Thursday, June 26, 2014

This is a harsh place

TexasBigSky

“Texas is a pretty harsh place,” said a native Texan – My Guy’s friend – when he stopped by our house for dinner one evening this week. There’s brutally hot weather, craggy limestone, humid gulf stream, wild animals (deer and bunnies don’t count, apparently), and drought. I also added quietly to myself, and too many Republicans.

While what he was saying wasn’t news, he also said it with a lot of pride, as most Texans do. I looked at My Guy and gave him the I can’t believe you brought me to Texas look, followed by the I’m going to kill you glare when his friend went into the particulars of critters we may have to watch out for when innocently traipsing along a nature trail. GAH!

I’m trying. I really am. After I wrote the post about pushing myself to confront my own irrational fears to model a healthy relationship with nature for my girls, I have gone out of my way to step out of my own comfort zone to do the things from which I would normally shrink away. And so I say yes to treks in forest-y greenbelts, wade in natural bodies of water, and continue to cultivate our yard, digging into the soil with my bare hands, holding my breath with each event, wondering what I might find.

So far, I have only discovered beauty. Harsh, yes, but in a beautiful way. In a way that says, yes, we get it, we’re kinda screwed, but we’re going to use the hand that nature dealt us and we’re going to make something of it. And that it did. Maybe that’s why Texans are so damned proud of their country state – despite the odds, they don’t just survive this place; they own it.

We’re not quite there yet, but, like I said, at least I’m trying. My girls, on the other hand, may love the trails and anything to do with water, but that’s about it for them. When it comes to our own yard, I think they forget it’s even there. Perhaps having the first part of their lives confined to the walls of our Chicago apartment without an outdoor space to call our own had shaped them to believe that their play zone belongs indoors. The only reason they’re outside now is for the pool, so for four days a week, you might spy them outside in their swim gear. The other three days, including the days I’m home all day with them? They’re inside. Underfoot.


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I make dinner; they play Chutes and Ladders.

 

I remind them to go outside to play, and they say, “no thank you.” I coax them, and they respond with “I don’t want to.” Even the shiny quarter with which I bribe them if they helped me weed has lost its luster for them. And now I’m running out of ideas.

Even though I didn’t have a yard growing up in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, my parents expected me to play outside, and boy, did I. In fact, I remember my mom having to search our neighborhood to find me and threatening to spank me in front of my friends because I almost never went home on time. I was too busy playing with four of the eight girls who lived next door, a Chinese family who we suspected was trying really hard to have a boy but never succeeded, but hey, more playmates for this only child. We played catch in football (ahem, soccer) fields, looked for tadpoles in puddles after a thunderstorm, played pretend games in alleys, mastered hopscotch and jumped over ropes made with rubber bands on sidewalks, and hurled ourselves off concrete stairs and down to the ground to see who could jump off from the most steps without hurting ourselves. If you’re wondering, no one ever got hurt, but I can’t imagine allowing my girls to do the same now—isn’t that funny?

There wasn’t much nature in that concrete jungle, but, as you can tell, we made it work. From age 7, I roamed the urban landscape as freely as one would in the country, but here we are, with our fenced in yards and manicured lawns, and rarely do I see elementary aged kids walking by themselves in our neighborhood. Or anywhere for that matter. But my challenge is worse: my girls won’t even leave the house!

These days, they’re perfectly content to color in their little creative corner that I’ve carved out in the living room just for them, and lately, they’ve been obsessed with this magnet game that they’ve had since Little Miss was three. They’ve showed little interest in this game for over two years, and now they collaborate to create different things, based on cards that show them where the pieces go to create a ladybug, a giraffe, a crane, a house, a person on bike, etc. A couple of days ago, Little Miss decided to come up with her own design and showed us this: “This is me and Pickle with a hat on our head; we’re sitting on a high stool at a restaurant, eating together.”



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I have to say, I was impressed.

I suppose there is an advantage to playing indoors. They finally play with their own toys now, especially ones that have been neglected for ages. Because there’s strength in numbers, they both choose to decline my invitation to go outside, they choose to play inside together, and more often than not, it results in a couple of hours of harmonious existence in our family. Last weekend, when My Guy and I were outside with our yard work, they stayed inside and entertained themselves for OVER. TWO. HOURS.

You don’t understand. They usually orbit around me when I’m home, which means they’re rarely further than a few feet away. They also crave attention, throwing pleas to “look at me, look at me” every five minutes so I can see them do the most ordinary things, like stand on one foot (yaaaaaaay) or jump off the bed onto their bean bag (I guess that’s better than jumping off concrete stairs). Instead, they spent that particular afternoon crafting together, which means plenty of tiny, colorful pieces of paper glued to a larger piece because three-year-old Pickle is now fascinated with experimenting with scissors and glue, then later Little Miss moved on to reading while her sister played pretend with her army of fuzzy buddies, and towards the end, they immersed themselves in the magnet game.

It was a miracle.

photo 5 (21) surrounded by books is this girl’s favorite state




So here I am, encroaching on the edge of my own discomfort for their sake, and there they are, retreating to their own comfortable, air-conditioned micro universe, oblivious to the world that’s happening outside. But as much as I want to push them, I have to respect this world they’re unconsciously building right now, away from the harsh Texas sun and away from an ecosystem that easily scares these once urban kids (“Look mommy, ants! Aaaaargh!!!” – I’m sadly not exaggerating).

They’re looking to each other for support, they’re finding that what they have is enough. That they will be okay as long as they’re together.

I suppose, before they’re ushered out to explore a harsh world, this too is an important part of their discovery.

 

 

photo 1 (73) Why picnic outside when you can picnic inside?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Making new friends; finding my village

The house is quiet. My Guy is back in Chicago for work, and the girls are at school. I check Facebook – nothing too terribly interesting. I try to concentrate on my work, but without hard deadlines this week, I find my interest waning. Powerpoint, as it turns out, is even less exciting than Facebook.

Back to Facebook again. Still nothing. I “like” several pictures and go back to my own reality. I feel restless. Maybe I should make the bed. Oh, I already did. Dishes are also done. I look outside and ponder working on the patio, but I’m deterred by the 90-degree heat. I fiddle with the things on my desk. I check Facebook again. What am I looking for? Why the restlessness?

I know the answer, of course. For the first time since we moved to Austin, I feel alone. I’m missing my village - the friends and life we left behind in Chicago. When we first moved here, I knew a total of one person. And I have never even met her. Stacia, a fellow blogger, and I became virtual friends over four years ago, when we both had infants and toddlers and we both wrote to process the struggles (and wonders!) of early motherhood. Though we’ve never met, I’ve always felt a certain kinship with her.

She was one of the three bloggers with whom I’d confided when I was going through a hard time with My Guy over three years ago. She had been there for me, through email, and I could never forget her kindness. Here we are now, in what seems like a different lifetime, watching our now preschool and elementary school kids playing together and our guys talking tech like they’ve known each other forever.

Our families met our second week here, and later, she had graciously invited us over for Easter. It was our first holiday away from our village in Chicago, but her family had made us feel at home. It was wonderful, in fact. We’ve since hung out on several other occasions, and I’m grateful that our initial virtual exchanges have transformed into a genuine friendship in real life.
Then there is my ex-Chicagoan friend, who was introduced to me via email before we moved here. She moved here with her family six months before we did. A friend from my Chicago neighborhood had thoughtfully, sweetly decided to make the introductions so this other ex-Chicagoan and I would both have someone we knew once I arrived in Austin. I loved her gesture, and upon meeting the ex-Chicagoan, it made perfect sense to me. Having someone “from back home” here with me means I don’t have to provide context each time I’m homesick for a particular Chicago thing. She gets it, of course. Her older daughter and mine also get along famously together. Both dramatic, both girlish -- another jackpot.

I also met another transplant. This time, it was through a mother runners’ Facebook group. We had agreed to meet for a trail run near us, and we’d hit it off. A mother of two from Boston who also works from home for herself, we trade stories about metropolitan living compared to our life here in a smaller city, we share motherhood and house-hunting pangs, we talk about healthy activities, and we get excited about electing Wendy Davis as the next Governor of Texas. I find myself looking forward to my weekly runs with her.

So there you have it. That’s all the friends I have here in Austin, which puts me at a grand total of THREE. As an introvert who often craves silence, I’m not looking for 8 BFF’s and 125 acquaintances to fill up my time. A few solid, dependable (preferably non-judgmental, because who has time for this shit?) friends are all I need, but the older I get, the harder it feels in acquiring new friends. Everyone has so many different priorities – work, kids, hobbies – that finding the time and energy to cultivate friendships become a struggle. Not only that, we have to make sure our personalities mesh, and that our kids and partners also enjoy one another’s company. SO. MANY. FACTORS to consider.

While I don’t have any issues with striking up a conversation with strangers (because all friendships have to begin somewhere), working from home doesn’t help. On days when My Guy isn’t also working out of the same home office that I am, I find myself going an entire day without a single word with anyone. Except to yell at the cat for flopping himself on my typing hands or hacking a hairball at my feet. I’m not the only one craving company, apparently.

However, I’m not Ms. Social Butterfly looking for endless entertainment and meaningless engagement. Most nights, I’m perfectly content with a good book and some ice cream. Or whiskey and TV if it’s the weekend. But when this solitude that I once craved no longer brings me serenity, but rather, isolation, it can start to feel somewhat claustrophobic.

I remember starting a Meetup group four months after giving birth to Little Miss to meet new moms like myself. I made the effort to organize playdates and events to meet women who could understand this particular brand of isolation that comes with new motherhood. There, I met one of my favorite friends, and she’d become a part of my village back in Chicago. But forming a Meetup group now feels so arduous. After all, when you have to make small talk with a bunch of people you don’t know, it can be downright draining. At least it feels that way to me. Hello? Introvert, remember?

In my last neighborhood in Chicago, I could walk down my street and easily bump into neighbors who feel like family to me, but it took many years of finding just the right mix of people to create this wonderful village.  Now that I no longer get to walk anywhere, not even a convenient store, and I have to get into a car to drive for miles to reach any destination, the isolation feels even more oppressive.

Yet, I’m not completely disheartened. I am fully aware that this is part of the process. The old friends I had were once my new friends too, and look where that took us? I know it will take time for my village here to form. It’s just that patience is so not my thing.

Maybe that’s why gardening is not so easy for me. I look at the landscape in my yard and recognize that some of these plants that appear to be bushes now will eventually become tall, beautiful, Pink Velour Crepe Myrtle trees.



CrepeMyrtle now



The people who planned this knew that it would take years for their vision to take place. But to get there, we have to water them diligently and spend our time weeding and shaping them now. I spent three hours this past weekend in my yard doing just that - weeding and shaping.

Cultivating.

Because that’s how the garden grows. And with the same patience and diligence, perhaps my village will too. 



CrepeMyrtle


maybe someday


*    *    *


When was the last time you made a new friend? If you’re a parent like me, how do you make new friends? Do you have a village? If so, how did you find/form yours?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The unbelievable story of how we got our house

housefrontyard

The Neighborhood
Even before we left Chicago, before My Guy had ever set foot in Austin, before I knew what the city looked like outside of lively 6th Street and the lake because that’s all I remembered from my visit 19 years ago, we had already chosen a neighborhood to target for house-hunting. It met most of our criteria - top schools, rolling hills, mature neighborhood with trees that are older than us, easy access to many of the things we love, namely food.

When we finally arrived, we drove around this area that we only read about and knew, without a doubt, that this was where we wanted to be. We left Chicago to experience something radically different, and we also wanted to leave the noisy urban life behind and spread out enough so we can’t watch our neighbor’s TV from our own living room window. We knew we couldn’t get that living close to the heart of the city so we chose a more residential area, 20 minutes away. I hate to admit it, but you might as well call it a suburb, despite its Austin address. BUT. The beautiful, hilly landscape and the serenity more than make up for it. We couldn’t have everything after all. At least not in our budget.

Our agent warned us that the homes in our price range in this area were older and smaller, unlike the contemporary ones with colossal columns and a room for every need. But we were okay with that. We’ve seen many HGTV’s “House Hunters” episodes where people walk into a grand foyer with ballroom staircases and just “fall in love” with the house. We aren’t those people. 

He also warned us that, because of our budget, we would be getting the “entry-level” homes in a pricey neighborhood where McMansions were common. He tried to steer us towards other areas, where our money would actually get us a home twice the size, on the other side of the highway or on the south side of the city, closer to downtown. But they wouldn’t have these hills or the schools. After years of living in a pancake-flat city and making the decision to move here for great public neighborhood schools, not ones she has to test into across town like she did in Chicago, I wouldn’t compromise on either of those.

The Search
Once the location was decided, the hunting began. We looked at four homes the first evening with our girls and they were excited by all of them. They’re so easy to please. A house! A yard! We’ll take it! We were a little more picky. While they were excited by the space, we saw things that turned us off: too much carpet (we didn’t want any), too little light, a weird layout, repairs that would bankrupt us, too close to the highway.

And the smell. We found that the older the people who lived in the home, the mustier the scent and those with pets were worse offenders. One seller chose to use incense to mask the animal scents of one of the houses, but the perfume was so vile I nearly gagged. The animals themselves would probably have smelled better. Even though the house had potential and it came with a pool, I couldn’t see past my nose. I wanted to get out of there. Stat.

It wasn’t until My Guy left town for work that I walked into a house that I really liked. Of course. And because he wasn’t here to help me make the decision, I hesitated on the offer and apparently, in this market, sleeping on it overnight meant losing your chance completely. Once we decided to make an offer, our agent said they already had multiple offers and accepted one within 24 hours of being on the market.

It was heartbreaking. Naturally, because I couldn’t get the house, I obsessed over it. I called it the house that got away. And I kicked myself for not acting quicker.

Then we saw a few more houses that either fell far below our expectations or had perplexing features, like the one place that had its own sauna. In Central Texas. Where they could’ve saved money and achieved the same effect just by not turning on their AC.

But one issue we kept encountering was that, because we wanted older trees in a mature neighborhood, the trees, as majestic and gorgeous as they were, often towered over the homes and blocked out the light. I would walk into a house and feel completely underwhelmed by the darkness of the living room.

I’m all about light. A sun-drenched home is very high on my criteria. It wouldn’t be a problem in most newer homes with the grand foyer and cathedral ceilings as developers in the last two decades figured out that natural light would add to the appeal, but not so with the older homes. And that was a huge challenge for us. I could not live in a house with a perpetual need for artificial light.


The House
So, on that fateful day, when we walked into a house bathed in light, I was smitten. It was not perfect, but it was a great start.

Let’s back up. It was the middle of the afternoon, the girls were in preschool and My Guy was just getting over an ailment that had him down and out for three whole days. Our agent had a list of four houses to show us so My Guy took some medicine, and we made our way to the appointment. A house popped up in our email while we were at our first showing; it just came on the market. We asked to see the place, and our agent made the call. Then he warned us that it was a “For Sale by Owner”, which meant no seller’s agent, which also meant the owner himself would be showing the place.

After four places – all underwhelming, all with some kind of major issue we had to fix – we made our way there. It was at a location that we hadn’t considered because it was a little off the beaten path. Same schools, but just further away. I wasn’t a fan of not being able to walk to school, but when we had to drive through pretty scenery, up steep inclines that ended at a cul-de-sac, my heart was racing. It was already promising. The location certainly felt right.




CreekFalls

on one of the routes to the house

 


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we also drive along a winding road, past barns with horses and cows and through a canopy of trees

 

 

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the hood

 

And when I walked into a sun-drenched living room, I could barely contain my excitement. Light! Light! Light! my heart sang. The kitchen was completely updated, as was the master bath, even though the home was nearly 30 years old, and as people who aren’t handy with DIY projects, we knew we weren’t up for fixer uppers. And most of the major renovations were already completed in this house. A big plus. Then we walked into the yard, and that’s what sealed it for us. The landscape, the pool-- we had to have this house.

One small (but really big) issue: It was above our budget. We had no negotiating power because we were already going waaaay past what our max was, but we knew that a house in an ideal neighborhood like this was hard to come by and we had to do everything we could to at least try. And boy, did we.

Lucky for us, the owner was there so, My Guy, being the people person that he is, started a conversation with him. As did our wonderful agent. It turned out that they were all in Austin’s entrepreneur scene at some point. The seller and my agent even knew the same person and exchanged stories. Then the conversation evolved into My Guy’s line of work and the seller was eager to help him connect to the people he knew. We talked about our move here, our family, the schools, our love for our respective communities. We developed a rapport.

Then the seller, who was in his fifties, said the magic words: The price was not as important to him as finding the right people who fit the community and someone who could close quickly on the house because they had already purchased and moved into another home in an airpark. He and his wife were passionate about flying, and moving into an airpark with their own hangar and an airstrip in their backyard was their idea of living the dream, and that’s why, even though they had no plans to leave this home, they had to jump on the chance when it presented itself to them.

We felt the same way. The seller invited us back to see the place a second time that evening with the girls, and so we did. After we placed an offer on the house within two hours of viewing it. He met the girls and sat down and chatted with us some more.

That night, knowing that we would never win a bidding war, I wrote him a letter explaining why we would be the best fit, hoping that the connection we made would give us an advantage. The next morning, to our surprise, he responded. It was the loveliest reply that gave us much hope. He had basically said he loved meeting us and thought we would be the ideal buyers; he had discussed with his wife that they would do everything they could to make sure we would have a fair chance in getting the house. So he gave us a counter offer to meet in a sum that would be fair to them as well.

In this market, a great house would just have multiple offers, and the seller would pick the highest bidder. End of story. The one with the deepest pockets often wins. Ours, as suspected, wasn’t the highest bid. Not even close. We deliberated a little because it was stretching us beyond our limits and then some, but we also knew a chance like this was rare. That we were still in the running at all was a miracle. And so we checked with our lending company, received the green light and placed the counter offer.

It was accepted immediately. HOORAY!!!

But the miracle didn’t end there. Our agent, who continued to work hard for us even after securing an offer, convinced them to leave us the major appliances. He used the “help this young family have a great new start in Austin” speech, and it didn’t take much convincing. As it turned out, they were generous souls in the first place, and in the end, they left us with nearly new and pricey items like the washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, and even the flat-screen plasma TV above the fireplace! What’s more, we found out later, they also left the outdoor furniture, pool supplies and safety fence, a bistro table and chair set for the eat-in space in the kitchen, and various gardening tools.

It was like we hit the jackpot! We expected to buy all of the items above ourselves (except for the TV) when purchasing a home, and we braced ourselves for a huge financial hit. But all of this that they left us came at the price we offered. They were extras. Perks!

We were agog. Was this for real?

And more than that, we now also have their friendship, evident in our visit to their new home at the airpark. During the buying process, the seller had also met with us, prior to closing, to walk us through the house to help us understand some of the upgrades they made and showed us how to use certain things around the house. He shared with us what he did to maintain the pool, the yard, the house. He even paid for a session of “Pool School” for My Guy so he would learn about pool maintenance.  And true to his word, he sent the names of his business connections to My Guy. He also invited us to a party so we could mingle with our now neighbors and fellow entrepreneurs.

It was - still is - unbelievable.

Especially since, during the week of closing, we found out from our seller that one of the backup offers included a much higher bid than ours and 100K down. Ours wasn’t even a fraction of that. The fact that he chose ours over that was baffling.

But My Guy and I, who live in a world where connections matter more than credentials, knew what we had to do the moment we met the man who would eventually sell us our home. We had to establish a connection because we knew that’s our best (and possibly only) shot.

It’s rare in the home-buying process these days that buyers meet sellers, and I can see why. It’s easier to just go with the highest bidder. Let the money do the talking, and you’ll always come out ahead. But this man and his wife wanted to pick their buyer because they loved this home and they loved this community.

And thankfully, they picked us, the people, not the money. Of course we couldn’t help but have a Sally Field moment, “They like us, they like us, they really, really like us!”

That same evening after they accepted the offer, they gave us their garage code so we could go back to check out our someday home again. It would be our third visit in two days; this time, without his presence, and we were amazed at his trust in us. When we arrived, it took the girls all of two minutes before they were out of their clothes and in the pool.

Their someday pool.

My Guy and I still couldn’t believe our chances that we were watching our girls from our someday patio, at our someday house, admiring (but also a little intimidated by) our someday yard, dreaming about the someday things we could do to this place.

And now that the someday is here, we are immensely grateful and still reeling from this story.

How did we get so lucky?


 sunlitlivingroom (1)


it’s a work in progress - we still need to paint the walls and update the built-in cabinets and shelves - but here’s the sun (and the cat) in our living room




sunrisepool

sunrise

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A new familiar

Something incredible happened this past weekend: Nothing. As in, we chose not to tackle any big projects around the house, there was no party to prepare and clean for, which meant no mandatory trips to Home Depot or Target or the grocery store. For the first time since we moved in, it felt like we could finally relax and actually just enjoy our weekend, even accepting last-minute invitations to hang out at different places just because we had absolutely nothing going on.

And that’s how we found ourselves at the nearby Bull Creek park, where we could hike in the nature trail and wade through the shallow but lively creek, recently made livelier by a couple days of thunderstorms the week before. It’s interesting how the Austin landscape changes with rainfall, because when we first arrived here, most of these creek beds were either completely dry or just merely – sadly - trickling water. Now, the rushing waters remind us of just how much life water brings to this world, as the surrounding greenery feels greener and resplendent, and the echoes of children’s squeals and laughter reverberate as they slide down waterfalls on their bony little bottoms, unfazed by the slight discomfort of bone against rock.

On this day, we explored nature, we played in refreshing water, we picnicked under a magnificent old tree right by the creek, and we felt like we belonged.

 

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BullCreekPicnic Of course I would be in the one picture that involves food

But that wasn’t the only new-to-us experience last weekend. The next day, we were invited to venture outside of Austin, to a little town north of it, to visit the sellers of our home, who have now become our friends. Yes, that is part of the amazing “how we got this house” story that is forthcoming, but the reason they sold our place when they did was because they happened upon this house in Georgetown that was in an airpark. “What’s an airpark?” you may wonder, as I did when I first heard about it. It’s a subdivision of homes that have hangars in their lots, built right by an airstrip, for airplane enthusiasts like our friends. They had to have a pilot’s license to purchase property there, which they both had.

The drive there alone was interesting because we had to drive past many vast fields of corn, a landscape that was so familiar to us in our years in the Midwest. Even Little Miss mentioned, “This reminds me of our drive to Champaign, to see auntie Roselle,” and she was right. Corn fields as far as the eyes could see. That’s a lot like Illinois all right. Until we came to the air park and their home, where the pool shimmered and the hangar was part of the structure of their home.  Wow. That’s where the similarities ended.

The girls, once they saw their pool, couldn’t help but splash in it despite not having their bathing suits, until they got so soaked that we just let them go all out. Or in, rather. Dress and all. These water babies are wired as such: See water, jump in. That’s all there is to it. Pool? Jump in. Creek? Jump in. Puddle? Jump in. Fountain? Jump in. Bathtub? Jump in. They’re predictable like that.

And that explains why they’re in this state of undress in the following pictures.


IMG_20140601_190239

This plane is a work in progress

 

IMG_20140601_185819 They’re inside a beautiful, antique 1948 Stinson, which a friend of theirs flew while we were there so we could watch the plane in action, including taking off at the airstrip right by their house

So yes, it wasn’t a typical weekend for us, at least not what we’re used to in Chicago, although instead of the visit to the creek, we would’ve gone to the beach by our house there. There are certainly similarities, in an unfamiliar way, but we did do something that reminded us of our old life. We went on a late-evening date! Our first in the ATX. My Guy had surprised me by arranging for a sitter, a fellow parent with whom we would swap date nights (yay for community!), and he was excited to show me the place he chose. I have to admit, as far as firsts go, it was pretty special. We drove in the convertible with a 360-degree view of the city in twilight, the sun setting behind some distant hills and the downtown buildings reflecting the soft glow of an evening full of promises.

When we arrived at our destination, I giggled, and you’ll see why. He picked well, this guy.



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Just like our past life, we waited 35 minutes for a table, with a cocktail in hand, and we indulged in escargot, steak, and halibut on the pretty outdoor patio, where the warm air felt slightly cool in the absence of sunlight. It all felt familiar to me. This could’ve been Chicago, except it wasn’t. The view that accompanied our drive told us a different story. It was a new familiar. 

In fact, this entire weekend felt that way. The old and new intertwine to give us a sense of adventure and belonging, comfort and excitement. It was certainly our kind of weekend.  And the only thing that made it bearable when it was over was knowing that this was just the beginning.

 

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