After our gondola ride and water taxi ride, we checked into our hotel and headed right down for dinner. We sat with a couple new friends, and ordered up a bottle of red wine. It was a bit sweet for me, but we all liked it, and it paired pretty well with the event to come.

Of course there was bread on the table, and a little olive oil, salt and pepper were all that were needed to make it a course in itself. Soon, however, came the “appetizer.” I use quotes because I’m not sure what the actual course was called–there are so many different classical menus that call different courses by different names. I also use quotes because our “appetizer” was a significant portion of traditional lasagna. It was easily 3 inches squared, and a couple inches tall. It was wonderful. Shan doesn’t generally like lasagna and she ate hers right up. The marinara sauce was sweet, bold, just the slightest bit spicy. It was full of seasoned ground beef and enough cheese to top a pizza with. And this was the appetizer.

The next course was a fresh green salad with several toppings and olive oil and vinegar for dressing. Not much compared to the cinder block of lasagna, but it was a good buffer between the “appetizer” and the main course.

After salad, we were presented with slices of delicious roasted pork loin served with potatoes roasted with rosemary and oil.

Finally, we were served cake and strong coffee for a sweet finish.

The next morning, after sightseeing and a boat ride to Burano, we sat down for a lunch that our tour guide had been praising for days. The local seafood was incredible. If you don’t like seafood, you need to eat fresher seafood, because this stuff was outstanding. We started with crusty bread smeared with a local delicacy of flaked fish and fresh lemon juice. It was like the best tuna salad sandwich ever.

This was followed in quick succession by a risotto with fish and shellfish in a white sauce, another green salad as well as a delicious caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, more pasta, more lasagna, broiled fresh fillets of fish, and endless platters of fried calamari and prawns.

The fish was mild, flaky, tender, and delicately sweet. I regret not asking what kind it was, but I doubt it would be the same in the States even if I could find it. I’ve no doubt it was caught and brought directly to the restaurant…maybe even alive. Everything was succulent, salty, and tasted like the ocean.

After all of this, we were presented with a variety of pastries and cookies for dessert, many of which featured almonds, along with more strong coffee (and tea for Shan). This time, our coffee even came with little bottles of amaretto to settle us after lunch.

It was almost laughable to think of walking around Burano after this lunch, but, surprisingly, we were able to walk easily. The breeze and the smell of the ocean finished our lunch perfectly. And don’t forget our cannoli by the water.

After a meal like that, a little dodo (our tour guide’s term for a nap – also French slang) on the way to Florence was just the thing.

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Lucerne (I prefer the American spelling, because I feel like it might annoy Shan), Switzerland was our first 1-night stay featuring an included dinner. I must confess, I don’t know much about Swiss cuisine beyond chocolate and cheese.

After consulting some culinary resources (not Wikipedia…I swear) I’m actually a little disappointed in our Swiss dinner. Switzerland is actually known for a few dishes.

One, rosti, is a potato favorite that Shan and I have prepared at home several times, without knowing the origin. It’s like a big hash brown potato casserole with cheese and goodness in it. We got mashed potatoes. Another, Zurcher Geschnetzeltes–it’s from the German region of Switzerland…can you tell?–is a thin-sliced tender veal dish with mushrooms and cream sauce. We got beef stroganoff.

I’m not complaining. Our meal was delicious. I just loved trying the traditional regional foods in England and France so much. I guess I was happier not knowing about the Swiss favorites that I missed out on. Damn you Wikipedia…I mean trusted culinary reference materials that are not a website.

Anyway, we had a delicious vegetable soup to start our meal, served with the biggest silver spoon I’ve ever seen. It was rich, well seasoned, and got our appetites in gear quite nicely. Then we were presented with the stroganoff. It was not, as many Americans think of it, ground beef in a cream gravy. It was, in fact, a more traditional stroganoff of sliced, stewed beef in a rich, dark brown demi-glace that was earthy and quite tasty. The stroganoff was served with piped mashed potatoes and a nice vegetable blend. It hit the spot, but was not quite enough food.

Luckily, we had dessert coming. It turned out to be a cute little ice cream dish, apparently hand-crafted for artful presentation to the tourists. It was refreshing, but only made us long for the Italian gelato that was to come.

All in all it was a nice meal, presented in a friendly, comfortable hall. I imagine the weary travelers of days gone by would have appreciated the comfort of a hot, hearty meal at the foot of the alps.

The next morning, we had a pretty simple buffet breakfast at the hotel, and then struck out on our own. After walking a bit, and heading back to the bus, we decided a little caffeine was in order. We stopped into Starbucks (I know…lame, but we didn’t have time to figure anything out) and ordered up some drinks. Just so you all know, Starbucks is expensive in Europe. A small Chai Latte and a small brewed coffee ran us about 8 Swiss Francs, which is like 10 bucks. Ridiculous. But man, did we need that jolt. Next stop…Venice!

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From merry old England we moved on to the country that gave the world a food service industry…France!

First of all, if you don’t know, France is the country that developed what we know of as a restaurant today. Before the French started eating out in the 1700’s, the only way you ever ate without cooking your own food was if somebody you knew cooked for you, or if you paid someone to cook for you. This might happen at an inn or tavern while you were traveling, but if you were local you stayed at home or dined with a friend. But you didn’t go into a restaurant and eat off a menu. Not until France. The French chefs of the late 1700’s, most notably King Louis 18’s pastry chef Antoine Beauvilliers who opened one of the first restaurants in Paris. I also must mention the chef that developed the modern restaurant kitchen set-up and staffing structure, Georges Auguste Escoffier.

Ok, now that your history lesson is complete, on to our culinary experience!

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday evening. Good for traffic, bad for food. We had a little over an hour to find dinner near our hotel before our optional excursion. The only two promising places we saw were a small brasserie, which was closed, and a pizzeria, which, hello, we were going to Italy later on the trip. And so, we walked. We passed a McDonald’s–side note, according to our tour director, in France McDonald’s is called “Mc Doe’s” because the French insist on being different–which we refused to step into, hungry as we were. Then we passed a suspicious looking middle-eastern restaurant with a menu we couldn’t read. Finally, we saw a less suspicious looking middle-eastern place with a friendlier menu and a friendly looking staff. We also ran into a couple from Arizona that were on our tour, so we figured we’d give it a shot and at least we’d discover the food together. It turned out that they had a combo meal of sorts, so we both got a pita sandwich, frites (French french fries), and a can of Coke. Shan got chicken, and I got the traditional gyro meat. Both were delicious with a little tzatziki (cucumber sauce) and hot chili sauce on them. And, most importantly, we successfully ordered and ate in a country that doesn’t speak English (a first for me).


The next morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we were off to experience Paris. One quick story about breakfast first. Shannon took a hard boiled egg, but decided she didn’t want it. As is our custom, I agreed to eat it. Upon gently cracking it, I realized it was, in fact, a raw egg. We did not see any source of heat for cooking a raw egg at our continental breakfast buffet. What the hell? Anyway, due to poor planing, we skipped lunch at the Louve, and were starving by the time we were left on our own. We stopped at a little cafe on the way to Notre Dame and had a late lunch. We got a huge bottle of water, and then ordered Croques. Shan had a Croque Poulet (chicken) and I had a Croque Monsieur (ham). Both were made with a hearty, rustic bread called Pan de Campagne, then layered with tomatoes, meat, and a rich white cheese, then heated and melted under a broiler. Ours came served with a small fresh salad and baguette on the side. They were fantastic. The ingredients are so fresh and simple that you can’t help but enjoy them. It was a truly restorative meal.

After some additional walking around and a realization that we did not fully appreciate how hot 28 degrees celsius was, we made it back to our hotel and prepared to go out for dinner. For dinner, we went back to the brasserie that was closed the night before, and found a nice table for two along the street. Our waiter, who thankfully spoke pretty good English, helped us select a half-bottle of red wine and an appetizer of prawns and avocado. The prawns were fresh and well-cooked and the avocado was creamy and delicious with some crusty bread.


After the appetizer, Shannon got a grilled steak with bearnaise sauce and frites on the side. She was a little disappointed with the steak, at which point I joked that maybe it was a horse steak. This is actually a thing in Europe. In France especially, the sale of horse meat is up 7% from last year. We’re pretty sure it was beef though, since most menus specify cheval in they are serving horse. So, it was just a so-so beef steak. The frites were delicious though. I had confit de canard (duck cooked in duck fat). It was delicious. Terrible for my cholesterol, but delicious. It came with some roasted potatoes that were crispy and well seasoned. A wonderful meal. For dessert, we ordered creme brulee. What else can you have to end your last meal in Paris? It was decadently sweet and smooth. The perfect end to a meal.

Overall, I give our Paris culinary experience a big thumbs-up. Also…gotta love modern art!

Next stop…Switzerland. We may or may not have eaten chocolate.

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