In Bruges

Belgium, Europe, Travel

I like to believe that I am a normal human being. I tumble and trip over my own feet and fall flat on my face. I prefer chocolate over peanut butter. I adore summer. I have an unparalleled love for high tides and tan lines, ocean air and salty hair. I trust good friends, gritty tales, and great adventures. I believe in fairies and stardust, moonbeams, and magic…

…and as expected from most normal human beings, the feeling of ‘Fri-nally’ gets me fired up to make merry memories for moody Mondays.

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Needless to say, weekends are my flipping favorite.
Three-day weekends are my flipping flipping favorite.
Four-day weekends are the cherries on my cake.

Brugge_Cherry_IllustrationButtt unfortunately for me, four-day weekends are loved by more than just me and my tribe (Read: The entire universe). The picky planners prove their mettle, weeks in advance, by rummaging and ransacking through the best of deals in the most bizarre of locations. Clearly, my unscripted, spontaneous tales pale in comparison to these meticulously laid out itineraries.

Nevertheless, keeping true to my impulsive, volatile and careless nature, finally, on a thrifty Tuesday afternoon, two days before the awaited holiday season, I decided to vanish!

…vanish from work,
…vanish from responsibilities,
…vanish into the haven i.e,

BRUGGE

To many of you, Bruges is reminiscent of the iconic Colin Farrel movie, ‘In Bruges’. If the movie is to be believed, Bruges with its endless narrow canals and channels can be irrefutably crowned as the ‘Venice of the West’. To me though, Bruges is just well, Bruges! It isn’t reminiscent of anything. As someone who always advocated books over movies and had the worldly wisdom of a toddler, it really isn’t surprising that this tiny Belgian town in the western corner of Europe was as unknown to me as the variable ‘x’ in an algebraic problem!

*oops*

In retrospect, I feel it was for the best…

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…because no movie would equal the intoxicating excitement with which I discovered Bruges. I walked up and down this charm of a place with a huge helping of Belgian fries in one hand and a delectable Belgian waffle in the other. However, the scorching sun made sure that I wilted and withered like a desiccated leaf.

Naturally, the next logical step was to spot a gelato kiosk, to engage in an hour-long discussion on the vivid colors and bountiful flavors and to finally pick the safest option of them all, chocolate!

*yayyy*

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The hidden corners of Bruges were surprisingly inhabited by tiny cygnets and queenlike swans, exhibiting their eminence as the town’s official mascots, strutting and sailing and pausing and popping, in and out of frames and bends. They were a joy to feed. And an even greater joy to watch!

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Inarguably, one of the most prominent landmarks in Bruges is the Belfry Tower. Irrespective of which godforsaken cranny of the town you are huddled in, you can see the infamous, leaning Belfry looming tall and tough in the heart of the town.

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The original design of this bell-tower was proposed several centuries ago in 1240 A.D (Yes, this tower is older than all our forefathers put together!). Since repeated attempts to actualize its unique flagship design were continually thwarted by fires and lightning strikes, the tower in all its glory remains unfinished.

Glaringly beautiful albeit incomplete…

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Located yards away from the Belfry Tower was the vibrant central market. Until I witnessed the marvel i.e., the Grote Markt, I didn’t know that I could travel through time. This elusive skill has always been a fanciful concept in my head. Something that I believed required geeky machines and a veiled portal.

Buttt, ALAS! I didn’t need a mysterious gateway to conquer time-travel!

All I needed was the market square! With its typical step-gabled shops, closely resembling the gingerbread houses, it definitely did take me back in time…

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…to a time when Bruges thrived,

…to an era when Bruges ruled the Belgian economic front,

…to an age when Flemish traders ran helter-skelter with their merchandise looking for a possible prey to flaunt and flounder their carefully crafted crowns…

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The curious corner of my head desperately wanted to know how things went downhill for Bruges. Buttt, for that, I had to know how things went uphill for Bruges. It was deeply confusing because I always assumed that in ancient times, trade is analogous to a booming port. But, Bruges has no port ?!

Right?

Wrong!

Six kilometers away, there was a tiny municipality called Damme (or the acting commercial outpost of Bruges) by the seafront. The thirteenth century Damme and Bruges were linked by an archaic river.

The seafront is now well, land.
The river is now a canal.
…and Bruges is now a commercial retiree.

Buttt, the trip would be incomplete without a stop at Damme.

And so, I went…

To a tiny paradise called Damme.

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Just like how all good things must come to an end, the city’s economic lifeline silted up in the 15th century.

Trade collapsed.
Merchants fled.
The Grote Markt dried up.
The city of Antwerp surfaced.

Thus, Bruges went into a deep slumber. For a good 400 years. And then, slowly re-emerged.

…as a town frozen in space, extending its time-travel wings to anyone willing to pass through it.

As the sun went past me and the day came to a calm close, I learned a valuable lesson, ‘The past can never be changed. Or erased. Or edited. Or forgotten. It can only be accepted.’ We can choose to accept it and grow. Or accept it and rot. The choice is ours to seize!

Carpe Diem 🙂

Until next time,

A

A Medieval Marvel

Europe, France, Travel

Once upon a January, seven years ago, there was a brightly lit classroom with an unbiased view of the Western Ghats. This classroom was unfortunately populated with bloodsucker monkeys hiding behind deceptive human masks. ‘Electronics’ was that subject which the majority of us hated. By hated, I mean dreaded. Positively with a vengeance. When you turn up for every exam with the confidence of a champion and end up performing abysmally in a repeated fashion, you can’t really like it. Unless you are Edison. Or Einstein. Or Galileo…

However, despite our indifferent attitude towards this subject, we adored our Professor. He was one among us. Implicitly adopted but explicitly abandoned. His charm and wit further added to his chirpy, happy-go-lucky nature.

On a gloomy Thursday afternoon, Kirchhoff was trying to drill his way into our brains. Clearly, Kirchhoff was having zero luck trying to shove himself in. From our glum expressions, it was quite clear that the ticking of the clock was more appealing to us than the resistance of a non-existent loop.

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Being the smarty pants that our Professor is, nothing goes unnoticed under his watchful eye. He picked up our sleazy vibes and decided to impart a little life lesson to spice things up. His tiny message somehow struck a chord with me and I have reiterated this to one too many pals to not repeat it here.

In his own words, life can be considered as an insightful, uncomplicated Venn diagram with each contained set representing the three incredibly important aspects of life, Friends, Time and Money.

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When each of these aspects collides, you will haplessly be at different stages of your life. For instance,

  • If you have countless friends and plenty of time to while away, you are most likely a toddler or a student.

Now, what do students tend to not have in heaps and bundles?

Yessss! Money.
…and patience of course.
But, mostly money.

  • If you have an ample amount of money in your secret dungeon and a hella lot of time to kill, you are probably at your ‘wisdomous’ best (Read: old and enervated). You would still have a catholic bunch of gramps and grans to gossip about that pretty damsel in your neighborhood who wears too much make – up. Buttt, do you have the energy to tour the world?

I think not.
*sigh*

  • Finally, if you have a bunch of carefree losers a.k.a. friends around you and a copious amount of money to throw from your private rooftop bar like Bill Gates, chances are that you are clawed by the devil called ‘Career’.

So, there you go…

The intersection of these three sets is what my professor called the utopian, golden zone – the most sought-after zone that is extremely arduous to sustain. When this divine, beatific zone found me, I decided to pay a small tribute to this erstwhile, forgotten memory by planning yet another trip. Further, to make this tiny tribute as apt as possible, I let myself be accompanied by a few ‘bloodsucker monkeys’ from that very classroom nestled in the Western Ghats.

Definite nostalgia, indeed…

Since I have an eclectic taste in places, we decided to explore an ancient, fortified town in southern France, which among my clan is better known as a board game rather than a destination. Although money did come knocking on my doorstep prior to this trip, my decision-making skills at the eleventh hour made sure that I was very much still stuck in the ‘budget’ traveler zone. Hence, as a last resort, we ended up agreeing to hitchhike.

Where to, you ask?

…to a medieval marvel and a gothic wonderland,

C.A.R.C.A.S.S.O.N.N.E

Ever since this mysterious bastion was pinned on my frayed, tattered map of Europe, I proceeded to prepare a plausible plan. Buttt, as an advocate for everything impromptu, the moment one of my friends volunteered to guide us around the city, all attempts to plot were gladly abandoned in the nearest trashcan and we paddled to the château complex…

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Photo by: Erja Amerjka

To say that the labyrinth that unfurled before us was baffling would be an understatement. In a flash, the remnants of my ‘childhood princess’ dreams re-surfaced from an unheeded corner of my brain. I was absolutely convinced that this citadel was inspired by some age-old Disney movie. However, my suspicions and speculations were shattered before they metamorphosed into a full-fledged fairytale when I read that the foundations of this mighty citadel were laid even before dear Disney’s forefathers could meet Jesus Christ (i.e. 500 BC) !

Until this day, a maze was something I had only vicariously explored while reading Harry Potter. Since as a kid, I never played in a maze; as an adult, I was fully utilizing my lost opportunities in the best way possible by circumventing through every traversable cobblestone trail in this medieval city. Each alley that I encountered was akin to the pathways, I pictured myself conquering, in the Triwizard maze. Buttt luckily for me, navigating through this maze was never a herculean task. Instead of boggarts and sphinxes hiding around the corners, I was rewarded with artisan Crepes and Calissons,

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…from the most delightful delis,

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…with the most envious views,

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The more time I spend chasing winds atop this tiny hill, the more obscure it became to comprehend why the French government once wanted to demolish such a charming fortification. The charisma that this citadel exuded far exceeded that of any archeological site that I had ever visited.

The tawny towers. The willowy walls. The hued history. The shifty streets…

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…this telltale town had it all…

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…so much so, that when I finally exited via the Porte Narbonnaise,

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…into the deserted town,

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…across the Aude river,

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…I was walking with a gaping hole in my heart.

I knew that from now on, each time I would play Carcassonne, the game, instead of sticking my tile on the board, I would invariably be transported to an alternate dimension where centaurs and hippogriffs are no longer an illusion.

Until next time,

A

A Croatian Epiphany

Croatia, Europe, Travel

Places and people, an unrivaled pair;
Each with a distinct story to share,
A history to bare, knowledge so rare;
Unveiling mysteries in the air…

Time and tide aplenty to spare,
Wild, mad as a march hare;
If only I were a millionaire…
Vanish I will, elsewhere; somewhere…

Short poems are my ‘jam’. I love writing them as much as I love reading them in a snarky, shrilly, sassy manner. It is hence no surprise that the introduction of any exotic location by my circle of eccentric weirdos at our dinner table, usually ends up in me sluggishly slipping into a travel coma. I grasp on to that new place like a boa constrictor choking its prey and the ensuing bittersweet thoughts broiling in my head take a flow that is quite precisely described by this tiny sonnet.

…why is this bittersweet you ask?

Because, more than time, I usually end up having no money ‘to spare’. Like, zero, zip, zilch! And this brings me to my second, unsolicited ‘jam’,

Money

Empty bank accounts…

They say, ‘Money can’t buy you happiness.’ But, you know what money can most definitely buy? A plane ticket!

…which in my book, is synonymous to happiness.

Therefore, once I let the positivity i.e, money, replenish my account and waved my long overdue goodbye to my ‘silly student setbacks’, it was time to discover another cranny in the ever sooo gigantic jigsaw puzzle called Europe.

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Early spring is that time of the year when most of the tourist attractions still offer an enticing winter concession and the weather god sporadically showers spells of summer. Although winter still finds a way to bully you and more often than not, summer struggles to be at its sizzling best, for budget travelers like me, this initial spring phase is a coveted jackpot. Thus, irrespective of the perils of possible winter storms; a calm, coltish, cozy, Croatian port city full of bustle and spunk with a timeless familiarity was chosen as the next ingredient to spice up my pervasive cauldron of happiness.

Among the chaotic jumble of people who permeate my vibrant stories, one of my trusted accomplices, who specializes in inappropriate humor at the most auspicious times, decided to accompany me on this elusive trip. The careless souls that we are, we reached the Zagreb central bus station panting, puffing and gasping for dear breath and boarded our ride to the third largest city of Croatia; the erstwhile queen of the Adriatic,

R.I.J.E.K.A

In all honesty, both of us were quite moronic as far as traveling was concerned. The only tidbit that we knew about our pinned location was that the legendary RMS Carpathia, known for rescuing the survivors of the infamous RMS Titanic, was bound for Rijeka (previously known as ‘Fiume). The twinkling eyes and the wide-eyed glances that we exchanged after assimilating this tiny snippet of unnecessary information led to a discussion that gravitated from Rijeka to Yugoslavia to Berlin.

Rijeka_Snippet_InfoNeedless to say, the quest to uncover more information on Rijeka was quickly forgotten and two vacant brains *cough* aimlessly jiggled and wiggled their heads to some age old Croatian song blasting on the radio. Interestingly, my crazy, bohemian friend liked this song so much that he proceeded to record it and then lose his phone along with this recording in the months that followed.

Yeah, my careless abode is populated with equally careless people…

Practical insight that my vacant brain had accumulated over the years convinced me that a city by the bay would not have an elevation higher than beach palms unless that city is Cinque Terre. The hilly time-lapses through the stained bus windows added to my longing for a quick hike up the mountains. Little did I know that the invisible goblins floating around (with lots of help from my ignorant, vacant brain) were slowly toiling to make my dream a blissful reality.

…reality in which Rijeka is a labyrinth with cliffs and castles by the bay…

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A lively harbor. Jaw-dropping cliffs. Distant islands. Antiquated tram-lines. Houses built on steep terrain. Rječina River. Delectable seafood.

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…this tiny city has it all.

After stumbling into a group of Erasmus students who made us dance in the heart of the buzzling city center like monkeys looking for bananas in a pine tree and sending postcards to my crazy bunch of careless weirdos around the world,

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…we set our sights on the mighty Trsat castle. Trsat castle is an ancient Roman fortress which doubled up as a strategic lookout point over the Rječina River. As daffy, budget travelers, according to us, the only (read: the least smart) way to reach a castle perched on a cliff is to walk up. Add ‘airplane’ mode on our phone and zero knowledge of Croatian, and voila, you have a tinge of the concoction that we drank up like tequila shots. Although the baroque style, triumphal archway that framed the steep set of stone steps looked inviting, both of us had absolutely no idea if we were on the right track.

And so, up we went. Step after step. Gasping for breath…

106 steps…

*sigh*

214 steps…

*sighh*

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321 steps…

*sighhh*

429 steps…

*sighhhh*

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538 steps…

*sighhhhh*

And, there…

The Church of Our Lady of Trsat.

Um.

Clearly, not where we planned to go…

At this precise moment, we realized that we had successfully completed a Christian pilgrimage. Suddenly, the tiny chapels and the endless water fountains that lined the stairways all made perfect sense. The archaic information tablets erected beside the Church revealed that this was no ordinary set of stairs, but, a special one built by Petar Kružić in 1531 for all the faithful devotees aspiring to visit the votive church and complete the largest pilgrimage of Western Croatia.

God bless our delusional souls.

*facepalm*

Thankfully, there was no valley between the Church and the Castle. After a few interactions with chirpy Croatian locals, we planted our tired feet in front of the castle. And then, behind the castle. My crazy friend decided to jump over the castle walls and experience some daredevil moments…

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unnamed (5)Once atop the watchtower, we were treated to sweeping, panoramic views of Rijeka and the islands nearby. I seated myself on one of the corners and let my feet dangle and dance in the air. The cool breeze felt like a refreshing glass of lemonade after a long, winded journey to the very top. Unfortunately, a tiny boy attempted to mimic my impulsive moves. His mother’s death stares soon followed and its increasing frequency made me realize that I was portraying myself in a very poor light (no surprises there). Finally succumbing to her stares, I sheepishly withdrew my feet and descended to a quieter corner. Despite feeling downright mortified at that moment, in hindsight, it was quite an uplifting (read: embarrassing) experience.

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The last destination that was looming in my mind was a breakwater called ‘Molo Longo’ that was conveniently located in the heart of the city. With a pace that would put Usain Bolt to shame, we hurried to catch a much-awaited sunset by the Kvarner Bay. Before I dive into this story, you should know that despite showering the sincerest love possible, dogs hate me. Thus, when a particular poodle fixated his gaze in my direction and started barking fervently, alarm bells went off in my head and I did what any sane person would ‘not’ do. I ran. After a few seconds, I heard screaming and turned around to see two very distant, familiar faces smiling from ear to ear. Could it be?!

Noooo!

The faces that were smiling were the two lovely souls with whom we hiked together, a few moons ago…

As realization and happiness dawned in my face, I turned around and did my walk of (utter) shame towards the poodle and my friends. Clearly, the poodle was theirs. How, they ended up in Rijeka of all places, I will never know. But, what I do know is that, the dubious March weather was in full swing and the sun slowly disappeared into the Adriatic behind a humongous, thick veil of grey.

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Nevertheless, overcast sunsets are still unforgettable when watched with a bunch of your favorite careless weirdos 🙂

Mission R.I.J.E.K.A. Check.

A day full of memories and mistakes was finally drawing to a dramatic close and all I could think of was, ‘The world is such a small, sweet place

Until next time,

Aki

Bolognese for a Day…

Europe, Italy, Travel

As far as hopping on and off places is concerned, there are two kinds of people in this world.

  1. Tourist
  2. Traveler

These cute info-graphics created by BoredPanda should give you a better picture on all things ‘travel’ navigating in the seemingly unassuming mind of a traveler.

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I think it is quite clear that I fall into the latter category of people. Buttt, I, as a traveler, am a special kind of ‘weird’. WHY? Because, I am the one daydreaming about skiing with polar bears in Canada and making snowmen with penguins in Antarctica when people around me talk about snow.

…or ice,

…or blue.

Well, maybe not blue. But, you get the helpless state of fantasy that my mind is susceptible to…

On one such ‘fantasical’ autumn evening, one of my friends nonchalantly asked me whether he should gulp down a delectable batch of Bavarian Weisswurst or a succulent stack of Polish Kaszanka. Without missing a beat, I cast a ‘Mortadella’ spell on him. Wait. What? Yesss! Once again my ever-wandering mind had worked faster than lightning. Buttt this time, dots were connected between the Eastern sausages and the Italian Mortadella.

They say early November is the worst time to visit any charming, comely place. During this time, the dreadful cold winds howl stronger than the imaginary werewolves in my head. However, it so happened that early November was when I was able to take a week off and quietly escape to oblivion. Since, the dots were already connected and Mortadella loomed larger in my head than werewolves, I knew the time had come to invite myself over to the land of intricate porticoes and delightful feasts. Thus, armed with a stubborn mind, a careless attitude and a heart full of excitement, I set off to one of the lesser known jewels of Italia,

B.O.L.O.G.N.A

As with all my other trips, I had a carefully laid out itinerary which I had every intention of sticking to,

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Again, as with all my other trips, I did not stick to this planned itinerary.

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Nope…

Nada…

Not even a little bit!

As soon as I gathered my backpack and left the train station, a petite old Italian ‘bella‘ came up to me and started speaking in rapid fast ‘Italiano’. My relationship with ‘Italiano’ is as good as Harry Potter’s relationship with Jon Snow. Although the intersection of our worlds could have potentially interesting consequences, ‘Italiano’ and I have unfortunately never met. It didn’t take long for her to interpret the chaos and panic splashed visibly across my face. The fact that my response was almost always a heartwarming smile after ‘Bonjourno’ possibly acted us visual cues to my lackluster Italian. Nevertheless, amidst all this confusion, I had fortuitously started walking with her and this is how the planned itinerary was conveniently forgotten and stashed into some godforsaken corner of my medulla.

Once we bid our goodbyes (in heavily broken Italian from my side), I opened my eyes and absorbed the red marvel that unfolded in front of me. The reason why Bologna was nicknamed ‘Bologna la rossa’ was becoming quite evident. The sheltered porticoes that ran through the city were red; the buildings were made with red bricks and as an added bonus, the leaves that rested so peacefully on the ground were also red. To stay true to the color scheme, my cheeks were also a bright, ugly shade of scarlet red. Why you ask? Well,

  • The embarrassment of not being able to speak Italian, *cough*
  • The cold that threatened to freeze me *rrrrr*
  • The remainder of the excitement that made its way to my chubby cheeks *whoot*
  • The prospect of blending ever so slowly into the rossa around me *yay*

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On that chilly November morning, I learnt two things,

Number One,

  • Università di Bologna is the oldest (read: quaintest) university in Europe.

To add to my excitement, the university quarter was one of the most dynamic streets that I had ever visited. Although the students were running helter-skelter to probably hand over their assignments after a successful all nighter, the exuberance and the vivacity that this quarter exhibited was so palpable that I could almost think of studying again. ALMOST. Buttt, who am I kidding? I ain’t going back to university again. Ever.

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And, Number Two,

Wait for it…

  • Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the tallest (or the only) leaning tower in Italy

Yes, mind = blown.

My oblivious brain had always assumed that the mighty Leaning Tower of Pisa had to be the ‘greatest’ (read: tallest) leaning tower of Italy. Buttt, ALAS! I was grounded back to reality by the towering ‘Torre degli Asinelli’ in the heart of Bologna. Oh, and the 498 steps that led me to the very top gave me ‘drool-worthy’ panoramic views of Bologna. Legend says that the Asinelli Tower was built in honor of the beloved donkeys who dug gold coins out from the site where the present tower has been erected. The climb is no joke but the spirit of these lovely donkeys helped me ascend the narrow stairways faster than Flash.

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All the climbing had rightfully made me ravenous and the ‘gabazillion’ blogs that I selectively soaked into my brain repeatedly iterated that Italians treat the Bolognese with a unique culinary reverence. This revelation had already made my curiosity reach heights that it had never reached before. They say, ‘Curiosity killed the cat’. It was becoming increasingly clear that I could possibly be its next aleatory victim.

…unless I laid my hands on some form of Bolognese cuisine. Thus, to preserve my sanity, this is exactly what I did next.

Osteria dell’Orsa is a tiny gem of a trattoria buried in a hidden corner that has the potential to complete a quintessential Bolognese experience. The clattering of wine glasses and the aroma of freshly made ‘brodo’ lured me inside. To state a redundant fact, the infamous ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ has its origins in Bologna (no surprises there). Buttt, the Bolognesi scoff and ridicule this internationally adored delicacy.

Why?

Because, traditionally, ‘spaghetti’ and ‘bolognese’ aren’t the best of friends.

There… I said it. Confused? Yes, I was too…

Enter ‘tagliatelle’. This exquisite ribbon pasta is what the Bolognesi use for their renowned Bolognese sauce. Not Spaghetti. Not Fettuccine. But, the magic that is called tagliatelle, i.e., fresh hand-rolled, hand-cut egg pasta. Further, unless you have a hidden cellar with a secret cache of homemade olive oil, a batch of tomato sauce that was exclusively made last summer with tomatoes grown in your backyard and a handful of herbs from your grandmother’s garden, you wouldn’t know how real Bolognese sauce tastes. I didn’t too. And when I finally did, I died and went to culinary heaven.

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Tagliatelle al ragù’ was everything I thought it would be and everything I didn’t expect it to be. The sauce perfectly complemented the imperfect hand-made pasta. I don’t think I can ever go back to ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’. Buttt I have to. Because, unfortunately, reality always comes knocking on my door.

The last leg of my Bolognese adventure consisted of a tiny pilgrimage to ‘Santuario di San Luca’. The porticoes that ran through Bologna had already left me mesmerized. For someone who loves walking, the thought of hiking through 666 of these arches and being awarded with a rewarding view of Bologna was definitely the cherry on any cake.

And so, without further ado, I started my tiny pilgrimage…

Step after step…

Arch after arch…

…and an hour later, I perched myself on the parapet overlooking the foggy hills and an overcast sunset.

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The calmness I felt at this point was ineffable. The gentle breeze, powerless to freeze my dangling feet. The rustling leaves, that threatened to fly into my eyes. My careless smile, plastered just for the setting sun. A strange sense of peace that knotted my gut. And finally, a feeling of accomplishment at having come out of my vicarious bubble.

Mission B.O.L.O.G.N.A. Check

After this little trip, I can preach by the quote, ‘Life is nothing but a cagey combination of magic and pasta.

Till another life quote comes my way,

Ciao from Italia,

A