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August Break 28 – I Am…

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Sometime yesterday, I dragged a carryon bag out of my closet and started packing a few things for an upcoming weeklong trip to Yosemite National Park.  I plan on doing a fair bit of hiking, so I then went to an outdoors shop for a couple extra pairs of hiking socks, and this morning I packed in earnest; making sure I had enough socks and underwear, decanting my shower gel and lotion into TSA-approved bottles, paring the wardrobe down to a few pieces so I could mix-and-match for outfits and travel light, making sure that my tickets would be easily-reached in an outside pocket of my suitcase. I’ve even set out what I’ll wear on the plane, so I can dress quickly when I wake at an ungodly early hour that morning to make my flight.  The clothes I’ve chosen are now sitting on top of my suitcase, which has been tucked into a corner of my room, waiting.

The trip to Yosemite isn’t for another two weeks.

For nearly as long as I can remember, the idea of going somewhere new has always thrilled me. Even when I was very, very young. One afternoon when I was about three, the teachers at my preschool read us all a book called Henry the Explorer, the tale of a little boy who sets out to “explore” new terrain in his neighborhood after reading about pioneers. Armed with a flashlight, a series of toy flags – so he can “claim” the things he finds – and a peanut butter sandwich, he and his Scottish terrier wander through the farm near his house, a forest, and even venture into a cave, where he narrowly escapes from something that might possibly be a bear before returning home safely (albeit late to dinner).  Afterward, the teachers helped us kids all make our own little flags, and then set up a plastic crawl tunnel in one of the playrooms so we could all pretend to be crawling through a cave, just like Henry. But either the teachers were short-staffed that day, or there were just too many of us kids, because at one point I “explored” my way clear out of the tunnel, across the room to the door, and out into the hallway.

I don’t even think I was expecting to get out there, but I only hesitated a second before realizing that now I could really explore, and I set out to see what lay behind a doorway at the end of the hallway just past the bathrooms – something I was always curious about.  I managed to get halfway up the stairs to the church offices one flight above us before a secretary from the church caught me and brought me back. The teachers gently explained to me that this was only meant to be pretend exploring, and I had to stay in the playroom.  And so I rejoined the line of kids waiting for another turn through the crawl tunnel. I distinctly remember thinking during my second crawl through the tunnel that compared to real exploring, what we were doing was actually pretty boring.

My adult life, unfortunately, has not given me much chance for exploring. I did what I could during my 20s, but then a career in theater during my 30s kept me tied to home, where I always had one rehearsal or another to go to. And the budget of a theater professional also didn’t allow for much anyway, even when I did have the time.

One of the many turning points that lead me to retire from theater came in 2007, when my family were all discussing our various vacation plans – my parents were excitedly planning a trip to Rome, while my brother and sister in law were headed for the Cook Islands. Meanwhile, the only vacation I was taking was a long weekend in Chicago. Not to disparage Chicago, or that trip itself – I had a great time. But I suddenly felt the way I did as a child when I’d gotten that glimpse of that huge world outside, and then had someone or something pull me back to a much smaller and more confined space, and had someone tell me “no, this is as far as you can go.”

I think realizing that I felt that way is what made me start to fall out of love with theater – a love affair that had been going on for almost 30 years by that point, had made me sacrifice four years of time and a huge amount of money in student debt, and had given me the most professional success I’ve had in my life. I felt I belonged in theater – I still do – but I realized that there was an older, deeper place where I belonged, and an older and deeper self I had to get back to.

I am a traveler.

August Break 26 – Orange (Turning Towards Fall)

Okay: those of you trying to follow the August Break entries, no, I haven’t dropped it – I just had a few days of chaos at the day job, trying to hold down the fort while two of my co-workers were off on vacation. For the past three days I’ve been staying over an hour late at work each day and working at about twice the speed.  I contented myself by making a sign declaring our part of the office “Fort Wadsworth” and making a “please take a number for service” notice out of scrap paper and post-its.

Fortunately my boss thought it was cute.

But the fast pace has sort of bled over into the weekend, and I’ve made myself a roster of errands today – a lot of naggy little things that I’ve been meaning to do for a while but have been putting off. None of them difficult, just boring and un-fun – dropping my bike off at a repair shop, picking up garbage bags, simple mending of clothes.

I’ll also be doing a lot of food and pantry work.  We’re at the point in the late summer when everyone is sort of over the thrill of “yay fresh veggies” and the sheer abundance has us all a little blase; this is the fourth or fifth week in a row that we’ve had fresh sweet corn in my CSA, the second time I’ve gotten dill, and the fourth time I’ve gotten cilantro. I liked getting the heirloom tomatoes, but then got home and saw that I still had about a half a pound from last week that I need to do something with.  And my windowsill herbs are looking very overgrown.  So I’ve already warned A that I’ll be doing a lot of kitchen work tonight – turning the excess tomatoes into sauce, trimming all the house herbs, and making up a bunch of different pestos, most of which will be going into the freezer for later in the fall and winter when we’d all kill for fresh green produce.  It’s a very late-summer, early-fall mindset; preserving the harvest, squirrelling it away for later.

I even had a dream last night that suggested I was probably ready for this phase; we were in the early stages of a zombie attack, and it had somehow fallen to me to shelter some friends and their kids. And while we were barricading the doors and arming ourselves, I remarked that my freezer was well-stocked so we wouldn’t starve.  I suggested a dinner of pumpkin soup, something I could easily make from the frozen pumpkin I knew was in there – but when I opened my dream freezer, I couldn’t find it. And for the rest of this dream, I was digging through the freezer, less worried about the threat of invading zombie hordes than I was about “where the hell did I put the damn pumpkin” – to the point that I even woke up with the fear that I’d lost it somehow.  Honestly, the only thing that stopped me from leaping out of bed and looking in my real freezer was remembering that oh, wait, I was looking for a mason jar in the dream freezer, and the pumpkin in my real freezer was in plastic baggies.

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I think if you feel more threatened by the absence of frozen vegetables than you are by possibly getting your brain eaten, you’re a little food-obsessed.

August Break 22 – Square (Meals)

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We talk a lot about food in this house. A makes a living at it – studying the way food and culture have shaped and affected each other throughout history – whereas I just have a voracious appetite, a curious palate, and very little fear or good sense when it comes to trying a recipe. One thing we agree on is how it’s too easy for people to fall into the trap of overthinking meal planning way too much.

I grew up with the four food groups, having that view of nutrition drilled into me; how important it was to have balanced proportions of meat, grains, fruits and vegetables, and dairy – in every meal. Even cold cereal; I remember cereal ads from my childhood crowing that Frosted Flakes or Rice Krispies or whatever were “part of this complete breakfast”, showing a bowl of cereal modestly sitting on a table alongside a plate of bacon and eggs and a big glass of orange juice.

 

But there are a lot of people, and always have been, who bent over backwards to balance every meal exactly.  There must be some kind of meat or protein in every meal.  There must be grains, there must be some kind of dairy product. There must be the exact percentage of whole grain fiber foodstuffs in every meal.

And that’s not even taking into account the notion that the four food groups are now in a food pyramid, and that the pyramid has even changed – and we’re not even getting into vegetarianism, or veganism, or pescetarianism or Atkins or Pritikin diets or low-carb eating or clean eating or paleo eating or any one of a hundred panacea diets out there.  Not that some people don’t need specialized diets, mind you – A is gluten-free out of medical necessity – but an awful lot of people toy around with their diet based on an incomplete understanding of what it’s going to do to them, out of a vague notion that it’d be “healthy”.  These different diets tout all sorts of wonderful things, and many of them do have a grain of truth to them – “clean eating”, for instance, advocates whole, fresh food and shuns overly processed foods, which is advice nearly everyone agrees on. But lots of clean-eating advocates get further caught up in debates about various food additives or nutrients and adds another layer of complexity to it.

I find it makes people anxious about it all. My mother was pretty relaxed about the food pyramid.  She’d round out our lunches and dinners with some kind of vegetables and salad – even when we got takeout pizza, she’d make up a simple dish of steamed summer squash or green beans, or make up a big salad – and sometimes would slice some oranges along with breakfasts, but other than that she left things be. She certainly wasn’t making us bacon and eggs alongside our Cheerios in the morning, and would probably rather have spit tacks first. But she was an excellent cook, and treated vegetables with a light hand, so we rarely shied away from them. The only food fussiness I had as a child was about sauces – I’d ask for light amounts of pasta sauce, only faint amounts of salsa on tacos, and I wouldn’t even have dressing on salad.  I still often don’t. Lots of people found it strange, but I was just enjoying the natural taste of food, and was protecting it from being covered up in a highly-seasoned goo.  Cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, and even iceberg lettuce all have taste, and I liked that taste more than I liked Thousand Island or Ranch or what have you.

And taste has always guided my meal planning, at the end of the day – taste and pleasure. Tonight’s dinner was a spontaneously-thrown-together thing made up of adding One Package Of Sausage Tortellini to Whatever Vegetables Need Using Before They Go Bad – a few leaves of kale, a bell pepper, a generous couple handfuls of grape tomatoes chopped up.  I hadn’t even planned on this to begin with – this was a last-minute meal plan born of a late day at work.

But as I was sauteeing up the vegetables in the skillet, the deep green of the kale played so nicely against the paler green of the peper, and the bright red of the tomatoes.  I added the grape tomatoes last so they’d hold their shape longer, letting them speckle the dish red rather than giving them a chance to melt into sauce. The kale took on a faintly roasted taste, as did the garlic clove I chopped up and added to the pan; those roasted tastes set off the sweet smokiness of the sausage inside the tortellini.  And it all just looked gorgeous too – I didn’t even add my usual sprinkle of grated parmaesan.  And ultimately the last-minute dinner turned out to be a delicious meal. And – nutritionally balanced to boot.

Food is supposed to be something we enjoy. A lot of the fad diets forget to emphasize that part.

August Break 21 – Today Is…

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Today was a day for Buckling Down And Getting Things Done. And like many Brooklynites, that means that for me, it was a Coffee Shop Day; my own “office” at home is a little too close to lots of things that could distract me, and I had to concentrate.  So it was off to a coffee shop for me.

My problem, though, is that I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to coffee shops. I want a place that either has spacious tables if I need to spread out, or big puffy chairs if I’m looking for a more comfortable, lazy session. I’ll need wi-fi.  And the indie, anti-corporate Gen-X’er in me will only set foot in a Starbucks under duress.  My other problem is that my neighborhood boasts two college campuses, and so on a Sunday, that means I’m competing with about half the population of Northern Brooklyn for a seat in one of the coffeehouses in the neighborhood.  I actually had to poke into two shops before I could even find a seat; and I only happened to get one because the shop I was in cut people’s access to their Wi-fi after 90 minutes, and someone’s turn ran out about two minutes after I got in and they left to find another shop.

I also left shortly after my turn at the Wi-fi was up, but was able to cram in some emails, bill paying and travel planning in the interim. I also noticed that this particular shop had a section that was reserved for people not on laptops, which could come in handy when I have more of a Luddite’s need for coffee…

August Break 20 – Clouds

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We’re on the fourth day or so of another stretch of hot-and-humid here in the city; the kind of day that saps you of the ambition to do much of anything except for laze around the house, poking through books for a few pages and then losing your train of thought.

I did rally for a little bit of housecleaning today, though, and then decided to treat myself to an iced coffee up the street. And when I went outside, I felt there was a gathering breeze and a bank of clouds forming – and some of them were even starting to go gray on the bottom. Always a good sign; the rain could bring some relief by wringing some of the humidity out of the air.

But by the time I finished at the coffee shop and was heading home again the clouds were already starting to melt away.

Dammit.

August Break 19 – Hands (On The Wheel)

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As excuses for road trips go, “my roommate needs dental work” is probably an unusual one. But poor A had been suffering after breaking a tooth, and then having questionable treatment from a local dentist; he’d seemed fine, but her tooth was still hurting pretty bad and she was fearing he’d not done as good a job as she’d hoped. But one of my high school friends is now a dentist and offered to have a look – if, that is, we could get A to his practice in Pennsylvania.

I was also able to borrow my friends’ car – Colin and Niki actually use me as their “car babysitter” when they’re out of town, which just means that I make sure that their minivan, affectionally nicknamed “The TARDIS”, is parked properly at all times. They’ve encouraged me to use it each time as well, instead of just moving it on streetsweeping days and letting it sit otherwise.  So they were more than willing to let us borrow it for a day trip.

We got to the office mid-morning and A got in pretty quickly – but she was facing some serious work, so rather than sit in the waiting room, I drove about ten minutes up the road to where I’d seen Valley Forge National Park was close by.  A road trip’s got to have some sightseeing, right?

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Now, I’d known the basics about Valley Forge from history class – it was a winter encampment during the Revolutionary War, and it was a rough winter and a lot of soldiers suffered in the cold.  And the visitors center backed that all up, with a number of displays on “camp life” and “soldiers’ belongings” and lots of displays about Washington himself.  But I’d thought the park was much smaller, and limited to the couple acres or so around the visitor’s center I was at.  I asked the ranger at the visitors’ center what I should see; “I only have about an hour or so to spend, what would you suggest?”

“Oh, Washington’s Headquarters, definitely,” he said.  “It’s here on the map – you have a map, yes?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And you’re parked here in the visitor’s center lot?  So then you drive back out by the – ”

“Wait, drive?”  I stopped him.  “It’s just here on the map, I was just going to walk.”

“…Well, you could walk there, sure, but…it’d take you about three hours.”  He pointed out the distance marker on the map.

Oh.  It was about five miles distant.

So I drove over to Washington’s Headquarters.

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The headquarters themselves were about an acre of land, with Washington’s house tucked into one corner along with an iron forge and a series of guard bunkers close by.

IMG_2151The park volunteer – who jumped up and launched into a memorized lecture about the place any time anyone came in – pointed out that just about every part of the house was original, and clarified that it wasn’t just Washington who lived in it, but also his aides-de-camp, sometimes Martha, and “some servants and slaves” – about twenty people on the whole, packed into a little three-bedroom house with an attic.

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The downstairs rooms were also given over to offices – Washington’s own office in the rear, and his aides-de-camp’s office in the front.

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Something the visitors’ center and the volunteer both pointed out: the soldiers in Valley Forge didn’t just sit around being cold.  Washington had used the winter to sort of give the entire Continental Army a makeover. Before the winter, each states’ regiment had been using their own techniques and their own battle planning, and was responsible for their own training.  Which left things a fairly disorganized mess.  So Washington used the winter to come up with a unified plan for training, arming, and supplying the entire army as a single cohesive force.  “Which required a lot of paperwork,” the volunteer pointed out at Washington’s House, “so that’s what his aides-de-camp were doing the whole time, was recopying Washington’s orders over and over.” I had to chuckle a bit when the volunteer name-dropped Alexander Hamilton a couple times during his lecture – “Yep, he knows what sells.”

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And the whole thing had a comparatively tiny kitchen.

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A short walk away were the cabins where Washington’s security guard were bunked.  These were much more spartan single-room shacks; one of them had two triple-bunk beds in it, meaning that six men lived in a space the size of my living room.

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But there were some bunkers that were two-man cabins, and that seemed a bit more cozy rather than cramped.

It was already mid-afternoon when I’d finished exploring the cabins, so I gave up on the rest of Valley Forge and returned to be ready to collect A when she was done

August 18 – Five Years Ago

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So this is the story of how I flew to another country to get an autograph outside a stage door.

For several years now, I have been a fan of the British show Doctor Who. I confess that I’m one of the “new-Who” fans – all I remember of the show’s tenure before its 2006 relaunch is a few glimpses of Tom Baker in his iconic scarf, but I was only seven and it didn’t quite catch my attention. But the show was revived ten years ago, after I’d been primed with the sci-fi adventure of The X-Files and the freewheeling fantasy of Neil Gaiman, and I was hooked.

And like many fans, I have a favorite Doctor – and also like many fans, that favorite Doctor is Scottish-born David Tennant. David was the tenth actor to take on the role, and I was charmed at the story of how his own childhood love of the show lead him to become an actor in the first place. He was also visibly having the utter time of his life in the part; some critics tutted that his performance in the role was a little too manic, but it was obvious to me that it wasn’t mania, it was a little boy inside the man who was utterly losing his mind that “oh my gosh I used to play Doctor Who during recess and now I get to meet Daleks and Silurians and Cybermen and K-9 FOR REAL!!!!” That kind of enthusiasm is utterly, utterly charming.

…And the pulchritude didn’t hurt either.

On the show, The Doctor often has a human sidekick – or “companion,” in the show’s parlance – and I have a favorite here too: Donna Noble, played by comedienne Catherine Tate. Other companions of the past were younger women who all had worshipful crushes on The Doctor; but Donna was closer to my age, had a saucy tongue, and had utterly no romantic interest in The Doctor whatsoever. “Why would I fancy you?” her character sputters during an early conversation.  “You’re an alien! There’s probably laws against that!” Donna instead became a friend to The Doctor, jumping at the chance to travel with him because he offered her something far better than the dull office work and low confidence she’d been mired in before they met.  Donna’s sauciness was covering a lot of self-doubt, and The Doctor was able to spot that and pull her out of it, and for a year they were a witty, lively, formidable team.

I could also tell that David and Catherine adored working together. Their comedic chemistry was absolutely divine, and they would do a lot of joint interviews that year where they riffed off each other with absolutely no effort whatsoever; the kind of riffing that is born of mutual respect and affection. But after a year, Catherine Tate left the show – something which often happens –  and the following year, David announced that 2011 would be his last year too. I was already missing Donna, and learning that my Doctor would be leaving too was a bit of a fangirl blow.

…Then I learned that David and Catherine had decided to do a little something together after David was done with the show. Because they had indeed loved working together, and wanted to do more things together now and then. Like….a play, maybe.  And not just any play – they wanted to do something that showcased their comedic chops.

Like, say, Much Ado About Nothing. With the pair of them as Beatrice and Benedick.

They announced the show during the spring of 2011, with a summer performance schedule on the West End.  My roommate at the time was another Whovian, and an actress, and we both speculated over the next few days about what such a perfectly-cast production would be like; but then we would both sigh – it would be in London, we were in New York.  We wouldn’t ever see it.

And then a week later I got a last-minute opportunity to stage manage a show one last time.  I was already considering leaving theater, but this particular show offered a much shorter schedule than usual, and I was considering it as a swan song. But then they quoted the pay – which was considerably better than what I was used to.

In fact, it would be just enough for a round-trip ticket to London.

I said yes, went home from that interview, and in the course of only about an hour and a half I’d bought my plane ticket, secured a bed in a youth hostel and bought a front-row-mezzanine seat at the theater on Charing Cross Road.

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I’d gotten a red-eye flight, landing in London the same day as the show. Between the excitement and the cramped seat, though, I’d only gotten an hour’s sleep, and turned up at the hostel meaning to get a nap before the performance.  But either excitement or vanity prompted me to have a shower and pick out the perfect outfit instead, so I ended up heading to the theater about an hour before showtime, where I mingled with a horde of other fans waiting for the doors to open.

The show itself was delightful. Other productions I’d seen were more faithful to the script’s Renaissance Italian setting, but this production set everything in the 1980’s, and the design staff clearly had had more than enough fun bedecking everything in 80s kitsch; one lead dons a wedding dress like Princess Diana’s, a child with a small supporting role toys with a Rubik’s cube in each scene.  Even the music – the show’s famous song “Sigh No More,” a song about the fickleness of men, had been given an 80s pop spin that reminded me of something by Wham (and which was stuck in my head for three full days afterward).  But this also wasn’t just a fan pleaser; the rest of the cast more than held up their end of the show.  The actor playing Claudio, half of the play’s other romantic plot, was especially good; and I was stunned to see that the actor was actually still in drama school.

But really I was there for David and Catherine, and they were having just as much fun here as they were on Doctor Who. They had slapstick, they had witty hijinks, they had a scene where David was dressed up like Madonna (do not ask), and they were full of that crackling energy that a pair of actors get when they know that the two of them are capturing lightning in a bottle and it was intoxicating.

…Now, maybe it was undignified of me to join the crowd of fans outside the stage door. But I couldn’t go all that way and not try to get an autograph.  It’s something I’ve done before, at stage doors here in New York; but I also knew that with celebrities, you have limited success at that.  Usually, the autograph scrum at stage doors is really tightly regulated – the actor has a pen already, the fans can’t ask for an autograph on anything but the program, and usually there’s a car already waiting close by for the actor to flee to and make their escape. The past couple times I’d tried, I’d been stuck in a crowd three-deep and the actor didn’t look at anyone, they were just looking for programs to grab, sign, and hand back as quickly as possible so they could get going before the crowd got too wound up. A couple times I hadn’t even gotten an autograph myself.

The crowd in London was already thick when I got there, and I shouldered my way as close to the front as I could, still standing behind two younger women. I opened my program to have it ready, and listened to the usher barking out the rules – no pushing, no long conversations, the cast will only sign the program, and he reserved the right to shut the whole thing down if the crowd got out of hand. I settled in, preparing for a long wait while the cast got changed.

But within only a couple minutes, David Tennant came bounding out of the stage door, waving at all of us as he darted towards the far end of the crowd from where I stood. He had a thick pen already in hand, and frantically began grabbing programs and signing them; but I also noticed that he was looking people in the face as he took them, shooting them a quick “hello” each time. When he saw someone had a camera in hand, he cheerfully leaned over unprompted so they could take a selfie with him, and went right back to signing. The crowd was buzzing with excited and happy energy, and bubbling with snips of conversation – squeals from fans, and his own breathless but modest responses in his Scottish burr.

He seemed so gracious, in fact, that I decided that I was actually going to say something to him after all. I’d planned on just getting the program  and saying thanks – I tend to leave celebrities alone, figuring they’d prefer to be treated like regular people – but I decided I had to say something. And so when he’d worked his way to our end of the crowd, and was reaching for the program I’d shoved between the girls’ heads, I blurted out, “Sir, you should know I was in New York City only twelve hours ago, and this show was worth a red-eye flight!”

He actually stopped writing for a second and looked at me in surprise. “Did ye really come all that way just for this?”

“…uh-huh!” Despite myself, my heart started racing that oh my god he is actually talking to me.

“Wow!” He was already handing my program back and reaching for someone else’s, but still addressed me. “Thank you so much!  Are – are ye alright now, though? Are ye all jet-lagged?”

I’d recovered enough to crack a joke.  “Eh, I think I got about a half hour’s sleep somewhere over Reykjavik.”

“Ah, yer fine, then,” he teased. “You’ve got nuthin’ to complain about!”  He was still frantically signing other programs, trying to also talk to other people if they shouted out their own greetings or congratulations.  “Are ye an actor?” he tossed back my way.

“A stage manager,” I said.  He just nodded, and I could tell he was trying to also keep an eye on everyone else. I’d had my moment, so I started to fade back into the crowd and let him be.

But as I did, he glanced back over his shoulder at me. “Thank ye so much for comin’ all that way!”

“Thank you!” I gushed back, and then slipped into the crowd.  In a daze, I also sought out Catherine Tate for her autograph – I didn’t think of anything to say to her but “thank you” – and also saw the young man playing Claudio hovering to one side, waiting for friends, and got his autograph too.  I then started back towards the Tube to head back to the hostel, and managed to get a block and a half before completely breaking down and texting everyone I knew that “OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I JUST MET DAVID TENNANT AND HE ACTUALLY TALKED TO ME!!!!”

I was still in a fangirl daze when I made it back to the hostel and burbled my story to the desk staff (“listen, can I just share this because I’m too excited and have to tell someone…”) they patiently listened, and teased me a bit about how giddy I was.  But then one of the women there smiled and said, “actually, though, it’s really good to hear that someone who’s that big a celebrity can also be really, really nice.”

 

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