My Gnome-tastic Visit to Brewery Achouffe in Belgium

Several years ago while shopping at Whole Foods, I caught a glimpse of a gnome perched atop a beer tap at the grocery store’s bar. Ever since that day, I’ve been obsessed with Brasserie D’Achouffe, a gnome-themed brewery in the countryside of Belgium.

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Through my gnome writings, I’ve even gotten to know the brewery’s founder, Chris Bauweraerts via email! Well one of my gnome travel bucket-list dreams recently came true when I booked a trip to Belgium to visit Chris and these tiny gnome brewers.

My gnome-supportive husband and I rented a car in Brussels, and drove two hours to reach the brewery in the rolling hills of the Belgian Ardennes. Belgians drive on the right side of the road, not the wrong/left side like they do in the UK, so it was pretty easy to get around.

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But first, we stopped in Liege, a small Belgian town on the way. A quick TripAdvisor search told me that the top thing to do in Liege was climb the Coteaux de la Citadelle, which involves 374 stairs that lead to an awesome view of the town.

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The town of Liege has an upper level and a lower level, so we wandered the streets of both, which were connected by peaceful wooded trails. Although I only had a couple hours to spend here, I’d say it was definitely a worthwhile pit stop.

And what’s a pit stop without some sustenance?! Here’s me skeptically eating a delightful (?) lunch of canned corn and peanut butter while watching some drama go down with the local police.

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But without further delay, onward we traveled to Achouffe! The brewery location is beautiful with cutesy homes, a small lake, and gnome figures scattered all around on the walls and signs.

Chouffe 1It was a Friday afternoon and all was quiet on the gnome-front. This was fine with me, as it provided many uninterrupted photo ops with the local gnome residents.

Chouffe 2Helpful gnomes pointed us in the right direction as we explore the grounds before our scheduled tour.
Chouffe 4Reminiscent of that day back in Chicago when I “gnomed myself” at Chouffe Fest Chicago, the brewery had a perfectly-situated and oversized chair to hop into and feel as tiny as the gnome brewers themselves.

Related: The Night I Gnomed Myself – Chouffe Fest Chicago

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Standard brewery tours are in Dutch; however, our gracious guide, Lydia, took the time to translate everything in English just for us.

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We got to see the Achouffe beer-making equipment, brewing vats, and even a short film about the brewery’s history. Not surprisingly, I was captivated and enthralled during every single moment.

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Then Lydia led us to the tasting room to sample all the Chouffe specialties: the traditional blonde (La Chouffe), decadent brown(Mc Chouffe), hoppy IPA (Houblon Chouffe), and fruity summer beer (Chouffe Soleil). I must reveal that I’m a bit of a craft beer connoisseur, and even if gnomes weren’t on each label, these would still be some of my all-time favorites!

Chouffe 8I even got to play bartender for a bit! Could a full-time gig and relocation to Belgium be in my future?

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Although the staff gave us complementary glasses and postcards, I quickly found myself stocking up on gnome gear at the souvenir shop. I’m now the proud owner of a long-sleeved Chouffe bike shirt, wall plaque, key chain, and zip drive!

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But the highlight of my brewery visit was meeting and spending time with the owner and founder, Chris. I could not have asked for a more welcoming and hospitable host!

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Chris published a book, called My Chouffe Story, which details how the brewery began in 1982 and how the gnomes became such an important part of the brewing process. He gave me a signed copy of his book as a gift, a memento I will always treasure.

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Chris went out of his way to make us fall in love with the Belgian countryside, taking us to some of his favorite places in the area. We followed Chris, (in his orange shirt and orange car…a fellow fan of everything orange, like me!) to a nearby bed, breakfast & brewery, La Vieille Forge, which is known as the tiniest brewery in Belgium.

By the way, the concept of a BB&B is amazing and there should be more of these…EVERYWHERE.

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I got to meet the mastermind behind Brewery Inter-Pol and sample his two original beers, which were delicious. I really just wanted to stay at this tiny country pub for a while with the super-friendly locals and crash overnight at the B&B, but alas, all the rooms were booked for a biking event in the area. Maybe next time.

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After reluctantly leaving the tiny brew pub, Chris took a traditional kebob & fries restaurant, Friterie Au Chat l’Heureux, to fill up our stomachs after all that awesome beer.

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There were a few too many choices for my overloaded brain at this point in the brew-fueled day, but was finally able to decide on an order. Whew.

Fries are a big deal in Belgium, and although I tend to avoid the greasy specimens back in the States, I felt obliged to give ’em try on this side of the pond. I can’t deny that they were a tremendously satisfying post-beer snack. Good thing I’d been averaging 10 miles of walking per day!

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Chris knows the ins and outs of everything in the Belgian Ardennes…even the history behind an old cemetery that we stopped to check out along the road.

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In caravan-style, we spent our afternoon following him to a few of his other favorite places in the area, including a WWII site, scenic nature sites with yellow wildflowers, the production & bottling facility, and a local pub.

Chouffe19Gnome and beer enthusiasts truly are the friendliest people in the world, and I’m so happy to have hundreds of photos (literally, hundreds) to remember my gnome-tastic day forever.

Chouffe18A big thanks goes out to Chris, Isabelle, Lydia, and all the Chouffe staff for making my gnome brewery visit absolutely perfect. Cheers!

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*A version of this story is published in the current edition of the “International Gnome Club Newsletter.” Drop a line to President Liz Spera [email protected] become a member of our club and keep up with gnome enthusiasts like me!

Meet Stephen R. Feilbach: The Chainsaw-Loving, World-Traveling Dude on a Mission to Rescue Trapped Gnomes from Trees

Have you ever looked at a tree and thought, “Hey! There’s a gnome stuck in there and I should rescue him!”

Maybe not, but believe it or not, there is a guy who’s made it his life’s mission to save trapped gnomes from forces beyond their control. And he calls himself the “Gnome Dude.”

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Stephen R. Feilbach, a Kansas City, Missouri native, has been carving faces that resemble gnomes for many years.  Now he’s taken his art to an extreme level and created Gnome Nation, a liberation movement that’s taking America by storm…one beard and pointy hat at a time.

According to Stephen, gnomes began hiding in trees many years ago because people were stealing their hats (which hold magical powers, of course).

How DARE they?!

But apparently, this little self-preservation plan backfired because many of those tree-dwellers became trapped. This is where Stephen steps in and comes to the rescue.

With a little chainsaw magic of his own, Stephen frees the trapped gnomes…then he takes his rescue mission one step further. He adopts out the freed gnomes to loving homes, spreading that quirky joy that only gnomes can bring.

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Disclaimer: a re-gnoming fee may apply to fund travel expenses.

“It just keeps growing and people are contacting me from all over the world,” Stephen said. “Now I’m obsessed with releasing or saving gnomes everywhere and adopting them out.”

Gnomes (and humans obsessed with gnomes) tend to be nature lovers and stewards of Mother Earth. So it should come as no surprise that the wood Stephen uses for his carvings is 100 percent recycled. This means no tree loses its life to allow a gnome can live! Rather, the wood is sourced from dead trees that have passed on to meet their maker.

Stephen’s gift for seeing gnomes trapped in trees and his passion for releasing them doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him well.

“All of my life I have danced to the beat of my own drums, so most of my friends and family are not surprised by anything I do anymore.”

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So what’s next for the “Gnome Dude”?

So far, Stephen’s gnome-freeing mission has taken him to the Kansas City World Series, Davenport, St. Louis, Central Missouri, and beyond. Stephen and his gnomes have traveled from Maine to Mexico and all over the U.S. – visiting farmers’ markets, festivals, and oddball shops along the way. This summer, he’s headed to Colorado, Texas, and wherever else the wind blows as his following grows and more people discover the magic of his ingenious creations.

So what’s the best way to support Stephen’s mission and welcome one of his gnomes into your own home?

The Gnome Nation Facebook page is a great place to start, because that’s where you can get in touch with Stephen, keep up with his travels, and catch him on the road. He’s been known to leave rescued gnomes behind in shops across the country and update the page with posts to point potential adopters in the right direction.

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Adoption fees start at about $125 for an 18-inch original carved gnome and $500 to $2,000 for a 3-to-5 foot gnome.  Stephen has also made gnomes that soar to over 10 feet tall! You can hire him for custom chainsaw carvings and live entertainment, and he’s even starting to create some gnome paintings on the side.

At the time this article was written, Stephen had freed over 30 gnomes, but was well on his way to reaching his end-of-the-year goal of 100. He does all the carving and painting himself by-hand, but thrives upon the inspiration of people that he meets on the road.

“I’ve always loved taking people’s ideas and making them real,” Stephen shared.

Gnome enthusiasts and artists, like Stephen, are part of a steadily growing international niche community that I, for one, and proud to be a part of.

When asked about the biggest challenge posed by freeing gnomes from trees, this was the Gnome Dude’s top complaint:

“They won’t stop moving before they’re finished!”

To learn more about Stephen’s art, his mission, or just to have a casual chat about gnomes, check out his website or reach out to him directly at 573-418-0765 and [email protected].

 

About the Author: Alyssa is an Atlanta-based freelancer and gnome fanatic who writes for the International Gnome Club and manages a team of gnome bloggers at The Drunk Gnome. This year, Alyssa’s epic travels will take her to the UK and Belgium to visit The Gnome Reserve and the gnome-themed brewery, Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Miniature Balcony Gardening…in a 2-Foot by 10-Foot Space

I’ve been sporadically growing indoor houseplants for years now, but have never had the pleasure of my own yard or garden to expand to. Now that I’ve moved to Atlanta…well…I still don’t.

But I do have a miniature balcony – one that measures 2 feet wide by 10 feet long.

Indoor plants

My best indoor plants right now: blooming tulips & almost-blooming hyacinth

My balcony isn’t even large enough to put a chair on, but alas, it’s better than no outdoor space at all. It’s even better because the previous tenant actually left behind her old flower boxes, bird feeders, and a pot with a stand.

So on Wednesday afternoon when I wasn’t much in the mood for working (a rare but liberating freelancer moment!) I drove to Lowe’s to scout out their garden section. I’ve been watching the Atlanta weather and am feeling fairly confident that the temperatures won’t dip below freezing again anytime soon.

Impatiens

Also known as “impatience”…which I have plenty of.

I desperately wanted to try growing vegetables, but feared the lack of all-day sun and small space would kill them straight away. So I settled on some cilantro, basil, and mint for herbs and impatiens and begonias for flowers.

After getting home with my new plants, the first step was to clean out the dried-up planter boxes that had been left behind. I had picked up a big bag of potting mix in the garden center…one that promised to “grow plants TWICE AS BIG!”

Basil

Starting with the basil…trying not to make a humongous mess.

Since the only way to access the balcony is through the carpeted living room and is barely big enough to stand on, I set up my gardening project outside the garage in the “front yard.” And then proceeded to carefully carry everything upstairs and through the house…no spills!

Soil goes in, herbs go in, more soil goes in, water, and repeat.

I’m hoping to toss some basil and cilantro to some dishes while cooking and sipping mint mojitos. Seems reasonable, right?

According to the little tags, all three of my herbs like part sun (3-6 hours per day) and part shade. My balcony faces southeast, so I figured this would be a safe bet.

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Trying to give these lil’ guys the best fighting chance at life.

Next for the impatiens! I remember my mom growing lots of impatiens around the yard as a kid. They’re inexpensive, easy to grow, and don’t need much sun. In fact, they prefer shade. We’ll see how they do with part sun and part shade in the balcony box.

Begonia

Hopefully this big girl doesn’t drip too much on the neighbor’s balcony down below…whoops.

I’ve always been a fan of hanging basket plants because they’re already living in a decent pot and are visible from far away. This is a pink begonia that likes morning sunlight only…or so I’m told.

Gnomekeeper #1

Gnomekeeper #1

But let’s be honest here. One of the biggest reasons I’m interested in gardening is because of the garden gnome opportunities that go along with it. Fortunately, I had a few gnomes-on-sticks lying around to stick into the herb and flower planter boxes.

Gnomekeeper #2

Gnomekeeper #2

So for now, this is what my balcony looks like! A welcome improvement to the drab, plantless-void that was here just a few days ago.

The finished product...for now.

The finished product…for now.

I’m happy to share that I’m one of the first gardeners in my apartment complex to put out plants for the season. Maybe they’re lazier than I am…or maybe they know something about typical weather conditions that I don’t know. We shall see!

A view from below

A view from below

But for now I’m pretty happy with my miniature balcony on the third floor. As long as the maintenance staff isn’t going crazy with the leaf blowers (that seems to be a big problem on Mondays), it’s peaceful here. Birds are chirping, traffic is low, trees are in the distance, and cherry blossom trees are starting to bloom nearby.

Be jealous, neighbors...be jealous.

Be jealous, neighbors…be jealous.

Stay tuned for gardening session #2, where I’ll take this abandoned pot of dead rosemary and transform it into something awesome to sit in the corner.

The next gardening project...dun dun dun...

The next gardening project…dun dun dun…

Armed with plant food, extra soil, and a watering can, I’m determined to make this the best damn mini balcony in the south.

Gnomeville: A Local Legend in Olney, Illinois

I was born in a small town in the middle of nowhere that you’ve probably never heard of.It goes by the name of Olney: population 9,108.

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To outsiders, Olney is really only known for one thing: white squirrels. There are a couple different theories about how these albino creatures found their way to southern Illinois, but they’ve emerged as a mascot for this working class town.

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But more recently, Olney has become known for something else…something that I personally take more interest in than any sort of pale-skinned rodent. A small community of gnomes has appeared along the west side of Illinois Route 130, just south of the Richland Country Club. After a seven-year hiatus, I finally made it back to my hometown to pay them a visit.

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You know you’ve arrived when you reach the sign marked “Gnomeville,” but you might just miss it if you blink. Over the winter holiday season, I convinced my fiancée and my parents to pull to the side of the highway so I could meet these gnomes for myself. I once called this place home and now they do, so clearly we had a lot in common.

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Olney’s Gnomeville has been around for a couple years now, and Cathy Fehrenbacher, who lives across from the highway display, has served as the unofficial caretaker for the gnome village.

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“It just kind of kept growing,” Cathy said. “It’s kind of stood on its own. It’s a group effort.”

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But unfortunately, the gnomes here are starting to look a bit weathered and are in desperate need of some tender loving care. I’m currently living in Atlanta, but if I only lived closer, I’d surely take them under my wing. Hopefully someone local will lend them a helping hand and keep the quaint and quirky tradition alive. This is a place where gnomes, albino squirrels, and my relatives can all coexist in peaceful harmony. And I look forward to paying them (gnomes, squirrels, and relatives) a visit next time I’m back home.

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Have you encountered any pop-up gnome communities where you live or have recently traveled? Keep an eye out, because these little guys and gals tend to settle in some of the most unexpected places!

My First Attempt at Felting: Project Plush Gnome

As an avid gnome collector and semi-obsessive enthusiast, I have a Google News alert set up to receive notifications about all gnome-related happenings in real time. Well one day recently, I came across an article from a local Vermont newspaper interviewing a woman, Susi Ryan, about her felted gnome products.

Felted gnome products?!

My ears instantly perked up. I headed over to Susi’s Etsy page, The Felted Gnome Knows, to learn more.

felted

There were lots of awesome things for sale here, including needle felted birds, hats, and of course, gnomes. But then I stumbled upon her Needle Felting Gnome Kit.

What if I could make my OWN gnomes?

Just like I’d always wanted to! Plush gnomes that I could carry around with my as I travel without fear of breaking!

However, I was confused and a bit nervous about the whole process. I knew what felt was, like those felt squares you buy in bulk packaging. But feltING? What exactly did that entail and was it feasible for a crappy crafter like myself?

Felting kit

According to Susi, “Needle Felting is a unique art. It is not an old technique, it started in the 1980s when some artists found that by using a machine felting needle they could shape wool by stabbing it. It takes many stabs, hours and bleeding fingers to sculpt wool but the results as you can see are terrific. There is something magical about wool felt creatures and paintings. It emanates warmth, strength and evokes a time when play was innocent.”

IMG_3313So I pushed my crafting insecurities aside and placed an order for the gnome-making kit. It arrived quicker than expected and was very cutely packaged with everything one would need to make – not just one, but several – felted gnomes. Inside the kit I found:

  • Felting needles
  • Foam square base
  • Skewer,
  • Core wool,
  • Hand dyed green, red and grey or brown wool.
  • Hand dyed accent wool of blue, flesh and black.
  • Complete picture instructions

Most of the wool is sourced in Vermont and Susi hand-dyes all her own wool. Now that’s hardcore.

To get started, I emailed a crafty friend for advice and encouragement, and she sent me a few YouTube videos. I found the most helpful one to be Basic Tools and Techniques for Felting by GypsyFelting.

IMG_3314Before even having a chance to get started, I broke a couple needles in half just trying to get them out of the packaging. This taught me very quickly how fragile these needles really are…even though they don’t look like they’d be. Susi was kind enough to send me a few replacement needles in the mail. Now that’s what I call a great Etsy shop owner.

After watching a couple YouTube videos, I concluded that the basic idea of felting was little more than stabbing fluffy fabric with a sharp object onto a sponge. Seems reasonable, right? I’m not here to make it look glamorous; I’m here to share a really accessible craft that is quickly becoming one of my new favorites.

IMG_3315In an effort to bring more ethnic and cultural diversity to my gnome collection, I decided to create a handsome brown gnome, who I like to say is of the Indian persuasion.

I worked on shaping him for about an hour on a Sunday morning and then for another hour or so later that afternoon. Sure, he’s not that big or anything; but gosh was I surprised how quickly he took shape and began actually looking like a gnome!

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I finished this nameless brown gnome, my first felting project, in just a single day and couldn’t have been more pleased with the result. It was a warm sunny day in Atlanta so I took him out to pose on my Jeep for a mini-photo shoot.

Like most crafts, felting made me incredibly intimidated before I mustered up the courage to just give it a shot. But with Susi’s kind, encouraging words and a couple hours of free time on my hands, I’m sure glad I did. Felting has become one of my new favorite crafts now, and I love the idea of making fun, plush dolls to give as gifts.

In fact, just today I was researching monkey felting projects and found this fun felted chimpanzee pattern. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I think this might just be my next craft project!

Have you tried felting? I’d love to hear about what you made and how it went!

And if you don’t have time to try it yourself at the moment, I’d still highly recommend Susi’s Etsy shop. She has lots of ready-made stuff on there that’s super unique.

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Needle felted rabbit mask, anyone?

*A version of this article is scheduled to appear in the next edition of the International Gnome Club Newsletter! 

The Semi-Epic Life of a Rooftop Tomato Plant

It was Father’s Day 2014, and in an odd twist of fate, I found myself spending the day with my father. To keep the whole family entertained, I organized a quick trip to the Chicago Botanical Garden to look at plants and such.

But this isn’t a story about my father; it’s about a tomato plant that spent a wild and turbulent summer with me on a rooftop in the city.

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Much to my surprise, I didn’t just stare at plants from a reasonable distance at the botanical gardens. I actually got to bring one home with me! And for those of you who know me too well, NO, I did not secretly stash anything in my purse.

A couple of volunteers were handing out white cherry tomato plants in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden…FOR FREE!

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Apparently, white cherry tomatoes are native to the western coast of South America and the Galapagos Islands. Whatever the heck they’re doing in the suburbs of Chicago is a mystery to me. Too bad I couldn’t have justified a quick trip to the Galapagos to reunite this poor, lost plant with its family.

3Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - June 17, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – June 17, 2014

It sucks to acquire a free tomato plant and have nowhere to put it. I once had access to the roof adjacent to my second floor apartment. But ever since my weird landlord showed up one day to change the locks and board up a door, my personal space is entirely, and sadly, confined to the indoors.

So I meandered up to the 6th floor rooftop of my boyfriend’s condo and found a quiet little corner to transform into a makeshift tomato garden. It became an official garden when I stuck a gnome-on-a-stick and a laminated talk bubble into the pot. I figured this tomato plant would have an awfully lot to say to random passersby.

I named her Piddilywinks and she began to grow tall, strong, and beautiful. Based on the little handout sheet I received with her, she promised to produce tomatoes by my birthday. Good timing, Piddilywinks!

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - July 25, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – July 25, 2014

I tried to take good care of her, being my first real garden plant at all. I even trekked to Home Depot to invest in some stakes and twisty ties to hold up her branches. Piddilywinks began to enjoy a wonderful existence up on that rooftop…until I was reminded of one of the main reasons I don’t have a real garden.

I like to travel. And plants don’t like owners who travel.

On July 27th, I set out on a three-week adventure along the West Coast. Sadly, Piddilywinks wouldn’t exactly fit in my carry-on bag.

Related: Spelunking at California’s Lava Beds National Monument

Related: Resort Ruins and an Auto Graveyard: Rediscovering My Love for Hiking in Mt. Shasta

Related: Gnome Man’s Land: A California Fantasy Land 40 Years in the Making

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - July 27, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – July 27, 2014

When I returned from spelunking, hiking, and gnoming, I expected to find a dreadfully dead Piddilywinks waiting for me. But when I climbed the stairs to the 6th floor roof I found something entirely different…

MY PLANT WAS MISSING.

Totally gone. Without a trace. Pot, gnome, talk bubble, and all.

To me, this was worse than being dead. Where was my closure?!

Being the investigative sleuth he is, my boyfriend sent an email to his condo mailing list to get to the bottom of this. As it turns out, Piddilywinks was kidnapped.

I must admit, however, that she was kidnapped with good intentions. One dude in the building was concerned for her health and welfare and gave her to another dude in the building to take care. Why neither of these dudes bothered to respond to Piddilywinks talk bubble, I’ll never know.

After a semi-dramatic email exchange, Piddilywinks was eventually returned to her original position on the rooftop – and in great shape!

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - August 15, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – August 15, 2014

Dude #2 had clearly nursed her back to health, so I can’t really hold the kidnapping against him.

Piddilywinks had sprouted green tomatoes by mid-August. I was so anxious for them to turn white and taste like cherries. I was promised a white cherry tomato plant after all.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - August 21, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – August 21, 2014

Much to my surprise, there was nothing white or cherry about Piddilywinks at all! Her tomatoes came in yellow!

As to provide further evidence of my neglectful plant parenting, I abandoned Piddilywinks once again in mid-August to join a spontaneous concert road trip to New York City.

Related: How I Wrapped Up My 30th Year in New York City

But this time, I left her in the care of my boyfriend, who snapped this photo of the first yellow tomatoes.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - September 25, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – September 25, 2014

Who needs a watering can when you have a large supply of brewery growlers on hand?

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - October 22, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – October 22, 2014

Piddilywinks continued to survive and thrive throughout September and even October. In the end, she supplied me with around 50 “white” (yellow) “cherry” tomatoes. Yes, I ate almost all of them myself. And they were delicious!

There is one crucial thing that I didn’t know until I sat down to write this blog. You’re not supposed to ‘fridge ’em! Apparently, cherry tomatoes lose their flavor and texture deteriorates under 54 degrees. So THAT’S why they always tasted better right after I plucked (i.e. harvested) and washed them!

But as some wise gardener probably said at one point, the lives of all good plants must eventually come to an end.

Piddilywinks final days were spent on the rooftop in early November, when the temperatures began dipping into the 30s. She showed strength and resilience until her final day, when I carried her down to the dumpster in semi-ceremonial fashion. Even when her leaves rotted and withered away, she still hung on to her last remaining unripe tomatoes – hoping the would feed me one day.

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant - November 15, 2014

Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant – November 15, 2014

Someday I won’t travel as much. Someday I’ll have a full-fledged garden. Someday I’ll read about the plants I intend to grow. And someday I’ll head to my backyard stead of the market for my produce.

But this year, I had a rooftop tomato plant. Her name was Piddilywinks and I miss her already.

R.I.P. Piddilywinks the Tomato Plant: June 17, 2014 – November 15, 2014.

Gnome Man’s Land: A California Fantasy Land 40 Years in the Making

Imagine walking into the backyard of an unassuming single family home, only to find thousands of pairs of beady little eyes peering out at you beneath pointy red hats. 1 No, this isn’t the setup for some creepy B-horror film; it’s a dream-come-true for every hardcore gnome collector. This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Gnome Man’s Land, an elaborate gnome home and garden in Santa Rosa, California. 2 Now this is no fly-by-night gnome collection tucked away in the bowels of obscurity. Oh, no no. This is a gnomish fantasy land nearly 40 years in the making, operated by my good friend and personal idol, Jean Fenstermaker. 4 Jean was inspired to create Gnome Man’s Land in the 1960s after a few key life events: her Disneyland storybook canal ride, her mother’s rock garden, and her friend who had two gnomes on an office desk. Jean’s first gnome garden was born on January 25, 1976 and spanned just 18 inches by 35 inches in size. From the very beginning, Jean loved to create mini-themes within her garden and stories about her gnomes. With some plant clippings from her mother and tiny bridges and accessories built by her woodworking father, her gnomes’ stories began coming to life. 3 Over the years, Jean has created eight additional and separate gnome gardens in her backyard. There’s The Forest Rock Garden with wildlife, The Frog Garden with gnomes and amphibians co-existing in harmony, and the Life-Size Garden…which is, you guessed it, full of LIFE-SIZED GNOMES. But keep your britches on…even in real life, gnomes are still pretty tiny. 3 You can find everyone from immigrant gnomes, partially-clothed gnomes using the bathroom, gnomes with gambling habits, gnomes fighting neighbor gnomes, and vegetable-growing gnomes lurking around every corner and begging for your attention. 4 The spring and summer seasons bring local visitors, out-of-state travelers, and gnome aficionados from around the globe to Jean’s gnome home. The typical crowd comes from church groups, “red hatters,” and senior living facilities. Gnomes are pretty fragile, and I know that if I ever have kids, I’ll be keeping my gnomes safely packed away ’til they’re old enough to understand how awesome they are. 4 I personally met Jean a few years ago through the International Gnome Club, where we are both tri-annual contributing newsletter writers. For over a decade now, I’ve gotten a kick out of being part of a subculture that baffles the other 99 percent of humanity. 5 I also just need to put this out there: Jean’s husband, Jim, deserves a ton of praise and recognition. Jim has helped build the gardens, weeds the plants, prunes the roses, AND he enthusiastically socializes with random gnome fanatics wandering through his backyard. If I ever have a husband, he damned well better be as supportive of my gnome obsession as that Mr. Fenstermaker. And I’ll just leave it at that. 6 Despite Jean and Jim’s attempts at keeping a low profile, they’ve been featured in lots of newspapers – most recently the San Francisco Chronicle, which led to two subsequent radio interviews. Jean’s garden was featured in the amazing book Gnomeland by Margaret Egleton (yes, I have a copy). And TV crews have been out to her Santa Rosa home from Home & Garden TV, The Travel Channel, and ABC’s Dream Home and Collectibles. 8 Jean is one of the kindest and most welcoming human beings I’ve ever met. So much so that she made a sign (held up by a gnome, of course) welcoming my boyfriend and me to Gnome Man’s Land as soon as we pulled into the driveway.  Gnome collectors truly are kindred spirits. 9 After an extensive VIP tour of her gnome garden, Jean whipped out the Gnome Bingo cards and we settled in for some good ole’ fashioned non-monetary gambling with refreshments. Not surprisingly, each Bingo square depicted a themed section of Jean’s quirky gnome garden. 7 Much to my grumbling stomach’s delight, she offered to cook a delicious dinner to share with us to further chat about all-things-gnome and all-things-non-gnome. All of the dishes were adorned with gnomes, and there were even gnome cookies for dessert. Can you say gnome overload? I was practically hyperventilating for hours. 10 Jean has a true and unwavering passion for gnomes, and it shows so beautifully every time her eyes light up with the reflection of a red hat in the distance. She takes such pride in her home, yard, collection, and loyal following that I can’t help but admire her to the point of stealing her ideas for my own home display one day.

As I mentioned earlier, Jean and Jim like to keep a low profile. Although they are the friendliest of friendly to fellow gnome fans, they don’t exactly just open up their backyard to just anyone either.

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You just can’t be too cautious with vandals lurking in the night. I keep up with daily gnome news, and nearly every day there’s a police report filed about gnomes being maliciously stolen, broken, and vandalized!

However, if you’re ever planning a trip to the Napa Valley region of California and would like to have the BEST DAY EVER, I’m might just be able to hook you up with a Gnome Man’s Land VIP Tour.

(Restrictions and fees may apply. Kidding. Sort of.) 11 “Are there any real live gnomes in existence? If there are, I’d sure like to see one!” ~ The cautiously optimistic Jean Fenstermaker.

Spelunking at California’s Lava Beds National Monument

As I recently discovered, one of the best ways to break up a West Coast road trip is by taking a slight detour to the Lava Beds National Monument. Located in that mysterious Northeastern corner of California, this park makes up the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range.Lava6

Mammoth Crater erupted 32,000 years ago and sent massive lava flows 10 miles downhill, creating some really impressive tubes, caves, and boulder fields. Medicine Lake Volcano last erupted 950 years ago, and shifting tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean could actually make it active again someday.

This area is also steeped in brutal American history, thanks to textbook clashes between the Modoc Native American Tribe and Euro-American settlers. But you don’t have to know much about the Modoc War of 1872-1873 to enjoy this bizarre scenery.

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Surrounded by a high desert wilderness, this national park has over 700 caves, Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields, and campsites. Designated as a national landmark in 1925, Lava Beds has numerous lava tube caves, a couple dozen of which have marked entrances and developed trails you can venture down and explore.
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The best part? You can explore these caves on your own without forking over cash for a guided tour or having to put up with annoying tourists huffing and puffing next to you.

Not surprisingly, the best place to start is the visitor center because you can rent flashlights out here for free. They are heavy, bulky, and painfully dim, but they will set you back zero dollars. Basically, if you don’t have one of your own, they’re better than nothing down there.

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However, if you plan to spend a few hours at the park exploring the caves beyond just a few safe steps inside, splurge on an $8 plastic helmet at the visitor’s center. The cave ceilings get lower the farther you hike in and the ceiling rocks are dreadfully sharp. I had a head wound a couple years ago (the kind that requires 11 staples), so I wasn’t exactly into the mood to go through that all over again.

But before you lose yourself in the netherworld of spelunking, keep in mind that there are plenty of nice hikes above ground as well. Soak in the views of the cooled lava beds with gentle mountain peaks in the distance as you give yourself a mini history/geography lesson to stimulate some sort of brain activity.

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You can wander around to your heart’s content around the lava rocks around Black Crater and Battlefield. This is an awesome place to hike if you don’t want some “trail expert” telling you where you can and cannot go. Vegetation is very minimal, so it’s pretty hard to get lost too. On the day I went, the crowds were unbelievably slim and the whole place had a super eerie vibe.

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Definitely don’t miss out on hiking the Schonchin Butte, a 0.7 mile trail that feels about triple that because of the steep elevation. At the top, there’s a ranger station and the dude hanging out all alone inside was quite friendly. However, I truly wonder what he does all day up there.

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As you get back in your car and drive along the park roads towards the main section of caves, there are lots of places to pull off and check out. The most accessible caves are surrounded by metal fences and a ladder that leads down to their cool and creepy depths.

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To get a small taste of caving without much intensity, you can check out the Mushpot, an accessible cave with a high ceiling, paved surface, installed lighting, and lots of informational plaques to read.

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If you’re craving some more caving at this point, you can either hike or drive along the main road to explore a few others. I hiked down and around Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Sunshine, and Sentinel during my time at the park.

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But by far, one of the most awesome caves to check out is Skull Cave. Not only because it has a hardcore name, but also because the floor is covered in ice…even on a sunny 90-degree California day.

The trail down to Skull Cave isn’t very challenging, but it’s really unique. It’s a remnant of three large lava tubes situated on top of each other, and the rock ceilings are high enough so you don’t have to duck down at all. This odd setup traps the cold winter air and creates a year-around ice floor down a metal stairway on the lower level.

But why “Skull Cave?” Because two human skeletons and the bones of some pronghorn and bighorn sheep were once discovered inside…that’s why.

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To pick out a few routes before you visit, check out this handy PDF of cave descriptions. All the caves are really chilly inside and regardless of the outside temperature, the caves range from about 30-55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although visitors are free to roam around pretty much everywhere on their own, the caves are still fragile. So don’t touch stuff!

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There’s also been an issue with white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal bat disease that’s been killing off bat populations down there. Check the National Parks Service site for current cave closures because of this.

After visiting other national parks on busy summer days, I really appreciated the low crowds and the freedom to wander around on my own at Lava Beds. Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, for example, doesn’t allow visitors to explore the caves unless they’re part of an organized tour group. Mammoth is still an awesome place though, especially if you sign up for the hardcore 6-hour “Wild Cave” tour.

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Lava Beds National Monument might seem a little out of the way for some travelers, but if you are in Northern California or are looking for a really unique road trip destination, I’d definitely recommend swinging by! Who knows, you might even find some of my gnome friends guarding the entrances…

A Night Out in Miami’s Little Haiti

Most people who go to Miami for the first time make a point to visit Little Havana, the well-known Cuban neighborhood with authentic cuisine, local art, and domino players in the park. I know I did when I first visited.

Related: Miami: Beyond the Beach and the Bar

But there’s another “little” neighborhood in the city that often stays in the shadows. Little Haiti is South Florida’s cultural heart for the Haitian Diaspora, and unlike Little Havana, it retains an entirely un-touristy vibe.

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On the third Friday of each month, the Little Haiti Cultural Center hosts a festival from 6-10pm that’s open to the public. The main goal is to provide a space to bring together people and ideas, while showcasing and supporting Afro-Caribbean culture in Miami.

It’s called “Big Night in Little Haiti” and it’s an evening of music, art, food, drinks, and opportunities to learn a little bit about Haitian history. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up and thought it could have been anywhere from a tiny neighborhood gathering of resident families to an all-out street bash.

It was somewhere in between…and totally worth a visit. Unlike pretty much anything else you’d choose to do on a Friday night in Miami, this festival is free to attend and has free parking nearby.

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There were some local artists doing their thing and even an inviting classroom to wander into and create a sub par masterpiece of your own. The art instructors were doing an exercise using gold paint on black paper and invited me to come in and paint whatever I wanted.

As to not miss out on other festival happenings too much, I hastily painted an obscure nature scene, with of course, an awkward gnome lurking in the background.

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Also inside the Little Haiti Cultural Center, there was a presentation/fundraiser going on to highlight the work of a famous Haitian jazz singer from a few decades ago. This was a place to bid on professional photographs positioned on the walls, listen to the artist’s music through headphones, and sip some free wine in a plastic cup.

And then there was the food. A cafeteria-style line formed outside beside a long table with Haitian home cooked foods like chicken, fried fish, rice, tostones, and spicy coleslaw. I washed my delicious dinner down with some rum punch with fresh pineapple!

The large meal was $10 and the generously-sized drink was $4. By Miami standards, this was an absolute steal. I’ll sit on the sidewalk and enjoy an authentic meal like this over an overpriced, over-hyped restaurant almost any day.

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The monthly festival has been going on for a few years now and music is a huge part of the whole thing. A reggae-style band played during the entire festival and made me remember how much I really do enjoy a good reggae tune to bop along to in a crowd of strangers. Recently featured bands have included Moksha Roots, Harmonik, Tvice, and Zenglen.

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Aside from the super-nice cultural center, other highlights in the neighborhood are the Haiti Sweat Records Building, Little Haiti murals, Churchill’s Pub, and small local shopping centers. A bronze statue of General Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian independence, stands at Northeast 2nd Avenue and 62nd Street.

The Little Haiti neighborhood is totally off the beaten path of the tourist circuit and would be hard to pinpoint without a GPS. In fact, Miami residents have long been debating what to call this neighborhood because it has no formal boundaries or designated cultural protections. Some call it Little Haiti and and others swear it’s Lemon City.

“Nobody has a true definition of Little Haiti because there are no formal boundaries. It’s pretty subjective,” said historian and Miami Dade College professor Paul George.

“Every day you hear of a new group encroaching into what we know as Little Haiti,” said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian activist pushing for the designation. “These groups moved into Little Haiti, so I don’t understand why they don’t want it to be named Little Haiti anymore.”

Little Haiti gained its name as Haitian migrants, fleeing the regime of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, moved into the neighborhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Haitian pioneer Viter Juste wrote a letter to the Miami Herald calling the area “Little Port-au-Prince,” and the newspaper headlined the letter “Little Haiti”. And the name stuck.

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I’m all about finding authentic non-touristy things to do in places I visit…especially if it isn’t my first time in the area. Some of those ideas work out great and others are a total bust. The Friday festival at Little Haiti tops my list of recent undercover finds.

It’s pretty obvious that I’m not of Haitian descent, but I loved learning a little about Haitian history and joining such a specific celebration of local culture. So consider this an addendum to my previous blog post about non-transitional things to do in Miami and check it out next time you’re in the area!

How I Wrapped Up My 30th Year in New York City

While cranking out some sort of work article one afternoon, a random text message appeared from the void that read something like this: Hey, we’re road tripping to New York in a couple days to see The Unicorns’ 10-year reunion. Join us?

In a couple days? So soon. No way. Well maybe. Don’t be lame. Could be fun. Remember, this is a self-employment perk. Screw it, why not?!

The text came from one of my longest-time childhood buddies, who through all sorts of weird life events, has been my constant best friend for two and a half decades. At that particular point in time, he was halfway between a relocation from Japan to Ireland with his new(ish) wife (who I would have my stolen away as my new friend even without her marital ties). They were making lots of American pit stops along the way, and I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along.

And if convincing myself that spontaneous road trips were an essential occupational perk wasn’t enough, the trip was planned over my birthday weekend – a weekend that I had planned absolutely nothing. That sealed the deal, and off we went…in a Mustang!

In photos, here’s how I wrapped up my 30th year on this planet with two amazing travel companions in New York City.

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A scenic vista in Pennsylvania beckoned the Mustang crew to pull off for a photo op and a leg stretch.

backseatwork‘Tis the rough life of a traveling freelancer. Over the past year and a half, I’ve pretty much mastered the fine art of switching on my work focus at the drop of a hat…or in this case, at the drop of a convertible top. Thank the Lord Almighty for tangled-hair-prevention bandannas.

hollandtunnel1$13 to drive through the Holland Tunnel? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. And I thought Chicago tolls were bad. hollandtunnel2The tunnel was pretty futuristic-rad, snapping pics in the backseat with the top down. But seriously, $13?nycThe sights, sounds and er, smells of NYC as we entered Manhattan through Chinatown. bridgedrive

(singing) New York bridges falling down, falling down, falling down. Fortunately not today.

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Our first Airbnb experience: We stayed in a nice 1-bedroom apartment/condo in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It completely suited our needs, especially since all we did here was sleep and stash our stuff.

walkingbrooklynWandering around Brooklyn with no destination in mind…my favorite way to explore a new place.

brooklynThis was my fourth trip to New York City, so I was more interested in exploring random neighborhoods that revisiting the crowded tourist circuit. Brooklyn was perfect for experiencing that sort of local, unpretentious vibe, with plenty of creative street art along the way. Brooklyn gnome muralThis photo goes to show that I have the uncanny ability to uncover gnomes absolutely ANYWHERE. You can’t imagine my surprise when I strolled past a garage door painted with climbing and roller skating gnomes. These particular gnomes belonged to a craft studio, Baked in Brooklyn. crappypretzelsStreet side dining has a nostalgic appeal that often sounds better in our heads than tastes in our mouths. Exhibit A: crappy soft pretzels in the park. sodabear#peopleleavingdrinks – I never found out what this bear did to warrant incarceration, but at least he seems to receive a steady flow of soda.
creepyfencecreaturesI have no idea why this exists, and I find it wonderful. miscellaneousbookstoreOne of couple Brooklyn bookstores that deserved a bit of browsing time.

oldcheeseAfter hopping on a subway with the Lower East Side and East Village in mind, we wandered around a few unique parts of Manhattan. The oldest cheese store in America apparently exists in Little Italy. I’m still curious how old their oldest cheese block really is though. shoe shopThere’s no time for a busted flip flop in New York City. Rj patiently waited as an aggressive cobbler ripped a dying flip flop in half before making it whole again. mosaic trailAlthough I was only able to follow the Mosaic Trail for a few blocks before getting distracted by something else, I’m sure it leads somewhere really colorful.
weirdasianstuffCreepy scenes never cease to amuse me. Anyone: what’s a “crust jacket”?

Brooklyn Bridge pic

After what seemed to be a never-ending journey to stroll across the elusive Brooklyn Bridge, we found it! Skillful photo credit goes to Sarah for capturing our next album cover.

Arcade Fire picSpeaking of album cover, the entire point of the road trip was this concert! Equipped with not-so-real tattoos x3, our photo booth shot was nothing shy of epic.

theunicornsThe Unicorns! Those mythical creatures do exist! Apparently this indie band hasn’t performed in a decade and reunited, at least in part, because of a 2004 “joke song”  called “The Unicorns: 2014.” The lyrics go a little like this:

“I looked in into my crystal ball – See gummies in the sunny – Riding moonbeams into money.”

DJ Dan DeaconAfter dancing our way through The Unicorns set in sadly empty stands at the Barclays Center, a DJ named Dan Deacon took control of the back stage. The highlight of his performance was when he called out the “people dancing to the Unicorns way up in the stands”. THAT WAS US. Five seconds of fame were OURS and no one else’s.

Dan’s crowd-interactive dance-off circle was fun to watch as well…a distant second highlight.
ArcadeFireThen came Arcade Fire, which was a ridiculously glitzy stage set with no less than a dozen people on stage at any given time. I knew a good number of the AF songs from radio play, some more catchy than others. But ultimately, they put on a super entertaining performance up down there.
expensiveboozeGetting too concert-drunk was a non-issue because one mixed drink cost a whopping $14.75. I expected to find chunks of gold at the bottom of my Jack & Ginger, but alas…nothing more than a few chips of melted ice.

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Hellooo, Jersey City!

And in the true spirit of a whirlwind journey, we were back on the road again in the blink of an eye. So what if we spent nearly as much time going below speed limit on the interstate and taking rest stop breaks than actually in the heart and belly of New York. Road trips are about the journey more than the destination, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

About a decade ago, Rj and I attempted to road trip from Arthur, Illinois to Canada. However, we didn’t even make it past Beloit, Wisconsin. So in that regard, I consider this trip a huge success.

I loved getting to know Sarah over these quick and random road trip days and meeting her welcoming friends who kindheartedly fed us snacks and wine and engaged us in clever conversation one evening in their flat. A trip to visit the newlyweds in Ireland next summer is definitely on my travel to-do list.

Rj and SarahAnd for my birthday? At the stroke of midnight on August 24, 2014, I was half passed out in the backseat of the Mustang rolling through uber-depressing Gary, Indiana. But at that point, I had already celebrated to my heart’s content and had no idea that another adventure was planned for me back in Chicago when I returned home.

howoldareyouWhile passing through a middle-of-nowhere town in Ohio on the return journey, I popped into an antique shop in search of you guessed it…gnomes. Although I didn’t find any, I was entirely amused by this antique cloth print that read, “How Old Are You?”

Although 31 sounds like a totally insignificant number, I’m determined to make it an incredibly significant year. So pour me a glass of brandy and keep the adventures coming!