Category Archives: Updates

Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh (part 2)

CLICK HERE to read the first part.

4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.

After a night at the monastery I was looking forward to seeing The Dharma Hermitage. I went there in the morning with the other travelers, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, backpacking through the world. It took about 20 minutes to walk there, while our bags were being brought up in a pickup truck. We went through the registration process which involves a short interview, picked a chore to do from a list and left our “distractions” (books, phone, camera) at the office. These 10 days are free from any form of technology, although some quick notes are permitted while listening to the talks. I wrote in a notebook nearly every day, in my room.

Inside the women’s dorm area. I loved waking up to see that tree just outside my door every morning.

The schedule was the same every day with small changes: rise, meditation, yoga, meditation, breakfast, chores, more meditation, talks about Buddhism and meditation, more meditation, lunch, chores, meditation, chanting, evening tea, more meditation, walking, meditation, lights out. You may think it’s a lot of meditation but all the activities are arranged in such a way that you don’t spend more than an hour doing each of them. Chores ranged from sweeping leaves to cleaning the toilets. I saw that chore list early on and because it’s a “first come first served” kind of thing, I was able to put my name down for sweeping the dining hall after breakfast and lunch. We also had some free time which I spent taking a nap. You can be sure that after waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, a nap was essential for my sanity and most of us made it a daily habit.

My bedroom for 10 days. That’s my backpack, my yoga mat, and in the corner it’s the old fashioned lantern with a candle.

I made some improvements. Notice my comfy mattress?

The famous wooden pillow. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Waking up at 4 a.m. is challenging. The first couple of mornings I didn’t know where I was or where that terrible sound came from. It was the bell. But I learned quickly on that it was best to have my flashlight handy, look around before I got out of “bed”, and try to be awake and alert on the way to the bathroom (even if I was too sleepy to walk straight), because it was dark and I certainly didn’t want to step on a frog or spider or even a scorpion or a snake.

We were told the type of meditation we practiced at this retreat was called Anapanasiti (mindfullness of breathing). This means being aware of our breath and trying to focus on it. This was my first serious attempt and it was not easy, but I didn’t give myself a hard time over it. Breathing in and out, trying to visualize the air going through my body and back out without allowing my mind to wander was a hard task. My mind went like this:

Breathe in. Out.
In. Out.
Hey, this feels so relaxing.
I wonder what bird makes that shrill sound.
What time is it?
Breathe in. Out.
Slow. Don’t rush.
Oh, I could do this all day….this is not difficult at all.
How many people are in this hall? There are five rows on the women’s side, and it must be like 12 people in a row, so that means….
Don’t think! Just breathe, in and out.

Well, you get the idea. I was actually amused to see how my mind went off in different directions. What I found really interesting was that I never got bored. I would remember things, visualize things and have these funny internal monologues, but it never got bored and I found this strange. I would get bored at home, with so many things to occupy me: books, movies, and that bottomless pit called THE INTERNET. But there, at the retreat, walking around barefoot under the trees, watching the birds and the bugs and just being in the moment, there was nothing but a feeling of contentment. I felt carefree, light, even happy.
It was during one of those moments when my mind was doing anything but meditating that I really understood what this retreat was about. What I got from this retreat was something so simple it could be condensed into one word: TIME. I had time to spend with myself, for myself, time away from distractions, from people (as much as I love people there are moments when I’d rather be alone), from obligations, from doing things that are expected of me. Time, this essential concept we never seem to get enough of these days. Time to breathe, to be alone, to be in the moment, to enjoy watching a bird or a tree. Having to follow a certain program every day can be monotonous but it also frees one’s mind from having to make decisions. You just go with the flow. It’s an incredible thing, to be able to give yourself to the present. Sometimes I forget that.

Next time: Ten things I’ve learned from this retreat






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Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh

Hello, again. I know it’s been a year since my last post but here I am, writing about something I’m excited to share with you. Don’t ask me what happened this past year. A lot has happened and most of it wasn’t that great. But what you’re about to read was (great, I mean).
In May I went on a silent meditation retreat for 10 days. I’ve never tried meditation before and I’m not Buddhist but ever since I’ve read about Wat Suan Mokkh in a book of travel essays called “To Thailand With Love”, I’ve wanted to go see this place for myself.
Because this was going to be a really long post I decided to split it into several parts and add a new one every few days.

“A retreat at the Suan Mokkh monastery is an emotional roller-coaster. But if you survive it, it will cleanse your soul.”

Colin Hinshelwood

For days I’ve been sitting in front of my computer trying to put my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh into words. It’s harder than I thought. There are so many things I want to say and to explain, but taken out of context they will probably mean little to anybody else. But I will try, hard as it is, to tell you about my personal experience.

That’s what I like to call “a letter to humanity”. Written by the founder of the retreat, who died over 20 years ago.

Even though I’ve spent nearly half my life in a Buddhist country I haven’t really paid much attention to Buddhism as a way of life. Sure, I knew some of the rules and what’s appropriate and not, especially when visiting temples, but not much more than that. I know Thai people who go to meditate at temples for a few days, but these temples are in Bangkok and frankly this city is such a tumultuous place that somehow, in my mind, it seems like the last place suitable for meditation. However, when I read about Wat Suan Mokkh something clicked in my mind. This, I told myself, this is where I should go. The prospect of spending 10 days in silence, sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow and eating two vegetarian meals a day appealed to me. Okay, maybe not the hard bed part with the wooden pillow but the rest of it, especially the silence. I wanted something different, a bit of adventure, something I haven’t done before. A boot camp for the mind, I thought. As it turned out, Hinshelwood’s words were spot on.

I did my research – read anything I could find about the place and watched videos of people talking about their experience. I booked my ticket and flew to Surat Thani province (an hour away by plane from Bangkok and about 8 hours by train) two days before the retreat started.

Arrival. Abandon all worries, all who enter here. Chaiya
I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh on the 29 of April, at around 10 a.m. I figured this would give me time to familiarize myself with the surroundings and prepare for the days ahead. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month but participants at the retreat need to be there before 3 p.m. on the previous day. I was so excited about this journey I just wanted an extra day.
There are two separate places – one is the monastery “headquarters”, where anyone can stay for up to 7 days, and the other one, called International Dharma Hermitage, is where the 10-day retreat takes place. They are within walking distance of each other.

Wat Suan Mokkh or “The Garden of Liberation” lives up to its name. As soon as I passed through the gates at the entrance to the monastery, the world seemed to have altered. I was in awe, the kind you feel when you’re seeing something extraordinary. There were trees everywhere, tall and green and loud with cicadas. Monks and visitors walked around. Everyone was smiling. I felt welcomed and relaxed instantly. I was so immersed in the atmosphere I almost forgot to take pictures. My relaxed attitude was somewhat altered when I saw “the room” where I was going to spend the night. Sure, I’ve seen pictures online, but reality still took me by surprise. The bed was a slab of concrete, and the wooden pillow its worthy companion. My first night felt a bit like sleeping in a crypt, which is no surprise considering how many vampire stories I read.

Chaiya, near the train station

That day I went to Chaiya with a couple of young American travelers I met at the monastery. A small town just a few kilometers away from the monastery, Chaiya’s most impressive feature is probably a coffee shop, which has Wi-Fi, fancy cakes and even fancier drinks. Think Starbucks on a smaller scale. There’s also a small train station, and the rest is just rows of town houses with shops on the ground floor.

At the monastery, bedtime is 9.30 p.m. Facilities include individual showers with cold water, there is only soap so you have to bring your own toiletries, and something I found extraordinary: there were NO BINS anywhere! Isn’t that a scary thought? Visitors are responsible for disposing of their own trash. I had a vision of myself carrying a plastic bag with me for ten days. What if there were no bins at the meditation place? As it turned out, there were bins at the Dharma Hermitage. That was a relief. It did make me more aware of the trash I produce and I did my best to keep that to a minimum.

Next time: 4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.






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A little bit of everything, including Easter eggs and squirrels

I am now back in Bangkok after eight months spent at home in Bucharest. Those were probably the most intense months I have experienced, save perhaps for the first year I came to Thailand (nothing will beat that year). These months left me feeling like I’ve been through an emotional cyclone – I’ve seen hospitals, scars and suffering, and I’ve experienced the horrible feeling of watching someone very dear to me fight unbearable pain without being able to do much to help. I’ve been to a funeral, two weddings, and was there when my two best friends announced their pregnancies. All this made me look at life in a new way and it is also the reason I was mostly absent from the blogosphere – spending time with family and friends took over everything else, even reading and most definitely writing.

Books for sale in central Bucharest

Books for sale in central Bucharest

It didn’t really dawn on me I was coming back to Bangkok until the last week – I had a “moment” while in a café & bookshop near Cismigiu Park, a moment when I realized it might be a while before I would be back. It was definitely a goodbye moment, something I didn’t really want to think about but apparently that wasn’t up to me.
And so here I am, and as I made my way out of the Suwarnabhumi airport, I got to experience all over again the overwhelming heat – it’s the hot season and the difference in temperature is shocking, even if Bucharest was warm enough for short sleeves when I left. Bangkok air is heavy and humid and it has an almost liquid quality – it feels as if the air itself pushes its sticky claws into your lungs.

Last Sunday was Easter day and I woke up thinking I should get up and do something before it got too hot to do anything. So I painted some eggs and took some photos and just about managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It’s hellishly hot from around 12 to 5 in the afternoon, which is the time I usually spend watching a movie and reading or aimlessly browsing Facebook posts and lying to myself that I’m just getting settled even if it’s been more than I week since my return and this is my first blog post in a long time.

Ship of Destiny As for reading, last year I left in the middle of a trilogy – I was reading book two of The Liveship Traders, a wonderful work of fantasy by Robin Hobb, and now I’m almost halfway through the last book. Ships with talking figureheads, a pirate, and a family drama unfolding against a backdrop of political unrest, this trilogy is truly wonderful (even if not as amazing as The Farseer Trilogy).

I’m still participating in the Romanian Writers Challenge and the review for the first book will be posted next week if the internet cooperates. It’s been behaving erratically these past few days.
I look forward settling back into a routine, definitely reading more and hopefully writing more as well. It may take me a while to catch up with all of the blog posts I missed but I’ll get there.
And finally, a squirrel, because why not. I took this photo with my phone, in a park back home, sneaking up on the little creature as it was in the middle of a feast.






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Celebrating – a blog anniversary and an old tradition

05 I completely forgot about my blog anniversary until today when I read Deepika’s post. My blog turned five in January.
Five years seems like such a long time. Even though I’m not as active here as I thought I would, I decided that since this is a hobby and life does get in the way often enough, I will only post when I can and feel like it. If you’ve made this place a regular stop during your browsing sessions, thank you. If you left a comment, know that I really appreciate it.

***

If you come to Bucharest between the 1st and 8th of March, you will see a city in celebration. On these two days, and the days in between, girls and women receive flowers, chocolates and “martisoare”(pronounced “martzishoare”). “Martisoarele” are small brooches to be worn pinned to the clothes during this time, and they come with a red and white little cord. They are a symbol of spring and can also be worn as bracelets. According to tradition, between the 1 and 9 of this month we can also choose a day which is said to foretell how the year will be for us. If the weather is good, we’ll have a great year, but if it’s rainy, our year will be one of challenges and hardships. This belief is said to come from ancient times, before we were conquered by the Romans and became Romanians. An old woman named Baba Dochia (baba means “old woman”) climbed the mountains on the 1st of March and every day she took off one of the sheepskin coats she was wearing. Every day it got warmer and every day she cast away a coat – a symbol of the spring to come.
I’ve missed this tradition. Living in Thailand can mean a blur of months melting into one another. The weather is pretty much the same most of the time (hot) and I would often lose track of the holidays we used to celebrate back in Bucharest.
I also call it a holiday because some companies give their employees a day off.

When it comes to reading, I’m off to a slow start this year. I’m almost done with a collection of four short stories by Daphne du Maurier. “Don’t Look Now and Other Stories” has proven to be a wonderfully bizarre book. I hope to finish it this week and review it soon. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is another book which I read recently and should also write about because it’s a beautiful novel, even if it took me a while to warm up to it.






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Some thoughts on 2015 and a “best books” list

winter 2016 -1 I’m writing this from a cold Europe, with an empty mug of chamomile tea next to my laptop. I’m still on this continent for a while, and winter, a season I was never fond of, has finally arrived. It was fun to feel the snow under my boots for a couple of days hours but now I long for t-shirts and the stifling heat of Bangkok. I managed to lean out the window and take a phone pic of snow, right before my fingers froze and my teeth started chattering. Summer is definitely my season.

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year to the day since I wrote my Plans and dreams for 2015. I started last year with a list of things I wanted to do. Maybe I was a little too ambitious – looking back now I can mark as done less than half of them: I’ve submitted two short stories (and got my first rejection letters), had 12 lovely guest bloggers (one for each month), and started a scrapbook/diary, which I will continue in 2016. I didn’t learn how to drive, or take more pictures (unless phone pictures count; do they?), did travel a bit but not to new places, Bukowski and David Foster Wallace are still on my TBR list along with “more poetry”. This year I’m not as expansive and many of my goals center around writing. We’ll see how that goes.

As for books, 2015 was an interesting year. I finally read Kafka and Remarque as part of German Literature Month and I can’t wait to read more of their books. I was a little afraid of Kafka, imagining this is one of those classics one should read but may not necessarily understand – so glad to finally find out how accessible and enjoyable his short stories were; I loved The Metamorphosis so much it’s going to be on my list of best horror stories forever! I was a bit apprehensive on reading war novels but Remarque swept all my doubts away and really impressed me with his powerful, emotional writing.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 34 books. More than half of them are either horror, fantasy, or a combination of both. These are the best of 2015:

1. The Farseer Trilogy – Robin Hobb (links)
2. The Tawny Man (another trilogy) – Robin Hobb
3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
4. The Verdict and Other Stories – Franz Kafka
5. A Time to Love and a Time to Die / The Black Obelisk – Erick Maria Remarque
6. The Ruins – Scott Smith
7. Haiganu–The River of Whispers – Marian Coman
8. The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton

I’ve also read three non-fiction books which I loved and recommend to all creative people out there – Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron, and Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert. Strangely enough, I ended up not writing reviews for any of these three but that’s because I found it difficult to say anything that would show just how much I liked them.
On the first day of the year I woke up in my old bedroom at my parents’ house and grabbed the book on the nightstand which proved to be The Rake by Mary Jo Putney. I normally stay away from romance because I find it so cheesy and predictable, but this proved to be a light read and I really liked the guy in the story. Right after I’ve read a Romanian translation of short horror stories by authors like Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and two Romanian authors, Oliviu Craznic and Serban Andrei Mazilu. Some of the stories I’ve read before but most of them were new and I was sorry to get to the end.
I’m really looking forward to reading more of Robin Hobb’s trilogies this year. I started The Liveship Traders months ago but put it aside when I found out I was coming back to Europe for a few months. I would also like to read The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King and hopefully get to a few classics. I really miss reading a nice chunky Gothic novel.

What about you? What books made your “best of 2015” list? What are you looking forward to in 2016?






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Plans and dreams for 2015

New-Year-Quotes-Make-mistake...changing-yourself-changing-your-world A new year begins with hope. Some of us make plans – to enjoy life more, to get fit, to help others or try new things. They all sound wonderful to me. Except, they are too general. So before I set out to write my own list of dreams and hopes (I won’t call them resolutions), I decided to get specific.

I’m in two minds about to-do lists. I like writing down the things I should do, while at the same time dread having to look at them over and over again, a reminder of what still needs to be done. The glass is half empty, I know. But it’s also half full, isn’t it? Well, as I was toasting to the new year and thinking about beginnings, I decided a list is necessary, a tabula rasa, wiped clean of last year’s wishes and dreams (which I can’t really remember since I didn’t write them down), ready to receive this year’s, something I can look back to a year from now and say yes, I’ve done that, and that one, too. And so on to the last one. I wish!

1. Write more. More blog posts, not necessarily more book reviews. I think I’ve done pretty well in that department; definitely more stories (6 is a good number), and finish my second NaNo novel which is about ¾ done at this point.
2. Submit at least two short stories and a novel for publication. I need to re-read my novel again and see what needs to be changed before I send it out there.
3. Have guest posts on my blog. I’d like to host one blogger/writer each month. Still working on the details.
4. Make a scrapbook/diary from beginning to end. That means buying the paper, cardboard, glue and all the rest and actually making the thing from cover down to the last decorative detail. I’ve made a small notebook as a gift for a friend, and I was quite happy with the result, but what I have in mind will be a bit more challenging.
5. Read Bukowski, an author I’ve wanted to read for a long time.
6. Read “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace, because it looks like the kind of book I would never pick on my own (I didn’t, a friend raved about it so I bought it thinking I do need to challenge myself, because if it were up to me I’d probably never step out of the horror-fantasy-fairytale “kingdom”).
7. Travel to a country or at least a place I’ve never been before.
8. Read poetry.
9. Move more – walking, yoga, jogging, at least 3 times/week. I’m actually anxious to get back to it since a jogging-related injury has forced me to take a break for the past couple of weeks.
10. Dust off my camera and take photos. This will go very well with my scrapbook idea.
11. Learn how to drive. Last year I learned how to ride a bicycle; better late than never, right? It was neither easy nor terribly difficult but I had to fight my biggest enemy, fear, and that kerb I steered too close to a couple of times.

Do you have any plans for this year? Maybe something you’ve never tried before or something that didn’t get done last year? I’d love to hear what challenges you’ve set yourself for 2015.






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The end is near

And I’m not talking about the world.

Today should have been the last day for our read-along of Nabokov’s Lolita. However, my co-host Vishy and I have decided to postpone it to next weekend, so if you’d like to join us, you still can. I have to admit I did finish the book but haven’t written a review yet – it’s hard to think about marshalling my thoughts into coherent words to express the beauty and perversity of this book at this time of the year.

I did however, spend some time in the kitchen for a traditional potato salad. My Thai writing still needs a lot of practice but I think you can guess what I tried to say with those butchered gherkins.

This year I’ve managed to read 50 books (not counting one which I abandoned halfway through). It’s been a good reading year and I discovered a couple of very interesting series, but more about this in a future post, next year.

Happy New Year to everyone, may 2015 be full of great surprises and amazing books!

Potato salad






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Impressions from a literary festival

Bangkok Literary Festival 2013The first Sunday of October I went to Bangkok International Literary Festival – “Reaching the World 2013” at Bangkok Art and Culture Center. The event was organized by The Asia Pacific Writers Organization and was held from 3rd to 6th October. It included an international conference on Creative Writing & Literary Translation: Teaching & Practice, hosted by Chulalongkorn University, and a literary festival in conjunction with Unesco’s “Bangkok World Book Capital City 2013” on the last day, Sunday the 6th.

I only made it to the festival, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and stayed for two of the events. One was called Masters of Invention and the participating authors were (from the brochure): Sunjeev Sahota (On Granta magazine’s 2013 list of “Best of Young British Novelists), internationally acclaimed Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe (From the Land of Green Ghosts), and rising American star Krys Lee in conversation with Rebecca Hart.
The other event was A Writer’s Life. Every Day Creative? with Bernice Chauly, Eliza Vitri Handayani, Cristina Hidalgo, James Shea (poet) and Philip McLaren.
I enjoyed them very much and I took some notes from both events and put them together into a list. From the mouths of the writers, to the paper:

Finding time to write
• I’m stealing time – I go conferences and skip courses so I can stay in my hotel room and write. I also write while having lunch.
• I can’t afford moods, I’m working on four autobiographies at the moment.
• I am a single mother, I wrote my book after 10 p.m., when the children had gone to bed, until 4 in the morning. I did that for two years to finish it.

On the process of writing
• I type my poems on a typewriter to slow down the process then transfer the work on the computer.
• I strip away the whole process of any romanticism and just write.

How do you feel about writing?
• Writing is a pleasure. I write every day. Constructing the sentences, looking at words closely, it’s a very enjoyable process.
• Writing poems gives me pleasure but it’s also the most painful thing that I do.

Where do you get your ideas?
• Real life
• I run every day, I get great ideas while running. Murakami’s book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, was mentioned.
• A friend asked me to write his autobiography. He practically handed me his journals and asked me to write it.

When do you feel your work is ready to be shared with other people?
• I show my work in raw form only to my closest friends. My refined work goes to my other friends.
• Sometimes I post my writing on Facebook to see people’s reaction.

On criticism
• Beginner writers overwrite like crazy. It’s like they have to prove something to the world.
• I sent a story to a publisher once and it came back with “cut by 2/3”. I did that and was grateful for the advice.

On being published
• I sent my manuscript to six publishers. One of them agreed to take it on.
• I was taking writing classes and my teacher showed my work to some people in the publishing industry. I didn’t even know about it until they told me they want to publish it.

Advice for new writers
• Read
• Do selective reading – look at the authors you like, analyze the sentences and their rhythm. Take notes.

On writing a certain amount of words or for a certain amount of time every day
• That helps you become less self-conscious.
• Not everything you write will be great but you may be able to excavate something good out of it in the end.

Dealing with writer’s block
• I’ve never had it. Writing is pleasure.
• Do things that have nothing in common with writing. Exercise.
• I read people who are better than me.

Living off writing
Only one of the six writers at the last event said he writes full time. The others have jobs (full-time or part-time) mainly as professors at university.

The atmosphere was relaxed, there were questions from the audience (I didn’t ask any, I was too nervous) and the authors seemed nice enough for the most part. While many of the things being said were not exactly new, there was one thing that I felt was a little unfair. “Beginner writers overwrite like crazy. It’s like they have to prove something to the world.” That they overwrite might be true, but perhaps this comes from not knowing how much to cut and how much to leave on. Beginners, remember? I bet every writer would love to be able to produce just the right amount of words for their work.

While searching the net for details about Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I found an interesting interview with him from October 2005. Here’s a little excerpt:

“Before I became a writer, I was running a jazz bar in the center of Tokyo, which means that I worked in filthy air all the time late into the night. I was very excited when I started making a living out of my writing, and I decided, “I will live in nothing but an absolutely healthy way.” Getting up at 5 a.m. every morning, doing some work first, then going off running. It was very refreshing for me.”

You can find the interview here.

Have you ever been to a literary festival? A writing workshop? Please share your thoughts.






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An Easter experiment

Eggs, colorful eggs… that’s one of the things I like about Easter. I wanted to make some dyed Easter eggs but with none of that special dye to use, I took a friend’s advice and tried food coloring instead. With a little help from Google I prepared the dye and let the eggs soak in it for a few hours. The result is far from perfect (my mother was much better at this) but I had fun and in the end that’s all that matters. 🙂

Happy Easter!






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About writing

It goes something like this: every morning I tell myself that it’s a new day, new beginning, new opportunity to finish the story I started a while ago, new…..you name it. Then suddenly I remember I have to do a dozen little things, like laundry, cleaning the house, giving the dogs a bath or even trying out a new recipe, yeah, you name it. My laptop sits on the desk all by his lonely self and if it could speak or at least give me a look, I bet it wouldn’t be a nice one.

Maybe I’m too relaxed and my mind cannot take that much silence and sitting around the house. I can blame the Songkran for that. I just hope it’s going to be over by tomorrow, when I may be brave enough to venture outside and into the wide world (or maybe just to the supermarket) without being drenched in water as it is the custom here during the Thai New Year celebrations, or Songkran by the local name.

Back to my story, or should I go have a snack, read a book or watch a movie ….you name it. Ah, here we go again!






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