“Wait, don’t eat that yet, let me get a shot of it.”
When seriously gorgeous food hits the table, my husband knows there will be a short delay while I try to capture an image that does it justice. I’ve learned to work fast so our food doesn’t get too cold and Rich's hunger doesn’t get too acute. For most of us, a few quick clicks are enough and we’re ready to dive into the meal. But every once in a while I stumble across someone who takes food photography to a much higher level, crafting each shot like a classic painting. When I discovered the mouthwatering images shot by Croatian photographer Lili Basic on her Traveling Oven website, I kept saying to myself, “How does she do that?”
I decided to find out. So I wrote to Lili at her home in Zagreb and asked if she would share a few of her food photography secrets with us.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My interest in photography started when I was about 14 or 15 years old and I got my first camera as a gift from my parents (no smartphones at that time!). It was nothing fancy but it was pink and it was a camera so I was the happiest girl. At that time I wasn’t interested in learning anything technical about photography; I simply enjoyed taking pictures.
You were born in Dubrovnik and lived in Scotland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Switzerland before returning to Croatia and settling in Zagreb. Do you find that photographing an unknown city is a good way to get to know its character?
Oh definitely! I enjoy discovering new places with a camera in my hands. Because of it, I pay more attention to details and especially those areas that are not very touristy — the hidden alleys, narrow streets, and corners where you discover the true charm and character of the city. Having said that, sometimes it’s also nice to just walk around the new place without a camera, taking in the moment and not carrying heavy gear all the time.
What do you hope your photos say to others?
The most important thing for me is that my photos evoke emotions in viewers and that they tell a story. When somebody writes to me to say that my photo touched them in some way or made them remember a special moment — a smell or taste from their childhood or something like that — it makes me emotional every single time. And that is the main reason why I love photography so much.
When did you start doing professional photography?
In my mid 30s. All the time before that, I felt like something was missing in my life. Photography is so much more than a job to me, it’s the way I express myself and how I process a lot of my emotions and life challenges; it’s how I see and experience the world around me. I am forever grateful that I managed to get the courage I needed to start learning photography, building my business, and pursuing my dreams.
What drew you to food photography?
In 2014 I started taking my photography more seriously, learning and practicing every single day. I lived in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. It was winter at the time, and the winters there are very harsh and very, very cold — like -45 Celsius cold! So obviously, during the winter months you spend a lot of time inside. That meant that my usual subjects like travel, architecture, nature, etc. were all impossible to shoot; I had to come up with something interesting I could shoot at home. And that’s how I discovered the world of food photography and fell in love straight away!
You use only natural light. Why?
Light is what makes the photo beautiful and sometimes exceptional, and it helps in storytelling, too. I adore natural light, the play of light and shadows, the contrast it creates. For those learning to shoot food in natural light, I advise you to study the light in the area where you shoot — how it changes during the day, when it gets warmer and colder, when you get direct sunlight and when it’s softer light. The best light for food photography is the soft, diffused light we get on an overcast day; the worst is direct harsh sunlight. It’s best to have only one light source, such as a window, and to place your subject so that the light comes from the side ('sidelight') or from behind ('backlight'). Avoid placing the subject with light coming from the front, as that will result in a flat image with no contrast, and that is not visually pleasing.
You took your photography to the next level with the online Photography Institute. What are some of the lessons you learned there?
The Photography Institute gave me a great starting point in my photography journey. They taught me the technical side and some basic principles. For instance there’s the 'rule of thirds.' Imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that there are 9 parts. If we place our subject in the intersections or along the lines, the photo becomes more balanced without becoming static, enabling the viewer to interact with it more naturally. I also learned about negative space, the area around the main subject in a photo. Negative space defines and emphasizes the main subject, drawing our eyes to it. It gives our eyes somewhere to rest and prevents an image from appearing too cluttered.
Are there bad photography habits that people should let go of?
For one thing, over-editing a photo (it’s good to know when to stop!).
How do you know when you’ve taken a truly outstanding shot?
Well, that definitely doesn’t happen on every shoot, especially for a perfectionist like myself. But honestly, you just feel it. I get really excited like a little kid when I feel that everything is working so well together: light, subject, colors, textures, shapes, composition — and that’s when I know I’m getting ‘the shot’!
I’ll probably never produce masterpiece food photos like Lili’s, but she’s given me a lot to think about and play around with in my own work. To enjoy more of her mouthwatering images visit Lili's Instagram page and her Traveling Oven website.
And for those of my readers who enjoy photographing food, I’d love to hear your best tips and secrets of success. Of course, your disaster stories are always welcome as well!
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During one of our early visits to Spain, long before we’d ever imagined moving here, Rich rented a car to drive some American friends to a mountain village we’d heard was particularly quaint. It proved to be as adorable as I’d hoped, with slightly crumbling whitewashed houses, potted geraniums, and a small central plaza where grizzled old men sat taking their ease on a weathered park bench. As we zipped by, one of the men waved and shouted, “Estrecho! Estrecho!”
Hmmm. The word sounded familiar from my Spanish classes. A greeting, perhaps? I couldn’t quite put my finger on the meaning … It wasn’t until our rental car was wedged firmly between two stone walls at a bend in the ever-skinnier back lanes that it came to me. “Narrow!” I exclaimed. But of course by then it was too late to avoid disaster.
“What are we going to do?” asked one of our friends from the back seat. “Climb out the sunroof and abandon the vehicle? Call for a helicopter to airlift us out?”
But Rich is made of sterner stuff. He kept inching forward and back, under the amused gaze of every able-bodied resident of the village, until eventually, with considerable shrieking of metal and loss of paint, he worked the car free. We took another route gingerly back to the plaza, and there, beside the men’s bench, we noticed a very large sign advising everyone to park there and walk.
We now take such signs very seriously. In fact, we’ve made it one of our goals in life never to drive in Europe again if we can help it.
This is not a commentary on the difficulty of negotiating European roads and traffic. Oh sure, they can be a bit daunting, but hey, Rich and I are both hardened veterans of Boston’s back streets, New York City at rush hour, and those desolate Arizona highways where UFOs are so frequently spotted. I grew up in California’s car culture, in an area with very limited public transit, and cars really were the only practical way to get around. I bought into the belief that driving long distances is a uniquely American style of independence; it’s practically patriotic (as our gas companies and car manufacturers will be the first to tell you).
But now that I live in Spain, with excellent rail service to all of Europe and beyond, I’m delighted to abandon the “freedom of the road” in favor of the luxury of stress-free travel. I no longer wrestle with maps, panic when the GPS cuts out, or engage in heated discussions about why we missed our turn. I don’t need to try to figure out the meaning of road signs, comply with Byzantine parking restrictions, or fret about dings and scratches. Instead, I sit in civilized comfort with my coffee, Kindle, and relaxed travel companion, enjoying the scenery and chatting with fellow passengers.
Rich likes to pass the time playing with his food. Try doing this while driving a car — or come to think of it, don't!
Incredibly, many of my fellow Americans do not share my sentiments on the subject of trains, and 27 million of them will be renting cars this year during visits to Europe. Even our closest friends and relatives seem surprised we don’t think this is a sound idea. We often have to work very hard to dissuade them from renting a car at the Seville airport, driving it into our neighborhood in the center of town (a nightmare of Biblical proportions), seeking a parking place for upwards of a couple of hours, and finally giving up and driving to the city outskirts to deposit the car at a large parking garage, where it will remain for the duration of their stay.
“It just feels wrong not to have a car,” they tell us, after Rich and I have spent half an hour traversing the city on foot to collect them from the car park. “We don’t want to be an imposition.”
Another firmly embedded belief is that cars are somehow faster and more efficient than trains. In fact, if you’re traveling between European cities —from London to Paris, say, or Amsterdam to Brussels — you’ll find railways are not only quicker than driving, they’re often quicker than flying. Last September, when Rich and I took the high-speed Eurostar from London to Paris via the Chunnel, we shaved nine minutes off the time it would have taken by plane; not much, I’ll admit, but still, that was nine more minutes in Paris — and nine minutes we didn't have to spend in a dreary airport lounge.
Average Time Saved Traveling by Train Instead of Plane
Another great thing about trains is that they connect to other forms of public transit such as ferries and buses, meaning there’s virtually no part of Europe you can’t reach. So how do you figure out what is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in unfamiliar countries? Rich starts his transportation research with an app called Rome2rio. You type in the city of origin and your destination, and it lets you know the time and cost of various transit configurations involving trains, buses, ferries, cars, and planes. Rich then consults the DB Navigator app for fuller details about stations, timetables, and where the train stops along the way, in case we want to consider an interesting detour or link up with a ferry port.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes a car is the best option for getting where you need to go in Europe or anywhere else. But next time you’re sorting out transportation, before you automatically Google car rental agencies, take a moment to look at trains — and the ferries and other forms of transit they connect with. Railways make the journey far more interesting, offer a different kind of freedom, and remind us that travel is, at its best, a way to transcend our ordinary lives, experience the world more vividly, and recapture the rapture of being alive we may have felt in our younger years. As author Dave Matthes put it, “I've always felt that distant train whistles heard in the dead of night are the universe's way of letting us know the best days are neither ahead nor behind us...they're happening right now, cradled in the palms of our hands.” Let’s not allow them to slip through our fingers.
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“You wouldn’t believe the weird stuff people recommend taking along on trips,” Rich commented over breakfast this morning. He’d just spent half an hour perusing travel blogs and was still shaking his head in wonderment. “Bed sheets, dryer sheets, a steam iron.” His eyes strayed to the screen again. “Condoms; well, somebody thinks they’re getting lucky! Here’s one: a headlamp. Where are they traveling, down a mineshaft?”
“I suspect those are younger travelers,” I said. “But yes, I’ll never understand other people’s packing styles. I read a post by one woman who says she never goes anywhere without a wine glass, and not a plastic one either. I always assume the first time her bag gets manhandled by a taxi driver, she then has to discard half its contents because they’re full of shattered glass.”
When it comes to packing, I’m convinced that less is more. Just taking essential clothing, shoes, and electronics pretty much fills my little roll-aboard bag, leaving scant room for bulky extras like headlamps and bed sheets. However, I will admit that Rich and I always tuck in a few small items that might not be strictly mandatory but add a little extra comfort, hominess, and ease to our lives.
Dragging around tons of excess baggage isn't much fun. This photo was taken at the end of a six-day luggage-free journey to France, when we brought nothing but a few essentials tucked in our pockets. On most trips, I travel with more creature comforts.
For instance, we always carry our silliest wedding photos in a small folding cloth frame. Over the years this precious object has become festooned with good luck charms and religious medals from every corner of the world and serves as a reminder never to take ourselves too seriously.
In my younger years, travel slippers were on my “optional” list, but I’ve now reclassified them as a must for overnight plane rides and downtime on the road. After a long day of hiking about, I appreciate a warm, cozy place to rest and so do my feet.
Rich originally packed gloves only for arctic destinations, but now he’s discovered wearing them makes it far easier to lug heavy bags, including groceries, so they’ve become staples.
And at this point, Rich insists I add duct tape to the list. We often have trips without emergencies (yes we do!) but now that it’s sold in handy, pocket-sized packets, it’s easy to take duct tape with us everywhere. Beware of cheap knock-offs! Last Thanksgiving in Seville, we staged a wind-up chicken race in our apartment’s hallway, marking the goal lines with ultra-cheap pseudo-duct tape. When the thrilling event was over and all the victory dances were done, we expected to simply peel off the tape and move on with our lives. Not so! The tape shredded and stuck, leaving gooey red stains on the marble floor, requiring hours of scraping and scrubbing. Lesson learned!
Like many people these days, Rich and I are attempting to avoid wasteful, single-use plastics whenever possible, so I always slip one or two ultra-light cloth tote bags in a zip compartment of my shoulder bag. That way I don’t have to choose between feeling guilty about getting a plastic bag at the store or juggling groceries in my arms all the way back to the Airbnb. To avoid the need for disposable plastic cutlery, we acquired some lovely lightweight wooden forks and spoons last time we ate at Wagamama in Gatwick Airport.
Of course, there are times when plastics are the only sensible solution. For instance, we always pack a handful of zip-lock bags for everything from food storage to transporting socks that somehow didn’t dry in time for our departure from the hotel. And to waterproof our suitcases on rainy days, Rich carries a couple of large garbage bags, which can be secured over our bags with (you guessed it) duct tape.
While we rely on Google maps for local navigation, we always carry an old-fashioned paper map showing railway lines and ferry service in the region we’re visiting. Without it, I could easily overlook interesting detours and connections (“Hey, there’s a ferry to Albania from here!”) that give our journeys that extra bit of zing. And I always carry old-school paper business cards with my email and web address. These days most people we meet simply photograph the card, but we occasionally find ourselves in areas so remote that (gasp!) not everyone carries a smartphone.
I'm fairly sure this brandy-maker we hung out with in rural Romania doesn't have a smartphone. But he really knows his way around a still.
Your list of underrated extras is probably quite different from ours, and we’d love to hear what you find essential to happiness on the road. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not looking for excess stuff to clutter my travel life; as the Spanish proverb says, “On a long journey, even a straw weighs heavy.” But I am always willing to give a warm welcome to small objects that, as Marie Kondo so famously put it, “spark joy.” Because isn’t that what travel is really all about?
You never really appreciate the little things — food, air, freedom from octopus invasions — until you lose them. Not that I’ve ever lost those things, gracias a Dios, but last week I had the rare opportunity to visit a place where back in 1991 eight people – visionaries? Lunatics? Cult members? — suffered all that and more. Why? Because they voluntarily sealed themselves inside a giant glass-and-steel structure for two years in an outlandish experiment known as Biosphere 2. (What’s Biosphere 1? That would be the planet Earth.)
You may remember the early rapturous announcements about the project: this human laboratory in Oracle, Arizona was going to teach us to save our own planet, show us how we could live on Mars, and provide new benchmarks for human endurance and scientific knowledge. The gorgeously designed 3.14-acre enclosure recreated various Earth habitats— savannah, ocean, rainforest, etc. — and the four men and four women living inside it would conduct studies and experiments that were impossible to carry out in Biosphere 1.
Discover magazine called it "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President John F. Kennedy launched us toward the moon." Talk-show host Phil Donahue, broadcasting live from the site, called Biosphere 2 "one of the most ambitious man-made projects ever."
What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out.
For start, Mother Nature had her own ideas. The morning glory vines grew so vigorously they blocked sunlight urgently needed by edible plants. UV light entering through special glass delighted the lizards but also attracted and killed the bees, so the humans had to pollinate the plants by hand. Baby octopi, accidentally carried in on the coral, began happily eating the oysters, crabs, and fish meant for human meals. Small monkey-like prosimian galagos, intended as companion animals, ran amok, raiding supplies and wrecking instruments and experiments. The little scamps soon disappeared from the official record, and I couldn’t bring myself to inquire more deeply into their fate.
As it happens, Rich and I had visited Biosphere 2 during the late 1990s, after the experiment was shut down. Having read various “had-we-but-known” articles about the project, we were unsurprised to see nothing but a glass-and-steel dome overrun with plants. But at its peak, the project was a heady mix of science experiments, public vindication for the holistic vision of the swashbuckling leader, John Allen, and performance art. Hundreds, often thousands of spectators and members of the media gathered outside daily, peering into the glass dome, shouting questions and encouragement. Celebrity visitors included sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Jay Leno, a Tibetan lama, a Mexican sorceress, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the cast of Cheers, members of NASA, and leaders of the Smithsonian.
Between farming, science, and media interviews, you’d think the eight biospherians wouldn’t have much spare time to get into trouble. But you would be wrong.
Yes, romantic liaisons formed. Then things got tense as food supplies ran low, cockroaches overran the dome, and oxygen levels dropped dangerously. To make matters worse, the biospherians could only grow enough coffee for one cup every few weeks. The group split into two factions of four, with one side loyal to Allen’s holistic vision, the other staunchly defending scientific method. Outside the dome, conflict raged between Allen and Ed Bass, who’d put up $150 million and expected to have more influence over the project. (Go figure.) Heads began to roll, staff members ran for the hills, and the press started referring to Biosphere 2 as “New Age drivel masquerading as science."
Incredibly, the eight biospherians soldiered on, accomplishing some solid research and sticking it out for the full two years. It was actually two years and twenty minutes, thanks to Jane Goodall’s long keynote speech. As the eight biospherians waited impatiently for the airlock doors to open, one recalls thinking, “Jane, let us apes out of the cage!” When they were finally released, they rushed outside into arms of their loved ones — only to recoil at the stench of the perfumes and chemicals they wore, which seemed strange and repellant after two years using nothing but natural, unscented soaps and shampoos.
The saga continues with a second crew entering Biosphere 2 for a stay that would be abruptly cut short. Outside, senior management were in open warfare. Meanwhile, two bisospherians from the original crew came back in the middle of the night and opened all the doors to “free” the team inside — who had no interest in leaving. Then, just when you’d think the story couldn’t get any more bizarre, it seems Bass called upon — of all people — Steve Bannon, who arrived with a restraining order and armed guards to take over and sort things out. Eventually the project was shut down and much later the property was purchased by the University of Arizona for scientific research.
Best of all (from my point of view, at least) it’s now open to the general public.
I hadn’t heard about its renaissance as a roadside attraction until last week, when I was visiting friends in Tuscon and glimpsed a highway sign. “Hey, did that say Biosphere 2?”
“Yes,” said my friend. “We were thinking of going there tomorrow. Taking the tour.”
“You mean we don’t have to stand outside with our noses pressed against the glass this time? I’m in.”
We spent hours climbing around the habitats, threading our way through the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels underneath, and imagining what it would have been like to be sealed inside for two years.
When the tour was over, I asked our guide to recommend a book about the project. “If you want to read about the fights and all that,” she said, “get Jane Poynter’s The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes in Biosphere 2. If you want to know about CO2 levels there are several scientific works…” I think you can guess which book I immediately downloaded onto my Kindle.
“Later,” wrote Poynter, “people would ask me why I wanted to give up two years of my life to go inside Biosphere 2. I could never understand this question. I did not view it as giving up two years, but gaining them. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me. It was historic. It would make my career. It would be the closest thing to living on Mars. I would find out for myself whether man-made biospheres work. I would experience being enclosed for two years, isolated from the world, so I could impart my knowledge and experience to those who followed, hopefully on their way to Mars.”
Biosphere 2 may not have achieved all its loftier goals, but as a roadside attraction it is second to none. The backstory is astonishing. The visuals are spectacular. And it all makes you appreciate just how delicately our planet’s ecosystem is balanced on the knife edge of survival.
Would I ever have been tempted to become a biospherian? Oh, hell no. They lost me at “one cup of coffee every few weeks.”
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When friends offered to take me to a dive bar in San Francisco, I was a trifle worried it would turn out to be hopelessly trendy, serving $25 cocktails and gluten-free vegan cuisine garnished with three kinds of Himalayan pink salt. But last night I was delighted to discover that Glen Park Station was the real deal: friendly and unpretentious, with a sticky wood floor, quirky signage, and a juke box belting out Frank Sinatra tunes. Rumored to be a speakeasy in the 1920s, it still keeps things anonymous with dim lighting and a cash-only policy.
The slightly seedy, mildly eccentric atmosphere was the perfect backdrop to our Asparagus Day celebration. Never heard of it? Me neither. But I’d recently stumbled across a strange factoid: on that very date in 1891, the first shipment of asparagus arrived in SF from Sacramento. Why was this important enough to be listed on a world history site? I have no idea. But in honor of the anniversary, I wore my new asparagus-green raincoat and brought fresh spears of asparagus for the five of us to use as swizzle sticks. We’re still working on the lyrics to our theme song, “Age of Asparagus.”
Later we strolled down the street for pizza, prosecco, and tiramisu — because hey, Italian food is always a good idea. Afterwards, replete and content, I reflected on how much the world owes to the countless generations of Mediterranean cooks who have defined the very concept of comfort food. Would life be worth living without pasta, olive oil, or gelato? Possibly, but the world would certainly be a lesser place without them.
Mediterranean food: it reminds us that it’s fun to be alive.
The idea that food should be eaten for pleasure did not loom large in my family. Like many Americans of my generation, I was taught to regard cooking as a scientific enterprise, a carefully calculated sum of fat, protein, and calories ingested for fuel and conveniently delivered via foods raised, prepared, packaged, and sold by a corporation. Every bite was a trade-off. “No more casserole for me or I’ll have to do an extra half hour on the Stairmaster tomorrow!” If you play word association games with Americans, you’ll find that the most common response to “chocolate cake” is “guilt.” Not so the Europeans. The French say “celebration.” In Spain, when dessert arrives on the table, everyone leans forward murmuring, “Que rico!” How rich! And nobody turns down a slice.
In much of Europe, there’s a common understanding that feeling guilty about food isn’t sensible; au contraire, food is welcomed as a friend. Older Sevillanos still remember the desperate shortages following the Civil War, when no one got enough fat, calories, or protein, and all too many were forced to eat pigeons or pets to survive. Today’s Sevillanos take enormous delight in sitting down to dine on such classics as solomillo al whiskey (pork loin in whiskey sauce, smothered in garlic) and rising from the table with a pleasantly full belly.
Most of the foods we consider Mediterranean classics were born out of such shortages, created by poor families struggling to put meals on the table in a region with notoriously rocky, sandy soil and searing summer heat. Cooks worked with what they could raise: olives for oil, seeds, beans, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, with a little fish, some cheese and yogurt, and practically no meat. People on this diet tend to live longer, healthier lives, so naturally this has spawned an entire industry of Americans busily analyzing its success. Just last month the Mediterranean diet was declared 2019’s best overall diet by US News & World Report, scoring top marks in the categories of best diet for healthy eating, best plant-based diet, best diet for diabetes, and easiest diet to follow.
But for the millions who live the lifestyle, it’s simple. Nutrition guru Michael Pollen summed it up neatly in just seven words: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. The key, he explains, is to eat fresh, authentic, unadulterated food, not products loaded with chemicals, additives, and excessive sugar — all of which can leave you unsatisfied, and craving more. When you must buy packaged food, read the label. If it contains ingredients you can’t pronounce, or if sugar’s among the first three ingredients, you’re better off choosing something else.
Another key element is enjoying your food slowly and, when possible, in good company. We’ve all watched movie scenes in which three or four generations gather in a garden at a long table loaded with gorgeous food and bottles of wine, with kids and puppies playing underfoot. If you’re thinking that’s life the way it should be lived, you’d be right. Eating a leisurely, communal meal usually means you’re eating a more varied mix of better, fresher foods, and by taking your time, you digest them better, feel fuller on less, and enjoy yourself more.
The bottom line is this: Mediterranean food is great for your heart, both medically and metaphorically. The good news is, you don’t have to travel to Europe to experience it. In fact, the best Mediterranean fare is made right in your own kitchen and shared with the people you love. To help you get started, here are a few recipes to play with. Bon appetit!
Check out my food videos to learn how to prepare some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.
“Does our township have an emergency plan?” I asked officials a few days after 9/11. I was living in semi-rural Ohio, just two hours from the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed down. My neighbors and I were all keenly aware that plane had passed through our airspace and could, if events had unfolded on a slightly different timeline, have come down in one of our fields. Or on any one of us.
“Of course we have an emergency plan,” I was told. When somebody finally managed to dig up the one-page document, it basically said, “Call the county.” When I spoke with county officials, I was told that in a major emergency we’d be on our own for at least 72 hours, and after that the plan was “Call FEMA.” What could possibly go wrong?
New Orleans, 2005; victims of Hurricane Katrina beg FEMA for help.
I stopped by our Ohio township’s volunteer fire department. “We’re just 20 miles from a nuclear power plant,” I said to the chief. “What happens if there’s a disaster there? I’ve read that we’re supposed to shelter in place, but how?”
“Shelter in place? Are you kidding?” he replied. “If there’s a disaster at the nuclear power plant, everybody in this town will get in their car and drive to Florida.” And who could blame them?
Today, that “hey, what can you do?” attitude has been replaced by a sense of urgency and purpose. Arriving back in the US two weeks ago, I was immediately struck by the bustle of activity surrounding the push for emergency preparedness. Here in California, everyone seems to be assembling a grab-n-go “bug-out” bag, signing up to get emergency alerts on their phone, and taking CPR and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training. Last year’s record-breaking wildfires galvanized the residents of the Golden State. Whatever happens, we are determined not to be sitting ducks. When I spoke with county Emergency Services Manager Chris Reilly, he quoted the local mantra about impending disaster: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Rescue workers help a woman trapped by mudslides in Carpinteria, California, January 2018. Photo by Kenneth Song / Reuters
As you can imagine, enterprising survivalists are coming out of the woodwork. In their view, civilization is one wildfire away from total collapse, and our survival will soon depend on whether we can chip stones into spearheads and trap small animals using twigs and vines. If that turns out to be the case, I am totally screwed. Obviously I should have paid more attention during the Outdoor Skills class in Girl Scouts.
For serious doomsday enthusiasts, the internet is rife with courses like Hammer Stryke’s Small Unit Survival Tactics. “We will overnight in the forest. Bring: Ruck, backpack or daypack, canteen, and what you would expect to have on a bugging out the back door because the Zombies are coming in the front door situation. Firearms are optional if you have them and are trained.” Yikes! (Note to self: check course date, avoid the woods that night!)
Amateurs running around in the woods at night with guns. Yes, that doesn't sound at all worrying... Photo by Wolfgang Kumm / picture-alliance / dpa
When it comes to being prepared I am all in, but I’m opting for a less physically demanding approach that includes talking with government officials, community organizers, friends, neighbors, and savvy bartenders. I’m trying to get a realistic idea of what’s likely to happen (I’ve already eliminated zombies from the short list) and figure out how I might be useful during the run-up.
Here’s what I’ve learned: The science is clear. We are definitely looking at more frequent and severe natural disasters, followed by increasing social turmoil. Things will get messy. But I’m guessing we’re a long way from having to bivouac in the woods with a backpack and optional firearms. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
For a start, people a lot smarter than I am are pouring enormous amounts of time, money, and creativity into finding solutions.
NASA scientist Amaya Davis gives a talk organized by my group, ClimateRecovery.org, in Seville, Spain, January 2019.
Just before departing Seville, I organized a public talk there featuring NASA scientist Amaya Davis. She mentioned projects currently on the drawing board, including solar radiation management, involving giant reflectors in space deflecting the sun’s heat; aerosol injections in the stratosphere, which would reduce warming but has the pesky side effect of creating acid rain; and techniques to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
“Giant reflectors in outer space?” I said to Amaya afterwards. “Aerosol injections? Sounds like science fiction!”
“Oh, the ideas get a lot wilder than that,” she said. Unfortunately we were interrupted before we could continue this fascinating conversation, but articles such as Crazy Ideas for Plan B: Seven Ways to Engineer the Climate describe proposals such as mass fertilization of the oceans with microscopic plants called phytoplankton that “gobble up CO2 and drag it to the bottom of the ocean when they die.” Sound loony? So did Aristotle’s insistence that the Earth is round, Galileo’s belief the Earth revolves around the sun, and Pasteur’s theory that germs spread disease. Think twice before scoffing at “mad” scientists!
Many of these projects are being funded privately; it seems the smart money isn’t waiting around for the federal government to step up and take charge. Local community groups and officials are working to reduce waste, control carbon emissions, and beef up emergency-response infrastructure. But as I learned in Ohio, during a major disaster, citizens can’t count on the cavalry to ride to the rescue, especially during the first 72 hours. Clearly my neighbors know that, too. They are reaching out to one another, meeting in church basements, community centers, and living rooms, figuring out ways that we can help each other if — when — we need it most.
I grew up on stories about World War II and often wondered how it felt to be filled with the sense of common purpose that drove the war effort. One of the original “Rosie the Riveters,” Betty Soskin, told me about workers in the Richmond, California shipyards, divided by racial friction. “Because they’re all living under the threat of fascist world domination, there’s no time to take on a broken social system,” she said. “No time to do anything except take on the mission of their leader, which is pure and simple: build ships faster than the enemy can sink ‘em. And together they completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. They helped to turn the course of the war around by out-producing the enemy. And in the process, they accelerated the rate of social change, so that to this day it still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the nation.”
Betty Soskin, California's oldest park ranger, talks about how global threats can accelerate the pace of social change.
Today, the Bay Area finds itself on the front lines in the struggle to cope with our changing environment. Our vast forests are going up in flames, scientists predict the mother of all earthquakes within 30 years, and rising sea levels are deeply worrying for everyone near the coast, especially my flood-prone little town. Can we, like those shipbuilders, pull off another miracle of unity and strength, one that radiates out to the rest of the nation, maybe the world? As a die-hard optimist, I say we can. And I’m counting on all of you to help prove I’m right.
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Nowadays, everybody’s writing glowing articles about Seville, and unfortunately it’s pretty clear some haven’t even researched the city, much less visited it. Here’s a gem from Vogue:
“Nicknamed ‘The Frying Pan of Europe,’ this Andalusian hotspot (literal hotspot) is drenched with baking heat for 3,000 hours on an annual basis... However, if you look beyond Seville’s near-idyllic vacation weather…”
Near-idyllic? This makes it sound like an absolute hellhole! Who wants to spend their vacation in a frying pan, which (I looked it up) is typically 480 degrees Fahrenheit? And is the author implying this intolerable temperature lasts for 3000 straight hours a year? He goes on to mix metaphors in the phrase “drenched with baking heat,” implying the city is as hot as an oven (350 degrees) while somehow being both wet and dry. And for the record, nobody calls Seville “The Frying Pan of Europe.” The author is confusing it with the town of Écija 85 km away, nicknamed la sartén de Andalucía (the frying pan of Andalucía) for its sizzling hot summers.
Andalucían journalist Johathan Gómez wonders if it's really possible to cook an egg on the main plaza of Écija, nicknamed the frying pan of Andalucía. Result? Two nicely fried eggs. For fun, watch the video even if you don't speak Spanish.
My point is: choosing a destination based on Internet intel is always a risky proposition. Articles all too often contain dubious, second-hand information or are skewed by personal bias. In fact, some read as if they were dashed off on a cell phone during the first sun-drenched, wine-soaked hours with a new local love interest — circumstances that can be difficult for the rest of us to replicate. And as you may have noticed, if everybody in the blogosphere praises a city as ideal for #travelin2019, chances are it’s already overrun with tourists and is busy becoming a Disneyland version of its former self. Then again, sometimes we stumble into a town that’s just plan appalling by any standard.
How can we make the best of a disappointing destination? For me, the first step is letting go of my expectations and initial impressions. Take my first visit to the Romanian capital:
Rich and I spent a week in Bucharest, and it was love at fourth sight. Having spent three weeks enjoying the storybook beauty of Romania’s smaller cities and rural villages, it took us a little while to look past the brutal apartment blocks, massive tangles of electrical wires, decaying old buildings, and graffiti to see the charm. But we now know Bucharest as a city that has survived just about everything, cherishes the best of its old traditions, and knows how to take life as it comes, with a joke, a swig of homemade plum brandy, and an arm around your shoulder. This is one of the friendliest cities we’ve ever encountered. We were welcomed everywhere, are leaving many new friends behind, and hope to return again soon.
It’s only natural to arrive at any unknown destination hoping the city will instantly show us its richest and most beguiling treasures. But to truly love a place requires slowing down enough to engage with it on its own terms, letting the relationship unfold naturally. As travel author Pico Iyer put it:
"Visiting a new town is like having a conversation. Places ask questions of you just as searchingly as you question them. And, as in any conversation, it helps to listen with an open mind, so you can be led somewhere unexpected. The more you leave assumptions at home, I’ve found, the better you can hear whatever it is that a destination is trying to say to you.”
Visitors sometimes assume that Seville is best enjoyed as a vacation playground, but to focus exclusively on the cheap wine, warm weather, and vibrant bar culture means selling the city — and your vacation — very short indeed. Seville makes every effort to tell you about its more interesting features, like the stubbornly maintained ancient traditions, a lifestyle based on the demands of climate rather than commerce, and deep-seated devotion to family, friends, and social lives. Philosopher Alain de Botton wrote:
“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone as what is objectively healthy.”
So how can we find out what’s “interestingly wrong” about a city, especially if we find ourselves in one that appears deadly dull or seriously off-putting? A good first step in popular destinations is leaving the congested tourist area behind and striking out in a new direction. Rich and I like to pick a Point of Interest (POI) a half hour’s walk from the center and make our way there, allowing plenty of time for spontaneous detours, digressions, and coffee stops. How do we find these POIs? Some of my favorite resources are Atlas Obscura, Like a Local, and Triposo, all of which describe wondrous things to see and do in places you’ve never heard of. And before giving up on any city, it pays to check with the tourist office, as we did a few years ago upon arriving in the seemingly dull Šiauliai , Lithuania.
“I think we’ve finally found it,” I said to Rich. “A town where there is literally nothing to do.”
We were dragging our suitcases from the train station toward our hotel, walking past endless bland apartment blocks, unrelieved by a single shop, café, or even newsstand. After the dizzying mix of zingy modernity and storybook charm we’d encountered in other Baltic towns, Lithuania’s Šiauliai (it’s pronounced Show-lay and means “sun”) seemed desperately drab.
Two hours later we were sitting at a sidewalk café table on the main pedestrian street, flipping through folders from the tourist information office and trying to juggle our schedule to fit in everything we wanted to do. “Let’s go to the traditional Lithuanian kosher dinner at Chaim Frenkel’s Villa this evening,” I said. “Then we can catch the music at Juone Pastuoge tomorrow. I just hope we’re not too tired after visiting the Hill of Crosses and the Battlefield of the Sun. Do you think we’ll be back in time to catch the fado concert?” The Cat Museum had long since been jettisoned from the agenda, but Rich was still standing firm on the need to visit the Chocolate Factory.
I guess it comes down to this: You may not fall in love with every place you visit, but if you walk into it with an open mind and generous heart, chances are you and this city can get past being strangers, find common ground on which to meet, and share a few good moments, maybe even some great ones. And isn’t that enough to ask of any journey?
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Stephen Akehurst, proprietor of The Greek Kitchen, in Athens, Greece. Photographed by Ioanna Fotiadi for Greece Is
One of the things I loved most about being a teenager was all the sneaking around. After years of being a studious, obedient Catholic school kid, around age fifteen I suddenly discovered the joys of clandestine shenanigans. Want details? It was the sixties. Enough said.
But zipping off to another country? That never even crossed my mind. So I was impressed and charmed by the story of Stephen Akehurst of Brighton, England, who at the age of seventeen told his mother he was visiting London and instead snuck off to Athens, where he began a lifelong love affair with the city, the culture, and the food.
When I was a child in the UK the supermarkets built massive stores on all the nurseries and farmer's markets, taking away local produce, dictating what we should be eating, and covering it in plastic. The thought of Greece with its blue water and white houses and fresh produce seemed like paradise. Athens was crazy and alive and filled with colour. The central market was amazing and terrifying at the same time; it was a real onslaught of the senses. But I was hooked. Once you've eaten real Greek food in Greece you've spoiled yourself for many other cuisines.
Wanderlust later took you to Latin America, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, but you kept returning to Greece.
Travel led me to a career as a tour manager with a small-group travel company, and I got to work in Greece a lot. During the tours I would always talk about the amazing local food and how important it was to eat as many local dishes as possible. People started asking about cooking classes, of which there were few, often more suited to budget travellers. I saw a gap in the market and decided to settle in Athens and fill it.
Is it true that Greek food and wine can help you live 100 years or more?
The island of Ikaria is a Blue Zone, where people live far longer than the national average, and it is believed that drinking the local wine, along with a high-plant diet and plenty of physical activity in a great climate, contribute to this. This is quite common throughout Greece; you will see people living independently well into their elderly years.
Today, Ikarians are almost entirely free of dementia and some of the chronic diseases that plague Americans; one in three make it to their 90s. A combination of factors explain it, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle, and outlook. They enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games, and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks. Clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain draw them outdoors into an active lifestyle.
Cooking classes led to market tours, and now you’re launching wine tastings?
We really wanted the wine tasting at The Greek Kitchen to be a fun learning experience for anyone, no matter their level of interest or experience in wine — a low-key few hours with great wine and great company. We give you an introduction to each wine, talk about the region and pair the wines with local dishes.
Cooking is at the heart of everything we do at The Greek Kitchen. So I gathered up the whole team, who all come from different parts of Greece and have very different tastes, and we drank the wines to work out the pairings. Each team member brought something interesting and unique to the table, and we surprised each other. The wines are all quite versatile, and we have so many amazing things to eat in Greece that we want to encourage people to really explore the combinations.
What about retsina?
Retsina is an interesting one! It's considered to be the oldest wine we drink here. The flavour is influenced by the ancient Greeks’ use of resin to line the wine barrels. It can be really hit or miss; personally I have to have it ice cold if I'm going to drink it. While retsinas are produced all over Greece, it’s considered the drink of Thessaloniki; Afros, the one that we use in our wine tasting, is from there. Retsina goes with a lot of your classic Greek dishes like Greek salad and fish; it pairs really well with sharp ingredients like barrel-aged feta and the other cheeses. However people who love retsina will drink it with anything. It’s nice in a spritz, and some people even drink it with coke, but that's a bit gross even for me!
Rich and I loved the Greek wines we tried there last spring — including the retsina at Diporto, a modest underground eatery near the central market in Athens. They didn't even ask if we wanted it; they just automatically put a jug of it on the table. For more, see my post The Mystery of the Vanishing Greek Taverna.
Any advice for people who aren’t in Greece but would like to try the wines?
To be honest it can be really hard to find Greek wine outside of Greece; for some reason we don't export very much. But if you find some, I would start with a classic like an Assyrtiko, an old variety from Santorini — so it is rich with minerals and has an essence of the sea in it. My favourite at the moment is Greek sparkling wine. We have a Moscato Blanco from the island of Limnos, and it's so fruity and fun; just the smell of it makes me think of having a great time with friends and eating sticky orange pie.
Photo by Santo Wines
For those planning a visit to Greece, what wines would you suggest?
There are so many! I really love going to Santorini and exploring the wineries there. Santo Wines is so dreamy and in one of the most amazing locations on earth, while Domaine Sigalas and Gaia Wines are also producing some amazing bottles. Closer to Athens you have the Spata region with Gikas, Boutari, and Papgiannakos — all worth checking out. Then in northern Greece you have the Naousa region with excellent wineries like Dalamara and Argotia.
The ancient Greeks were masters at wine cultivation and most of the techniques and practices that we use today were developed by them; we're talking about centuries of skills and experience being passed down from generation to generation. Wine is at the heart of so many occasions; we drink it at celebrations, with family and friends, in religious services, and use it in many of the dishes we enjoy. I can't remember the last time I went to a Greek home and wasn't given a jug of wine to get through.
One of the joys of leaving the teenage years behind is that you no longer have to sneak around to obtain a jug of wine. Also, you’re able to bring a bit more budget and discernment to the party. Rich and I plan to be in Greece this summer (more about that in future posts) and we’re looking forward to checking out as many of Stephen’s suggestions as possible. Will we try retsina with coke? Stay tuned to find out.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships or product placement of any kind. Any products and services I mention in my blog, books, or website are there solely because I believe you might find them interesting and useful in planning your own adventures.
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Did you ever notice there are no recipes for leftover chocolate? That’s because it doesn’t exist, at least not in my family. When Rich first started coming to our summer reunions, he showed up with a two-layer box of See’s Nuts & Chews for each of my sisters. “I’m not saying I can be bought,” one said. “But this is a good down payment.”
Over the years I’ve written about chocolate’s surprising health benefits, how the French use it to lose weight, and the heady delights of a Nativity scene composed of 1500 kilos of chocolate. But now I find I’ve just been scratching the surface. Canadian journalist Doreen Pendgracs has been traveling the world digging deep into the history, cultivation, production, and joys of cacao in all its many forms. In the spirit of selfless research, she’s even gone to spas where she was bathed from head to foot in warm, molten chocolate. (I know! That’s my idea of heaven, too!)
I felt I owed it to you, my readers, to find out more about Doreen’s fieldwork, which is chronicled in her award-winning book Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate. This first volume of her trilogy covers Europe; the second, due out in March, focuses on the Americas and the Caribbean.
What made you decide to write about travel and chocolate?
I embarked on my freelance writing career in 1993, and fortunately one of my editors assigned me a story that opened the door to travel writing. It was about a lodge up in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada—Polar Bear Capital of the World. I remember going dogsledding in Churchill when it was -66 degrees Celsius (that’s almost -87F with the windchill factored in!). I was never colder in my life. Not every trip of a travel writer is glamorous!
Later I decided to combine my love of travel writing with my love of chocolate; I would make it my mission to educate the travelling public and chocolate lovers around the world about all the different aspects of chocolate travel. That includes interviewing hundreds of chocolatiers, visiting cacao plantations in various growing regions, attending chocolate festivals, attractions, and events, and discovering every delectable aspect of chocolate around the world, my favorite being chocolate spas.
What spa experience was the most drop-dead fabulous?
I’ve had some pretty decadent chocolate body treatments in some pretty fancy spas, but the one that stands out for me most was at the Pure Jungle Spa in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. The cocoa was so fresh that the entire experience was totally intoxicating. The aroma of the freshly pressed cocoa beans was pure and intense, and as the cocoa seeped into my pores, a beautifully natural high overtook me. Cocoa beans release serotonin and dopamine into the body, and whether we ingest it orally or through our pores, we become overtaken by a natural high if we consume enough of it. So there I was — in the outdoor jungle shower — trying to wash off the cocoa that had been slathered onto my body while laughing hysterically in a totally joyous state.
Where have you found the most amazing chocolate culture?
I’d have to say Switzerland. The Swiss live and breathe chocolate. They are the highest consumers of chocolate in the world, chocolate festivals and events are common, and the quality of Swiss chocolate is superb. But I think you have to go where cocoa is grown for completely authentic cocoa culture, and the best chocolate spas and cocoa cuisine I’ve encountered (to date) are in the Caribbean. Hotel Chocolat Boucan in St. Lucia is a perfect example. They grow the cocoa close to the resort, the on-site spa specializes in treatments that feature cocoa, you can learn how to make chocolate right from the cocoa beans, and cocoa cuisine is the basis of the menu.
An all-cocoa dinner? Is that too much of a good thing?
Absolutely not! When done well, each course features a different side of chocolate. There will be courses that are savory or sultry. A couple of the best I’ve ever had were in Winnipeg: chocolate ravioli and cocoa-rubbed ribs (chocolate ravioli filled with orange and thyme, and duck finished with a Frangelico cream sauce garnished with cocoa nibs, hazelnuts, and pea shoots).
You’re gearing up to lead chocolate tours around the world. What’s the plan?
Yes, I would indeed like to lead small groups on chocolate travel tours — to be the ambassador and guide who helps educate, entertain, and entice chocolate lovers to experience the ever-changing world of chocolate in a fun yet meaningful way. Up until this point in time, I had family obligations that prevented me from being away too much. And at present, I am working on volume II of my trilogy. But within a year, I do expect to lead the first-ever Chocolatour customized group adventure abroad.
What about the worrying articles suggesting climate change may endanger the world’s chocolate supply?
Climate change may be wreaking havoc in some growing regions like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, where hurricanes have completely ravaged cacao crops on occasion. But climate change has also seen cacao being grown in regions where it previously did not grow like Hawaii, and more recently, Miami, Florida. So I don’t think we chocolate lovers have to panic at this point in time. It is quite likely that the price of quality chocolate will continue to rise, but I don’t think we’ll run out of it any time soon.
Whew! Looks like chocolate isn’t headed for extinction (yet). But just in case, I have added it to the modest stockpile of survival food in my Catastrophe-Preparedness Kit. And I’m keeping plenty on hand in my snack cupboard, too. Because in these uncertain times, one thing I know I can rely on is the healing power of chocolate to sustain me during dark days and add joy to everything from family reunions to world travel. Bon appétit!
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships or product placement of any kind. Any products or services I mention in my blog, books, or website are there solely because I believe you might find them interesting and useful in planning your own adventures.
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Did I ever tell you about the night I was on my way to New York to be interviewed on national TV and managed to get myself locked inside a museum in Cleveland?
This was back in the nineties, when I was living in Ohio and serving on the board of a minor downtown museum. As usual, I was running behind schedule, and squeezing in a late board meeting left me with barely enough time to race to my car, drive to the airport, and catch the last plane to New York. I spent most of the meeting fretting. Had I remembered to pack my hair dryer? Chosen the right dress? Brought the plane tickets? When the board finally adjourned, I dashed upstairs on some errand I can’t recall, probably leaving a note or file on the front desk. I do remember with hideous clarity being halfway across the dimly lit lobby and hearing the stairwell door swing shut behind me. And lock.
That’s when I realized I was trapped.
Every exit was bolted, and the building was deserted; the modest museum had no security guards at night, and in the five minutes since the meeting had ended, all the other board members had leapt in their cars to head home. The landline was shut down for the night, and in those long-ago days before the Internet and cell phones, this meant there was no way to contact the outside world. Scenes from various action movies tumbled through my head. Pick up a chair and smash a lock or a window? Use a lighter (not that I had one) to set off a fire alarm? No, what I needed to do was think.
And then the opening lines from my favorite poem, Lost, drifted into my head. “Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.” I stood still. I thought about what was here. And my eyes fell upon the front desk. Aha! I walked behind it, found a key labeled “Stairs,” and made my escape. I caught the plane to New York with minutes to spare.
I often think about that night and the lesson it taught me about standing still long enough to see a place not from my own viewpoint but from that of those who normally inhabit it.
Over the years, that memory has helped me feel at ease in a wide range of unfamiliar places, such as the underground military bunker in Lviv, Ukraine, the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in California, and the Bhutanese guesthouse outhouse that I could only reach by scaling a high wall. (Luckily it was a moonlit night and there were ladders on either side of the wall, but still!) Those lines of poetry and those moments in the museum remind me that no matter how lost I may feel, the place I’m standing is familiar to somebody, and in fact may be their most cherished definition of “home.”
A friend recently told Rich, “I don’t know how you two handle road trips lasting months. After three weeks I need my own bed. I need to be home.”
But for many of us, especially expats, the definition of home has become pretty elusive. Is it one of the seven houses I lived in before I went to college? The old stone house outside of Cleveland where Rich and I spent the first two decades of our marriage? The apartment we’ve rented in Seville for 14 years? The cottage north of San Francisco where we spend our summers?
In Real Simple, a reader suggests, “Home is a place you can feel comfortable cooking breakfast in your pajamas.” I love this definition, because it embraces every Airbnb apartment I’ve ever rented. And that’s my point. Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling of belonging. And with luck and a bit of practice, you can take that feeling with you pretty much anywhere. Just because you’re not sleeping in your own bed doesn’t mean you have to feel alienated and adrift in the world. As the 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō put it, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
When Rich and I are about to embark on a long journey, I often have a few days of the pre-launch jitters, rushing about feeling as fretful and distracted as I was that evening in Cleveland preparing to fly to New York. But once we actually hit the road, all that tends to fall away, and I find myself comfortably settling into a state of bemused wonder, waiting with a pleasurable sense of anticipation to see what’s around the next corner. And that feeling, as much as anything else, is what I call home.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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