Andalucian Adventure Begins

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Written 2/18/2012

Let me start by saying that if you believe this right away after reading it, I will question your judgment. It happened to me and I am still having trouble believing it.

This adventure begins with me leaving the Panda Hostel for the last time this year. I was headed for the train station and had to drop off some mail on my way out. I hit the post box and went to buy my bilety (ticket). To get around our language barrier she held out a timetable for me to choose from. I learned then that Krakow has two airports. I was pretty sure Krakow Balice was the same as John Paul II Airport. I took the underground passage around to my platform. I got there ten minutes before the train left. However, my ticket was for the next bus. I had noticed on the way to the platform but I was pretty sure it didn’t matter. Now, I’m pretty sure it did.

So, I wasn’t getting on that train. It was all explained to me. I wish I knew more Polish.  I caught a cab and was there in twenty minutes. My flight was delayed by twenty five minutes for heavy snow. It lightened up and two hours later I was in Madrid. I took of my stuffed coat and put on my hoodie in front of this:

I hopped on the airport express bus that dropped me off in this plaza, upon which I immediately swore out loud on accident. But what do you say when you get off a bus and see this?

As I exited the bus driver pointed me towards the Estacion de Sur. Now that I knew pretty much where I had to be to catch the bus to Granada I had just a little over five hours to see what I could of central Madrid. It was kind of a blur. I circled the massive academy and strolled down the paseos and around the fountain-filled plazas. More than anything what I took away from my experience in Madrid is that I want to spend at least a few days in Madrid.

I left the Spanish capital on a bus bound for Granada. I arrived at the Granada bus station at around midnight. The next bus for Orgiva, which is where I was to meet a family that would be hosting me for the next few weeks, left at 8:30 in the morning. I set up a little camp on one of the benches in the bus station and tried to get some sleep. The benches had immobile armrests between each seat (probably so as not to encourage people to sleep on them and if that was the case it worked. I am very unenthused about the prospect of another night in the Granada bus depot.).

By nine the next morning I was entering the heart of Andalucia. As my bus sped through the mountains my ears began to pop from the pressure changes. My stomach dropped as we rounded corners on the edge of the mountain cliffs. As I looked out the window, all I could see were mountains and lakes with small villages dotting the landscape. After almost two hours of winding back into the the forest covered mountains we were in the town of Orgiva. The town had a market and a few shops on one main street. I used the town’s payphone to call my hosts and let them know I had arrived.

The patriarch arrived to pick me up after I made a quick stop in the market to get a snack for breakfast. As we rode out to his home we talked about how I ended up out in a remote part of Andalucia and how he ended up out here. He told me the story of the area surrounding what would be my home for the next few weeks. Almost twenty years ago he and a group of people he described as “hippies” started a settlement in the nearby valley. He lived there for about a decade before moving higher up on the mountain and building a home for he and his two children. Now he and his family live on the many plants they grow, including olive trees for producing some of the best I’ve ever had, and use solar panels for electricity. The amount of electricity produced is quite amazing. He powers the lights, two computers, a water heater, and all the other basic electronics with these panels and has never had a shortage of electricity. After we rolled to a stop in his driveway I got out and looked down over the cliff. He pointed out hundreds of tents, domes, and mudhuts that house the estimated four or five hundred remaining “hippies,” which he says are quite different than when he lived there. He recommended that I go down and walk through the village at least once and I am not going to pass up the opportunity after hearing some stories about the residents in the valley.

I still did not know what I would be doing here in… well I don’t think it has a name exactly so I guess the best description is the mountains of Andalucia near the Sierra Nevada Park.  After meeting his wife and two children it became a little more clear what my “job” would be. My daily work would consist of helping out with some light cleaning, help around the house, pruning trees, chopping wood, and doing small renovation jobs “if I feel like it,” as they always remind me. To start, the matriarch asked if I would like to go for a walk. I jumped at the chance to see more of this amazing area. She grabbed the three month old puppy, Bubba, and we headed up the trails. We wound around for a while before hitting a road. The road led to a tiny pueblo village called Caña (Kah-nya). She went to drop in on a friend and I went for the village. Every building is made of white and there are tiny streets not wide enough for a car that lead to the humble homes of the residents of the village. This town has been in these remote mountains for hundreds of years and has a history of having been conquered and reconquered by invaders, some of which were the Spanish led by Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. That’s when I realized that I am walking around in the setting to Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  I even the terrifying story from the some of the elders in Caña where Franco pulled seven people out of their homes and shot them in front of everyone.  This rings frighteningly true to the scene in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” where this same thing happens.

After leaving the village I climbed up towards the mountaintop. As my lack of sleep began to catch up to me I realized that I was not going to make it to the top today. I sat for a drink of water and as I tried to take a picture a thunderous snort came from just behind my ear. I jumped and if I had not had my camera strapped to my wrist I would have thrown it right of the cliff. It was a horse that was just out for a wander like me.  On my return down the mountain I would see many more horses roaming and grazing, probably in no small part to the fact that I got lost for about an hour.

When I got back to the house I thought I should set up my caravan. I grabbed my bags and the lady of the house showed me out back. On the way to my camper she showed me a workshop and the other small edifices on their property. I entered my temporary home and took stock. I had electricity from the solar panels on the house, a table, some chairs, a bed filled with blankets and comforters, closets, a radio, and a wood-fired stove for heating the place. I made my bed and sat for a moment considering my luck. This has got to be the most amazing plot of nature I have ever seen. I have my own camper. Most of my time, as I soon found out, would be spent playing pool and ping pong while talking history with her son (and of course adventuring out into the terrain every chance I got).

After a lunch of fresh sandwiches with all fresh vegetables, including my favorite, avocados, I continued on with my duties (if you want to to call them that, which I really don’t) of entertaining/tutoring her son and talking with the family. The parents invited me to go with them to a party that was being thrown for a friend’s birthday. They said it would just be a small gathering but I was more than welcome to come along. I politely declined on the grounds that I did not see myself being up for a “late night,” as they described it, after the last thirty six hours had left me pretty much drained. I wasted away the night playing pool, listening to music, playing the guitar, and talking with her son and a friend of his overlooking the mountains and valleys of Andalucia. After dark I headed out to my caravan, built a fire in the wood stove to heat it up, and settled in for the first good night’s sleep I’d had in a while. I woke up this morning and it took a few minutes for me to believe that all of this was true again. Now, I am going to head up to the house and see if I can make myself of use. I have a few adventures that happened during this story but they may have to be saved for another time, as I am running long. I am sure I have many more adventures coming up. I may not post as frequently as I have in the past (there is just too much to do) but I will catch you all up before it is all said and done. Until then here are just a few pics I took…


Hasta Luego Poland. Hola España!


Hola amigos!  Mañaña me voy a España.  Me gusta Krakow pero es necesario dejar ahora.  Yo tengo trabajar circa de Granada.  Ok, I am just trying to practice.  I think my Spanish is a little rusty.  So let me just do this the way I know best…

Hey everybody!  Well, tomorrow I finally leave Krakow after 17 fun and snow-filled days.  I enjoyed my last blizzard in Poland yesterday and celebrated Fat Thursday with many (too many) pazckis, kebabs, salads, fries, and my good friends here at the hostel.  As with every place I go, it will be sad to say goodbye but new adventures await.

Tomorrow morning I am flying from Krakow to Madrid, Spain.  I will be spending the day in Madrid before catching a bus to Granada.  Then I will spend the morning in Granada and head for my temporary residence in nearby Orviga to work on a farming co-op for three weeks.  Of course, all of these plans are merely guidelines that I hope to follow over the next twenty four or so hours.  What will really happen is probably going to be much more interesting than this.  I most likely will not have consistent internet availability but rest assured that when I have a chance I will fill you in on what I have learned and what has happened.  Until then…

Paczkis and Pigeons


The unusually cold winter here in Poland is starting to break.  I can take my gloves off without feeling frostbit.  I have even been outside with my coat unzipped for the first time.  I decided to enjoy it by just going for a walk.

So in some parts of America today they are celebrating a holiday called “Fat Tuesday.”  It is traditionally a time to use up the last of the lard and sugar that you have at home and enjoy a feast because Lent is about to begin.  During Lent, Catholics fast as a sacrifice to God.  In the European nations there is a celebration similar to Fat Tuesday.  It is called “Fat Thursday.”  Can you guess what the difference is?  I’ll give you a hint.  It’s not on Tuesday.

So in order to celebrate, in spirit, with my American brethren I went out in search of the highlight of every Fat Tuesday: the paczki (sound like “poonch-kee”).  The main difference this year is that I am in Poland, the homeland of the paczki, on Fat Tuesday.  I went to the Market Square, which is lined with street vendors selling baked goods.  Most of them just have bread circles that are cooked with different types of seeds in the crust.  They’re cheap, filling and easy to eat so it’s a good snack for tourists on the go.  I strolled the square looking at what the minimalist bakery stands had to offer.  They pretty much all had the same thing: the bread rings.  But when I got the stand that I usually go to I saw the prized paczki.  In fact, she had a few varieties of them.  I went for the one stuffed with fudge and topped with chocolate and nuts.  I was quite satisfied with my choice.

I was just walking around enjoying my paczki and Diet Coke in true American fashion when all of a sudden I heard a commotion.  I nearly dropped my paczki but there was no way that was going to happen.  Instead, I finished it quick and got out my camera so I could get a little video of the pigeon shenanigans that were happening right outside the market.  Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFK9ZLpgJEc

Well, that was my adventure this morning.  Now I am headed out to take care of a few things that may not be considered “adventurous” but who know what might happen along the way, right?  Until next time…


Triumph and Tragedy in Kazimierz


Today I went to Krakow’s Old Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue that still exists in Poland.  It sits in the Kazimierz district where I have been staying for a couple weeks.  The building is no longer in use as a religious site but it has been converted into one of the Historical Museums of Krakow.  There is currently a special exhibition called “This Was the Hebrew School of Krakow” running in this landmark and I had a chance to see it.  Here are a few of the things I learned…

The building first opened around 1407 as a men’s only synagogue.  About one hundred years later the synagogue was rebuilt with a Renaissance style exterior after being burned down.  To withstand future attacks it incorporated aspects of military architecture and is one of the few remaining “fortress synagogues” in the world.  In the 1770s this was the location where a Jewish community leader urged his fellows to join the fight for Polish independence, as well as support the American independence.  Then, upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland the synagogue was stripped of its many priceless artifacts and used as an ammunition warehouse.  It was not until the late 1950s that the building was rebuilt and, a few years later, opened as a museum.

Today, the museum features another story of triumph and tragedy:  The story of the Hebrew School of Krakow.  But before I get into their story I would like to share a few things about the Jewish religion that I found interesting.  I had a basic understanding of what The Torah was but I had not known the intricate way in which it is handled in a synagogue.  A synagogue has one copy of The Torah Scrolls.  The Torah consists of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy from the Bible.  It is believed that these five books were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The Torah Scrolls are a hand-written copy of each of these books scribed on the skin of a ritually cleaned animal.  The tendons from the animal are used to stitch together the skin into one long scroll.  The five books of the Bible are then written in special ink using a sharpened quill or reed.  The letters must be exactly the width of a hair apart.  Words and verses must be the width of one letter apart.  The final line of the scroll, which reads “in sight of all Israel” must be centered at the end.  The scroll is then placed in what is called an “ark.”  An ark is a large recess in the wall of the synagogue that faces Jerusalem.  And that is how it’s done in the Jewish tradition.

Another vague notion I had was of what “kosher” foods are.  Well, now I have a much more precise idea of what foods are and are not edible under traditional Jewish custom.  First, any four-legged animal that is ruminant and clove-hoofed can be eaten.  Certain fowl that are traditionally acceptable are considered kosher.  The only sea creatures that can be eaten are those with fins and scales.  So, pretty much just fish.  No dolphins, manatees, or Nessie.  The four legged animals and fowl must be butchered by a Jewish butcher that uses the “shehita” method.  Shehita means that the animal is killed by a sharp knife using one transverse cut through the trachea and larynx.  All the blood must be removed from the animal and it must be soaked in salt.  For some animal certain fatty parts must also be taken out.  Products of kosher animals, like milk and eggs, can be eaten.  The only exception is that honey from bees, which are not kosher animals, may be eaten.  There are also particular ways to eat these foods.  Most importantly, milk and meat can never be eaten together.  They must also not be served from the same dishes.  Milk may be drank one hour after meat and the time can be shortened if you want to consume them in the reverse order.  Then there are foods that can be eaten with anything.  Those foods are called “parve” and they are not made with any meat or dairy products.  One last thing is that in a Jewish household there is a set of dishes that are only to be used during Passover.  So that is how you can get on the kosher diet in case you were wondering.

One other thing about Jewish religious custom that I learned was the purpose of circumcision.  It seems that on the eighth day it is necessary to circumcise a baby boy to release them from the grip of the demon Lilith.  It is also at this ceremony, in which the godparent and many others from the community participate, that the boy is given his name.

Ok.  Now back to the story of The Hebrew School of krakow.  In 1908 a man named Salamon Leser funded the construction of an elementary school that would offer Jewish students the opportunity to be educated in Hebrew culture and Judaism, which is something previously unavailable in Krakow.  This first year the school was populated by a meager thirty students.  However, with the addition of a secondary school and certifications that allowed graduates to attend national universities the school had grown to almost fifteen hundred pupils by the 1938-1939 school year.  In addition to the teaching of Hebrew culture the school focused on promoting knowledge of the rights and duties of a Polish citizen.  The school had a physics and a nature lab that utilized some of the most modern equipment of the time.  In the history and geography departments they had numerous maps and even state of the art video projections.  There was a library available to students and a separate one for teachers.  Not only was the Hebrew School a center of education but it also became the center of community activities.  Special lectures were given.  Student and professional musicians gave recitals here.  There were meet and greets with famous authors.  They even had nights devoted to singing and dancing at the school.  That is, until December 11, 1939.  On this day the German Army closed the school and sent the Jewish population of Kazimierz to the Krakow ghetto to await extermination.  There is a simple stone memorial in a square near The Old Synagogue that gives us a chilling idea of just how decimated this community was.  It reveals that in all Hitler massacred sixty five thousand people from the city of Krakow.

As I left the synagogue I wandered around the Kazimierz district for a while thinking about what those numbers mean and, more importantly, what those lives that were lost meant.  It’s hard to imagine what life might be like here in Kazimierz had those tens of thousands of individuals not been reduced to a number and murdered by the orders of a single man.  As I walked I began to feel the darkness that comes from knowing that you are standing on an atrocity that time will never forget.  This was once a busy, lively part of town where a thriving Jewish community enjoyed their perch above the Vistula River.  Now, it has been shattered.  The buildings are crumbling.  The streets are cracked and full of holes.  And worst of all the generations that were lost here can never be regained.  The buildings can be rebuilt.  The streets can be repaved.  But those poor souls will never be restored.

I feel lucky that I have never had to go through any major hardships in my life.  The more I learn about the human experience it seems unlikely that I will ever go through anything like the torments that have been forced on some innocent people.  When I think I am having a rough go of it all I really need is a little broader perspective.  My life is good and it always has been.  Some parts were better than others but even spending one minute on self pity seems kind of contemptible after the stories I heard today.  Well, I hope you learned a little something from today’s adventure and I hope it serves you at some point in the future.  Until next time…

Church on Sunday

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The cold spell is breaking here in Krakow and the crowds are coming out of hibernation.  I joined them and headed for my favorite part of the city, Old Town, on this sun-kissed morning.  I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for but I figured that at the very least I could go back to Wawel Hill and see what I had missed on my other trips there.

I reached the long path that leads up the hill, which was now filled with living statues and men in archaic Polish soldier uniforms, and climbed to the top.  I headed to the Visitor’s Center to see what exhibits were open today.  I had seen them all before but I couldn’t resist going into the Royal Armory and Treasury one more time.  I strolled through rooms filled with swords, axes, shields, maces, serving platters, home altars, cannons, and many other objects made of precious metals and adorned with delicate jewels.  For more on this warehouse of wonderful wares see my post “King of the Hill.”

There was on thing on top of this historic hill that I had not really explored yet: The Wawel Cathedral.  After the Sunday mass was finished I joined about fifty other tourists at the cathedral’s main entrance.  Beside the massive door, which was not unusual as cathedrals go, was something that I had never seen.  There, hanging from chains attached to the stone arch, were enormous bones from what I later found out were prehistoric animals discovered near Wawel Hill.

The rusted chains and yellowing bones gave me the impression that this would be some sort of rustic, decomposing cathedral.  That was not the case.  I entered and had almost no idea where to begin.  Every inch of this church was packed with polish and shine.  I stood just inside the door and as I looked back I could hardly believe that on the other side of the granite and gold arches that rose to the cieling there were mastadon bones hanging on rusty chains.

From the walls of the nave flew bright red and white tapestries depicting Biblical stories.  Below one of them, on the left side, was the first of many memorials in the cathedral.  This one was a cenotaph of red marble, topped with a statue of a young man with a lion sleeping at his feet.  Then I found out just how young this king was.  In 1434, at the age of ten, Wladyslaw of Varna became King of Poland.  Before his teenage years were over he had been crowned the King of Hungary as well.  At the age of nineteen Wladyslaw launched a war against the Turks.  Less than one year later he was killed in the Battle of Varna on the shores of The Black Sea.  His body was never found and all that remains of him is this memorial in The Wawel Cathedral.

In the center, though, was a memorial that dwarfed that of the boy king.  It is known as The Reliquary of Saint Stanislaus. Stanislaus was the Bishop of Krakow from 1072 until 1079.  Near the end of his time in that position he challenged the reign of King Boleslaw Smialy on the grounds that he was an unjust ruler.  Boleslaw demonstrated his idea of justice by immediately having the future saint executed.  Now, when walking into the cathedral on top of Wawel Hill the gold coffin of Saint Stanislaus, decorated with an etching of the interior of the cathedral, hovers above a raised platform protected by two angels holding a sword and scepter.  As for King Boleslaw, he was later dethroned by his own soldiers and buried in an unmarked grave.

As I approached the high altar I was impressed by its relative simplicity.  There was a small wooden podium on red carpet.  Tapestries of trees and lakes hung from above the choir.  There were two thing, however, that stood out.  On the right side of the altar was a chair.  This was no ordinary chair, though.  It was upholstered with red velvet on the seat.  The arms were carved with angel faces for the priest to rest his hands on.  The back of the chair was primarily gold sculpted into stylized floral patterns.  Similar patterns of red and green detailed the back of this throne.

To the left of the high altar was a door that led to a hall which wound around the back of the altar and then ended up on the other side of it.  This hallway was closed off by high walls and numerous chapels devoted to kings and saints.  After seeing the sarcophagus of the king who started this necropolis of Polish royalty I was confronted with the stark figure of Christ on the cross.  The statue and the pillars that enclosed it were all made of black stone.  Only the capitals atop the pillars and a halo behind the head of Christ were made of gold.  This figure of the Christ was so striking that many people have said it spoke to them.  One person in particular meant it literally, though.  Saint Jadwiga, who was the Queen of Poland in the late 14th century, often prayed at the foot of this figure of Christ.  One day she claimed that the statue began talking to her.  The statue has now become know as Saint Jadwiga’s Cross and her relics have been placed at the statues feet.

I followed the hall until I was directly behind the altar.  On the wall were two arches, each containing a group of figures made of white stone.  They each contained two men sitting on the ground looking up in terror while next two them stand two women looking up in cool complacency.  Above them are angels and below them are skulls with crossbones.  I don’t know what the story behind these two scenes is and it not even marked on the tourist guide for the cathedral.  Aesthetically, though, this was one of my favorite pieces.

I followed the hall way back to the other side of the high altar.  Near the exit I saw candles surrounding the entrance to the final chapel and a group of women crying as they looked inside.  This was the chapel devoted to Pope John Paul II, or as he was known in his native Poland, Karol Józef Wojtyła.  I stood in front of the chapel for awhile and did not see a single person pass without going into it and saying a prayer.  He is clearly everyone’s favorite Pope here in Krakow, which is not surprising considering his rise in the church despite the many obstacles he faced during the Nazi invasion of Poland.  And, of course, he was the first non-Italian Pope in almost 500 years and the only Polish Pope to date.

I would have like to share a few photos with you but photography is not allowed in Wawel Cathedral.  I guess you will just have to come see it for yourself when you visit Poland.  It has been quite a great day full of adventure.  If I have time later I will tell you all about the rest of my day but for now I think the story ends here.  Until our next adventure…

I Think I’m Krakowing Up


I have been in Krakow, Poland for about a week and a half.  I have spent a good deal of that time wandering the city streets and noticing the things that make this city what it is.  So here, in no particular order, is a bullet list of some things I like or have noticed about Krakow.

– Driving on the sidewalk.  At first, I did not like this because as cars came barreling down on me I was quite sure this is how it was going to end for Action Jack.  It turns out that due to how few parking lots there are in Krakow most parking is done on the sidewalks.  So, of course, it necessary for some amount of driving to be done on the sidewalk while securing a spot.

– Big hats.  How can you not be happy when you are walking down the street and everybody is wearing a big, furry hat with ear flaps?

– Pierogies.  In Krakow I can get more pierogies than I can eat (12-15) for the equivalent of about $3 U.S.  Of course, if you get the ones that are made at the deli and cook them yourself you can get even more.  Be careful, though, because if you try to microwave them they might turn out like my dinner last night…

Sad supper is sad

– Royal walks.  There are a number of “routes” here in Krakow that were designed while this was the royal capitol of Poland.  These paths are the width of streets but were created so that the king could walk like… well, like royalty.  But today even us peasants get to enjoy the regal parks and paths.

– Seriously strapped police.  I don’t really know that I like this but I could not help but notice it.  Many of the “policje” in Poland are armed with assault rifles.  I suppose that as long as they are fair and honest cops there is no harm in this practice.  I have heard a few stories that have me wondering whether this should make me more or less comfortable.

– Police peel outs.  While we are on the subject of the Polish patrol I have to mention a pretty common occurrence I have noticed here in Krakow.  It appears that part of their job is somewhat similar to a Hollywood stunt driver.  Especially in the main market square on snowy days, they practice their stunt driving by peeling out around corners, and even once doing a full doughnut as onlookers were simultaneously entertained and terrified.

– Totally rockin’.  Ok, so I don’t know that all of Krakow likes to rock but I had an experience on Tuesday night that must be mentioned.  I was watching a movie in the common room at my hostel when I got invited to a party.  The party was at the home of a girl who works at the hostel.  They called a cab and we headed over to the party.  I met a few really great people who were happy to show off their English (and their American friend) by acting as sort of personal translator for me at the party.  Then I found a way to speak a more universal language.  I admired the electric bass guitar of one of the occupants and then they invited me to play for them.  I started out with the most bass-heavy song I know, Green Day’s “Longview,” and proceeded by singing and playing about a dozen songs I had never played on a bass guitar.  They must have thought it was alright, though, because the next morning, as they picked themselves up off the floor where they passed out the night before, I played another full set of songs for an appreciative audience while we sipped on our cups of tea.  And now, every time I see the girl at the front desk she talks about that night and asks me to sing a song for her.  It has become kind of an inside joke and has made me feel really at home in a faraway place.

– Nestle Lions.  These are pretty much the kings of the candy bar jungle.  They incorporate all the best parts of Kit Kats, Milky Ways, and Nestle Crunch bars.

– Snow capped everything.  I imagine that the sites in Krakow look quite beautiful on a seventy degree day in the glimmering summer sunlight.  But if it’s going to be cold, you might as well have snow, right?  Well, I got snow.  So now when I see statues here they look like this…

Well, I am sure I will continue to add to this list so keep a look out.  I have a couple adventures left before I leave Krakow next week.  Until then…

A Video Tour Through Krakow’s Market Square

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I was walking through the main square in Krakow, Poland’s Old Town when I realized that pictures just didn’t give a feel of what it was like to be here.  So I made a little video as I walked around the square and through the market.  The video starts in front of the Adam Mickiewicz Monument.  From there you get a look at the Saint Mary’s Basilica.  Then we take a quick tour through the Sukkienice, or Cloth Hall.  On the other side of the hall we see the Old Town Tower and, finally, we end at the “Eros Bendato,” or “Sideways Head.”  Here is the link to the video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN0I-ka_pnI&feature=youtu.be

I hope you enjoy it and I am working on a little “Best Of” piece for later this evening.

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