Life Abroad

It's not that simple

 
World Clock, Berlin : it's a quarter to 19 where a piece of my heart is

World Clock, Berlin: it's a quarter to 19 where a piece of my heart is

14+ months. 19 countries. And when I decided to take this trip I knew I would take a piece of every place I visited with me but had no idea that some of those places would take some of me, too. Big pieces in a couple of cases. So now when I see a Thai massage salon, I catch a whiff of leaking sewer, I stumble on a broken sidewalk or into an impossible traffic pattern, I remember places I've been and smile wistful. Sometimes in a spare moment I page through my passport and shake my head dumbfounded over events that seem a year or more ago but happened only a few months back. Seriously? I was in Indonesia in March?

For all I've collected, I'll not only never be the same, but I'll never be whole--because even if I return to me second home, I'll be missing the first.

I'll never again be whole.

So what will I be? 


A couple of weeks ago I dreamed that I shaved my beard, and what was underneath was not good--ugly folds, discolored skin. I spent the morning thinking about its meaning, since clearly this was not a literal thing, of course I'm beautiful beneath the beard. At last I concluded it related to this grand trip and it's inevitable conclusion. I can't live my life as a rolling stone--eventually I'll come home. I'll sleep in the same bed of a single nation, night after night (most nights, at least). 

What will I be then? Who will I be? Certainly not as interesting as I imagine myself now. Of course, I'll be writing, and going to conferences so there's travel in that--but it obviously won't be the same.

Will that be enough for me?

Then there's the ever-present question of my life's dwindling savings, and will they outlast the rejections and allow me make this dream of writing for my living a reality? No wonder I've been getting stress twitches of late.

Here's where I like to write a convenient and clever little wrap-up encapsulating the theme and restating the thesis of my post. But I don't have that right now, except maybe this: if you look at my pics and posts and think "he gets to travel the world, must be nice" just know it's not that simple.

Nobody's life ever is.**

**Don't worry, I'm still happy, even if Bobby McFerrin isn't

Manic month of May

 

Before we wake up and the number on the calendar is 1**

I wanted to look at some (rounded) numbers that describe my month. This is the closest I'll get to math without breaking out a spreadsheet:

  • Travel distance, air: 11,150 miles
  • Travel distance, rail and wheels: 720 miles
  • Travel distance, walking: 149 miles 
you should see my shoes at this point

you should see my shoes at this point

  • Countries stayed at least one night in: 8 (Thailand, Egypt, Ethiopia, UAE, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Czechia?)
  • Calories consumed: too many
Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

  • Stories published: 1 (Voluntouring)
  • Words written: did you see all the miles I walked?
  • Pictures taken: 1500+. Some were better than this:
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And putting aside the numbers, even in a once in a lifetime journey this month has stood out: I've seen The Pyramids at Giza, Lucy, the Acropolis, Auschwitz, and so much old Europe. I left my second home and got closer to my first. I got food shoved in my mouth and found the meaning of life.

What will next month bring? We'll start to see when next we wake up. 


**Hat tip to my b-school buddy Naequan, who references Bone on the facebook every new month. This is also where I post the pic of my autograph from Wish Bone, whom I met on a plane to Brazil in 2015.

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I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me: Last round

A final batch of the smiling faces that brought me such joy during a month in Indonesia:

Yogyakarta, while my ice cream melts

Yogyakarta, while my ice cream melts

and another

and another

Brain Urlacher, Indonesian edition

Brain Urlacher, Indonesian edition

Wolfed most of my ice cream down by this point (and was licking it off my fingers)

Wolfed most of my ice cream down by this point (and was licking it off my fingers)

Semarang: I got caught in the rain. Then Ivan invited me under his shelter. We all talked for over an hour. They fed me too.

Semarang: I got caught in the rain. Then Ivan invited me under his shelter. We all talked for over an hour. They fed me too.

Semarang:  as mentioned before , my Grab driver brought me to his home and introduced me to his family. This is his lovely and engaging daughter Fauzia.

Semarang: as mentioned before, my Grab driver brought me to his home and introduced me to his family. This is his lovely and engaging daughter Fauzia.

Jakarta: I had to catch a bus back to my room by the station was spiral and confusing. An off the clock driver stopped, told me how, continued on. I did another loop. He saw me again, laughed at me a little. Then said "Get in" and took me to my destination for free. Here we are no doubt violating numerous regulations.     How I love Indonesia.

Jakarta: I had to catch a bus back to my room by the station was spiral and confusing. An off the clock driver stopped, told me how, continued on. I did another loop. He saw me again, laughed at me a little. Then said "Get in" and took me to my destination for free. Here we are no doubt violating numerous regulations.   

How I love Indonesia.

I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me, part 2

More friends I've made during my month here:

Palembang: I was walking across a bridge and they ran up, no hesitation. They knew what they wanted.

Palembang: I was walking across a bridge and they ran up, no hesitation. They knew what they wanted.

Palembang: even the police love me here

Palembang: even the police love me here

Palembang: tattoo shop owner. Think we have anything in common?

Palembang: tattoo shop owner. Think we have anything in common?

Palembang: we all fit. Kind of.

Palembang: we all fit. Kind of.

Yogyakarta: I love the smiles and styles

Yogyakarta: I love the smiles and styles

Yogyakarta: peace

Yogyakarta: peace

Yogyakarta: he wanted my sunglasses

Yogyakarta: he wanted my sunglasses

Borobudur Temple: think I am the Same Same?

Borobudur Temple: think I am the Same Same?

All that I've left behind

When my snailshell came via the amazon I laughed, wondering how all I needed would cram down into 46 liters. But four pairs of shorts became two, one sleeping bag became none, and so on. It's worked--and when I've needed new or replacements they have stores here. All good.

I also brought a hat.

CBS's newest buddy cop show

CBS's newest buddy cop show

While I had sense enough to not get sentimental about most of what I brought, I didn't do the same with my hat. And that sucks because I lost it the other day. After months of watching it like a hawk, pinning it between my head and hand when even a light breeze worked up, I just left it somewhere--I think when I was changing at the hot springs following my sunrise trek up Mt. Batur.  

purty

purty

It was just a ballcap, promoting my Nashville Predators. But my brother gave me that hat more than a decade ago. It'd been through a lot--the bill fabric was shredded, it was stained many times over, there was a perspiration smell that wouldn't go away. Still, it was irreplaceable.

And now it can never be.


When I started writing decades ago I hated writing settings. I found them boring. I was more interested in dialogue, action, characters and their relationships--setting was a waste of time. Who cared about forests except Robert Fucking Frost?

Perhaps my contempt for world-building proceeded from my contempt from my own world, thinking as I'd thought in my youth that I was better than my country upbringing.

But I learned. To write a relationship you need to set it's time and a place. The relationships in Pride and Prejudice are different than those in The Hunger Games, by necessity. Just as I learned, as I've traveled to places exotic and shiny, met people who are kind and true and good--strangers and little birdies who fed and sheltered me and replaced that which I've lost and left behind--that where I come from also has a lot of good. I can't divorce myself from it. It's in my bones. 


Life is choices--and you have to choose a place to be, according to Drs Pauli and Hill:  

Which means that some things or people--even those I care about deeply--must sometimes be left behind as I take the return trip down the road less traveled. It sucks immeasurably as noted earlier. But the memories and joy can be carried.

And more than one hat can hold happy sentiment. 

is this not the face of happy?

is this not the face of happy?

I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me

Some friends I've met during my first week in Wonderful Indonesia! :

while walking down the street in Medan

while walking down the street in Medan

at breakfast, Lake Toba

at breakfast, Lake Toba

celebrating  the Batak people  in traditional clothing, Lake Toba

celebrating the Batak people in traditional clothing, Lake Toba

she insisted on one of her own

she insisted on one of her own

in Lake Toba a couple of Dutch girls and I crashed a family naming celebration (kind of like a family reunion): he is the local gov't leader's "right hand man." 

in Lake Toba a couple of Dutch girls and I crashed a family naming celebration (kind of like a family reunion): he is the local gov't leader's "right hand man." 

Bingo is his name. o. Lake Toba.

Bingo is his name. o. Lake Toba.

Malaysia: worst, but still okay

In any list, something must come last: it's just the nature of the way things work. As my time in Malaysia winds down, I think of the countries I've spent meaningful time in on this One Way Ticket and conclude that Malaysia is my least favorite.

Yeah, that's not what it's been for me

And since I'm an introspective sort I've sought to sort out why. Is it due to the crappy rooms? No, I've had those everywhere--I'm cheap, you know. Is it due to my getting sick from something I ate? Nope, had that in Vietnam and Thailand. And Malaysia has lovely scenery and architecture--it's not a bad place, really. In fact, of all the Asia I've seen it's the most like home. America.

Fun size?

Fun size?

And that's part of the problem. People here love their cars. They rush around, always in a hurry. They're not likely to smile at a rando--if they do chat it will be polite, but there will be boundaries. Walls.

It's not like that in Thailand or Cambodia, where smiles lead to conversations lead to invitations to dinner.

Malaysia is also (from what I've seen) a fully developed country. Thus, in addition to being the most expensive SE Asian country I've stayed in, it lacks the "quirks" of Cambodia or the undiscovered wild of Laos. Indeed it's the differences from back home--the unexpected and exotic--that make travel exhilarating. It's the different people with unusual ways that totally work that draw me in and create memories.

I just don't connect with Malaysia that way. Maybe I'm too jaded now, I don't know.

So enough of the negativity. Here are four favorite pics from the four cities I've visited and a little about each:  


KUALA LUMPUR

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My first morning in KL I jumped into the train system for the Batu Caves, a highly-rated Hindu Temple (because these are the things that should be judged, of course). But getting there wasn't so straightforward, and I wandered outside a KTM and/or LRT station getting frustrated as I am wont to do.

But after a breakfast that made me less hangry, I walked on and found the Colonial Walk and River of Life. I spent the next couple of hours admiring KL's old government buildings, mosques, and important historical sites and remembered that this is an essential element of my travels--getting lost and seeing what I can see.


MELAKA

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Chinese New Year began halfway through my stay in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fireworks every night, tourists everywhere. The second night of CNY I visited Jonker Street, where all those tourists converged to shuffle slow, chest to back.

Fun!

Also there, of course, were vendors--food and tours. But while Bangkok and other cities crowd with motorized tuktuks, Melaka deploys bicycle rickshaws decked out in Hello Kitty, Minions, Doraemon, and other "Oooh Oooh! Mommy Mommy can we?!" characters. They also play ice cream cart-annoying soundtracks. And on this night, the rickshaws looped and snaked and corkscrewed in paths beyond my ability to stay out of (maybe if I'd put my cameraphone down). This image captures that chaos.


IPOH

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While Chinese New Year was ongoing during my three nights in this little highland town the vibe was decidedly more sedate. Everything just seems chill in Ipoh--despite being the birthplace of white coffee,  a perky beverage enjoyed throughout the country.

Ipoh also boasts strong street art. I snapped a shot of this mural when the woman standing in front noticed. Then she turned to see what the fuss was about. I get it, too--locals don't always appreciate what their town offers. 


PENANG

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Malaysia, while a predominantly Muslim country, has been known for pluralism and tolerance--at least until recently (another similarity to the U.S.). In one day in George Town, Penang, I visited a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish cemetery, an Anglican church, and a Catholic museum--all while a holiday heavily influenced by Buddhism went on around me. Rightly proud of this diversity, they refer to one stretch of worship sites as the Street of Harmony.

And in case you were wondering, the swastikas in the left background are the good kind, not the evil murdering kind.


And so, as I write this with one final day in Penang, my time in Malaysia is almost done: not the best, but largely not bad. As I move on, hopefully it will remain my least favorite country as well.

And where am I off to next? Hmm. Cliffhanger.

Beds of All Nations: the hotel room designed to piss you off

Fun features I didn't mention in the video:

  • No a/c
  • I had to borrow a fan from the front desk, and it is LOUD
  • Cover band in the hotel bar playing "Higher" by Creed (yes I did mention that but it so bore repeating) 

And I still haven't gotten to sleep--who knows what fun awaits me at 2 a.m.? [EDIT: I got my answer--Germans slamming doors!]

Writer. Traveler. Happy. Really?

 
it must be true--I mean, it's there on  linkedin  and everything

it must be true--I mean, it's there on linkedin and everything

There's a tension between these three claims. As a writer, especially when banging out longer forms narratives, I thrive on routine and a borderline boring environment. I don't need much--a comfortable workspace, relative quiet, easy access to food delivery when possible.

These are hit and mostly miss when traveling. Maybe because I'm on an unemployed aspiring writer's budget, but my hotel rooms tend to be "cozy", food is far more interesting in stalls and hidden holes in their walls, and, on nights like tonight, the sounds of tuners and rice rockets buzz up alley funnels and right into my ears. 

I heard you coming, asshole

I heard you coming, asshole

Plus the whole point of traveling is to get out of my hotel room and see the world--otherwise I could've stayed in that corporate life, where I had status and spent time in the best windowless conference rooms.

all that remains of my platinum--a broken bag tag. fitting?

all that remains of my platinum--a broken bag tag. fitting?

A fellow consultant once said to me "Know what's better than having status? Not having status."

Each day I see it's true, whether getting rained on in Laos, getting tested in Cambodia, or getting no sleep tonight in Kuala Lumpur. No matter how bad it has been, it's better than having my soul slowly sucked away. 

So yes, I am happy. Loving life (which, historically, is also not a common claim writers make). But that doesn't resolve the tension between writing and traveling, the push vs. pull of often diametrically opposed desires. With the novel nearing queryable status, it now demands my attention.

But so does Malaysia. 

I'm still not sure how to harmonize these competing demands. Maybe I could think of a solution if I could get some sleep...  

The week that was

The week that was

Sometimes kids are just willful. That's okay--they're testing their boundaries, finding their autonomy. But sometimes it leads to them leaving class and coming back with a naked toddler in their arms. Happens all the time, right?

Maybe that's only a thing here.

Read More

Cambodia: Kingdom of Contradiction

Cambodia contradicts itself at turns without breaking stride or word. So it should be no surprise in Battambang, when I turn one way to see this

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then turn the other to see

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It's a place where you look up to see Khmer-era temples built on mountaintops

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Then look down into caves where Khmer Rouge killed thousands of innocents.

 

Nature's beauty, man's ability to create, man's ability to destroy all collide. I think ours is the only species that actively seeks to undo the actions of other members of same. It's our great strength: the worst of us brings out the best of us. But it's also our great weakness: why does it take bad shit happening for us to get outside of our selfishness and self-imposed daily life constraints to actually take an interest, to reach out and help

So what about me?

I've been blessed and fortunate in my life and certainly in recent years. I worked jobs where I made enough money to leave them behind and go on this journey. Along the way I've been shown kindness and gained more than I've given. So before I came back to Cambodia I searched for a way to give back. I found a small school that needs volunteers, and so for the next two weeks I'll be teaching here.

It's a small thing. I'm still far more indebted to life. But I'm excited to be doing something--to salve in a tiny way the terrible wrongs done over the decades that still plague this place. And I'll get to work with some great kids. 

Back on the farewell tour: things I knew I wanted, things I didn't

New Year's Eve--four days left in Krung Thep so down to last boxes for checking. I'm a fight fan so I knew I wanted to take in a Muay Thai event. Three options in Bangkok:

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  1. Rajadamnern Stadium. Home of the biggest shows, and the biggest prices to boot: 1500 baht and up. Too paeng for this farang.
  2. Lumpinee. Most tickets are similarly priced as above. Also I'd heard some (possibly unfair) criticism of the venue so didn't give it much of a second thought. Especially when there's:
  3. Channel 7. Live televised shows every Sunday afternoon. And the price? Free.

Dii mak!

And everything I'd read was that this was real Bangkok, a real local experience. So I get to rub shoulders with those I've lived among for the last nine months and...

oh.

oh.

Well, it's about the fights--and they were exciting for sure. Sample: 

Two young men giving their all to take care of their families and put on a show. How can you not smile? 

Serious, y'all--how can some of you not be smiling? What are you watching, big beard? Not impressed? Then get on down there!

Serious, y'all--how can some of you not be smiling? What are you watching, big beard? Not impressed? Then get on down there!

Important to note, however, that gambling is NOT allowed, as all these signs attest:

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And Thais are a rules-following sort, so...

oh.

oh.

And we saw a title change hands. At least, the back of it:

hope I made good smiling background for the Channel 7 viewers

hope I made good smiling background for the Channel 7 viewers

After this the plan was a quiet, introvert-friendly New Year's celebration: order a pizza, drink cocktails, watch the fireworks.

But dating a Thai isn't always simple. Because she has family, and they have get-togethers for holidays, and they invite you. And you can't say no, because that would be rude (and even though you are rude, you don't want them to know that).

So before long I'm sitting in the soi, struggling to communicate my appreciation for gracious hospitality. "Dii!" Smile. "Chai." Smile. "Aroi mak!" Smile. "Khap khun khrap." Smile.

just how we do it in Krung Thep

just how we do it in Krung Thep

And how gracious is that hospitality? Check the prawns:

That's a Thai pointing at things.  It's a thing .

That's a Thai pointing at things. It's a thing.

Long before I'm saying "Im lau im mak!" I realize this is what I most wanted. In my last days here, one more real Krung Thep experience. Because while weather, topography, architecture, and attractions all contribute to a given location, I've found it's always the people that truly make a place. And in a city full of kindness, the family I spent New Year's evening with was among the most. Still, I wanted to show my appreciation beyond poorly articulated Thai and crooked smiling. Thankfully, I get that chance after I push away from the dinner table, full and happy, while others in the family have yet to be fed themselves:  

What's shakin? Bacon.

What's shakin? Bacon.

And I still got my fireworks:

Like so much of Krung Thep, pictures don't do it justice.

Like so much of Krung Thep, pictures don't do it justice.

Sawasdee bpii-mai! Happy 2561!

Back on the farewell tour: and how do we feel about leaving again?

 
More than one thing can be true.
— Mike Wilbon**

Less than a week left in Krung Thep and my feelings are mixed, but not that straight-forward: more like all of one, then that gets wiped out by the next that comes crashing in, then the next next obliterating that one and filling me to the outer layers of epidermis and thongs.

I feel ready

My time in Bangkok has been positive and very necessary. The stability gave me time to write, saved me money, and let me roam while providing comfort. It's a great city for a farang.

But it also becomes difficult/expensive to maintain visa privileges in Thailand unless you're employed by a Thai company--and that's not the deal for me right now. Plus I've struggled with the language, and it becomes isolating, even for me, to go days without a decent conversation (you should see the excitement in local eyes when you say "Phom puud pasa Thai nik noi" turn to disappointment when they discover just how little Thai you puud).

Much as I love this place, I don't fit. Sometimes literally.   

my apartment stairwell

my apartment stairwell

Plus, I want to explore all I can of these kingdoms and republics before the money runs out. So it's time to ramble on. But then...

I feel sad

I've been lucky in this life so far: parents and siblings still alive, I'm pretty healthy. So my greatest sadnesses (aside from the deaths of extended family and a dearly beloved mentor) come when I leave those I love. Had a lot of that on the 2017 farewell tour, shed a lot of tears. Those feels came back last night when my Thai friends (after a little birdy told them) organized a going-away dinner and tacked on a game night afterward.

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Besides being travel buddies and islands of bilingual relief in a sea of mae ruu, they are sweet, and funny, and giving. They've made me feel at home half a world removed from mine. And as I walk away from them, and a city that has sometimes frustrated but deeply enchanted me, it's hard not to stumble. 

And then...

I feel scared

Because when I left last time, I came to a farang-friendly city where I had at least a friend. And while I'll have the same (a brother, in fact) at my next destination, the time there will be--unless plans change dramatically--much shorter. After that, I'm on to lands where I know not a soul. Lands where English and kindness to farang (or whatever I'm called there) and maybe even cell service aren't guaranteed. I'll be pushing outside of my comfort zone father than ever before.

And that's the point. That's where growth happens. That's the kind of fear I'm here to push through.

It doesn't make me any less afraid. 

 

**I'm sure somebody said it before him, but PTI was a long-time thing for me so I'll give him the dap.

(Sky)train of thought and memory

With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan. 

Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.

BTS-map.png

At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.

Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.

no pain

no pain

Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?

Not here.

But you learn.

Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.

On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.  

Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie. 

And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.

I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.

And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that. 

But I am truly blessed and fortunate.