May 24 2009

Detour to Rome

As with most of our travels, this trip has defined our flexibility, taken unexpected detours and revealed more of southern Italy than I could have planned or hoped for. Needless to say, thinking I would be spending most of my time along the Riviera in Alassio, I packed completely wrong, but have managed just fine.

First detour, 2.5 days in Rome. We picked a hotel just outside the city center, something with secure parking – as our rental agent in Naples suggested that the new diesel Punto would be just the car thieves are after. Well, and besides, Italian traffic is crazy. In the cities its hard to find a car without some evidence of collision. Not interested. I’d much rather walk .25 mile to the train station any day. There is a rush associated with train travel that I rather enjoy. Figuring out how to buy the biglietto (ticket), fighting the impulse to jump on a newly arrived train before knowing which direction it’s headed, making sure to acknowledge where I’m leaving from – so when things are said and done, I know where I’m supposed to return. The overall accomplished feeling of a successful days travel by train is one I never get tired of. Should I mention here that I grew up in a town that had no public transportation of any sort? Walk, bike, drive or hitch…to this day.

The enormity of things in Rome are on a scale of which is truly hard to define. I expected the Colosseum to be grand, and it is, but the size, space and design of the rest of the city took me by surprise. Even with people in the photos, it’s hard to show just how gigantic the monuments, parks, churches, museums, etc., really are.

This is the Victor Emmanuel Monument, inaugurated in 1911 in honor of the first king of unified Italy. Or, should I say, a piece of it – the whole thing doesn’t fit in the camera frame. This area, the Capitol, citadel of ancient Rome, was designed by Michaelangelo in the 16th century.

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Another astounding building, near impossible to interpret the size, is St. Peter’s Basilica. The dome itself is 448 ft high, designed by Michaelangelo but not completed in his lifetime, and can be seen from just about any vantage point in Rome. From the inside of the Basilica, looking up towards the dome there are Latin letters interspersed on a band along the base of the dome. These letters are each approx. 9 ft. tall. Look above the letters, there is a ledge with people on it. Even with the people, it is hard to grasp the size. A continuing theme during my brief visit of this amazing city.

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We toured Vatican City, the museums and the Sistine Chapel. You will not see a photo here of my visit to the famous Chapel. Those naughty visitors who attempted the strictly prohibited photography, were double clapped at severely by security. There was a lot of clapping going on. The other advisement that went practically unnoticed was the request to keep silent. Oh, ya, right. I may have been the only one observing that rule. Certainly the guides were the worst about it. At one point a ding-dong came from a loudspeaker above, with a reminder in Italian first, then English, to keep silent. I was staring at God and the Creation at the time, immediately the Wizard of Oz yelling “Silence!” came to mind and the whole thing became a big private joke. Don’t misinterpret, I loved viewing the fresco, it was certainly a highlight of highlights for my day. That Michaelangleo left an impressive legacy in this city that I surely enjoyed glimpsing.

We enjoyed a gorgeous walk along Tevere river. Should I point out that there are small children sitting along the bank of this river? And still, you can not grasp the scale, I’m sure of it.

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I think we did pretty good to get the sights in, and not totally wear ourselves out (to the point of not remembering what we’d seen, always a risk with quick trips!). Explored the Colosseum, cruised the Forum, taking in the ancient site from up above on the Palatine Hill to get our bearings. Refreshed ourselves with gelato while sitting on the steps of the Pantheon. Ooooooh’d and awwww’d at the Trevi Fountain.

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Climbed the Spanish Steps to make our way to the Villa Borghese and enjoyed a Sunday afternoon hanging with the locals in the park, one of the first of it’s kind in Rome. Watched inline skaters zip through obstacle cones with incredible accuracy and unheard of speed, hung around a group of probably lifelong friends, now old timers playing Bocce ball. I love the historically significant sights, but I equally love the chance to embrace real time life when I travel.

Fueled by good food, nice wine, plenty of cafe, and our share of gelato, our wandering around was coming to an end as the sun set on our second full and perfect day.

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May 11 2009

Getting my bearings

Ahhh, how quickly I am reminded of the stares a female receives walking the streets in Italy alone. Flashing a smile in mute reply does nothing to help, seems my dimples only confuse the starer even further. No matter what I pack to wear, my clothes just scream foreigner, the stares are just something I have to ignore. I regretted my choice of footwear today almost instantly, not that I brought any fancy shoes, but my pink and white Ron Jon sandals seem to almost offend. Twice I’ve been stopped from entering a room, once by a woman on the hotel staff who’d just mopped the lobby floor, and a second time by a woman in a tiny produce store down the road. Both times all eyes were on my sandals, hands held out and downward in what I interpreted to mean “Stop!” as in “Don’t you dare walk in here, on my ‘floor so clean you could eat off it’, in THOSE abominations, those filthy HOUSE SLIPPERS!” Coming to a complete halt each time, I later understood the statement to be merely a warning, “Be careful you’ll fall on your ass in those awful things!” I nod my head and make gestures that I will be careful, very careful.

To the woman in the produce store I made my apology for not speaking Italian very good (said in Italian) and she pantomimed her meaning about slipping, then left me alone. I chose several bunches of cherry tomatoes on the vine, a good bit of arugula and a couple brown speckled plump pears. She weighed and rang everything up, tearing the receipt from the machine. She started to hand it to me, but then it was as if she decided to see how “good” I really did speak her language, turning the receipt away from view at the last she said “Cinque, vente cinque.” If she cared that I came up with $5.25 without help, she didn’t show it. I was pretty darn tickled. My comprehension is definitely up this year.

So, here I am again – faced with discomfort at being stared at for walking alone and nervous if I can eek out a few words that make sense enough to get what I need. All the while I’m smiling away, because I know once I get the first day of getting my bearings behind me the reality sinks in…I’m in Italy…Baby!


Apr 28 2009

Remembering – Revisited

I’m completely fascinated by the six degrees of separation concept. Each of us can so easily be entwined in the lives of one another and sometimes not even know how great an impact we have made. I try to make sure the people who touch my life, know it.

Last week would mark two years since I wrote a blog about a woman, Momma Carrie, a lifelong family friend, who shaped important parts of my life. I wrote about her the day after I learned she passed away. The blog, which is now archived stories only, since I have launched this Vagablonde Traveling site, is dated April 19, 2007 – and though I think of her often, I did not think about her on this day last week.

Today I came home to find a new comment on this 2 yr. old blog. I finished reading the comment and then took a few quick, short breaths, goosebumps raised on my arms, and yet – I was not entirely surprised that this would happen. Keith likes to sing Harry Chapin’s All My Life’s a Circle, and, ya, that’s just how I feel. Do you want to read it? Here is the link:

Remembering

Allen and Carrie Martini on one of their many adventures
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Apr 8 2009

Celebrating Birthdays

Today is my birthday. I had to do the math, subtracting my birth year, 1970, from 2009 to remind myself what my number is now. Similar to how I get mixed up on the days of the week, usually only knowing that it’s Thursday because Survivor is on, being aware of how “old” I am seems pretty irrelevant – and not very accurate. Even though age doesn’t mean that much to me, I do love my birthday, always have. When people ask those questions, like “What’s your favorite day of the year?” I guess my answer is April 8th. A couple years back April 8th was also Easter Sunday – and when that happens I’m truly all a buzz, because my second favorite day of the year is probably Easter.

There are people who don’t like their birthdays, but I enjoy taking the time to reflect on the day I entered the human race. I also like to take the time to think of my mom, and to thank her for all her hard work to get me here. I’ve often thought a person’s birthday should be more about the woman who gave them life, Lord knows she did all the work! Today is special for me, in that my mom is here visiting me. It’s the first time in years we’ve been together on April 8th. In a few hours we will head to Old Town Alexandria and spend the afternoon at a day spa.

Some birthdays, like some years on this earth, are more memorable than others. Last year it was tacos and beer in Quartzite, AZ. A few years back it was an eight course dinner in Italy, and a gondola ride on the canals of Venice. And that’s just the way I like my life to be – a balance of both ordinary and extraordinary which helps me maintain perspective.

So, today I celebrate having lived on this planet for 39 years. As with every birthday, I look forward to finding more ways to maximize the opportunities I have in life. Working on this blog is one of last years goals, accomplished just in the nick of time. What’s up for 2009 – I’ll continue to improve the ways in which I’m sharing my opportunities in travel. Thanks to all of you for your friendship and support.


Mar 23 2009

Tasty Travels

Feeling very much like a ten-year-old child with an allowance to blow, I approached the Toronto airport gift shop counter. One hand cupped a pile of $1 and $2 coin, the other grasped a dozen of my new favorite treat. Rather than exchange my Loonies and Toonies on my way back to the U.S., I was spending them all, and stocking up on the delicious dark toffee, peanut, chocolate, Eat-More bars that are only sold in Canada. Keith could hardly stand to watch, embarrassed that I would actually exchange cold hard cash (or coin) for nothing more than cooked sugar and nuts. But, he’s the one that turned me onto them, and don’t think for a second that when it came time to break into my stash over the next few months, that he ever turned down his half of the treat.

Discovering Eat-More candy bars marks the beginning of a whole new aspect in travel for me. In the last decade I have acquired tastes for foods that I had never before heard of. I’m not just talking about internationally, and it’s not all about candy, either. I know just about anything can be ordered online, but I really enjoy shopping in person. From little neighborhood markets to large chain supermarkets, local stores can be a great way to get to the pulse of a community.

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My pantry is full of regional delights that I have gathered while traveling. I try to use everything in a timely manner so there is no waste. Nothing worse than waiting to cook a “special” meal with unique ingredients, only to find out they have spoiled or turned stale. Some things are really simple, like the no-name mushroom soup sold at the No Frills in Gananoque, Ontario in Canada. Others a bit more unique, like the bread-crumb sized flaky bits of TPAXANAS EYNOS the Greeks use as a soup base. Most prized is probably my 3-liter olive oil from Alassio, Italy, hand poured just for me from a vat the size of a Volkswagen. Every now and again I get a whiff of the smokey dried chipotle peppers that I just had to have from a Super Center in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico. They have been shoved to the back of the cupboard and I’ve never used a one…yet.

Last week while shopping at Rouses in New Orleans, I picked up a can of Trappey’s Cut Okra and Tomatoes, not something I see everyday, and a package of local Cajun Gumbo mix. This will go nicely with either the frozen crawfish tail meat or the gator sausage that I picked up at a tiny market while out touring Louisiana Plantations. Another grocery item score was the Acadiana honey, shipped down from Breaux Bridge, LA the Crawfish Capitol of the world. I’d hoped to get up to Breaux Bridge and/or Lafayette while in the area, but I am left to enjoy the honey of the region and put the destination itself back on the list to visit.

One drawback to being exposed to new and wonderful flavors and foods is the risk of being spoiled by them. Some things can not be brought home, so I am left with mouth-watering memories of foods I am lucky to have tasted. Fresh grilled calamari from the Mediterranean has ruined me for all other squid. And, not that I’m a big pizza eater, but what we get here in the U.S. is not even the same dish as what the little standing room only pizzerias in Italy sell. My waistline thanks me for this revelation.

What are some of your favorite foods that you have discovered in your lifetime?


Mar 12 2009

Flaming Bananas and Turtle Soup, Welcome to Brennan’s

One of the first questions I was asked after being seated near a mirrored wall corner of Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans French Quarter was,

“So, are you opposed to eating turtle?”

Without the slightest hesitation I answered, “I have no problem eating turtle.”

As long as we are not talking endangered, and believe me, we are not. Several times during the famous three course breakfast (expected to take as many hours) the meal was referred to as “an experience”, why stop short of trying the rue based turtle soup? Bring. It. On. And so they did.

Ron, our waiter, could just as easily have been a football linebacker. He leaned inward, comfortably filling the space between two in my party like a missing puzzle piece. He was cool, man, and had a stance “Like the Duke” he joked. Meaning Ellington, not John Wayne. In baritone whispers he went through the menu, history included. One thing we were all sure of, we would finish the meal with bananas foster, a world famous dish created right here in this restaurant on Royal Street in 1951. The promise of flaming rum over bananas held strong throughout the experience.

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After the tangy tomato turtle soup appetizer, we were served the main course. I’m an eggs Benedict fan, and most of the entree’s included in the $36 fixed price breakfast menu are Benedict-esque. Unique to Brennan’s breakfast menu, each delicious dish has a suggested wine to accompany it. Both the Eggs Bayou LaFourche, a dish with Cajun andouille sausage, and the Oysters Benedict are paired with a Gerwurztraminer. A Fume Blanc goes nicely with Eggs Sardou, poached eggs on artichoke bottoms and creamed spinach.

From my seat I could see the large pastel watercolor portrait of Owen Brennan, founder of the iconic eatery in 1946. Historically remembered for his warm, welcoming, humorous, good nature, Mr. Brennan would likely be pleased to know the staff in his legacy restaurant treat customers today in the exact manner. Maitre d’ Jorge Blanco, an immigrant from Nicaragua, has worked for the restaurant for more than 20 years. As if we were old friends, Jorge agreed to my request to check out the courtyard. With hints of remorse he pointed out a new magnolia tree, replacing an older more magnificent tree that suffered Katrina’s wrath. We talked briefly of the restaurants come back after the storm. Still not serving quite the number of breakfasts as pre-Katrina, they are recovering.

Beginning to make our way toward the exit, Jorge introduced us to Mario, another long time member of the staff, working 37 years at the restaurant. We’d seen Mario earlier, making jokes to the room full of patrons during Ron’s blazing of the bananas for our desert.

“If you see me running, you run!” He told us.

Jorge pointed to a particular framed photo along the lobby wall, an old image of the Royal Street corner back in 1895 with a small child out front.

“See, here?” his finger tapped a figure of a small child “this is Mario, as a boy” Then he burst out laughing, as did we. These two seem like family, everyone here, in fact, seems to be all part of one fairly large family. There are many words to describe a morning enjoying the famous Breakfast at Brennan’s, but calling it “an experience” does sum it up nicely.

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Brennan’s Restaurant
417 Royal Street
In the French Quarter
New Orleans, LA 70130
Phone: (504) 525-9711 | Fax: (504) 525-2302


Mar 10 2009

Twitter Travels

Walking briskly against the wind blown New Orleans Riverfront, my new friend, Shannon, began to peel away toward her parked car. I continued straight, heading for the Aquarium. We had met for the first time, in person, earlier that morning. After lunch at Brennan’s and a tour of the French Quarter she had to get back to her Baton Rouge home. As she veered away I leaned into the wind, putting the back of my hand to my mouth I called out,

“Hey, did you know it was me right away this morning?”

Nodding her head, she laughed back “Yes! It was the hair!”

Each of our Twitter pages has our profile pictures, but they are small, and, well, you know how peoples photos represent sometimes. Shannon, @Cajun_Mama, one of four travel writers for the popular Traveling Mamas website, was already waving at me by the time I spotted her walking along Decatur to where I stood outside the Cafe Du Monde. We were having a tweet-up, she recognized me instantly.

I know for a fact there are some of you reading this wondering “what the hell is she talking about?” Meaning, not only do you not have a Twitter account, but have maybe never even heard of it. Or, maybe you’ve heard the word on t.v. but just didn’t know what it meant. Certainly newscasters toss the phrase out with some regularity lately. In fact, Twitter has brought news well ahead of any network broadcast. The Airbus A320 landing in the Hudson is a prime example. I saw a tweet about a plane “crashing” into the Hudson, then we turned the news on just as coverage broke. US Airways began tweeting that day, but has not kept it up. Tracking the news of the bushfires my husband, @heligypsy was busy fighting in Australia, my best resource was using twitter.search.com using a hashtag #bushfire. Every 15 seconds there were hundreds of new tweets, with first hand information coming in.

Here is Jon Stewarts take on the Twitter Frenzy. He is not wrong, but that doesn’t make me wrong for being a twitterer.

I started using my twitter account a year ago to network with other travelers, RV’ers and writers. Right away the service proved to be significantly helpful. Using my 140 character allotment answering the question “What are you doing?” I typed out that I was researching riding the train from Alassio, Italy to Nice, France the following day. Quite unexpectedly, I received a response from Kelby, @Typeamom, the Go France writer for about.com. She replied with suggestions and helpful website links on what to see and do. With one positive experience under my belt, I decided to try it again, this time specifically asking for help on my upcoming three day trip to Milan. Whammo! Jessica, @italylogue, a Milan loving Portland Oregon resident and travel writer for the Bootsnall Travel Network was almost instantly at my service. Without her help I would have not seen the great and beautiful city of Milan from the top of the Duomo, nor would I have gotten on the tour that dropped me front and center at Leonardo Da’Vinci’s astounding painting, The Last Supper.

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Google Twitter and not only will you get the direct link to the application itself, but the second result is a link to our President, Barack Obama’s Twitter account. The last update on the Presidents page is from Jan 19th, 2009, we all agree he’s been pretty busy, yes? There are also links to other applications that interface with Twitter in the hopes of helping to make it an easy and useful tool to stay connected and informed. You can find thousands of articles with tips for Twitter, top ten lists of how to make it work, rules of the “follow” (this is extremely individual), top lists of people to follow based on niche and on and on and on.

So, if you didn’t know before, you now may have a better idea of what twitter is, and why people use it. I’m @vagablonde on the site, no surprises there. If you jump in, look me up. Do you think you will engage in this new Social Media trend, or are you going to sit this one out?


Mar 5 2009

First Impressions

Belize is one country that really made me work to discover its bounty of pleasures. The adrenaline had long worn off after getting through the border protocol, and I was ready to stop moving – anytime. We found ourselves fighting the same road conditions, potholes and unmarked speed bumps that we’d endured for the last 1500 miles. The improvement on the road was that, where the asphalt crumbled to nothing, there is actually a shoulder rather than a sheer drop like in Mexico. This only meant we had a lot more pedestrian and bicycle traffic to maneuver around. And, we were catching up to what looked to be a significant rain storm ahead.

Keith remarked on the obvious British influence of the colonial homes, but I was a little too focused on the trash, junk and dilapidated hovels. Reaching Belize City, my energy levels spiked with excitement.

“We’re Here!”

We miraculously navigated ourselves through crowded round-abouts and narrow congested bridges onto the Western Highway where both Astrum Helicopters and Old Belize Marina are located. The highway begins at a cemetery. Graves on the left and on the right, and with an island of plots in the middle. That’s right, a drive through cemetery.

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The road widens, and the area becomes slightly industrial, and immediately turns into a garbage dump. This place is supposed to be paradise, is it not? Uuugh, I am so sick of all the garbage.

After finding and touring the Astrum facilities, we backtracked into town for supplies, and returned along the highway to set ourselves up at our temporary base of Old Belize marina. Temporary until we found a house with a fenced yard to rent. We never planned to live in our 19 ft motor home for the winter.

The rain storm we’d been following earlier had come through, leaving us little choice but to park in the mud. Keith and I take our shoes off, its no problem, but Zoe doesn’t really understand the “wipe your paws” direction. While hooking up the power, Keith learned that beside being a big mud puddle, the area was home to biting fire ants – now mad biting fire ants. We were stuck with them for the night.

Unsure of the draw of our a/c unit on this shared power supply we’d hooked into, it was decided that we’d not test it on our first night here – enough breeze was blowing that if we opened all the windows, we’d keep cool enough. Sometime after midnight, both of us were being “zapped”, felt like little jolts of electricity for split-seconds. Our first encounter with the dreaded sand fly, they came right through our screens and ate us as a midnight snack.

The following day, Keith went to the office to settle up on our camping arrangements before heading to Astrum for his check ride and other employment obligations. He returned to the motor home, put the thing in gear and said “I paid up for four days.” I am positive my eyeballs almost came out of their sockets and I repeated, but in a much higher, much louder voice,

“You paid for FOUR days!!!”

And 16 weeks later, we pulled the chocks from beneath the wheels of the motor home, and began our journey back to the United States via the west coast of Mexico. We never found a living scenario any more appropriate than staying at the marina, in our little camper. Eager to explore the glorious beaches of Mexico, my heart tugged to leave the Cucumber Beach Marina. Good friends had been made, and beauty discovered. This had become our home, much to my surprise.

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“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” Paul Theroux.


Feb 27 2009

Bye, Bye blue shirt

I tossed my favorite shirt into the trash. Just wadded it up, and threw it away. It had been loved too much – and finally because of two reluctant stains and a snag I had to let it go.

I bought the sleeveless azure-blue shirt four years ago, off the sale rack, because it matched my eyes. Soon enough, the shirt proved to be the best piece in my wardrobe. Folded in half and rolled it never held a wrinkle, this is a critical point for travel wear. If I ate too much gelato in Italy, or feta in Greece, the flowing material was forgiving. Casual with a bit of flair, the top could easily be dressed up or down, worn with skirts, shorts or pants – just about anything I owned could be paired with this little gem. And, speaking of gems, I do own a pair of earrings and a bracelet now, just because of the match with this shirt. The memories live on. Had I known at the time what a wonderful article of clothing it was, I would have bought one in every color, and two of the azure. An impossible lesson.

What’s your favorite piece of travel clothing, and why? How will you dispose of it when you can no longer be seen in public wearing it?

The running joke about our travel photos is “Here’s Paula…wearing her blue shirt…again…” So, here are a few snapshots of me and my favorite shirt.

Poros Island, Greece

Poros Island, Greece

National Archaeological Musuem, Athens Greece

National Archaeological Musuem, Athens Greece

Death Valley, California

Death Valley, California

Via Julias Augustus, Alassio Italy

Via Julias Augustus, Alassio Italy

Xunantunich Ruins, Belize

Xunantunich Ruins, Belize

Path along the Italian Riviera

Path along the Italian Riviera

Washington Monument

Washington Monument


Feb 22 2009

So long, Orlando

Nearly every night during the last 90 nights, I’ve enjoyed overhearing the 9 pm fireworks extravaganza from Epcot Center in Disney World. The first few nights were a little like eavesdropping – curious about the roaring booms and fiery rat-a-tat pops, unsure how long it would go on or where exactly it was coming from. Close to a month later, I knew for sure the 13 minute explosion was Epcot’s nightly finale, and not the Magic Kingdom or Celebration or even Old Town Kissimmee just across the street. Nearly six weeks passed before I got to see them in person – a finish to a day park hopping that left me without words, or breath, nothing but a gigantic satisfied smile for seeing this beauty in person once and for all. Tonight is the last night I will hear the familiar thunderous “goodnight” of Epcot’s fireworks, we are leaving Orlando tomorrow.

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My last 24 hrs. to hear the Barred Owl hooting “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” at all times night and day, and tomorrow before the sun has even started thinking of rising, will be my last day to hear the little unidentified bird that I swear is immitating a car alarm. We’re leaving the racoons to rummage through someone elses garbage, the gator to think about eating someone else’s dog, the deer in the nearby swamp to amuse some other unsuspecting RV’er.

Our time in Orlando has been well spent. Though being in such flat country does have me at a serious disadvantage navigationally, I have figured things out. I have no formula for how long it takes to gain familiarity in an area, but it is a part of the traveling routine I enjoy a great deal. Something as simple as picking the right grocery store and making friendly acquaintance with the clerks can make a big difference on “living” in an area. Making friends in the Orlando area was a different sort of challenge – the residents are used to a very transient population coming through to visit the amusement parks, they’re so over it. We met lots of nice people, doing the same sorts of things we were, Disney World, Cocoa Beach (hoped to see the Discover Launch, but it was scrubbed), Magic basketball, Cirque du Soleil La Nouba, and just hanging out in downtown Orlando.

Will we come back? To Florida? Most likely. To Orlando? I never say never – so, probably not. I have loved most every minute of being here, but the excitement of exploring another new area is to great to resist. This is our finale. **warning, this video is a spoiler if you are planning on seeing Epcot’s fireworks yourself. If not…watch away!**


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