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Sleeping and Eating In Kanda

My base of operations while I was in Japan was a MyStays hotel near Kanda station.  My room was thirteen square meters, with a very basic kitchenette.  I had a tiny refrigerator, some cookware, a microwave/conduction oven, a hot plate, and a regular sink.  Pots, pans, knives, plates, chopsticks, and so forth were all provided.

The hotel had a service in which they brought you new towels and such every day.  They also brought a new kimono-esque bathrobe every day, which I never wore.  By the end of my trip, I was fairly annoyed with this part of the service, because I really don’t need new towels more than every second or third day.  Still, it was good service.

The bed is a fairly typical hard Japanese bed with a futon-style mattress.  I actually learned to enjoy it pretty quickly, and I slept very well while I was in the country.

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When I arrived, I spent the first twenty minutes or so deciding where I was going to keep everything for the five weeks of my stay.  There are rolling drawers under the bed, which helped enormously. I used the desk drawers as underwear and sock drawers.

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I traveled to Japan with a backpack which held my laptops, a rolling small suitcase which could be used as carry-on luggage, and a wheeled Skullcandy bag which could be used as a duffel with a shoulder strap or as a wheelie bag.   The handle on the Skullcandy bag was terribly weak, and it because clear very quickly that using it as a wheeled bag was terribly ineffective.  Lesson learned:  If you need multiple suitcases for a long trip, always go for the four-wheeled variety.  They’re significantly easier to navigate up the street when you have a lot of walking between your train station and your hotel.  After this trip, I gave the Skullcandy bag to a colleague and streamlined my personal luggage collection quite a bit.

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The room had a built-in desk, along with a television, a little device which allowed you to stream movies for a small fee, and a combination vcr/dvd player.  There was ample power as well as a direct Ethernet plug.    The little fridge on the right side of the photo was incredibly cold, which left me with bottles of water that were frozen solid.  This was helpful, though, because it got very hot outside as we nudged into June.

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The bathroom in the hotel room was a step up from the rest of the room, and I mean that quite literally.  The floor level of the bathroom was about seven or eight inches taller than the rest of the room.  It’s rather a miracle that I didn’t injure myself while stepping down from the bathroom.

The hotel provided basic soap, shampoo, body lotion, and conditioner, as well as a variety of other useful things.   There’s a valve on the bathroom sink which directs the water either to the sink or to the bathtub/shower, depending on your needs.

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The tub is tall enough for even someone of my height to submerge rather nicely, and the water spigot has clasps at both bath and shower height, so you can choose to do either one. This is a pretty nifty design, for such limited space.

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The toilet is western-style, as opposed to the older trench style toilets that I’ll talk about in a future post.   This is a very simple one, compared to some of the higher end toilets I ran into while I was in Japan.  I did try the water spout a few times, but don’t see the appeal.  I never found it to be more effective than regular toilet paper.  It didn’t really clean me, it just made my butt wet.

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It took me a few days to figure out what the heck the toilet flush mechanism meant-  one way is half a flush for when you’ve only deposited liquid.  The other direction is a full flush for more solid waste.  I just think the thing is grinning at me, secure in the knowledge that I can never remember which is which.

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But that’s enough about the hotel room.  I wanted to talk about three restaurants in the vicinity of Kanda station.  There were dozens of restaurants within walking distance of my hotel, and the variety of food I ate while in Japan was actually kind of amazing.

The first restaurant I experienced in the area was Bar Beco 2.

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I think the full name of the  place is actually “Pizza and Steak Bar Bec 02,” but we just called it Bec 02 for simplicity.

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Bec 02 is a tiny little slip of a restaurant at the intersection in front of Kanda station’s south entrance.  The entire downstairs of the restaurant is walled by these old wine crate sides.

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They have tiny amazingly delicious steaks.   The meats I ate in Japan were often delicious, which is stark direct contrast to the lackluster steaks I encountered throughout most of Europe.

The name of the place says Pizza and Steak, though, and I stopped here several times during my stay for these adorable tiny pizzas.

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Another delicious restaurant near Kanda station is Hiroshima Okonomiaki Big Pig.  We stopped here for lunch one day in my first week before heading into the office.

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The restaurant is a tiny affair with room for about a dozen people.  You have a small wooden bar in front of the cooking surface, and your food is served on the cooktop.

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Okonomiaki is a savory pancake filled with other stuff.  It’s not unlike a savory crepe.  There’s a lot of different varieties and they’re very tasty.

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I cannot for the life of me remember what all went into this one, but it was delicious.  The brown glaze on top is cooked soy sauce, I believe.  There are noodles and the pancake portion itself.  The portion was fairly large, and I did not succeed in finishing it.   Very tasty!

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The third restaurant I’m going to talk about in this post is actually a chain of fast-food restaurants which can be found all over Japan.  This is Matsuya.

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Specials on offer are frequently posted outside the door.

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You make your selection by putting coins in this machine and pressing a button.  You are then given a little card which the counter-person will take from you when you sit down.

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The decor is more or less what you’d expect from a fast food restaurant in Japan.  Bright lights, plenty of places to sit, and fast, efficient food.

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At each table, there’s a selection of spices and sauces, along with a tray of chopsticks.

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I chose a sort of beef over rice dish.  The brown sauce was spicier than I expected, and the rice was delicious.  The miso soup was just miso soup.  I don’t really like miso soup, so I left that alone.

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I had no earthly idea what this little device was during my meal, but I found out later from a colleague in the local office that it contains spices.  I’m glad I didn’t try it!  I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to burning-hot spice.

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This was another 23 of the original 489 photos from Japan.  There’s lots more to come!

Have you dined near Kanda station?  What sort of food did you have?

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Drinking Soylent

I’ve been drinking Soylent for a few months now, and I’ve been meaning to write about it because many of my friends have expressed curiosity about it.  After the breakfast talk in last week’s post, I think this is a good time to post about my Soylent experience.

Let me start by saying that the first person to make a Charlton Heston “It’s made of people!” joke will get a swift kick to the shins.  I’ve heard it before, and it wasn’t funny the first, third, or eighth times.

Soylent, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is a meal replacement product.  It was created by software engineer Rob Rhinehart, because he hated how much time he was losing to the preparation and consumption of food.  He decided to try to put all the nutrients the human body needs into a single liquid product, and when his initial trials worked out pretty well, he crowdfunded a larger run.    That was back in 2013.

Much like a software release, Soylent has had versions, with the number incrementing as the formula changes.  By the time I got into Soylent, it was at version 1.3.  The instruction booklet that comes with your shipment is labeled “Release Notes,” which made me chuckle.

Some people use Soylent to replace most of their meals, but I simply use it to fill in for breakfast.  Before this product, I almost never had breakfast.  I’m not a morning person, and my tendency has always been to crawl out of bed, throw on the next outfit in line in the closet, and crawl into the office.  Eating breakfast is something that takes time, and I will always choose more sleep over a full stomach.  This is a terribly unhealthy way to go, so I was very happy to find a way to include a breakfast that I could do without losing more than a minute or so.

My first few shipments of Soylent came this way- a single pouch is supposed to be three servings.  The little bottle of oil blend has to be mixed in to complete the nutrition profile-  there are some things included which the body won’t absorb without oil added.

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Inside the pouch, the Soylent is a very fine powder which gets everywhere if you’re not careful.

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So the basic instructions, without getting into too much detail are that you mix water and powder, shake for a bit, add the oil, add more water, shake it a bit more, chill the whole shebang, and enjoy.   This photo is halfway through the mixing, just before I added the oil.

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The fully mixed thing looks pretty decent.  It will separate a little bit over time, but shake it again before you drink it and it’s all good.

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The flavor is very neutral, and the release notes even provide suggestions for ways to change up the flavor by mixing in peanut butter or Hershey’s chocolate syrup or bananas.   Drinking a glass of this is the equivalent to a full meal, and it’s quite effective at squashing my hunger.

Some people find it a little bit gritty-  version 1.3 tends to leave a little on the sides of the glass, as you can see here.  It’s not unpleasant, and I’ve gotten used to it.  You just have to remember to rinse your glass as soon as possible after you finish your drink.

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The next iteration of Soylent, Soylent 1.4, was just announced.  They have changed from the liquid oil to a powdered oil form, so there are no more oil bottles included.  I haven’t had 1.4 yet, but those who have generally say that it’s a little bit sweeter, smoother, and more like a nutrition shake in consistency.  One reviewer called the texture of 1.4 “velvety,” which is kind of intriguing.  Apparently the 1.0 version tasted a little bit like cake batter.  I’m kind of sorry I missed that one.  Still, they strive for a neutral flavor profile, and I’m all for that.   I think that any strong flavor would get old really fast.

There are critics of Soylent’s nutritional balance.  I agree that it’s not necessarily the best nutrition out there.  Soylent will never replace a meal out with friends or family.  It’s better than going without breakfast, though, and that’s good enough for me right now.

Have you tried Soylent?  Would you?  What do you think about meal replacement drinks?

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`Twas The Weekend Before Thanksgiving…

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a most eventful one for me.  I spent most of the day on Saturday at the car dealership with my brother, going through the motions of the dance that is car salesmanship.   After nearly four hours, a deal was struck for a car which had to be retrieved from another dealership.  We confirmed the theoretical arrival date was sometime Monday or Tuesday, and I went on my way.

That night, Amelie and I went to the Mardi Gras Casino to see Air Supply play a live show.  They basically played their greatest hits album, but they sounded fantastic.

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After the concert, there were delicious pancakes and eggs at the local IHOP restaurant.  I really missed IHOP in Germany. Check out Amelie’s pancakes- they look pretty happy they’re about to get eaten, don’t they?

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Cut to Sunday, and I got a call from the sales manager that my car was already here, minus the tint (which will be installed in a week or so) and the backup sensor, which will probably be installed after thanksgiving. The car has a backup camera, but I wanted the doo-dad that beeps when you’re approaching an object too.

For the first time since 2011, I own a car.  It feels damn good to get that purchase ticked off of my repatriation to-do list.  This is what I looked like right after I drove the car off the lot.  The car is a Mazda 3 hatchback in a nice light blue color, and I’m very very pleased.

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To cap off the weekend, we quite literally rode off into the sunset.  Ok, so we actually drove away from this, but it’s a really pretty sky, don’t you think?

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All I need is a pith helmet.

The more time I spend in South Florida, the more I feel like Uncle Travelling Matt.  So much of life here is just a little bit alien to me now.  Take this, for example-  the weird flavors that are appearing on things are just strange to me.  I’m pretty sure this is a Thanksgiving holiday flavor:

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Speaking of flavors, I’m trying something I’ve wanted to try for months: Naturebox.  Naturebox is a subscription service that delivers healthy snacks right to your door. I first heard about this on a podcast while I was still in Germany, and I wanted to try it then, but I held off until I got back to the US because it’s not really an international service as far as I know.  (Administrative note:  I am not being reimbursed or compensated in any way for talking about Naturebox.  However, if any of you want to try it, let me know because I can give you a code that will give you ten bucks off your first shipment.)

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So far, I’ve only opened a few of my snacks.  The guacamole bites are delicious, but wickedly salty.  I won’t be getting these again because I can only eat a few before I need to rehydrate.

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The salted caramel pretzel pops are sweetly delicious, however.

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And now for some random stuff… I’ve been having trouble this week coming up with a coherent blog post topic, so I’m just going with random stuff from my last seven days.  For example, Amelie and I went to the South Florida Ikea.  It’s a little different than Regensburg’s Ikea, but it’s similar enough in most ways to actually make me breathe a tiny sigh of relief at the sameness.

Neither of us can pass a display of stuffed animals without playing with them, by the way.  This is her with some bears.

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Every time I passed a bin of stuffed animals in the store, I tried to give them all better vantage points.  This one was a joint effort.  We are roughly twelve years old.

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I commented on one of my last posts about all the super nice cars in South Florida-  not a day goes by that I don’t see a Maserati or a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.    But not everyone in South Florida is rich, and sometimes you see the opposite end of the spectrum also.  For example, this clever usage of custom duck tape was spotted in the parking lot at Target.

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Most of the time, it’s relaxing being back in the land of everyone speaking English.  However, speaking English doesn’t mean you can type it.  I promise, my name has never actually been spelled “STEVN” before, and I’ve no idea where the H came from.

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In my search for a new tagline, I came up with the idea a few nights ago to use “Whimsy is my resting state.”  That wasn’t quite it, though, and so I decided today to rename the tagline at the top of the blog with “Sunshine.  Whimsy.  Tacos.”  I really couldn’t leave the tacos out.

As for the sunshine, it’s this-  it’s all to easy to forget during my day to day grind that in this part of Florida, I’m never more than a few minute’s drive away from this view:

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Krakow, Poland

I knew early on that I needed to get to Poland at some point during my stay here.   For one thing, I wanted to visit every country that borders Germany, and Poland was the last shared border country on that list.  For another thing, my father’s father was born in Warsaw, so I’m partly Polish.

If I was going to visit Poland, I had to choose a city.  My top two choices were Krakow and Warsaw, and everything I had read indicated that Warsaw wasn’t all that different from any other major city.  Off to Krakow I went!

My hotel was only two short blocks from the Main Market Square.  This is the largest medieval European square, covering roughly 40,000 square meters.  Plus, it has a giant head.

Not pictured:  Me, re-enacting that scene from Clash of the Titans.

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In the middle of the Market Square is a building called the Cloth Hall.  The original structure dates back to the 13th century, but it was rebuilt in the 16th century after the previous iteration was destroyed by fire.

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Inside the cloth hall are rows of merchants, mostly selling to tourists.

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The Market Square has a ton of pigeons.  They were creepy as hell.

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One more view of the Cloth Hall, this time from the back and with a nifty fountain in view.

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This is a slightly different view of the same building.  This view shows the Town Hall tower, which you can climb.

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If you should choose to climb it, be aware that the steps in this tower are very tall steps, and the passageway is very narrow.  Good view from the top, though.

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The old town hall’s tower is still standing, even though the rest of the town hall is gone.  There’s a brass sculpture next to the tower showing what the original structure looked like.

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All the extra crap in that last picture is because there was an enormous stage set up in the Square for some big event while I was there.  Lots of live music, some of which was even good.

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…but I digress.  In the main square, there are often a bunch of these walking around in various languages:

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Pick one and follow them.  They cover a lot of interesting topics.  Most of the free tours will lead you down this street, past the McDonald’s and toward St. Florian’s Gate.

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St. Florian’s Gate is part of the city’s defensive walls from the 13th century.  There used to be a moat, but that’s gone now. There were originally 47 observation towers and seven gates, because Krakow was a medieval fortress at the time.

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Near the gate is this excellent statue of Jay Garrick the Roman god Mercury.

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Through the gate is the Barbican, a circular fortification which was originally connected to the main gate.  Barbican is not the name of the building, it’s the name of the type of structure- but I don’t think the locals call it by another name.

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Let’s go back to the Market Square, because I’m not done there.  In one corner is this pretty nifty church, the Church of St. Mary, sometimes referred to as St. Mary’s Basilica.  The church is not parallel to the square, and the towers are not uniform.  The reason for the different towers is that the smaller tower is a bell tower, and the higher tower has always belonged to the city and was used as a watchtower.

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Every hour, on the hour, a small window is opened in the watchtower, and a short trumpet signal called the Hejnał mariacki is played.  The trumpeter then opens a different window and repeats the call.  This is done four times in all, in four directions which roughly correspond to the direction of the four main Krakow city gates.

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The tune breaks off very abruptly.  It is not known with certainty why this is so, but one of the most persistent legends is that it is cut off to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before a Mongol attack on the city.  Here’s a short video of the trumpet signal.

In another corner of the Market Square is another amazing (but much, much smaller) church called St. Adalbert’s Church. Legend says this is the location where St. Adalbert used to preach.

Every night, the Royal Chamber Orchestra does an amazing one hour concert in this church.  The baroque dome gives it excellent acoustics, and the show is well worth seeing.   The program alternates, and when I saw it, the song  included such venerable classics as Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Horner’s “Love Theme from Titanic.”

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Walking south out of the main Market Square, along Grodzka, you eventually come to an intersection with two more interesting churches visible.    I can’t remember the name of this one.

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This one is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan church.

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Across the street from the Franciscan church is the Bishop’s Palace, where Pope John Paul II stayed whenever he was in the city.  They even decked out the window he used to hang out of to permanently commemorate this.

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Between the two churches is another interesting sculpture showing where the Church of All Saints stood in the past.

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At this point in the post, the “walking around the city” narrative sort of breaks down, because the last few pictures aren’t in a straight line.  For example, this is the former Collegium Physicum, the location for the faculties of pharmacology, physiology, physics, chemistry, and geology.  Lots of science was done here.

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…and this is the Collegium Maius, the oldest existing building of the Jagiellonian University.  I didn’t get to see that wonderful clock in motion, but my city map said it runs at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm every day.

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This the real gold roof of the cathedral on Wawel Hill, near the castle.  It’s plated though, and not solid gold, because that would be too heavy.

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I took a brief stop in Wawal Castle to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.  It was smaller than I expected.  The classics almost always are.  Alas, photographs were forbidden.  After I was done looking at the painting, I noticed this fascinating giant balloon from the courtyard.

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This is the Hiflyer.  It’s based a reasonable walk from the city center, and as long as the weather is good, they’re flying.  They recommend calling ahead just to be sure, but a reservation isn’t necessary.  The balloon is more or less stationary, because it’s tethered to a single place on the ground.

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The “basket” for this is actually a very large metal ring, with an open center for the cable that pulls you back down at the end of your flight.

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Going up at dusk affords you some pretty spectacular views of the area.  This direction shows Wawel Hill, including the castle.

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On my last evening in town, I stopped at one of the restaurants in the main market square and I had these fresh pierogies.    I love pierogies, and having a chance to have freshly made ones in Poland is not to be missed.  These were so, so delicious.

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Have you ever been to Krakow?  Have you ever had a pierogi?