Paula Swenson

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Who would you be if no one knew who you were?

In Time and Change, Travel on March 7, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
~ Matsuo Basho

Sometimes we travel through the physical landscape and sometimes our journey takes us inward. Perhaps the very best journeys are those which do both.
My friend Brandy recently gave up a lovely flat, sold all her belongings, quit a job which she loved and set out to see the world. Yes, you read that right, she left a place she resonates with and a job she loved to travel indefinitely. She has become voluntarily homeless, and her journey is one of inner, as much as outer, exploration.
I encourage you to check in with Brandy here, and follow her adventures, I can assure you it won’t be boring.


The Gift of Being Present

In Art and Creativity, Time and Change, Travel, Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 at 4:29 pm

As a semi-nomadic traveler, I’m often setting off for new destinations. Recently, however, I’ve embarked on a different sort of journey – a quest for knowledge and new tools. I’m enrolled in a ten-week course to learn about new ways to use creativity to help people make the most of their lives. It is interesting to be back in the learning environment as a student rather than a teacher.

Always a believer in lifelong learning, I frequently study up on this or that on my own, but I had forgotten how invigorating it can be to learn in a group setting. This may sound odd coming from a teacher – but observing interaction is altogether different from participating in it.

I’m fortunate indeed to be studying with a group which has a fabulous dynamic. Hailing from 4 countries and spanning 4 decades, these 22 creative souls bring a wealth of experiences, skills, and perspectives to our learning journey.

The interaction is so energizing and the work so full of play, that I find myself absorbed in it for hours on end without realizing how much time has passed. Such a lovely way to be reminded of the joy of being truly, totally present.

The View from Here

In Abundance, Art and Creativity, Time and Change, Travel, Uncategorized on February 8, 2010 at 10:56 am

It’s February, and although we are still wrapped in a blanket of white, the days are getting noticeably longer and the worst of the cold is arguably behind us. Winter in this climate is an invitation to hibernate and contemplate, and I’ve been doing a bit of both.

When I was a child of about 11, a rallying cry went out amongst the young “never trust anyone over 30!” I was very confused about this as I transited my teen years, because although I had the same tussles with authority figures most teens experience, some of my best, most trusted confidants were much, much older—not only over 30, but over 60! Maybe it was that personal first-hand experience that has made me wary of sweeping statements about groups of people, ANY groups of people.

Two recent conversations, one with someone a generation younger than me and the other with someone a generation older put me in mind of this again. Of all the things that disturb me in our present reality, the one that disturbs me the most is seeing intelligent people abandoning their prerogative to question assumptions and to experience life first-hand; choosing instead to accept a second-hand version of reality from the media, the government, the church, their teachers, friends or family.

Therefore, I do not expect you to just accept what I say here as true for you — but I do urge you to consider if your fears and worries are based on first-hand, personal experience or on the experience of someone else, who may be living a different life with a different agenda.

The following are things I have personally experienced in the past 3 years:

· ~ I lived in Turkey for 10 months, surrounded by Muslim people. None of them tried to kill me. To the best of my knowledge, none of them wanted to. None of them tried to convert me. NO two were exactly alike. People were variously kind, helpful, generous, curious, dishonest, gruff, fearful, argumentative or hostile. Pretty much like being in San Diego or Tacoma, Hamburg, Munich, New York, Athens…but on the whole my experiences fell on the positive side of the equation.

· ~ For the past 18+ months I have been living in and wandering around Europe. Europeans are often outspoken and curious. They often criticize many things about America and American political and social policies, American fast-food and pop culture, but I have not yet met anyone who hates Americans. I don’t doubt such people exist, but I have not met them.

· ~I have friends and family who are quite liberal, some are ultra-liberal. They do not want to kill old people and unborn babies. They do not want everyone to denounce religion and become an atheist.

· ~ I have friends and family who are quite conservative, some are ultra-conservative. They do not want to shoot all liberals and burn all books except the bible. They do not want to lock up my gay friends, nor are they interested in forcing everyone to drive an SUV to church.

· ~ I have European friends who want to live in America, while I have chosen to live in Europe.

· ~I know young people who are writing books, volunteering to help the homeless, the poor and the sick and I know young people who have no interests outside of football and beer.

· ~ I know old people who have locked themselves away in gated communities awaiting the apocalypse and others who are planting organic gardens, teaching life skills to the young, donating time to help the illiterate learn to read or hitchhiking across their countries.

· ~I have learned how easy it is to be misjudged and how equally simple it is to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

· ~ I have learned that kindness is usually more effective than anger; and that, although very few things are actually worth getting stressed about, many things are worth caring about.

· ~ I have learned that individuals really can change the world.

Yes, there are individual people in the world whose ideas are completely opposite from yours or mine (some of my ideas are probably completely opposite for some of yours!) and some of those people with opposite ideas are so fearful, so lacking hope, that they will kill others and perhaps themselves to try to be heard, to “prove” something – BUT THEY ARE A MINORITY.

So far I have traveled in 16 countries, and lived in 6. What I have found is that people are mostly good, mostly kind, and doing the best they can to get by, to feed their families, to work, to enjoy their children, friends and life in general.

I am not asking you to accept my experience as your own, but I am asking you each to think about your own experiences, and to avoid being swept up in gross generalizations about those things, places and people that are different and outside of your experience. Be wary of sentences that begin “Everyone in . . . . thinks/wants/has . . .” and “All .. . . are .. . .” remember to listen with your hearts as well as with your ears.

Be kinder than necessary, for we are all facing some kind of challenge on our journey.

Be happy, be well, find joy where you can.

In Art and Creativity, Time and Change, Travel on January 17, 2010 at 6:02 pm

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

The more I travel the more I adhere to the philosophy of Lao Tzu. I firmly believe that everyone should travel. For some, the biggest adventure they may be comfortable with is an afternoon in the next town or county, for others the further-flung the destination, the better. The distance isn’t important. The important thing is to free yourself from your everyday life, and grab a new vantage point.

Travel is very freeing; it takes us away from our routines and helps us recognize what we truly value, about ourselves, our lives and our world. It matters little if you grab your passport or just take a different route home from the store, if you do it with a traveler’s heart and with eyes wide open, something wonderful will occur, I guarantee it.

Where will you go?

The Month of Blooming Flowers

In The Natural World, Travel on May 31, 2009 at 5:10 pm

May, Květen in Czech, is the month of blooming flowers, and indeed everything seems to be blooming simultaneously, in this warmer than usual spring of 2009. Cherry and apple trees have already lost their blossoms, lilacs are in full bloom and the chestnuts are full of flower “torches” and spirea bushes are white as snow. Meadows are dotted with the blue of forget-me-nots, white fleabane daisies and yellow buttercups and dandelions. Trees are in full leaf now and it feels like summer half the days with temperatures soaring above 23C (73F) and the rest of the days are chilly, windy and rainy, more in keeping with Spring. A profusion of tulips are giving way to stately iris, and lush peonies are already nodding colorfully in local gardens.

This month our adopted town of Litomyšl is celebrating 750 years of existence, there have been sword fights in the square, pageantry with horses, kings and armoured knights and a lot of beer and sausages! Recently some modern interactive sculptures have been temporarily added to our public places and last night we had moci noci (powerful night) with museum, castle and monuments open until, midnight free of charge, a fire juggler in the monastery gardens and a festive fireworks display to end the evening. So our modern fairy tale continues.

© Paula Swenson 2008
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Confessions of a Nomadic Soul

In Travel on May 31, 2009 at 4:40 pm

I’ve never met a trip I didn’t like. Which is not to say that I’ve never had a bad travel experience, but rather that, on the whole, nothing can make my heart sing like heading out the door with a packed bag in my hand.

Perhaps it was the fact that when I was a baby my parents used to wrap me in a blanket and lay me in a basket on the rear floor of the car (pre-child seat era) and drive around to get me to sleep. Maybe it was the long summers spent in the family station wagon criss-crossing the USA and Canada, or the big green and white World Book Atlas with all its exotic places: Tierra del Fuego, Madagascar, Mandalay, or Sognefjord. It could even be that the travel bug is an inherited malady, I can trace my roots back to nomads on both sides of the family.

Whatever the cause, I find travel intoxicating and fulfilling. I often find that I am only home a short time before feeling that restless urge to get on the road again. I consider myself lucky indeed to be married to a man who shares my addiction to being on the move. Sharing new experiences has kept our relationship fresh and fun for 18 years and counting.

I used to despair that my travel list kept getting longer, rather than shorter. As I hear about new places from fellow travelers, I add them to my list, but there are also so many places I long to revisit, so many people we have connected with that I hope to see again. Recently I decided that it isn’t a list to conquered, but a catalog of possibilities to be savored! I feel much better now.

© Paula Swenson 2009
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Without Reservations

In Art and Creativity, Travel on May 4, 2009 at 3:42 pm

My husband and I like to travel without reservations, both in the literal sense (no pre-booked hotels) and the figurative sense (go for the gusto!)  This philosophy often leads to the very best travel experiences in the form of unpredictable personal encounters with the culture. 

A recent serendipitous encounter came while wandering the backstreets of the town of Urup in the Gorema Valley of Kapadokya in Turkey.  Two young boys, Murat and Resul, best buddies – aged 10- stopped to practice their tiny bit of English and then asked Steve to take their picture.  As we were trying to use our tiny bit of Turkish to get an address to send the photo to, a neighbor who spoke English gave us a hand.  Afterwards, the neighbor, Naile, invited us into her garden for the ubiquitous Turkish tea.  We sat in this lovely oasis on the hillside above Urgup, enjoying the cool breeze and chatting.  We discovered she and her husband had retired here, that this had been her mother’s house and that after a career as a nurse, she had studied to become an Ebru artisan.  Ebru is the ancient Turkish art of creating marbled pictures, by floating the colors on a thick pool of gum Arabic and using a stylus to ‘paint’ the motifs. 

Naile asked if we would like to see her studio (of course we would!) and then asked if we would like to see how it is done.  We watched in fascination as this very talented woman showed and explained her ancient art.  Steve got some fabulous photos and then she offered to guide me through the process – what fun!  I actually managed to create some respectable looking Ottoman style tulips, of which I am inordinately proud.  Then Naile, who obviously enjoys her work very much, did two more demos for us, one of roses and the other of carnations . . . truly amazing.

It was an enchanting experience for me as an artist and for Steve as a photographer; without our realizing it, two hours sped by.  As we were thinking we should leave, she invited us to see the rest of the house, one of the original Ottoman era buildings of Urgup, so of course we said “yes”.  We got upstairs to find that her husband had cooked Makarania (a sort of pasta) and we were invited to eat with them in their traditional ottoman living room!  How could we refuse?  We had a very nice meal, chatted about modern Turkey and it’s place in the world, the importance of art to life and other weighty topics.  After a final cup of Turkish coffee, and exchanging emails, we said our good-byes and headed out with a lovely painting of Dervishes on an Ebru background to grace some future wall, and my own Ebru creation, which had, by then, sufficiently dried to take along.

If we’d had reservations about accepting a stranger’s invitation to tea, we would have missed one of the highlights of our trip!


© Paula Swenson 2008


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An Anatolian Adventure

In Travel on March 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Time traveling in Turkey — heading to Cappadocia, (Kapadokya in Turkish).  For the geographically challenged, this region of Turkey sits in the middle of the country, in central Anatolia.  It is the land of ‘fairy chimneys’ – extraordinary rock formations created by natural erosion of a soft rock formed from volcanic ash (called tuff) capped by a layer of harder volcanic rock.  Wind, rain, and expansion and contraction caused by temperature extremes have worked together to create an otherworldly landscape.  It’s very hard to describe adequately, but is a truly unique destination.

We started our trip with a bus journey to Ankara, Turkey’s very modern capital city. For travelers like us, who crave the old and unusual, Ankara doesn’t hold a lot of attraction, but it is about halfway between our starting point of Bursa and Kapadokya, so we made it our stopping point, finding the prospect of a 12 hour bus trip less than attractive.

We set out from Bursa mid-morning on the very day the Queen of England was slated to visit Bursa . . . we were fortunate to be headed the opposite direction, as the traffic approaching the city was at a dead standstill, waiting for Elizabeth II’s motorcade to enter the city. From the windows of the bus we saw some interesting mosques set in scenery that reminded us of the American west.

Upon our arrive, we checked into a mid-range hotel that was conveniently located to the metro and downtown amenities and set out to explore the oldest part of Ankara, the ‘citadel’ – ramparts and fortifications atop Ankara’s highest point, abutted and surrounded by a literal village of Ottoman era houses in varying states of decay and decrepitude.

The swarthy inhabitants appeared to be Kurds and gypsies, in both look and lifestyle very far removed from the urban Ankarans below the foot of their hill. We saw a group of women in traditional wide Turkish trousers and colorful cotton head wraps with hand-crocheted lace edging who were sorting sheep’s fleece by color on several sheets spread out on the stony ground.  They declined to be photographed, but were happy to try to talk with us in a combination of Turkish and sign language, and soon we were surrounded by women who had ducked into their homes and returned with baskets of evil-eye trinkets and crocheted items.  I did break down and buy a trinket and a small crocheted item, fortunately I hadn’t much cash on me (or perhaps unfortunately, the crochet work was stunning).

Life carries on in this neighborhood at a slower village pace and it seemed like stepping into a different pocket of time, a sort of Turkish Brigadoon, without the ‘romanticized’ filter.  It was certainly a different era on that hilltop from what could be seen and faintly heard below.  The loudest sounds here were not traffic and sirens, but the twittering of small birds and the musical laughter of the women as they talked over their handwork, the sounds of the city below a faint soundtrack in the distance.

When we first visited Turkey 8 years ago, we were overtaken by an impression of a country with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st.  Living in bustling, industrial Bursa, heart of the thriving textile and automotive sectors of Turkey, has little of that feel. We see the occasional horse-drawn car and the simitci (men who sell the ring shaped, sesame-covered bread called simit) still roam the streets, trays stacked high with simit balanced on their heads . . . but mostly it is a city, not unlike cities everywhere.

So now, while crossing the vastness of the central Anatolian plateau, we were reminded of the dichotomies of this place.  Mules are as likely to be employed working the land as small tractors.  We also saw from the bus, on 3 separate occasions, men plowing the fields by hand with small wooden plows that most of us would probably expect to see only in a museum on early agriculture.  The sight was all the more poignant and unfathomable set against the grand scale of the endless fields stretching to the far horizon. You begin to understand why the young people from these far places willingly flock to Bursa, Izmir, Istanbul, etc, and vie for a chance to work in a factory for 350 YTL a month and filling meal every day (about 178 Euro/ $280).

This central Anatolian plateau is the meeting place of the Arabian and Anatolian tectonic plates. Being in this geographical boundary area, it has two chains of extinct volcanoes, whose former activity helped shape the unique landscape. Ringed with mountain ranges of varying age and steepness, the landscape is reminiscent of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.  Perhaps this helps explain the enduring popularity of BONANZA (?!), the first American TV program ever shown in Turkey.

The next day we traveled through more of this landscape to reach Nevsehir (New City) the capital of the Kapadokya region.  We stayed there one night, and then moved on to the smaller town of Urgup, where we stayed in a hotel that had once been the guest quarters of a Greek Orthodox Monastery.  This area is famous for it’s magical looking rock formations, but also for the vast underground cities created in the 6th to 9th centuries housing as many as 20,000 people.  The same phenomenon that creates the ‘fairy chimneys’ allowed inhabitant to carve out homes and, indeed, whole cities inside the soft volcanic ‘tuff’.  Many of these towns were created in the 2nd Century AD, by early Christians escaping the persecution of the Roman Empire.  From the 9th Century onwards, the area attracted more and more Christians, and a vast number of churches and monasteries were carved into the hillsides of places such as the Goreme Valley (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site).

We visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, and it was fascinating . . . but the pinnacle of our trip was, far and away, the Hot-Air Balloon excursion over the area.  Words cannot possibly describe this experience, even the photos (which are magnificent) cannot really express the feeling of floating soundlessly over this fantasy landscape, the dawn sky filled with brightly-colored balloons like a jolly sort of alien invasion. Suffice to say, we would have got up before dawn to do it again the next day had it been possible.  It rates as one of the most amazing experiences of my life to date.

Back on the ground, we were incredibly fortunate to find a local guide, Hasan, who took us on a private tour of the sights we most wanted to see for a reasonable rate.  This allowed us to stop and photograph at will, and go at our own pace. The amusing bit was that he spoke to us almost entirely in German.  He understood a lot of English, but was more comfortable speaking German, having been born and raised in Munich! Fortunately we understood his German pretty well, so it worked out just fine.

We had an unexpected personal encounter with the place and its history during our stay in Urgup, an impromptu tour of an area of the town called Kaypakli.  It is one of the carved out mountain bits; on the far side of it, many of the dwellings are still inhabited, but the near side was abandoned for some time.  Recently the city has begun a restoration effort and there is scaffolding and evidence of ongoing archeology and the site is fenced off from the public for now.  We had wandered up to the edges of the fenced area and Steve was shooting photos in the late afternoon light.  There was a man who obviously was both living and working there, who had nodded to us and gone on about his business. A bit later he came out of his cave home (we could see a TV flickering inside) called to his big black dog, who had been keeping an eye on us, and then motioned to us to follow him.  He proceeded to guide us, with dog and flashlight, through the entire restoration site!  He spoke only Turkish, but managed to communicate volumes about he uses of the various areas, and we had an unmatched opportunity to see the whole project “up-close and personal”. At the end we thanked him profusely, and I finally remembered enough Turkish to ask his name. He is called Yasar (yah-sher) and we learned later that he is one of the engineers on the project.  What good fortune for us!

It was a magical trip, full of new and interesting experiences.  If you visit Turkey, we strongly recommend putting Kapadokya at the top of your itinerary!

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© Paula Swenson 2008 – original publication in an e-travel newsletter May 2008.

Waltzing Through Vienna

In Travel on March 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

Vienna is many things; monumental former capital of Empires, playground of child prodigy Mozart, home of the original Café Culture and the Waltz. . . . after several visits I have concluded that Vienna IS a waltz . . . open, sweeping, elegant, ornamented, lyric, Vienna sweeps you up, whirls you about and then gently releases you, feeling just slightly giddy and breathless.

We spent last weekend in this lovely European capital, and once again were delighted by it.  Our excursion started mid-afternoon on Friday when I met Steve in Ceska Trebova with my backpack and his previously packed shoulder bag.  He had left on the 6:45 bus to go to Lanskroun and teach for the morning with as little ‘teaching equipment’ as possible and his camera bag.  We rendezvoused in CT (it being a main railway connection about 14 km from Litomyšl) and caught an EC train to Vienna. EC is the designation for the European inter-city rail network.  With speeds up to 200 km/hr and frequent trains connecting main cities in Europe, the EC is a fast and convenient way of traveling across borders. 

In the time prior to our departure (we had about an hour to wait) we managed another official hurdle and submitted the applications for our InKarta rail passes.  Like many EU countries, Czech Railways sells an ID card that entitles the bearer to rail travel discounts, not only in CZ, but also while traveling in other European countries – the whole network is referred to as Rail+.  In CZ a 3-year InKarta costs 600 Czech Koruns (about $30 currently) and gives an automatic 25% discount, one or two longer trips and it pays for itself.  We found a sympathetic clerk who with a combination of Czech, German and English talked us through the process and even filled out the forms for us. I suppose she thought it faster, as the forms are in Czech, and it helped, I think, that we both pass through this railway station at least once a week, so she recognized our faces.

Originally she told us it would take about 3 weeks to get our cards and we could only have discounts locally until then, and we were OK with that, as we had just wanted to get it in process, since we hope to be traveling more in the coming year.  Once we had handed over photos and signed the forms, we asked to buy tickets to Vienna.  The clerk got a bit flustered, consulted her computer, and then said, “I need 2 photos in this case.”  No problem (we have been working our way through the stack of about a million ID pictures we had taken in Turkey) we handed over two more passport-size photos.  It seems that there was the possibility to make us temporary ID cards to allow us to have the local discount and take advantage of a special fare that was being offered this month to Vienna!  So in the end, our new rail cards paid for themselves before we have even received them!! It was a bit more complicated, as she had to issue the tickets in segments, but she seemed pleased to do it for us and we were certainly grateful for the effort.  The trip to Vienna takes only about 2.5 hours from Ceska Trebova, the train stops only 4 times and speeds through the picturesque countryside.  We arrived just after 6pm and settled into our lodgings.

Our main intention was to visit the Van Gogh exhibition, which the museum publicized as follows: This year’s autumn exhibition at the Albertina looks at Vincent van Gogh from an entirely new perspective: as both painter and draughtsman.  The 150 works assembled highlight the impact of the artist’s expressive draughtsmanship on the evolution of his brushwork.

We had heard that the exhibit was drawing record crowds and so we took the advice to by our tickets online and save some waiting time.  We probably saved about 15 or 20 minutes all told, because the lines were badly managed and everyone was in basically the same line until about 10 meters before the entrance.  It was a rainy Saturday, so everyone had the same idea ‘It’s a great day to be indoors! Let’s go to the museum.”  The lines were 6 to 8 people deep and stretched about 3 blocks at 10 o’clock in the morning.  We spent almost as much time in line as we did in the Exhibit, but it was really quite a fine show.  Unfortunately it was far too crowded inside the galleries to linger or step back to get some perspective, but it was interesting and informative anyway.  I considered buying the show catalog, but it was ensconced in a heavy tome, with lots of scholarly exposition and hard covers, weighing more than my entire backpack, so I decided to pass, investing in some lovely postcards of the show instead.

After escaping the museum crowds we wandered a while in the open air and stopped in one of the ubiquitous Viennese cafés for coffee and Sacher torte.  By then the rain had stopped so we strolled the cobbled streets of Vienna’s first district a while, just drinking in the ambience until we were a bit too chilled, and then made our way to the famous tea vendor, Schoenbichler.  This is an old-fashioned tea emporium with huge tins of exotic teas stacked floor to ceiling and a winding staircase leading to a balcony with small tables where you can taste the wares.  The balcony has soothing peach-colored walls, soft lighting and comfy nooks all blessedly empty, the perfect antidote to the over-crowded museum scene. We each ordered a pot of tea and relaxed, watching the parade of customers below us.

After tea, we caught the U1 back to our lodgings and met up with Helene,a friend living in Austria’s capital, to set out on our evening’s adventure to the Vienna CouchSurfing Stammtisch, a meeting that was international (I spoke to an Uzbeki, a Romanian, 2 Frenchmen, a Portuguese woman, a Brazilian and several Austrians), loud (everyone was trying to talk over the music, and of course they kept turning up the music!) and quite festive. Couchsurfing is an international hospitality organization which you can check out at  – we managed to meet up there with our summer Vienna host, Albert, and meet his new flatmate Yvy.  We also connected briefly with Matej, who had stayed with us in Litomyšl just the weekend before.  After several hours of mingling and shouting over the music, we three decided to head home, but not before visiting Helene’s favorite sausage stand for a midnite nosh!

We eased into Sunday with a wonderful breakfast of eggs and Norwegian salmon, before heading out to meet a former student of Steve’s for lunch (yes, it was ALL about eating! almost).  Julia lives in Salzburg, about the same distance from Vienna as Litomyšl, but in a different direction . . . and she decided to meet us in Vienna for lunch. We met in the first district again, at Vienna’s most famous schnitzel house Figlmüller, famed for their enormous schnitzels (seriously folks, bigger than a turkey platter!).  After seeing the size of said schnitzel being delivered to a nearby table, I opted for the Goulash and gnocchi instead.  Julia ordered Cordon Bleu “I can make schnitzel at home” she explained, and Steve, never one to shrink from a culinary challenge, order the monster schnitzel.  It was all delicious and Steve did manage to finish 80% of his breaded wonder and most of his field potato salad as well!

Stuffed and content, we wandered about the parks of central Vienna until dusk and, too full to eat dinner, simply whiled away the evening chatting with our friends in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses.  Monday morning came all too soon and we headed off to our train home, and an evening of teaching — just a little giddy and slightly out of breath from our Viennese Waltz.

~ this was originally published January 18, 2009 in a subscription e-newsletter. © Paula Swenson

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