Sacré Bleu! Je suis en France! Part 2

My itinerary for my main day in Paris, Friday, wasn’t packed event-wise but was filled with only a few time-consuming things that I really wanted to do in Paris. I hopped on the metro to Palais-Royal and emerged to find a seemingly dreary part of town wet with rain and grey with nothing but blockish stones for architecture. I wasn’t entirely sure which direction to head in until I turned to my right and, would you look at that, a huge building with the engraving Musee du Louvre was staring back at me.

I like the way Paris puts all of its landmarks right next to metro stops.

However, I miscalculated the amount of time it would take me to get to the Louvre, so I arrived at 8 when it doesn’t open until 9. I walked toward the pyramids of the Louvre, took a couple pictures, and saw that there was only one person in line. An hour of free time? Perfect – breakfast.

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For those of you who haven’t figured this out yet, if you want real local cuisine but you’re only visiting for a little while, just walk away from where you are. Unless you’re some kind of peculiar tourist who doesn’t want to see any of the famous landmarks of your location, you’ll be standing next to a monument in a touristy area. Walk away. In the opposite direction. Doesn’t matter where, just as far away as you can get. That’s how you’ll find genuine local food.

So, that’s what I did. I walked away from the Louvre and down the side streets, hoping to find homey little cafes where I could get some breakfast foods on my must-eat list. I found a lot of cafes, but they were more just eggs-and-bacon kinds of places. I wanted more of a boulangerie, and I finally found one very near the Louvre but hidden so that its prices didn’t have to be touristy. Called “Tea by The,” it was a modern kind of café with eye-catching sweets under the glass counter.

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Fortunately for me, those sweets were exactly what I came for, and were a great price too – pain au chocolat, and one dessert I decided that I must add to my list right then and there, the tarte pommes.

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The pain au chocolat was even better than I expected, that’s for sure. I expected pretty much a chocolate chip croissant, but what I got was light, flaky, and freshly made so still warm. The chocolate inside was melty from the heat, and the buttery outside was so light that the wind blew away some of it (which greatly saddened me). The chocolate itself was delightful, strong and sweet compared to the Hungarian chocolate I am used to which is waxy and weaker, more like pudding than melted chocolate. As for the tarte pommes, yes, all of those are individual cinnamon-baked apple slices. I expected it to be a warm, pie-type dessert, but it was actually chilled and the crust was firmer and wetter, which was a treat. He gave me a spoon with a sharp tip to cut it with. The apples were cooked well, and I never had one of those moments where you bite in and it’s still a bit crunchy. The crust in particular was smooth and buttery and a pleasure to eat.

After I finished that small meal, I returned to the Louvre and got in line, which was now this “dauntingly” big –

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Oh no, there’s like thirty people now, *sarcasm.* Once inside the Louvre, I pushed past the people gawking around at nothing and got into the ticket line. I told the woman that I am a resident of Budapest (I did just apply for the residency visa, after all), told her I was 19, and she said to go in for free. Well isn’t that a treat that the 11 euros in my hand weren’t expecting!

The museum had just opened, so my first priority was to go to the places that would become busy the quickest; I’m sure we all know where in the Louvre that will be. La Joconde, right?

I booked it, following the signs and dashing into the room to be one of the first at the tape setting off the famous painting. Before it got too busy (which it really wasn’t at that time), I was able to snap this shot –

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With that done, I felt like I could take all the time in the world afterwards. That was the only piece of art on my list that I was concerned I might not get to see. And yes, I did have a list, or rather a map with about twelve things marked. Sure I saw a lot more than those twelve things (I’m bad when it comes to ignoring rooms in a museum), but you have to have some kind of plan or you’re never going to see what you want to see in the Louvre. So, starting a few weeks before I went, I picked out all the artwork that I really have always wanted to see in person. The rest would just be a pleasant addition. On the way to the Mona Lisa I stopped at one of my “Louvre Picks,” the Victory of Samonthrace.

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Then, it was over to the sculpture section for a glimpse of Cupid and Psyche, one of my favorite statues.

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In the same room, the Borghese Gladiator was recommended to me and so I paid him a short visit.

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In a different section of statues was the famous Venus De Milo, which was second in priority on my list of things to see early before the crowds really got going. I knew this one would be popular, and it certainly was even by the time I got there.

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I spent a long time looking for the Winged Bulls before realizing that I had already taken pictures of them much earlier, when I visited the Mesopotamia rooms. Stupid me. 🙂

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Also in that section, I spent quite a while searching for the Code of Hammurabi, which I’ve read. I wanted to see the original, not only because I have experience with the code itself but also because, as a linguist, that type of language fascinates me.

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After that, I ran into two unique statues that quickly became my favorites in the museum. I had not planned to visit either one, and in fact I don’t even know what they are called. But they greatly entertained or impressed me. The first was this awesome horse (perhaps a version of a hippogriff?). He’s got claws, dude!

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Then, in the section around Sumer and Mesopotamia, I got a glimpse of this guy. Maybe it’s his expression, I don’t know. He just cracks me up every time I see the picture – his face is like “NO. WAY.”

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I spent a short amount of time in the room dedicated to Rembrandt, whose painting skills I appreciate even if I wish he did a little more than portraits.

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Near Rembrandt was also The Lacemaker and, a ways away, the Battle of San Romano.

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It took a while to find, but I also stopped at The Turkish Bath.

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After that, things got complicated again. See, the Louvre is divided into three sections based upon which direction the hall is facing – Sully, Denon, and Richelieu. I was in Sully when I was just about done with the Louvre (having just finished the Egyptian catacombs and the Sphinx), and I needed to get to Richelieu for my final piece of artwork, the Horses of Marly. When I tried to enter the Richelieu wing, however, the lady stopped me and told me that I couldn’t enter – I wasn’t the only one. For a while after the catacombs, I got lost in the Sully wing and couldn’t get out of the Egyptian section. I wandered for about 30 minutes trying to find my way, so to be turned away when I finally found the Richelieu wing was very frustrating. She told me that I had to go back into the Sully (where I had just come from after having been lost) in order to get to Richelieu. The last thing I wanted to do at that point was to see any more of that Egyptian stuff – I was ready to be out of that section! Through a series of elevator lifts and stairs, I was able to walk over the problem area on the ground floor by using the first floor and then descend again (only to find that I had been standing right next to the Horses of Marly very early in my Louvre journey).

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With those found, I left the museum and grabbed a quick ride to the Arch De Triomphe, which I had decided that I would not be climbing for reasons I’ll mention later, when I talk about Notre Dame. Once again, coming out of the metro station put me in plain view of the Arch. This is a picture I took while standing a few steps out of the metro station.

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Once I’d had my fill of taking pictures of the arch, I was off to find Champs-Elysees in order to find Laduree, the one restaurant I had chosen as a must-visit during my trip. Accidentally turning down side streets has its share of benefits too, though.

I realized my mistake almost immediately, but as I was turning around I noticed a small “restaurant” (for lack of a better word) under an awning with a little old lady scurrying busily behind the counter. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet (that was originally intended to be Laduree), and I saw that her prices were quite fair since most tourists from the Arch de Triomphe would never come down the street I was on. She didn’t speak a single word of English, and I knew I had a winner – authentic French food. As I was considering whether to get a croque monsieur or a baguette hot dog (both of which were on my must-eat list yet knowing I wouldn’t have room for both), a man walked up to me and started speaking French. I could tell by his tone that he didn’t need anything serious, and I ignored him. He just kept talking. For a long time. The lady who was preparing my baguette looked at me and then looked at him and scowled. He kept talking. Now, I’m not good at French, but when someone says “Oh, she’s just a tourist after all” in another language, you bet I can understand. He wouldn’t shut up, and the lady preparing my food shook her head at him. I continued to ignore him. By now, it had been about five minutes of his incessant talking, and even the elderly lady was getting annoyed. She and I continued on as if nothing were happening. Finally, he gave up and left. After I got my food, I looked around to make sure that he wasn’t following me, but he had disappeared for good.

The baguette hot dog was so freshly prepared that I burnt my hand when I grabbed it. After she handed it to me, she made a gesture about the guy from before and twirled her finger around her temple, shaking her head and making a weird face as if to say, “Yeah, he was nuts.” We both laughed, and then before walking away, I asked, “Je cherche des Champs-Elysees,” and she pointed me back the way I came, which I was going to go back to anyway. Baguette in hand, I thanked her and walked off.

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As you can see, the baguette was huge. The hot dog was delicious, tender and juicy like all European hot dogs so far have been. The baguette had good flavor, and the cheese was typical French cheese with a deep, high-pitched flavor that is bitter enough for French taste but quite foreign to Americans. You know, unpasteurized cheese that they’re not allowed to sell in America. Not necessarily my favorite flavor, but the baguette was good nonetheless. I felt so bad that I couldn’t finish the last three or so bites.

After orienting myself at the Arch again, I easily found my street and made my way toward #75, Laduree, where I was intending to have some of their famous rose macarons and an equally famous éclair (said to be one of France’s top 3 best). When I finally reached 75, this is what I saw.

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Of course, down for maintenance. How unfortunate! But at least I was able to pick up the macarons and éclair later (and probably a bit cheaper too!). I turned back the way I came and got back on the metro, this time to visit the towering abode of Quasimodo – Notre Dame.

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In my personal opinion, although the movie is typical Disney fare, the soundtrack of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the best that Disney has produced, most notably the song Hellfire which is scored differently throughout the movie including one solo by Frollo. If I were to judge, I would say that Hellfire is the best Disney song to come out of a movie from the classics or masterpiece collections. Very well written, both in lyrics and in accompaniment. Anyway, I had that song (as well as The Bells of Notre Dame) going through my head as I looked at the towering statues lining the front of church, remembering the bishop from Hunchback shouting, “You can lie to yourself and your minions, you can claim that you haven’t a qualm, but you never can run from nor hide what you’ve done from the eyes, the very eyes of Notre Dame.” Indeed, he was right, and it was very fascinating the way the eyes of the statues followed wherever I went.

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And yes, you literature nerds, I have also read Victor Hugo’s novel and not just seen the Disney movie. Once I went inside, I immediately got a nearly overwhelming glimpse of the world-famous stained glass of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Each pane had a different color and pattern or picture. I’m sure that you know that, because most churchgoers were illiterate, pictures on stained glass were used to convey stories rather than books.

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The way that the stained glass cast a rainbow of colors into such a dark and almost dreary church was ethereal but beautiful.

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After taking in the interior of the church, I exited and turned the corner of the cathedral to get in line for the towers and the belfry. The line was more than an hour wait. I couldn’t really tell, because I didn’t walk back to the end of the line. You snooze you lose, backpack boy.

And so I ended up with about a ten minute wait after some ninja moves. The stairway leading to the towers was very narrow, barely wide enough for my shoulders and I’m a small girl. If you have some extra pounds on you or aren’t an Olympic runner, climbing to the belfry may be a bit more work than  you’re willing to do. The steps themselves were also narrow in both length and width, and they spiral in such a tight circle that you actually do get dizzy very quickly. 402 steps later with no resting places on the steps, I was at the top of the tower.

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Notre Dame was my compromise for deciding whether to visit the Eiffel Tower during the day or at night. I decided that I can get a similar view of Paris during the day by climbing the tower, whereas doing Eiffel at night would really let me see the “city of lights” idea. And besides, we all know that the worst part of being at the top of the Eiffel Tower is that, in all of your pictures, the one thing missing from Paris is the Eiffel Tower! I solved that issue by taking similar wide-scale photos from Notre Dame rather than doing the Eiffel Tower twice. This was also the reason that I didn’t go up the Arch de Triomphe.

I was able to admire Notre Dame’s gargoyles up close, which was delightful as every single one of them was different and many had amusing facial expressions or were doing interesting things.

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If you’re willing to duck your head into a tiny wooden room, you can also pay a visit to Le Bourdon, the tower’s largest bell. Did you know that Notre Dame’s bells are baptized and given Christian names? The Christian name of le bourdon is Emmanuel, and I paid him a visit as well.

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After I descended back down the stairs of the tower, I quickly scoped out the nearby restaurants and found, not at all to my surprise, that they were radically overpriced. I desperately wanted my next must-eat item, Orangina, because climbing Notre Dame had stirred up quite a thirst! But for 3.5 euro a bottle, I knew I could find it cheaper. Just as I was turning around to stop looking at the restaurants, the bells of Notre Dame started up. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XK0E6BKZL78

I found my way across the river to the Saint Michel Notre Dame RER stop and decided to make my way toward Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel to see the Eiffel Tower during the daylight hours. As soon as I came out of the metro and saw it, I immediately began heading the opposite direction for the same reason I mentioned earlier – authentic food. It was only 3PM, and my itinerary for the day was done. If I wanted to find Orangina at its real price, I knew that I’d have to evacuate the touristy areas. I didn’t care if I stayed on main streets or small alleys, as long as I was heading away from the tower I knew I was good. Imagine that, about half an hour’s walk away from the tower I came upon a little store where I just bought it from the shelves for, wouldn’t you know it, 1.5 euros. That was the price I knew it came in originally, and that was the price I had been trying to find. By now I was even thirstier than before, so I cracked that puppy open and enjoyed the moment I left the store.

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Orangina appears to be just an orange soft drink, but’s actually carbonated orange juice. That means that there’s much less sugar, so it’s a lot bitterer, and the pulp is still inside. It’s distinctively French, and I really enjoyed it.

After I’d found that, I had to think of other ways to spend my time until sunset, when the Eiffel Tower would light up again. Considering it wasn’t even 4 yet, I had quite a bit of time to kill, so I continued down the small local streets to try to find a patissier where I could buy macarons. The macarons near the tower were a whopping 4 euro a piece, but with some diligent searching I was able to get two of them for 1.70 euro. The owner of the small bake shop spoke zero English, so once again I knew I was in a good place.

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Not to be confused with macaroons, macarons are a unique little dessert that far surpassed my expectations. I have never had macaroons, so I wasn’t necessarily comparing with them, but I expected a macaron to be somewhat gummy, kind of like a mix of a no-bake cookie and a Suzie-Q. Real macarons are nothing of the sort – in fact, I’d say they’re the complete opposite of everything I just described.

The two that I had were just basic vanilla and then a pistachio one. Both had an almond undertone that was barely noticeable (in fact, I’ve only been able to place the flavor in retrospect now that I know that macarons are made with almond flour). The “cake” part of the macaron was…well, “airy” isn’t the right word, as there were no pockets of air inside, and it wasn’t flaky or anything. I suppose “light” is better – you bite into it and the very outside shell gives way in uneven cracks before you get to the soft, almost nonexistent but very flavorful inside. Then, you come to the crème, which was smooth refreshingly flavorful, having no taste of wax or anything that held it together. It all looks like a miniature cake with icing, but I can guarantee that is nothing of the sort. Not even comparable in texture, taste, or consistency.

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I was tempted to go back for more, but I restrained myself. It was now about 4PM, and I started to head back in the direction of the Eiffel Tower, still on the lookout for any of my must-eats that I may stumble upon. And stumble upon I did – the restaurant Le Pont de Seine.

I sat down outside and was greeted by a very nice French man whose English was very good – that, combined with its proximity to the tower, meant that I was back in the touristy area, but I was all right with that. I made an exception for this restaurant, which some people say has excellent crepes. But the crepes were not what I was there for.

So far, this was the only place in Paris that I had been able to find an a la carte selection of what I wanted, and so I ordered my soupe gratinée à l’oignon et ses croutons, or gratinated onion soup with cheese and croutons. What better dinner course to have than French onion soup?

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It arrived with a bowl of bread and a wine bottle of water, which was greatly appreciated after all that walking. Steaming hot and spread with oozing cheese, I was excited to dip into this meal.

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Unfortunately, the bread accompanying the meal was a little too heavy on the soda, and it had a back-of-the-mouth aftertaste that I wasn’t too fond of; a bland, almost chlorine taste from too much baking soda. Consequently, the croutons made from that bread permeated the soup with their taste, and the cheese on top was distinctively bitter and also had a deep aftertaste felt far back in the mouth. After eating a few bites, I pushed the croutons to the side and just ate the soup, which still faintly tasted of too much baking soda. The onions were weak, and I couldn’t tell that they were caramelized. In fact, their flavor had been cooked away, leaving only the stocky broth which tasted vaguely earthy and like vegetables despite the presence of any veggie besides the onions.

I’m not saying that French onion soup is bad by any means. But for me specifically, I didn’t particularly care for it. The broth had a faint taste that reminded me of green beans, which is perhaps the main reason that I didn’t like the soup – green beans are the only vegetable I can say without qualm that I hate. If you go to France, try the soup. But I’d had enough personally.

After I paid the tab and moved on, the Eiffel Tower was only a short walk away. I still had a lot of time to kill before it got dark, so I headed to a public restroom first. The line to get into the restroom was worse than the line for the Eiffel Tower!

I’m not kidding.

When it was finally my turn, I had been watching all of the people before and knew what to do. Or so I thought. See, when the person in front of you comes out, you can’t just go in. The door is automatic, and you have to let it slide shut again. The toilet will have a yellow light that says “occupied,” even when there is no one in it. So you have to wait for the blue light to come on, when the toilet is cleaning itself in between each use. Then, when the green light comes on, you can push the button to open the automatic door. I did this, then closed it again behind me with a similar button from inside. I figured out how to wash my hands just fine, but flushing the toilet was another matter entirely.

There were two buttons above the toilet. One had a single drop of water, and one had three drops of water. I assumed that one of them was a short flush and one of them a long flush, and this idea was only more confirmed when I saw a small sign in English that said, “To protect the environment, please choose the flush that best suits your needs.” So, I hit the one with one drop, and a voice came over a speaker in the toilet and said something in French, probably three or four sentences. Yes, there was a loudspeaker in the toilet. So I pressed the one with three drops, and the same thing happened. Pretty much, nothing worked.

After that little escapade, I took a back path around the Eiffel Tower through a cute little garden with a pond full of ducks.

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I traversed the long green field at the base of the tower and sat down, figuring I’d wait for it to get dark. It was just about 6PM. I still had a lot longer to wait than I had planned. After sitting for a while to rest my feet, I decided to go on another food hunt for some other items from my must-eat list that I still hadn’t gotten. I walked away from the Eiffel Tower, following my usual tactic to find good, authentic restaurants. Only this time, I was looking for a boulanger or patissier. Not far down a thin alley, I found one.

When I walked in, I saw the typical pain au chocolat and whatnot that I had either already tried or were too expensive for my tastes, so I was getting ready to leave when the glorious dessert caught my eye – an éclair. Originally, Laduree would have been my éclair place, but seeing as it was getting a makeover I had to find the éclair somewhere else. Once again, the woman spoke no English, and I knew I was in good hands for my sugary delight. The other reason I knew that the éclair would be authentically good? The small shop was swarming with a constantly moving line of Parisians with no tourists included.

I quickly snatched up the éclair so that the line could keep moving and then headed back to the Champ de Mars to await the sunset. The éclair I ordered came with me wrapped securely in a pastry paper and taped shut.

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After the first bite, I knew that I had to savor every moment of that thing. The chocolate filling was fantastic, smooth yet rich without being overwhelming and still allowing a substantial amount of taste to be devoted to the pastry breading and to the different, sweeter chocolate on top.

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As I savored the éclair and gradually sipped away at what remained of my Orangina from earlier, I found a spot on the lawn and sat down as darkness descended, ever so slowly.

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I waited until about 7:45PM in the chilly autumn wind, then I got up and headed as far back away from the tower on the Champ de Mars as I could get, all in preparation for what was to come. I continued to watch as the sky behind the tower grew ever darker.

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I stood at the edge of the Champs de Mars, securing my spot. Then, at 7:58, I flicked on my camera to record the spotlights from the tower as well as the main event. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhLdtX7lnCw

It was well worth the wait, although I am slightly disappointed that pictures couldn’t capture the sparkling tower very well. But I suppose it takes the pictures to realize that, in reality, only a few lights are ever going off at any one time.

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After the brilliant show had ended, I felt that my trip to Paris was complete. I had seen the tower sparkle, and now all was well. I returned to the hotel, and thus ended my final day in Paris.

Ah, I remember now. I promised you in part 1 the story about stabbing people in the back, didn’t I? On the way back from the shimmering Eiffel Tower, the metro line was somewhat crowded. However, it thinned out a station or two after I got on, and so there was plenty of room to stand. Despite that fact, a girl gossiping with her friends was leaning back on the pole in the middle of the train that I was holding on to, and she was leaning in such a way that she took up the entire pole and I had nowhere to grab. She kept leaning back and forth, and my hand grabbing the pole was the one with the papercut from the previous day, so she was grinding the course material of her trench coat back and forth over my paper cut. It really hurt, and I tried to move my hand around, but she just made it impossible to get away from her. Finally, I stretched out my finger so that, should she lean back, she’d get a nasty poke from my fingernail. That didn’t deter her. For the next few stops, I proceeded to continually stab her in the back with my nail until she finally backed off. The end. Wasn’t that a lovely story?

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, which will conclude the account of my trip to Paris with an exciting explanation of how not to get to the airport. In fact, if you want to learn how not to do a lot of things, make sure to check back tomorrow. Seriously though, don’t miss it. You’ll love it.

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