First visit to Minnesota and the Fourth of July

My Aunt and Uncle had a long-standing invitation for me to visit them in the great northern beyond. I always joked that there was only a tiny window of opportunity to visit…the few weeks of warm weather in the summer. Slight exaggeration, though I did find myself wearing my sweater as we viewed the fireworks over the state capital.

I didn’t think that a small window would turn out to be true. Minnesota received more than its share of rain at the end of June, and each day when I checked the forecast for the holiday weekend, it was usually forecasting clouds if not rain. But the travel gods were smiling and the weather mostly cleared for my trip.

We packed a lot into roughly three days. I’ll visit a couple of our activities later on, but in brief, here are five things I learned (or was reminded about) during my trip to Minnesota.

1. Minnesota is beautiful. And green!

When I think of Minnesota – or when I did before my visit – I thought of white, of snow and ice. And a lot of it. This is likely do to popular culture (and movies), and the snow stories from my Uncle. Even though I have flown in and out of MSP a dozen times or more, what I really noticed this time around is just how green everything was!

Then outside the city centers (Minneapolis and St. Paul are even closer than I realized), there was so much green along the highways. And then of course there were the parks. We stopped right after the airport to Minnihaha Park (one of the oldest state parks in the country!).

Minnihaha Falls

2. There is a difference between Basilicas and Cathedrals

I think I knew that the cathedral is where the bishop’s throne is (and is then the main church in a particular diocese). But I must admit to not knowing the difference between a basilica and a cathedral. I’ve thought about it from time to time, but not until my weekend in Minnesota when I visited the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis and the Cathedral of St. Paul in…St. Paul

The alter inside the Basilica

The alter inside the Basilica

Two big, beautiful churches in two days. So I looked it up. And if you’re curious, the difference is that a cathedral is what I noted above: the main church of a diocese and the location of the bishop’s throne. A basilica earns that designation from the Pope and is given that because of special significance, be it historical, spiritual, etc. In this case, the Basilica of St. Mary became a basilica in 1926.

And what’s also neat about the Cathedral, aside from the beautifully ornate bishop’s throne, is that there is a stone from Rouen castle. A little carved plaque on the stone reminds one that Rouen is where Joan of Arc was held prisoner. It’s back in one of the smaller chapels behind the alter.

The alter inside the Cathedral of Saint Paul

The alter inside the Cathedral of Saint Paul

The Bishop's Throne on the left side of the alter in the Cathedral

The Bishop’s Throne on the left side of the alter in the Cathedral

3. Fireworks are awesome (this was more of a reminder)

I love fireworks. They are just…such a great way to celebrate. They’re loud, bright, beautiful and kind of intriguing. As I watched the St. Paul show, the colorful bursts over the capitol, I found myself wondering a little about the mechanics of fireworks. how do you get them so that there may be white lights first and then blue immediately after in seemingly the same firecracker? Or those with the delayed burst. How are those best timed?

fireworksThis may require some research now that my curiosity is sparked. But I quickly pushed away those thoughts when I heard a little boy seated behind me: “Yay fireworks!”

Yeah. I hear you, kid.

4. Food is taken seriously

It seems the Minneapolis area is continually showing up on Food Network or Food & Wine. My Aunt sent me a list of restaurants surrounding Mears Park, and the initial plan was to stop and sample a small plate, maybe with a glass of wine, and then move on to another place. That didn’t quite happen. The first place I wanted to check out was a couple of blocks away: Senor Wong’s. The reason was because their menu had a mock duck taco. Yup. Vegetarian duck. I was beyond intrigued.

It turned out when we got there, that their menu had been updated. But thankfully, there was still mock duck in the form of a banh mi (and I do love a good vegetarian banh mi). It was delicious, with warm spice on the mock duck and then that fresh cilantro and pickled vegetables.

We did stop by elsewhere for a coffee and dessert on a patio overlooking the park. With a cool breeze, the greenery in front of us, it was a great way to spend time waiting for the fireworks show (see above).

Strolling through Mears Park in between restaurant sampling.

Strolling through Mears Park in between restaurant sampling.

But there’s more. The next morning, we went to the St. Paul farmers’ market, which began in 1852 (!). If Zagat is any indication of just how great something is, well then it might interest you to know that last year the St. Paul farmers’ market was ranked among their 8 Must-Visit Farmers’ Markets in the US. We picked up fresh vegetables for dinner that night, along with swordfish steaks from a fantastic little seafood store.

5. How to prepare lobster

And speaking of that seafood store, Coastal Seafoods, we also picked up a lobster. I have only had lobster in the form of lobster bisque (an incredibly inventive and delicious lobster and white chocolate bisque one year at Taste of DC). I mentioned this to my Aunt, who decided to remedy the fact that I’d never really had lobster on its own and then also did not know how to prepare lobster. We got a lobster.

We prepared it that same night and she showed me how to best get the meat out of the claws, legs, tail and even some of the body. It was quite a bit easier than getting meat out of crabs and crawfish, I must say. And we prepared the salad to eat as a lobster roll the next day.

Lobster rolls!

Lobster rolls!

Ultimately, I guess it was more of a lobster sandwich, since we didn’t have any hotdog rolls. But it was still delicious. I can see the benefit of a hotdog roll keeping the lobster meat inside. The important thing was that it worked, and I essentially got to try a lobster roll. Now I just need to visit Maine for a truly authentic experience. Though that far north, it will be another trip to wait for summer.

Downtown St. Paul

Downtown St. Paul

Overlooking the Mississippi River

Overlooking the Mississippi River

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Introduction to Kayaking

On the first day of summer, I tried something new, something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I tried kayaking. It’s a relatively new interest of mine, starting several years in to my time in DC. I would walk along the Georgetown waterfront early in the weekend mornings and watch people kayak on the Potomac. There were of course kayak rentals nearby, but I just couldn’t quite get anyone who had an interest to coordinate schedules. At least, that was my excuse.

kayakAfter being back in Texas for a little over a year, I still thought about kayaking. And then after fortuitously finding a Groupon for kayak instruction in Rowlett, I mentioned it to a friend who was all on board with trying it out. No more excuses. And now I had a Groupon to use by the end of the summer, bought and paid for. So my friend and I made plans for one of the first classes offered after we bought our vouchers. Kayak Instruction Inc. offers an intro class and also rentals if you may already know what you’re doing (they even offer standup paddle board instruction! Yes, that is also on this summer’s to-do list). And even without a Groupon, at $60, it’s a great price for a 3-hour introduction.

Dave, our instructor, was funny and engaging, and he put us at ease while still conveying a lot of information. We spent the first half hour on land learning about the kayak, terminology, and how to get in the water. After that and picking out a kayak, we spent the next two and a half hours out on the water.

My final verdict is that the morning was a lot of fun. At times there was getting in a little bit of speed and gliding along the water, and other times it was nice to just sit there drifting in the current and watching the birds fly low to the water. It was very much worth trying out and I am looking forward to getting back out on the water.

After my experience on Saturday, I did feel like kayaking, recreationally, is fairly intuitive (in my humble opinion) , which also makes it very beginner-friendly. It still helps to go along with a friend, someone to chat with while hanging out on the water and also to make plans to do it again sometime very soon. And of course, someone to just make sure you follow through with a new idea or that newly purchased voucher.

There were a few other things I learned that I’ll share for other new kayakers:

  • A bottle of water is okay to bring. There will be space for it on the kayak, especially as a beginner and using a recreational kayak.
  • Wear old tennis shoes. The shore of the lake (and probably a lot, if not all, of the lakes in the area) is muddy. The kind of muddy that threatens to suck your shoe down into all that mud. And since the kayak is about half-in half-out of the water when you’re climbing in, you’re going to be standing in that mud.
  • Quick-drying shorts would be perfect to wear. A little bit of water will pool at the bottom of the kayak, and water will drip on you as you paddle, and will be a little more comfortable than a swimsuit. I also wore a t-shirt over my swimsuit top and that remained mostly dry.
  • Sunblock! It goes without saying, but I’m still going to say it. I did wear mine, but it probably faded by the time I got out onto the water. I did have every intention of putting on more after parking…

I will definitely kayak again. I’ve already been looking into the options in the area. White Rock Lake offers kayak rentals closer to Dallas for $15 an hour, and a quick search for kayak rentals in the lakes and rivers near me offer other rentals at other lakes. It’s going to be a great way to explore more of North Texas. Or even South Texas! Just…mind the snakes. Even more exciting is the idea that I’ll have something new to try on my next trip to Montana. I am already in love with the idea of floating out on the water on the Flathead.

Who wouldn’t like to be out this water:

flathead

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Buddhist Center of Dallas

Originally I planned to go to San Antonio for Memorial Day weekend, and was looking forward to visiting old missions outside of San Antonio, the riverwalk, and of course, the Alamo. That was until ‘they’ – the weather people – began calling for rain, a lot of it. I watched as their forecasts slowly increased the likelihood there was going to be rain while I was there. Which didn’t really work since everything I wanted to do was outside.

So just a few days before I was supposed to make the drive, I cancelled my trip (or rather postponed; I do still plan to go). But that same day, I also stumbled across the Thai Culture and Food Festival held at the Buddhist Center of Dallas. I didn’t even realize there was a Buddhist Center quite like this here in Dallas, nor did I think it would include a beautiful temple incredibly reminiscent of the wats I saw in Bangkok. And I definitely did not expect it to be tucked away on a small, mostly residential street.

templeThe grounds of the temple were beautiful, with lush greenery and a small pond around which were the cultural performances that afternoon. We arrived just as a traditional Thai dance performed center stage.  After catching the performance, we first walked along the side and towards the back, caught in a mix of the most delicious smells as food cooked – one Thai stand made to order – and called in all different directions. The line was quite long for what I wanted, a vegetarian noodle dish made to order, so I do have to admit that I left without tasting anything. Although I did take myself out for green curry later at Mango (one of my favorite Thai restaurants in Dallas, and where I’ve been going since high school!).

dancersBefore leaving, we of course entered into the temple itself. After slipping off my shoes at the base of the steps, the marble was cool on my skin even with the Texas heat. The inside was colorful, with a dark blue wall allowing for a full illumination of the golden Buddha directly in front of us. And for the most part, a little quiet even with the main room spilling over with visitors.

Then it was back into the bright sunlight to walk through the tree-lined street back to my car. It of course wasn’t quite like stepping back into the busy market place and strolling along the Chao Phraya just before sunset, but it was nice to see this nod to Thailand here in Dallas. It was another reminder that there is so much in this city that I have not even begun to explore. And just like my twelve hours in Bangkok, I’m definitely looking forward to it.

buddha

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Reclining Buddha

Bangkok is a busy metropolis, full of people and tourists hurrying from one place to another amid the soaring buildings, honking cars, all while under a scalding sun. But among the harried neighborhoods stand serene temples that transport you into another time. And I don’t mean they take you back through the centuries, but stepping into a place where time dictated no one’s schedule, least of all mine. Stepping into Wat Pho was like stepping out of the clock, stilling the second-hand while I just…was.

WatPhoOn my return trip from Cambodia, I had only the afternoon in Bangkok before my very early morning return flight to the US. But I was definitely going to make the most of the time I had and planned to visit the Royal Palace and Wat Pho to see a site I’d heard off – not lease of all in Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok” – the Reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho has over one thousand Buddha images, but perhaps the most famous of the temple’s relics is the Reclining Buddha. When I visited over two years ago, there were not many clear signs pointing the way. So I wondered around the grounds and in and out of welcoming doorways until I stepped into the building housing this Buddha. Almost 50 feet high and over 140 feet long, the Reclining Buddha is awe-inspiring.

I could see down the length of him in the glittering dimness, though it is a little difficult now to remember exactly what I thought or how I felt then. But thinking back on it now, about I walking around his head and staring up at his serene expression, I feel…quiet. Small. But not in any sort of negative way, in a small way that reminded me that I am just one thread in this giant, interconnected planet. That the people who carved this image may not be remembered individually, but look at what has been left behind down through the centuries and longer still. It’s a testament not just to any one faith, but to humanity, to what man can accomplish.

RecliningBuddhaI remember taking my time walking down the length of the Buddha, stopping to try to take photos that would ultimately disappoint in trying to capture the feeling. I admired the small alters spaced throughout, always looking up at the Buddha to see at a different angle. And at the base, his giant, flexed feet were carved with the 108 auspicious symbols of Buddhism.

Behind the Buddha was a long row of bronze bowls lining the temple wall. There was a table of tiny little bowls filled with coins and instructions directing me to drop coins into each of the 108 bowls to bring luck (and what it didn’t mention was the good feeling of helping the monks maintain the temple, after all, this was purely optional). I dropped my baht into a box, collected my small bowl of coins and proceeded to make my way down the line, fortuitously the only person doing so at that moment. I could pretend that I was alone in the temple, as the other visitors stood on the other side of the Buddha taking pictures (or attempting to, since I know none of my photos did the temple justice).

And I enjoyed my time there, thinking about how lucky I was to be there, at that moment, with each clink of coin into the bowl.

Bronzebowls

BuddhaWat Pho is located at 2 Sanamchai Road, Grand Palace Subdistrict in the Pranakorn District in Bangkok, and is within walking distance of the Grand Palace. The temple complex is open daily from 8am to 6:30pm with an admission fee of 100 baht (roughly $3).

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Bluebonnets

In the years since first moving out of Texas for university, I didn’t come back to visit in the height of spring. My visits were either too early or too late. And it is unfortunate that I must admit to having forgotten how beautiful spring in this state can be. Despite popular opinion, I’m relearning, Texas has seasons. Albeit they might be short (or too long), but they’re there. My springs in Washington, DC were of course marked by the arrival of the  delicate pink cherry blossoms, but Texas has its own watch for the bluebonnets.

Bluebonnets

The official state flower of Texas, bluebonnets inspire a lot of love and their own avid following. And for me, there definitely was a small, but growing sense of pleasure early this spring as I drove past fields with patches of bluebonnets springing up on my daily commute. Every day I most looked forward to seeing a beautiful spread at the side of a small pond with the sunlight glinting across the waves and petals. Even more so, I looked forward to driving through the Official Texas Bluebonnet Trail.

Spring is a tricky time of year. All the rain is wonderful for soaking the earth and allowing such vibrant, beautiful wildflowers to grow. But then at the same time, those colors look stunning in the sunlight. Not to mention it’s much more fun to be out under the sun than to huddle under an umbrella to look at flowers under a darkened sky. The Saturday we drove through Ennis for the trails and the festival was sunny and warm, with clouds rolling in late that afternoon. And much of Sunday was spent inside avoiding the thunderstorm. Thank you to the weather gods for allowing me that window!

Bluebonnetfield

horses

Driving about forty-five minutes outside of Dallas and I am reminded – again – of just how beautiful Texas can be. The small hills and fields were green from the rain, and as we got off the highway onto the farm-to-market roads for the bluebonnets, the land fenced off large swathes of property with cattle and horses grazing, and even sheep! And with those beautiful blue skies and sunshine, it made for a beautiful afternoon taking pictures and just being outside.

The southern trail seemed a little shorter, but there were less people on it. The northern trail did have more photo opportunities with more animals. When we went to Ennis, the map didn’t yet have the western trail, which may have meant the bluebonnets hadn’t yet appeared as fully. Though this year’s trails are almost closed (April 30), if you have the time next year, I would suggest making a day out of it. The trails don’t take too long to drive, even with stopping for pictures or just to view the landscape. That way you know you won’t miss that one, beautiful field you were hoping to find.

IndianPaintbrush

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Happiness

Are you happy?

It’s a simple enough question. Or at least, it should be. But how often does that question stump someone? Well, does the questioner mean right in this moment? Or in general? Are there things in your life that make you happy? And then maybe you might even start thinking about what could make you happier. Because when you stop to think about being happy, you get taken out of the moment.

Happiness is on my mind, not because of any defining happy moment, but after finishing a book about the search for a happy place. Literally. The book was more of an investigative piece about happiness than a travelogue (which is initially why I picked it up). I didn’t pick up The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World because I was feeling particularly grumpy, but I was intrigued by the idea of a sense of place creating happiness. It’s so much more than a sense of place, it’s all of it. It’s a place, a place’s history, a culture and present-day attitudes.

Seagull

Eric Weiner explored countries at all ranges of the happiness spectrum (Iceland – happy, Moldova…quite a bit less so), and all across the planet. There were common themes that I’ve come across in myriad articles, such as trust, relationships, but then also very different approaches to happiness. From a que sera, sera attitude to karmic lessons, to a gung-ho ‘I’m going to find my happiness’.

There are these beautifully serene moments where it has struck me: “I’m happy.”

Right now, in that very moment. It didn’t matter whether I was annoyed earlier about the car that almost hit me as I crossed the street (a common event in DC), or stuck in traffic, or having come face-to-face with a rude person. It didn’t matter what tomorrow might bring. The moment came and I consciously recognized it as a moment of bliss and let it go. I am happy, here and now, and I’m not going to think about it anymore. I’m just going to enjoy it. And interestingly enough, that brief acknowledgement let me hold onto the moment longer.

Those moments can strike anywhere. I’ve had them sipping coffee on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, on an airplane home after a long couple of months, driving on the highway with one of my favorite songs turned up, standing at the base of Ta Prohm, or gazing at Liberty Leading the People in the Louvre. Some moments happen in exotic locales with the recognition of an incredible lifetime experience, and others are just ordinary afternoons. It’s a patio dinner with friends, a shared bottle of wine and lots of laughter, and so many other moments.

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
-Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

“Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”
- Omar Khayyam

vineyard2

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Dallas Beer Festival

I am not a beer drinker, not really. And it’s not because I don’t like it. I have had some really delicious beers, though usually having been steered in their direction by friends more knowledgeable. So when friends invited me to join them at the Big Texas Beer Festival, I saw it as an opportunity to taste some local brews (and not so local), and expand my knowledge.

That and of course it also sounded like a fun time.

beerfest

It was also a chance to taste some very unique and interesting flavor combinations. And while delicious, I think they were better suited to the small tasting glasses. I am thinking most specifically about Armadillo Ale‘s Brunch Money (and you don’t get much  more Texan than armadillo). Yes. This beer was brunch in a glass, and gave another meaning to drinking your meal. The first inhalation brought you the smell of coffee, waffles and maple syrup and a hint of bacon. And then the taste? Coffee and maple syrup. How do you even make that into a beer?

Of the other unique flavored beers, the one that stood out to me and that I wouldn’t mind having a glass of while sitting out on a patio somewhere was Lazy Magnolia‘s Southern Pecan. While not a Texas brewing company, this definitely had the sweet, very slightly smoky flavor of a pecan. With a name like Lazy Magnolia and pecans in their brew, this was definitely a very Southern beer.

Then there was 903 Brewer‘s coconut beer that tasted strangely healthy, most likely due to the fact that it tasted more like coconut water with a hint of beer. I will say that the first couple of sips I thought “hmm…this is unique and light,” and that was that. But the taste became more and more pleasing. As I neared the end of my tasting glass, I kind of wanted more. It was one of the few I had that I think I’d enjoy a full glass, especially on a hot summer day (and we will definitely be having plenty of those coming up!).

We wrapped the afternoon with a little bit of live music and food trucks. The tofu Korean taco from ssahmBBQ was delicious! There was a little bit of spice, a little bit of crunch, freshness from the cilantro cutting through all of that, and a great, somewhat smokey flavor. Food trucks make appearances at lots of events around town, and I will definitely be keeping my eye out for these guys.

IMG_0193If you’re around next year, I would recommend getting together with some friends and spending the afternoon tasting some great things Dallas has to offer. Just beware of the line to get in. It went quickly, but the challenge was to find the end. And that was before starting the tastings! The line snaked around the trees and entrance walkway, but then also snaked inside of itself. You had to cut through the line in order to get to the back of it. Either the person who first turned it that way had started their tasting early, or it was an attempt to give people waiting something to talk – or tweet – about. In that case, they were successful.

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Happy Spring!

The vernal equinox was this past week, and the first official day of spring was an absolutely beautiful day here in north Texas. Finally. In most -if not all – parts of the country this year, winter definitely fought to stick around. And from what I hear, it’s still fighting. But our forecast as April lurks is definitely bringing in April showers, even with warmer weather.

cherry blossom sunset

I choose to look at the first day of spring as a good omen of things to come. And even more exciting this year, spending spring in Texas. I have not had a Texas spring in over a decade. College spring breaks came too early and then even later, I went to Montana (where there was lots of snow and no flowers). Great years, so I’m not complaining. But Texas fields will be a wash of colors with Texas Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrushes and Indian Blankets, Mexican Hat Coneflowers, and beautiful, fragrant Magnolias.

Something I’ve heard about this year, but never did before when I lived here, is the Bluebonnet Festival in Ennis. I’ve heard that it really is a beautiful sight to see the pastures covered in a blanket of blue, so I and my camera are definitely ready, and checking out the bluebonnet sightings. It’s kind of like checking in with Bloom Watch for peak cherry blossom viewing on the weekdays (on the weekends, I just walked down to the Tidal Basin to see for myself).

cherry blossom

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A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

I have quite a phenomenal book recommendation to make: A Rumor of War, a Vietnam memoir by Philip Caputo. I started writing this post before I’d even finished reading the book, and wanted to note that it has the writing, development and world-building of a great fiction novel. To see Caputo’s trajectory from a young officer wanting adventure and a desire to prove himself to a battle hardened ‘old’ man (he talks about seeing that same change in others…that his mind was decades older than his body) is done incredibly well.

There are difficult moments in here, but in a way, that’s what makes this book so poignant. You can read that the jungles were harsh on the soldiers, that it was difficult fighting an enemy who seemed to vanish into the trees and that there was no sense of advancement, but it often seems like a time and a world so far removed. Caputo draws you in, brings you to Vietnam in the late 1960s. The same bonds that are formed with him and his unit are also formed with the reader. And that is one of the things that just made this book a high recommendation in my mind. Along with the writing, the development and those things I mentioned first off.

I’m leaving this review short and bittersweet. This is one of those cases where the book will definitely speak for itself. So if all I can do is just put it on the radar, please allow me to do so.

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A visit to Southfork

The third season of the Dallas reboot began this past week, and in preparation I finally went to visit Southfork Ranch. Despite what the show has you think, visiting the ranch isn’t so much of a view of how the other half lives. Unless by other half you mean weekend ranchers and casual horsemen (though the original owners were successful Quarterhorse breeders).

Southfork gate

The first thing one notices upon approaching the house itself is how small it is! On the show, the house is pretty much a sprawling estate settled on acres of pastures and wooded lands. Which I guess is a testament to the wonder of camera angles and lenses. Growing up, I thought it was kind of fun to hear about the Olympic sized pool and how it really wasn’t that much bigger than the pool at my old house (which was definitely not Olympic sized nor on acres of land).

But maybe the glimpse of…another half was in the atmosphere, of sitting out by the pool and looking into the neighboring pasture with longhorns quietly grazing. After touring the house and starting to wander around the grounds, I realized I could have stayed for a few more hours on just such a property. What I would love would have been to sit on that porch with a glass of wine and just while away my Saturday afternoon (and one interesting fact: the glass table was one of the only set pieces from the original series).

house

rodeo pen

The tour will be of interest when watching the show. For example, this one hallway, small, short and narrow and painted this dark blue color – very much out of the scheme of the rest of the house – was done so for filming. Two of the three bedrooms were set up for tourists, but the third set up as a ransacked hotel room complete with crime scene analysis. It will be really cool to see that in the show and see how it the wonders of filming turn the interior of such an iconic house into a hotel hallway in Mexico.

And of course, the show continues to make a global impression. My tour group consisted of no one from Dallas (unless you count me, though I’m not yet hitting my year mark). Other Texas cities were represented, but there were people from Serbia, France and the UAE. And I think the draw came from both the original series and the reboot.

Well. Welcome to Dallas.

horse

pool

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