Tag Archives: solo travel

Dear Mom: A Letter to My Family 

On April 10, 2009, you drove me to the airport. I had a blank passport and a round trip ticket to Europe. I didn’t have a choice, not that I would have protested, but it was just expected that I would follow what my sister did 4 years earlier with her high school class. You paid for everything. The plane tickets, the tour costs, the insurance, and many more things I probably don’t even know about. I had 4 disposable cameras packed in my carry-on and my 2 best friends in the whole world next to me. You took pictures with your windup flash camera as we stood in front of the departure gate with Canadian flags pinned to our bags and terror and excitement in our eyes. One by one, the three of you wished me luck, health, and fun on my trip. First you, Mom, who probably said something like “be careful, have fun, and call us!” (This was before the days of smartphones, and pay phones were our only means of communication). You probably teared up as you said this, and I did too. Next, Dad, your speech might have gone like this, “have fun, be smart”. You would have added a slight nod in my direction as you said the “be smart” part, as if there was a deeper meaning that would be communicated with just a nod. There was. Lastly, Grandma would have stepped up to the plate for a big hug. I don’t know what she would have said, something ridiculous, possibly inappropriate, but I don’t remember anything other than the giant kiss that inevitably followed. It would have lasted for approximately one calendar year (realistically about 10 seconds) and included some side to side rocking. We would have made kissing noises and finished with a big “muah!” followed by a loud laugh that only comes from a Grandma. You stood at security and waved until I was past inspections and safely through the gates. You then waited at the giant window overlooking the runway until my plane had taken off and was safely out of site. I know this because I have pictures from the disposable camera. You then returned home and ultimately didn’t sleep for 12 days. Your biggest worries in the world were over once I set foot back on Saskatchewan soil.

Seven years and multiple passport stamps later, you now know that that day in the Saskatoon airport was only the beginning. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, growing up, I never wanted to leave Saskatchewan. 12 days in Europe completely changed the course of my life and this was of your making. I had mono for that entire trip and you told me you wanted to send me on the trip again the next year so that I could have a better experience, but that it wasn’t fair to Wendy who only got to go once. I understood this, but it broke my heart and for two years I dreamed of going back to have this “full” experience that everyone, who wasn’t infected with mono, had. 

Fast forward 3 years to where, again, I held a round trip ticket for 17 days in Europe. I had only a backpack and was prepared for my epic return to finally experience Europe the way it was supposed to be experienced, without mono. Again, I had my best friend by my side, but this time I was the “expert” and she was the one with terror and excitement in her eyes. I had paid for my own trip this time around. During the previous summer, I had worked 4 part time jobs, most of which I detested. On many occasions, I wanted to quit, but you both encouraged me to push through it and reminded me that I was an Armstrong and could make the most of any situation. I stuck it out for a whole summer and banked enough money to fund my journey. I ditched the disposable cameras, because I was fancy now, and took my digital with me. Upon arriving home, you all sat down with me and I got to share my pictures and my stories with you. Never having travelled overseas before, you told me that you couldn’t believe places like these existed. The Sagrada Familia, the Firenze Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Colosseum. I tried explaining that it was even more amazing in person and that pictures would never do justice to the real thing, but it was a lost cause as you would never leave home; you didn’t even have a passport.  

 Two years down the road and we stood at the airport again. This time, I was the only one holding a ticket and a fresh passport. My “goodbye entourage” had grown to include my university roommates, and my previous travel companion and her mom, but you remained the same. Before leaving home, Grandma said to me that if she couldn’t hold me in her arms, at least I could hold her in my hands. She gave me a picture of herself to take with me. She always traveled with me. She probably gave me some wildly inappropriate advice, but all I remember is the kiss that lasted a few decades, swaying back and forth, ending with a loud “muah!” and a hearty chuckle. At the airport we engaged in small talk to ease my nerves, but when the time came to say our goodbyes, we all teared up. It was going to be a long time apart this time. Mom, you would have said goodbye first, telling me to have fun, be safe, and make sure to text when I got there (we upgraded from pay phones). Dad you would have followed by telling me to have fun, and be smart, with an Alistair nod. Wendy ended the line with a hug and a promise to see me soon. You stood outside security, waving until we couldn’t see each other anymore. Staring out the large window at the runways, you watched my plane take off and safely fly into the distance. As if, in some way, if it were to fall from the sky you would at least be there to watch it happen. 

 After years of you supporting me, I was so excited to finally support you as you got your first passport and you and Wendy purchased flights to come visit me. It was one of the best experiences of all of our lives and we have the pictures to prove it. When we returned home, we were flipping through our photo album of travel pictures, showing your friends over a coffee break, and you said something that I’ll never forget. As the ladies were commenting on the beautiful pictures, you told them, in your recently acquired “I’m such a world traveler” voice, that pictures will never do justice to the beauty of the real things. You had directly quoted me from two years earlier and this was the most obvious sign that you had also caught the most dangerous disease: the travel bug.  

 A few months after returning from my study abroad, I felt as though my world was ending. My life took so many twists and turns that I had never anticipated and I threatened running away back to the other side of the world where “all was good”. All it took was one text from Dad. You said now was not the right time. That’s all I needed, as over the years I had learned that only one person could give advice that, despite my greatest doubts, was spot on 100% of the time. You were right, again, and you all supported me through the difficult times and celebrated with me as I began to smile again. To travel angry is not travelling, it’s only running. Somehow, at the time, you knew this better than I did. 

On October 18, 2015 we stood back at the Saskatoon security gates where it all began 7 years earlier. Before leaving home, Grandma made her inappropriate comment about bringing home a Japanese baby before she planted one of her famous smooches on me. Light years passed, and she ended it with a “muah!” and a delightful little cackle that I can still hear. At the airport, Dad had accompanied me to the check in desk, as he always does. He seemed to be the most ridiculous person to be there with me, as he had never flown before, but at the same time I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else. Keeping the “I am Alistair and I am the calmest person in this airport” vibe going strong. We small talked over cups of Tim Horton’s until the time came. We snapped a few pictures, all of us red eyed, but smiling. You’d think by now, we would all be used to these moments, but it was never more difficult than that morning. Dad, you were first this time. We hugged and you reminded me that you were proud of me, told me to have some fun, and to be smart *cue nod*. I nodded back in agreement, as if to say “I promise no midnight phone calls from the Italian police”. Mom you were last, and we sobbed and laughed at the same time as we do. You told me to have fun, be safe, and you would see me soon. I sobbed my way through security, alongside the business men and families. You waited at security, waving until we could no longer see each other. Yet again, you stood at the giant window as my plane pulled away from the gate and took flight.  

 Three months later, mom, you world traveller you, arrived in Florence. Not only had you navigated the airports along the way without Wendy’s help this time, but you had also committed to seeing new countries (countries you didn’t even know were countries until I asked if you wanted to go). You officially had the “fill up the passport” mentality. On our final day in Florence, while sitting at a large table of my friends, you started to cry listening to this group of 9 young women talk about their traveling lives. You said it was because you were so happy to see me here with these people all doing what we love. On our way out that night you hugged me and said “You might not know it yet, but I know you’ll be back”.  

 You returned home, and I continued on my journey. Now here we are, 6 months into my travels. This is the longest I have ever been away from home and away from you all. Yesterday, I told you about my decision to extend things, delaying my return for another 8 months. After many sleepless nights, thinking of how I could possibly tell you this, your reaction was nothing short of supportive, yet again. You told me that although you were saddened by this, that it was not entirely a surprise. 

I have met hundreds of people over the course of my travels. Many of them have told me how easy it was to leave home and travel because they had nothing at home. I have experienced the entirely opposite. I have the most supportive family in the world waiting for me at home, and that is what makes it easy for me to travel. Knowing you are at home, waiting with open arms, means I have a reason to go home and a reason to keep travelling instead of running. 

 This was never how I intended to live my life and this was never how I intended to spend my money, but this happened because of you. You supported me financially as a small town high school student, emotionally as a rebelling university student off to experience the world, academically while pursuing my studies around the world, and now professionally and lovingly as the adult I have become. That adult being obsessed with the thought of experiencing life from as many different perspectives as possible. The best decision you ever made, was signing me up to get on that plane in 2009.

I don’t know what the future holds for me, or for my passport, but I know that you’ll be right there with me, staring out that giant airport window as I depart to God-only-knows-where and standing right there when I return again. 

  

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From Sunbathing to Snow, I’m Coming Home

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And the trip home begins. This will most likely be my last blog post for everyone out there to read, as when I get back I will expect face to face conversations instead of communication via The internet. (Kids these days) I have noticed this trip that being overtired makes me extremely emotional. So be prepared for tons of tears upon arrival. I write this just before heading to the port to begin my 36 hours of travel: 6 hour ferry, 14 hours on planes, and about 5 hours in a vehicle, not to mention passing through 9 time zones….

Speaking of tears, I don’t know if it’s the magnificent views of Santorini, or if I’m just getting emotional about this being the end, but man I’ve been a baby for the last two days. Probably a combination of them both because Santorini is just so majestic! I love it. Unfortunately I made the mistake of staying on the side of the island that is a beach…. But it’s still low season and there’s no one here and it’s windier than Lethbridge in summer. That being said, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 yesterday to watch the sun rise over the ocean. It was very beautiful and I don’t regret losing some sleep over it, however it was so cold I had to wear layers… And socks and sandals (not okay). After I got ready, I took the bus to Fira, the main town on the island. When you are at the middle point on the island you can see water on all sides and it is quite the feeling when you realize just how small the island is. I could probably run from one side to the other. Fira changed my disappointment into amazement. The town is perfect. White houses all up the coast, it was a combination on Mykonos and Cinque Terre. With little shops everywhere, and the fact I had saved all my ‘tourist shopping’ until now, I went to it. I had a great lunch of stuffed eggplant, and a terrible coffee which tasted like it had sand in it… They call this Greek coffee apparently. After I found out the museum I wanted to check out was closed, I took the bus to Ia (Oia). This is the town famous for the white houses (it just auto corrected that to White House…. No) with blue roofs. Also, for all my fellow Travelling Pants fans out there, this is the town they used in the first and second Travelling Pants movies. In my desire to make my life the same as the movie, I went in search of the place they jumped off the cliff into the water. Sadly, I didn’t find it, but I did do my own rock climbing and got to a place it was obvious few had been (thing I don’t tell my mother). It was secluded and right on the tip of the coast. Beautiful. Upon realization that I think I have a fear of donkeys, I did not ride the donkey up the hill again and check that off my bucket list, but rather walked…. I lived in Italy which has the worst stairs ever, and even I thought these stairs were death. I walked and walked until sunset, which is suppose to be the best thing to do in Ia (Oia). (If you haven’t realized yet, I am obsessed with sunsets and sun rises, but due to my inability to wake up that early most days, I usually stick to the sunsets). I felt like a princess all day, as I still had money left over (hooray!) so I was able to treat myself to some nice food on my last full day. 20140430-224404.jpg

The Greek Islands are stunning at worst, and if I am ever rich one day, I am going to rent an apartment in Ia that overlooks the ocean and the sunset, and has an infinity pool, because that’d be insane. Something I do wonder though, is if Greek people ever feel like they just want to get crazy and paint their house, I dunno… Grey? Ah! Crazy. Before catching my bus to the port I got to enjoy some sun on the beach where they brought me the best lunch of Greek salad and a dinner of homemade tzatziki and stuffed eggplant. The hostel even let me hang out here and use all their services for free until I leave at midnight. People here are wonderful.

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You know, I’ve travelled alone for four months now, but even when I was the only person in a room, I wasn’t really alone. Guess who was with me, always, just hanging out? Irene! And she came to Greece with me too! What a party animal that gal is, I tell ya. Grandma I can’t wait to see you and to show you all the places you have been with me. You have been a conversation starter and an inspiration. Oh yeah, you’re also now famously featured on Studentsville Italia!

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So, weird things happen when you travel. You sometimes get a little crazy. You hop on trains to Naples for lunch, you get tattoos (surprise dad), you use a fake identity majority of the time, you sleep in airports to save money, you stay out way too late and book travel tickets for way too early, you go swimming in the ocean at 4am, you spontaneously purchase plane tickets to places you’ve never heard of, you walk without a map and purposely get lost (sometime to see the best things, sometimes to fear your life and turn around), you trust people you’ve only just met, and (craziest thing of all) you learn to live without a cell phone. Oh my God, I know. However, just when you start to think you’ve done it all, you meet some crazy Germans who slept on beaches for two weeks and hiked a mountain to sleep above the clouds for the most amazing sunrise of all time, or some Swiss guy who works all summer and travels all winter living in a tent along a river and having the best stories ever, or a young Aussie travelling the world who has surfed with Jack Johnson, accidentally ran into Ricky Martin at the beach, and who stayed in a 100 bed hostel room (best story ever, someone ask me to tell them this when I get back). Have I learnt lessons from anything I have done? Heck yes. Would I take back anything I’ve done? Heck no. If I were to change anything about this trip, it would be that I would have lived a little more at the beginning. I guess that is part of the process though. Quote of the trip: you’ll never look back and reminisce about the nights you went to bed early.

If I said I made all these decisions on my own, I would be lying. So I would like to take this entry to thank a few people for supporting me before, during, and hopefully after my travels. Without a little voice inside my head (named Deanna) telling me to “put the map down and just go”, I would probably be one of those tourists you see in the subways with their tiny backpacks strapped on their chests wearing matching t-shirts and ridiculously bright coloured hats. I know she’s at home living vicariously through me, but not for long, as I know her travelling days are coming soon, whether she knows it yet or not. My Grandma and Marilyn pushed me to do this too, whether they know it or not, they are responsible for most of my actions… Okay some of my actions. My grandma always wants me to experience places that she will never have the chance to see, and I have made it my personal mission to take her with me to as many places as I can (see above). Marilyn once hosted me at her house for a weekend and over a nice glass of tea, or coffee.. No probably wine actually, she told me stories of her travels and of all the people she has met from all over the world and the treasures she had collected. It was obvious to me how traveling had turned her into the wonderful person she is and just how many things she had learned from people outside of the country. Oh, she was also the one who told me it was possible to work abroad, and I literally went home and started searching for options. Thanks also to my roommates Kelsey, Laura, and Jenna, for convincing me to apply to the Florence internship. Whether you remember it that way or not, I recall your exact words while I was sitting on the couch in a state of depression after my first internship placement fell through. “Florence?! Jody, apply. It’s a sign”. Thanks girls, you kept telling me everything happens for a reason, even if I couldn’t see it at the time, and boy were you right. Finally, my boyfriend. Living in the most romantic country ever, and travelling to some of the most “lovey dovey” locations in the world was not easy when you’re all on your own and know that the one person you’d want to share them with is at home, in a snow storm, studying for like 700 exams. That being said, I’m sure it sucked for him too because all I did was talk about how much I loved it, how much fun I was having, and how I wasn’t ready to come home. He’s the most supportive person I’ve ever had in my life and I’m glad he stuck around, and is even willing to come get me at the airport at midnight. What a keeper.

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The last three people responsible for everything I have done are the most important. My family. Without the support of my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to leave the house, let alone leave the country to live thousands of miles away by myself. I can’t say thank you enough, nor will I ever be able to repay you for the amount of money, love, and trust you have given me. Every parent wants to give their child the world, but you have literally already done that for me. Congrats! You’ve won best parents of the year award, your job is done. Thank you to my dad for passing down most of your “Armstrong” traits on me and making me the leader that I have come to be. As no one would survive this trip if they didn’t have that instinct in them. Oh, and thanks for monitoring my bank account… That was a pretty important role too. Thank you to my mom and sister for joining me for the most wonderful two weeks I have ever shared with them. The memories we have created in those few days will last forever and will be some that no one else will ever understand. Even one year ago I would never have imagined climbing rocks in Cinque Terre, illegally riding trains (not as badass as it sounds), drinking sangria in Barcelona, or even FLYING with you two. I loved every minute of it. Even the time I accidentally purchased an extra hotel room…. Funny now, not funny then. Thanks for not leaving me alone for a month, that meant more to me than you’ll ever know.

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I’ve met some outstanding people from all corners of this world (why is that a phrase? Everyone knows the world is round, come one, it’s 2014 not 1820). I hope to keep some contact with everyone and hope that some day I will be able to visit all of your wonderful countries (hint hint, can I stay with you?) you are all welcome in Canada any time you want. Call me up and I’ll give you a place to stay, that is if you’re willing to come to the most uneventful part of the country. You could tell your friends you visited Regina… Eh, eh, eh? “It never gets old” yes, I am from Regina, I get it. Shout of to Global Experiences crew. Reunion at my place? We can, like, go snow shoeing or beaver trapping or something. And Lauren, Boas, and Sebastian… If we are working our way from North to South, you know Canada comes after Iceland.. 2016. And hey, by that time, Sebastian will even be legal. Speaking of which, we might have to do Maryland last…..

If anyone is looking to get me a welcome home gift, or if you have anything that you’d be willing to give me… I’ve started a list of things I am in need of: new feet, a hair cut, a massage, a straightener (mine blew up…), a personal trainer or someone who can kick my butt back into shape for summer, heck while I’m asking for things I also need a job and a home.

See you all so soon! (See some of you as we walk across the stage to receive our diplomas!!!)

Thinking of home,
Your Italian-Canadian Armstrong

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Do You Speak The Greek?

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Were down to single digits in the countdown to Canada ladies and gentlemen! In fact, I can count the sleeps on one hand. I am so adjusted to everything European, it is going to be so difficult to adjust to home again. Please be patient with me upon my arrival. I will most likely wake at a normal time, but when it comes to lunch, I will probably not eat it until 2 o’clock. Lunch will possibly be followed by a half hour siesta (think I should put that on my resume?), and I won’t start preparing dinner until at least 7 or 7:30. I am going to want some form of bread every day and probably won’t have butter in my fridge (sorry Wendy). Some words in my English vocabulary have been permanently replaced by words in other languages, particularly Italian (duh). I’m not attempting to be one of those kids who go away for a few weeks and return thinking they have the world in their hands now, it’s just become habit because frankly, some words just sound so much better in a different language. If you are with me when I start using these strange words, feel free to ask for clarification. Everyone could use a few Italian words in their vocabulary. In fact, if you learn a few random words in Italian, you can really impress people, and when someone asks you, “say something beautiful to me in Italian” (because you’ve obviously told them your cool friend Jody went to Italy and taught you some language) you can reply confidently, “per che il cattivo cavolo salta arcobaleni” ….. Literal translation: “because the bad cabbage jumps over rainbows”. Seems legit, they’ll never know…

Since I wrote last time, oh what an interesting week I have had. After getting to Madrid I checked into my hostel, which was basically set up like a hospital with five cots right next to each other, no where to lock up any of your belongings, and a really weird “vibe”. To keep unpleasant details to a minimum, I will sum up my experience there by saying that I slept with my important items in my underwear, avoided all contact with the guy in the next bed for fear of being the product of “Taken 3” without Liam Neeson to save me, and didn’t shower for three days to avoid contracting any possible diseases I didn’t already have from the bed itself. Hostel aside, I was actually able to meet up with two girls who I met through work in Italy and went boating, toured some museum (shows my enthusiasm there), and attended a Flamenco dance. That part, that part was nice. I was so glad to see them once more and very happy to be a part of their holidays as well.

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After the two girls left, I RAN out of my hostel, but really Had no where to go. Thankfully I had met some guys from France when I was in Barcelona, and they happened to be in Madrid and told me there was room at their hostel. I ran there and told the reception I would take absolutely anything they had. Turns out this was the Madrid hostel from the group “World Famous Hostels” and it was awesome! I was so relieved when I got there. When I got into my room I met some awesome Canadians, well no, the first thing I did was shower, then I met some awesome Canadians. We walked around Madrid, met up with my French friends, and had a night filled with tons of funny memories including a limbo competition, the ceiling giving out and the disco ball falling right on my head, and exchanging some epic dance moves. But everyone has their own travel schedule, and they left several days before I was suppose to catch my flight to Greece. I was suppose to meet up with another travel friend, but unfortunately that fell through. I was very sad that I would be alone for the next five days, as I was not really fond of Madrid. However, everything happens for a reason, and after much dilemma I decided I hadn’t really done anything spontaneous on this trip yet. So, I booked a flight, slept at the airport, and hopped on the next plane to follow the Canadians to the Canary Islands near Morocco. You only live once, right? (Refusing to abbreviate that. Choosing to hold onto my dignity here a little)

The islands were amazing! I stayed at a little hostel right off the beach, went boogie boarding and also tested my balance and skills, or lack there of, at surfing! Who would have thought I would go surfing on this trip. It was so much fun and the water was so warm, but so, so dang salty. Finally, after about 40 hours of not sleeping, I crashed. After the Canadians left, I went with other new friends to a surf competition (sadly I was not a participant, as I could barely move I was so sore), and then again went boogie boarding. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer. I hardly took any pictures because we just went and went and went. Man have the last few days been, for lack of a better word, cool.

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As excited as I am to be on my way to Greece, and still very sore, I am starting to get excited about coming home too. I have started a mental list of the little things I am looking forward to: body lotion, homemade muffins, not sleeping in bunk beds, not having to fly again for a while, salad, having a different pair of shoes, having more than 3 shirts, being able to hug someone for more than five seconds without it being weird, going to the gym, not having to think in 24hour time, not being scared to pick up my own vegetables at the grocery store for fear of being scowled at when I ‘do it wrong’, and, as much as I have become accustomed to coffee here, I am still excited to have a good ol Tim’s!

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It’s impossible to make a list of things I am looking forward to without also thinking about the things I am NOT looking forward to: my feet having to be clean all the time… this just doesn’t happen here; wearing make up again and doing my hair, I thoroughly enjoy not having to care about what I look like; the chance that there is going to be a snow storm when I arrive, having to live in reality again, driving in traffic, poorly made wine, poorly made croissants, poorly made cheese, basically anything made poorly or not as fresh as here.

Well, after panicing about missing my flight to Greece, I made it. And yes, this was written over two days. After getting to the Athens airport late, I finally made it through security (after having my “liquids” taken away at security because I was stupid and in my panic forgot to put them in my other bag). By this time I had changed time zones so many times I had no clue what time it was, but I boarded a tiny plane, at what they told me was 5:45am, with probably 50 other people. I was pretty sure the plane was made from paper mâché, but was so tired that I got on anyways. The flight was AMAZING. A solid 25 minutes of low flying (my favourite) over the Greek islands, landing in Mykonos just as the sun was rising over the ocean. The airport was basically a small gymnasium, but I didn’t mind, I was just so excited to be in my final destination.

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Let me tell you about Greece, because everyone should go. First of all, the pictures are accurate; white houses, blue shutters, friendly people, crystal clear ocean, and cats everywhere. Hola! Apparently Mykonos is the party island, but to be honest, I’m so exhausted that all I want is to be on my own relaxing, eating great food, and taking some great pictures. I literally don’t want to do anything and I’m okay with that. I walked all day and saw all the famous sights, good thing because it’s storming today. I finished off my day with the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen in my life, followed by a dinner of typical chicken pita with tzaziki and baklava for dessert while laying in bed watching Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, which, let’s be honest, is the reason I wanted to come to Greece in the first place. As my room continues to shake from the thunder today, I am pretty sure I will be doing nothing before boarding my ferry tomorrow to Santorini. Oh! And to answer my earlier question…. Yes, it is still called a Greek salad (or typical salad) here. Speaking of which, I’m going to get one for supper.

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Shout out to home: Happy Belated Birthday to the thing I am MOST excited about seeing when I get home. Wish I could have been there to celebrate with you Tyler, see you in four sleeps my love.

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Soon to be no more,
Your Italian Armstrong